Director Bartlett Sher achieves the distinction of having not one or two but three shows playing at Lincoln Center this season. In addition to his longrunning Broadway revival of “South Pacific,” the Met Opera now unveils his new production of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which follows his 2006 staging of “The Barber of Seville,” to be revived in February. If “Hoffman” isn’t quite the smashing success of those earlier entries, the fault probably lies less with Sher than with Jacques Offenbach, the opera’s composer.
Offenbach was no Rossini or, for that matter, Richard Rodgers when it came to musical invention. At more than 3 1/2 hours, “Hoffmann” desperately needs an editor to bring it down to size. If Michael Grandage can cut an hour from the Jude Law “Hamlet,” if John Doyle can cut “Tick Tock” from “Company,” certainly “Hoffmann” need not be treated as though it were Wagner.
Since Offenbach didn’t live to see “Hoffmann” produced in 1881, many versions exist; it seems that every few years someone finds some “lost” tune. And so the notes keep being piled unto this musical leviathan.
The phantasmagorical story of the poet Hoffmann (Joseph Calleja), who loves four women — a prima donna (Anna Netrebko), a mechanical doll (Kathleen Kim), a young singer (Netrebko) and a courtesan (Ekaterina Gubanova) — but is not loved in return, has always been an excuse for opera companies to put on the dog with extravagant scenic tricks.
Sher, with his usual Broadway cohorts — set designer Michael Yeargan and costumer Catherine Zuber — has taken a simpler approach. Problem is, if you take away a lot of that stagecraft sorcery, you’re left with Offenbach, and too much of “Hoffmann” sounds as if it were written on automatic pilot.
For instance, the prologue and act one run a full 50 minutes before the opera gets to its first certified showstopper, the doll Olympia’s aria, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” sung to perfection by Kim. Act two picks up with Netrebko’s full-throated, gutsy Antonia, who’d rather sing herself to death than set up home, hearth and “brats” (as the libretto so delicately puts it) with Hoffmann. And the barcarole “Belle nuit” is sumptuously sung by Kate Lindsey, as Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse, and Gubanova, who, as the courtesan Giulietta would rather lounge around on the Venice canal with her nearly naked lesbian friends.
In interviews and the Met’s playbill, Sher suggests Hoffmann embodies the Jew as outsider, an interpretation that makes for a clever staging of the prologue’s Kleinzach number, in which chorus boys turn the tavern’s tablecloths into prayer shawls. It’s a gesture Hoffmann repeats at opera’s end when he returns alone and lonely to his typewriter to crank out more poetry. Otherwise, Sher doesn’t get much mileage out of the concept. Much more intriguing is his take on the artist as outsider, as someone who must be emotionally removed in order to create.
Yeargan’s set provides a panorama of doorways, and it’s clear from Sher’s staging that each of Hoffmann’s women is an actress who would rather be on the boards performing than offstage with Hoffmann himself.
Debutante Lindsey, who looks and sounds like a young Federica von Stade, plays the dual roles of Hoffmann’s muse and friend Nicklausse. Some friend. Nicklausse spends an awful lot of stage time with the opera’s four villains, devilishly interpreted by Alan Held, and at opera’s end, Nicklausse delivers Hoffmann back to the muse. The poet is deeply scathed by love but ready again to write, finally.
Given that almost all the memorable music goes to the women and not Hoffmann, the question arises that perhaps our hero isn’t really worthy of any woman’s love — certainly not if he in any way compromises their art as performers.
So what kind of poet is he? On opening night, Calleja essayed his very first Hoffmann. Right now, his is a rather blunt interpretation but one that will no doubt grow in subsequent performances. What he has going for him is a bright lyric tenor with an extremely attractive rapid vibrato, ideal for the French repertory, and Calleja uses his mezzo-voce to ravishing, vulnerable effect. He rushes some of the phrasing, and a bit more shape of the vocal line is needed; if ever music required shape and personality it’s Offenbach’s.
While the physical production serves Sher’s “outsider” concept, Yeargan’s various set pieces make for exceedingly flat stage pictures that range from garish (act one) to stark (act two) to fussy (act three). Occasionally, he adds flamboyant touches — a huge gondola, a swirling Chinese dragon — that look like leftovers from some bygone Franco Zeffirelli staging.
Flamboyant, however, doesn’t begin to describe the costumes Zuber has created for the drag queens in Olympia’s audience and the lesbians who surround Giulietta, attired as they are in black bikini briefs and sequined pasties. Their hetero counterparts get only slightly more cloth, including the corseted, lace-encrusted female dancers who recline on the pelvises of similarly outfitted male dancers as they position their legs in symbols of what appear to be rising erections and opening vaginas.
Dou Dou Huang is the choreographer and it’s a pity one must wait nearly the entire duration to witness his truly amazing work here.
James Levine returned after recent back surgery to the podium opening night, inspiring huge ovations both before and after the performance.