Les contes d’Hoffmann

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The best-laid plans of Peter Gelb gang aft agley. When the impresario first announced a new production of Les contes d’Hoffmann, the stellar principals were to be Rolando Villazón, René Pape, Elina Garanca and our diva du jour, Anna Netrebko, portraying the central heroines. When the tales were told on Thursday, however, only Netrebko remained, and she had reduced her workload to one act plus incidental appearances in the prologue and epilogue. Sick transit, and all that.

To say that the ersatz cast was uneven belabours the obvious. Confronting the cruel title-role, Joseph Calleja explored the dynamic gamut from loud to louder, pushing his lyric tenor dangerously and articulating a strange foreign tongue that sometimes resembled French. As the quadruple villain, Alan Held oozed seasoned competence rather than slimy menace. Looking magnetic in her Georges Sand drag, Kate Lindsey performed Nicklausse’s expanded duties with much style, not so much voice. Netrebko exuded poignant desperation as Antonia, weak trill and strained climaxes notwithstanding.

Kathleen Kim, who inherited the doll routines of Olympia (and shared them, confusingly, with a corps of doubles), was secure in the coloratura stratosphere, also terminally pert. Ekaterina Gubanova, who took over Giulietta, emerged stilted and unsteady. Alan Oke fused vocal finesse with campy indulgence in the servant cameos.

Returning after spinal surgery, James Levine conducted a variation of the time-dishonoured Oeser edition with obvious sympathy. He found an awkward ally in Bartlett Sher, whose staging favoured clumsy clutter. Abetted by Michael Yeargan’s semi-abstract designs and Catherine Zuber’s potpourri costumes, the director blurred character relationships and played each scene in a different period (ask not why). In any case, his showbiz aesthetic did little to illuminate the inaction.

Incidental unintelligence: the Met website flashes this ominous message: “The production contains partial nudity and may not be appropriate for young children. The partial nudity will not be shown in the HD transmission.” The potential offenders turn out to be some irrelevant women who lounge about oh-so-lewd Venice in bikini bottoms and spangled pasties. Goodness gracious. ()

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