‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’ — The Unfinished Tale of Jacques Offenbach’s Last Opera

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The Poetic Connection

Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

An immensely prolific nineteenth-century creator of opérettes and opéras-bouffes, Jacob Eberst, the German-born son of Jewish cantor Isaac Juda Eberst, whose main distinction in life was relocating to Paris while giving young “Jacques” the bogus surname of Offenbach (the father was a native of the city of Offenbach am Mainz), became one of France’s best-loved composers.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) wrote over a hundred theater works, many of them agreeable burlesques with imaginative mythological and/or romantic themes that masked a politically biting, satirically comedic edge. You could say that Offenbach was the Gallic version of Gilbert and Sullivan. And much like Sir Arthur Sullivan, the musical dean of that British light-opera twosome, Offenbach was so successful at mass-producing his fleet of operettas (Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène, La Périchole, and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein among the best of them) that he longed for respectability as a so-called “serious” composer. But who to emulate?

E.T.A. Hoffmann
E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822)

It happened that one of Offenbach’s childhood idols was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, a case can be made that Mozart and Offenbach came to similar ends in that both left unfinished masterpieces at their passing — literally on their death beds: with Mozart, it was the Requiem, and with Offenbach, his final work, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). The hero of this piece, the romantic poet Hoffmann, was based on real-life poet, writer, actor, composer, conductor, lawyer and fantasist Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822), or E.T.A. for short. Don’t be fooled by the “Amadeus” part, though — Hoffmann changed his baptismal name of “Wilhelm” to “Amadeus” in Mozart’s honor.

Still, one can appreciate Offenbach’s fascination with a subject involving such a mercurial personality as Hoffmann. Despite that deliberate bit of self-hype, E.T.A. Hoffmann is credited, among other things, with writing a number of wildly fantastical tales, i.e., The Nutcracker, The Serapion Brothers, and, of course, Hoffmann’s Strange Stories, from which poet Jules Barbier refashioned his and Michel Carré’s 1851 stage play Les contes fantastique d’Hoffmann (“The Fantastic Tales of Hoffmann”) for the composer’s consideration.

Although Offenbach’s regular team of writers previously consisted of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Barbier and Carré (who passed away in 1872) had an enviable track record with their adaptation of Goethe’s epic poem Faust into an 1859 opera for Charles Gounod. They had also supplied operatic texts for the same composer’s Roméo et Juliette and The Queen of Sheba, as well as for Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Silver Bell, and Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Mignon — ergo, Offenbach’s desire for a serious venture was in safe hands. However, Barbier and Carré’s connection to and collaboration on Faust, along with Offenbach’s familiarity with the earlier piece, were of utmost significance to the structure and composition of their later Contes d’Hoffmann (1877-80).

In the first place, we have the devilish nature of the four main villains themselves: Lindorf, Coppélius, Dappertutto and Dr. Miracle — roles normally taken by a bass-baritone and remarkably suggestive of Faust’s nemesis, Méphistophélès; second, the flighty mechanical doll Olympia, whose coloratura pyrotechnics mimic those of Marguérite’s Jewel Song in the Garden Scene; third, the confrontation of the consumptive Antonia with the evil Dr. Miracle (which calls to mind Marguerite’s encounter with Satan at her church), which in turn gives way to the ensuing trio whereby the spirit of Antonia’s Mother miraculously comes to life, urging her daughter to sing ever higher (reminiscent of the concluding trio to Act V of Faust); fourth, the trio of Hoffmann, Miracle and Antonia’s father Crespel earlier in the act, a veritable clone of one from Faust’s Act IV in which Méphistophélès goads the hero into killing Marguérite’s brother, Valentin; and so on.

None of these parallel plot devices detracts from or adds to the melodic appeal of either Hoffmann or Faust. Quite the contrary, one feels that Offenbach’s music, while incomplete and hopelessly disjointed at his passing, immediately and effectively elevates his former standing as a master of light opera to a level often unattained by many serious composers.

