Those who like their opera off-kilter will revel in the Metropolitan Opera’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, an opera in three acts (with prologue and epilogue) by Jacques Offenbach. The Met production was heavily operetta à la Offenbach—risqué, and at times, erotic.

Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera
Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

The Met's version was redone for the 2009-10 season, and is one of the new, more adventurous productions central to general director Peter Gelb's revitalization strategy. With each new production rolling out, and old stagings phasing out, Gelb aims to recast opera as an attractive art form to younger operagoers in the face of what remains a significantly older audience. The show continues for selected performances through October 19.

Hoffmann was directed by American Theatre director Bartlett Sher, whom The New York Times called, “one of the most original and exciting directors, not only in the American theater but also in the international world of opera." In his Director’s Notes, Sher lists Kafka and Fellini as the muses inspiring his conception of this show. He chose to set his new Hoffmann in an era during which issues of fragmentation were likewise explicit in art and ideas: The 1920s. “[They] become a source point—not because of the time itself,” Sher explained, "but by using the kind of art that was made in the twenties.”

The staging was lush, risky as well as risqué, and picturesque, with each effect and entrance as finely orchestrated as an operatic score. Precision combined with surrealism. Lithe bodies undulated rhythmically. Chorus members, dancers, and sets floated on and offstage, alternately, like viewing living paintings in scene after scene. One could only wonder, mouth agape at times, whether Offenbach was one of Fellini’s muses.

Each of Hoffmann’s three acts is based on an individual story written by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who is also the main protagonist in the opera as he is in the stories. A different woman he once loved is the centerpiece of each act—a doll, a dying singer, and a courtesan. The one constant in the opera’s storyline is the poet’s muse, who persuades him to accept that he's been creatively successful despite his past failed loves and that she will always love him.

Though I prefer Les Contes d’Hoffmann when the same woman sings all of his past loves because it affirms Hoffman’s obsession intuitively, each of the sopranos—Anna Christy (the doll), Hibla Gerzmava (the dying singer), and Eknkelejda Shkosa (the courtesan), as well as mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey portraying his muse—deserved the adulation they received at curtain call. The day I saw Giuseppe Filianoti as Hoffmann, he seemed vocally tired, sometimes straining and occasionally cracking on high notes. It’s just like Pavarotti said, “An evening never recovers from a cracked note. Like a bullfight, you are not allowed one mistake.” Though not accorded star status, the orchestra led by Patrick Fournillier and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Ballet earned accolades of their own. They were part and parcel of the visual and aural feast on display.

I’m no fan of concerts-in-costume. I was thrilled to see the same level of sophistication in production values I've admired in the best Broadway productions now on the Met stage. The opera worked as an organic whole—delighting, surprising, and at times, thrilling. As the product of Gelb’s vision for the Met as an art form for younger audiences, Hoffmann was a delicious success that whets the appetite for more “new Met.”

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