Met Opera's new "Hoffmann" production short on musicological scholarship

Although not nearly as controversial as its season-opening production of "Tosca," the Metropolitan Opera's new staging of "The Tales of Hoffmann" is generating diverse views on the singing (the distinctive sound of tenor Joseph Calleja, who has the title role, will probably always divide listeners) and the production concept by Broadway vet Bartlett Sher.

An additional element, the question of what edition of the score is being used, may not get all audience members as worked up, but it ought to, considering the extraordinary scholarship on Offenbach and "Hoffmann" over the years. The leading force for changing old perceptions and performance practices regarding this opera has long been Marylander musicologist Michael Kaye, who helped bring to light the composer's original intentions and a lot more about Offenbach and this opera.

That the Met chose to go with an outdated version of the score has, understandably, not gone down well with Kaye, who wrote a response to the new production that he shared with me. For those of you heading to New York to catch a performance of the Met's "Hoffmann," or to movie theaters for the HD broadcast on Dec. 19, or sitting home on the 19th to hear it on the radio, I think that Kaye's observations are well worth keeping in mind. Here's what he has to say:


I have devoted nearly three decades to establishing the landmark edition of Offenbach's "Les contes d'Hoffmann," which is now a co-edition with Jean-Christophe Keck, being published by a trio consortium of Schott Musik, Boosey&Hawkes, and Bote&Bock. For more than a year I have known that the MET will ignore our long-standing work on the opera in their new production.

They are promoting it's new production of HOFFMANN with some serious misinformation about Offenbach and it would be great if you would set the record straight.


I respect and acknowledge the fact that a stage director requires an artistic freedom to interpret the works he or she is charged with producing. However, In the recent press release from the MET about HOFFMANN, stage director Bartlett "Sher says, referring to the early German romantic polymath whose stories are used for the opera's episodic plot. 'I'm more interested in why Offenbach, who had been a very popular operetta composer, was seeking to write a serious work to gain acceptance. Why, so late in his career, did he feel this need to be accepted? That led me to consider Offenbach's sense of being Jewish and an outsider.

Whatever group he was in, he always appears as an outsider who never feels like he belongs, never feels like he's connected.' The ambiguities and split identities of the characters figure in Sher's vision of the piece. 'For any artist, ambition and paranoia are both always present. The door keeps opening and there are many Hoffmanns, identities that keep overlapping. I think the real artistic dilemma for Offenbach is the tension between the cover [sic] and the internal state, and that's what I hope to try to show.'"

That statement indicates that Mr. Sher has very little understanding of Offenbach at the time he wrote HOFFMANN, or of E.T.A. Hoffmann himself and how Barbier and Offenbach synthesized the essence of E.T.A. Hoffmann's life, works, and literary style in "Le contes d'Hoffmann." Neither Mr. Sher nor his designer were interested in receiving copies of the most important source materials for HOFMANN that I offered to send them (the final pages of the co-edition with the latest discoveries are still in unpublished proofs for formal publication).

The idea that Offenbach was looking for "acceptance" is really misguided. Yes, he wanted to write for the Paris Opéra and did so, but having composed more than 100 smash hits for the stage; being dubbed the darling of the entire Third Empire Paris; designated as "the Mozart of the Champs-Élisée by no less than Rossini; and able to return Wagner's hatred for Jewish artists with sarcasm and humor mocking the "composer of the future" with salvos in music and onstage is information available from the oldest biographies of Offenbach.

As for James Levine's statement quoted in the press release: "Maestro Levine says of the musical version, 'The music is so inspired, and I think we have made effective choices in the absence of an authentic, fully realized original version, using a great deal of the information that has come to light over the years.'" – that is total balderdash, inaccurate, and I'm really concerned that people might believe him!

I also don't understand why maestro Levine would permit the MET's press department to make statements that negate the existence of totally complete manuscript sources for the opera (much more than sketches, including the complete score of the way the opera was first performed in Paris and, in particular, the full manuscript of the Giulietta Act – including the final scene of that act – published for the first time in my editon. Many of those manuscripts, previously unknown to other editors of the score, were fully orchestrated and rehearsed at the Opéra Comique before Léon Carvalho (impresario of that theater and stage director of the premiere) decided to eliminate the Giulietta Act from the opera.

I think it is admirable that Maestro Levine can prepare new scores by Gunther Schuller and Elliot Carter, and (his recent serious health issues aside) shocking that for years maestro Levine has refused to restudy HOFFMANN. Apart from the affront to scholarship, it also deprives the MET artists and their audiences of evaluating and experiencing Offenbach's own achievements for his masterpiece that we have tried so diligently to reflect in the HOFFMANN edition. Perhaps in future revivals of the new production they can revise their performing version to include the authentic music by Offenbach that will not be heard at the MET this season.

Michael Kaye

PS: In March, the Zurich Opera will mount a new production of HOFFMANN, with Vittorio Grigolo singing the title role for the first time in his career. There, as with many other European opera companies, they have chosen to base their performing version on our co-edition.

UPDATE 12/11/09: Some of the comments posted on this blog entry seem to think that I (or Michael Kaye) was trying to discourage people from seeing the Met's new production. Not at all. Just wanted folks to know that they are not getting the advantage of Offenbach/"Hoffmann" scholarship, something the august Met might have been expected to provide, especially with regard to what Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier actually wrote for the Giulietta Act. Michael Kaye also has provided some additional information that answers some of the comments posted here:

-- multiple versions of the opera are possible through the possibilities afforded by integral edition: versions with the original spoken dialogue and versions with the recitatives of Ernest Guiraud modified to be compatible with the authentic Offenbach material cut from the world premiere of the opera.

-- Performed uncut, the entire Giulietta act runs only around 37 minutes!

-- When judiciously cut, a theatrically effective version of ALL the dialogues for the entire opera takes 15 minutes to perform.

-- Oeser added more than 30 minutes to the score consisting of music Offenbach never intended for HOFFMANN.

-- For producers desiring to do so, now there are ways to include the apocryphal "Scintille diamant" and Sextet with Chorus in a different context than the traditional version of the score.


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