Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Jacques Offenbach, Libretto by Jules Barbier
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Erin Morley (Olympia) and Vittorio Grigòlo (Hoffmann) Credit: Marty Sohl

Les Contes d'Hoffmann is a fantastical opera and a bit of an unwieldy mess. It’s a great pity Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) died before he was able to finish it and had to leave others to pick up the pieces and do the necessary orchestrations for the première in Paris in 1881.

The libretto has nothing to do with the real-life Hoffmann and the problem is that you never care about what happens to this fictional Hoffmann, a dissolute poet who drinks too much and has hallucinations. Lots of directors, not least Michael Powell and Emeric Pressbuger in their 1951 film, have tried to knock the opera into shape. It’s difficult to get the romantic head and the nightmarish abyss right.

The Tales of Hoffmann is always on the point of becoming the opera Offenbach wanted it to be; but it never quite makes it and hopes audiences will be satisfied with the music and the singing. This performance, directed by Bartlett Sher and conducted by Yves Abel, dates from 2015. Vittorio Grigòlo is impressive as Hoffmann and there is a fine cast. There is much to enjoy.

The opera opens with a Prologue in a German tavern with everybody getting drunk. Hoffman sits at a table in front of a typewriter. The lovesick poet keeps falling in love but cannot find lasting happiness. He is trapped in a wet dream; or is it a nightmare or is it just a drunken stupor?

He recounts the affairs he has had with three women: Olympia (Erin Morley), a mechanical doll; Antonia (Hibla Gerzmava), a consumptive opera singer; and Giuletta (Christine Rice), an 18th century Venetian courtesan. The Women are the personification of one woman and Offenbach had intended they should be sung by one singer.

Hoffmann’s Muse is his friend, Niklausse. Kate Lindsey puts on male attire to play him most touchingly. His rival is Lindford (Thomas Hampson, a fine presence), who also assumes different personae; and they are all satanic, evil as they come.

The high spot of act one is the song the doll sings. Olympia has to be continually wound-up. Morley has to do all the jerky and stiff movements as well as all the coloratura, reaching an A flat above a high C. Her performance, a vocal and comic tour de force, stops the show.

Act two is devoted to Antonia who has been told by her doctor that if she continues to sing, she will die. The act reaches one of its peaks with the arrival of a doctor and her mother for an exciting ensemble.

Niklausse has a message not only for Hoffmann but for all romantic poets: “Surrender your heart to love. Music will console grief.”

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch