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A tale of Met "Hoffmann"

Circumstances prevented me from seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s new Tales of Hoffmann (which will be broadcast live in HD on Saturday) until this week. A plus of the late viewing is that the cast may have sung its way into the production (I always think it’s something of a liability that critics usually only see opening night, before things have firmed up). A minus was that on Wednesday’s performance James Levine (newly returned to the podium after back surgery) was sick, replaced by John Keenan, a staff conductor with the company who was already scheduled to lead three of the performances later in the month. Keenan did a perfectly serviceable job, but "Hoffmann" is a long opera and needs all the help it can get.
(read more after the jump)

Waiting until later in the run also affords one the opportunity, for better or worse, to hear other people’s views about the production before forming one’s own (including a commenter’s thoughtful observations on this blog). And what I’d heard was so mixed, pro and con, that I was pleased to find this "Hoffmann" better than I’d expected. The high point, for me, wholly unexpectedly, was Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann. I’d been underwhelmed by this rising-star tenor when I’d heard him before (including in WNO’s “Rigoletto”), finding him lacking in nuance and power; on Wednesday, I was simply struck by the consistent beauty and ardor of the sound in a long, long night of singing, and I appreciated the softer grain of the voice in a role that often prompts bellowing. The next level was represented by (a pregnant)[edited to add: not true, evidently] Anna Netrebko, sounding not quite as gorgeous as she is capable of as Antonia, but delivering some fine singing, and Kathleen Kim, a small cute puppet of an Olympia with a bright top (though the coloratura was not as clockwork-clean as the role demands). Ekaterina Gubanova was adequate as Giulietta; Kate Lindsey gave a lot but didn’t hold up vocally as Niklausse. Alan Held is perhaps too nuanced to be fully effective as the villains, which require a cartoon-like approach and a slightly larger sound than he is quite able to deliver, as fine a singer as he is.

“Cartoon-like”: this brings me to Bartlett Sher’s production. Some people found it offensively busy, others engaging, and a couple pointed out the marked similarity of the Antonia act to Robert Carsen’s beautiful spare “Eugene Onegin” production here. There was certainly more to it than I had expected, and for all of its glitz and mild updating (it’s actually hard to tell when productions are meant to be set any more), it was more serious a try at full-blown opera direction. The real weakness, I think, is that Sher has, in his attempts to be operatic, lit on what amounts to a pageant approach, complete with glitter and showiness, the high-wire act (Netrebko alone on a near-empty stage) and the dancing girls (Olympia was surrounded by a whole corps of pink ballerinas, who entered on pointe). “Hoffmann,” of course, is a difficult opera to stage realistically, with believable 21st-century characters: the whole point is that these are made-up stories. But the attempt to use a glittery background along with a more detailed view of the characters seemed to me to remain hollow, as if the director was grasping the idiom but not quite understanding the work.

By Anne Midgette  |  December 17, 2009; 8:56 AM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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Comments

French opera needs French voices. Yes, I am perhaps over-sensitive to this, but having a first class mostly francophone cast is not that hard.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 17, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Ciccio: I don't entirely disagree, but:

1. Call it a glass-half-full mentality; it's a pleasure just to hear some decent singing.

2. Our definition of "French voices" has changed considerably over the years. I love the Simoneau sound as much as anyone (I know he was Canadian, not French), but I still think an important pillar of French sound was the full bodied Pol Placon/Germain Lubin approach rather than the "small white sound" we associate with French singing today. (Francoise Pollet came and went in the 80s as a brief reminder.)

3. Which French voices do you have in mind for a Met Hoffmann? It's true that Dessay's Olympia is pretty much unequalled (and I'm not a big Dessay fan). But who do you want to cast as Hoffmann? Off the top of my head, Alagna is the only one that comes to mind. How about sopranos? Annick Massis? Veronique Gens? Given the choices these days, I think Netrebko stacks up pretty well. But I could be missing some obvious candidates. Any suggestions?

Posted by: MidgetteA | December 17, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Well, let's call them Francophone, so it includes Canadian and Belgian singers.

