Before them is designer Michael Yeargan's dark and glittering setting for an orgiastic 18th-century Venetian party. Among the guests are several female couples wearing scandalous scanties provided by Catherine Zuber and executing choreographer Dou Dou Huang's erotic legs-in-the-air splits, while Offenbach's famous barcarole "Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour" is intoned to mesmerizing effect. The sequence is the visual highlight -- and one of the many aural pleasures -- of this new production of the composer's last (and, many believe, unfinished) work.
Sher may have extrapolated from the adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann's by-then-familiar tales that the German-Jewish Offenbach and collaborators were interested in using Hoffmann as a metaphor for the outsider Offenbach felt he was, but that idea does not comes across. Instead, the portrait presented is of an obtuse shambler who loves neither wisely nor well. As a result, Hoffmann's writer's calling appears to be more a retreat from unsuccessful relationships than an example of professional commitment, and the sheets of paper falling on several occasions like dead leaves from the fly begin to suggest a propensity for random scribbling instead of for controlled creativity. As the curtain falls on Hoffmann in his study, his muse is heading towards the wings -- which looks as if even she doesn't buy his devotion to art and has decided to walk out on him.
Moreover, some of Sher's directorial choices raise unanswered questions. Why in one scene do lithe chorines twirl umbrellas with eyes on them? (Is society meant to be watching sad outcast Hoffmann?) Why in another scene do scrims with bare trees on them descend, rise and descend again? (Is it a contemporary call for a greener planet?)
Still, there is much to praise in the work of conductor James Levine and a fine principal cast, led by Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann. Indeed, his tenor contains such an uncommonly warm vibrato that his occasional physical stiffness -- the left arm that lifts regularly and mechanically -- is easily forgiven. (It might even be accepted as characterization for an author more comfortable in the company of his pen than in the presence of people.)
Pint-sized Kathleen Kim is the doll Olympia, under whose charm Hoffmann falls, and her jerky movements are a delight. More significantly, her singing of "Les oiseaux dans la chamille" has the coloratura brilliance that wows audiences. Anna Netrebko as Antonia and Stella, two of the women for whom Hoffmann swoons, is in fine voice, as is Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, the last object of Hoffmann's desperate affections.
Playing each of Hoffman's antagonists -- Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto -- the towering Alan Held applies his baritone to sonorous, sinister effect. As the supposedly comic-relief servant Franz, Alan Oke (who also plays three other roles) sings with punch without eliciting many laughs. Only Kate Lindsey as the muse of poetry masquerading throughout as Hoffmann's friend Nicklausse fails to fill the hall. Too often, her lower register is barely able to register.