Friday, December 25, 2009

I see that Bonaldo Giaiotti has a Christmas birthday. Happy birthday (yesterday, actually, at this point) to this fine (and, in his prime, underrated) basso, now 77! I saw him often as Sparafucile, Ramfis, Alvise -- and of course, his voice defined Timur for a generation.

Here he is singing "Ella giammai g'amo" (how is Ella, anyway? Merry Christmas to her) at the Arena di Verona in 1985. Not as warm and grand as Tozzi, not as omg-cantante as Siepi, but, one could argue, more sheer bassiness than those super-greats who outshone him. Ad multos annos!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

- La Muse, si vous le permettez, sortira d'un tonneau.

- Si je le permets? Volontiers, mademoiselle, pourvu que vous ne rentrez plus dedans, mais restez ici!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Met HOFFMANN: Muse at 11 !

Well, I have a new opera lovemuffin: Kate Lindsey, the mezzo-soprano who plays the Muse and Nicklausse in the current production. (I said new, not only: I still love you too, Anna!)

And therein lies a point: this is the most Muse-centric HOFFMANN I've ever seen. Afaik, productions since the '70s have been stressing Nicklausse's dual identify as Hoffmann's male best friend and his female Muse. As "gender-bending" has become more popular, along with increasingly erudite reconstructions of Offenbach's original score and dramaturgy, this trend has only continued.

(The problem of conflicting "original versions" of this opera, and their contestable preferability to the more familiar "corrupt" version that made this opera a world-wide hit, is well discussed in this review from 21 years ago.)

Without endorsing "gender-bending" as such, I approve. Nicklausse was always more than just the one who "du ben sens emporta le prix," though he's at least that. There's a reason he's there in every story with his "good sense." He doesn't just want Hoffmann to stay out of trouble, as a good "best friend" character. He -- or rather she, the loving and jealous Muse of Poetry -- wants Hoffmann for herself. Even in the Cluytens recording on EMI, made before many of the current trends, the Muse announced (speaking) to Hoffmann: "L'homme n'est plus: renais poete! Hoffmann, appartiens-moi!"

The difference today is that the Muse is not an elderly French actress (as in the Cluytens recording), but a rather attractive Kate Lindsey, who looks good in Nicklausse's Dietrich-esque suit and top-hat -- and even better in the Muse's white shift!

In Bartlett Sher's production for the Met, the Muse is after Hoffmann with a vengeance. Her "sortira d'un tonneau " scene in the Prologue is not spoken (there is no spoken dialogue in this production) but sung, to an aria-tune I was not familiar with (is this an Oeser "discovery"? Authenticity in dispute?) She's got her work cut out for her: at curtain-rise, Hoffmann and Stella are making out on a table at Master Luther's tavern. Sensing Hoffmann's heart isn't in it, Stella (played by Netrebko, doubling Antonia), slinks out to get ready for her role in DON GIOVANNI at the opera house next door -- but not before bestowing a challenging mock-kiss on the Muse. Girl, we're fighting this one out! And the Muse as good as says so!

This leads to this production's most unusual feature: virtual collusion between Nicklausse/Muse and the Villains. Some will say, more than virtual. I don't think we need to go that far. But, at a minimum, the Villains take Nicklause into their confidence in a way I've never seen before, or could have imagined. Nicklausse helps Coppelius sell Hoffmann the glasses (Levine here uses a trio that I think is Oeser; anyway he doesn't use the aria "J'ai des yeux"). Nicklausse ushers Dr. Miracle into Crespel's living room, and lends his/her wrist to Dr. Miracle for the taking of the absent Antonia's pulse. Dr. Miracle's "Morte!" was half-whispered aside to Nicklausse. In the Venice Act, "Scintille diamant" (yes, we got the complete and exclusive traditional Guiraud/Choudens Venice Act: no poison, no "Tourne miroir," no "L'amour lui dit la belle" -- the dream of a traditionalist, like me!) began as sort of "OK, now here's the plan" speech to Nicklausse.

So the question then becomes -- wtf? Does Nicklausse join the Evil Genius in wanting Hoffmann to suffer and wanting to destroy the Three Heroines? Well, first, remember that there is the gravest doubt that the Three Heroines, unlike Stella, are real, as opposed to being pure creations of Hoffmann's imagination. In the Prologue, Nicklausse significantly asks: "Que parles-tu de trois maitresses?" And Hoffmann replies with words that strongly suggest stuffing a pipe-stem in Nicklausse's mouth to shut him up: "Fume!" ("Smoke" Or, "Here, have a pipe.") He follows this up by assuring Nicklausse that he will understand only when the stories are told, and his own role as the one who "carried off the prize for good sense" becomes clear. The Muse's only rival in "real life," if that term has any purchase in this opera, is Stella.

Second, according to the ensemble that ends the opera in the Met's version (another Oeser-ism?), the poet is made great through love. But implicitly, it is not as a lover that he is to be great, but as a poet. Hoffmann's travails in the three tales are his artistic boot camp. Nicklausse, in this view, becomes his artistic drill instructor -- adversative, but for constructive purposes -- even if the Evil Genius remains an Evil Genius. In Sher's view, a certain alignment of intent arises between the Villains and Nicklausse/Muse, but not an alignment of motive. Both want to ix-nay Hoffmann's romance of the moment -- the Villains, to destroy him; the Muse, to build him up and win him over.

(Sher refocuses attention away from the Villains by costuming the patient Alan Held substantially the same in each of his four roles. I've seen productions in which each Villain was costumed gloriously differently: generally I prefer this, but Sher's alternative view is valid.)

