By Lynne Gray, PhD
The Met’s daily streaming can be seen at www.metopera.org from 7:30 PM New York time, 4:30 PM Reno time for 23 hours.
Wednesday, April 22
Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann ~ 2Hrs and 49Mins
Starring Anna Netrebko, Kathleen Kim, Ekaterina Gubanova, Joseph Calleja, Kate Lindsey and Alan Held, conducted by James Levine. From December 19, 2009.
Bartlett Sher’s imaginative production, with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, explores all the riches of Offenbach’s wonderful opéra fantastique (read fantasy!). Born in Cologne, the son of a synagogue cantor, Offenbach showed early musical talent and at the age of 14, was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatoire. Subsequently he wrote nearly 100 operettas, but only this one successful opera. Sadly, at the end of his long and accomplished career, this great German-French composer, cellist, and impresario of the romantic period, died just a few months before the Hoffmann premiere in 1881.
Joseph Calleja is one of my very favorites as the poet Hoffmann who is mesmerized by a different woman in each act — none of whom turns out to be the perfect creature of his fantasies. Kate Lindsey (I hope you saw her amazing Nerone in Handel’s Agrippina!) is my all-time favorite as his Muse. Kathleen Kim is tremendous as she scales the coloratura vocal heights of the mechanical doll Olympia. Anna Netrebko literally sings herself to death as Antonia, and appears as the unattainable diva, Stella. Ekaterina Gubanova is Hoffmann’s last fantasy – the sultry courtesan Giulietta. Alan Held pulls off a tour de force performing as all four Villains, each of whom succeeds in foiling Hoffmann’s amorous plans. James Levine conducts.
In the opera’s Prologue we learn that the poet Hoffmann’s Muse (Poetry), has taken on the appearance of his closest friend, Nicklausse, in order to convince him to give up all other loves and devote himself only to her. The prima donna, Stella, currently performing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, sends a letter to Hoffmann, requesting a meeting in her dressing room after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by his rival Lindorf who intends to keep the rendezvous himself.
In the tavern where students and gentlemen gather to wait for the end of the opera – and especially for Stella’s appearance – Hoffmann entertains the patrons with an amusing song about the legend of Kleinzach the dwarf. During the song, Hoffmann slips into reveries about a mysterious woman, and as he becomes more and more inebriated, Lindorf convinces him to describe his three greatest loves for the assemblage.
Once again, a little score card seems to be in order: Each of the opera’s three acts is about one of these loves, and each has a corresponding villain who out-maneuvers Hoffmann and his amorous dreams each time. In order, the three “loves” are Olympia – a life sized mechanical doll created by the inventor Spalanzani, although Hoffmann believes she is his actual daughter; Antonia – a young girl who has been hidden away by her father, Crespel, to keep her from Hoffmann, and from singing, because his wife (her mother) was a famous singer who died very young, ostensibly from a weak heart caused by expressing too much passion in her singing; And finally, Giulietta – a beautiful Venetian courtesan.
For each lover, there is a villain. For Olympia, it is Spalanzani’s former partner, Coppélius, who sells Hoffmann a pair of magic glasses through which he alone perceives Olympia as human. For Antonia, it is the charlatan, Dr. Miracle, who was “treating” her mother when she died, and who now claims he can cure Antonia. For Giulietta, it is the sinister Dapertutto whose magic allows him to steal souls.
In the Olympia act we are treated to some of the most amazing, and amusing, coloratura singing you will ever hear – done by a mechanical doll who is constantly running down and needing to be wound up – something Hoffmann ignores due to the magic glasses Coppélius has sold him.
In the Antonia act, Hoffmann, who has been searching for Antonia since her father hid her away to protect her from the world, finally finds her. She is, against her father’s wishes, singing a beautiful, plaintiff love song full of memories of her mother and wishes that her lover, Hoffmann, would return. When Hoffman appears, they sing a beautiful duet – a “chanson d’amour” – but this act, like the last, ends badly for the poet and his lover – although Hoffmann is rescued again by his Muse, masquerading as his friend Nicklausse.
And finally, we have the Giulietta act which begins with the opera’s most famous piece – the barcarolle “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” sung by Giulietta and Nicklausse. Hoffmann is now in love with the courtesan and believes she returns his feelings. She, however, is seduced by Captain Dapertutto, promising to give her an exceptionally large diamond if she steals Hoffmann’s reflection from a mirror. This act has the additional complication of Giulietta’s former lover, the jealous Schlemil, whose shadow has already been stolen by Dapertutto and whom Hoffmann is forced to kill in a duel.
Nicklausse once again rescues Hoffmann at the last minute and whether Giulietta makes it out alive is usually left to the director….
In the Epilogue, we see Hoffmann once again in the tavern, waiting for Stella and drinking to forget his failed attempts at love. We learn that Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are all just three facets of the same love – Stella. But finding Hoffmann drunk again, Stella leaves for the evening with Lindorf. Hoffmann, crushed, renounces love altogether and Nicklausse, whose victory in now complete, reclaims him for poetry, “Be reborn a poet! I love you, Hoffmann! Be mine!”
Hopefully, even though you know the end, you will still choose to see – and especially to hear – this wonderful work. There is much I have not told you and much still to discover. It is a bittersweet joy of an opera and well worth the time.
1. Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann and Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, his Muse in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann singing “Kleinzach” in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Kathleen Kim as Olympia Kathleen Kim in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Anna Netrebko as Antonia in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
5. Ekaterna Gubanova as the Venetian courtesan Giulietta in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.