In catching up with my viewing of PBS opera broadcasts, I found myself watching a “rerun” of a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House of Bartlett Sher’s staging of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann that took place on January 31, 2015. I took a particular interest in this production because it seemed to have drawn upon the same score that had been used by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) during its Summer 2013 season, the so-called “integral edition” edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck and published by both French and German publishers in 2011. For those who do not know the story behind The Tales, so to speak, when Offenbach died on October 5, 1880, he left behind a completed piano score and orchestrations of only the prologue and the first act.
As a result, over the course of my early years of going to the opera, it would be fair to say that I never saw any performing version of the opera twice. (The Wikipedia author of the page for this opera has done an admirable job of accounting for the many versions that have been staged.) The “integral edition” was supposed to converge on a single “authoritative source,” although Keck is still treating the project as open, his latest insights having been published in 2016. While I am not sure when the 2011 publication was first staged, seeing it in 2013 at the War Memorial Auditorium was an eye-opener, particularly with respect to the role of the Muse in the overall narrative. At the time I was writing for Examiner.com; and I suggested that, instead of three tales framed by a prologue and an epilogue, there was a “whole-cloth” approach to the narrative that could be called “The Tale of the Storyteller.”
Matthew Polenzani in the title role of the 2013 Tales of Hoffmann presented by the San Francisco Opera (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
The SFO staging was by Laurent Pelly; and I have to say that I had not previously experienced such a clear approach to the overall narrative, perhaps because the source for that narrative now enjoyed greater clarity. Furthermore, I remember that, on that evening, I was joined by a friend who, while familiar with much of Offenbach’s music, had never seen any production of the opera. Pelly’s staging held her in rapt attention from the first images of the key characters (Hoffmann, Muse, and Nemesis) until the final curtain. There was no shortage of special effects; but, where Olympia was concerned, Pelly ended up tipping his hand, letting us know why we were seeing the uncanny movements that we experienced.
In that context I have to say that I was far more disappointed with Sher’s efforts at the Met. The fundamental problem was that he let the special effects overwhelm the narrative. As a result, all the clarity that Kaye and Keck had brought to clarifying the narrative simply threw the whole concoction back into obscurity. Indeed, the visual overkill was so strong that one could easily lose touch with the music itself and how it was being performed by vocalists, instrumentalists, and the conductor leading them all. All the “usual champions” of the opera experience were thrust into the background by one outrageous staging device after another; and any sense of “tale,” whether by or about Hoffmann, seemed to dangle behind Sher’s images like the tip of a dog’s tail (or tale?).
This is not the first time that a Met production has labored under extreme excess. Unless I am mistaken, Jean-Louis Barrault created a Carmen that was conducted by Zubin Mehta in the Sixties that came close to being all choreography and no opera. One can appreciate that Barrault wanted a Carmen that would not be dismissed as the “same old same-old.” There is no doubt that he met that goal but at a price that ended up confounding and/or frustrating much of his audience!