Met in HD: ‘Hoffmann’ sparkles—its four villains not so much

Reprise of Met’s 2009 production gives this sometimes confusing opera more depth. Plus, it brings back brilliant mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey.

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse.
Mezzo Kate Lindsey as an uncommonly glamorous Nicklausse in "Tales of Hoffmann." (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

WASHINGTON, February 1, 2015 – Between today’s as-usual overhyped Super Bowl game and Saturday’s “Met in HD” simulcast of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” (“Les contes d’Hoffmann”) we’re happy to predict that yesterday’s opera fans got by far the better weekend deal.

Vittorio Grigolo.
Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo) sings about “Kleinzach” in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.”
(Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

With a generally superb cast of singers, this reprise of the company’s 2009 production of “Hoffmann” (which, happily, we chanced to view via PBS) is a bit more streamlined than the earlier performance and also manages to fill in a few more tiny details to make a bit more sense of its genuinely hallucinatory plot.

Those who attended Saturday’s simulcast saw and heard popular tenor Vittorio Grigolo in the role of Hoffmann; sopranos Hibla Gerzmava, Erin Morley and Christine Rice in the roles of three of the poet’s four loves; and renowned bass-baritone Thomas Hampson in the difficult multiple role of Offenbach’s “four villains,” namely Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Captain Dappertutto.

Last but certainly not least, the beautiful and brilliant mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey—familiar to DC opera fans just a few years back as one of Wolf Trap Opera’s rising young stars—returns to the Met to sing for the second time with the company the intriguing trouser-role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s loyal friend: a man who might turn out to be more important than the poet imagines.

Period portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann. (Via Wikipedia)
Period portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann. (Via Wikipedia)

The real-life E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a famous early 19th century cartoonist, storyteller and musician whose fiction was known for what we might regard today as his almost Kafka-esque flights of fancy. His tall tales served as the inspiration behind many Romantic-era musical works, including not only Offenbach’s opera but also Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” suite and ballet, Schumann’s “Kreisleriana.”

Hoffmann’s influence has extended in to our own times, contributing certain elements to director Ingemar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982); and to an episode of the satirical Russian TV cartoon show “Kukly,” which had the audacity to portray current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin as the gnomish “Klein Zaches,” a Hoffmann grotesque who’s also the subject of a famous tune appearing in the Prologue of Offenbach’s opera. (“Kukly” was canceled shortly thereafter in 2002.)

The witty Hoffmann was nearly as renowned for his epic bouts with the bottle as he was for his writing and storytelling. Offenbach’s opera takes advantage of biographical fact, seizing on one of Hoffmann’s drinking escapades as a jumping off point for three fantastic tales, each of which explores a different aspect of the writer and poet’s ideal love—each of whom, in the context of the opera, is but a distraction from the writer’s real ideal: his artistic muse.

The very strangeness of Offenbach’s opera is its virtually hallucinatory conflation of the real-life Hoffmann with his existence as a character in the three imaginary mini-dramas that form the central core of the work. There’s really nothing else quite like it in the operatic repertoire.

“Hoffmann” is one strange opera. A mechanical doll as a love interest? Her inventors struggle to correct a malfunction. (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

In each of these three episodes, the hapless Hoffmann is foiled by various bad guys, popularly known as the “Four Villains,” all of whom are emanations of the Devil himself—or perhaps of demon alcohol, Hoffmann’s real nemesis.

Unfortunately, Offenbach died suddenly as he was completing revisions to his lengthy score and never got to savor its ultimate triumph after its uncertain 1881 premiere at the Opéra-Comique—a premiere that was mounted without its final (“Venice”) full act.

Given the opera’s unfinished state at the time of the composer’s death, it has existed in many different states over time. Acts have been switched around, music has been added and subtracted depending on various interpretations of the “composer’s intentions,” the intended spoken dialogue in the original is sometimes sung in recitatives which lengthens the opera, sometimes unduly.

