Drunk history

Publish or perish? Why not both?

Last night was my fourth or fifth wade into the slough of Bartlett Sher’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Met since its premiere in 2009. While the show remains random and confusing, the evening had many memorable compensations, among them Johannes Debus’s stylish conducting, a no-holds-barred hero in Vittorio Grigolo and outstanding portrayals of two of the four women in his chaotic life by Erin Morley and Anita Hartig

I won’t parse here the myriad options and editions available to a company presenting this opera fantastique but the Met bases its version on the Oeser critical edition. One way it may differ from those heard in the distant past is the increased prominence of the poet’s friend Nicklausse, a trouser role sung by a mezzo. She also doubles as The Muse of Poetry, a mysterious female personification of Hoffmann’s nascent artistic tendencies. Sher pushes this doubling even further by placing the Nicklausse/Muse figure on stage throughout.

Its musical and dramatic prominence calls out for a charismatic performer who can pull off his iffy conceit. Unfortunately the Met did not have one in Tara Erraught, making her company debut. The diminutive Irish singer, perhaps best remembered for the recent “chunky Octavian” dust-up surrounding Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival, dutifully performed her increasingly intrusive stage business.

For Sher, Nicklausse readily manipulates the hero’s romantic entanglements (in league with the “villains”) so that he can then take up his pen and become E.T.A. Hoffmann. Erraught evinced no particular stage savvy and adequately performed her demanding music with a bright shallow voice that sounded more like a light soprano than the dark, rich mezzo the role(s) demand.

French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri (and husband to Natalie Dessay, one of the Met’s great Olympias) returned to the four roles of Hoffmann’s nemeses which he has previously performed here three years ago. I hadn’t heard this singer since his fearless embrace of Handel’s ogre Polifemo four years ago, but I feared the vocal demands of Offenbach’s music, particularly Dapertutto, might now be too much for the veteran singer.

But he sounded in fine fettle, his distinctive rough-hewn voice commanded the music, even in the demanding “Scintille diamant” which climaxed with a firm if overloud high note. His subtle embodiment of the bad guys was a refreshing change from those who give in to the urge to gnaw scenery as the diabolical quartet.

His compatriot Christophe Mortagne, heretofore only heard at the Met as Guillot in Manon, took on the roles of the four servants. While the production requires him to overact wildly, particularly as Cochenille, he revealed a large and pungent character tenor which made its mark in Frantz’s charming “Jour et nuit” despite some painfully unfunny “doddering old man” shtick.

With the exception of Christine Rice, this production must require Eastern European mezzos as Giulietta—first Ekaterina Gubanova, then Enkelejda Shkosa and Elena Maximova and now Oksana Volkova. Sher doesn’t require her to do much other than slink around in a big wig and big gown which Volkova did efficiently. Her unglamorous voice didn’t blend well with Erraught’s so the famous Barcarolle failed to evoke the desired languorous erotic atmosphere. But the Venetian act, at least in the Oeser version, makes little effect and becomes a poor conclusion to Hoffmann’s European romantic odyssey.

But things went much better in Paris and Munich. Morley, so heavenly as a Sophie with some spine in last season’s Der Rosenkavalier, revealed unsuspectedly hilarious comic chops as Olympia. I don’t remember hearing her coloratura showpiece performed with such care and nuance, its two verses neatly differentiated.

In the first, Morley exuded a lovely piquant charm followed by an increasingly wacky repeat decorated with unusual and inventive ornamentation. Although I admire her pyrotechnics, memories of her graceful Sandrina and Angelica make me long for a Morley Pamina or Ginevra. It’s too bad that the production’s many identical pink dolls dilute the Olympia-delight both in her own act as well as in an inexplicable waltzing return in Giulietta’s Venetian realm.

Hartig, whom I’d enjoyed previously as both Liù and Susanna brought thrilling vocal abandon and heart-stopping poignancy to the doomed singer. While less dramatically flamboyant than Anna Netrebko, this production’s first Antonia, Hartig’s more quiet febrile intensity made its mark. Like fellow Romanian sopranos Virginia Zeani, Ileana Cotrubas and Angela Gheorghiu, Hartig has that special “tears in the voice” quality that makes her tragic roles so moving.

It might be remembered that she was scheduled to do an HD transmission of La Bohème but canceled at the last minute to be replaced by Kristine Opolais. Happily, her Mimi can be caught live at the Met twice this season on 1 & 4 November.

Grigolo was her would-be Rodolfo for that HD and before this Hoffmann I had only heard the tenor in Italian roles: the Duke in Rigoletto where his tendency for self-regard suited the role and a ridiculously over-the-top Nemorino in Elisir which I loathed. Somehow I’d previously managed to miss all of Grigolo’s local French roles which those whose views I respect reported were quite satisfying.

In many ways, Hoffmann may be the perfect role for the ebullient tenor; the character scarcely enjoys a moment of repose in his life-changing fever dream. With enviable energy and stamina, Grigolo clearly savors the rigorous demands of Offenbach’s hero; his effortless high notes came fast and furious all evening. His near-outrageous flamboyance on stage admirably suits the mercurial character of the love-drunk poet.

While one might wonder how a more sedate tenor might find himself head-over-heels in love with four wildly different women over a short time, no disbelief was possible with Grigolo determined to embody a soul living every moment to its fullest.

The downside may be this approach becomes too much! While some complain about not being able to hear this soprano or that baritone at the Met, I don’t think I’ve ever before experienced a performer where I thought he was singing too loudly—until Grigolo in Hoffmann. Perhaps it was a peculiarity limited to specific my seat in the orchestra but on more than one occasion his plentiful, refulgent high notes bordered on ear-splitting. While being in awe of such vocal prodigality I sometimes hungered for more finesse. But in the end it became hard to resist such all-out commitment.

I don’t know how German maestro Debus fared in his Met debut last season with Salome but on Tuesday showed a real flair for the dancing rhythms of Offenbach’s witty operetta-flavored music while also being at home in its more soaring romantic melodies. Somehow he managed to bring a gratifying unity to the varied score which was particularly helpful given its crazy-quilt of a production.