Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Jacques Offenbach

Photo from fanfaire.com
I got to see the 2014/2015 Met Season HD Live restaging of their 2009 production directed by Bartlett Sher. Tales of Hoffmann is, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, one of my favorite operas. There's a lot of catchy music, of course - how fabulous is the Barcarolle?! - but it's also just a dark, dark intriguing story, and because Offenbach died before completing the opera, there are numerous versions in existence.

I liked that this production restored the order of the episodes - Antonia (Act III), Gulietta (Act IV) - which makes so much more sense to me as a story-telling arc. I have a soft-spot for Victorian/Edwardian, and thus Steam-Punk by extension, and I liked these elements in the production. Unfortunately, I had recently seen Steam-Punk done so much better in the National Theater production of Frankenstein (which was fabulous) and even the 2014/2015 Met production of Un Ballo in Maschera (which was fabulous).

And it didn't feel consistent throughout - I suppose it wouldn't have to be since the Olympia, Antonia, and Gulietta are virtually stand-alone - but the stylistic departures bothered me. I still don't understand why Olympia looked like she had been lifted from Candyland, or, more importantly, why there were more than one of her. Act III had a completely different feel than the zaniness of Act II, and I can only describe Act IV as Victoria Secret-meets-Louis-the-Fourteenth. Unfortunately, we had already done scantily clad women pretty thoroughly in Act II (where I don't think they belong), so by Act IV it was just scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The most intriguing part for me was the Muse/Niklausse, sung both in 2009 and 2014 by mezzo Kate Lindsey. The recording I'm used to is the 1981 Domingo, which does not include an introduction by the Muse (THAT makes a huge difference, story-wise!). The Met production goes further by adding stage-business that suggests/makes clear that the Muse as Niklausse intends to partner up with the villain of the piece in order to thwart Hoffmann's attempts at finding any happiness through love, a decidedly darker version of this already grim opera. I thought that was fascinating, but insufficiently supported, and relied mostly on the singers acting between the lines.

I also found the ending intriguing. I miss the beautiful lines I'm used to where the Muse reveals herself and says, "Hoffmann, I love you," but there was a lot of new libretto I hadn't heard before - and I so wish I could quote it, but I'm relying on my memory of the subtitles here! - where the Muse told Hoffmann he could take the ashes of his dead loves and transform them into art. I've mangled it, but that was the sense, and I've discovered through writing that sometimes I'm able to look back over my whole life and realize it's all just raw material to be transformed, the good and bad.