Monday, November 30, 2009

The Dreams of Hoffmann

Today was the day. I had the opportunity to see the final dress rehearsal of the MET's Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Having already seen comments by others who were there as well, I can tell that there are some very strong opinions about this production already.

But, before I get into my opinionated ramblings, it was fantastic to see Maestro James Levine back in the pit for the first time since his back surgery. Welcome back, Maestro!

If you had the idea that you would be seeing a traditional production whereby you meet each of Hoffmann's true loves in the real-life form with which he interacted, you were in for a disappointment. In this production, with direction by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, you got the distinct impression that in the telling of the stories, Hoffmann was confessing intoxication-induced dreams. These dreams proved to show the ideals of love that inhabit his mind.

The Prologue began with the poet Hoffmann asleep. His Muse transformed into his sidekick, Nicklausse and the tales began. Singing the role of Nicklausse was Kate Lindsey - a mezzo whose voice fit this trouser role nicely.

The first tale is of Olympia - a mechanical doll created by Spalanzani, an eccentric inventor. We began the Act in Spalanzani's shop circa early 1900s, where life-sized dolls and various doll parts were lying about while a Dr. Evil clone (Spalanzani) flit about. After an argument with Spalanzani over the division of profits from Olympia, the villain in this dream, Coppélius, destroys Olympia in a fit of rage. Hoffmann first love is gone.

The dreamy feeling was set as a theme for this production here in Spalanzani's shop as a giant revolving dragon-like thing descended from the rafters and continued to pivot round and round throughout the act. I was reminded of one of those things that you see in a dream and think, while dreaming, "what the hell is that doing here?"

Korean soprano Kathleen Kim, a spritely and tiny little Olympia, was truly a wonder to hear because hers is not the same carbon copy performance that we have heard time and time again. It is not another Sutherland, Sills or some amalgamation of the two. Kim aptly made this Olympia her own. Unfortunately, she lacked some of the stiff movements of a doll - in fact; she often seemed to come in and out of the characterization.

Following the first intermission, it was announced that tenor Joseph Calleja, whose voice reminds me of a sound from yesteryear that we might hear on an old grammophone recording, had been suffering from a cold and would not proceed as Hoffmann. He wanted to rest and get himself in shape for the opening. To be quite honest, with the exception of a couple of tight notes, I hadn't noticed illness. He was replaced by David Pomeroy who did a fine job as the Hoffmann for Acts 2, 3 and the Epilogue.

As we moved into the second Act, we were treated to another of Hoffmann's dream sequences. In this one, we saw a shockingly stark set with scrims of trees randomly moving in and out at a glacial pace. Antonia sings her love song filled with memories of her dead mother, a famous singer. We find out that Antonia has inherited her mother's weak heart and is forced by her father to stop singing. The villain in this dream, Dr. Miracle, has other plans. Dr. Miracle conjures the ghost of Antonia's mother in order to get Antonia to sing herself to death.

You gotta love operatic plots, right?

Anna Netrebko is an absolutely stellar Antonia. Her "silent movie" treatment of Antonia works very well in contrast to the stark and nebulous setting. As Dr. Miracle conjures the mother, we saw her walking ever so slowly at the top of the stage - she stopped - and we heard the lush, bourbon colored voice of Wendy White as she sang her first "Antonia...". It gets me every time. And this time, it didn't just get me, it slayed me. As we listened to Antonia's mother coaxing her daughter to sing, she calmly walked down stage and continued to remain ghostly while Norma Desmond... I mean... Anna Netrebko continues with Antonia's histrionics, eventually singing herself into expiring.

Another of Hoffmann's loves is gone.

The third Act transports us to Giulietta's Palace circa the 18th century. As the curtain rose today, the audience erupted into applause because this dream sequence is the most opulent of them all. Giulietta is a courtesan and in order to drive that home, we see quite a few women roaming about in nothing more than an almost-thong and a pair of pasties. Giulietta is woo'ed into helping this dream's villain, Dappertutto after he produces a large diamond with which he will bribe Giulietta to steal Hoffmann’s reflection for him. Giulietta has already stolen her current lover Schlémil’s, shadow.

As a side note: the first opera production with which I was ever associated was a production of The Tales of Hoffmann. I was in college and sang chorus with Spokane Opera. In our production, Schlémil was played by a certain Broadway star that is not only currently starring in Finian's Rainbow, but is also currently starring in NBC's 30 Rock. That's right Ladies and Gents, our Schlémil in Spokane was none other than Cheyenne Jackson. It's such a small world.

Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova sang Giulietta with a rich, chocolatey sound that could seduce anyone. Her voice is extremely even from bottom to top and lent itself amazingly well to Giulietta. I prefer a mezzo Giulietta as opposed to a soprano because a mezzo sound gives the same amorous feeling that we might hear in Carmen or Dalila.

This third Act gave the Met Opera Chorus a vehicle to shine brighter than ever. Their balanced, clean and sturdy sound worked extremely well during the entire show, but during this third act, they had the opportunity to do what they do best: open up and sing.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Hoffmann has completed the dreamy accounts of his loves, or ideals of love. At this point, we see the Prima Donna, Stella - Hoffmann's latest love - fresh from her stage triumph. Stella is just as unattainable as Hoffmann's other loves for she belongs to Hoffmann's nemesis Lindorf. The clincher is that each of the stories that we had just been treated to, actually described different attributes of one woman, Stella. She is the ultimate triune as she is part Olympia, part Antonia and part Giulietta.

Hoffmann can't have the loves in his dreams, nor can he have the love of Stella. Nicklausse transforms back into his Muse and Kate Lindsey's voice finally bloomed into a robust femininity that was rightly absent from her boy-ish Nicklausse. The Muse encourages the poet to find consolation in his creative genius just as Hoffmann's loves, sans Stella of course, reappear onstage as if to say, "we live on with you in your dreams and in your poetry."

If you want to see a production that is more about dramatic substance and less about smoke and mirrors, this is a must-see for you. It's visually stunning when there is less dramatic meat in the score and is discernibly sparse when the drama is sizzling away. These tales of Hoffmann are brought together into a single cohesive story - all the while gracefully amplifying the differences between the tales' heroines and thus, between Hoffmann's ideals of love.

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