Jacques Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann – Met in HD, Conductor, Yves Abel, Stage director, Bartlett Sher

Les Contes dOHoffmann

Les Contes d’Hoffmann


Erin Morley soprano – Olympia
Vittorio Grigolo – Hoffmann, tenor
Hibla Gerzmava – Antonia and Stella, soprano
Kate Lindsey – The Muse and Nicklausse, mezzo-soprano
Christine Rice – Guilletta, mezzo-soprano
Thomas Hamson – The four villain roles, barritone
David Crawford ‑ Schlémil

 Screened at Pacific Place AMC, Admiralty, June 6, 2015

Being that this is neither a live performance nor a movie, I debated whether there was a place for this on the hksounds blog – well, sure.‑ Leftovers. I also wasn’t sure I really wanted to write it up but there was an hour and a half before the Champions League Final, so I did.

I have never seen this opera before and perhaps never listened to in its entirety either. It’s one I won’t likely be standing in line to see again. Some of the music is very familiar, however, and it was interesting to see where and how it fit into the overall story which was a bit of a mash up. If there is one word to describe this production, it is ‘pulchritude.’ If there is one word for the opera, it’s ‘Where’s an editor when you need one?’ See what I mean, that‘s not one word, it could have been just one, ‘cut’ but I took seven to say the same thing. I know this is a terrible thing to say, akin to the duke who said Mozart had too many notes, but really if you look at the ending there’s just no excuse for the overly didactic and sentimental exhortations that go on and on. And if you move back into the third story, there is not a single believable motivation for almost anyone’s behavior, especially Hoffmann’s willingess to part with his reflection and then resume his former life so easily after he kills the baby-faced baritone. Escaping from the police ought to be a no-brainer but seems to have not even factored into his thinking.

This production has an outstanding cast from beginning to end and in every role. It is certainly among the best of any I have seen in the Met HD presentations. I would imagine the characters, which these outstanding singers play, are a challenge to pull off as the story and the character development is disjointed and superficial. Jacques Offenbach, the composer, and surely the only reason that this work is still part of the standard repetoire, may have had little input into the story, which is a rewrite by the librettist, Jules Barbier, of an existing story. Offenbach, unfortunately, died only a few months before the premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1881. At the risk of sounding crass, many operas undergo rigorous revisions after their premieres and we can only dream of the miracles that might have been.

Apparently many different versions and reordering of the characters and acts have come and gone since then. This Met production uses an alternative ending and has made The Muse into something of a sinister character which undermines the meaning of ‘muse.’ The rare references to Jewishness seem disconnected from the over all story and treatment. Sorry, but the story simply doesn’t have the wherewith all to carry a heavy philosophical load of any kind, even a pseudo one.

The stories themselves lack serious treatment and in depth characterizations. This, for the most part, out weighs the all too infrequent high points in the music. Because motivations are almost entirely missing, one is forced to rely on the cast, their voices, the orchestra, music, stage direction, the sets, costumes and so on. I can’t imagine a better cast. If this group can’t pull it off, I don’t think any one can, at least not in this particular and oh, so drawn out configuration.

Highlights: If Olympia isn’t a highlight, you might as well get up and leave. This might be a good reason for moving her story to third instead of having it be the first as has been done in this version. It would also make some kind of sense to come after his unhappy love affairs with real women. He might think he has a reason to turn to a sex doll or ersatz companion. It seems to be a fairly commonplace occurrence nowadays. (For example, think of the recent award winning movie, Her.)

In this opera, Olympia, the doll/robot is a very big highlight. Ms Morley is charming, acts the role with funny and believable robotic motions all the while singing up a storm. Her voice is bright, clear and very well controlled. She sang her way into all of our hearts. (Video below of the same artist and production but different performance.)

Hoffmann’s role is not especially endearing as he seems too easily swayed by external appearances, he can’t tell a doll from a real person, or understand that giving up your reflection means you are now a vampire (which in the days before Anne Rice, could make it even harder to get a future girlfriend). So the boy is stupid and doesn’t gin up a lot of sympathy. That means, to keep the audience interested, it helps if Hoffmann is handsome, and knows how to sing well. And Mr Grigolo’s got both of those covered.

Antonia sung by Hibla Gerzmava – another fabulous Russian soprano. I don’t know how they do it over there, but please, don’t stop. She’s wonderful, with crystalline highs that are as pure as glacier waters. She has a lovely tone and incredible vocal breath support. Unfortunately, this story and character doesn’t get the wonderful melodies which are split between the other two stories. The video below is a partial duet with Grigolo.

The Muse/Nicklausse Kate Lindsey is one of the smoothest mezzo’s I’ve ever heard; her voice is what I would imagine Greta Garbo’s reincarnated soul would sound like, a mix of velvet and lava – direct, irresistible with dangerous depths lurking beneath the surface. Although I would count myself lucky to see anyone of these performers again, she is the one who most intrigues me because I think she has the most potential to expand on what a mezzo’s role can be.

Thomas Hamson is personable, delightfully wicked in the four villain roles, and was in good voice as always.

Baritone David Crawford, who sang Schlémil looked like the long ago Glenn Danzig, if he had been 15. (I did say somewhere on this blog that I love all kinds of music.)