As a result of all this, one is never quite sure what version will show up whenever the opera is performed, virtually guaranteeing one critic or another will snipe at nearly any version that’s mounted today.

The one Met in HD audiences saw Saturday was a slight update of the company’s 2009 production by Bartlett Sher version, whose text and structure, in turn, was based on the 1976 Oeser edition of the opera.

While seeming slightly prosaic at times, this production puts a bit more logic behind the opera’s free-floating and sometimes confusing structure and provides a clear key—at least within the current context—as to the real significance of Nicklausse—something entirely neglected in some versions.

This production’s sets, designed by Michael Yeargan, highlight the opera’s fantastical elements, particularly the bizarre, attic-like hodge-podge of its weird first act, which directly follows the bar room prologue.

Hoffmann and Giulietta.
Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo) is falling for bad girl Giuletta (Christine Rice) in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

“Hoffmann’s” music is lushly romantic, highlighted by an immense role for the character of Hoffmann and challenging arias for the one or more soprano soloists who portray his four loves as well. Another key musical moment is Offenbach’s gorgeous and well-known “Barcarolle,” an Act III highlight sung by Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse, the courtesan Giulietta and the chorus.

This production’s cast and chorus were generally at the top of their game during Saturday’s simulcast, giving the audience as fine and complete a production of “Hoffmann” as they’re ever likely to see.

In his first appearance in this opera’s title role, tenor Vittorio Grigolo portrayed Hoffmann with more youthful vigor and less angst than we’ve seen in other productions, giving a lift to this one. His bright, sunny, lyric yet powerful voice put an appropriately Romantic stamp on the troubled writer.

As his constant nemesis, aka “The Four Villains,” Thomas Hampson projected his nefarious characters well from a thespian standpoint, but projected them less effectively when it came to his vocal performance. We’ve long admired Mr. Hampson. But here, his voice sounded a bit tired, particularly in the lower range where it seemed almost raspy.

Vittorio Grigolo and Erin Morley.
Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo) is seeing Olympia the Robot Girl (Erin Morley) through rose-colored glasses. (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

As the wind-up robotic doll Olympia, Hoffmann’s ideal woman No. 1, young coloratura soprano Erin Morley approached the role with a great sense of humor and comic timing along with devastatingly accurate top notes as she sang “Hoffmann’s” most memorable party piece, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (“The birds in the arbor.”)

Soprano Hibla Gerzmava lent her rich and passionate voice to the character of Antonia, Hoffmann’s tragic second love, whose deeply-emotional singing leads to her fatal collapse and death, aided, of course, by the evil machinations of Dr. Miracle, Hoffman’s third villain. (She also does a brief but effective turn in the minor role of Hoffmann’s über-love.)

Somewhat less impressive, at least during this performance, was soprano Christine Rice as Giulietta, the scheming, amoral courtesan who becomes Hoffmann’s third and nearly fatal love.

Giulietta (excepting Stella) is the smallest of the three major soprano roles, so Ms. Rice doesn’t get as much of a chance as the other two. Nonetheless, she seemed oddly uninvolved in her character during Saturday’s performance, and sang somewhat unconvincingly, though correctly, as a result.

But for this critic, at least, the real star of this production, aside from Mr. Grigolo, was mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who sang the trouser role of Hoffmann’s sidekick, Nicklausse—who (spoiler alert) is actually the alter-ego of Hoffmann’s muse, the real love interest he should be pursuing in the name of art.

Antonia, Nicklausse, Hoffmann and Dr. Miracle.
Hibla Germova (Antonia), Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann), Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) and Thomas Hampson (Dr. Miracle) in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Ms. Lindsey is a terrific actress, smirking, cajoling and just plain chumming around as her sorely tried Nicklausse tries to steer Hoffmann through or around the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as she’s directed to do, even in those parts of the opera where she’s not singing.

The effect she makes with her captivating appearance is further heightened, in an erotic sense, by the snappy, male formal attire she wears throughout the opera’s central acts. It makes her certainly the best-looking Nicklausse we’ve ever seen, an perception that adds greater drama to her final transformation in the opera’s epilogue.

