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`Tales of Hoffmann' - iffy television fare

Director Otto Schenk has done a good share of the Metropolitan Opera's new productions in the last decade or so. One of his most refreshingly entertaining, Offenbach's ``Tales of Hoffmann,'' is being telecast tonight (check local listings) on the Public Broadcasting Service. The comic inventiveness of Schenk's direction - along with Schneider-Siemssen's bold and atmospheric sets - make a tremendous impression in the theater.

Unfortunately, this production has never had a completely satisfactory cast. This telecast was taped during a run of ``Hoffmanns'' in December, of which the first night was merely honorable. On the positive side, Neil Shicoff was a forceful, often thrilling Hoffmann; James Morris dominated the proceedings as the four villains; Susan Quittmeyer made a fine debut as Niklausse, showing off a clean, well-produced lightweight mezzo that the audience responded to with enthusiasm.

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From there on, the cast was uneven, although there was a strong entry in contralto Gwen Bean, whose ample tones flooded the small role of Antonia's Mother.

In the pit was Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit making a disappointing debut. Opera is clearly not his forte. His tempos fought the singers, and he rarely let the orchestra function as a theatrically expressive ensemble.

This low-key evening was not the strong, exciting show that would demand televising. Nevertheless, one can hope that the sets and the basic directorial concept will be as effective on TV as they are in the theater.

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