Bartlett Sher's 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of Les contes d'Hoffman was revived this season, opening on January 12 with a cast that included Vittorio Grigolo and Thomas Hampson. On February 28 a second, quite stunning cast took over. I hadn't seen Mr Sher's production before, and I was struck by all the dream-like, almost absurdist visual references – Bedlam, carnival in Venice, Versailles – that worked together to emphasize Hoffmann's decline into madness, which clearly wasn't a long journey for him.
Matthew Polenzani's Hoffmann wowed! Mr Polenzani has risen tremendously in my already considerable esteem with this performance. I've never seen this level of passion, both dramatically and vocally, from him before. While it is still clear that his is a very lyric tenor and he made his start singing light roles, his venture into heavier repertoire like Hoffmann is paying off. His performance as Dudley in Maria Stuarda showed this level of performance was possible, but it is with Hoffmann that I think Mr Polenzani is really coming into his own. At times I was in awe of his ability to simply breathe and sing: no extraneous body or facial movements, no apparent concern about the next difficult phrase, nothing but a clear and free sound.
Hoffmann's friend Nicklausse and the Muse were sung by French mezzo Karine Deshayes. Miss Deshayes made her Met debut in 2006, and has only sung there a few times. If Wednesday evening's performance was any indication, New York audiences are missing out on a great treat. Her sound is warm and rich throughout, with ringing high notes to challenge those of many sopranos. Miss Deshayes impressed with her vocal showmanship, mocking the coloratura that Olympia sings and sounding momentarily like a legitimate coloratura soprano. She also impressed with her sensitive acting, which was at its best when she was playing off of someone else on stage.
Audrey Luna was an extraordinary Olympia, all pink satin and pink hair and stratospheric high notes with silvery technical mastery. Was that an A-flat above high F – or several of them – in the second stanza of “Les oiseaux dans la charmille”? Susanna Phillips gave us a rich, luxuriant sound as Antonia, singing her long, aching phrases with warmth and subtlety. We shared Hoffmann's heartbreak as she succumbed to temptation and sang herself to death. Elena Maximova was an icy 18th century beauty, giving us Giulietta's schemery with a creamy and seductive mezzo voice.
The four villains were portrayed with dark and nefarious character and correspondingly deep vocal tone by Laurent Naouri. In this production they are really the same character, hawking different temptations in each act. David Pittsinger was effective as Luther and Crespel (Antonia's father). Veteran Met character tenor Tony Stevenson was a delight as Andres, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio.
It was a joy and quite an emotional moment to see James Levine in the pit, and to hear him conduct the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, considered by many the finest orchestra in the land. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet performed with the usual amazing level of artistry and precision. I recommend this production for the singing alone, but there are so many other likeable and interesting things about this production that even one deaf to the vocal beauty on stage would be satisfied.
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