Van Dam, the major "Four Villains" of the recent decades, is certainly past his prime, but another veteran, Alain Vernhes would be ideal for the part. Other candidates may be Vincent le Texier or Philippe Rouillon. And there's certainly no shortage of fine baritones for the supporting roles: Tezier, Rivenq, Nouri, Cachemaille (if he still sings) etc.

It is true that for the title role Alagna is pretty much the only game in town as far as Francophone singers are concerned. But for Andres / Cochenille / Frantz / Pitichinaccio the voices of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (my first choice), Yann Beuron, or Gilles Ragon would be a good fit. I may even be curious to hear Beuron in the title role, after all he sang with some success in the recording of Guy Ropartz' "Le Pays." And what happened to Jean-Luc Viala? Admittedly, he's not even in Alagna's class, but he would be OK for the B cast.

Female casting is admittedly more difficult. It is true that most of the singers today have "white voices" - many come from an early music background after all. Still, perhaps Catherine Dubosc can be successful in the Muse / Nicklause role. I never heard Annick Massis ( I have to remind myslef to buy Minkowski's recording of La Dame Blanche, French "opera comique" being a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine), but perhaps Mireille Delunsch could sing Stella / Antonia (though her voice may be a little heavy for this.) But as I said, I did like Netrebko, and, surrounded by French voices, should be OK. Another exception I am willing to make for Giulietta if Susan Graham, if she's willing to take on the role. Marie-Nicole Lemieux would be ideal for Antonia's mother.

Speaking of the full voices, what I miss mostly is the baritones and basses. Bacquier and Massard, of course, but also singers like Dens, Vessieres, Bastin, Blanc, or Roux. And I also love Simoneau, and that other stilist, Gerard Souzay.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 17, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

One more observation about Sherr's direction. I kind-of liked his basic concept: the tales as a fellinesque / kafka-esque nightmare journey. The trouble is that the Fellini film that came into my mind was "City of Women", one of maestro's weaker efforts.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 17, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Maybe not MET or München or Bayreuth Opera big news, but big news locally (or rather provincially)! … Placido Domingo will announce on Jan 12 his choice of “some of the most exciting operas in the repertoire” for the local upcoming 2010-2011 season at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House!

26 more days until opera non-insiders and those living in the Nation’s Capital find out whether we are to have a Washington National Opera or a new Opera Society of Washington!

http://www.operacolorado.org/images/Season/Hoffmann/hoffmann1.jpg

NATIONALIZE THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA!

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 17, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Netrebko pregnant again? Sounds like breaking news! I have not seen this anywhere else. Are you sure Anne?

Posted by: Mike-Klein | December 17, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Mike-Klein: re: Netrebko's pregnancy: I was told this with authority by someone who claimed to know, and so I reported it here. I just checked with her publicist, though, and he says it is not actually true. I blush to have perpetuated a rumor.

snaketime: re: WNO: I don't know anything officially, but I would guess that the word "repertoire" in that sentence you quote is a euphemism for "not new, not American." Brace yourself for disappointment.

ciccio: interesting list. I'm with you on Souzay. Fouchécourt has done the four servants in an earlier Met Hoffmann, though I see it was only a couple of times.


Posted by: MidgetteA | December 17, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I was at last night's performance as well and have to say that I was VERY happy with the evening. I found the singing solid throughout and the French from some of the singers was very easy understand. I've heard others praise Held's French before too. It seems he's not only capable of excellent German in his foreign language singing. On top of that, I also thought he sang very well. Washington is fortunate to have him on the KC stage so often.

Calleja's voice is certainly different for the role but I think, from what was heard last night, that we can expect great things from him in the future. This is first run of this opera and his endurance was outstanding.

I thought all of the men in the production down to the smallest role showed great acting skill. I would not agree that the Villains need to be "cartoonish"--quite the opposite. At times, Coppelius may have some of the characteristics but I would like that for the other three bad guys.

The woman were generally strong--sometimes I wish we would hear more of them but the acts just aren't that long. I think I liked Lindsey better than Anne and certainly she did well as an actress in a production of "Hoffmann" where I've never seen the Muse/Nicklausse used so much.

I thought John Keenan also did an outstanding job in the pit. Mind you, one had to be disappointed to not get Levine last night but I though Maestro Keenan gave a tight reading of the score.

