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"Les Contes d'Hoffmann"

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Every revival of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann is an adventure these days. The current Metropolitan Opera production has been around for nearly eighteen years, but each time it turns up one never quite knows what to expect. The reason, of course, is that the composer died in 1880, before he could put his score into a definitive form, and the completed opera was cobbled together by various hands. Corrupt though it may have been, that version always seemed to work beautifully onstage, and the opera soon became a repertory staple the world over. Then, around twenty years ago, all those mysterious trunks containing manuscript pages in the composer's hand began turning up in unexpected places, and since then Les Contes d'Hoffmann has been a farrago of alternate versions. Acts were reversed, characters split in two, familiar numbers replaced, and new pieces inserted, and the whole thing kept getting longer and longer.

The Met has always tiptoed cautiously through this morass, its policy on the subject no doubt dictated in part by whatever version the cast of the moment is prepared to sing. Unlike the City Opera, which recently staged an edition that incorporated many of the latest findings, the Met continues to base its production on the old Hoffmann that most operagoers grew up with, while throwing in a new bit here and there. Such half-measures cheat the audience, especially since the quality of the newly discovered music is indisputable and sharpens the dramatic focus of the whole piece as the poet Hoffmann makes his hallucinatory journey from one unhappy love affair to another.

Right now, the Met production as restaged by Lesley Koenig has virtually no focus at all, musical or dramatic -- a pity, since Günther Schneider-Siemssen's appropriately fantastical scenery sets the right tone and the vocal material on hand for the present revival shows promise. Bryn Terfel's four nemesis figures are vastly entertaining and handsomely sung, but in this context his frantic performance has no center and adds up to little more than a vaudeville turn. Neil Shicoff is still a dashing Hoffmann, even if his voice now sounds a bit leathery and tends to tire quickly, while Ruth Ann Swenson's portrayals of the poet's four amours are prettily sung but terribly bland. Whatever symbolism there may be in having Hoffmann's girlfriends played by one soprano is pretty much canceled out if a singer is this characterless. Singing with quiet luster and grace, Susanne Mentzer shone most brightly, more than justifying the additions that turn Nicklausse/The Muse into a major role. Franz Vote deputizes for an indisposed James Levine, conducting an efficient but largely charmless performance.


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