|Les Contes d'Hoffmann - act one|
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 31 2015
Fine singing and spectacular if unfocussed staging, seen in the cinema
We went along to the Curzon Chelsea Cinema on Saturday 31 January 2015 to see the Metropolitan Opera's High-Definition Broadcast of their production of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Bartlett Sher's production was new in 2009, and this time round featured Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann, Kate Lindsey as The Muse/Nicklausse, Thomas Hampson as the four villains, Erin Morley as Olympia, Hibla Gerzmava as Antonia and Stella, Christine Rice as Giulietta, Tony Stevenson as the four servants, plus David Pittsinger, David Crawford, Dennis Petersen and Olesya Petrova. Yves Abel conducted, set designs were by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by James F Ingalls, and choreography by Dou Dou Huang. The stage director was Gina Lapinski and the broadcast was Barbara Willis Sweete.
Sher's production was large scale, spectacular and deliberately used an element of theatricality in the stage action itself. The stage was divided into two areas, fore stage and rear stage with the latter being hidden and with flats opening to reveal the each tableau. The prologue and epilogue featured all of the cast looking on at Hoffmann, whose writing desk and typewriter (on the fore stage) were present throughout. In addition to the chorus there was a dance troupe, whose presence was a little too ubiquitous except for the Antonia act. There were a number of pensees, whose origin was unclear, notably the presence of multiple Olympias and, at one point, multiple Olympias wooed by multiple Hoffmanns.
Kate Lindsey's spectacularly fine Nicklausse/Muse was clearly the eminence grise of events and she seemed to be controlling Thomas Hampson's villains. The two exchanged all sorts of glances, probably not very noticeable to the theatrical audience.
Like many directors before him, Sher struggled to make the students in the prologue sufficiently interesting. Act one was a teeming Berlin-style cabaret around the 1920's; full of extravagantly dressed individuals. It was spectacular but seemed to little coherent dramatic effect. Act two was simpler and more dramatically effective with stylish designs from Yeargan. Act three's Venice seemed very much a visual homage to the John Schlesinger production at Covent Garden.
I am not sure whether Bartlett Sher had a clear dramatic arc for the opera (the way Richard Jones had in his production at ENO) and in many ways the evening felt like three one-act operas. But it was superbly sung. It is pointless nowadays moaning about French style and diction, but the singers were some of the best.
Hoffmann is a big sing for a lyric tenor. Vittorio Grigolo did not sound under strain and sang with vibrant beauty and flexibility throughout. Hearing him in the theatre (in Massenet's Manon at Covent Garden) he has a stylish rather than huge voice and he is very much in the Alfredo Kraus mode. I thought that what we heard in the cinema, the recording, did rather put a false perspective on the sound with Grigolo being somewhat spotlit. But it was certainly worth hearing, and seeing him. He was ardent, vibrant and lyrical with a willingness to sing quietly and stylishly, and winningly impetuous.
Erin Morley was an admirable Olympia, clean and stylish in the coloratura and suitably doll-like. Hibla Gerzmava (originally scheduled to sing all the heroines) was a passionate Antonia, singing with a spinto edge to her voice which brought quite a thrilling tone to the music but combined with a nice feeling for the phrasing. Christine Rice as Giulietta rather suffered from the edition used, but she was stylish and sexy as required even if wearing a full 18th century gown with wig.
Thomas Hampson was brilliant as the four villains. He can clearly encompass the notes of the four, rather differently written parts, and gave us some beautifully shaped music. Perhaps he was not the darkest villain I have heard, but that chimed in with the production.
Kate Lindsey, however, provided some of the finest singing in the evening as she gave a consistently fine and engrossing account of Nicklausse/The Muse. She was highly watchable as well as sounding gorgeous, but you constantly felt an intelligence in the way she shaped the music and sang with a limpid fine-grained tone.
Here perhaps, I should explain what the edition was - who got what so to speak. We heard a very full version of the traditional version, with sung recitative though in fact the main influence on the edition used seems to have been the discredited Oeser Edition of 1976. The role of Nicklausse was very full, so Kate Lindsey got lots to do and in Act one we got the trio instead of the non-canonic J'ai des yeux. It was Act three that suffered most, as it was performed as if none of the last 25 years of Offenbach scholarship had happened, so we got no extra music for Giulietta and we did get the non-canonic Scintille Diamant and the sextet. As Hampson sang Scintille Diamant so superbly, I can forgive its inclusion, but I would be happy if I never heard the sextet again. Of course, this all meant that the ending to Act three was a damp squib.
Tony Stevenson was clearly having a field day as the four servants, whilst David Pittsinger was Luther and Crespel, David Crawford was Hermann and Schlemil, Dennis Petersen was Nathanael and Spalanzani and Olesya Petrova was Antonia's mother.
There was one element of the staging which did rather bother me, the women of the dance troupe were dressed for Act three in scanty underwear, high-heels and 18th century wigs and it was in these outfits that they lounged about in the prologue and epilogue. But there were no men in similar outfits, all the naked flesh on display was female (and frankly compared to the John Schlesinger production at Covent Garden the Venice Act was pretty tame).
The director of the film, Barbara Willis Sweete seemed to have a penchant for close ups, with occasional wide-angle setting shots. These latter often did not work very well as some of the sets (for the prologue for instance) were quite dark. The cameras seemed to spend very little time at all in the middle distance, so that we were sometimes unclear of what the context for the action was. The film worked because the leading singers, Grigolo, Lindsey and Hampson were so satisfying to view close up. But it is worth bearing in mind that the live at operatic experience at the Metropolitan Opera can be quite a frustrating experience as the house is so large that even a good seat can place you at quite a distance from the stage so that the film was a good way of getting a closer, more intimate experience.
The cinema audience in Chelsea seemed to be very much in the older bracket, and many seemed to be regulars. There was also a noticeable minority for whom the modern cinema was simpler, in terms of access and local convenience, than the labyrinthine opera house.
The interval features involved soprano Deborah Voigt introducing the plot and doing short interviews with the artists. All this was shot back stage, and in the intermission proper the cameras kept running so we had a fascinating glimpse of the striking and setting of the various stage sets. What was interesting here was quite how labour intensive this was.
I don't think that for me, filmed opera will ever replace opera in the theatre. But a visit to the cinema is certainly cheaper than flying to New York to catch the Metropolitan Opera live!
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- Aspects of Enlightenment in Berlin: Mahan Esfahani & Norman Lebrecht - concert review
- Superb, but where's the meat? Jonas Kaufmann as Andrea Chenier - opera review
- Soviet Russia, new music, Bolivia and more: An encounter with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich - interview
- Transcending usefulness: Margaret Rizza's Officium Divinum - CD review
- Vibrant: Jordi Savall in Bach & Vivaldi - CD review
- Soviet artists under strain: Leonard Elschenbroich in Prokofiev and Kabalevsky - CD review
- A week in 1840: Kitty Whately in Schumann - concert review
- Secrets and obsessions: The Songsmiths - concert review