Les contes d'Hoffmann

Jacques Offenbach

Les contes d'Hoffmann

Op. 67, IJO18 • “The Tales of Hoffmann”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Offenbach laid the foundations of a new musical genre with a series of tuneful operettas full of wit and Parisian joie de vivre, but by 1870 the fashion for comic opera had waned, and during a visit to America he conceived the idea of a large-scale opera that was to be his masterpiece. By 1878, he had completed all three acts of Les Contes d'Hoffmannn in piano score and orchestrated the Prologue. He did not live to see it staged and his friend, the composer Ernest Guiraud, completed the work, doing his best to adhere to Offenbach's clearly expressed wishes.

The opera opens in a Nuremburg tavern, to which the scene returns at various points as Hoffmann, with his companion Nicklausse and his poetic muse, tells of a series of amorous adventures with, in turn, a mechanical doll, a Venetian courtesan, and a young opera singer. The scheme works sufficiently well to avoid discontinuity, though it could easily be regarded as a linked set of one-act operas with related themes -- deception, betrayal, and death. Lively stage action and Offenbach's talent for writing good tunes generally avoid such somber implications and there are moments of humor as well as pathos.

The following is a brief outline of what, on stage, turns out to be a series of fantastic, somewhat complicated adventures. The Prologue, with its student songs and noisy hilarity, is followed by a lively ballad (clearly a favorite with the students) of the knock-kneed dwarf Kleinsack.

Hoffmann's first story concerns the poet's infatuation with Olympia, "daughter" of her inventor Spalanzani, but since she happens to be a dancing automaton (and Hoffmann is a bit thick) this amour has no future. After various complications Olympia is destroyed by her creator and Hoffmann is back on the beer. The music is charming and excellent use is made of the comedic possibilities of Olympia's impresario.

Act two, the episode with the courtesan Giulietta, is set in Venice and graced by one of Offenbach's most celebrated and sensuous melodies, the Barcarolle. This liaison is, however, similarly ill-fated and culminates in a duel in which Hoffmann kills his rival for Giulietta's affections. After an intermezzo based on the Barcarolle, the story returns to the Tavern.

The third act concerns Antonia, an opera singer mourning her dead mother. Due to an illness, Antonia has been warned by her guardian not to sing but, under the malign influence of Dr. Miracle, Hoffmann's evil genius, she is tricked into a long, strenuous, and exceptionally brilliant duet with the poet. She collapses and dies.

A thread of philosophical melancholy runs through Hoffmann's tales, strongly suggesting that Offenbach was a dispirited and disappointed man, who no longer wished to be known only as a purveyor of musical soufflés. The work is often produced in differing versions, with cuts that do little for its musical or dramatic impact.