Sunday, February 1, 2015

Tales of Hoffman: Opera or Talent Show?

One of the major writers of the Romantic Era—dating roughly from 1770s to 1830s—was E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German who was popular for his fantasy and horror stories.

In the 1850's, a pair of dramatists concocted a play called Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann) that combined bits of three of his fantastic tales. The stories were loosely connected by the dramatic device of making them episodes from Hoffmann's own past, which he was relating to his tavern companions on a single evening. Taken literally, this is ridiculous. In his first story, he falls in love with a mechanical doll, which he takes for human because he is wearing rose-colored glasses. In the second, he falls in love with a great singer who has a bad heart; she literally sings herself to death. In the third, he is seduced and abandoned by a courtesan who was bribed with a diamond to steal his reflection. Literally ridiculous. 

However, if a story-teller were to while away an evening at his local hangout by regaling his friends with sensational tales, he might very well pretend that all these things had happened to him personally. Moreover, if you take the stories symbolically, it all becomes plausible. Men do fall in love with highly artificial women with facelifts, wigs, and spandex underwear. Men do fall for women who are impossible matches. Men can be deceived and abandoned. 

Jacques Offenbach is a French composer who was born in Germany in 1819. In the 1850s and 1860s he became very popular for his comic operas. Even today most people have heard his ebullient theme used for the "can-can" dance. You could probably sing it now if you saw dancers high-kicking in their ruffled skirts. He cranked these operettas out at the rate of 4 or 5 per year, which implies that quality was not his highest concern.

Toward the end of his life, Offenbach decided to write a serious opera. He needed a good story, and everyone agreed that the popular play Tales of Hoffmann would lend itself to a musical setting. After all, the mechanical doll thrills Hoffmann with her coloratura singing (florid trills with very high notes), and his second love is a dying soprano. If Offenbach used the bar as the setting, he could even throw in a few choral drinking songs; those always go over well. Offenbach spent two years working on the score, trying to make something special. Unfortunately, he died before it was quite finished. Ever since, various composers and librettists have filled it out in different ways. Nevertheless, it has been fairly popular, and it is still considered a standard.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is currently running a revival of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and we saw it Live in HD at our local theater Saturday morning (1/31/15).

The opera's story and structure are less entertaining than you might think. It moves along episodically, plodding through one story after another. The stories are so irrational and so thinly connected that it reminded me of watching a high school talent show, in which a flimsy narration is woven around unrelated acts. One act starts with a lot of complicated exposition, then jumps to an aria. Another act starts with a very dramatic aria and then the context is filled in later; this is quite disorienting. Both the prolog and the epilog have a comedy song about a misshapen dwarf that has no bearing at all on the plot. Every number has a big, boffo conclusion, and then a pause where the audience can applaud without interrupting the mood.

So, if you can drop your hankering for dramatic coherence, emotional depth, and musical continuity, what do you have left to enjoy? You get a lot of great songs and a lot of great singing. Offenbach was a master of singable, memorable melodies, and the Met's cast is top-notch, as always.

Hoffmann's role was sung by the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. Youthful, handsome, and enthusiastic, he fit the role well, and his singing was sweet and touching, essentially romantic. 

Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann, regaling his drinking buddies
with stories of fantastical romances
In all the stories, Hoffmann has a nemesis—someone who foils his romantic plans for his own reasons. Though the character changes, all the roles were sung by experienced baritone Thomas Hampson. Hampson is a very handsome man with commanding presence, and some of his singing was excellent, but some of the lines were really intended for a bass, and for these his singing was rather guttural.

Vittorio Grigolo with Thomas Hampson, who played his nemesis.

Another character who continues throughout is first presented as Hoffmann's muse; through most of the opera, the muse masquerades as Hoffmann's dear friend Nicklausse. This is a so-called "trouser role," meaning that a woman sings it dressed as a man. The mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay was a revelation, literally, in this role. She is a beautiful and slender woman, and in the opening scene she appears in nothing but a pink silk slip of a dress; you could watch her abs work while she sang. Through most of the opera she is dressed like a man, and also stands and acts convincingly like an insolent young man. In the final scene, she returns to her nearly nude form to represent Hoffmann's essential creativity. Unfortunately, her role in the meantime is ambivalent. Sometimes she appears to want to protect Hoffmann from his illusions; sometimes she seems to be aiding his nemesis. 

Vittorio Grigolo with Kate Lindsey, as his friend Nicklausse.
Each love story stars a separate diva. When the play opens, Hoffmann is drinking in a saloon located next door to an opera house. He has a date with the soprano, Stella, after the performance. The role of Stella was sung by Hibla Gerzmava, who also sang the role of Antonia, the soprano who sings herself to death. Gerzmava has a rich, fulsome voice and she was originally scheduled to sing all the women's parts. She has the traditional opera singer's robust figure, and this made it hard for her to fit in with the mostly slim cast.

Hibla Gerzmaza as Antonia, the doomed soprano
The role of the mechanical doll, Olympia, with all its coloratura trills, is especially challenging. The soprano Erin Morley managed elaborately ornamental singing, and some stratospheric high notes, while imitating a doll's marionette-like movements. The gag was that the doll would run-down sometimes and have to be re-wound with a giant key. With great control, Morley sang flat notes as she ran down, and as she was wound up again, she quickly attained dizzying melodic heights. Her performance brought down the house.

Erin Morley as a singing mechanical doll
The treacherous courtesan, Giulietta, was sung by Christine Rice. Both her voice and her manner were suitably voluptuous. 

Vittorio Grigolo with Christine Rice, as Giulietta,
the deceitful courtesan
The Met is in love with its huge chorus and generally shoehorns the whole bunch onto the stage for a couple of big numbers, in this case, the drinking songs and some comedy routines. They sounded great as always. 

The phantasmagorical production seemed overdone to me. Director Bartlett Sher loaded it with jumbled imagery and overly busy fantasies. For instance, there are waiters wearing bowler hats, reminiscent of surreal paintings by Magritte, while some of the drinkers wear silk jackets with very long tails projecting on hoops, in some reference to the French court of the 18th century. Most remarkable is a group of nearly naked dancers that turns up to wave their legs around provocatively now and then, just to keep the men awake.

Some of the scantily clad dancers
Hoffman told all these stories to pass the time while waiting for the diva Stella to arrive after her performance. By the time she gets there, he is sloppy drunk, so she goes off with his rival. Hoffmann's muse urges him to transform his painful experiences into art. Instead he does a comedy routine for the entertainment of his drunken buddies. That seems plausible.

The Met is running an encore at your local cinema Wednesday, 2-4-15.