Thursday, September 2, 2010

Opera in HD - The Tales of Hoffmann. 9/1/2010

Anna Netrebko in 1920s garb as Stella

Kate Lindsey in female dress at the end, as Nicklausse.

Kate Lindsey and Joseph Calleja, with past loves Olympia and Antonia (Kim & Netrebko) and chorus at finale.

Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann.

Michael Todd Simpson, a barihunk, in 2 roles.

Giulietta the Courtesan (Ekaterina Guberova) and Olympia, the Doll (Kathleen Kim)

The opera begins, at 7:45 PM (different start times for each opera)

The film is projected from this tower

Viewers chatting and trying to stay cool before the show

One of many with a fan - I had one too - bring a cooler with iced drinks, and ice!

Finally got myself over to the plaza at Lincoln Center to catch a HD showing of Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" on a humid night with almost no breeze. I don't know if this was ever shown on TV, but I had not seen this new production directed by Bartlett Sher, so I was eager to see how the Met presented this piece in our post-modern age. Well, it was a mixed bag of an evening. I couldn't get a good idea of the setting all the time, but it looked extremely minimalist, and as there was a typewriter in a corner of the set for the evening, it was updated to the early 20th century. A brief look at Wikipedia tells me that the first typewriter patent was applied for in 1714, but they didn't actually appear until the later 19th century. It was dark, dark, and dark, the tavern scene was filled with more chorus than you can imagine, and the costumes were rather quiet for an opera stage. If you have ever listened to this opera, it is exuberant, SENSUAL, epic and above all, FUN. The music is supposed to dictate the approach to an opera - the concept springs from the source material - one does not IMPOSE a concept that is at odds with the music or text. This production is typical for the Met's current artistic sensibility - spare (cheap) and modern, with whatever period touches can be borne, whether appropriate or not. Costumes are often a mishmash of contemporary, period and stylized, sometimes all at once.

When I was in design school, a million years ago, romantic realism was the vogue, but that style has long departed, and the Met, in fact, is trashing those older productions if they can't sell them to other companies. Some might argue that a company like the Met, in order to stay current, has no business presenting productions that are 40 plus years old, with painted flats or other old-fashioned scenic solutions. They recently discarded a Franco Zeffirelli "La Traviata", and rumor has it that this romantic opera's new production is an exercise in humorless starkness.

To get back to the opera, I am usually bored by the opening Tavern scene and can't wait to get right to the three acts about Hoffmann's tragic love affairs. Hoffmann, a poet, in Nuremberg, begins the evening in a tavern, describing the failures of his romances with four alluring women. See a more detailed background of the opera here. Sometimes one singer is hired to sing these soprano roles; Joan Sutherland was a famous interpreter who sang Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta and Stella. In this production, Kathleen Kim sand the role of the doll - girlfriend Olympia, a coloratura showcase of a role, superstar Anna Netrebko sang Stella and Antonia, and Ekaterina Gubanova sang Giulietta. Tenor Joseph Calleja sang the title role of Hoffmann, and Alan Held sang multiple bass-baritone villains. It's a very demanding piece, and the music is gorgeous, conducted last fall by James Levine. Hopefully, he will recover fully from his health issues and conduct again this season.

I was disappointed with this production's visuals - costumes didn't seem to be bold enough for the opera stage, with the exception of Olympia, dressed in hot pink with stylized headdress amid all of the blackness and rather Kafka-esque style. All of these women, who are really one woman, were costumed in various shades of pink, from pale to deep fuchsia. In the Venice scene, Act 3, the stage picture was filled with beautiful 18th century costumes, but it was hard to see what they really looked like, as it was so dark. Typically, each act has its own look: Act 1, a cluttered toy shop/workspace of the inventor Spelanzani, where Hoffmann meets and falls in love with Olympia, who is really a doll, or robot, as they referred to her last evening. Act 2 is set in the conservative home of Antonia, in Munich, a young singer with an overprotective father, who is ill and who will die if she continues to sing. (She does, of course.) Act 3 is set in Venice, in a palace on the Grand Canal, where Hoffmann is involved with a courtesan, Giulietta. Each scene is very different and potentially offers a chance for designers to present some eye-catching visuals. It's an expensive opera to produce and imho it's unfair to offer it if you can't really do justice to it. Act 2's scenery was almost non-existent, as if TPTB decied that they really couldn't afford to stage it and saved their budget for the last act in Venice, which was busy and overcrowded staging-wise, and could have done with less in order to spread the wealth more evenly. I found it hard to follow some of the story (and I know it) from the direction, even though the characterizations were well-handled and acted by an attractive cast. Physical attractiveness of singers is an important part of this Met's casting criteria, but this evening was also well-sung, even if some of the singers' vocal qualities are not to my taste. It was refreshing to not have to worry if a singer could make it through the evening, as sometimes happens.

Anna Netrebko was the big star of this run, and she is a lovely, arresting performer, exciting to watch and listen to. Calleja sailed through the evening, though I am not a fan of his rapid vibrato and metallic tone. The other singers were fine, Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) was superb, and pert Kathleen Kim seemed to sail through her Olympic trials (heh) in her hot pink ensemble, including wig. I wish that my pictures had turned out better, so here are a few that will give you an idea of the evening. The sets look more opulent in the pictures.

Technology is amazing, and it's a gift that we are able to see these operas, for free, in the open air. Check the Met's website for the rest of the schedule into next week and if you are in the area and have never seen an opera at the Met, or in this way, and it's a fine evening, it's a great way to be introduced to it, and it's free. Get there around 6:30 to grab a good seat. You can buy food and drink there or bring your won, and can even buy a seat cushion! I recommend the Carmen with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagana. The chemistry between them is amazing and it's filmed beautifully. If you missed it on TV, you can catch it next week in the plaza. I was very impressed by the little girl of around 8 who sat rapt through all 3 acts of this opera in front of me. Her brother was not into it, but she was at attention and seemed to enjoy it - she could clearly read the subtitles or follow the story well enough. Not every opera they are presenting is suitable for children, but hopefully this girl will grow up to attend opera after he positive experience!

3 comments:

Lady-Light said...

I grew up in NYC, went to elementary and high school in Manhattan. In high school, for recess we used to sneak out of our building (which at the time was on 82nd and Madison)and run down the block to the Met--Museum of Art, that is!

And I saw Tosca at Lincoln Center, many, many snows ago.

OvertheTop said...

Hi Lady Light - thanks so much for your comment! What high school was that? I went to P.S. 6 on 82nd & Madison and don't remember any other school there but maybe that was the original school on that spot!

Tim Threlfall said...

I saw this production and same cast in a "live" HD broadcast, in Western Australia and do not share any of "Over the top"'s concerns - it was just fantastically well done by all.

My only concern is the Met's continuing insistence that ticket sales cover less than half the production costs - and I think, they must be able to save something on the sets. Eugene Onegin from a few years ago was stark and simplistic yet very effective. I see no "mish mash" in the costumes. Just a fan, I guess.

Tim.