So, I was asking my friends with Met Opera insider connections about the new Hoffmann production directed by Bartlett Sher. Seemingly conceived under an unlucky star, this production first lost two of its four heroines when Anna Netrebko decided not sing Olympia and Giulietta but kept Antonia and also Stella, leaving the dramaturgy somewhat lopsided.

Then the star tenor Rolando Villazon canceled the remainder of his 2009 engagements. Luckily Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja was willing to rearrange his schedule and make a role debut as Hoffmann.

Then Rene Pape decided not to sing the various bass nemeses of the titular poet, so Alan Held stepped into the breach. Then Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna finally decided to call it quits as the “love couple” precipitating the willful Romanian diva to cancel her participation in the new “Carmen” production with Alagna. The production’s Nicklausse, Elina Garanca was less than surprised and very likely delighted when she was called upon to don Gheorghiu’s mantilla as Bizet’s gypsy heroine and let her alternate, the talented Kate Lindsey step into her trousers.

[Gualtier continues, with a spoiler or two, you’ve been warned, after the jump]

So I wasn’t surprised when one source said that she was told “You won’t like the new Hoffmann and my other source said “the production is dark, stark and visually uninteresting” which sounded rather like that other unsuccessful production that opened at the Met just a few months ago…

Well, happily they are wrong. Sher said in an Opera News interview that his conception is part Kafka and part Fellini. The Fellini I could see but the Kafka didn’t seem a good fit. Happily, the Kafka comes in (rather watered down) as the bleak reality that Hoffmann drinks to escape from in Luther’s tavern. The sets are black and stark and the tone somber. However, when we shift into the tales of Hoffmann, the product of his absinthe-soaked imagination, Spalanzani’s workshop/salon is right out of Fellini with bright saturated colors, transvestite clowns and a surreal circus sideshow atmosphere. It works like a charm.

Sher’s very successful Il Barbiere di Siviglia also has rather stark plain settings mainly consisting of moving door frames, orange trees and a mottled beige back wall occasionally enlivened by a giant anvil descending from the ceiling. The success of the Barber is in his personenregie – evocative stage groupings, inventive physical business, characterizations that are naturalistic but heightened with dramatic gesture and costuming and meaningful, real interaction between his principals. Much of same applies here.

During the orchestral prelude to the prologue we see Hoffmann in a drunken stupor on the floor beside a writing table strewn with papers. Various sordid characters from the later acts lounge in the background while the poet is clasped in the arms of Stella, played by Netrebko, sporting  a Louise Brooks bob and 1920’s flapper dress. During the opening chorus, Lindsey dressed as the Muse in a chemise and top hat enters and chides the poet for neglecting his writing in the pursuit of a singer.

The various characters move offstage and Stella also moves from Hoffmann’s arms into costume as a diva on an opera stage. The students file in to the tables and we are in Luther’s tavern. But the writing desk remains throughout – even into the Olympia act as a reminder of Hoffmann’s true salvation – his writing. The Nicklausse/Muse figure becomes the central figure in the drama, onstage throughout, observing and even directing the actions of other characters and seemingly able to be invisible when desired.

The previous Otto Schenk production (of which I was quite fond) had a very strong Olympia act but Sher’s version matches it. The atmosphere is often rather louche – scantily clad showgirls in garters and pasties show up in every act except Crespel’s bourgeois Munich home. There is a use of doppelgangers – sometimes there is a stageful of ballerina Olympias all dressed alike and Hoffmann also has a stageful of top-hatted Magritte-like doubles as well. Sher has some lapses in his direction as well. Notably, in the Olympia scene the doll sometimes moves like an automaton and at other times, mysteriously moves like a real girl. Are we to see Olympia as Hoffmann sees her through his rose colored glasses? Then Hoffmann needs to be placed in some kind of relation to her so that we are looking at him seeing Olympia. Also perhaps the lighting needs to be changed to a pinkish glow to indicate we are seeing her through the poet’s eyes. Sher’s use of the chorus (aided by some dancers choreographed by Dou-Dou Huang) is full of variety and life, enlivening each scene.

