Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Met’s 2009 Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Versions .1, .2, .3

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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.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Not-so Merry Widow

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The new production of Franz Lehár’s frothy The Merry Widow opened (how could it have been otherwise?) on the occasion of the Met’s 2014 New Year’s Eve gala. Lehár’s operetta will be broadcast next Saturday “Live in HD” on approximately 2,000 screens in sixty-seven countries, including more than 800 in the U.S. and an ever increasing number across the globe. Thousands upon thousands of spectators internationally, and the 3,800 or so in the house at Lincoln Center, will see and hear the Austro-Hungarian composer’s 1905 triumph, premiered at the much smaller Theater an der Wien, then with a capacity of 1,230 seats. Directed and choreographed by Broadway’s Susan Stroman, with sets designed by Julian Crouch and costumes by William Ivey Long, this is only the second investiture of Lehár’s popular work in the company’s more than 130-year history. 
Opposition to operetta at the huge Met began during the short, flamboyant, roiling regime of Heinrich Conried, general manager from 1903 to 1908, and continues to this day. Conried’s two boldest strokes were, without a doubt, the 1903 first staging of Wagner’s Parsifal outside of Bayreuth and, in 1907, the U.S. premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Less provocative, although still bold, was Conried’s programming of Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus; the next year, he persisted with Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron). The argument against the genre in Conried’s time was two-pronged. Operettas, no matter how charming, even brilliant, had no place at the Met: their dialogue was lost in the vast reaches of the auditorium; their scores were scaled for intimate theatres. One hundred ten years later, in his review of the 2014 gala, the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini sang the same refrain: that despite amplification, the Met is no place for spoken dialogue (“The house is a cavernous place for a genre that relies on dialogue”). In her Wall Street Journal notice, Heidi Waleson agreed (“Operetta, with its long stretches of spoken dialogue, remains an uneasy fit for this big theater and its artists, who are more comfortable projecting emotion and character through song”).

The performance we attended on January 9 bore out the judgment that the Met is inhospitable to the many yards of dialogue and to the musical canvas of The Merry Widow. The cast, for the most part, struggled in vain to put the show over. The very talented Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut role, was easily a match for veteran opera hands Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn, both of whom were challenged by the modest vocal demands of the music, and for her duet partner, tenor Alek Shrader, whose voice invariably faded as he climbed into the upper register. It may well be that, thanks to the microphone and the close-up lens, the “Live in HD” audience will have the aural and visual advantage over the in-house public. As for the choreography and decor, they came to life only in a witty can-can, and in the scene change from Hanna’s garden to the interior of Maxim’s. This last deserved and received the biggest hand of the evening.

The new Merry Widow was intended as a flattering "twilight-of-career" vehicle for Fleming who has announced that she is tapering off her operatic engagements. The Met’s first Merry Widow (2000) was mounted as a farewell for beloved mezzo Frederica von Stade. But before von Stade there had been another pretender to the role of the wealthy widow from the mythical country of Pontevedro. Joan Sutherland was the first to press the Met for the part of Hanna. To her displeasure, she was denied. She got her revenge by withdrawing from the Met from 1978 to 1982. Here is “la Stupenda” as she makes her entrance in a 1979 Sydney performance.

Hanna’s haunting “Viljalied” suited the silky legato and gleaming top notes of Viennese Hilde Güden. Her many operetta recordings document that she was to the manner born.

In a 2004 Zurich production, Piotr Beczala and Ute Gfere sing the Act II Camille-Valencienne duet. Beczala shows off the timbre and style that have brought him to Met stardom.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Erich Kunz offer an irresistible case for the sentiment and erotic power of “The Merry Widow Waltz.” This excerpt is drawn from the nearly complete recording that helped launch Angel records in 1953.