The Met Streams Offenbach’s ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Viewing Note: On the Met’s home page, you now need to scroll down past the multiple ads for Pay Per View concerts and the [BUY TICKETS] boxes and go to the box that says “Nightly Opera Stream: <name of opera> and click on [WATCH NOW].

Tuesday, August 4

Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann ~ 2 HRS 51 MIN

Starring Erin Morley, Hibla Gerzmava, Kate Lindsey, Christine Rice, Vittorio Grigolo, and Thomas Hampson, conducted by Yves Abel. From January 31, 2015.

Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo takes on the title role in Offenbach’s fantastical opera, giving a very favorably reviewed performance as the tortured poet who is decidedly unlucky in love. He is joined by a trio of excellent leading ladies:

  • Erin Morley sings the high flying coloratura demanded of the mechanical doll Olympia.
  • Hibla Gerzmava is the fragile Antonia.
  • Christine Rice sings Giulietta, the Venetian courtesan.

Bartlett Sher’s production with sets by Michael Yeargan (described by the New York times as “a flimsy-looking mash-up of images from Kafka, Fellini and Magritte”) is seen tonight in its second Live in HD presentation. In addition to Hoffmann and his three loves above, this one also stars suave baritone, Thomas Hampson who plays all four sinister villains and the marvelous Kate Lindsey (again) as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend and muse. Yves Abel conducts.

This opera is a triptych of vignettes all based on the stories of the actual Hoffmann – E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) – who occupies an important place in German literature for his stories and novels which deal with themes of the fantastic, the supernatural and the bizarre – Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Leo Delibes’s Coppelia are based on his stories. The production is indeed imaginative, and the costumes by Catherine Zuber explore many of the riches inherent in Offenbach’s wonderful opéra fantastique (read fantasy – which this certainly is). Born in Cologne, the son of a synagogue cantor, Offenbach showed exceptional musical talent by the age of 14 and so was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatoire. Subsequently, he wrote nearly 100 operettas popular in his time, 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. 

Grigolo turned out to be pretty good 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 (so if you missed Calleja the first time around, this one is definitely a fine version to see). Kate Lindsey (I hope you will also see her amazing Nerone in Handel’s Agrippina this week!) is my all-time favorite as Hoffmann’s Muse, Nicklausse, and as difficult as it is to believe, Erin Morley’s Olympia is every bit as good as Kathleen Kim’s – maybe even better. 

In the opera’s Prologue, we learn that the poet Hoffmann’s Muse (actually, 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 (that is, to his Poetry). A beautiful prima donna, Stella, who is currently performing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, sends a letter to Hoffmann, inviting him to a meeting in her dressing room after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by his rival Lindorf who intends to undermine Hoffmann and keep the rendezvous himself.

In a tavern where both students and gentlemen gather to wait for the end of the opera – and especially for Stella’s appearance – Hoffmann entertains the crowd with an amusing song describing the legend of Kleinzach the dwarf. During the song, Hoffmann slips into a reverie about a mysterious woman he desires, and as he becomes more and more inebriated, Lindorf convinces him to describe his three greatest loves for the assemblage.

Once again, a little background 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 every time. In order, the three “loves” are Olympia – a life-sized mechanical doll created by the inventor Spalanzani, although Hoffmann believes she is actually his human daughter; Antonia – a young girl who has been hidden away by her father, Crespel, partly to keep her from Hoffmann, but mostly to keep her from singing because 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 an associated 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 successfully treat Antonia. For Giulietta, it is the sinister Dapertutto whose particular 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 – until he falls and the glasses break just in time for him to watch Coppélius tear Olympia limb from limb in retaliation for Spalanzani’s not paying 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 once again by 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” – a gorgeous soprano-mezzo duet sung by Giulietta and Nicklausse. Hoffmann is now in love with the courtesan and believes she returns his feelings. She, however, has been seduced by this act’s villain, Captain Dapertutto, who has promised to give her a very large diamond if she helps him steal Hoffmann’s reflection from a mirror (actually, his soul). 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 over Giulietta. 

Nicklausse once again has to rescue Hoffmann from arrest at the very last minute, and whether on not Giulietta makes it out of this act alive is usually left to the director….

In the Epilogue, we see Hoffmann once again back in the tavern, waiting for Stella and still drinking to forget his failed attempts at love. We learn from Nicklausse that Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are actually 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 is 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 production. There is much more I have not told you and much still to discover in this fantastic opera. It is a bittersweet joy of a work and well worth the time.

Picture Credits

1. Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

2. Erin Morley as Olympia (center), the mechanical doll in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl /Metropolitan Opera.

3. Erin Morley as Olympia, the mechanical doll and and Vittorio Grigolo in the title role in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl /Metropolitan Opera.

4. Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Hibla Gerzmava as Antonia in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

5. Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Christine Rice as Giulietta in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

6. Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

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