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Friday, September 22, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Les contes d'Hoffmann

Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
I love you Miss Robot:  Erin Morley in a scene from Les contes d'Hoffmann.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met revives Offenbach's final opera, a phantasmagorical tale about a writer trapped in stories of his own creation. Vittorio Grigolo is the hapless hero in this tragicomic classic.


What is Les contes d'Hoffmann?
This is the final opera by French composer Jacques Offenbach. Offenbach was known for his opera bouffe creations (the French version of operetta) but ended his career with this adaptation of four stories by the writer/composer/critic E.T.A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann was a seminal literary figure from the early Romantic era. He himself is the hero of the opera, which is packed with great music, memorable numbers and (at the end of its second act) one of the best death scenes in the French repertory.

What's Les contes d'Hoffmann about?
This is a little complicated. The opera starts in a tavern, next to an opera house playing Don Giovanni. While waiting for his beloved Stella, the poet Hoffmann is asked to entertain his friends with stories. He tells of his three great loves, Olympia (who is revealed to be a robot and destroyed), the opera singer Antonia, who sings herself to death and the courtesan Giulietta who tries to steal his soul. In each tale, Hoffmann's romantic intentions are thwarted by an evil genius (all played by the same bass-baritone.) In the end, Stella walks off with yet another evil genius (the same singer again) and Hoffmann goes to the arms of his Muse, who encourages him to write and create more stories that everyone will love.

What's the music like?
Offenbach wrote a masterful score, with memorable arias (the "Doll Song" is a bit of coloratura wizardry) and choruses that immediately appeal to the ear. The Act II finale (where Antonia dies singing herself to death) is justifiably famous, and topped only by the Act III Barcarolle. This lilting duet for Giulietta and Hoffmann's friend Nicklausse (his Muse in disguise) is a tune known even to those who don't know the difference between Offenbach and J.S. Bach.

Who's in it?
Vittorio Grigolo returns to the taxing title role, a test of any tenor's mettle over the course of a long evening. Erin Morley, Anita Hartig and Oksana Volkova are Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta (respectively) with Ms. Hartig doubling in the smaller role of Stella. (Offenbach planned for these roles to all be sung by the same diva, something that is not possible with the current production. The last artist to do this at the Met was Ruth Ann Swenson in 2000.) The four villains will be played by Laurent Naouri with much twirling of mustachios.

How's the production?
This is yet another Bartlett Sher staging, his second to be mounted at the Met. There are moments of cluttered wit (the Blade Runner-meets-Coney Island aesthetic of the Olympia scene) but other scenes (Giulietta especially) just feel cluttered. Still, the music is marvelous and this score, with its fine wrought singing and memorable tunes should be able to rise above the visual fray.

Why should I see it?
This is one of the great operas, tarred only by the fact that Offenbach did not live to finish his work on the last act. However, the Met has a long tradition of bringing the magic of Hoffmann to life and it isn't staged as often as it should be. It's long but it's user-friendly.

When does it open?
Les contes d'Hoffmann opens the generale (that is the regular Met season) on September 26.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
Not this season. Go see it in the theater.

Which recording should I get?

Before we get into that, 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 intoreco 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. Please keep that in mind when reading the following recommendations.

Orchestre de la Theatre Royal cond. Sylvain Cambreling. (EMI Classics/WBC)
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 that was published in 1976 by Fritz Oeser. Tempos are sometimes glacial, especially during the prologue and the Barcarolle.

Neil Shicoff, who used to sing the role of Hoffmann at the Met, 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 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. A good second recommendation if you want to hear the "traditional" version of the opera.

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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.