Monday November 30, 2009 - Offenbach's CONTES D'HOFFMANN is pretty low on my list of operas. It's always seemed frivolous to me and the title-character is neither sympathetic nor are his lady-loves particularly interesting. Hoffmann is clueless: mechanical dolls break, whores are by their nature faithless, consumptive-types die. What did he expect from them as individuals? Maybe Hoffmann should follow his true destiny and bed down with his beloved Nicklausse.
As an opera HOFFMANN's way too long: too many superfluous characters and too much uninspired filler. The opera goes on and on and ends up nowhere. What rescues it (to a point) is some of the music. Before I tired of warbling coloraturas, the Doll Song was always on my hit parade. Almost the whole of the Venetian Scene is superb (shed the chit-chat, though) and the trio where the portrait of Antonia's mother starts singing can be exciting, provided the Antonia nails the climactic top note (one of Malfitano's specialties).
So anyway, on a whim I entered the Met's drawing for tickets to today's dress rehearsal and I won. At first I thought I'd just skip it, but then decided I had nothing to lose by going and I could always leave if I got bored.
The line-up of singers changed radically from the the initially-announced Netrebko-Garanca-Villazon-Pape. Ms. Netrebko abandoned the idea of being a 4-heroines diva and stuck appropriately with Antonia (and Stella). Ms. Garanca went from being a boy to being a Carmen. Mr. Villazon is god-knows-where and possibly Mr. Pape realized that the four villains are musically taxing for a basso (I have a Rene Pape story to tell from my Tower days, but...not now), and besides he's preparing the far more suitable and important role of Wotan.
So instead we had Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Alan Held as the Villains, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova (soon to be the Berlioz Cassandra at Carnegie Hall) as Giulietta, the pint-sized big-voiced coloratura Kathleen Kim as Olympia and the inimitable Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse.
I arrived dateless at the Met (Lisette was under the weather) so I gave my second ticket to a nice young man who reminded me of myself 40+ years ago. Then I decided I did not feel like sitting in the middle of a row of strangers halfway up the Dress Circle where the sound tends to get cut off by the overhang. So I headed for List Hall where I watched the prologue and Act I on the big screen.
The production was more enjoyable than I anticipated, darkish and with elements of fantasy (I loved the dragon-spiral staircase in the Olympia scene) but the opera remains mostly uninteresting to me. They seemed to be doing the 'long' version with the guitar aria for Nicklausse and a trio I wish had been cut (though it was very well sung).
Alan Held was excellent in the villain roles which often sit too high for bassos and too low for baritones. Alan spans the range comfortably, is an incisive and suavely creepy menace. Kate Lindsey's impeccable sound and persuasive turns of phrase were a joy as The Muse/Nicklausse. She is lithe, moves about the stage elegantly and sounds so suave with her lovely French diction.
The title-role may be a little heavy for Joseph Calleja. The lyric tenor with the rapid vibrato is such an appealing singer with ideal colours of melancholy and vulnerability in his tone. He tended to sing just a hair's breadth sharp much of the time. I found out that after I left Calleja was replaced by David Pomeroy before Act II began.
In a striking success, Kathleen Kim (above) reeled off the dizzy roulades of Olympia with bell-like clarity and more sweetness of tone than we sometimes hear in this high-flying role. The topmost notes sparkled, and she was a vivacious actress. The audience gave her a long applause after her brilliantly vocalized showpiece.
Ran into Adi, John, Laurel, Susan and Juan at intermission. Most agreed they were enjoying it but that some parts were over-long. I'd planned to stay, but when I went back to List Hall I was told they were no longer showing it there. It was too late to go into the auditorium. So I left.