BWW Review: Grigolo in Fine Form and Morley is a Doll in Met's HOFFMANN
There are no happy endings for the poet Hoffmann (even in the solid hands of the charismatic tenor Vittorio Grigolo) or any of the women he fantasizes about in Offenbach's LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN (TALES OF HOFFMANN). Still, there are enough enjoyable moments to make Offenbach's music worth hearing once and again.
Left unfinished at Offenbach's death, there is no one definitive version of the score--only the prologue and first scene were complete--and while the Met is currently using the format (and aria assignments) that are considered "state of the art," the composer himself never actually heard the opera as a whole, even if he left ideas about it. This gives opera companies free rein to put their own stamp on productions by choice of performing versions. Personally, I prefer one that mostly affects what is now Act III but was not included at all in the first performances of the work.
Bartlett Sher's vision for the Met's current production is pretty bleak, even in the comedic material, and his collaborators Michael Yeargan (set design) and James F. Ingalls (lighting) seemed to do their best to add to the darkness of Hoffmann's existence. (Costume designer Catherine Zuber does better with the costumes.) Stage director Gina Lapinski helped bring out some first-rate performances in this austere world Sher created.
For a singer who began his career being called "Pavarottino" ("little Pavarotti"), Grigolo has proven one of the Met's most reliable and appealing proponents of French, rather than Italian, opera, whether in MANON, ROMEO ET JULIETTE or here, with HOFFMANN. Though the opera doesn't give him much chance to be anything but a victim of circumstance--or merely sad--he does have the opportunity to use his voice and acting ability effectively. He has some fun with "Il ètait une fois à la cour d'Eisenach" in the opera's opening scene in Luther's tavern as he relates his tale of Kleinzach, and with "Amis, l'amour tendre et rêveur" but most of the time he's put upon as, one by one, the women he loves leave (in one way or another).
At the start of the evening, the prima donna Stella sends a letter inviting Hoffmann--who is infatuated with her--to her dressing room after the evening's performance. But the note is intercepted by the evil Counselor Lindorf (the first of bass-baritone Laurent Naouri's four effective villainous roles, thwarting the poet's love-life), setting the opera's events in motion. Lindorf, who wants Stella for himself, arrives at the tavern where Hoffmann is drinking and encourages him to tell about the great loves of his past.
The first of these women gives what is perhaps the opera's show-stopping performance, in the hands of soprano Erin Morley as Olympia, whom Hoffmann is unaware is a robotic doll. This isn't the first time I've heard her in the role and she gets better and better with her knockout rendition of the Doll Aria, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille." She is so delightful, so charming--and seems to be having such a good time--that it adds immeasurably to the success of the evening, even if she does get torn to bits at the end by Coppelius (Naouri's second villain) in a fit of spite.
The second heroine (Romanian soprano Anita Hartig) did a fine job of singing herself to death, thanks to the encouragement of Naouri's Dr. Miracle. The third love of Hoffmann is the courtesan, Giulietta (Russian mezzo Oksana Volkova) who really doesn't love him but has been promised a diamond by Naouri's Dapertutto (who sauvely sings "Scintille diamant"-"Sparkle, diamond") and floats off in a gondola, leaving Hoffmann once again in the lurch.
As I alluded to earlier, this scene in Venice was not in the first performances. It was long used as Act II and Giulietta had the gorgeous "Barcarolle" (aka "Belle nuit") to anchor her role. In this version, another mezzo, who doubles as Hoffmann's muse and his friend, Nicklausse, gets the aria and, for me at least, it seemed anticlimactic, even though Tara Erraught, making her Met debut, did a nice job with it. (She might have been more even persuasive--except for her very funny imitation of Olympia's doll--with a little more directorial help.)
The performance was enlivened by bass Robert Pomakov as Antonia's father and tenors Christophe Mortagne and Mark Showalter in several short but key roles.
Finally, in the opera's epilogue, Stella (Hartig again), enters the tavern where Hoffmann has been telling his tales of woe and doesn't appear to know he's alive. He finally realizes that all his women of fantasy were aspects of Stella. The closest Hoffmann gets to love, it seems, is the devotion of his muse/friend Nicklausse.
The Met orchestra was in fine form under conductor Johannes Debus, helping to propel the performance along, as was the lively contribution of the chorus, under Donald Palumbo.
There are additional performances of HOFFMANN on October 13, 18, 21mat, 24 and 28. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. The running time is 3 hours and 38 minutes, with two intermissions.
Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.
Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of HOFFMANN are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.