Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

An even better Hoffmann

Today the Metropolitan Opera showcased their new Hoffmann on movie theaters across the world. While the show is basically the same that I reviewed just a couple of weeks ago, this time there are 2 elements that are different: the artists have had a chance to rest and we now have added the visual elements to the production.

The production, by Bartlett Sher with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by designer Catherine Zuber promised a lot more than it delivered.  Much was made of the whole Jewishness of Hoffmann and his struggles as a Jew in a non-Jew world; very little was delivered in bringing that aspect to our eyes. Maybe it is me, but we see a lot of these concepts on paper, and the directors talk a great game, but when it is time to bring it on, they fall far short of all the conceptual ideas they so loved to talk about. That been said, even if Sher failed to show a Jewishness to this opera what he did deliver was quite good. His stage direction was direct and for the most part free of directorial “look what I can do” concepts that so many directors use to call attention to themselves.  Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber created sets and costumes that were both practical and beautiful to look at (again for the most part). In my opinion, Zuber was the most successful of the 3; her costume designs were stunning.

As Hoffmann Joseph Calleja acquitted himself quite well. This role is the Tristan of Lyric Tenors. I have seen several tenors crash and burn by the 3rd act because the role requires almost superhuman stamina. Calleja was able not only to make it through to the end (no mean feat all in itself) but do it with still plenty of voice left. I bet he will spend the rest of the night soaking in a bath. Vocally the role is probably a tad too big for him right now, but Mr. Calleja proved that he is an intelligent artist by managing his resources quite well. His prelude had the necessary mad energy that Hoffmanns need, his 1st act showed him to be quite the lover, and while the 2nd (and 3rd) act taxed him a little bit, he still sang with passion and great tone. His intonation never faltered and his French could use some work, specially since he has a very Gallic vibrato. This is a voice that will grow into this kind of repertoire and will do it well. Thank God we have someone who can take the mantle of Kraus in this role; we have been missing someone like this. Let’s hope that he will get to Paris soon and coach his French style and diction. We finally have a tenor who can sing the French rep and do it well.

Kate Lidsey as the Muse/Nicklausse improved over the opening night’s broadcast. I find her voice a little uninteresting and her French, while not embarrassing, is not a model to live by. For some reason, after it was all said and done, I was left with the impression of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts. Could it be that Nicklausse is just not a role that showcases Ms. Lindsey to her best advantage? She didn’t do a bad job, in fact, I think she gave it a good shot and sang well, but somehow still failed to get me exited. Her voice seemed a more natural fit for Mozart. Maybe she would be a better Idamante, Cherubino, Annio and Dorabella. As Niclause she just left me cold.

Kathleen Kim’s Olympia was a huge success. On my review of  Dec 4th I said that she failed to make an impression; boy did she make one today. The voice was limpid and the stress on her high notes was all but gone. Her Olympia was cute, perky and adorable. As a singer, her coloratura was accurate and her trill secure. I am inclined to say that her poor showing on opening night might have something to do with exhaustion, because she sounded fabulous today. My friend Ronizetti, who was in the house reported to me that he heard hints of vintage Pons, no small compliment coming from him. The one misfire I found in her interpretation was actually in her staging. Her jumping like a spoiled brat broke her legato and made her voice heavy and the production labored (In my review of opening night I said that she was unable to cope with some of the demands of the role: the coloratura was labored…) Today I realized that the problem was those jumps getting on the way. I also found her doll movements to get a little repetitive, more work is needed on those to make them more fluid and marry then to the wonderful singing she gave us today. One last comment, and this one is a matter of personal taste: Ms. Kims ornamentation was wonderful. Still, I found it a little repetitive and (strange for me) excessive. May I suggest working with a different coach?, get a fresh set of ears on it and see what works, what doesn’t and what can be changed or deleted.  Artists should have the liberty to continue experimenting with the music they sing, and Olympia’s aria is fertile ground for that. Brava Ms. Kim, You were the best of all the female singers today. You impressed a very tough dog, make that 2 of them.

