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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Opera Review: The Exes Mark the Spot

Vittorio Grigolo procrastinates through Les Contes d'Hoffmann.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Left behind: Stella (Anna Hartig, center) leaves Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo, left)
with the diabolical Lindorf (right) in the finale of Les contes d'Hoffmann.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
As a writer, it's hard not to have a soft spot for Les contes d'Hoffmann. No matter how many times this reviewer has seen it (ten), the final opera by Jacques Offenbach (English title: "The Tales of Hoffmann") never fails to move. Offenbach's opera, which was unfinished at the time of the composer's death, features the poet, composer and writer E.T.A. Hoffmann as the unwilling and unwitting protagonist of his own fantastical stories. He sits in a Munich tavern, drinking and telling tales of his past romantic affairs as he waits for his beloved Stella, an opera singer performing next door.



This year's revival of the Met's Bartlett Sher production brings back Vittorio Grigolo as a successful proponent of the title role. Mr. Grigolo sings with vigor and a firm, bright instrument. On Friday night he demonstrated how to shape and mold a phrase, portraying heroic ardor, terror and finally drunken resignation over the course of a long three acts. His dalliances are Olympia, a wind-up toy, Antonia, a doomed opera singer, and finally, Giulietta, a courtesan on his downward spiral through life had the sense of that helix narrowing, and of mounting desperation as the opera winds to its resolution.

Accelerating that spiral are the mysterious Four Villains, each played by the French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri. This might be the most authentic French singing in these roles in a long time, as they are often the province of fading Wagner stars who snarl through the parts. Mr. Naouri, on the other hand grew more charmant as the evening progressed, from the aggrieved Coppelius to the satanic Dr. Mirakle to the sinister magician Dappertutto. One especially welcomed him singing "Scintille, diamant", an inserted aria (the music is by Offenbach but was written for another opera) that has become one of the showpieces of the final act.

The Met (to its credit) follows the composer's intentions, placing the Giulietta act last and striking a compromise between the finished parts of the score and later additions and editions This version of the show (prepared for the premiere of this production in 2009 by Met music director James Levine) grants greater prominence to the mysterious figure of Hoffmann's Muse. As played by the characterful mezzo Tara Erraught, she spends most of the show in travesti,  disguised as the poet's student companion. However, she works with the mysterious Four Villains to thwart the poet's romantic intentions. Her goal: to get him back to work.

Offenbach intended for Hoffmann's four love interests to be sung by one very talented soprano, a feat last managed at the Met by Ruth Ann Swenson in January of 2000. However, Mr. Sher's production requires three singers to play the opera's four heroines. Erin Morley sung the high-flying part of Olympia with prodigious technique, soaring to stratospheric notes in her Act I aria. This staging features a production line of pink-wigged, gold-crowned Olympia dolls, and they totter in in the last act, a distracting and heavy-handed visual reminder of Hoffmann's past.

The Antonia act is the opera's linch-pin, and the moment where the work's fusion of drama and comedy comes off the best. However,  soprano Anna Hartig (who also doubled as Stella) seemed miscast: cool and dispassionate in her portrayal of a 20-year-old opera singer who suffers from a mysterious ailment. Goaded by Mr. Naouri, she sang herself to an early grave in spectacular fashion. The big notes were present, but what was missing was a sense of innocent ardor between Hoffmann and Antonia. She was just another pretty voice. The saving grace of this slow-moving act was Christophe Mortagne as the servant Frantz, whose comic song in the bouffe style is a welcome addition to the score.

In the third act, mezzo Oksana Volkova had very little to do as Giulietta, the Venetian courtesan who helps capture Hoffmann's soul. This is the act that Offenbach failed to finish, and its torso-like structure remains deeply flawed. However, it does have the magnificent barcarolle, the best-known tune in the opera and the cue for bridge-and-tunnel opera goers to quietly escape from the velvet confines of the opera house. Here it was enchanting, but one could not help being distracted by the awkward addition of pasties and lingerie to the Met's corps de ballet, a cost-saving measure by general manager Peter Gelb in recent months.

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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.