If you've ever lived south of Ohio, you are perhaps aware that the world is divided into two kinds of people; those who can never drink tequila again because of that one night senior year, and people who can never drink southern comfort again because etc. I was the third kind: people who could never listen to Tales of Hoffmann again because of a production in college that was, I guess, through no individual misdeed, the equivalent if a night of bedspins and praying for death on the bathroom floor.
As I sit here on the A train with Milton Cross whispering sweet nothings about Vina Bovy in my ear, I am a man transformed, renewed. I now recognize Tales of Hoffmann* as a work toward which I feel a mix of patient mockery and intermittent grudging admiration.
Oh, shush. I'm exaggerating of course. Who could not love the Venice act, other than maybe Ekaterina Gubanova, who sang it quite well but was tepidly received at curtain calls for reasons I haven't worked out. Who indeed?
Well Bartlett's Hair seems to like it, and get it. While I'm not delighted that last night's Hoffmann will now enter the cannon of critical cliches as this season's counterbalance to that Mean Nasty Tosca that Took Away Our Candlesticks, I can hardly hold that against the production. The Olympia and Giulietta acts, in particular, display a kind of ease with the operatic theatrical idiom that, for my money, Sher was visibly still learning in Barbiere.
The Antonia act has some regie clunkers. I am srsly not going as far off topic as you think, but did you ever read the Hitchhiker's Guide books**? Douglas Adams writes of mankind's general tendency toward unhappiness: "Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
I keep flashing on this, because at times I'm fairly certain Bartlett Sher thinks the stories of the great operas have more to do with the movement of large rectangular panels than I think they do. This happens in the Antonia act, and it's jarring, because the Olympia Act is pure devilish visual invention, in particular one scene I refuse to spoil for you but that I think will be much talked about, maybe the stage tableaux of the season were it not for the tonally antipodal coups of House of the Dead. (I'm never right about this stuff, by the way.) Also, please, if you are considering becoming a major director of opera at an international house, pretty please do not have a violin float down from Above when someone is about to sing "Vois, sous l'archet fremissant" because no. But I'm harping on small stuff that bugged me, and not the many things that went right.
Both of these acts, in any case, get some deluxe vocal characterization, though the second one starts out with Trebs' surprisingly blankish "Elle a fuit." I'm thinking if I were watching her do it from Seats Occupied By People Who Made Better Life Choices Than Maury (heretofore SOBPWMBLCTM should the topic ever arise again) it might have had some inspiration not visible from space, but I'm a little reluctant to invoke the whole visual/musical Gelb era debate, especially when speaking of Netrebko, who occupies a complicated place in that schema.
Certainly the physicality of her performance as the role grows more frenetic is unrestrained and (guiltily?) pleasurable. Likewise, the vocal engagement with character, though I don't think it's a moment of greatness for AT. The D, sorta greschreilich in rehearsal, was a bolt of aural pleasure in full-on performance, but it's not a style of singing that seems natural to her. (What is, you might ask, and I'd fish out my record player and my record strategically scratched to say "Pucccini" over and over. Or big Italian lyric stuff anyway.)
Hey have you heard people talking about the curse hanging over this production, by the way? Because of all the cast changes? It's worth taking a moment to think whether we have in fact lost much by the changes, right?
Calleja for Villazon, well, who knows. Villazon as a concept might have been more dashing in passages like "Oh Dieu! De quelle ivresse," but Villazon as an actual singer would have given us all a terrible case of nerves. Calleja, despite being thirty and not 100% at home in the role, did not. Perhaps he was tired by the end, but generally speaking, he doesn't sound out of his depth in the role. I went back and forth between enjoying the basic sound, marveling at how jussily he bjorls--I know, the caprino is a bit much for some--and wishing for a little more give, a little more (forgive me) swing. Maybe opening night nerves, maybe more. He's a fine singer and I'm happy to wait and see, though something tells me if we're talking about him in twenty years, it will be for other roles.
Kathleen Kim for 1/3 of Anna Netrebko is a pretty solid bargain. This would not have been a success; chez Mlle. Kim, it was a star turn despite here the smudge, there the hint of sharp. Good athletic vocalism, and an impressive ability to meet the role on its strange comic-but-not-actually-that-funny terms. I know already she's excellent as Madame Mao (Chicago Opera Theater, 2007ish) and now am curious if she'll find the shadow of regret that makes a Zerbinetta great or just go for the cute. Vocally, it's bound to work.
Garanca for Lindsey I can't say much about, never having heard the former. Ms. Lindsey has a fine instrument and moves well on the stage and I think I'm going to enjoy her a lot in a different sort of role. Alan Held for Pape I'm also not sure how to ring up, but maybe these comparisons are a little stupid anyway. Held was vivid if not mesmerizing in stuff like "Scintille, diamant" and...I just don't know the Four Assholes' music well enough to speak with even feigned authority about it, so I'll refer you to other reviewers for more.
I'm pretty sure Roberto Alagna was in attendance on account of this woman on the A Train Shuttle of Disappointment was talking fortissimo via cell to her father about having met him at an opera opening night, presumably the same. I couldn't actually hear her father's response, but I assume it was some combination of "how interesting" and "why are you calling me at 12:30 at night?"
Side notes: youtube seems to be particularly full of interesting Hoffmann clips including lots of Dessay doing her freakish, arc-welding*** thing and some more clips to make you go Why Isn't Robert Carsen a Fixture at the Met God Dammit? Maybe I should embed one of those since pure text entries don't really catch anyone's eye.
Next Up: ELEKTRA ELEKTRA ELEKTRA WHAT IS BETTER THAN ELEKTRA NOTHING IS, by Richard Strauss.
*I would very much like it if my phone would stop insisting on Goffmann for Hoffmann. It is making me imagine an opera called Tales of Guffman in which a bunch of yokels think Peter Gelb is going to attend their awful little production which is much like, well, see paragraph 1. But when you get back here, you can stop reading. You don't have to go in loops, forever.
**Embarrassing fact about your host: he cried at the death of Marvin the Robot when he was a little nerdling.
***If I explained it, it wouldn't be funny.