Hoffmann Meets the Met

Jacques Offenbach ca. 1875 (Felix Nadar)
Jacques Offenbach ca. 1875 (Felix Nadar)

Poor Offenbach! He died of complications from chronic gout without ever laying eyes on his magnum opus. The resultant hodgepodge of arias, extracts, numbers and ensembles that populate Les Contes d’Hoffmann, rearranged and reassembled from a variety of sources into specious “editions” — with or without spoken dialogue or the richly rewarding orchestrations and recitatives of Ernest Guiraud; followed by the edition prepared in 1907 by the publishing house of Choudens; in addition to Fritz Oeser’s 1976 restoration, or Michael Kaye’s pioneering version from 1992, or the most recent reconstruction efforts of musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck — will forever remain the composer’s unrealized dream, a real-life tale odder and more bizarre than anything from the pen of E.T.A. Hoffmann.

And what of the Mozart angle? Let it suffice that Gounod, that gentle purveyor of parlor tunes, and his once most popular opera Faust owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s singular score for Don Giovanni. What goes around comes around, one would suppose.

Which brings our story around to the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Bartlett Sher and Michael Yeargan’s 2009 production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The question one needs to ask, prior to any revival of Hoffmann, is this: which version should one use?

From the 1940s and beyond, the Met has always presented a bowdlerized compilation of Offenbach’s most cherished piece. More often than not, the scale was tipped in favor of the Choudens edition. An exception was the one “doctored up” by Richard Bonynge, the husband and conducting partner of the late soprano Joan Sutherland. In this version from the mid-1970s, which was recorded by Decca/London in 1972, Bonynge exchanges the sung Guiraud recitatives for spoken dialogue; he also places the spurious Septet (actually, a Sextet with chorus) that normally ends the Venetian act into the Epilogue, but rearranges it as a quartet. Otherwise, his version sticks relatively close to Choudens.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Met Opera revival (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Actt II of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in Met Opera revival (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The order of the acts has been something of a controversy for many years and remains so to this day — at least to this author’s mind. In the original libretto, the Antonia act, which is set in Munich, comes after the Olympia episode and before the Venetian scene. For the dramatic effect of her death, most productions prefer to stage the Antonia sequence last. Performance practice and directors’ choices from the wealth of available (and often times confusing) material have a strong influence on the final outcome. Still, my own personal taste gravitates toward placing the Antonia sequence after that of Venice.

However, in the version under review, via the Saturday broadcast of January 31, 2015, the Met allowed director Sher and set designer Yeargan the liberty of following the original text by going against tradition and placing the Venetian act (the one with Hoffmann’s latest love interest, Giulietta, and his antagonist Dappertutto, along with the business of stealing the poet’s soul through the use of a hand mirror), dead last, so to speak, to be followed by the Epilogue.

Other add-ons comprise the Eyes Trio in lieu of Coppélius’ “J’ai des yeux” number, a lamentable loss; Nicklausse’s lost air, “Vois sous l’archet frémissant”; his newly incorporated song, “Voyez-la sous son éventail,” from Oeser instead of the normally encountered “Une poupée aux yeux d’émail” (a much livelier tune); and the Muse’s couplets in the Prologue. Items held over from Choudens, such as Dapertutto’s “Scintille diamante” (or Diamond Aria), the Septet, and the famously lyrical Barcarolle (“Belle nuit, oh nuit d’amour”), were retained. To have dispensed with them entirely would have left audiences pained at their loss. But one still questions their inclusion, since all these numbers were not technically part of Offenbach’s original plan for his opus but instead came from others of his handiwork.

One curious decision was to completely eliminate Hoffmann’s reverie, “Ah! vivre deux,” from the start of Act I — the scene where he’s falling in love with the wind-up doll Olympia — but to repeat the melody later on, which loses the thread of why he voiced his love for her in the first place. Odd, to say the least.

When It Works, It Works. But When It Doesn’t…

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

However, all of this is academic, and the ends don’t necessarily justify the means. The result is what matters. And to that end we will press on with our review. In the Met’s stellar cast were mezzo Kate Lindsey in the dual role of Nicklausse and the Muse of Poetry, soprano Erin Morley as the doll Olympia, soprano Hibla Gerzmava as Antonia, mezzo-soprano Christine Price as the courtesan Giulietta, baritone Thomas Hampson as the four villains, bass-baritone David Pittsinger in multiple roles, tenor Tony Stevenson as the various servants and minor characters, and tenor Vittorio Grigòlo as the titular hero. Yves Abel presided over the Met Opera orchestra, and Donald Palumbo was the chorus master. The costume designs were by Catherine Zuber and the lighting by James E. Ingalls.

