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Kyle Ketelsen (Coppelius) and
30 Oct 2007

Hamburg's Tales Told

I recently made a special trip to Hamburg with one real goal in mind: to hear one of my most favorite young singers, bass Kyle Ketelsen in the Staatsoper’s new production of “Tales of Hoffmann.”

Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Staatsoper Hamburg

Above: Kyle Ketelsen (Coppelius) and "Olympia"
All photos courtesy of Staatsoper Hamburg


I was amply rewarded for the five-hour train trip.

Having “discovered” Mr. Ketelsen as (already) a world-class “Leporello” in the Glimmerglass “Giovanni” (rivaling my memories of Walter Berry), I was next wowed by him in a star-making turn in the little-performed “Maskerade" (Nielsen) at none other than Covent Garden. It was a triumphant tour-de-force that was roundly cheered by that discerning public (and critics). It is no accident that he has repeatedly been invited back for his signature Mozart roles and Escamillo, among others. Happenstance found me next at a Seattle Mozart “Requiem” where, undistracted by stage business and costumes, I luxuriated in his just-plain-gorgeous sound in a memorable “Tuba Miram."

To the opera at hand, then, how were his “four villains"? Well, confirming my previous experiences, they were beautifully sung, the sizable voice steady and responsive, seamless throughout the roles’ rangy demands, capable of great variety and detail, excellent French diction, and all wrapped up in a handsome stage presence. He is one of those treasurable artists that can totally inhabit a role, all the while singing with great beauty and understanding. If he does not have the stock villainous “snarl” that older (or less refined) voices might bring to it, well, all the better as far as I am concerned.

Let’s get all the “happy” news on the table, shall we? Musically, “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” was very fine, indeed. Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti has been singing all over the map, at many major houses including the Met, and he deserves to. This is a well-produced, full-sized lyric instrument with enough heft and point in it to edge into a slightly heavier Fach like this one. He sang with sensitivity and passion, if at times with a slight Italianate “catch” in the voice (okay, okay, he is Italian!). And he is apparently tireless, pouring out searing, balls-to-the-wall phrases and hushed introspective musings alike throughout the evening. Indeed, at opera’s end, he seemed as fresh-voiced as at the start. Committed actor. Good looking. Major talent.

Although soprano Elena Mosuc was announced (with some drama) as indisposed (with three different ladies on hand to spell her if needed), it was hard to tell from her authoritative portrayal of the four heroines. All the coloratura was finely-tuned for “Olympia;” a fuller, warmer voice was summoned for “Antonia;” and the necessary requirements were met for a good embodiment of “Giulietta.” While I personally find the opera better served by three different voice types, a true diva aficionado is always more intrigued by one lady able to encompass all. And that the attractive Ms. Mosuc certainly does, with considerable success.

Hoffmann_Hamburg2.pngKetelsen (Coppelius), Filianoti (Hoffmann) and Surguladze (Nicklausse) with "Olympia"

Nino Surguladze as “Nicklausse” displayed a rich, full mezzo which rather surprisingly emitted from a mere slip of a girl; Deborah Humble provided burnished tone for an honorable turn as “Antonia’s Mother;” and tenor Benjamin Hulett had some wonderful comprimario moments in his four roles. Smaller parts were mostly very well taken and the responsive orchestra played with fine style under Emmanuel Plasson (yes, son of “that other Plasson”).

And this pretty much concludes the great news portion of the evening, for the physical production was somewhat a well-intended grab bag.

I am very nearly ready to start a petition to banish “The Mysterious Cube” from the repertoire of Euro-Scenery. Yes, the whole set was a boxy cube, within which (most of the time) a smaller cube resided, which rotated to reveal our leading ladies through an open fourth wall, or as I refer to it: “Diva in a Box.” Sometimes it just played Sit-‘n’-Spin for no good reason. And just when you thought this thing couldn’t be any uglier, dang if they didn’t reveal a yellow interior re-dressed with garish painted posies all over it; or outfitted it with the flopping-est, most hand-print-smeared Mylar mirror panels I ever hope to see. Designer Hartmut Schoerghofer is on the blame line for this creation.

A blue scrim began each act with well-intended but hard-to-see projections, the first being (I think) disembodied hands - or were they condoms? - nope, they must have been hands ‘cause they later “applauded” when the show-within-a-show’s “act” was over. That business over, the set-up seemed that we were in the Kantine of the theatre where Stella was performing. It was awfully trendy for a Kantine, though. In fact if we were to believe the employees’ tee shirts, it was called “La Diva” (get it?). Four TV monitors showed what was going on “on-stage.”