But best of all is Ms. Lindsey’s vocal approach to this role. Her voice—which still seemed quite youthful in the Met’s 2009 production of “Hoffmann” in which she also appeared—is richer, creamier, more mature and clearly imbued with more depth, insight and wisdom even though she’s still only in her early 30s. It is very possible that she’s on the verge of becoming one of this century’s finest mezzos, a perception amply reinforced by her performance here.

You can see what we’re talking about in the following YouTube video taken from Ms. Lindsey’s first appearance in this production in 2009. We join her Nicklausse and Joseph Calleja’s Hoffmann in the opera’s first full act as they impatiently await the appearance of Olympia in the jumbled, chaotic lab where she was created.

Supporting characters in this large production were perfectly cast and in fine vocal form as was the Met chorus, particularly during Offenbach’s rousing drinking songs.

Conductor Yves Abel conducted the orchestra in a tasteful but restrained performance that allowed the production’s fine soloists to shine without being overshadowed.

Other notes: On the downside, The Met’s popular interview/behind the scenes intermission feature, this one emceed by soprano Deborah Voigt, was somewhat less scintillating and informative as others have been this season. It seemed to have been hastily put together, and perhaps it was.

Also: The Met’s airing of brief, original films or animations inspired by current operas during its intermission features is an interesting idea. But Saturday’s cheaply assembled, Monty Python-knockoff “Hoffmann”-influenced animation was derivative, tedious, and beneath the intelligence of a five-year old. It’s money better spent elsewhere.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Fortunately, for opera fans who may have missed this one, the “Met in HD” series, as usual, provides an “encore” presentation of “Hoffmann” this Wednesday evening. Check out the particulars below.

Met in HD’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann” Encore Performance date: Wednesday, February 4, 2015.  (This is a recorded version of Saturday’s live performance.)

Time: 6:30 p.m. in all U.S. time zones.

Run Time: 3 hours 50 minutes (approximate)

Ticketing: Just click here “Buy Tickets” button. Alternatively, For advance tickets, information and theater locations visit the Met’s website. If online ticketing isn’t available for your location, you can purchase your tickets by visiting the box office at your local participating cinema. To the best of our knowledge, ticket prices in most venues are $25, an astounding bargain for anyone who’s familiar with purchasing seats to a live performance.

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  • Nice review and synopsis, much easier reading than the official synopsis – though by the time I saw the words “spoiler alert”, it was too late – my eyes had already seen it! Maybe it could be put in a separate paragraph, or left out, as it’s playing again tonight…

    • Terry

      Hello Brian,
      Thanks for your comments. I hesitated on the “spoiler alert,” but this reprise of the 2009 performance gave away the scenario in the Prologue, and I didn’t recall having seen that in that performance, so I didn’t think I was giving much away. That said, I’ve seen performances where this connection–i.e., Niklausse + Muse–isn’t even hinted at. Although Offenbach’s music is exceptional, the problem with the opera continues to be that there’s no settled version, so whatever any of us see at a given time is basically potluck, depending on what the director wants to emphasize.

      That said, your comments are well taken and I appreciate the visit. And I also hope you were able to catch the “encore” performance. Twin bill of Tchaikowsky-Bartók is up next–apparently an interesting twist in which both one-actors are “united” in a fashion. Saw a flavor of this approach last summer in Santa Fe, when the opera company twinned Mozart’s “Impressario” with, of all things, Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale.” Surprisingly successful and an interesting gameplay. Such innovations may get the mothballs out of other one-acters that deserve more attention than they get.

      • No, I didn’t see the encore show – I decided I would like to get a recording on DVD so I could just watch one act a night. I was kind of on the fence about it though – the idea of seeing things backstage during intermissions sounded interesting. I might see the Tchaikowsky-Bartók you mentioned though – the trailer looks good, and the site says the director was inspired by film noir of the 40’s.

        Thanks for all the information – there are probably a lot of good one-acters out there!