LES CONTES d’HOFFMANN: Poetry in motion? Hardly.

Kate Lindsey, Alan Held, Joseph Calleja

During last night’s Great Performances at the Met broadcast of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, soprano Deborah Voigt asked director Bartlett Sher what was his inspiration for this new production. Sher rattled off a series of concepts ranging from Offenbach’s Jewish-ness to Kafka to Fellini’s 8 ½. It probably made sense in Sher’s mind, but as a listener I was hard pressed to follow his train of thought. And that was essentially the problem with the production – a lot of ideas thrown into one pot. The end result was superficially interesting but far from cohesive. Now Offenbach’s work by nature is somewhat disjointed. In a nutshell, the poet Hoffmann, in love with the opera star Stella, passes the time during one of her performances by regaling his fellow barflies with tales of his lost loves, the doll Olympia, the singer Antonia, and the courtesan Giulietta. In the end, all three are revealed to be facets of Stella, who leaves Hoffmann a broken man in the arms of his Muse. Through his suffering, he will create his best art. This is a fun opera filled with memorable melodies, perhaps most famously the Barcarolle. But in Sher’s hands it became a series of sight gags, notably during the Olympia act, which left me cold. Umbrellas adorned with eyes and piles of hot pink, life-size dolls do not an opera make. Looked great in HD though.

This production was originally conceived with Rolando Villazon in the title role, Rene Pape as the Four Villains, Elina Garanca as The Muse/Nicklausse, and Anna Netrebko as the Four Heroines. Villazon has been battling a series of health problems (not the least of which is his own sanity), Pape mysteriously backed out saying that he didn’t want to add the roles to his repertoire, Garanca had to take over as Carmen when Angela Gheorghiu flaked out as her marriage to costar Roberto Alagna fell apart, and Netrebko remained but only as Antonia/Stella. So what’s left?

Tenor Joseph Calleja seemed like a nice enough guy during his own backstage interview with Voigt. In no way does he look the part, too big and burly to suggest the naïve student that Hoffmann was and the complete alcoholic that he becomes. But one could overlook that if the voice was there. It wasn’t. Where Hoffmann needs to sound passionate, fearless, and anguished, Calleja simply bleated like a goat. Was there no other tenor in the vicinity of the Met who could have played this part? As the Four Villains, bass-baritone Alan Held did nothing particularly wrong but also nothing particularly memorable. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey brought fragility to both the male and female sides of her character, and I found myself wanting the opera to be more about her, a testament to her ability but another blow to Calleja’s Hoffmann.

As for the heroines, Kathleen Kim hit her notes and looked the part of Olympia. Ekaterina Gubanova was a crashing bore as Giulietta. While I’m not sure Netrebko could have pulled off the doll, no doubt she would have made a better courtesan. Speaking of Netrebko, her Antonia was fine even if the act surrounding her was stark save for a piano and a chair (guess they poured all of the money into the Olympia section). My bigger problem was the casting of Netrebko as Stella. Had she played all four roles as originally intended, this would have made perfect sense, the actualization of three women in one. But with Kim and Gubanova making up the rest of the trio, Netrebko as Stella evoked Antonia but none of the other heroines. Maybe all of this would have worked with the original cast. Oh who am I kidding! In his desire to make Hoffmann his own, Sher stripped it of its humanity. I’ll grant that witnessing this spectacle live might have distracted the audience from the lack of connection between the singers, but in the intimacy of one’s own home, the truth was all too clear. Never did I believe that Hoffmann was madly in love with any of these women, never did one of the villains truly frighten, and only Lindsey created something resembling a flesh and blood person. And she’s playing a spirit for Christ’s sake!

To see how it’s done, keep your eyes peeled for the Met’s superb new Carmen with the afore-mentioned Garanca in the title role and Alagna as Don Jose. I was fortunate to see this live, but if the preview tacked on after last night’s Hoffmann is any indication, the television version will also rock. And after comparing both productions, I’ll bet no one is happier than Garanca that opera’s “love couple” took a nose dive.

THE AUDITION: Opera Idols

TV rocks, but would you believe I’m also an opera lover? I recently attended the Met’s glorious new production of Carmen with the stunning Elina Garanca and the fabulous Roberto Alagna (I love him!). Simply being an audience member at the Met is an experience, so singing on the stage? I have no words.

After enough Idol, I switched gears (to an extent) and tuned into Great Performances at the Met’s showing of Susan Froemke’s documentary The Audition. This 2007 film follows the 22 singers who make it to the semi-finals round of The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Of these artists, 10 or 11 will become finalists and 5 or 6 each win a $15,000 prize. Nothing to sneeze at, but the bigger reward is identification as a singer to watch in the opera world. Twenty-two rapidly became eleven, and the bulk of the piece focuses on these singers as they choose arias, rehearse with the Met orchestra, and finally step onstage to sing for their futures before a Met audience (that’s a hell of a prize in and of itself!).

Not to sound elitist, but there really is no comparison between these young people who study and sacrifice for years to reach such a platform and someone who auditions for Idol to fill a void left in the wake of their parents’ separation. Of the eleven, two stood out. Tenor Michael Fabiano, now featured in a major role in the Domingo conducted Met production of Verdi’s Stiffelio , was, as his voice teacher noted in the opening scene, “a serious young man.”  A diet of reality TV led me to believe that Froemke was setting him up as the driven competitor who is undone by his inability to make friends and play nice (lame example, but think ANTM’s Season 7 runner-up Melrose; she kept her eyes on the prize but did not get the crown because she was a bitch). At one point, Fabiano let loose with a monologue about his belief that while people might smile and nod, they’re out for themselves and only want to come out the winner. But Fabiano backed this bravado up with a perfect voice, and he was justly rewarded at the end of the contest (although to milk the situation as long as possible, his name was called last). Is Fabiano the type of guy you’d want to hang out with on a Friday night? Maybe not. But who wouldn’t respect someone who gives it all he’s got, maybe at the cost of a type of happiness, in the name of art?

Another memorable competitor was Ryan Smith, in many ways the antithesis of Fabiano. Smith, more of an easygoing sort, openly supports his fellow contestants and opens up about credit card debt and bankruptcy, hard times that gave him perspective moving forward. Smith also arrives in the winner’s circle, and a  note at the end of the film has him singing at the Met and making an impression in a featured role. Then the shock. The film is dedicated to his memory. Holy shit. A Google search later, I learned that Smith passed away in 2008 of lymphoma at the tender age of 31. Now that’s tragic; he could have been a star. But then again, the last year of his life saw him atop a mountain that many will never get a chance to climb. His dreams were coming true, and maybe that’s the way to go out. Like Mimi in La Boheme (and Smith sang a mean “Che Gelida Manina” during the film), he died surrounded by the promise of what could be. That it never was is besides the point. Met general manager Peter Gelb states that this audition is the first step, but ascending the others is not guaranteed. Still, that first step is sweet, and it’s a beautiful place to stop climbing.