A hip and handsomely clad “Lindorf” arrived with a rolling suitcase of minor importance later. The crowd that populated this space at “intermission" included a mix of opera-goers, cast, and crew. A tortured “Hoffmann” entered with “Nicklausse” dressed as his Girl Friday. It must be said the energetic, dedicated cast was immersed in their assignments, and plunged wholeheartedly into everything that was asked of them by director Christine Mielitz.

But did she have to ask “Hoffmann” to be all bug-eyed and off-putting? Did he have to thrust his pelvis savagely and snap his fingers on his tale of “Kleinzach” so that he looked like a tryout for the “Jets” in a high school production of “West Side Story”? Did the chorus have to jive and weave and bop like White People Dancing Badly? (In a horrifying flashback, the sight reminded me of the terrible Wisconsin wedding dances of my youth. . .Brrrrrrr)

As our disagreeable hero became obsessed with the video-feed of Stella on one of the TV monitors, he took it off its shelf and schlepped it to the prompter’s box. And then something happened that became my metaphor for the whole evening’s staging: the damn’ thing sputtered and unintentionally went blank. Oh, he covered, and turned the face of it away from us, but the ill omen was communicated. . .

Hoffmann_Hamburg5.pngKyle Ketelsen (Dr. Miracle) and Elena Mosuc (Antonia)

There was at first something quite clever in presenting “Olympia” as a “Marilyn” pop icon, and in having “Cochenille” got-up as Michael Jackson, although having the diva as “Madonna” may have been more apropos. This act was by far the most imaginative direction, compromised as it was with gratuitous futzing around by the chorus, and well, way too much of a (pretty) good thing. “Michael” got visually tiring after a very short while, operating the doll with a twinkling remote. As for poor “Marilyn”:

First, she was a dummy seen from the back, seated on a sofa in “The Diva Box;” then as the real soprano, costumed in a pink (make that PINK) form-fitting short-skirted dress with ample bosoms and buttocks. “Hoffmann” became sex-obsessed (perhaps harking back to those pelvic thrusts), leering at these features like a testosterone-driven juvenile. He became absolutely inflamed when “Cochenille” blew into a tube attached to her, thereby inflating her breasts even larger (shades of “Passionella"!). Later, after the introduction of a helium canister on-stage, “Mr. Cube” turned to reveal a reclining Macy’s Parade giant doll, one breast bared, legs spread, ready for action. That “Hoffman” breaks his magic glasses fainting backwards between her thighs onto her belly, made no sense.

“Coppelius” rolled in the carry-on suitcase to reveal the requisite cogs and gears inside, and then mostly lurked in and around the cube in a pony-tailed ball cap. His last say in “dismantling” the doll consisted of blowing its head off with a Kalishnikov. While there was no sound effect, there was a film projection of splattered brains running down the wall that would have made John Carpenter proud. And now an “aside” on Renate Schmitzer’s costumes. . .

Okay, the concept for “Olympia” was rather an MTV-like disco scene, but was it wise to put the entire chorus in lime green, clinging scoop neck tops with big red Rocky Horror lips on the front of each? And annoying “trendy” accoutrements, like the twinkling bows (or was it heels?) on all the chorus girls’ shoes? This is not the sort of thing that looks good on people of a certain age, and let’s face it, 90% of opera choristers are “a certain age.”

Act Two began with a giant Mylar false proscenium flying in, and then with a loud thunk tipping forward to weakly reflect an overhead view of the real pit musicians. Unfortunately, this and a (rather lovely) floating violin distracted from “Nicklausse’s” well-sung air. As visual compensation, she and “Hoffmann” crossed and formed a beautiful, Pieta-like tableau with a white-clad-as-Virgin-Mary “Antonia’s Mother.”

“Antonia,” first seen in a black pants suit, later appeared for her descent into death with slacks traded for a pink skirt (please note: color motif tie-in). “Miracle” arrived in a doctor’s white smock and wonderful “Wiz”-like reflective green glasses , then reappeared in a similar smock that boasted flowers matching the wallpaper. Ditto her father’s look. The sicker she got, the more posies appeared. In fact, this act was most successful “tale” as far as the quite witty costumes.

