Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Hans Werner Henze Choral Music

Hans Werner Henze works for mixed voice and chamber orchestra with SWR Vokalensemble and Ensemble Modern, conducted by Marcus Creed. Welcome new recordings of important pieces like Lieder von einer Insel (1964), Orpheus Behind the Wire (1984) plus Fünf Madrigale (1947).

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Bettina Smith, Norwegian Mezzo, in Songs by Fauré and Debussy

Here are five complete song sets by two of the greatest masters of French song. The performers are highly competent. I should have known, given the rave reviews that their 2015 recording of modern Norwegian songs received.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

The opera world barely knows how to handle works that have significant amounts of spoken dialogue. Conductors and stage directors will often trim the dialogue to a bare minimum (Magic Flute), have it rendered as sung recitative (Carmen), or have it spoken in the vernacular though the sung numbers may often be performed in the original language (Die Fledermaus).

A New Anna Moffo?: The Debut Disc of Aida Garifullina

Here is the latest CD from a major label promoting a major new soprano. Aida Garifullina is utterly remarkable: a lyric soprano who also can handle coloratura with ease. Her tone has a constant shimmer, with a touch of quick, narrow vibrato even on short notes.

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017 - Winner Announced

Bampton Classical Opera is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2017 Young Singers’ Competition is mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard and the runner-up is tenor Wagner Moreira. The winner of the accompanists’ prize, a new category this year, is Keval Shah.

Il sogno di Scipione: a new recording from Classical Opera

With this recording of Mozart’s 1771 opera, Il sogno di Scipione (Sicpio’s Dream), Classical Opera continue their progress through the adolescent composer’s precocious achievements and take another step towards the fulfilment of their complete Mozart opera series for Signum Classics.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
11 Dec 2009

Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the MET

The Tales of Hoffmann is a cruel piece, for all the wit of the macabre tales on which it is based and the sparkle the dying Offenbach put into his last and grandest score.

Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja; Muse of Poetry/Nicklausse: Kate Lindsey; Lindorf, etc.: Alan Held; Olympia: Kathleen Kim; Antonia: Anna Netrebko; Giulietta: Ekaterina Gubanova; Four Servants: Alan Oke. Production by Bartlett Sher. Conducted by James Levine. Metropolitan Opera, performance of December 7.

Above: Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

Not only is the hero a half-mad drunkard, he spends the Prologue poking fun at a crippled dwarf (impersonated by a crouching waiter in the Met’s new production), and the plot makes nasty reference to many another illness, deformity or crippling disorder. Stammers, deafness, simple-mindedness and a hump afflict the four servant roles generally assigned to one character tenor, while the heroines — Hoffmann’s loves — are consumptive, soulless, faithless or simply robotic. The four villains and the hero’s only friend are evidently supernatural which may not count as a handicap. Science, society and medicine are debunked and defiled. The libretto even contains a few swipes at the egos of opera singers. The conclusion of this odd comedy is bitter — despairing of love, Hoffmann takes refuge in drink and in creativity — though in the edition currently on view at the Met (no two Met productions of the work have ever played quite the same score, of which no definitive edition exists) an uplifting choral conclusion has been added to placate us.

Bartlett Sher’s stark but handsome production of Hoffmann, like many other creations of the new Met regime, faces the challenge of following a venerable, popular and attractive one. Why did Otto Schenk’s wacky box of goodies need replacement at all? Who can forget the rathskeller that sank into the stage, or the shop of dizzy, whirling mechanisms that slowly moved downstage to take its place during the gavotte, or Crespel’s blue Biedermeier drawing room with its walls permeable to the demonic Dr. Miracle? Well, we’ll have to forget them because the world moves on, and new varieties of stage magic are in constant demand.

HOFFMANN_Calleja_and_Netrebko_2514.pngJoseph Calleja as Hoffmann and Anna Netrebko as Antonia

Sher’s innovations, which are handsome and amusing, may prove less expensive to keep in shape, relying as they do on projections and a few simple descending flats. One small arched doorway and three gothic windows — plus a lot of cushions and a gondola sliding by mid-stage — are enough to evoke Venice, right? More can often be done with less, and Sher has made that his watchword. In Act II, for instance, Munich was suggested by wintry light and a few transparencies, a chair and a spinet. At the opening of Act III, the audience gasped and cheered as the curtain rose — and yet all we saw was an array of lanterns, a swagged gauze scrim, that narrow Venetian flat, and a crowd of singers, dancers, supernumeraries strewn about the stage in attitudes of artful clutter, dressed in elaborately diverse costumes — hey, it’s Carnival! — a dozen or so wearing hardly anything, and implying still less by some Fosse-esque callisthenic dancing. Dress and lighting are all. The set dazzles without actually being a set, as insubstantial as the feverish workings of Hoffmann’s brain. The opening scene, a tavern next door to an opera house, was similarly devised, all kegs and tables and benches, while the rear of the stage lit up when necessary with a projection of the Old Met — and Hoffmann’s desk strewn with unfinished manuscripts was downstage right and remained there most of the evening. Those who recall the Schenk production may remain sentimental, but those new to Hoffmann will not feel they missed anything in the way of glamour or storytelling.

Does anyone other than opera and ballet lovers still read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s once popular stories, also the source of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Delibes’s Coppélia, Hindemith’s Cardillac and Offenbach’s Le Roi Carrotte? Poe knew Hoffmann’s stories well; they are as grotesque as Poe, but lack the psychological tension that gives Poe’s work its sense of undercurrents untold.

