Tonight, the Metropolitan Opera brings to America's television screens a curious mixture of ecstatic hopes, blind self-delusion, strange erotic drives and sinister maneuvers by occult supernatural forces.
Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" has long been recognized as a historic high point of musical and theatrical romanticism. But it acquires new stature in one of the best televised productions the Met has offered in years (Channel 26, 8 to 11 p.m.; stereo simulcast on WETA-FM).
Hoffmann is a historic person: the poet and writer of macabre fiction E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was in some ways Europe's counterpart of our own Edgar Allan Poe. Drinking himself into a stupor as the opera opens, Hoffmann stops to tell the stories of his three great loves: Olympia, who turns out to be a cleverly devised clockwork mannequin; Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan who steals his soul (symbolized by his reflection in a mirror) and the sweet but sickly Antonia, who sings (though the effort threatens her health) and is killed by her song.
The music is brilliantly varied for each of these heroines; for Hoffmann, it is ardently romantic, and it is dark and sinister for the four deep-voiced villains (all, like his three loves, aspects of a single personality) who thwart his dreams of happiness. "Hoffmann," particularly in this performance, would be an excellent introduction to opera for those who wonder how they might like it.
Musically, this telecast, taped at a live performance Jan. 8, is excellent, reflecting the presence on the podium of Charles Dutoit, widely considered the most exciting currently active conductor of the French orchestral repertoire.
Tenor Neil Shicoff, a solid, reliable Met performer for the last decade, brings a touch of brilliance to the title role -- better, in some ways, than Placido Domingo's performance in the video edition of the brilliant Covent Garden production. He is supported by a superbly chosen cast, though Tatiana Troyanos is the only one who has instant, international name recognition.
One thing that emerges clearly from this performance is the quality of the Met's second-echelon roster -- the reliable performers who week in and week out establish and sustain the company's standards of quality without attracting spectacular international attention.
These include James Morris as all of the villains, Gwendolyn Bradley as Olympia, Roberta Alexander as Antonia and Susan Quittmeyer as Nicklausse. Every one of them turns in a first-class performance, musically and theatrically.
Much of the production's flavor can be credited to tenor Anthony Laciura, who gives pungent and well-differentiated performances in four small character roles: Andres, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio and Frantz.
This "Hoffmann" also reflects the mind of a solid, thoughtful and imaginative stage director, evidently Lesley Koenig, who is given the credit in the closing titles, though her name was omitted from the press release that gives credits for costumes (Gaby Frey), sets (Gu nther Schneider-Siemssen), lighting (Gil Wechsler), etc. All those credits are well earned; there is an acute awareness of visual values not always found in Met performances. But the stage direction, the effective visual use of the available human bodies, the coordination of gestures, body language and physical interactions, contributes almost as much as Offenbach's superbly imaginative music to the effect of this performance.