Singers: I loved Joseph Calleja's Hoffmann. There are experts who don't, finding an unpleasant vibrato in his voice. I don't: I hear a voice that is lyrical enough to convey Hoffmann's tenderness and vulnerability, yet with sufficient stamina to get through the role. I think it is the sheer length of the part that takes it out of the reach of some lyric tenors. An excellent Hoffmann was served up to us at the Virginia Opera about a year ago by Dan Snyder -- but Dan is a budding Heldentenor. John Alexander was a leading Hoffmann at the Met in the '60s -- but John was really a juegendliche Heldentenor, discovered as such by the City Opera (Stolzing, Bacchus), and by James Levine in a concert LOHENGRIN, but never by the Met. Long story short: Hoffmann is a tough role, and to get through it with a consistent sweet voice is a feat. Calleja pulled it off with grace.

Kate Lindsey -- who, as I said, must now put up with my crushing on her -- was clearly the #2 star and the #1 diva of the performance: when has Nicklausse ever achieved that? At curtain calls, it was she, not any of the Three Heroines, who brought Maestro Levine onstrage for his bow. And that was with Netrebko on stage and eligible for this privilege -- gewalt! Lindsey has a clean and lithe lyric mezzo voice, and a face that says "handsome" more than "gorgeous" in a, you know, Netrebko-esque way. She also showed, like Calleja, great vocal stamina, as the version performed here includes several Nicklausse/Muse arias (Oeser's, I suspect) that one doesn't usually hear: the sung version of the Muse's self-introduction aria, a Nicklausse aria making fun of Olympia early in Act I, the "violin aria" in Act II, and the "love makes art" ensembe at the end of the Epilogue.

To help make time for these, and perhaps to spare Calleja some effort, Hoffmann's "O vivre deux" in Act I was dropped -- and was not missed. Point is, Nicklausse/Muse in this version is a role of near-Wagnerian length, and Miss Lindsey shone from first to last.

While Calleja has largely been spared invidious comparisons to Rolando Villazon, whom he replaced, Alan Held, in the role of the Four Villains, has been made to suffer by comparison to Rene Pape, whom he replaced. (Quick: has it ever happened before that one bass-baritone with a 4-letter first and last name replaced another one with a 4-letter first and last name in the same production? -- I have no idea.)

Held need not worry. Perhaps Pape, with his bassier voice and well-known dramatic flair, would have been even better, but Held is a pro in this trying tour-de-force, and held his own (ha ha ha) vocally and dramatically. Those who remark that his performance fell short of the breath-taking bad-assery of the greatest "Four Villains-es" (London, Evans, Treigle, Bacquier) should remember that this production dials down the Villains' importance a little, making him share attention with Nicklausse/the Muse. Blame that on director Bartlett Sher, if you must, but not on Held.

The Three Heroines: After La Netrebko decided not to attempt the unnecessary tour de force of doing all of them, we ended up with three specialists: Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Netrebko as Antonia (and, in flapper gear, as Stella), and Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta.

Miss Kim, all four foot two of her, give or take, has an ample, supple, and precise coloratura vice; she coordinated it well with mechanical moves, which at one point included turning so as to knock Hoffmann down. Netrebko is in good vocal form, and she conveyed the agony of Antonia's choice -- love and domesticity, or singing, career, and public acclaim -- very movingly.

Gubanova showed an acceptable mezzo voice, not much more; she was burdened by a costume and hairdo that made the Venetian courtesan decidedly the least alluring of the production's heroines, including the Muse (when in female attire) and the doll! This was the only costume Fail of the production: having moved the entire action into the early 20th century, in pursuit of the Kafka side of Hoffmann's fiction, why revert to the ROSENKAVALIER-ish 18th century for the Venice Act? More flappers -- that's what we needed! And a less crowded stage altogether: shouldn't the stage clear for "Scintille diamant" and the ensuing Dappertutto-Giulietta and Hoffmann-Giulietta duets? And fill up again when Schlemil returns? Aren't his words "Venez, messieurs, venez" a cue for the chorus and extras to reenter, which assumes they've been gone?

The smaller roles featured numerous outstanding performances. (Hat-tip to Michael Scarola for providing me with the full cast -- the Met website does not, and I've mislaid the relevant issue of Opera News.)

Mark Schowalter, looking like Dr. Evil, was a strong Spalanzani. Alan Oke portrayed the Four Servants with a completely different look in each part, and delivered Franz's aria with great charm. Michael Todd Simpson's youthful, long-haired Schlemil looked like Russell Brands, which is an off-beat way to present Schlemil to say the least (remember when this role was taken by the cavernous, Karloff-esque Morley Meredith, a former Four Villains?), but Simpson, doubling as the student Herman in the Prologue, sang well. Dean Peterson doubled Luther and Crespel respectably, and Rodell Rosel, who will soon sing Valzacchi in ROSENKAVALIER, showed some character-acting potential as Nathanael.

Wendy White was, perhaps inevitably, Antonia's mother -- not the "voice of," as the character actually entered and roamed the stage during the "Cher enfant" trio, decked out as an opera singer of the previous generation -- not even scary. A bit of failure of directorial imagination here: no painting (it was withdrawn at the last minute, according to set designer Michael Yeargan in an interview during the telecast), nor a statue, as in Lillian Groag's brilliant production for the Viriginia Opera.

Levine and the orchestra kept tension at the max. Offenbach is hardly Berg or Messiaen, but that only makes this opera easy to fake -- not easy to play. Offenbach meant this as his "no kidding" opera, and he was well served in this today.

Despite a few flaws and debatable interpretations, this brilliantly-sung HOFFMANN presents a credible and thought-provoking way to re-think this eminently re-interpretable story. And one gets to see Kate Lindsey!