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Friday, September 24, 2010

Recording Recommendation: Two Tales of Hoffmann

Kathleen Kim and Joseph Calleja
in the Met's Tales of Hoffmann.

Offenbach did not live to finish this opera.

As a result, there are numerous 'completions' of the score available, and alternate arias and choruses are frequently incorporated into performances. At least three different musicologists worked on 'completions' of the opera, and there are textual issues galore. Hence the need for articles like this one.

Some versions of Hoffmann feature one singer taking on the challenge of all four female leads: Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella. When one soprano sings all four heroines, it is common practice to move Antonia (the second act) to the third (and final) position.

Offenbach intended the Giulietta act to follow Antonia, showing Hoffmann's moral descent into the arms of a courtesan following his lover's death. However, he didn't reckon with sopranos who want to end an opera by singing until they (literally) drop dead. 

The role of the Muse/Nicklausse changes, depending on which version of the opera you hear. In some productions, she/he is merely Hoffmann's companion and protector. But Offenbach may have meant this gender-bending character to be more of an antagonist, working with the Four Villains to destroy Hoffmann's relationships in order to help him get back to work on his writing.

The Four Villains often have alternate music to sing, particularly Dapertutto, the evil sorcerer in the Giulietta act. The famous aria "Scintille, diamant" was actually written for another opera and added to Hoffmann after Offenbach's death.

Anyway, here are two very different takes on Hoffmann for your consideration.

Orchestre de la Theatre Royal cond. Sylvain Cambreling. EMI Classics
Hoffmann: Neil Shicoff. Four Villains: José Van Dam. Nicklausse: Ann Murray; Lucina Serra; Olympia: Rosalinde Plowright Giulietta: Jessye Norman

This is a slow, elegant reading of the score by Cambreling and his forces, using much of the completion material  published in 1976 by Fritz Oeser. Tempos are sometimes glacial, especially during the prologue and the gorgeous barcarolle

Neil Shicoff is an American tenor with good French. His "Kleinzach" aria is close to definitive. Splitting the roles of the three heroines allows for the casting of very different vocal types--the most idiosyncratic being the choice of Jessye Norman for the role of Giulietta. The set includes an appendix at the end with alternative numbers from the score, including a glittering "Scintille, Diamant" from the exceptional Jose Van Dam.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Julius Rudel. Westminster/Deutsche Grammophon.
Hoffmann: Stuart Burrows. Antonia/Giulietta/Olympia/Stella: Beverly Sills. Four Villains: Norman Triegle. 

This Westminster recording from 1972 presents the 'unrevised' Hoffmann in all of its musical glory. This recording is a tour de force for the great (and under-recorded) Beverly Sills, who swoops and soars through this difficult music with giddy ease. Her "Doll Song" (complete with old-fashioned "wind-up" sound effects) is stunning.

Norman Triegle, the resident bass of the New York City Opera in the early '70s, appeared many times opposite Ms. Sills and that experience shows in his superb performance. He gleefully snarls through the four villainous roles, unleashing a seductive, creamy tone during "Scintille, diamant" (restored here to its place in the Giulietta act). Julius Rudel is an expert in this repertory, and he leads a fine performance. The Antonia act goes last, and Sills expires during the final trio, in utterly splendid fashion.



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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.