Whereas the colorful Olympia act matches most of the visual flair and inventiveness of the Schenk production, the Antonia act rather falls short. The set here again is stark and bare. The palette again is blacks and blues with just a few fly pieces – one of a doorway and others of trees painted on a scrim – with only a chair and a piano strewn with music (replacing the writing desk of the Prologue and Act I and suggesting the historical Hoffmann’s flirtation with his other muse, musical composition including operas). Sher does have a wonderful silhouette on the upstage scrim of a sinister carriage bringing Docteur Miracle on to the scene.

However, during the entrance of the ghostly vision of Antonia’s mother and then the final trio I was hoping Sher would flash the opera house interior again on the back scrim as Pressburger and Powell did in their movie version and Schenk did in the last production. Evidently he was afraid of repeating this touch so the whole finale is rather visually dull with Wendy White as the Voice of the Mother just strolling along upstage and then coming downstage. The entrances of Dr. Miracle in the Schenk production were tour de forces – I vividly remember the athletic younger Samuel Ramey in 1991 materializing out of the deceptively solid-looking cloth scrim walls and suddenly appearing out of the fireplace in a flash of smoke and fire. No such feats were asked of Alan Held who just strolled in and out of the scene – like Niklausse/Muse sometimes visible to the other characters, sometimes not.

The Prologue seems to be set in the 1920’s, the Olympia Act circa 1910 and the Antonia act seems to be in the World War I period. Oddly the Venice Act has the entire cast in full 18th century fig. However, decadence rules with nearly naked female supers in pasties, black-stockings and powdered wigs caressing each other. Perhaps this is a costume ball or else Hoffmann’s imagination has placed him in another historical era? Never mind, it looks good. At the end figures from Hoffmann’s previous loves re-enter the stage – the dancing Olympias cavort with Giulietta courtesans. In the final tableau Hoffmann sits at his writing desk, surrounded by his characters and engrossed in his writing – the failures of life transmuted into the glory of art.

Musically, the edition is the one Levine used in 1981 in a Salzburg production and repeated at the Met in the Schenk production – the framework is Choudens with some Oeser additions – including the trio for Coppelius, Niklausse and Hoffmann in Act I and the gorgeous “violin” aria for Niklausse in Act II. Spurious non-Offenbachian additions from the Monte Carlo edition of 1904 flesh out the Venice act (probably the work of Andre Bloch – namely the tuneful “Scintille Diamant” aria and the catchy septet) which is placed last as Act III. Meanwhile more authentic material written by Offenbach and compiled by Michael Kaye in his scholarly edition has yet to be heard at the Met.

Levine seemed rested and more involved in this production than he was in the Bondy “Tosca” dress rehearsal where he rarely looked at the stage and only seemed immersed in orchestral details. Tempos were varied and appropriate and the orchestra played well. The singing was a mixed bag. Evaluation of the lead tenor will have to be put off since Calleja was announced as suffering from a cold and was replaced after Act I by David Pomeroy. The cold was not initially evident and the Maltese tenor sounded sweet yet robust. Later, Calleja showed some strain in a few high climaxes in Act I and apparently opted to rest up for the premiere and preserve his voice. Though this was a dress rehearsal most of the leads sang full-out except for both tenors.

From what I could hear of Calleja, his odd timbre – reedy with a narrow vibrato in the middle which shifts into a sweet plangent top – is well-suited to French music and his diction is quite acceptable if not idiomatic. Despite the narrowly focused sound, Calleja’s voice is large and fills the house without forcing. I noticed that he did tire in the upper register at the end of Act I and may have marked one or two high notes.

One of the difficulties of Hoffmann is stamina in a demanding tessitura over a long evening – the tenor is rarely offstage. Successful Hoffmann’s have either had a baritonal foundation giving them strength (Rene Maison and Placido Domingo) or a very focused tone with pronounced heady ring girded by a sturdy technique (Alfredo Kraus and Richard Tucker). Only when Calleja is fully recovered from his cold will be see if he belongs in the latter camp.

Pomeroy has a bright generic American tenor with one color and dynamic but a reliable command of most of the notes. He seemed musically unsure several times, made some musical and linguistic mistakes and had to drop out of one big note in the septet in Act III. Hopefully, he will not be called upon to deputize for Calleja at the prima.

