Will Bartlett Sher’s production of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” become one of the Metropolitan Opera’s more beloved productions now that eight seasons have passed since it debuted? It is hard to say considering that the final work of Hoffmann remains a mystery that was completed after his death.
To recap, the Cologne-born Offenbach died before he completed the score for the work for which he would become synonymous with; such was the life of this tragic artist. Only the prologue and first act were completed with the remainder revised and reworked numerous times. It is said that Offenbach, known for numerous operettas, longed to be taken seriously as an opera composer and it’s this opera that is altogether silly, hilarious and touching that is his masterpiece. It has its proper place in history now, although it’s a bit haphazardly constructed as a whole because he was unable to put his complete stamp on it.
It was first performed on the Metropolitan stage in 1913 and Sher’s production debuted in 2009-10. His version seems to be winning over the New York audiences and the season premiere Tuesday night was no exception as it got the opera season in full flow one night after the glitz and glamour of opening night.
A Parisian Masterwork
This production is highlighted by some key return engagements, most notably tenor Vittorio Grigolo singing the title role as he has done several times at the Met. Grigolo starred last season in New York in “Roméo et Juliette” and “Werther” and all of his star quality was on display right from the prologue in which his ode to the dwarf Klienzach had the audience cracking up with every “clic-clac” and “cric-crac.” His crazed facial expression at the end of it hammered home the confusion within the luckless Hoffmann; of course, our belief had to be suspended to truly consider the handsome Grigolo as unlucky in love. Grigolo is one of the world’s most expressive singers and his Hoffmann is a crowd pleaser.
It’s no surprise given the composition history of Hoffmann that Act one is probably its best part, and the return of soprano Erin Morley as Olympia in Sher’s production is a big reason why. The soprano is clearly enthusiastic about playing the role of a mechanical doll as demonstrated by the Instagram photo she posted with the familiar umbrellas with eyes from the Paris setting of the first act. Clad in a pink dress that accentuates the fact that she is not human, Morley’s “doll song” was a spectacular blend of singing, acting and comic timing. Grigolo convinced as her foil as the bamboozled Hoffmann.
Spalanzani’s lair is the most memorable of Michael Yeargan’s sets, with the character’s name in huge letters outside and a bright red setting inside. Mark Schowalter shined as a Spalanzani in a costume that brought to mind Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. When Schowalter and bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Coppelius ended the act by holding the limbs of Olympia, the Met audience was in stitches as the curtain came to a close.
The omnipresent Nicklausse, serving as the muse of Hoffmann, marked the Metropolitan Opera debut of mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught with her proud parents in attendance. She’s Irish, as was evident from an outpouring of support on social media from her native land. Erraught proved to be a versatile performer whose wit and vocal ability helped carry the madcap story forward.
Magic in Venice & Munich
The Venice and Munich acts of this production are less vibrant, as it’s here that it shows that the material is reworked. In Munich, a piano in darkness is the extent of what we see as Antonia, portrayed by soprano Anita Hartig, is hidden away from Hoffmann by father Crespel, played by Robert Pomakov. Hartig’s death as Antonia is the most moving part of this opera but the entire act may be stolen by the machinations of Naouri as the evil Dr. Miracle pouring gasoline on the fire as the conflict escalates between father, daughter, and Hoffmann.
The famed barcarolle to start the Venice act went off without a hitch between Erraught and soprano Oksana Volkova as Giuletta as some of Offenbach’s most beautiful music was present in the finale. Grigolo showed no signs of exhaustion in powering through his “O Dieu, de quelle ivresse” with his trademark vigor. His duet with Hartig as Stella provided a nice conclusion to a long evening full of fits and stops, with maestro Johannes Debus of the Canadian Opera Company navigating through the proceedings in the pit.
Sher’s Hoffmann is a difficult work to grasp and intentionally so since Offenbach’s zany characters defy logic. It makes for a lengthy night with its two intermissions but it’s one full of gems, such as Frantz’s comic song in the Antonia act. You will be annoyed at Hoffmann for his folly yet at the same time root for the protagonist because he is in truth, a good-hearted albeit dim-witted man. Revisiting Offenbach’s wacky world of misfits was worth any fatigue for this viewer.