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Monday, January 5, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Les contes d'Hoffmann

Orgies. Doctors. Robots: The Met revives Les contes d'Hoffmann.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Olympia Mark II: A ballerina is whirled in the air in Act I of Les contes d'Hoffmann.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met explores the dark side of obsession and love with the return of Bartlett Sher's 2009 production of Jacques Offenbach's fantastical final opera.

Offenbach was the toast of Paris, a creator of confections like Orphée Aux Enfers, the operetta that gave the world the "Can-Can." So it surprised the world to learn that his final effort, Hoffmann was a bid to be taken as a serious opera composer. Although this opera is full of fantastical elements, this is essentially an examination of the life of the writer through the eyes of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a writer and opera composer himself whose catalogue of strange tales includes The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.


The opera follows three Hoffmann stories, altered to feature the poet as the protagonist. On his downward spiral, our hero falls in love with a doll, a dying opera singer, and finally a Venetian courtesan--the last of whom puts his immortal soul in danger. Along the way, he is accompanied by his Muse (disguised as his companion Nicklausse) and stalked by four villains, who are all played by the same singer, usually a low-voiced baritone or bass.

This season there are two seperate casts, with tenors Vittorio Grigolo and Matthew Polenzani trying to keep their love lives in order. Thomas Hampson twirls his mustachioes as the Four Villains who stand in Hoffmann's way. Although the four loves of Hoffmann's life can be sung by a very versataile single singer, this  production  requires the opera's four femme fatales to be sung by different singers in each act.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann returns Jan. 12, 2015. The second cast takes the stage on Feb. 28. A Live in HD broadcast (the second go-round in front of the cameras for this production) is scheduled for Jan. 31.

Recording Recommendations:
First, a quick word on versions of Les Contes d'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 different arias that can be substituted at the discretion of the artists.

Orchestre de la Theatre Royal cond. Sylvain Cambreling. EMI Classics
Hoffmann: Neil Shicoff.
Four Villains: José Van Dam.
Nicklausse: Ann Murray
Antonia: 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 José Van Dam.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Julius Rudel. (Westminster/Deutsche Grammophon 1972)
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 gleefully snarls through the four villain roles. Julius Rudel was an expert in this repertory. The Antonia act goes last, and Sills expires during the final trio, in utterly splendid fashion.

Tickets for Les contes d'Hoffmann are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.
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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.