Composer: Jacques Offenbach
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Director: Bartlett Sher
Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja
The Muse/Nicklauss: Kate Lindsey
Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr Miracle, Dapertutto: Alan Held
Olympia: Kathleen Kim
Antonia/Stella: Anna Netrebko
Giuletta: Ekaterina Gubanova
Snow storm? What snow storm? Oh yes, that one, the big bad one that had the audacity to start at the same time as my Contes-d'Hoffmann-at-the-Met weekend got underway. But where there's a will there's a way, at least as long as I did not mind trudging through whirling wind, rain, sleet and fast-accumulating snow at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning on my way to Union Station and forking out big bucks to Amtrak since the bus service had unsurprisingly been cancelled. But once the train had made its way through the raging elements, it matter-of-factly ended up in a winterly cold but still dry Big Apple and I, well, went about my business.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann has always appeared to me as a strange beast, especially coming from the undisputed king of French operetta. Without an actual plot but oozing poetry, phantasmagoria, torments and excesses, it is a production all the more difficult to put together as Offenbach died before having had a chance to complete it. So all we have left is the beautiful, if not flawless, swan song of an artist who literally fought to his dying breath to be accepted in the traditional French society of the time, thus fully identifying with his hero's struggle as an eternal outsider. Although eagerly anticipated Met favorite Rollando Villazon had to bail out as the lead, his favorite partner and other Met regular Anna Netrebko and Washington's very own Alan Held were going to be there along with maestro Levine, finally back on the podium. That definitely sounded too good to pass, snow storm notwithstanding.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann narrates a dreamy journey into the troubled mind and vivid memories of the poet Hoffmann and takes us to a wide variety of places where our hero relentlessly wanders in search of true love. Every time a new paramour seems likely to fit the bill, drama and heartbreak ensue, brought in no small part by each episode's designated villain, who personifies the various incarnations of Hoffman's nemesis. On the positive side, his faithful muse, disguised as his friend Nicklauss, follows him everywhere too, sometimes discreetly observing the scene, sometimes fortuitously intervening.
Because Hoffmann is the character driving the whole opera, casting the right tenor is paramount. Stepping into much acclaimed Rollando Villazon's shoes is no easy task, but rising newcomer Joseph Calleja whole-heartedly threw himself into the challenging role and deftly embodied a very engaging Hoffmann. His young, cherubic face was a nice contrast to his more mature, Kafkaesque demeanor, and his truly versatile voice was easily soaring when experiencing the transports of love, desperately bristling with anguish when facing unfulfilled hopes. Assuredly displaying impressive stamina and unwavering timing, he's definitely one to watch. But he was not the only one undertaking a daunting singing marathon as he was often accompanied by Kate Lindsey, an understated but discreetly indispensable muse/Nicklauss, and Alan Held, efficiently representing diabolical forces everywhere he went.
Hoffmann's three ill-fated love stories feature three drastically different and interchangeable facets of the new and ultimate object of his passion, the unattainable prima donna Olympia. Accordingly, Kathleen Kim and her stratospheric coloratura was a to-die-for doll, dazzling the audience with her humor-infused vocal acrobatics and effortlessly earning the biggest ovation of the afternoon. Anna Netrebko was predictably all lush lyricism as Antonia, the obsessed singer who will die from her art, and Ekaterina Gubanova brashly exuded cunningness and greed totally fit for the courtesan Giuletta.
Naturally, all those fantastical acts gave the set and costume designers the perfect opportunity to go wild and man, they sure did not hold back, for better or worse. The mechanical doll Olympia was exhibited on a colorfully kitsch fairground while Antonia's bourgeois German home was downright minimalist, which made the ill-conceived apparition of a hanging violin all the more awkward. But it was the third act that got everybody's undivided attention, simultaneously prompting a collective gasp of disbelief and spontaneous clapping from the audience, when it opened on a sumptuously orgiastic party in a lavishly decadent Venetian palace straight out of Fellini film, complete with a bright red gondola in the background and dancers engaged in, errr, suggestive gymnastics in the foreground during the famous Bacchanalian tune "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour". Mon dieu, mon dieu!
The musical score was also an undiscrimating mix of various genres, from the sparkling enchantment of Olympia's crowd-pleasing "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" ("The Doll Song"), to the richly lyrical power of "Elle a fui, la tourterelle" ("She has fled, the turtledove") during which Antonia remembers her beloved mother who died from singing, and of course the ravishing sensuality of the Venetian feast. But Offenbach's vaudeville roots were never far off and they could be easily detected in numbers such as the drinking songs in Luther's tavern and the servant's comical interlude, all the way to the frankly grotesque narrative about the dwarf Kleinzach. So the musicians were in for a endurance test as well, and they proved all afternoon long that they could keep all those various ingredients in steady balance under their masterful conductor's baton.
So, was it worth all the extra efforts in getting there and back, including a dreadfully expensive and suspenseful-until-the-very-last-minute return trip? Absolutely! Even if the production lacked some cohesiveness and may have indulged a bit much in all the theatricality, it had made some bold but welcome visual choices, the singers were well-versed in their parts (I gave up trying to understand the lyrics of French operas a long time ago, never mind who sings them), and James Levine kept the orchestra moving along just right. Now all I can hope for is a return to routine traveling for Elektra this coming Saturday...