Recent travels took me to New York City for the first time and one particular highlight was to attend two performances at the Met over the space of two weeks. Specifically, the closing night of Tales of Hoffmann under Met Music Director James Levine and the opening night of a revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Getting Jimmy Levine into the pit is now a well-rehearsed process. He had a specially-designed wheelchair as well as a rotunda to allow him to get the wheelchair in and positioned where he needs to be. Everyone is by now well-used to the process but given that Hoffmann is a three-act affair, it tends to get a bit like Grand Central Terminal in the pit ! But I digress.
The Tales of Hoffmann, which is based on three short stories by ETA Hoffmann, is interesting not only for the plot but also for the fact that there is actually no definitive version of the opera. Jacques Offenbach didn’t help things when he voiced his own premonition that he would, like one of the characters (Antonia), die before the work was completed which he duly did ! The libretto can be summarised thus – Hoffmann, a moderately successful poet but unlucky in love tells how he falls in love with four women – Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll, Antonia, who sings herself to death due to a medical condition, Giulietta, a rich courtesan and finally Stella, the prima donna singing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni but he is too drunk and she fall for his rival Lindorf. Aficionados of the stories and the opera will note that I have omitted to mention that the Muse of Poetry is the other ‘woman’ in Hoffmann’s life and she poses as his best friend Nicklausse in the course of the opera and as these stories are told. In the end, Hoffmann devotes his existence to poetry and the Muse is pleased but as he pledges never to love again, who knows what befalls him in the end. The cast was very much American which showed the relative depth of talent available to the Met domestically. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was both strong vocally and in his stagecraft while mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano played a strong foil as Nicklausse. Soprano Susanna Phillips also showed solid vocal technique and acting skills as Antonia and Stella and French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri shone malevolently as the four villains as you would expect him to do given that he is married to one of the most outstanding singers of the day (Natalie Dessay – whose portrayal of Olympia over the years has been the gold standard). Speaking of Olympia, soprano Audrey Luna, dressed in what can only be called a cross between cosplay and scarlet fairy, hit all of the high notes with ease and grace. In the same vein as Ms. Luna’s own costume, no expense is spared with the elaborate costumes and staging, the chorus and extras in the cast some of whom are, well, minimally dressed. We do have a circus and bordello in the entertainment package, after all ! The Met orchestra under their venerable leader sailed through the music making it an intriguing and delightful evening.
Verdi’s Don Carlo is not an opera I know well and that might also have to do with the fact the fact that there is a French version (Don Carlos as it was originally written for the Paris Opera) as well as the Italian version and that Verdi made many revisions and cuts. The storyline is not as interesting, to me, as other Verdi operas – based on Schiller’s free-form poetic setting and in five acts, it revolves about the trials and tribulations of Don Carlos, Crown Prince of Spain. Initially betrothed to the Princess Elizabeth of France (as part of a peace deal), that engagement is ruthlessly cut off by his own father who negotiates Elizabeth for himself. The rest of the opera sees Don Carlo anguished between his feelings for Elizabeth and his sense of duty to Spain as well as trying to deal with his unfeeling and rather cruel father King Philip. But the plot and the characterisations are somewhat hampered by the source material and as a result (in my opinion at least), this greatly affects the quality of the music. Plot issues aside, it was a very strong cast including Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Princess Elizabeth, legendary Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto and the legendary Siberian bass-baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky (a late replacement for Simon Keenlyside who had withdrawn due to illness). Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee did well as Don Carlo but had to overcome a rather sub-par start. His duets with Hvorostovsky were, however, excellent and Lee had no problem finding an extra gear whenever they were on stage together. But Furlanetto’s dark, brooding and malevolent characterisation of King Philip showed what vocal projection is all about. I must say I am heavily biased but the best parts for me were when Furlanetto and Hvorostovsky were on stage whether in duet or part of the ensemble cast. Opera doesn’t get better than that. Canadian wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin had a few wobbly moments with the Met orchestra but held things together well overall. A very memorable night for this opera fan.