The sets are colorful, eye-catching, with weird visuals and plenty of lingerie. Could this have been underwritten by Victoria’s Secret?

Some not so highlights:

This is a live performance and I want, for the most part, to have a view from the best location a camera can have, and I don’t want to see the singer’s dental work, spittle flying or glistening noses. So what’s a poor cameraman to do? It has almost always seemed as if whoever is in charge of these programmes has no love for the music or else these people have been suffering from ADHD since long before that was a recognized diagnosis. Have you not noticed that they can’t stand to keep the camera static and let the music and singers get the emotion and action across to the audience, not only in the auditorium but in the movie theater as well? There’s no point in naming names. This seems a genetic trait of everyone in this job and therefore there is little value in discussing it further. I await the day they develop the gene therapy to control this.

That leaves the stage director and I have some very serious complaints about most of the modern opera productions that pass for ‘innovative’ and ‘daring.’ This one was far from the most egregious, meaning there were only a couple of times that I had to mentally shriek at the screen. But why should I have to do that at all? The most annoying is something that happens in most productions, including the traditional ones: Let’s have your daughter dying in front of you and you, of course, walk in the opposite direction and look at the audience. NO! You are going to go over and see how she is or depending on the character you are going to go for the jugular of the one you think is responsible for her death. Nothing else is possible and cannot be believed and if that means you have to move your corpse to a more convenient location for the father character to sing at, then you do it.

You also, don’t make your soprano sing whilst lying on the floor. I’m sorry but that is not only ridiculous, it is terribly disrespectful of your singer. Not everyone who dies, has to fall on the floor, why not ease yourself over to a chair or, in Antonia’s case drape yourself over the piano? I know when I feel ill, the floor is the last place I’m heading for.

I do understand the idea of furthering the characterizations, as set up by the librettist and composer, but there are some characters that must rely on the stage director to save them from the utter contempt of the audience. Don’t make your main character seem even more doltish through the staging than the libretto already has. It’s tough enough to care about such a nincompoop as Hoffmann, who is so affected by superficialities that he is captivated by whichever woman, or facsimile thereof, that crosses his path; to increase his bathos, by using a staging that removes all semblance of humanity from the character, ought not to ever happen. And yet it does, constantly.

But given that these are all the faults I could find in this production puts this the top of what I have seen in recent years. I didn’t leave wanting to tear out my hair or the director’s heart. So, good on you, Mr Sher.

Here is the doll song sung by Erin Morely in this production:


Although not my favorite scene, here’s a tiny excerpt of Grigolo and Gezmava as Hoffmann and Antonia:


Here’s Kate Lindsey with a different Hoffmann, Joseph Calleja, in a scene where she mocks his doll infatuation as well as argues for the consoling power of music. However, is there not just a little bit of self-interestedness in this as the early invoking of the violin could easily be construed as a comparison with the Muse herself?


There’s a significant chunk of what matters to me that got left off my other pages. And as any cook or eater knows, what could be better than leftovers?

March 25, 2015 – In the past several days, I have received two nominations for the Liebster Award, one from http://angieskitchenshenanigans.com  and the other from https://cruisingtheuniverse.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/wow-thoughts-on-my-first-blogging-award/.

I am honored and I shall do my best to fulfill the requirements of each and to be worthy of this award which according to the official rules: “It has German origins – the word “liebster” has several definitions: dearest, sweetest, kindest, nicest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, welcome…” Sounds just like me, right?

This deserves my best efforts. But with the HK Arts Festival in full swing for another week and the HK International Film Festival just getting underway, plus a job, some freelancing and travel at the Easter holidays this may take some time. I hope you will be patient with me.

P1040439Chinese Gardens, especially the Suzhou urban-style gardens. I read that to understand Chinese gardens, you have to understand everything about Chinese art, architecture and philosophy. I’m still working on that.

Crafts and folk art, especially North Coast Art, Middle Eastern carpets, and textiles from Indonesia, China, Japan, Thailand, Guatemala,….

Film – The incomparable directors and the films that can change the way we see the world: Bergman, de Sica, Eisenstein, Fellini, Goddard, Herzog, Kurosawa, Richardson, Ray, Wells. (incomplete list)

Fine food and restaurants – Not for here. I do enough damage to the subject on TripAdvisor.

Hong Kong movies, especially Jackie Chan, Chau Sing Chi, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun Fat, Ann Hui, Wong Jing, Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Jeff Lau, Tony Leung (both of them), Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, Karen Mok, Anita Mui, Francis Ng, Johnny To, Simon Yam.

Science and the search for answers to those things that it can answer, especially natural history and astronomy.

Teaching English to students who are being cheated everyday by their schools and our society by saying it’s OK that they don’t have a future. That’s what it means when they/we aren’t focused every moment on stopping global warming, which scientists say will cause sea levels to rise by several meters in the near-term. How can we allow these children to be the last generation?

Travel – I love it and do it when I can.

Wine – I can’t afford what I like except maybe once or twice a


Left off the leftovers:

Sports – How could I have left them off. I have been in love with baseball since I was a small child and still listen to games on MLB.com. I adore athletic prowess. I flew 7,000 miles just to be in a better time zone for the 2014 World Cup instead of staying up all night as I did for the prior ones. I haven’t found a spectator sport, in person or on TV, that I willing to leave before it was over. (I draw the line at blood sports.)


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