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse

It is Sher’s conceit to meld Hoffmann’s genius with that of the far more familiar Kafka, with whom he has little in common except an openness to the fantastic. Kafka’s tales, though they share Hoffmann’s unease with the inhuman novelties of modern technology that make many sensitive souls feel lost in a rapidly changing world, are more metaphorical and political, rarely just odd for odd’s sake as Hoffmann’s often are. But this permits Sher to set his Hoffmann in Kafka’s 1920s for, seemingly, the sole reward of having the non-singing La Stella enter in flapper dress, and in order to place an iconic typewriter on Hoffmann’s desk. At least the prologue and epilogue are set in the 1920s — the Munich (Antonia) scene appears to be set in the 1820s, and Venice (Giulietta) the eighteenth century, but since Hoffmann is supposedly inventing these tales as he tells them, we can blame his wild imagination for any conflict. Catherine Zuber has costumed the robot Olympia in clown getup and a red-violet wig, the consumptive diva Antonia in a dressing gown, the courtesan Giulietta in panniers that look neither sensual nor comfortable. Hoffmann wears his usual frock coat and Crespel a wonderful nineteenth-century smoking robe and shako.

The directorial conceit offers many felicities — I loved the horse-drawn carriage that brings Dr. Miracle to Crespel’s door, and the winding green dragon in Spalanzani’s workshop that continues to spiral throughout the act — but also many puzzles. Nicklausse seems to be playing both sides in Sher’s vision — granted he/she is the Muse who wishes to blight Hoffmann’s love life in order to keep his genius feeding her lust for art, but here she is truly the Devil’s Advocate, supplying the villain with the ingredients of his manic destructiveness, handing the doctor his flasks, the inventor his spectacles, Dapertutto the diamond to tempt Giulietta, remaining on stage to manage the wickedness in scenes where Nicklausse has nothing to sing. This is distracting, but a real offense is the hymn to salvation through love tacked on to the epilogue, derived from the Muse’s final song, when the moral of the story the opera tells, and the motivation behind all of the Muse’s behavior, is that love is empty, that only by his creative genius can Hoffmann be redeemed. The new ending feels false and wrong.

Joseph Calleja undertook to learn the long and strenuous role of Hoffmann when Rolando Villazon’s career crashed and burned last winter. The Maltese tenor is tall and sturdy and a passionate actor, with a wide range and a wonderful liquid top, but at the second performance of the run he sounded uncomfortable, perhaps merely tired, at many points of the evening, a shade under pitch and with the beginning of a bleat that could be either exhaustion or affectation. Considering the pressures leading up to this premiere (he was obliged to withdraw from the dress rehearsal by illness), I am hoping this less than ideal occasion was simply an off-night. But the part may be too heavy for him.

Kathleen Kim

The trouser role of Hoffmann’s pal, Nicklausse — who is secretly the Muse of Poetry — has been increasing steadily from edition to edition. On this occasion he/she was elevated from sidekick to prima donna, and Kate Lindsey, young, slim, attractive, with a dark, flawlessly placed mezzo soprano and a range of expression from foolish to satirical to sympathetic, gave it star quality. Although the role is now longer than it ever used to be, she was almost the only singer of the night who never seemed to be struggling for enough breath to support whatever phrase she cared to sing, as loud as might be needed or as softly, persuasively as the drama called for.

Hoffmann’s loves were portrayed by Kathleen Kim, Anna Netrebko and Ekaterina Gubanova. Kim is tiny, charming, pleasant and occasionally shrill as Olympia, the rare role that is easier to sing than it sounds. (I’ve seldom heard a bad one; Natalie Dessay was the best.) Gubanova produced seriously deep, Slavic tones that gave pleasure when not wobbling, but how useful these were to characterize the shallow Giulietta may be doubted. Netrebko sang the most powerful Antonia since Sutherland, and in Sher’s vision (which is not Offenbach’s), her grand operatic posturing worked very well. As in all her roles in French or Italian she sounded, frankly, Russian — something in her manner of creating a phrase is taught in the east, not in the regions where western music was composed. She was wise not to attempt all the heroines.

In this production, there is no attempt to make the four villains look unalike — they are the same man in the same black leather duster, and Hoffmann’s insistence that they are one and the same (and the Devil) therefore strikes us, as it should, as a sign of mental imbalance, of fixation on the fellow in the Prologue who will run off with his girl in the Epilogue. They were sung by shaven-skulled Alan Held, who looks tall and ominous even beside tall Mr. Calleja, but he sometimes seemed to be pushing to fill out the part’s diabolic phrases, high notes were evaded in “Scintille, diamant,” and recollections of James Morris in these roles remain golden and unequaled.

While Mr. Held was the same demon in four acts, Alan Oke played the four ridiculous servants with impressive diversity, from Andrès’s mincing venality to Pitichinaccio’s shambling menace — he even appeared to be short as Frantz, and sang that character’s little song with an exceptionally strong and flavorsome tenor.

James Levine, who is evidently responsible for the choices among editions of the score (there is no version of Hoffmann that someone will not denounce as inauthentic), conducted with a sure, tight hand: the demonic leitmotiv came over as just that, but the “numbers” that traditionally draw applause did so — when they deserved to. The Met’s chorus were splendid and their dancers always work best when their work is not center stage but merely accompanies a drama focused elsewhere.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):