Hark: Herald Angels and Hoffmann
Phew! It's over for another ten months!
Imagine an intergalactic visitor arriving on earth to study human beliefs and practices and entering a store, restaurant, train station, or airport in any U.S. city in December. The poor ET would undoubtedly conflate Jesus Christ with Bing Crosby and would assume that the voice of the latter was that of the former.
Is it possible that only cranks, curmudgeons, and non-believers like myself are nauseated by the two-month-long bombardment of Christmas music, good, bad, and indifferent? Doesn't the onslaught bother normal people, too? Aren't true-believing Christians offended by the cheapening of their holiday? O come, indeed, all ye faithful, and do something to stop the annual flow of musical treacle!
But onward..... Just as I'd gone to the Met's season-opening Tosca thinking I'd dislike it - after having read even our most open-minded critics' largely negative reports - but ended up convinced that most of it was pretty good, and in any case an improvement over the old Zeffirelli extravaganza, so I went to Hoffmann prepared for the worst, although for entirely different reasons. In Salzburg in 1981 and '82 I had attended performances of this work in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's thoughtful and beautiful staging, brilliantly conducted by James Levine, and with Plácido Domingo in the title role, Catherine Malfitano in all three of the soprano roles, José van Dam in the bad-guy parts, and Ann Murray as Nicklausse and the Muse. I can't imagine that anyone who was there has forgotten the total participation of all of the principal singing actors - Domingo's tabletop rendition of "Kleinzach", Malfitano's impassioned Antonia, van Dam's cynical Dr. Miracle - or the delightful simplicity of Ponnelle's "gondolas," which were large pieces of cloth pulled by "gondoliers" over a highly-polished, mirror-like floor.
But Bartlett Sher's Met Hoffmann, designed by Michael Yeargan, more than holds its own against the Ponnelle and other productions that I've seen. Although there is a lot going on in all but the Antonia act, everything seems to be there for a good reason, and, like any piece of art worthy of the name, this production contains underlying layers, not to mention overlaid details, that can't be absorbed at a first encounter. I went back to see the last performance of the season, on January 2nd, and enjoyed myself even more than the first time around. In his program notes, Sher cites both Kafka and Fellini as jumping-off points for his production concept, and the Fellini influence was particularly evident in the obsessive eroticism of Acts I and III. In my opinion, however, Kafka was so much of his (and our) time that his brand of fantasy can't be shoehorned into pre-20th-century fantasies, be they Hoffmannesque or Offenbachian. In any case, whatever Sher's inspirations may have been, the results worked. These performances were a joy to the eye.
And, for the most part, to the ear. Levine's approach to this work is now so refined and so masterly that I can't imagine anyone doing it better. I'm no expert on the opera's complicated textual issues, but all the music that was done was done excellently by orchestra and chorus. The minuscule Kathleen Kim was outstanding, vocally and choreographically, as the mechanical doll Olympia. Anna Netrebko kept her here-I-am-everybody! stage style in check and sang Antonia more and more impressively as the second act went on - though better in the earlier performance than in the later one. Ekaterina Gubanova was a competent if somewhat under-acted Giulietta. Alan Held - the villain - who began very strongly, was beginning to sound a bit worn by the end - but who wouldn't? And Alan Oke (Cochenille & Co.) proved to be a real theater animal in his Act II buffo aria. Kate Lindsey was an excellent Nicklausse and Muse, although her voice sounded small next to that of her Hoffmann, Joseph Calleja. With a less attentive conductor than Levine in the pit she could have been swamped.
And what are we to make of Calleja? In certain respects, his voice reminds me of that of a famous tenor of the past, Giovanni Martinelli, at least insofar as Martinelli's voice has been preserved in recordings. Both have a clarion, penetrating ring but also - to my ears - an unpleasant, bleating quality. All power to Calleja for having done so much careful work and for having brought off his debut in this difficult role better than creditably in one of the world's most important opera houses. Yet at some level his interpretation seemed to me not quite three-dimensional. Illness prevented him from singing in the January 2nd performance, at which he was replaced by Canadian tenor David Pomeroy, who did a first-rate job. Pomeroy's voice may not be as distinctive as Calleja's, but it doesn't have the other's unpleasant edges, either, and he sang with assurance and conviction.
Let's hope that this production will come back during many future Met seasons.
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