“I am wine/I am beer/We’re man’s best friends.” Those are the opening lines of Jacques Offenbach’s not-quite-finished magnum opus The Tales of Hoffman (Les Contes d’Hoffman, ca. 1881), now in a new hit-or-miss production at the Metropolitan Opera by Bartlett Sher (The Barber of Seville at the Met, South Pacific next door). I couldn’t help but giggle: the lines seem a remnant from the composer’s comic past; he made his name and fortune throughout the 19th Century with parodic operettas that spoofed the Legitimate Opera House’s conventions. But the lines also suggest a tinge of darkness; drunkenness, after all, signals equal parts revelry and misery, especially here: by the end of the opera, our hero calls alcohol “the nothingness by which one forgets.” This conflict, between the giggly and the grave, between the silliness of Offenbach’s past and his newfound somberness, runs through the entire work.
Based on a handful of stories by E.T.A. Hoffman—who also wrote the tale on which The Nutcracker is based—the opera is structured as a poet (named Hoffman!) recounting the tales of several past love affairs gone wrong as he waits for his latest object of desire, an opera singer, to get off of work: his adoration for a girl who turned out to be a robot (!), a grand fling with a young woman who dies from singing too much (or something—a dead mother and a villainous doctor are also involved), and a tryst with a rich woman who only wanted to steal his shadow with a magic diamond. Hoffman, in his supernatural fancies, was like the Rod Serling of 19th Century Europe.
The friction between sensibilities manifests not only in the plot but in the music, which, with many breaks for applause—very unusual for the opera house—toggles between the inflamed passions of the era’s romanticism and the lighter bouffe style. (The orchestra seamlessly bounced from one to the other under the graceful baton of James Levine, who provoked robust cheers just for being there, as he was out of commission for several weeks following back surgery.) Act II opens with an aching, lovesick aria (“Elle a fui, la tourtelle”) sung by Anna Netrebko (listen here) and is soon followed by a broadly comic one (“Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre,” listen here), sung by her butler in a kind of Donald O’Connor moment.
Netrebko, one of opera’s hottest stars because she not only sings well but she’s also young and attractive, appears briefly in the opera’s bookending pro- and epi-logues; the second act is her only big moment, and she relishes it, delivering a tour-de-force of hysterical passion. She sings with youthful élan, strength and dramatic coloring; such vocal power was missing from Kate Lindsey’s turn as Hoffman’s muse, who spends most of the show disguised as his friend Nicklausse. Lindsey more than made up for it, though, with her wit and easy charm, not to mention a sweetness that grew stronger as the opera progressed. The real showstopper among the ladies here, though, was the soprano Kathleen Kim as Hoffman’s automaton crush; she sang with not only beauty and skill but with great humor, blending vocal acrobatics with a keen comedienne’s sense in her big number, Act I’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,“ also known as “The Doll Song”. (Listen here.) She is set to play Papagena in the spring’s production of The Magic Flute, which seems perfect.
The standout star here, of course, was Joseph Calleja in the title role. I have a major star crush on the Maltese tenor, who sings with such stirring clarity and feeling. (He was better at Monday night’s performance than on opening night.) Just the way he rolls his r’s in the phrase “frick frack” is music in itself—even his speaking voice must be lovely. (Someone should give him a shot at Shakespeare—no, not this.) His talent was no clearer than in Act I’s “Chanson de Kleinzach,” which has been stuck in my head for days. (Listen here.) This is Calleja’s only appearance at the Met this season, so see him now or you’ll be kicking yourself until next fall at the earliest (if you’re lucky!).
When the curtain rises on Sher’s production, it seems he has outblanded himself, but once Calleja appears on stage what had struck me as dark costumes, dim lighting and a barren set suddenly became handsome outfits, moody lighting and a crowded stage. Sher’s flat design for the Prologue is intentional, to cut a contrast to the spectacle of Act I. (The bleakness of reality versus the colorful wonder of Hoffman’s fantasy?) Sher cites Fellini as an influence, but the bold colors and old-fashioned carnivalisms evoked in equal measure the Tim Burton of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Unfortunately, it seems like Sher blew his whole budget on this extravaganza: Act II is a drab and cheap—particularly on the heels of City Opera’s stupendous Esther revival—blend of screens, shadows and projections, while Act III’s party scene is elegant but short of extravagant.
Offenbach died before constructing a definitive version of Hoffman—in performance, Act II and III are sometimes switched, some songs are added or dropped—which was to be his first serious opera, his stab at late-in-life legitimacy. And, despite some other popular compositions—his Orpheus in the Underworld overture (a glorious piece; listen here) contains the “Can-Can,” surely one of the most well known bits of Western music—it is upon this opera that his reputation rests. And for good reason: it is not only packed with gorgeous moments (such as this one), but then the opera concludes with a grand, tender and deeply moving finale, as the drunken Hoffman loses his love (yet again) but finds redemption in his art. (Listen to the finale.) The driving theme of the show (libretto by Jules Barbier) is that artistic success is rooted in romantic failure. As the muse tells the poet, “Let the ashes of your heart rekindle your genius.” Though Offenbach did not live to see his opera premiere, his ghost can rest assured that he achieved that sought-after, serious-composer status. No mere spoofeur could have prompted the tears that had welled in my eyes by the final curtain fall.
The Tales of Hoffman plays tonight at 8 p.m., as well as December 16, 23, 26, 30 and January 2. There is also a 1 p.m. matinee on December 19. Tickets and more info here.