The production of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann that the “Live in HD” audience will see on January 31, 2015 dates back to December 2009. It was, in fact, one of several high-concept rereadings unveiled between the winters of 2009 and 2010. Together with the others, Verdi’s Attila and La Traviata, Hoffmann fueled the debate around stagings that has raged since Peter Gelb took over the company in 2006.
The director of the 2009 production was Broadway’s Bartlett Sher; it was designed by Michael Yeargan. The concept, as Sher explained it, was that E. T. A. Hoffmann, the author of the three short stories on which the libretto is based, and an analog for Franz Kafka, was, like the Prague-born, German-speaking novelist and the Cologne-born, French-speaking composer, a Jew, an outsider. For the most part, the concept failed to emerge with purpose from a flood of disordered detail. To the derby hats of 1920s Mittel-Europa, for example, Sher added Federico Fellini grotesques, clowns, and prostitutes. What the interpretation did allow, as Variety put it, was “a clever staging of the prologue’s Kleinzach number, in which chorus boys turn the tavern’s tablecloths into prayer shawls. It’s a gesture Hoffmann repeats at opera’s end when he returns alone and lonely to his typewriter to crank out more poetry. Otherwise, Sher doesn’t get much mileage out of the concept.” The director conceded that his vision had not come together as he had hoped, that he had not had “enough time to . . . get [it] right.” He had been under pressure from an administration strapped for money and time.
The 2009 reception of Les Contes d’Hoffmann was further compromised by principals who, for one reason or another, walked back their commitments. Anna Netrebko, who was to play all four of the poet’s loves, Olympia, Giulietta, Antonia, and Stella (a non-singing role), sang only Antonia. (We should add that few sopranos in the Met’s long history have taken on all four parts, most notably Joan Sutherland.) René Pape decided to forego the opera’s four villains altogether. The Hoffmann was to be Rolando Villazón; he suffered a vocal crisis and was replaced by the affecting Joseph Calleja.
But for the cast changes, what follows is an approximation of what the first night audiences would have heard.
In the opera’s prologue, Hoffmann, disillusioned and dissolute, muses about his love life as he entertains his drinking buddies with the tale of a pathetic court jester, the dwarf Kleinzach. In this 2011 Munich performance, the irrepressible Villazón is back in astonishing form after vocal cord surgery.
The most familiar music of Les Contes d’Hoffmann is heard at the start of the Venitian act. The courtesan Giulietta and Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse (a trouser role) sing the sinuous melody of a barcarolle. Netrebko, who dropped the low-lying role of Giulietta at the Met, here joins with mezzo Elina Garanca in a smoothly executed recording of the duet.
The devilish Dappertutto addresses the diamond through whose glitter he will enlist Giulietta in his evil plot to steal Hoffmann’s reflection. In a key lower than that of the usual baritone register, Pape rolls out his velvety bass and even manages the several high notes without undue stress.
Sher’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann made its first return in 2010. Notices were more positive: “What a difference a season makes. . . . The tales were told with greater success; the staging maneuvers seemed better focused. More important, most of the new singers were good, and one [Giuseppe Filianoti, the Hoffmann] was spectacular.” (Martin Bernheimer, Financial Times)
In the 2015 edition, the title role goes to one of the Met’s recent stars, Vittorio Grigolo; the four villains will be played by Thomas Hampson, and the loves of Hoffmann by Erin Morley, Christine Rice, and Hibla Gerzmava. Whether the “high-concept staging” comes through with yet more conviction--and is therefore more convincing--remains to be seen.