Once again, the Metropolitan Opera's high-def simulcast cameras are on damage-control duty, if only a little.
The new production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, which can be seen at six area movie theaters at 1 p.m. tomorrow, has many alluring prospects: Director Bartlett Sher regularly works miracles with pieces that don't need them (like Broadway's current South Pacific); the title role was undertaken by the wonderful Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja; super-diva Anna Netrebko lends her sumptuous cords to a role that doesn't call upon her increasingly questionable coloratura abilities; and music director James Levine is back at the Met for the first time since his medical leave.
The opera itself, even in the corrupt edition used by the Met, is one of the great treats of the repertoire, with greatest-ever melodies dramatizing a succession of romantic nightmares as it follows the writer Hoffmann through romances with a mechanical doll (Olympia), a fatally ill singer (Antonia), and a casino temptress (Giuletta), who robs him of his mirror reflection. Performances are selling out.
Of these components, at least Netrebko worked out, though she's only in one of the three acts. Other elements don't fail; they're just not all the way there. The Michael Yeargan-designed production looks like four different operas, not created equal, with a faint whiff of budget cutbacks. The fantasies are framed in a bar setting that feels Kafka-esque, with that distinctively Czech combination of German severity and existential Russian darkness. Why not?
In the fantasy acts, first is best: Sher directs it like the golden age Broadway musical he has yet to direct on Broadway, full of grand, meticulously composed, often-symmetrical stage pictures, and choreography that stops just short of Radio City kicklines. The material supports him: The plot has revenge and skulduggery in a diabolical toy shop, a variation of sorts on the old Broadway show Flahooley.
In contrast, the Antonia act is stripped down to basic scenic and lighting effects. An homage to Robert Wilson? Or a larger idea that's so pared back that it has lost its sense of purpose? Well, there is Netrebko, singing herself to death with passionate outbursts of old-fashioned Russian melodrama appropriate to her doomed character. Only she could pull off.
The Giuletta act is generic Met ornateness - it could be Manon - and it's here that you realize the character of Hoffmann is more of a guide than a participant in his fantasies. His writing desk is displayed in the corner; he's still in the coat and vest he wore in the barroom.
The production's truth is that Hoffmann lived these romances only inside his head. It's a bit like finding out Santa Claus doesn't exist. Oh, boo! Fantasies gather their power from being at least metaphorically possible. I want to believe in this production more than it believes in itself.
Luckily, the simulcast cameras will have plenty of charismatic faces to zero in on, with plenty of good singing and accomplished acting. This isn't to be taken for granted, considering most key cast members are filling in for a previously scheduled (and starrier) colleague. As the four villains, Alan Held steps in for René Pape, while comically adept Kathleen Kim (Olympia) and suitably seductive Ekaterina Gubanova (Giuletta) fill in for Netrebko, who at one point was to sing both roles in addition to Antonia. The most accomplished characterization comes from the fine mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Hoffmann's muse Niklausse, who can seem like a mere sidekick, but here turns into a guardian angel.
Replacing Rolando Villazon in the title role, Calleja has only middling success. His fast-vibrato, soft-grained voice (the reason he's favorably compared to the great Jussi Bjorling) lacks the usual tenor cutting power; in compensation, he forces his voice, taxing his attractive tone quality. Characterization details need to be filled in.
Though Levine began last Friday's performance with a well-inflected reading of the score (the orchestra's rich basses bringing out the opera's macabre qualities), the music progressively slipped into all-purpose sumptuousness. A tighter grip is needed - particularly in this Offenbach-diluted edition - and with any luck, Levine will find that tomorrow.
Tales of Hoffmann
Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" will be simulcast
at 1 p.m. tomorrow the following area theaters:
The Bridge - UPenn, Philadelphia.
Riverview Plaza, Philadelphia.
Showcase at the Ritz Center, Voorhees
King of Prussia 15 plus IMAX, King of Prussia
AMC Neshaminy 24, Bensalem
Warrington Crossing 22, Warrington
The encore showing is Jan. 6.