I have a particular affection for Les Contes d'Hoffmann, the great Offenbach opera based on the weird tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman, the German Romantic who also wrote the story on which The Nutcracker is based. It is a long opera but all its parts are delightful. The title character falls in love with three unlikely ladies: a doll, a sickly singer, and a courtesan. Each love (and act) ends in disaster. There's also a prologue and epilogue, set in a tavern where Hoffmann waits his latest charmer, a diva named Stella singing in the opera house upstairs.
The opera not only has had many productions in many places, but even exists in many different versions. This is because Offenbach left it unfinished. In recent years, Acts II and III have been reversed, and this switch has even been accepted by the sometimes stodgy Met. Now the Venice act comes last--with its multiple shoiwpiece arias and duets--the famed Barcarolle which opens and closes the act, the Love Duet between Hoffmann and Giulietta, Schlemil's rollicking song--now sung by Hoffmann at the Met, and the villain's , in this act, Dappertutto's, great bass aria, Scintille Diamant.
The Met's production, which had its first performance this season last week on the second night of the season, is eight years old and was created by Bartlett Sher, who has been highly successful on Broadway, with the fine revival of South Pacific as well as several other hits. But his Hoffmann is not a great production--it has lots of the kind of weird, strange characteristics of many edgy European opera productions without the freshness that those shows often possess.
Nevertheless, to me, it was a roaring success because I heard possibly the best singing of this opera I have ever enjoyed. Vittorio Grigolo was a marvelous Hoffmann, singing clearly and beautifully with full emotion, yet not giving way to any ornaments that would detract from the characterization. Ornaments were left to Erin Morley in the coloratura role of Olympia, the doll with whom Hoffman falls in love. The other two lovers were played by Anita Hartig and Oksana Volkova, who also had lovely voices. Geraldine Chauvet had the trouser role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann's reliable friend and travelling partner, who becomes his Muse in the epilogue. She was marvelous but the staging did have her wandering around during many scenes for seemingly no good reason.
Laurent Naouri played the four villains with excellent style and Christophe Mortagne overacted as the four servants, but his gesturing was well within the normal wide range allowed the performer of these roles.
As it was as good a performance in terms of singing that I had ever experienced, it can only be compared to the CD I have of Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland (doing all the heroines), which is about as good as it gets. The great Gabriel Bacquier did the villains and it made me realize how good both he and Naouri were because their native French comes through so well.
There did not appear to be a Times review of this production but last week it was mentioned prominently in an article about the rise of singing and the voice to preeminent roles in today's opera scene, as contrasted with the emphasis on productions, staging, and story that dominated for some time, often under the appellation "regietheater". This singing was the kind that stays with you, especially for the wonderful music in Hoffmann.