Anna Netrebko as Antonia failed to impress me. Now, while that should not come as a surprise to anyone, I will say that her Antonia is a vast improvement over her recent assignments at the Met. Her Elle a fui, la tourterelle was well sung, but just that. What I continue to find lacking in her performance is a forward placement to her voice.  The voice continues to move farther from the mask and in its journey away, it prevents Ms. Netrebko to give us singing that is firmly based on the text; and that brings me to my next complaint: Ms. Netrebko’s French continues to elude me. Acquaintances and people whose opinion I value keep telling me her French as improved over the Juliettes from several years ago. If that is the case, kudos to Ms. Netrebko for improving her French; but let’s not get carried away, her French is in desperate need of continued work. Hopefully as she works on her French, she might also find a way to bring the voice to a brighter and more forward placement, as French singing and style requires the voice to stay very forward so the vowels and nasals can be done accurately and fast. The one wonderful aspect about her Antonia was her acting. Yes, she is famous for her acting, although she is certainly not the first soprano who is famous for her beauty, her acting skills and the beauty of the voice (Moffo anyone?). She created an Antonia that was strong and vulnerable at the same time (if such a thing is possible). If her singing was not up to par to her acting, she still gets credit for the great piece of acting she did today. Now girl, get to your voice teacher and fix some things…

This moviecast gave us a chance to see a side of Ms. Netrebko that the public usually does not get to see. I have to say one was quite charming while the other one left me scratching my head. Fans of the blog This is photobomb will know what I am refering to. At the end of the 1st intermission, while Debby Voigt interviewed Bartlett Sher, we saw Anna Netrebko officially do the Met’s most funny video bomb in HD history.  We saw her stretch and dance while Sher remained either unaware of what was going on behind him or trying to maintain composure. Her interview with Voigt was a disaster of epic proportions. She started well with her incredibly kind words about Calleja but things deteriorated quickly when she was unable or unwilling to answer other questions (say it girl, Antonia might be a short role, but she is a bitch to sing) and while doing so left Voigt scrambling. Her handling of the 2nd question might be open to interpretation. Netrebko said she was exited about wearing real chinchilla on stage and Voigt’s face was worth a million. When Voigt corrected her and said that the chinchilla was not real, Netrebko with a straight face corrected her and said that it was indeed the real thing. While I am sure the comment will make the rounds and much will be made about this (God help the Met if PETA gets a hold of this. Pamela Anderson organizing a protest in front of the Met) I am not sure it will all be 100% deserved. While it is true that many Americans feel that fur coats are inhuman and a poor use of our resources (and let’s not even touch the many species now in the brink of extinction), as La Cieca reminded us in her site, Netrebko IS NOT American and therefore her views and values on the matter are completely different. Rather than focusing on a perceived faux pas, I will chalk it up to a cultural difference. I am happy to say, I would rather wear a fake or a recycled/re-cut vintage fur than buying a new one; but Netrebko is entitled to her opinion, no matter how misguided I believe it is.  What I can not get over is how poor an interviewee she was. I felt horrible for Ms. Voigt.

The Giulietta of Ekaterina Gubanova was a puzzle to me. Not only was her singing unsophisticated and incredibly un-sexy. Her casting, to start with, should be raising brows. Yes, she is a woman of undeniable beauty but with the recent (if by recent you mean something like 10 years ago at least) discoveries of Hoffmann scores dating to the time of composition no longer support the continued tradition of casting a mezzo soprano as Giulietta. Having 2 mezzos singing the Belle nuit is boring and in today’s case not very pretty. Having a high voice and a lower one in the duet (as opposed to 2 low voices where one happens to be singing higher) balances the sonorities much better than what we were given today; plus Ms. Gubanova’s voice didn’t blend all that well with Ms. Lindsey’s.  Overall, the Giulietta act sported what was probably the best set design, the best costumes and the least interesting singing of the entire show.

As Lindorf, Coppélius, Dappertutto & Dr. Miracle, the 4 villains and Hofmman’s nemesis, the Met brought Alan Held; a veteran of more than 10 productions of Hoffmann. I have to say Mr. Held looked incredibly sexy as the villains (What is going on? Is the Met moving into casting sexy bears as villains these days?).  While his singing showed poise and commitment, his voice showed a lack of a secure top and lack of luster in the bottom register. This was truly a shame, as Mr. Held’s middle voice  is in perfect shape and it has some interesting colors. His acting, like his middle register was never anything less than secure. Overall, I think he acquitted himself with these roles.

In the 4 comic roles of Andrès, Cochenille,Pitichinaccio and Frantz, Alan Oke shone bright. He showed perfect comic timing, incredible stage presence and commitment. He also showed exactly what he (as Franz) lamented he didn’t have: technique. The mezza voce that he sang in the 1st verse of the aria, and the crescendo that he added was impeccably executed. As far as I am concerned he stole the show right out from Netrebko with his perfectly executed Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre. When this production is released on DVD, and I hope it is, this will be the interpretation to watch. Perfection in every sense.

