Musing about the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

On Saturday night the Met’s last performance of this season’s run of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann took place. Under the baton of James Levine the cast included Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Nicklausse, Laurent Naouri as the four Villains, Audrey Luna as the doll Olympia, Susanna Phillips as Antonia, and Elena Maximova as Giulietta.

Audrey Luna and Matthew Polenzani in the Met's Les contes d'Hoffmann, © Corey Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Audrey Luna and Matthew Polenzani in the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, © Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Hoffmann is one of Levine’s specialties, as he has conducted it over twenty times at the Met alone and extensively at the Salzburg Festival. As a result, he kept everything under control. The Met Orchestra played gorgeously; the winds particularly played with sensitivity and sparkle. The Met Chorus was fantastic as always; the men’s chorus especially outdid themselves in the Luther’s tavern scenes with the drinking choruses and “Chanson de Kleinzach”. The very stage presence of Bartlett Sher’s production is complicated, as characters from one act appear in others where they are not included in the libretto. Having clones of the doll Olympia stalking and waltzing around mechanically in Giulietta’s palace was disconcerting, but entertaining nonetheless.

Personally, I have always thought of Matthew Polenzani as a light Mozartian tenor. His Hoffmann was a very Mozartian one; slightly reserved, controlled, and never belted. Even at climaxes, such as the end of Act I when Hoffmann realizes that Olympia is only a robot, he did not push himself over the edge. His companion, Jennifer Johnson Cano sang very richly and darkly, similarly to how Kate Lindsey sang the role earlier in the season. As they are both young, one feels that their voices could develop further in the future in order to inhabit bigger French mezzo roles such as those in Susan Graham’s repertoire. With her costume and the dark set, Johnson Cano managed to blend in as the transparent, ever-watching Nicklausse. Naouri was cleverly and entertainingly evil throughout the evening. He seemed to particularly enjoy being Dr. Miracle, as he clinked his flasks and conducted Antonia from a chair. It was astounding how he did not have to reach down to access his lower register; it seemed as if he was sitting right on it, especially in the ‘A’ to ‘D’ slide in “Scintille diamant”. His diction was impeccable; it probably helps that he is a native speaker and he lives under the same roof as former Met soprano Natalie Dessay.

Laurent Naouri and Matthew Polenzani in the Met's Les contes d'Hoffmann, © Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Laurent Naouri and Matthew Polenzani in the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, © Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Audrey Luna was truly out of this world. Her multiple ‘Ab’s, ‘G’s, and ‘F’s above high C rang through the house. Those made up for the rest of her register down below, as her entire range has adopted the same strident nature as her high notes. Susanna Phillips was marvelous as Antonia. The part truly fits her voice well. Her top bloomed in “Elle a fui, la tourterelle”, even more than in Musetta’s Waltz earlier this year. Maximova’s sound was a bit closed and narrowed in her Giulietta. Her duet with Polenzani in Act III was balanced, however.

Unfortunately the Met is not rumored to be bringing back Hoffmann in the next few seasons. It would never be too soon for this Offenbach masterpiece to return to the Met stage.