A paucity of memorable stage moments in the Met’s ‘Tales of Hoffmann’
David Rubin reviews the final dress rehearsal of the reprise of the 2009 Bartlett Sher production and finds that the director lacks a strong point of view
The first question to ask about any performance of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is which version of the piece was performed. The opera was left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1880; there is no accepted critical edition. Conductors and directors are free to add and subtract music, interpolate arias and ensembles from other Offenbach works, change the order of the acts, use spoken dialogue or accompanied recitative, and expand the roles of key characters.
The Metropolitan Opera’s current version — which premiered in December, 2009, and was revived on January 12, 2015 — was directed by Bartlett Sher, a Met favorite, and cobbled together musically by conductor James Levine. It unfolds over nearly three and a half hours, including two 30-minute intermissions. It greatly expands the role of Nicklausse, a friend to the drug-addicted poet Hoffmann. In Sher’s version of the opera, Nicklausse is a central player, and not the peripheral character he often is.
Nicklausse accompanies Hoffmann on his three doomed love affairs with women, or female objects, who are the product of his drug and alcohol-fueled imagination: a mechanical doll, a consumptive singer, and a courtesan. Sher suggests that Nicklausse plays an active role in rescuing Hoffmann from each of these affairs, as well as from the malevolent intentions of a devil-like enemy bent on destroying him and his poetic gifts. In the prologue and epilogue to the three-acts, Nicklausse doubles as Hoffmann’s female artistic Muse, nudging him back to his writing desk, finally free from his sexual obsessions.
This view of the opera could work if Sher had developed credible stage business for Nicklausse, justifying his constant presence during most of the opera. He does not. It would also help if the music exhumed for Nicklausse were of a quality comparable to that written for the other major characters and the chorus of students who hang out with Hoffmann in Luther’s tavern. But the music for Nicklausse and the Muse is largely unmemorable.
Dressed in black and wearing a top hat, Nicklausse slinks around the stage, looking for something to do. Rather than function as a muscular guardian of Hoffmann, inserting himself into the action at crucial moments, this Nicklausse shrinks from the spotlight.
Kate Lindsey, the mezzo singing Nicklausse, is the one holdover from the original 2009 cast. She is a lean, wraith-like presence. She is athletic and she convincingly impersonates a man, but Sher has given her little to do. The Violin Aria in Act Two for Nicklausse, not often heard, lacks Offenbach’s distinctive melodic profile. Nor did it help that Lindsey’s attractive mezzo is a size too small for the Met’s cavernous auditorium. Just as she disappeared physically, she often disappeared vocally.
Nevertheless, Hoffmann is a toy chest with plenty of other charms. One is Hoffmann’s evil rival in four guises: the councilor Lindorf in the Prologue, Hoffman’s rival in love; Coppelius, the optician and inventor of eyeballs for mechanical dolls in Act One; the quack Dr. Miracle in Act Two; and Dapertutto, the stealer-of-reflections in Act Three. A bass-baritone with a firm lower register and an evil countenance can dominate this opera in all four roles and bring it to life. Samuel Ramey, James Morris, Jose van Dam, and Norman Trieigle have all made a banquet of this part.
Thomas Hampson did not. He has always been more baritone than bass, and the lower depths of these roles now elude him. His production of the vocal line was often choppy. He is too elegant and gentlemanly a stage presence to portray real evil. A suave Onegin, which Hampson is, does not a Dr. Miracle make. Alan Held, an admired Wagnerian, sang the four roles in 2009 to better effect.
To be fair, Sher did Hampson no dramatic favors in the staging. As Coppelius in Act One, Hampson dismembers the mechanical doll Olympia offstage, coming onstage already holding one of her arms. It was a dramatic point missed.