As far as the production--well, it's not my favorite. It's too darkly lit at times and I'd like more differentiations in the costumes for the Villains as well as more make-up changes. It all looked a bit too much alike from start to finish.

Posted by: singeril | December 17, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

No need for me to brace myself. Like you, I don’t live in the Nation’s Capital year-round.

The issue of a Washington National Opera versus an Opera Society of Washington does seem to me more musically and culturally relevant now than your junior Washington Post staff music critics Charles Downey’s and Andrew Malone’s discussion of their jammies; or your and cicciofrancolando’s very private discussion of whether 19th century French opera requires strictly French singers.

I hope that you and cicciofrancolando won’t be too disappointed if Opera Lafayette’s February 1 and 3, 2010 performances of Gluck’s Armide (in Washington and New York City) don’t only feature French singers. Brace yourself.

“Opera Lafayette: An oasis of French Baroque opera in the United States” Opera, 2009

NATIONALIZE THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA!

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 17, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Just to clear up any misconception, I don't write reviews for the Post anymore, though I totally support the enterprise by visiting this blog frequently, commenting, etc. And I was never a staff critic; I was a freelancer. It's the difference between a handkerchief and a Kleenex. And both Charles and I were using "jammy" as a slang term for "handgun," referring to a popular song. Other than that, great post.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | December 17, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Anne, you wrote, "'Hoffmann,' of course, is a difficult opera to stage realistically, with believable 21st-century characters: the whole point is that these are made-up stories."

These are, indeed, made-up stories, so why in the world would anyone want them to be realistic? It seems to me the right tone was struck by the celebrated film of the opera. There are problems with it as a whole, but the "fantastical" approach to the stories of Hoffmann's loves contrasts very nicely with the more realistic prologue and epilogue, which also have fantastic touches. Musically, there were problems, and it should be noted that Beecham sued (unsuccessfully) to prevent the release of the soundtrack on records.

Posted by: wsheppard | December 18, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

whsheppard: I agree and may have been misleading in the way I phrased that sentence; what I meant to say is that the opera needs a "fantastical" approach, and that a director like Sher brings a more realistic intention that doesn't fully work.

snaketime: I meant to agree with you about WNO. All I meant is that I think, to judge from the official rhetoric/spin that you quoted, anybody who hopes to see American opera there next season (myself included) may well be disappointed.

Posted by: MidgetteA | December 18, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for your understanding comments, Andrew and Anne.

The Opera Society of Washington/Washington Opera/Washington National Opera is in a bit of a tough spot since it has had to share the Kennedy Center Opera House stage over the past generation and a half with the likes of the Vienna State Opera under Karl Bohm, (Marriage, Fidelio, Salome, Ariadne), the Metropolitan Opera under James Levine, the German State Opera, Berlin under Jesús López-Cobos (Ring), and the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theater (Kirov) under Valery Gergiev – as well as other great national operas of the world such as the Bolshoi, Scala, and Paris Opera companies.

(It also, in the 1980s, had to share the Kennedy Center stage with some excellent David Gockley Houston Grand Opera productions, such as Carlyle Floyd’s “Willie Stark” and Alice Goodman and John Adams’s “Nixon in China.”)

The Opera Society of Washington - a generation ago - was a boutique, high-society opera company that focused – rightfully – on artistic excellence; and it generally met this goal with flying colors – for example, many of its Zack Brown-designed productions going off to the MET, Chicago, San Francisco, and Royal London companies.

The Opera Society of Washington/The Washington Opera did not need to lobby Congress to be renamed the Washington National Opera in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil and the national introspection that followed, after having largely completed its shift from a boutique, provincial, but increasingly restless opera company to a company regularly staging its seasons at the main John F. Kennedy Memorial Opera House stage.

I am 100% sure that it was not Placido Domingo’s own idea to lobby Congress for the company to be allowed to rename itself the Washington National Opera.

I am braced for the WNO to stage no American operas this coming season, or in many of the truncated seasons of the coming decade. I am braced to accept the decline of the Washington Opera company (and the rise, in its place, of new and vital national opera companies in China, Korea, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Central Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, the Middle East and many places elsewhere in the world.)