Other small roles were also cast from strength. Dean Peterson as Luther, Rodell Rosel’s Nathanael, Mark Schowalter’s Spalanzani and Michael Todd Simpson in his dual assignments of Hermann and Schlemil all sang with great assurance and showed plenty of stage presence; specially Michael Todd Simpson who proved to be a sexier than usual Schlemil. I will say to the powers that be that more stage rehearsal is needed for his duel with Hoffmann. They both looked clumsy in it, but that can be resolves very easily. The chorus, as usual, continues to gather more than exceptional notices in this blog. The orchestra sounded terrific under the baton of James Levine.

As enjoyable as the show was, I do have to take exception to the poor job the Met has done by Offenbach and Hoffmann. They failed to stage a true representation of Offenbach’s Hoffmann. As pointed out earlier,  the past decade has seen a discovery of material closer to the composition and premiere time. While it can not be said that it is exactly what Offenbach would have wanted, surely it is closer to it than the musicological mess the Met put on this afternoon. Surely at this point it has been determined that several of the compromises Choudens and Oezer had to make are no longer sustainable or excusable.  Yes, the cast has seen more changes than a busy dryer has seen socks, but if the Met had the time to teach Calleja the role from scratch (a proposition so daunting it would make the tenor and the coaching staff run for the Prozac), I am sure a better job could be done in presenting a more faithful version of the score.  Presenting a completely new edition with the many changes the  cast has seen is, I know, unrealistic, but an effort should have been made to present a more faithful edition within the time constraints.  If this were not possible, then a compromise should have been reached to postpone the HD transmission to a time when a cast could be assembled and coached in a better edition of the score; this was done for Hildegard Behrens’ Elektra after all… That epilogue seemed to go on for days, and the music was not all that interesting, to say the least.

The next HD presentation (save for encores of Hoffmann) will be Robert O’Hearn’s sumptuous Rosenkavalier on Jan 9th with Renee Fleming, Susan Graham and Christine Schäfer. They recently posted pictures of the cast here, take a look at this beautiful production and buy your tickets ASAP.

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December 20, 2009 - Posted by | Opera Review | ,

9 Comments »

  1. While my view Lindsey’s Muse is much more favorable (having seen the performance twice in the theater) I agree that it does not set her of to best advantage. She is, indeed, a superb Cherubino and likely to get even better as her voice matures: preferable to the excellent Isabel Leonard and surpassed today only by DiDonato and perhaps Garanca (if the latter is still singing the role – she is certainly not doing it very often).

    Comment by cavalier | December 20, 2009 | Reply

  2. I don’t think so.

    Comment by MusicMan | December 23, 2009 | Reply

    • could you please expand on this comment?

      Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. I really loved it, but I don’t think that it is better than hoffmann.

    Comment by MusicMan | December 23, 2009 | Reply

    • I’m not sure I am understanding. Do you think I was too easy on the production; too hard? Do you think the older production was stronger?

      Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 23, 2009 | Reply

  4. Lindoro, I really appreciate your reviews. This Met HD Hoffmann was my first ever and it really worked for me. I would like to see a more traditional staging for comparison, but vocally, I thought everyone sang well on broadcast day.

    Comment by CruzSF | December 24, 2009 | Reply

  5. Late in the game. But having seen the encore, I have to say that Sher took all the magic out of this opera and left it in a muddle. Having Nicklausse in league with the villains proved a distraction and totally diluted the strength of this opera. I left wanting to watch the Carsen production which is brilliant. Singing was ok for me but it wasn’t definitive.

    Comment by Anne | January 10, 2010 | Reply

  6. Great blog, and great review. One quibble about Netrebko: “The one wonderful aspect about her Antonia was her acting.” It seems there is a fallacy about “acting” that just about everyone in the opera business believes and/or propogates: that acting is solely about movement, gesture, and facial expression. The only medium in which these alone are sufficient to be called acting is silent film.

    If a singer cannot or will not make anything of the text (and I certainly agree with you about Netrebko’s French, not to mention her Italian), how can she be a great or even good actress? In the legitimate theater, you have to “read” to get a part. Why does opera have a different standard? The goal in acting is —or should be—to create a believable character. In opera, movement, gesture, facial expression, work together with the voice singing on the text to create character.

    Comment by mozartFreak | January 10, 2010 | Reply

    • I think this is a great observation. Thanks.

      Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | January 10, 2010 | Reply


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