The Metropolitan Opera’s five-year old production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann returned to the repertoire with a remarkable undertaking of the title role by Vittorio Grigolo.

Bartlett Sher’s production on Michael Yeargan’s sets does not quite work. Updated to a time when manual typewriters were a new, hot item and everyone wears black, the overall effect, even in the supposedly “fun” prologue, is dreary, with the students sitting at long tables, facing the audience and no real boisterousness. The backdrop is black. The Muse – later Nicklausse – makes her intent clear: she must keep Hoffmann on his path as a writer. Pages fall from the wings. The Olympia act is a circus – a nice touch – since the unreality of the situation has no frame of reference in reality (unlike Spalanzani’s science laboratory, say), and there are many pretty-in-pink tiny ballerinas, one of whom is Olympia. People twirl umbrellas with eyeballs painted on them.

Erin Morley (Olympia) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Erin Morley (Olympia)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The Munich/Antonia act, played second, is truly dreary: just a piano, two chairs, and scrims with bare trees painted on them – a home already dead (we get it!) – but still, it looks liked community theatre at its cheapest. The Venice act, on the other hand, is the very soul of concupiscence: lots of female almost-nudity, male dancers doing something like Pilates, only on top of one another, 18th century period costumes and lots of high hair – all of it quite ugly. Giulietta, in this version, by the way, does not die. For the famous septet, characters from earlier in the opera – the circus - are brought back in, and the whole cast is available for the Epilogue, as is the black background. Some characters wear Bowler hats; other’s half-masks. Perhaps the hodge-podge is supposed to acknowledge Hoffmann’s creative writing gifts. It isn’t a bad or stupid or annoying production, it simply does not cohere as a complete picture of this complex opera.

Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann) and Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann) and Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

But, I dare say, a good time was had by most. Vittorio Grigolo has been, oddly, less than impressive at the Met, as either the Duke of Mantua or Rodolfo, but here as Hoffmann, he is simply spectacular. Handsome and agile on stage, and flatteringly placed, for the most part, stage front, the voice sees larger than before, but just as beautiful, rounded and nuanced. High notes ring out true and with plenty of squillo – indeed, after years of hearing Mr Domingo (and most others, with the exception of Alfredo Kraus) skip most of the B flats in the Antonia act’s ensembles and strain terribly through “O Dieu, de quelle ivresse”, listening to Mr Grigolo’s absolute ease and control of the stunning vocal line was almost a revelation. He portrays Hoffmann as an eternal optimist at the start of each act and returns to his typewriter at the end, and if he does not offer the pathos of Neil Shicoff, well, we’ll do without it. Perhaps the French repertoire is where he should be; we’ll be watching for his Des Grieux later in the season.

Hibla Gerzmava (Antonia) and Thomas Hampson (Dr Miracle) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Hibla Gerzmava (Antonia) and Thomas Hampson (Dr Miracle)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Thomas Hampson, portraying all the villains, is, by now, working on sheer artistry rather than vocal ability. The voice has gotten smaller, the dryness that made him unsatisfying as the elder Germont and Renato (in Ballo), is in evidence here. He acts magnificently and gives each word the right emphasis; he is the picture of manipulative evil. But he’s barely audible in ensembles and his solos – a transposed “Scintille, diamant” included – are blanched.

Kate Lindsay is magnificent as the Muse/Nicklausse. In this production, she is almost always on stage, attempting to divert Hoffmann from his errors but not quite insisting, and she is given two extra grand solos – the “violin” aria in the Antonia act and another in the epilogue. And her part in the Barcarolle is splendidly sung, the tone handsome.

Soprano Hilba Gerzmava is a moving Antonia, with a big voice and some sharp edges to her high notes, all the way up to a pair of brain-splitting C sharps, and Christine Rice’s Giulietta is best in her mid range but otherwise has little new to say about this character. The wacky Olympia of Erin Morley is a lesson in acting, both vocally and physically, and her spotless coloratura, up to a perfectly placed squeak of an A flat above high C, delighted the audience. Tony Stevenson shines as the four servants – even singing Franz’s aria without clowning too much – and David Pittsinger is authoritative as Crespel and Luther. Dennis Petersen, as a circus-master Spalanzani, is good and oily, and Olesya Petrova’s work as Antonia’s mother is to be admired.

Yves Abel in the pit could not be more different than his predecessor, James Levine, in his outlook of this work: swift tempi throughout, save for the love duets, over which the orchestra lingers. The Met Orchestra must love this score. The performing version is Mr Levine’s, a mixture of much of the “original” (if there is one) and the “new” material discovered about 40 years ago. Despite the what-is-this production, the evening was a rousing success, with energy, romance and a marvelous new Hoffmann.