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.
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