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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Opera Review: No New Tales To Tell

Les Contes d'Hoffmann is the Met's first revival of 2015.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He ain't got nobody. Vittorio Grigolo (center) in Les contes d'Hoffmann at the Met.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann ("The Tales of Hoffmann") is the final opera f Jacques Offenbach and the opera bouffe master's bid to be remembered as a creator of serious stage drama. It is a bittersweet meditation on love and literature, packed throughout with ravishing music. Based on stories by the poet/composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the opera inserts the poet as protagonist in his own tales.  However, due to the fact that Offenbach died while working on the third act, there are many textual problems, compounded by performance traditions and the decisions of singers to add and insert arias into the work which have since become part of its fabric. 


The Metropolitan Opera's 2009 production by Bartlett Sher, revived Monday night at Lincoln Center with a mostly new cast, uses a performing edition of the score created by James Levine. Mr. Levine chose some of the best additions to the score (most notably the aria Scintille Diamant and the sextet) while splitting the opera's four leading female roles between three singers. However, as Monday's performance under the baton of Yves Abel showed, much of the luster is gone from this show. Some of the stage ideas (the (noisy) spinning dragon in Act I, the descending-and-ascending forest in Act II have become now tiresome, and others (like the Venice act) are marred by onstage busy-ness that distracts from the singing.

As Hoffmann, Vittorio Grigolo sang with power and effect, opening up the voice in the later half of the opera to present the poet as a hapless and failing romantic. Initially, he sounded too restrained, almost marking in the long central section of the Kleinzach song. But Mr. Grigolo used the last phrases of the aria to unpack his voice. He sang with bright power for the rest of the evening. He even managed to maintain form in the punishing last act, cutting cleanly through the thick textures of the Sextet and singing the final scene with vigor at a point when most singers are simply exhausted.

Opposing Hoffmann's efforts was Thomas Hampson, who as the Four Villains added not one but four questionable portrayals to his ever-lengthening repertoire. Mr. Hampson's baritone is simply too high and too light for this music, and his voice rested uneasily over the course of a long evening. He sounded sweet when he should be threatening and simply worn out in the big passages.

Mr. Hampson is an international star, but his bland, coiffured stage presence conveyed little menace or authority in a production that already deprives the bad guys of almost all of their dramatic "supernatural" entrances. He was decidedly off the beat in the Act II trio, slowing its momentum with barked, hammy laughter. Worst of all was a unexpected broken phrase in the opening notes of "Scintille, diamant", a sort of hiccup between the first two syllables that spoiled the aria.

Erin Morley was impressive as Olympia, the wind-up robot who Hoffmann falls for in the first act. She sang "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" with impeccable comic timing and a fearless coloratura, piping up into the very upper reaches of her voice to thrilling effect, simply unafraid to floor the audience with what sounded like a tossed-off high A flat. Hibla Gerzmava was a somewhat placid Antonia, her Act II trio (with Mr. Hampson and Olesva Petrova) marred by a pulled-sharp high note at the climactic moment, more of a dying quail than an expiring soprano. Christine Rice was a bland presence as Giulietta, more cipher than courtesan.

The best vocal performance of the night was Kate Lindsey as the Muse, who plays a key role throught this production. The mezzo sang the premiere of this production in '09, and knew the blocking and the direction cold even when some of her fellow cast members didn't. Switching genders to play Hoffmann's companion "Nicklausse," she guided the poet down the spiral that ended at his desk, writing and creating stories from the ashes of his failed romances.She remained focused from start to finish, relishing and making the most of the rich if scattered vocal opportunities, including the famous Barcarolle. She also did a pin-point impression of Ms. Morley's Olympia, getting a huge laugh from the house with her robotic movements and falsetto notes.

Mention must also be made of the supporting cast, particularly veteran bass David Pittsinger as Luther the tavern keeper and Crespel, Antonia's hapless father. (He would have been better casting for the Four Villains.) Baritone Dennis Petersen filled in the rest as Spalanzani the doll-maker and Schlemil, the aptly named young blade who is killed by Hoffmann in a duel in the last act. Tenor Tony Stevenson was marvelous in four very different roles, making the most of his little number as Frantz, the deaf and talentless house servant of the Crespels. Yves Abel conducted the score with lyricism and French style, and the chorus' contribution at key points of this complex opera deserved high praise indeed.

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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.