From the Archives: Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Met
By Peter Clark
Jacques Offenbach, the most celebrated of French operetta composers, spent the last few years of his life writing and rewriting his opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann but died before he could finish the orchestration or settle on a definitive version. The fantastical tale of a poet’s futile search for love would become Offenbach’s sole contribution to the standard operatic repertory, while the multiplicity of musical editions and newly discovered material continue to create a dilemma for conductors and directors staging the piece.
The Met premiere of Les Contes d’Hoffmann took place in 1913, three decades after its first performance at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. The female roles, divided among three major stars—Frieda Hempel as the doll Olympia, Olive Fremstad as the courtesan Giulietta, and Lucrezia Bori as the singer Antonia—contributed to the opera’s success, along with the novelty of the subject and Offenbach’s pleasingly melodic score. Tenor Umberto Macnez in the title role had only a brief Met career, but conductor Giorgio Polacco was an important figure in the company’s Italian wing after Toscanini left in 1915. (Macnez and Bori are pictured above, with other members of the cast.)
A mere ten years later, the Met staged a stylish new production featuring the art deco–inspired costumes of Joseph and Gretel Urban (costume sketch and costume pictured above). This time, Hoffmann was the celebrated Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta, with his compatriot Lucrezia Bori singing both Giulietta and Antonia, while coloratura Nina Morgana took the role of Olympia. Italian baritone and versatile singing-actor Giuseppe De Luca became the first artist to sing all three villain roles at the Met.
The tradition of one singer impersonating the three or four characters (depending on the version used) who are the varying guises of Hoffmann’s nemesis became common at the Met, with Lawrence Tibbett assuming the parts in 1937, and French baritone Martial Singher making it a specialty in the 1940s and 50s. The casting of Hoffmann’s three (or four, counting the brief role of Stella) loves as a single female protagonist, however, was rare until the 1970s. Belgian soprano Vina Bovy sang all three for one performance, a broadcast, in 1937, but the feat was not repeated until 1961, when Anna Moffo combined the parts for two performances only. It wasn’t until the new production of 1973 that Joan Sutherland (pictured below) set the standard for a single heroine alongside a single villain as the central objects of Hoffmann’s reveries. Other sopranos would follow Sutherland’s lead, notably Catherine Malfitano, Carol Vaness, and Ruth Ann Swenson.
Meanwhile, a new production opened the 1955–56 season and boasted the legendary Pierre Monteux as conductor and noted stage and screen actor Cyril Ritchard as director. Richard Tucker had a triumph in the title role, as did Nicolai Gedda in later revivals. Yet perhaps the most sensational premiere of Les Contes d’Hoffmann came in 1982 with a new production by Otto Schenk (pictured at the top of this page) that featured the stage wizardry of Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets. Plácido Domingo enjoyed a major success in the title role and came to hold the Met’s record for the most performances of the lovelorn poet. Riccardo Chailly, in his Met debut, conducted, and the three heroines were split between Ruth Welting, a brilliant and hilarious doll, Tatiana Troyanos, an enchanting seductress, and Christiane Eda-Pierre, a stylish Antonia.
The Schenk production held the stage for 27 years, with regular revivals featuring strong casts that included, among others, Neil Shicoff, Alfredo Kraus, and Richard Leech as Hoffmann; Natalie Dessay (pictured above) and Alexandra Kurzak as Olympia; Patricia Racette as Antonia; and James Morris, José van Dam, Samuel Ramey, and Bryn Terfel as the four villains.
The Met’s current production by Bartlett Sher, with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, premiered in 2009. Joseph Calleja sang the title role, opposite Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Antonia and Stella, and Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, under the baton of James Levine.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.