Reading the cast list for Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" ("Tales of Hoffmann") at the Metropolitan Opera, audiences might understandably have asked themselves, "Hibla who?"
No more. That's Hibla Gerzmava. As in Russian soprano. As in star in the making.
And her debut as Antonia wasn't the only thing to cheer about Tuesday night as the company revived last season's new production by Bartlett Sher.
In the title role of the unlucky-in-love poet, Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti gave a fearless performance, taking most if not all the optional high notes in the long and grueling role and holding onto them tirelessly. The sound of his lyric tenor is warm and appealing, and it seems to have grown in size and stamina since his debut five years ago. He played the role with disarming earnestness and ever-hopeful romantic ardor.
But the surprise of the night was Gerzmava, playing the second of Hoffmann's loves, Antonia, who has inherited her mother's musical talent but also her weak heart and ends up singing herself to death.
As soon as the curtain rose for the second act and she began her plaintive song about a turtledove, Gerzmava showed the audience that she is a major artist with rare vocal abilities. She produced a shining tone that easily filled the house and yet seemed to be holding back reserves of power at the same time. Her soft singing had a tender, lyrical quality to it. And she produced a dazzling trill as she expired. Though she has sung coloratura roles and summoned some impressive high notes, her only missteps came when a couple of them fell slightly flat.
There's a mournful tinge to her voice that calls to mind her more famous compatriot, Anna Netrebko, who sang the same role last season.
Comparing the two does no injustice to either. Like Netrebko, she is also a compelling actress, imbuing the character of Antonio with a desperate and doomed passion.
Until now, Gerzmava has sung mostly in Europe. The Met would do well to quickly engage her for future seasons.
The other women in Hoffmann's life were sung by American coloratura soprano Anna Christy, as the mechanical doll Olympia, and Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa, as the courtesan Giulietta. Christy had only middling success in a role that should be a show-stopper, lacking pinpoint precision and secure high notes. Shkosa, also making her debut, sang brightly, but the part is relatively brief and didn't allow her to make much of an impression.
Returning from last season, mezzo Kate Lindsey was again excellent as Hoffmann's devoted but cynical muse, Necklace. Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, with hearty voice and a fiendish twinkle in his eye, made a terrific impression in the multiple roles of the villains who undermine Hoffmann at every turn.
Patrick Fournillier, in his Met debut as conductor, led a spirited and persuasive performance once past some initial coordination problems.
Sher's production appears little changed from last season. It's colorful, even eye-popping, but sometimes more busy than inventive.
And the mix of styles remains a puzzlement, with frenetic action in the Olympia scene, a virtual orgy in the Giulietta scene, and sandwiched between them a severely stripped down set for Antonia.