Les Contes d'Hoffman

(The Tales of Hoffman)
Music by Jacques Offenbach
Metropolitan Opera, 31 January 2000

Hoffmann, a poet: Neil Shicoff
Olympia, a doll:
Antonietta, a young singer:
Giulietta, a courtesan:
Stella, a prima donna:
Ruth Ann Swenson
Coppélius, an optician:
Dr. Miracle:
Bryn Terfel
The Muse of Poetry:
Nicklausse, Hoffmann's friend:
Susanne Mentzer
Pierre Lefebvre
Nathanaël, a student:
Spalanzani, a physicist:
Luther, tavern owner:
Bernard Fitch
Crespel, Antonia's father:Hao Jiang Tian
Antonia's mother:Wendy White
Hermann, a student:
Christopher Schaldebrand
Conductor:Franz Vote

I first attended this production when it was new, about 1983, and taped it when it was telecast the following year. I have been back to see it once or twice, but hadn't for several years, at least not since the critical edition of the work was published and adapted to several existing productions, including this one. It is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful and effective productions of this opera I have attended and, still, after nearly 20 years, elicits audience applause when the curtain rises on Act I, Spalanzani's workshop. In its earlier incarnation, Act III took place on a piazza between a palazzo and a canal, and Giulietta, at least as portrayed by Tatyana Troyanos, wore a white chiffon gown showing a great deal of cleavage-very sexy, yet in the best taste. Currently (and, I understand, for the last several years) it unfolds in a large reception room inside the palazzo, with direct access to the canal and the gondolas passing by. Giulietta's gown has become bright pink with gold trim which, in my estimation, makes of her a more vulgar and common courtesan than were her earlier sisters.

Shicoff's Hoffmann is still one of his more effective roles, even after nearly 20 years. Apparently, he paces himself a bit better now, and doesn't end the opera completely soaked in perspiration. The fact that he can still make us believe what Hoffmann is doing, and still sing it well, is a tribute to his voice, his technique and his acting abilities.

For me, two of last night's cast were the stars of the evening, Susanne Mentzer and Bryn Terfel. The commitment, intensity and beauty of voice exhibited by this lovely lyric mezzo were made even more effective by the fact that, as the muse, she had to skip and hop around wearing a clumsy toga-like costume with an unappealing crown of something or other (NOT laurel leaves). She was, however, quite dapper as Nicklausse. Both her roles featured additional music meant to clarify the action, at least at the beginning, but some of her little arias as Nicklausse were not very pretty and did nothing to really advance the action. In fact, they made the evening feel longer than the three hours and forty-five minutes it took to get through the performance. Terfel exhibited a vocal brilliance and histrionic intensity I had never heard from him before. Each of his villains demonstrated unique touches that were all his own, despite the fact that most other villains do the roles very similarly. And his "Scintille diamant," in the Venice scene, was absolutely riveting.

This brings us to Ruth Ann Swenson, whose latest recordings are being panned all over the internet and who has made several enemies of her once-devoted public by canceling performances in D.C. Any soprano who takes on all four heroines in Hoffmann is to be respected, if nothing else. Swenson's performance last evening deserved much more than respect. Although there were some minor vocal problems in Act I, her Olympia is one of the better ones I have heard and seen. "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" was very well sung, and she remained in character throughout the scene, which is more than I can say for several others who have sung this role. Even her Giulietta was well sung and acted, if only "by the numbers." She also finished the final ensemble of that act with a very high note that was loud, clear and held. It was as Antonia that I had the most difficulty believing Swenson. She has a very short waist, which seems to be disappearing as she continues to put on weight. It was very hard for me to believe that this hefty young lady was dying of a disease that affected her heart and lungs. In fact, watching her move around the stage as Antonia (more lumber around than move) called to my mind a female muppet from Sesame Street. No singer should make anyone think of that particular Henson creation. I feel that, despite any of the negatives mentioned above, Swenson deserves our applause and respect for having performed those four roles at the Metropolitan Opera. She certainly did acquit herself honorably, if not brilliantly.

All the other roles were well-sung and acted, with special mention going to the ubiquitous Wendy White as Antonia's mother and Pierre Lefebvre as the four servants. Although James Levine was listed in the printed program as last night's conductor, there was a program insert indicating that Franz Vote would conduct because Levine was ill. I wonder if he conducted this evening's Der Rosenkavalier. (He did.) Vote was an okay conductor who occasionally whipped up his forces into great expressivity . . . and he never drowned out his singers (a plus in my book). The evening did, however, drag somewhat, and I cannot quite figure out if it was because of the extra music that really did not contribute much to the action or the conducting of Maestro Vote.

* * * *

-- Howard in Brooklyn   

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Copyright:  © 2000 Howard Levin

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