[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he current Metropolitan Opera production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann from composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), is performed with the expertise of an outstanding cast and the MET orchestra, led by conductor Johannes Debus. This production is richly empowered by the vibrant, excellent vocal and dramatic artistry of principal singers, Vittorio Grigolo, Erin Morley, Anita Hartig, Oksana Volkova, Laurent Naouri, Tara Erraught and Christophe Mortagne. With set designs by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting design by James F. Ingalls and choreography by Dou Dou Huang, this Bartlett Sher production with revival stage direction from Gina Lapinski successfully displays the sometimes opulent, sometimes basic lifestyles common to European cultures during the first half of the 19th century. This last opera from Offenbach combines a vibrant and varied score and libretto with engaging stage sets and three diverse storylines to present a production that is at once embodied with exotic elegance, blatant grotesqueness, depths of heartache and light-hearted humor. Genuine beauty is offset, then balanced with ill-intended sentiments, jealousies and calculated rivalries.
[box_light]Tales of Amorous Intrigue[/box_light]
This opera by composer Jacques Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier links very different storylines together through the presence in each tale of the poet Hoffmann, along with his trusted companion, Nicklausse. As this unusual sequence of tales begins with Act I (as a prologue) set in Luther’s Tavern in an anonymous city, Hoffmann’s poetic muse is embodied by his friend, the student Nicklausse. An ardent storyteller, Hoffmann drinks to excess. Counselor Lindorf, who competes with Hoffmann in amorous pursuits, accuses his rival of having no understanding of the heart in love. As a result, Hoffmann begins to recount the stories of three females—the greatest subjects of his love.
As the tales are told, we discover that each celebrated female character meets destruction from the devious designs of a scoundrel who strongly resembles Lindorf. In his first story, Hoffmann reveals his amorous fascination for Olympia, a mechanical doll, who eventually meets her demise at the hands of Coppélius, an inventor. The storyline of the next tale revolves around the courtesan, Giulietta, who accepts jewels from Dapertutto, a magician, in lieu of Hoffmann’s infatuation for her. In the third dramatic saga, the sweet-natured Antonia sings to her last breath, encouraged by demonic Doctor Miracle. As he concludes his storytelling, the inebriated Hoffmann discovers that Lindorf has absconded with the diva Stella, the current subject of Hoffman’s love. At this point, the Muse intervenes, imploring Hoffman to convert his immediate heartbreak into compelling and convincing dramatic art.
Vittorio Grigolo. – As Hoffmann, tenor Vittorio Grigolo skillfully combines authentic dramatic depth and ardor with vocal agility and tonalities ranging from crisp-edged brilliance to darker, dagger-plunge-jagged depths of disparity. These volumetric low points add expansive dimensions to the brighter ring of the distant, crystalline clarity in his high notes. He is completely, incorrigibly true-to-life and convincing in his portrayal of the romantic triumphs and downfalls of the poet, both vocally and dramatically.
Erin Morley. – In her role as Olympia, soprano Erin Morley entreats with a charismatic, endearing portrayal of the mechanical doll’s machinations and mishaps at the hands of her would-be controllers. Her performance is at once comedic and touching, and her high note vaults have a charming, belle-tone precision that haunts and enhances her regimented yet jerky, unpredictable movements.
Anita Hartig. – Playing the parts of Antonia, an ill and weakening young singer, and the acclaimed prima donna, Stella, the soprano Anita Hartig offers artistically strong and vocally colorful portrayals of both youthful, novel talent and experienced, accomplished diva.
Oksana Volkova. – As Giulietta, a courtesan, mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova is decidedly self-willed in the realities of her flirtations and seductive schemes. In singing a barcarolle with Nicklausse, she displays full, rounded hues and tonalities that linger and haunt with plaintive, contained emotion that is unlimited in poignancy and beauty.
Laurent Naouri. – In his multiple roles of Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri exhibits artistic and vocal versatility, portraying character traits ranging from dark deviance to romantic rivalry.
Tara Erraught. – Playing the role of Nicklausse, the Muse of Poetry, in this production, mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught lends a steadying quality of creative yet practical sensibility, guiding Hoffmann with calming, smooth and often subtle vocal and dramatic nuances on his intriguing and frequently rough-edged journey through this mesmerizing series of tales.
Christophe Mortagne. – Tenor Christophe Mortagne offers strong, convincing vocal and dramatic performances in the roles of the four servants, Andès, Cochenille, Frantz and the dwarf, Pitichinaccio.
The Jacques Offenbach score for Les Contes d’Hoffmann still prevails as one of the most enthralling operatic masterpieces written. As a perpetual teaser of the fine art world, Offenbach expands the character of the poet and composer, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), depicting him as both a poet and singer who is infatuated with the celebrated opera singer, Stella. As a German composer and author, the “real life” E.T.A. Hoffman created tales that served as inspiration for numerous later works, including Tchaikovsky’s well-known ballet, The Nutcracker. The librettist of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Jules Barbier (1825-1901), collaborated with Michel Carré on the drama, Les contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann, on which the opera was based. Barbier is also renowned as the librettist of the Gounod operas, Roméo et Juliette and Faust. This opera also challenges the very basics of stagecraft in both practical and funloving modes by pushing the opera to the heights (or depths) of what brilliant stage mechanics and artistic excellence can achieve in cohesive yet sometimes precarious alignment.
[box_light]Lighter Moments Blend with Sparks of Pure Artistic Genius[/box_light]
Along with the lighter, teasing aspects of this production, Offenbach also attained more serious accomplishments. Although the combined tales of this expansive opera involve a somewhat overwhelming number of characters, the composer simplifies the unfolding of three separate stories. He achieves this by designating one singer to assume the roles of the players that directly challenge Hoffmann—Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto (bass-baritone, Laurent Naouri). In this current MET production, the parts of the servants, Andres, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio are all portrayed by a single singer (tenor Christophe Mortagne). While Mark Schowalter assumes both roles of a student, Nathanael, and the physicist, Spalanzani, Robert Pomakov plays the parts of the tavern proprietor, Luther, and Antonia’s father, Crespel. David Crawford also sings as the characters Hermann, a student, and Schlemil. Olesya Petrova assumes to role of Antonia’s mother.
This intriguing, captivating and dynamic performance of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is a colorful, vibrant production for the MET Opera’s 2017-18 Season. Not to be missed, this production and its exemplary principal singers and cast will mesmerize, charm and delight one and all.