However, some real oddities included the addition of faux pianos to each outside wall of “The Cube”; a hanging portrait of Mom that just didn’t “read” in the audience, even before “Mother” surprisingly tore the “canvas” out from behind; and “Miracle” performing his evil ministrations to an empty chair, while the doomed “Antonia” looked on from Cube’s edge.

Hoffmann_Hamburg4.pngKyle Ketelsen (Dappertutto) and Giuseppe Filianoti (Hoffmann)

A real plus in this “tale” was “Frantz’s” wacky arietta. I usually squirm through this as the aging character tenor play-acts at “cracking” the high note, and coughs and wheezes a bit, well, you know, embarrassing, right? In this case, young Hulett was a closet ballerina, or cross-dresser, or both (and why not?). As his dance moves gave way to more strip-tease abandon, he revealed himself to be wearing a camisole, and fishnet stockings, and, after holding a leg up high to one side while singing the last bars, he ended in a really decent split to considerable audience approval! No fooling, this was an inspired moment. One I was still relishing all the way up until . . .

“Antonia” died quite unceremoniously at the prompter’s box, next to the ill-fated monitor in fact, and was hurriedly covered up with a black cloth. She was the lucky one, I thought, as Venice was. . .well. . .not pretty.

In fact, it seemed as if the visual and directorial inventiveness, so promising at the start of the real “tales,” just ran out of steam. This was as bleak a “Serenissima” as I have never seen. I am not sure what was supposed to be in “The Diva Box” but it looked like Hernando’s Hideaway gone bad. The chorus members seated on outer sides of the cube seemed to be malcontent-ed street people in rags and tatters. I think. The lighting was so dark it was hard to see. . .chorus. . .principals. . .anything of note.

“Giulietta” herself was got up in a black turban, pants, and jacket over a gold bustier which made her look eerily like “Karen” from “Will and Grace” at a costume party not of her own choosing. “Hoffmann” gave in to the carnal build-up of three (unnatural) Acts and stripped off his shirt, mounting the soprano before rolling on his back and being mounted in return. Mercifully this was mostly masked by the prompter’s box, the dead monitor, and “Antonia’s” still-covered corpse double.

Hoffmann_Hamburg3.pngThe Box

There is just so much “cube-lurking” that can be passed off as true direction, and “Dapertutto,” sporting Muslim headgear, was not well served by uninspired blocking. A performer of this caliber has far more to offer dramatically than was asked of him here, although a quite beautifully sung “Scintille, Diamant” was compensation.

This was clearly a bad part of town. As “Nicklausse” looked on in a Hawaiian tourist shirt, “Hoffmann” violently stabbed “Schlemil,” and shortly after, “Giulietta.” No kidding, “Giulietta”! I half expected a “Jose” moment of “Oh, ma Carmen. . .” but instead the Mylar panels on the Cube were a wiggling-jiggling distraction as they hauled “The Diva Box” up and off, and poor “Hoffmann” was left half-naked to ponder that he had caused the demise of all his loves. Or “lusts.” (Okay, okay, excluding “Schlemil”).

Meanwhile, back at the Inn of La Diva, “Dapertutto” (or “Lindorf”. . .or. . .hell, does it even matter now?) symbolically gave “H” the white “Miracle” smock to wear. No longer a sex-obsessed juvenile delinquent, he is back to being an unlikable, ranting jerk of a poet. Having driven “Stella,” “Lindorf” and everyone away, our hero ended the proceedings curled up in a fetal position, white-coated, on two stray chairs down right. Blue scrim in. . .

There were actually any number of good ideas here and enough freshly inventive bits that it was a pity that Ms. Mielick and her design team settled for a profusion of images and movement that became less and less focused. The production could be greatly improved by simply imposing some clarity and discipline in the crowd scenes and, especially, re-considering singer placement on the stage.

Too often, these excellent soloists were far upstage, behind the action, in the dark, singing to the wings, and/or not allowed to take the focus to which they were entitled. Happily, the terrific singing was tremendously satisfying. (I would travel further than Hamburg to hear Mr. Ketelsen again.) Plasson led a brisk, committed reading with all the dramatic consistency that the staging lacked.

Musical glories aside, in the end, just like that hapless prophetic monitor, this “Tales of Hoffman” production promised much, sputtered briefly, and ultimately, went dark.

James Sohre

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