Met gets new season on track with a worthy, well-sung “Hoffmann”

Johannes Debus
New York Classical Review

After a rocky opening night with Bellini’s Norma, the Metropolitan Opera got its season on track Tuesday with a worthy revival of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. It might not have been the most emotionally charged night at the house, but this well-founded performance of Offenbach’s fantastical odyssey proved as reliably entertaining as anything in the repertoire.

Bartlett Sher’s peculiar production has taken its knocks since its 2009 premiere, yet in its daft way it drives towards the heart of the piece. The zany carnival of Spalanzani’s scientific exhibition, the gothic silhouette of Dr. Miracle’s coach, and the trance-like rapture of Giulietta’s brothel all lend a surreal quality to Hoffmann’s fantastic tales.

For this fall’s run, Vittorio Grigolo reprises the title role, which he last played in 2015, and he seems to have–dare we say it?–matured somewhat as the gloomy poet who guides his listeners through the tales of his lost loves. Noted for his manic approach to every role he tries, in his latest crack at the role of Hoffmann, Grigolo seemed almost reserved by his standards, allowing something other than feverish obsession to come through in his character. Taking his foot off the gas just a touch, he suddenly found space for softer emotions, tender love, keen regret. This no doubt had something to do with vocal characterization–his usually blazing golden tenor sounded more mellow in Tuesday’s premiere, still showing plenty of body, color, and volume — never in danger of getting lost, but not reflecting off the balcony facing, either. 

In the Met’s edition of the score (a highly traditional version originally prepared by James Levine), Hoffmann’s third lover, Giulietta, has little chance to shine outside of the Barcarolle at the top of her act, but Oksana Volkova made the most of the role with her firm, dark soprano. Robert Pomakov showed a solid, rough-grained bass as Antonia’s father Crespel and the innkeeper Luther. Mark Schowalter blared pompously as Nathanaël and Spalanzani, and David Crawford showed off a thunderous bass-baritone as Hermann and Schlémil.

The score of Hoffmann is, much like the story itself, a cabinet of curiosities, and the great strength of Johannes Debus’s reading was that he found and amplified the native charm of every episode: brashness, coyness, sumptuousness, absurdity, and horror all sounded equally vivid under his baton. The Met Orchestra gleamed, as ever, and Donald Palumbo’s chorus was in superb voice all night long, whether in the raucous roar of the drinking songs or in the sublime hush of the Act III septet.
Read the rest of the review here