In Act Two as Dr. Miracle he should be demonically playing a violin to accompany Antonia as she sings herself to the death, which is Miracle’s goal. The orchestra mimics the sound of a soaring violin enticing Antonia to sing. Antonia’s father Crespel is a violin maker. Nicklausse has already sung his aria to a violin hanging from a bare tree onstage. Yet there is no violin in Sher’s world for Miracle to play, or to smash triumphantly once Antonia collapses. This was another dramatic point missed.
The mechanical doll Olympia, Hoffmann’s first absurd love, is a sure-fire part for a high-flying coloratura soprano with a comic streak. I have never seen this part botched in performance. Erin Morley offered a satisfying portrayal, short on humor and creaking joints, but with a brave stab at a note so stratospheric in the Doll Song that it melted into the imagination. However, Morley fell short of the comic standard set in 2009 by Kathleen Kim, not to mention the beloved portrayal from Beverly Sills.
Soprano Hibla Gerzmava was a creamy-voiced Antonia in Act Two. She delivered her big aria asking Hoffmann to return to her with skill. She is a stolid actor, however, hardly the picture of a consumptive twenty-something in love. Anna Netrebko sang the part in 2009 and tugged at the heartstrings. Gerzmava did not.
The courtesan Giulietta has little to do in Act Three save the Barcarolle and the Sextet. British mezzo Christine Rice filled the bill nicely.
This leaves Hoffmann, sung by tenor Vittorio Grigolo. He has been criticized for artistic license and rhythmic imprecision, but on this occasion he delivered an impressive, satisfying performance. Indeed, he was the best of the major characters and he measured up to Joseph Calleja, the Hoffmann in 2009. He was a believable drug addict and tortured poet. He is handsome enough to have bewitched Antonia. His voice has some Italianate juice in it, with a reliable top. It’s a bit light for the part — more Rodolfo than Hoffmann — but he gave pleasure in the Kleinzach extended aria in the Prologue.
Baritone David Pittsinger, well known to Glimmerglass Opera fans, was solid as both Luther the tavern owner and Crespel, Antonia’s father. Character tenor Tony Stevenson was outstanding as the foolish servant Frantz in Act Two. He sang his humorous aria meltingly, although we could do without the mock back spasms. (This aria is surely a candidate for cutting should a producer choose to present a faster-paced Hoffmann.)
Director Sher offers a few — very few — memorable stage moments. In the Prologue, Act One, Act Three and Epilogue, Hoffmann’s writing desk and typewriter are prominent at stage left, reminding us constantly that he really should be working, not whoring and boozing. Manuscript paper litters the floor. In Act One, where the eyeballs of the mechanical doll (and Hoffmann’s own occluded vision of reality) play a major role, chorus members twirled umbrellas with eyeballs on them. The stage picture for Act Three — the famous gondola scene in Venice — was appropriately decadent and voluptuous.
But the setting for Act Two — the musical and emotional heart of the opera — should be a suffocating drawing room in an upper middle class house. Its walls should close in on Antonia. She can’t breathe. Instead, Sher puts us outside in a winter landscape with six bare trees that sit on what looks like a sandy beach. Hoffmann’s writing desk is gone, replaced by a piano.
Rather than provide a portrait of Antonia’s beloved, deceased mother that mysteriously comes to life, urging her to sing, Sher simply brings the flesh and blood mother onstage to stand at the piano, another missed dramatic moment.
In the Prologue, Act One and Act Three, leggy young women wearing only g-strings and pasties try to enliven the proceedings, but Sher shrinks from anything truly erotic. (This is, after all, the dowdy Metropolitan Opera, which actually eliminated the nudity in the HD telecast when the production was new. What prudes.)
What we have, then, is an overlong, run-of-the-mill revival of a production that lacks a strong point of view and offers few riveting stage pictures. It is competently cast, but not to the 2009 standard. The Met has many nights to fill. Not all of them can be exciting.
What: Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann
When: Jan. 9, 2015 (final dress rehearsal)
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York
Time: About 3 hours and 30 minutes, including 2 intermissions