I can't remember when I've seen such a first-rate combination of staging and singing as we saw today in the HD theatre broadcast of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman from the Met.
The singing, to coin a phrase, kind of speaks for itself (but I will say more infra). The staging--well, if you don't like it, you will say that it is cluttery and intrusive. If you like it, you know that the reason it works lies in the nature of the opera itself and its composer. Recall this is Offenbach's only "serious" opera (or the only one that persists in the repertoire). He wrote it toward the end of a career, in which he felt increasingly the need not just to prove himself but to justify himself.
And everything about Offenbach is a contradiction. He is a Frenchman, but he's not. He's a Jew, but he's not. He's a serious composer, but he's not. He's a divided soul. He's a cosmopolitan. And that is the point. I've never seen any production that goes further to identify the welter of cultural connections that Offenbach can exemplify.
Offenbach wrote the opera in the 1870s--a troubled time in France, hard on their humiliation by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war (he staged a performance at his home in 1879, but then died in 1880, before any full public staging). The Met's director, Bartlett Sher, says he has pushed it forward to the 1920s, which is true enough but only up to a point. Granted, there are enough cabaret touches that you half expect Joel Grey to pop out and shout "Wilkommen!" But there's a lot more than that; there's plenty of leftover Belle Epoque; there's an anchoring pub scene and for the finale, the whole gang goes to Venice. The point is that the music seems to be able go resonate with all of these.
Joseph Calleja here in his first outing as Hoffman is the glue that holds it all together, the same way James Gandolfini holds together The Sopranos. Calleja has said himself that the voice is a fine fit for the music and he's right: Calleja seems as much at home in Hoffman as Anthony Dean Griffey is in Peter Grimes (except that Griffey may be a one-opera singer; Calleja has given every evidence that he is nurturing a full career). Calleja gives you a Hoffman who is all of a piece, a searcher and a sensitive soul. And also something of an outsider; Sher likes to talk about Kafka and that is not wrong, but you could tell the story as a chapter in the long history of romanticism without any reference to Kafka at all--or putting it the other way around, calling him "Byron" would do just as well.
Aside from Calleja, I thought the most winning personality onstage today was Kate Lindsey as the muse. She doesn't have the strongest voice but she knows exactly what she wants to convey, and she is on stage through almost the entire production--detached and ironic, yet still sympathetic with her somewhat bewildered protege. The star turn belonged to Anna Netrebko as the thwarted prima donna. She turned in a perfectly creditable performance, but it's remarkable that this segment actually seems somewhat thin in a presentation like this where a different woman sings each of the three leads.
James Levine was back at the podium, dealing (to all appearances) graciously with a back brace. Sher got to join the onstage applause line at the end, along with Michael Yeargan the set designer Catherine Zuber who did the costumes--and well deserved, I say, probably should happen more often.
A side note: if you're having as much trouble as I did getting a grip on Offenbach, you might consider starting with La Vie Parisienne, which must be about the most successful of his undertakings in opéra bouffe. "Comic" is just exactly what Hoffman is not, but this blowout extravaganza in a medium with which he was much more familiar may give you a more accessible sense of what he thought the musical stage might be.
Afterthought: Just a few days ago, we watched Red Shoes--Michael Powell's high-kitsch mash note to The Arts. Powell weent on to do Hoffman, and I can see now how much Powell's Hoffman is a sequel to his Red Shoes. In retrospect, Powell's Hoffman is good fun, but it's got about as much to do with Offenbach as it does with John Wayne.