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.

Meistersinger Memories

The Metropolitan Opera puts Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the stage this month. The cast includes South African heldentenor Johan Botha in the title role; James Morris/Michael Volle as Hans Sachs; German soprano Annette Dasch as Eva; Paul Appleby as David; Karen Cargill as Magdalena; and Hans-Peter König as Pogner. Die Meistersinger is being welcomed back to the Met with open arms, as last season’s repertoire included no Wagner whatsoever. The last time the Met performed Die Meistersinger was in March of 2007; I was only nine at the time. However, even at my young age, I went to the see the opera several times, and I was seen singing on stage in the final scene of Act III alongside the Met Chorus, James Morris, and the Met Orchestra, all under the baton of James Levine.

My parents introduced me to Wagner at a very young age, when I incidentally heard a broadcast of Siegfried from the Bayreuth Festival at age five. This spawned an interest that swept my family upstairs to watch the entirety of the Otto Schenk Ring on DVD, and a year later, to the Met to see the Ring live (with my teddy bear, of course). Wagner’s music, from then on, had a greater meaning for me.

I joined the Met Children’s Chorus when I was eight years old, and only about six months later I was cast as a supernumerary, a character that does not sing or speak, in Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. I knew before entering the chorus the season before, 2005-06, that Die Meistersinger would be on the stage that March. I wanted so badly to be cast, knowing that it was Wagner’s music and that it happened to be my father’s all-time favorite opera. It would have meant the world to me to sing the music of the very composer who harvested my interest in opera.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

In February of 2007, to my luck, I was cast in Die Meistersinger: The first opera in which I actually had a singing role. I vividly remember my mother picking me up from my fourth grade classroom so we could go into the city for “our” rehearsals. At the Met, the ten of us in the Children’s Chorus would change into our costumes, mine included a beautifully embroidered white frock, a brown apron, and a flower and ribbon-bedecked wreath pinned in my hair, and we would then head down to the Met stage. The assistant directors gave us directions about our entrances, exits, where we would leave props, how we should avoid getting in the way of the artists, and other crucial information. We would run the scene a couple of times each rehearsal, so I constantly hoped that James Levine or the directors would want to run it more than once so I could go back on the stage in my costume (or because I did not want to return to school for the last part of the day). I even once joked with Johan Botha, our Walther von Stolzing, backstage that he would have to win Eva again when we did a repeat of the scene. He let out a boisterous laugh.

The day of the final dress rehearsal came. Both of my parents were there: My mother played Second Oboe in the orchestra pit, and my father was in the audience. There was a twist, though: I sat in the audience with my dad for Acts I and II before I was called to warm up backstage for Act III. It felt so good to experience seeing Die Meistersinger for the first time with him, as he had been telling me for years how much it meant to him, and how much he looked forward to the day when he would share it with me live. That day had come.

I watched Johan Botha, James Morris, my mother, Maestro Levine, and many of the same people performing in this current December run give it their all in the first two acts. My dad then took me backstage so I could perform with them in the next act. We warmed up, put on our costumes, and headed down to the stage after we heard “Children’s Chorus to the stage (along with hundreds of others)” on the backstage PA system. After the quintet at the end of Act III Scene 1, Wagner wrote a ninety-second interlude to the second scene of the act. That is how long the talented, hard-working Met stagehands have to change the set of Sachs’ home into the meadows in the outskirts of Nürnberg for the song contest. Standing off stage right, I stood in disbelief as stagehands swirled around Sachs’ books, furniture, and desk, replacing them with banners, greenery, backdrops, and benches, let alone at least a hundred choristers and soloists. The soloists from the quintet would skip offstage just near where I was standing, so I would get waves of hello from Matthew Polenzani, who sang David, and others. It truly felt surreal to be in the middle of all of this.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Members of the  Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus skipping around the tailors

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Members of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus skipping around the tailors

After ninety seconds, most of the chorus ran or jumped onstage in excitement for Johannistag, the festival being celebrated. My entrance came just after the curtain opened, when the timpani starts rumbling. I remember the assistant director telling me “Run on right after the sausage man”, or one of the many merchants on stage selling his craft at the festival. I ran on, big-eyed, to see 4,000 faces in the Met audience, the Met Orchestra creating swells of sound, and everyone on stage enjoying the festivities. The shoemakers, the tailors, and the bakers would arrive, in that order, to present their products and make us laugh. Each of the children in the chorus were given little, fake trumpets to skip around the dancing tailors in a circle (I was always worried about tripping in my dress).  Soon after the dance started, in which all of us taunted David about “Lena” watching him dance with other girls, pointing in different directions of where she was to confuse him. The dance suddenly stopped because the master singers  were about to enter in the procession. John del Carlo, who sang Kothner, would always be one of the first masters out, walking downstage with his radiant smile. Hans Sachs would always enter last, picking up one of the children as he marched downstage to the sound of our cheers. After whispers of “Silentium”, the Chorus serenaded him in the great “Wach auf”, or “Wake up”, chorus, describing how a new day was dawning. I stood front and center, right next to James Morris, without an obstacle in the way of James Levine’s beat. Sachs responded in his monologue, praising the masters and the arts, leading to the song competition itself.

The choristers returned to their places and sat down in the grass, under the hot lights, to enjoy the contest. Beckmesser, sung by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, began his song. He had stolen the lyrics from Sachs in the previous scene, but unfortunately he memorized the words incorrectly. We all laughed at his making a fool of himself until he stopped and blamed his performance on Sachs. As much as I feel the real children at the festival would have wanted to stay and hear Walther von Stolzing sing the Prize Song, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus chased Beckmesser offstage after he embarrassed himself. All of us then went back upstairs to the Children’s Chorus studio, changed out of our costumes, and greeted our parents at the stage door close to midnight.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Laughing at Beckmesser

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Laughing at Beckmesser

Four more performances would follow this final dress rehearsal, and each of them were completed in the same fashion as the last. At all five performances, including the dress rehearsal, I shared the first two acts with my father in the audience, and sang on stage in Act III.

Seeing the final dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger last Friday afternoon was tough. As I enjoyed the entirety of my Children’s Chorus career, even seeing the Children’s Chorus now sing in operas like Carmen and La Bohème makes me wistful. The children in this run are actually only supernumeraries, so they do not get to sing in the “Wach auf” chorus. However, seeing those kids up on the Met stage taking in that scene and being surrounded by Wagner’s music felt fulfilling, in that I was given the chance to perform in 2007, in place of someone else, and now someone was taking my place. Many of us choristers who sang in those performances in 2007 are now in college or are seniors in high school, and some of us are pining for careers in music!

It also made me feel good to see my mother playing in the orchestra pit, just as she was seven years ago: The lady who drove me into rehearsals, who I waved to in the orchestra pit, and who played in those very performances, continues to make me proud today. I still wave to her at every performance I attend at the Met, from the audience side instead of the stage. Die Meistersinger will always hold a special place in my heart, both as an opera and as a symbol of my family’s love of and devotion to music.