(Yesterday at lunch at the Metropolitan Club, I saw a copy of Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Angle of Repose” in the library’s central display case, and thought that it might make a promising American opera. Apparently, Ted Libbey and others charged with “leading professional opera development in America” at the National Endowment for the Arts [including your husband] also thought so too since, in the plush 1970s, they commissioned an American opera based upon the work; as they did an opera based upon Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize winning novel “Henderson the Rain God”.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 18, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"the director was grasping the idiom but not quite understanding the work."
This is what I had feared before seeing yesterday's HD transmission and, alas, my fears were confirmed. I found the entire "show" entertaining, but lacking in a cohesiveness, nothing seemed to go together. This is a pitfall that any director of "Hoffmann" can fall into - and the result is making this masterpiece appear to be no more than a sum of its parts. It is so much more than that, but Sher's production, which, oddly, grasps at Kafka and Fellini rather than going back to the opera's true sources, did not succeed, although several moments were highly entertaining.
I'm going to see it again on the 6th - perhaps I'll change my mind.
I won't even begin to comment on the corrupt hybrid edition of the score that the Met is using, which also didn't help matters (at least for me).

Posted by: charlie7093 | December 20, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Snaketime,

The issue of the Washington Opera is certainly "culturally relevant", but this is discussed often here and I see no reason why it should monopolize discussions in a blog dedicated to music in general (yes, with an emphasis on the local scene, but not exclusively so.)

One can argue that talk about the latest production from the most important opera company in America, if not in the world, is equally "culturally relevant". And so are the national style of singing in a world which, many argue not without reason - that is becoming increasingly homogenized.

I am not disappointed "if Opera Lafayette’s February 1 and 3, 2010 performances of Gluck’s Armide (in Washington and New York City) don’t only feature French singers." Opera Lafayette is a company with significantly less resources as compared with those of the Met.

As for the future of Washington Opera, I am more optimistic than you in the long term. The recent survey of arts participation indicated clearly that things weren't as bad as from 1982 - thus, from another recession year. As teh economy improved, so did the participations in the arts. This is something that will repeat here as well, not in the immediate future perhaps, but long and medium term, certainly.

If I remember correctly, in the last decade or two, before the current recession, the audience participation in opera did increase - some credit the presence of supertitles for that.

And I am also having more faith in Placido Domingo, who is a quick study (not just in learning a new opera role) and learns rapidly from his mistakes. For example, many of you are aware that Domingo also runs a restaurant business. What is less known is that when Domingo entered in this business, the first restaurant was a failure. But Domingo asked for help from a well-known Spanish restauranteur (whose name will stay with me), and then he associated himself with other chefs under partnership (Richard Sandoval for example.)

So why shouldn't he learne from his mistakes as an opera administrator? Yes, his multi-million Wagner Ring extravaganza in LA was an unnecessary fiasco (a good Ring could be made with half or even a third of the money), but he can ask for advice from say Joseph Volpe or Ioan Holender (who once was his impressario) or even from Peter Gelb or Michael Kaiser.

Because the one opera company who became close to world class in the last decade or two was not from China, Korea, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Central Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, the Middle East. Rather, it was the Los Angeles Opera, whose budget is in the $50 million figures, even in the time of crisis. And whose director is Placido Domingo (who was virtually involved with the company from its inception.)

Zero to the fourt largest company in America: not bad, huh? Which is one reason why I am optimistic about the future of the opera in Washington as well.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 21, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

cicciofrancolando,

I fail to see the logic of your closing statement. What does the Los Angeles Opera's rapid growth (it is, in fact, located in the center of one of the two largest U.S. megapolises, according to recent Census data) have to do with the apparently soon-to-be former Washington National Opera's decline from eight or seven operas a season recently to five operas next season? (If the Washington Opera, as Ms. Midgette surmises, fails to honor its commitment to Congress to stage an American classical opera next season, it will have only staged one American opera -- Porgy and Bess -- since 2005; and only commissioned three non-children's American operas -- Goya, Dream of Valentino, and Democracy -- in its entire 53 year-old history. No wonder, the WNO hired a young paid publicist to try to influence public opinion that the WNO never commited to staging an American opera every season.)

