Offenbach Les Contes D’Hoffman
James Levine, conductor
Fri. Feb. 4, 2000. New York. Les Contes d’Hoffman is Offenbach’s attempt at grand opera, but like many grand operas, it is an uneven work. Only a great cast or a remarkable staging can rescue Hoffman from its status as an amusing but derivative divertissement – a second-rate Faust with a few ravishing tunes. The current Metropolitan Opera production at least boasts a stellar cast.
The Met’s 1982 Otto Schenk production (with sets by Gunther Schneider Siemssen, costumes by Gaby Frey, and lighting by Gil Wechsler) remains problematic despite recent costly refurbishment. The sets still look tatty and the “supernatural” effects are as amateurish as ever. The opera’s uneasy blend of comedy and supernatural horror is weakly conveyed by a few sight gags that have not aged well over the last two decades.
The Act I workshop itself is cluttered with crazy automata and absurd inventions straight out of a Jules Verne novel. This is in keeping with the act’s nightmarish, science fiction quality, but on closer inspection, the gadgets and toys are all disappointingly primitive, the kind of winking dolls and waving mannequins that greet you at F.A.O. Schwartz. Nowhere is there any indication that Spalanzani could have created a quasi-human droid like Olympia. The act also has a fatal dramatic weakness. Coppelius’s destruction of Olympia can only be achieved by his dragging the soprano offstage and rushing back with a life size doll, which he pulls to pieces. The clumsy switch wouldn’t fool a child.
Act 2 relies on trap doors and fabric walls for Dr. Miracle’s entrances and exits. The lighting for these effects is unreliable – sometimes you can see through the walls when they are supposed to be opaque – which seriously impairs any sense of surprise or illusion. In Act III, the mirror in which Hoffman loses his reflection doesn’t work either, being both too reflective and too transparent, but at the wrong times. You can see Dapertutto taking his place behind the mirror before he is supposed to appear. Yet after Hoffman loses his shadow, he still casts a reflection in the mirror.
Luther’s Tavern is a “realistic” beer cellar with stone vaulted and casks. The transition from the Tavern to the laboratory, and from Giuletta’s palace back to the Tavern at the opera’s end, is effected by raising and lowering the stage elevator (a crowd-pleasing trick the Met uses in Tosca, Aida, and most controversially in Zeffirelli’s La Traviata). Unfortunately the orchestra runs out of music before Spalanzani’s workshop appears, leaving an embarrassing pause while the elevator reaches the right level.
Notwithstanding these flaws, the cast performed heroically. Though the current revival opened on Jan. 27, conductor James Levine was absent due to an attack of sciatica. The Feb. 4 performance (reviewed here) was the first he led. He was clearly rejuvenated, and the orchestra and cast responded in kind. American Ruth Ann Swenson was dynamite as Olympia, with a pitch-perfect aria by all accounts better than on opening night. Her Antonia and Giulietta were tours de force, real diva’s performances.
Tenor Neill Shicoff is a performer of rare integrity, known for his intense method acting and tendency to squander his voice. His prologue and first act were stunning, with edge-of-your-seat singing and fine high notes. So much more interesting than tenor Richard Leech, last heard as Hoffman in the Met’s 1997-1998 season. But Shicoff paid for this in Act 2 and Act 3, sounding fatigued. Luckily he pulled out the stops for a moving epilogue.
As his muse, American mezzo Suzanne Mentzer was a superb actress and winning vocalist. Her comic imitation of Olympia demonstrated a remarkable soprano extension. At other times her low register reminded one of Kathleen Ferrier. Character tenor Pierre Lefevre delighted in his patented shtick, and his voice was more suited to this role than to Goro in Madama Butterfly, heard earlier this week.
The show was easily dominated by the phenomenal Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as the four villains. Terfel is the greatest singing actor in opera today. His merest gesture – a raised finger or eyebrow – conveys volumes, and he radiates a charisma and presence that has been extinct since the days of Chaliapin and George London.
For the villains Terfel was made up bald and pale, like Uncle Fester in the Addams Family. As a looming monster, he eclipsed everyone. His Act 2 duet with Antonia as she sings to death was blood-curdling. His acting as Coppelius relied a lot on byplay with a crutch, which turned out to be due to Terfel’s real-life back pain. Despite his agony he did all his quick changes, entrances and exits. It seemed like Terfel was sitting around a lot, especially in the prologue and epilogue, which is explained by his medical condition. [This also explains his limping during curtain calls. On Feb. 10, Terfel withdrew from his Met contract due to back trouble and returned to England. – Editor’s note.] Let’s hope in the future Terfel will return to the Met in a production built for him, as he deserves.
The Met Orchestra played superbly. The electricity between stage and pit flowed into the opera house, everyone sensed of something special was happening. The ovations were loud, long, and heartfelt. Singers blew kisses to Levine, obviously happy to have him back. It was one of those rare nights when the Gesamtkunst gels and one leaves the opera house on a cloud, intoxicated by entertainment and art.
Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments? [email protected]).