Alan Held is an artist who never fails to deliver a fine performance but also never quite achieves the recognition that his gifts deserve. He was fine as the Three Villains though this staging asks him to be much the same physically in each incarnation. His singing is secure and stylish and he always delivers the goods. Alan Oke though he got some laughs in Franz’s couplets in Act II failed to bring the gallic touch and humor to the four Servant roles that Jean-Paul Fouchecourt did so superbly quite recently. Oke’s voice is unmemorable and he fades into the background in his other roles. He also missed a crucial entrance in Act II. fave Michael Todd Simpson in his Met debut assignment sang Hermann and Schlémil but kept his shirt on leaving us to dwell on a rather ordinary vocal endowment. Veteran bass-barihunk (daddy division) Dean Peterson sang sonorously and well as Luther and Crespel.

The ladies are a mixed bag. In the final ensemble in the epilogue it was the voice of Netrebko that dominated the other ladies and reaffirmed why she is a star, despite the sniping and complaints you read here (not from our doyenne of course). Netrebko is more of an enthusiastic peasant type rather than the frail wilting flower and she displayed the most powerful female instrument onstage. She appropriately concentrates on the reckless passion of Antonia for music and love rather than her more morbid qualities. The concentration, richness and projection of that sound emanating from a plumper but still petite frame is a phenomenon of nature. The diction and timbre is more Mirella Freni than Ninon Vallin or Geori Boué but the acidic tang these sopranos were either blessed or cursed with (depending on your taste – some wines don’t travel) is entirely absent from the fruity, round punch of Netrebko’s rich sound. Her diction is still not really clear or crisp but more accurate than when we last heard her in French opera as Juliette.

She looks gorgeous, tears the roof off in the trio, sings some lusty high D’s, fakes a pretty good trill by exaggerating her vibrato and walks away with the evening’s honors. Add in the distinctive vocal thumbprint and the personal charisma and say what you will, it adds up to a star. Frankly, she could and should sing the other two roles (transpose the Olympia music down a half-step) since it makes better sense dramatically and the Kaye edition offers a choice of coloratura showpiece arias for Giulietta.

Here the Met opted for a mezzo-soprano Giulietta, the Russian Ekaterina Gubanova who didn’t impress me in her Met debut role as Helene in War and Peace. Evidently she has scored some successes in Europe and England as Brangaene and Amneris, so I was willing to give her another listen. The tone is medium to large, suitable for Carmen and also Giulietta. The tone is attractive and dusky without being really memorable. Flatteringly costumed as Giulietta in corset and crinoline skirt, she seemed attractive enough without really suggesting fatal allure. Good enough but not really a tour de force. Borodina can sleep soundly!

The audience was more taken with the petite Korean coloratura Kathleen Kim, who also is jumping in for another cancelling coloratura as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos this season. Kim’s sound has a nice soft roundness about it in the upper reaches and she sang some lovely chime-like variations in the second verse of the Doll Song. Her trill however is not pretty or well-defined. Her doll movements were well done but inconsistent – probably to a lack of clarity in Sher’s direction. Ruth Welting and Natalie Dessay have outdone her in the physical acrobatics department. However, Kim’s youth and freshness won the audience over.

Kate Lindsey has impressed me mightily as Cherubino and Stephano, so I was happy to see such a plum role land in her lap. The tone has some of the resiny quality that the young Susanne Mentzer had and she commanded the stage in each scene. She gets a final star bow after the other ladies – including weltstar Netrebko! This role should mark a step forward in her career – a well-deserved success.

So to sum up: the jury is still out on whether Calleja has a Hoffmann in his dulcet throat. Bartlett Sher has produced a production that while it doesn’t always charm visually is full of dramatic detail and life. Netrebko lashes the sniping parterre chatters into submission with diva vocal delivery and the other ladies do nicely, if unmemorably. Kate Lindsey makes her mark taking one for the team and Alan Held shows why he is still standing while so many others have left the field. Levine seems back in form. The show is worth seeing and will probably improve with repetition as everyone except for Held and Levine is quite new to his or her role.