Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann is a strange work. Primarily about creativity, its trimmings are drunkenness, death, paranoia and unfulfilled love. Its music is perversely delightful, as if to underline, or undercut, its subject matter. All of the comic moments are at the disadvantage of our eponymous hero; he’s mocked, reviled and lives a life of disappointment. The events that take place in front of the audience are hallucinatory, reaching their climax in the appearance of Antonia’s dead mother, and with a courtesan who steals men’s reflections (souls) for a demonic overlord.

I reviewed this production in January of 2015 and found Bartlett Sher's production somewhat wanting. It and I are two years older and it works better for me now. Conceived on Michael Yeargen’s sets with Catherine Zuber’s costumes, it takes a Kafka-esque, surreal view of the opera; it is updated, for the most part, to the 1920s, although parts of it seem a century earlier. The effect is, by turns, dazzling and puzzling. But since the situations themselves are unreal, the puzzles are expected and we can be grateful for how dazzled the experience leaves us. Trying to figure it out can make one crazy; it makes us feel like Hoffmann, which may be Sher & Company’s point.

Hoffmann tells the story of his three loves to his friends in a tavern and he’s either embellishing them, hallucinating, or simply making them up – he’s a poet, after all (his desk and typewriter are present throughout most of the opera), and the stage floor is littered with writing paper. Nicklausse/the Muse never leaves the stage; s/he literally spurs Hoffmann to poetic, albeit drunken lunatic heights. The opera is peopled with men in Bowler Hats; circus clowns and characters straight out of Todd Browning’s 1929 film Freaks are present in the Olympia act, which takes place in a carnival. Semi-nude men and women writhe about during the famous Barcarolle but the women in the Venice act are otherwise out of the 1820s, complete with huge petticoats and poofed up hair. The characters melt from one story into another, i.e: as figments of our poet’s imagination, they keep popping up; Olympia – or five of her – turns up at the end of the Giulietta act. Antonia’s living room is a chair and a piano with hanging scrims of leafless trees; James Ingalls’ lighting – all morbid purple and blue – tells us what we have to know otherwise. I found it dreary before; now I realize that it, in fact, is purposely dreary. It reeks of death. The voluptuousness of Venice is suggested by cushions, multi-colored costumes and lanterns, and a gondola.

The first performance of the season at the Met turned out to be the best cast in several years. At its center is Vittorio Grigòlo (as before) and he is just as he tends to be: boyish, crazily optimistic, athletic. If he tends to oversing (the role really needs a more refined style of Gedda or Kraus) at least it's gorgeous, right on the note and the words are clear. If someone could convince him to calm down vocally more often, he'd be ideal. Erin Morley repeated her dazzling Olympia, amazingly acted (she keeps falling down backwards) and sung, right up to A flats above high C, as if the E flats would not do. Bless the Met for bringing Laurent Naouri back to reprise his Four Villains; he appeared in the second cast in 2015 and the first cast was stuck with an almost voiceless baritone. Naouri's height is scary enough, but when he hovers, all in black, over the others, he's like a bird of prey. His rich, dark voice rolled across the footlights and he characterized each villain well. "Scintille diamant" was, I believe, transposed down a half tone – not every baritone has a G sharp! (Last time it was transposed a whole tone or more!) 

New were Anita Hartig as a heartbreaking, vocally ravishing Antonia, perhaps lacking fragility but pouring out beautiful music in waves; Oksana Volkova as a vocally secure, somewhat too smoky-voiced Giulietta singing in what might have been French (or not), and Tara Erraught, making her debut as Nicklausse/The Muse. She is a wonderful singing actress, vaguely more at home in her exclamatory music than in the hypnotic, poised "Violin" aria in the Antonia act, but a welcome addition. She sings Hansel later in the season. Bravi to Christophe Mortagne for his four weird servants and to Mark Schowalter as Spalanzani and Nathanael.

Johannes Debus lead a remarkable performance, at once tense and graceful, driven but allowed to breathe. Tender moments were hushed and graceful; wild spots were suitably wild. Of course, the Met Orchestra and Chorus were at their best.