(Readers will also recall that the original LAO "Ring" was to involve Hollywood design talent [George Lucas -- who today in 2009 has an estimated net worth of $3.0 billion, according to Wikipedia]; but that this apparently became too expensive and otherwise undoable. I thought that bringing in the German director Achim Freyer was an attempt to save money over a Hollywood-linked production. I don't recall Werner Herzog's opera productions -- such as the Tannhauser seen in Baltimore -- causing financial distress at opera companies around the world.)

As for monopolization of discussion, you post here more than anyone except for "moderator" Anne Midgette.

As for the issue of cultural relevance, I did locate my autumn 2004 Washington National Opera glossy magazine, in which Placido Domingo directly cited the Washington National Opera's FIRM COMMITMENT (and not a possible commitment) to staging an American opera EVERY season. I can provide you and others with the volume and page number after lunch.

As for Opera Lafayette, my recollection is that two of the leads are American, one Canadian, one French, and one (or two) Dutch. I recall the production being billed as "internationally-cast".

According to your strange logic, as opera companies grow richer, they should hire singing (and conducting, directing, and design?) talent that near perfectly reflects the ethnicity of the originating composer (and librettist?)

So, according to your belief system, no room at today's MET for South African, Korean, Chinese, Finnish, Romanian, Armenian, Belarusian, Australian, Mexican, Canadian, and New Zealand singers (and most American singers)?

A very strange and bizarre idea, indeed; although perhaps somewhat typical of those who try to divorce operatic singing from music drama.

(Yeah, that Kiri Te Kanawa really "ruined" the MET's Arabella, Placido Domingo "ruined" the MET's Don Carlo, and Matti Salminen "ruined" the MET's Tristan and the Amsterdam Boris...)

NATIONALIZE THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA!

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 22, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Snaketime,

You are of course right that the Washington Opera is failing the commitment to American Opera (although you're forgetting Bolcom's "A View from the Bridge" staged in 2007-2008, and let's not forget that Nicolas Maw lived in the Washington area, though I am not sure if he ever became a U.S. Citizen.)

The point about the Washington and L.A. Operas is that both have the same director, and that Domingo has a record of growth in L.A., in spite of the Ring fiasco. Which is why I am more optimistic than you about the future of the Washington Opera as well, once the economy recovers. Even the Washington Opera budget is bigger than what it was before Domingo came, and this is adjusted for inflation.

As for me posting too little or too much, nobody stops you or anyone else from doing the same. This is an open forum.

Never said that "Kiri Te Kanawa really "ruined" the MET's Arabella, Placido Domingo "ruined" the MET's Don Carlo, and Matti Salminen "ruined" the MET's Tristan and the Amsterdam Boris." If you remember, I posted twice that I am a fan of Matti Salminen who I consider the major Hagen at least of the post-war era.

Since I see that you're not intersted in a real discussion, that you're putting words into my mouth that I never said, and that you want only to show your supposed superiority, this is the last time that I answer anything from you.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 22, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Fine.

Music discussion fora – especially sites dealing with opera and the future of classical music – are famous for solipsism and onanism.

Yes, I had intended to cite William Bolcom, Arthur Miller, and Arnold Weinstein’s “A View from the Bridge” as the lone newer American classical opera produced at the Opera House by the so-called Washington National Opera in the second half of the first decade of this century. Thank you for the correction. (The late Nicholas Maw – like Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle – was British. All three -- and numerous other living British composers -- received commissions for new British operas from the English National Opera -- sometimes one new British work a year, usually in May or June.)

My wife and I both loved “A View from the Bridge” and talked about it for months following its WNO production.

Yes, the Washington National Opera made a firm and binding commitment to Congress and to the American people, and it almost immediately broke the commitment.

As currently administered, the Washington National Opera does not deserve the trust of Congress or the trust of the American people (or the trust of members of the Supreme Court who – despite their now repeated supernumerary roles on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage– have failed to note that the Washington National Opera has repeatedly broken its pledge to the Congress and the American people, and now threatens to do so again).

NATIONALIZE THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA!

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 22, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

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