Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Peters, Amara, Stevens, Miller, Warfield; Tucker, Singher, DePaolis, Franke, Harvuot, McCracken, Scott. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Monteux. Sony Classical 88697 96190 2 (2)
In 1955, when the Metropolitan Opera broadcast this workmanlike Hoffmann, Pierre Monteux was a half-century into his distinguished career. He had played first viola at the world premiere of Pelléas under Debussy in 1902; he had conducted for Diaghilev and led the historic, scandalous premiere of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps in 1913; and he had appeared at the Met as early as 1917. But by the 1950s he was not a podium star, not associated with avant-garde works or casting a strong stylistic profile. Monteux was an anchor, guardian of the French tradition, and a demystifier; the conductor's job, he said, was "to keep the orchestra together and carry out the composer's instructions, not to … distract audiences by our 'interpretation.'"
He sounds faithful to that credo in this release from the Met archive, a live performance that is more efficient than eloquent; Monteux keeps the orchestra and singers together, maintains balance and lets most of the high points emerge with clarity. Hoffmann's caprices and fugues are duly registered in secure musical terms, thanks in no small part to the robust singing of Richard Tucker, but the hero's eccentricity is not indulged or mined. The spookiness of the doll Olympia, like the compelling sensuality of Giulietta, is attested by witnesses rather than personified by distinctive nuances. The villain does not enjoy his villainy. Monteux typifies Cartesian clarity here, along with the vitality in pacing that characterized his contemporary, Toscanini. One hears little of the laxity that is often called a hallmark of the 1950s Met.
If Tucker is not always elegant and rarely poetic, he is dapper, ebullient, a paragon of energy and concentration. His "Kleinzach" is slightly marred by some Germanic consonants and American vowels, but it has undeniable bounce, offset by a convincing shift to the romantic vein in the slow interlude. Tucker invests lyrical passages with his customary urgency and brightness.
But this Hoffmann does not get a lot to love. The three amours, sung by reputed Met stars, are disappointing. Roberta Peters, as Olympia, is notable for speed and precision (especially in her spiky staccato lines), but her timbre is thin and strained, squeaky at the top and with a conspicuous disparity between registers. In the third of her five Giuliettas for the Met, Risë Stevens seems to be having a bad day, without any allure to her tone or manner. The angular, worried quality of Lucine Amara's soprano suits the ailing, haunted Antonia — to a fault.
In the villains' roles, Martial Singher has the advantage of authentic French style to offset some struggles with the extreme top and bottom of his range. Mildred Miller, one of the company's underappreciated artists, sings a lovely Nicklausse, and tenor Paul Franke is excellent as Spalanzani, sounding as if he — rather than James McCracken, the inconsistent Nathanaël — were bound for stardom. Veteran comprimario Alessio De Paolis steals scenes in his four supporting roles. Sandra Warfield, as the voice of Antonia's mother, is inaudible in the trio that brings Act III to a less than brilliant close.
For this production — a brand-new staging by Cyril Ritchard that had opened less than a month before this broadcast — the company used the Choudens version of Offenbach's unfinished score, as was standard practice at the time, with borrowings from some other works fleshing out the Giulietta act (which was radically reduced in length in the Met's recent revivals of the opera), and of course without the music that has only recently come to light. Repeats are often cut, and the tired "Barcarolle" returns as an orchestral interlude before the epilogue, to the jarring accompaniment of stagehands busy behind the great gold curtain.
The sound quality is quite decent, without audience noise. But onstage traffic is another story, especially the colossal din of the chorus's heavy-metal entrance in the prologue. Someone should have made them remove their spurs.
DAVID J. BAKER