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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Opera Review: Through a Stein, Darkly

Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"I'll take you in my arms, Kathleen."
Kathleen Kim as Olympia in Act I of Bart Sher's  Les contes d'Hoffmann.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.

Veteran director Bart Sher has delivered again with this imaginative, outside-the-box staging of Offenbach's final opera, presenting this convoluted work with fresh dramatic insight. He is aided by a strong cast with three seperate female leads and a superb performance by tenor Joseph Calleja in the demanding title role.

Bart Sher approaches Hoffmann's stories as a series of surreal fever-dreams. Even the events in Luther's tavern that frame the action are a little weird. Spalanzani's toyshop (birthplace of the doll Olympia) is now a production-line facility for anonymous men to buy their own personal female playthings, a kind of cybernetic prostitution that recalls the film Blade Runner. Antonia's house is a wintry landscape with a piano and sheet music strewn across the stage. And the Giulietta act is set in a Venetian bordello with an orgy/ballet worthy of Tannhaüser.

Mr. Calleja has a pleasing tenor voice, ideally suited for the lyric expanses of Offenbach's score. However he would have been better served if James Levine had slowed down during the prologue, and allowed the opera's lyric, eldritch power to bloom. Kate Lindsey made the Muse the opera's true leading lady, switching genders with ease and working against Hoffmann and his romantic designs throughout the evening. Mention must also be made of character tenor Alan Oke, who made the most of his four roles. The short little aria for Franz is often cut from the score. It was a highlight of this performance.


In this version, the Muse and the Four Villains are in cahoots, stacking the deck to to keep Hoffmann on the straight-and-narrow creative path. Alan Held was the living four-fold embodiment of evil, using his smooth, rich bass-baritone to good effect. Yes, he victimizes Hoffmann repeatedly, breaking Olympia, killing Antonia, and arranging for Giulietta to capture the poet's reflection in a mirror. But how can you hate a bad guy who can sing "Scintille, diamant" so beautifully?

Kathleen Kim gave a star-making performance as the doll Olympia, combining broad physical comedy with a tremendous coloratura technique, managing the tricky pin-point notes with a few "mechanical" effects. Anna Netrebko was everything an Antonia should be--sad, doomed, and beautiful. Wendy White made a surprise appearance as Antonia's mother and it was a pleasure to hear these great voices together. Ekaterina Gubanova was a sensuous, thoroughly corrupt Giulietta.

With the opera left unfinished at Offenbach's death, there are myriad versions of Hoffmann to choose from. When the opera premiered, the Antonia act was placed last, allowing the diva to end the work with a glorious death scene. However, this renders the Giulietta act, with its corruption and descent into depravity nonsensical. Mr. Levine and Mr. Sher opted to place Antonia in the middle of the opera (where she belongs) and omitted much of the extra music (including Giulietta's suicide) from the Venetian act. In this version the finale was staged as a confrontation and reconciliation between Hoffmann and his muse, bringing the curtain down on the image of the great writer, alone at his desk, and doing what he did best.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.