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Another Classic Met Production Bites the Dust

New York
Metropolitan Opera
12/03/2009 -  & December 7, 11, 16, 19 (1pm), 23, 26, 30*, 2009, January 2, 2010
Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann

David Pomeroy (Hoffmann), Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse), Alan Held (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto), Kathleen Kim (Olympia), Anna Netrebko (Antonia), Ekaterina Gubanova (Giulietta), Alan Oke (Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio), Dean Peterson (Luther/Crespel), Michael Todd Simpson (Hermann/Schlémil), Rodell Rosel (Nathanaël), Mark Schowalter (Spalanzani), Wendy White (Antonia’s mother)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, John Keenan (conductor)
Bartlett Sher (production), Michael Yeargan (set designer), Catherine Zuber (costume designer), James F. Ingalls (lighting designer), Dou Dou Huang (choreographer)

Bartlett Sher’s planned replacement of the venerable old Otto Schenk production of this Offenbach classic was meant to be the jewel in the crown of the Met’s repertoire this season. Sher, primarily known for his work in dramatic theater, wowed New York with his 2006 production of The Barber of Seville, and his return was much anticipated. Operatic superstars Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, and René Pape were to take the main roles, with Netrebko appearing as all four female leads – each a fleeting love of the title character, the German Romantic poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, – and Pape as each of the four villains who thwart the romances. But the dream was not meant to be. Both Pape and Villazón withdrew from the production, the latter suffering from severe vocal trouble that has interrupted his performing life worldwide. Netrebko reduced her participation to just one of the main soprano roles, Antonia, arguably the least interesting, and to the cameo role of Stella, who does not sing. Villazón was replaced in the production by the solid Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, but last night Calleja cancelled, leaving Hoffmann to the unknown David Pomeroy, who made his surprise Met debut. Met music director James Levine, who has tentatively returned to the podium after a prolonged medical absence this season, also did not appear, leaving the orchestra to John Keenan.

It was a wonder that this troubled performance could take off, and it says much of the Met’s professionalism that it did. Pomeroy appeared understandably nervous in the opera’s prologue, which is the opening of a frame story in which Hoffmann, awaiting his latest amour, the singer Stella, is goaded by a tavern of students to tell the tales of his three great loves. But, while not exactly exciting, he carried through the evening with a pleasant performance. Pomeroy is more of a lyric tenor, however, and lacked the dramatic strength truly needed for a role more suited to tenors with the heft of the originally scheduled Villazón and Calleja, and, in an earlier era, Placidó Domingo, and no one failed to notice it. Netrebko was clearly the vocal star among the female singers, delivering her voluptuous tones with effusive charm and a fine stage presence. Hers might have been the only really beautiful singing on stage. “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” was far and away the evening’s best sung aria. Nevertheless, Kathleen Kim’s Olympia conquered the squeaky music of her mechanical doll’s character with a skilled coloratura that Ms. Netrebko’s recent forays into the Fach have left wanting. Ekaterina Gubanova made only a faint impression as Giulietta, the Venetian courtesan who was Hoffmann’s third and final love (at least in this arrangement of the acts). Alan Held replaced Pape as the four villains and delivered a strong performance that reflects the baritone’s firm growth over the years. Although not exactly an aesthetic wonder, the role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s muse, lent itself well to the talents of the promising young mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey. The talents of the Met’s comprimario roster and chorus boosted the general quality of the musical performance. John Keenan took no risks with the score, and one missed Maestro Levine’s dynamism.

Sher’s production has not been the universal hit observers expected. It is surely imaginative and, in all main features, veers away from the garishness into which it sometimes threatens to descend. Updated to a kind of 1920s nowhere, it is supposed to take inspiration from the drearier works of Franz Kafka (I thought a lot of The Trial) and the fanciful post-realism of Federico Fellini. The Kafka elements were there in the dark suited villains, all of whom looked about the same in each act, wearing severe black costumes of varying degrees of formality. The omnipresent writer’s desk with typewriter gestured toward the agony of a suffering writer, which the opera’s Hoffmann certainly is. A pantomime at the end of the premiere performance strangely suggested that Hoffmann was a lapsed Jew whose adventures returned him to his ancestral faith, but, probably for the better, this schmaltz has been done away with. Although many critics missed the Fellini elements, they were there, too. The first act, set at Spalanzani’s workshop, unfolds in the lesser tent of a circus, implying the theatrical quality of a world so absurd that one really could fall in love with a mechanical doll in it. His guests’ twirling umbrellas is of course a direct reference to the mental institution scene in 8 1/2. The Antonia act disappointed with sparse bleakness, which reduced Crespel’s home to a couple of chairs and some boring trees. Giulietta’s Venice was more opulent, with period costumes suggesting those of the Venetian costume balls popular in 1920s tourism. Scantily clad dancers, who, the Met announced in the program, would be sanitized from its worldwide HD telecasts, added titillation worthy of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, but avoided the film’s ostentatious vulgarity. They made the famous barcarolle a visual feast and the evening’s most memorable moment.

Paul du Quenoy



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