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Met at its best in a new staging of 'Tales of Hoffmann'

By Thor Eckert Jr. / March 23, 1982

New York

When the Metropolitan Opera actually lives up to its reputation, it is cause for celebration.

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The company now has a production of Jacques Offenbach's ''Les Contes d'Hoffmann'' (''Tales of Hoffman'') that it can be proud of for years to come. It will be one of two new productions touring this spring (the other is ''The Barber of Seville'' discussed further down). It can also be heard on the radio broadcast of March 27 (check local listings).

The evening effortlessly captures the wit, passion, and eerie fantasy that is at the core of the opera. A sparkling cast, a remarkable conductor in his New York and Met debut, and a proven designer-director ''team'' -- i.e. all the common-sense choices opera houses seem to ignore so conspicuously these days -- work together to make a popular opera something magical, grandly Metropolitan in sweep, and a model for all ''Hoffmanns'' to come.

There is no finer Hoffmann today than Placido Domingo, and few in the past could equal the blend of voice, presence, acting, and musicianship he brings to this quintessential Domingo role. He is, at every moment, a committed, elegant singer, a subtle actor, and in fact, a marvelous inter-actor with his colleagues. And rather than just let Domingo try to carry this show, he has been given a mostly marvelous cast to set him off like an imposing diamond in a rich platinum-and-gold setting.

One could easily lament that the Met chose not to be adventuresome by presenting the version Offenbach envisioned -- and wrote down in piano-vocal form. Rather, the house fell back on the tried and not-so-true Choudens version, complete with interpolations not dreamed of by the composer, yet familiar and engaging on its own terms.

Otto Schenk trusts the music and the plot enough to let it unfold as written. Within that trust, he has illuminated the details of motivation and characterization to make it all more vivid. Thus, in Spalanzani's workshop - designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's marvel of whirring, spinning, grating creations - Olympia gradually becomes a doll with a will of her own. The courtesan Giulietta is imperiously amoral. Antonia lives in a dreamworld that becomes a self-destructive nightmare. Throughout, evil is adamantly at work in the guise of the four villains, foiling Hoffmann's romantic pursuits with manic humor (Coppelius), suave slyness (Dappertutto), and supernatural power (Dr. Miracle).

Mr. Schneider-Siemssen's set for that workshop is a masterpiece. His Venice scene puts the viewer in a magnificent square of that city. Antonia's anteroom becomes a chamber of horrors when Miracle walks through walls, pops up and out from unexpected places, to haunt and taunt her to death. It is an ideal partnership, where the set designer (along with costume designer Gaby Frey and lighting designer Gil Wechsler) abets director. This was the case in the same team's ''Tannhauser'' -- rightfully acclaimed as one of the Met's finest achievements, and one of the great productions of an opera in the world today. The same can be said of this ''Hoffmann.''

Of the other singers, Ruth Welting, as the doll Olympia, proves the ideal executor of Schenk's intentions. She begins with vacuous smiles and twitters, and gradually becomes an adamant automaton who won't be ignored. All the while she trills and sings cascades of showering coloratura with faultless precision -- a triumphant display of talent and expertise.