With such an array of talent, one would have expected a truly extraordinary performance. In that I was dismayed, for these Tales left much to be desired. My biggest beef is with the Met’s annoying habit of cutting second verses to the airs and numbers that make up the heart and soul of this melodious work. This bewildering practice cuts short the desired effect a particular singer tends to achieve by repeating refrains or sustaining a given mood. Without a follow-up verse or stanza, the mood is shattered and the labor that went into putting over the piece goes for naught.

Time and again, this pattern was repeated, the upshot of which was a smattering of applause, which no singer — professional or otherwise — should stand still for. But how to overcome it? Under the best of circumstances, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is a long opera indeed: three fantastical tales invoking, at times, the supernatural and bookended by a Prologue and an Epilogue, with a dizzying assortment of the tried-and-true clashing with the unfamiliar. If something must go by the wayside, then let it be the applause. We will never know what Offenbach’s initial intentions were for his work; but we do know what works and what doesn’t. And cutting the verses to songs, dear Met management, simply does not work.

Another point of contention is the casting — or should I say miscasting — of principal roles. By this, I mean the egregious naming of a light baritone (a world-class light baritone, by all reports) to take on the nefarious villains, where a deeper, fuller vocal apparatus is called for. There have been winning productions where the villains were played by different singers, which can lead to some confusion since, in theory, they’re all different manifestations of the same individual. I’m thinking of director John Schlesinger’s 1981 Covent Garden production, preserved on video and DVD. But to hire three additional artists when usually there is only one would be an added cost factor against such an endeavor.

On the other hand, casting a single singer to play all three female leads (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) would serve little purpose, since each part lies in a different vocal category altogether. Few artists are capable of the transition. In fact, I know of a handful of performers, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills among them, who have met the challenge and, if not exactly triumphed, at least gave it their best shot.

And what of the lead? One of the most exacting in the repertoire, the singer taking on this assignment frequently dips into overdrive, with a range that falls well within the tenor’s passaggio at constant intervals. To excel as Hoffmann is to conquer the Matterhorn of French roles, not to mention the other demands placed on the singer’s shoulders, i.e., the dramatic fluctuations in the character’s makeup, his despair at Antonia’s demise, his pining for his lost soul, his shock at Olympia’s destruction and the deception he feels upon discovering she is nothing but an automaton.

Now that I’ve stated my case, let me express high praise for Vittorio Grigòlo’s Hoffmann, as fine a modern interpolation of the lovesick poet as I have encountered of late. While not completely effacing memories of such past exponents as Nicolai Gedda or Alfredo Kraus, or the richly rewarding interpretations of Plácido Domingo and Neil Shicoff, I found Vittorio’s singing to be inspired, surprisingly agile and authentically up to par as well as genuinely affecting. Having heard his Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon (which he is scheduled to sing this season) and his Rodolfo in La Bohème, Grigòlo’s Hoffmann was fully at one with the character: the passion, the burnished quality of the voice, his soft singing and delicate phrasing and feel for the French vocal style, were all present.

Hoffmann with Giulietta (Christine Rice) in Act III
Hoffmann with Giulietta (Christine Rice) in Act III

And that’s just for starters! When I first caught wind of Grigòlo’s voice, I imagined him to be a pushed-up Pavarotti, whom he immodestly sounded like. What I did not expect, after hearing some strained high notes with the exigencies of the Duke of Mantua’s music, was his newly-acquired ease above the staff. I was most pleased with Vittorio’s abilities to maintain a smooth line and, best of all, his pouring out at full volume of as much vocal gold as the role required. On the acting front (which is difficult to decipher, this being a radio broadcast), he delivered a credible performance. With good looks to spare and comfortable stage deportment, Vittorio is well on his way at last to the top tier of the Met’s roster of talents. If he sticks with the French repertoire and continues to improve on his natural gifts, he will bring added luster to the dwindling ranks of Italian tenors for many years to come.

