19 December 2009: Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Metropolitan Opera HD Live. Conducted by James Levine. Production Bartlett Sher. Anna Netrebko as Antonia and Stella. Olympia: Kathleen Kim. Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja.

A stellar production. One is inclined to say, “As good as it gets.” (I’m writing much after the fact; a busy holiday season has intervened, and we are now on the eve of yet another Met Live in HD performance.) Levine and his Met orchestra capture every nuance of the music and the extravagant spirit, by turns languorous, manic, melancholoy, and comic, aroused by this, Offenbach’s last and best opera. The Britannica captures the basic facts about this work: “His only grand opera, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), remained unfinished at his death. It was orchestrated and provided with recitatives by Ernest Guiraud, who also intro­duced the famous barcarole taken from Die Rheinnixen. Described as an opéra-fantastique, it was first produced at the Opéra-Comique on Feb. 10, 1881.”

I continue to marvel at these HD productions. Costly they must be, and conceptually complex as well, and therefore even more costly than otherwise might be the case. The complexity derives from the fact that the staging must first be the most perspicuous — and conspicuous — that all the resources of the Metropolitan Opera stage can afford, aimed at the pleasure and satisfaction of a large in-house audience. At the same time, a parallel “shooting script” must be devised for the cameras ingeniously placed, so that many and various close-ups, two-shots, and so on are called for and alternate with ensemble perspectives. The blocking of the principals, the chorus, and the frequent supernumeraries must be done with these two parallel exigencies always in mind. The brief list of credits in the handout made available at the door of the cinema only credits five persons, for production, sets, costumes, lighting, and choreography. There is someone else back there who is calling the shots, according to what must be an immensely accurate step-by-step shooting plan. The additional value available for one’s senior ticket ($20.00) is the intermission feature involving a famous singer — Renée Fleming has done it; at this performance it was Deborah Voigt — by means of which we get to go backstage and share in the excitement of the transition to the next act while meanwhile seeing the production-related persons who otherwise would be mere names in the program or, even better, one or more of the major performers. Anna Netrebko, Kathleen Kim, and Joseph Calleja were three such persons. Too bad we did not get to talk with James Levine as well.

Perhaps the best example of this parallel planning occurred in Act II. The setting is the exterior of a country house, where Antonia (Anna Netrebko) has been taken away by her father in an attempt to end her affair with Hoffmann. The setting, with its somber gray curtains upstage and general melancholy aura, would be fine as the setting for an Ibsen play. There is no chorus in this act; it is principals only. It is perhaps a tribute to this staging, luminous in its simplicity, that the plot line of the act has to do with nothing less ridiculous than the question of whether Antonia should give up singing, since it appears to be wasting her life: she has a weak heart and such efforts can doom her. It is faintly ludicrous as a concept in itself that this Antonia, a character in a grand opera where to speak is to sing, not only begins the act with a plaintive love song as she thinks of her dead mother, a famous singer, but goes on singing throughout, as the storyline exerts ever more pressure on her to stop. Not once do we laugh or even silently chortle over this manifest absurdity. Instead, we are drawn wholly into the absorbing fiction, graced by some of Offenbach’s most mellifluous music and enhanced by Bartlett Sher’s expert and deeply felt staging — as well as by a beautifully modulated shooting script for the camera. Perhaps the very absurdity of the endeavor is something that grand opera was made, not only to survive, but to triumph over.

Certainly, that triumph was almost palpable in this production. If I cannot be in the house watching the opera live (having paid upwards of $100 or more for an orchestra ticket), this is the best of all possible worlds. It costs me no more than a fifteen-minute drive from my house to West Springfield and a twenty dollar bill to partake of this very, very “live” performance. What could be better?


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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