Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo

Composer: Jacques Offenbach

Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: James Levine

Production: Bartlett Sher

Set Design: Michael Yeargan

Costume Design: Catherine Zuber

Choreography: Dou-Dou Huang

Starring: José Calleja (Hoffman); Kate Lindsay (Nicklausse); Alan Held (the Four Demons); Anna Netrebko (Antonia); Ekaterina Grubenova (Giulietta); Alan Oke (Four Assistants)

Rating: Death Star — blows 'em up!

E.T.A. Hoffmann was a Mozart fan — to the point that he appended his name to include "Amadeus" in it (the A.). Jacques Offenbach, a writer of light operas which were considered popular and parody-esque productions of "serious" operas, was also an admirer of Mozart. Mozart managed to create works that were accepted as the standard of serious entertainment, and it's been surmised that Offenbach wrote "The Tales of Hoffman" — his final work — as a way to show that he could write a serious and successful opera, too, and put himself on the pantheon with Mozart. He took stories written by Hoffmann and created a single tale, starring the writer himself.

Offenbach did succeed — Les Contes d'Hoffmann is considered his masterpiece, and indeed, a masterpiece among the whole gamut of opera. But he died four months before it opened, the score incomplete and stage directions not yet thought through. Thus, there are versions of Hoffmann that swap the sequence of the story telling, the muse is revealed at the end or at the beginning, etc. It's one of the big conundrums of opera — no definitive version exists, yet the music and ideas are so sumptuous and lovely that they transcend the ugly cuts and edits, and in a way, it is born anew with every production.

Bartlett Sher created this production as a Fellini/Kafka-inspired amalgam — rather than concentrating on Hoffmann in creating his production, he focused on Offenbach. The composer was a German Jew who married a French woman and converted to Catholicism, thus, Mr. Sher reasons, always felt like an outsider, even when he was on the inside. It's surmised that Mr. Sher's background is part of this biographical look — his father had more than one wife (simultaneously) and had lived as a Catholic, but was found to be a Jew. Perhaps Mr. Sher sees himself in Offenbach's — and by extension, Hoffman's — story.

The result is the tale of a man who falls in love hard and often, but when he does, his art suffers. His muse works in his head to destroy his relationships in the most devastating manner, in order to make his genius shine — the lyric is translated as, "Love makes a man great, but tears will make him greater still." Personified as the student and Hoffman's companion Niclausse, the androgynous muse prods him and wreaks as much havoc to Hoffman's loves as the man who plays the four demons — or perhaps he is Lucifer himself, shown in four different roles.

The story of Hoffmann — a man who cannot create when he is happy — is a familiar one to those of us who are artists. One of us gave up a promising career in the arts because creation flowed more freely and was superior in quality when life was otherise not going well. It's a dangerous place to be, yet is deemed as worthy by those who follow geniuses — whether they be Mozart, Offenbach, or Hoffmann — or perhaps even Mr. Sher. Go ahead and listen to the snobs if you wish, and even be one, too. But do keep your mind and heart open, and know that theatre is a business. The more we pay attention to those who whine about "authenticity" the more we marginalize the isolate the audience.

For instance, even Offenbach created the opera for far fewer singers than are often used. One woman would sing the four roles of Hoffman's loves: a mechanical wind-up doll, a singer of delicate health, a famous courtesan, and a modern opera singer. As mentioned, the four demons are sung by one man. There are minor and secondary roles which are also sung by single singers from scene to scene. The idea, says Sher, is that all of these tales are in Hoffman's fevered mind — only very loosely based on any form of reality, and he intended to show that clearly to the viewers.

Offenbach changed the female roles to four separate women early on to accommodate the practicalities of his times and situation. The Opera Comique had particular singers they needed to feature, so rather than writing all four roles for a spinto soprano, he divided up the roles for the voices of the women available. This is not an uncommon practice — it is said that Mozart created the Queen of the Night in Zauberflot for his sister-in-law, who had a stellar coloratura, but "no stage presence." The result was vocal fireworks with no need for acting, a generous and practical solution for the situation.

Superstar soprano Anna Netrebko was to take on all four female roles, but demurred early in the production. She plays Stella, the opera singer who has a hold of Hoffman's heart, and Antonia, the opera singer fated to collapse if she sang. The part of the mechanical doll — a high flying coloratura role — was sung by Kathleen Kim, a petit girl dressed adorably. She got the largest ovation of the evening with her depiction of Olympia. The Viennese courtesan was sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, a mezzo-soprano. The wide ranges required for these parts would make the singing for a single performer very difficult, indeed.

Niklausse was to be sung by mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, who was assigned the lead in "Carmen" instead when that production's cast suffered a hasty change. Newcomer Kate Lindsey stepped into the role — a big break, and one she dispatched beautifully. Quite frankly, it's hard to believe Ms. Garanca would have been able to convey androgyny as well as Ms. Lindsey did here.

The role of Hoffmann was originally assigned to superstar tenor Roland Villazon, who is suffering illness and throat issues. Newcomer Jose Calleja of Malta stepped into the role — one he'd never sang before. Adn the role of the four demons was to be sung by bass Rene Pape, who also withdrew. Alan Held, who'd sung this role many times before, including with Placido Domingo as Hoffman, played the ominous demon.

It's a wonder that the show goes on! But it did, and it was a wondrous experience.

Sher used trompe l'oeille — the basic theatre technique for backdrops, etc. — to create Nuremberg, Paris, Vienna, and Munich and a tavern next door to an opera house. Some intellectuals call Sher's production "misguided" and "lazy" etc. but really, have you ever hear the saying, "Why ruin a good story with the truth"? This is an entertaining production and made some of us consider French opera as the stuff of greatness equal to Italian opera. The Met's director, Peter Gelb, has been charged with expanding its audience, and with Hoffman, he's done that.

Besides, all the pundits are simply providing good fodder for press gossip, which will undoubtedly bring more audiences to the opera. When critics cry out about entertainment-over-scholarship, who do you think will listen — and would the opera house make any money? And when they decry the pasties and naked women in the Olympia and Giulietta stories, do you think that will keep the masses away?

In the HD recording, the pasties were replaced with brassiers and bodystocking — this, to us, is a hilarious concession. Underwear over stickers — how quaint! But this helps to comply with the Motion PIcture Association requirements.

We enjoyed the show so much that we bought standing-room tickets for the next performance. Calleja was sick, much to the disappointment of many who came just to listent to this new tenor. He was replaced by the understudy David Pomeroy, who did a great job of this intense, abundant, exhausting role. We also met a man who traveled from Peru just to hear Netrebko in person. There were many, many French tourists who'd come to "this leading opera 'ouse" they told us, to watch a new, fresh take on their favorite opera. We love that there is an element of rock-and-roll type of international groupidom at the opera house! Perhaps we should understand how very fortunate we are to be in New York, and not Milan?

Mr. Sher won a Tony award for his production of "South Pacific" before taking on productions at the Met. He was lauded for his Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 2007, and his production is admittedly more "Broadway" than "fuddy duddy" — something that we personally welcome. And the controversy swirling around his efforts incited us to come and look, and then be drawn into this opera which we previously knew nothing about. It's now one of our favorites, and next time, we hope to be singing along with the French tourists.

Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org

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