His opposite number, baritone Thomas Hampson, was nowhere near this level. Defeated at every turn (and going counter to expected wisdom) as the four villains, Hampson was primarily a victim of the Met’s miscasting department. Where to begin? Let’s take Councilor Lindorf, a dark bass with a bit of a top extension whose lines skim the boundaries of operatic villainy in his opening number, “Dans les rôles d’amoureux.” But where were the sardonic asides, the hearty laughter, the feeling of dread this character must exude by strictly vocal means? There were none to be had.

Thomas Hampson as Councilor Lindorf in the Prologue
Thomas Hampson as Councilor Lindorf in the Prologue

Moving on to his Coppélius, Hampson sounded a shade livelier. Here was a chance for him to chew up the scenery as the demented inventor. Deprived of his aria, as previously noted, the substitute Eyes Trio came and went with hardly a ripple. Unfortunately, on the radio one is bereft of images; the voice and, by implication, the power of the imagination must take over for want of sight. Where I felt Hampson could have shined was in the Antonia act. Now there was an opportunity to make up for lost ground. No such luck! The requisite demonic quality, that satanic spark of evil incarnate, was totally lacking in Thomas’ all-too sedate portrayal. It was tantamount to sending a Valentin to do Mephisto’s job.

And why was that? Most likely through those missing vocal means I just mentioned. I’ve been privileged to see or hear the four villains executed by some of the best singing-actors in the business: Norman Treigle, Geraint Evans, George London (also with diminished vocal means), Gabriel Bacquier, Thomas Stewart (a noted Wotan in his time), Samuel Ramey, and James Morris and Alan Held, both with their imposing height and physical advantages. Hampson may have had the height, but not the obligatory vocal resources necessary to pull it off. His Dappertutto in the Venetian act might have saved the day, but here again his Diamond Aria sounded out of sorts and simply unidiomatic. The legato was labored, and the downward transposition a most puzzling postscript. Hampson has much better top notes than bottom ones. So why not sing it in the original key of E major then, instead of E flat? I’m still scratching my head over that one.

Kate Lindsey was the personification of the poet’s Muse and steadfast companion (and conscience) Nicklausse in the expanded portions of this role. Her voice sailed through the additional music with ease and assurance, and her extra aria in Act II, a most emotionally wrought number, literally stopped the show. Erin Morley’s A above high C as the loony mechanical doll Olympia, in her ditzy aria, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” also earned hefty acclaim. Her precisely executed runs and elaborate florid passages took one’s breath away.

Erin Morley as Olympia in Act I (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Erin Morley as Olympia in Act I (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Moving on to the later acts, Hibla Gerzmava’s Antonia was another fresh-voiced Slavic artist (from Abkhazia) whose emotional commitment to the part overcame some screechy vocal patches in the taxing trio with the sturdy contralto of Olesya Petrova as her Mother. Her duet with Hoffmann, “C’est une chanson d’amour,” was also finely handled. There’s not much to say about Christine Rice’s Giulietta, except to note that her voice blended well with Lindsey’s in the familiar Barcarolle. Through no fault of her own, Rice did what she could with Giulietta, one of those unrewarding roles that have been relegated to non-existent status throughout the years.

The other singers in the cast — tenor Dennis Peterson’s dual assumption of Spalanzani and Nathanaël, David Pittsinger’s Luther and expertly vocalized Crespel, David Crawford’s Hermann, and especially the canny interpretations of Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz (whose delightful couplets, “Jour et nuit,” pleased the ear), and the cacophonous Pitichinacchio by Tony Stevenson — were all splendidly done and quite convincing sonically.

Maestro Yves Abel attacked the prelude and many of the orchestral passages that permeate this work with swift tempos and relentless vigor. Perhaps too much vigor: where the music could have stood a tad more relaxation or expansion for the sheer enjoyment of the score itself if nothing else, Abel opted to press on.

All right, I buy that. This rapid approach does have its precedent in early 78s from Weimar Republic Germany, the setting and style for this production. Bowler hats and black frock coats were the fashion rule. However, I’m not sure the prevailing dreariness of the backdrops or the Expressionist aspect of the staging and design work did much to enliven the proceedings. If Les Contes d’Hoffmann left this listener wanting more, that’s saying something for Offenbach’s unfinished tale.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes      

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