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Offenbach's "Les Contes D’Hoffman": at the Metropolitan Opera, Conducted by James Levine
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Offenbach's "Les Contes D’Hoffman": at the Metropolitan Opera, Conducted by James Levine

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Les Contes D’Hoffman
At the
Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera House

Music: Jacques Offenbach
Libretto: Jules Barbier
Based on the play by:
Jules Barbier and Michel Carré

Conductor: James Levine
Production: Bartlett Sher
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls
Choreographer: Dou Dou Huang
Stage Director: Gina Lapinski
General Manager: Peter Gelb
Music Director: James Levine

Hoffmann, a Poet: Mathew Polenzani
The Muse of Poetry/Nicklausse, a Friend:
Jennifer Johnson Cano
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto:
Laurent Naouri
Olympia, a Doll: Audrey Luna
Antonia, a Young Singer/Stella, a Prima Donna:
Susanna Phillips
Giulietta, a Courtesan: Elena Maximova
Tony Stevenson
Luther, Proprietor of the Tavern/Crespel, Antonia’s Father:
David Pittsinger
Hermann, a Student/Schlémil: David Crawford
Nathanaél, a Student/Spalanzani, a Physicist:
Mark Schowalter
Antonia’s Mother: Margaret Lattimore

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 21, 2015

Les Contes D’Hoffmann (1911)
(Read the plot of the opera, Les Contes D’Hoffmann here.)

It might make a good, new opera to delve into the drama of various incarnations and reinventions of the score for Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffman, as the composer died in 1880, with the final score incomplete. Maestro James Levine has the 1911 revised score and scenic transitions mastered, and he could not have had a better tenor in the spotlight’s title role. Matthew Polenzani, who was recently reviewed in solo recital with Julius Drake on piano, brings dynamic fervor and authentic passion to each role. He’s also been reviewed on these pages in the summer HD Met Opera films outdoors. Most notably, as Nemorino, in L’Elisir d’Amore, shown last August, Mr. Polenzani brought tears to the listener’s eyes, with his poignant performance of “Una Furtiva Lagrima”. In Les Contes D’Hoffmann, however, there are no renowned, gripping songs, but, rather, enchanting, ingénue romance, fantasy, humor, and much ado on stage, thanks to Bartlett Sher’s incredible, surreal production. (See above link for plot.) In Act I, in Spalanzani’s mechanical doll workshop, giant eyes (evocative of René Magritte) roll about on the tops of spinning parasols; in Act II, a giant, moving, chiaroscuro horse carriage trots to the door; and, in Act III, a Venetian gondola and gondolier float through. Sets and stage usually remain uncluttered and stark, with shifting light and backdrop projections. There’s also a Prologue and Epilogue.

Mr. Polenzani, as Hoffman (an homage to E.T.A. Hoffmann), regales Luther’s tavern with tales of his lost, but memorable lovers. The plot itself, as well as the score, do not engender a need to revisit Hoffmann in future Met seasons, but, for this one night, I was thrilled to be in attendance. Hoffmann’s three love memories involve Olympia the Parisian mechanical doll, Antonia, a lovely country woman of weak heart, and Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan. Nicklausse is ever present as Hoffmann’s muse and friend, somewhat of an operatic Greek chorus of one, in black attire with top hat. As Olympia, Audrey Luna, a petite soprano, sings the shrill high notes with ease, in staccato verve, higher and higher up the scale, falling down, meanwhile, as she needs to be rewound. As Antonia (and Stella in an elusive, later role as one more love interest), soprano, Susanna Phillips won my fascination, as she sings herself to her demise, with eloquence and full, earthy warmth. As Giulietta, mezzo-soprano, Elena Maximova sang with striking vivacity, in an all too brief third act role. Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, sang the roles of Nicklausse and what’s termed the Muse of Poetry, with refined rich tonality, although she served as a quasi-shadow, or Greek chorus, but never an object of Hoffmann’s desire. Laurent Naouri, baritone, played the roles of all four villains, Lindorf, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Coppélius.
My favorite character, in a secondary role, was David Pittsinger’s Crespel, Antonia’s father (He was also Luther, the tavern proprietor). I first heard Mr. Pittsinger in Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific, as Emil de Becque, and then again in Laurent Pelly’s production of Manon at The Met, as Count des Grieux. Mr. Pittsinger’s bass-baritone is always gripping and tonally resonant. Additional secondary cast include Tony Stevenson, David Crawford, Mark Schowalter, and Margaret Lattimore, in a total of nine more characters. Needless to say, the opera is top heavy with operatic cast, that reappears in various gestural roles, with differentiated vocal theatrics. After the second intermission (during which I heard complaints of confusion) my grand tier row was empty, except for me. I would never leave early, but I will note that intermissions were unusually long, and it seemed the opera would continue till dawn. The Met Chorus was absolutely superb, in each and every scene, especially in the bon vivant drinking scenes, when they sang of Hoffmann’s generosity as host for food and wine. When they ordered the punch to be lit, it was, with billowing smoke from the giant silver kettle, and ladles of smoky wine added to the carousing. Michael Yeargan’s sets included the life-size gondola and factory of dolls. Catherine Zuber’s doll tutus and courtesan glitter were mesmerizing. James F. Ingalls’ lighting was especially effective in Act II, with the shadowy carriage and outdoor forest lit for longing and fate.

Dou Dou Huang’s choreography is outstanding, as multiple dolls mimic Olympia’s antics, while Hoffman strains to see love in Olympia’s glass eyes. But, Maestro Levine and Matthew Polenzani, amidst the madness and mayhem, were the stars of this show. Bartlett Sher is well known on Broadway, and he knows how to build a great show. But, every show needs a star who can sing. Mr. Polenzani is a rising internationally acclaimed tenor with his own unique talent, one that seems to be achieving new heights this very season, with the solo recital and Met lead. I did notice that he’ll appear next season in two operas; be sure to check the Met Opera’s schedule for Les Pêcheurs de Perles and Roberto Devereux. Also, look about for David Pittsinger and for more Bartlett Sher productions. They’ll keep you riveted in your seat, throughout the late hours. And, of course, look for Maestro James Levine, a one of a kind conductor, whose Met Orchestra rewards him with lush, sumptuous musicality. Kudos to all.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at