Offenbach : The Tales of Hoffmann

“Time flies by, and carries away Our tender caresses for ever. Time flies far from this happy oasis And does not return.” Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann

The Tales of Hoffmann is an opéra fantastique by Jacques Offenbach. The French libretto was written by Jules Barbier, based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who is the protagonist of the story. It was Offenbach’s final work; he died in October 1880, four months before the premiere. (source)

When Jacques Offenbach died on 5 October, 1880, the score for The Tales of Hoffmann was not yet finished, even though the work had already been in rehearsal at the Opéra-Comique since 11 September. Auguste Offenbach asked Ernest Guiraud to complete score left by his father. Five years earlier, this same Guiraud had already completed Bizet’s Carmen. Offenbach fought his illness to the bitter end so that he could complete his project. He wanted to die as an opera composer, not a frivolous musician, a champion of bourgeois pleasures under the Second Empire. He knew he absolutely must finish The Tales of Hoffmann, which he had been dreaming of and working on for years, hoping to achieve the official consecration that would ensure him of triumphing at the Opéra-Comique, the respectable theatre of bourgeois marriages. Aware that he had little time left, Offenbach sent a letter to the director of the prestigious establishment; it ended with this plea: “Stage my opera quickly, I am in a hurry, a hurry!”. Does The Tales of Hoffmann occupy only a marginal place in Offenbach’s production? With this fantasy opera, so unexpected of the author of Orphée aux Enfers (1858) and La Belle Hélène (1864), a Pandorra’s Box of passionate interpretations and studies was opened, so that a definitive version of the score could be established at last. (Source)

Testament as Masterpiece

For his swan song, Jacques Offenbach created a work that goes against the grain of his hilariously satirical operettas that mocked, while simultaneously charming, the Second Empire and its obsession with pleasure and oblivion. Of course, Offenbach remembers to have fun with this opéra fantastique, but he tinges the adventures of the poet Hoffmann with a dark, fatalistic dimension – in the image of the four maleficent figures who accompany him and push him into unhappiness. In this quest for the absolute and the feminine ideal, intoxication blends with the macabre, the popular vein with lyrical flare-ups. The Tales of Hoffmann features three stages in the sentimental life of a man, three stories forming one unclassifiable opera, a masterpiece of French romanticism, a maze of dizziness and frivolity. (Source)

In the Tales of Hoffmann may be found an interesting operatic example of the “story within a story,” a method of presentation which has always been popular with writers of fiction and which has now developed into a legitimate and effective form of stage technique. (Source)

It is reported that, upon hearing of Offenbach’s death, Richard Wagner exclaimed: “He knew how to go about it, like the divine Mozart.”  What finerhomage could one bestow upon this incomparable musician? He was as brilliant with parody and biting irony as with the most desperate melancholy and bitterness. Far from being content with being a wonderful maker of operettas, the man whom Rossini dubbed the “little Mozart of the Champs-Elysées” aspired to other things. This ambition seems to be part of the very construction of The Tales of Hoffmann. The work  opens and closes with the “opera of operas”, the absolute reference point, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Source)


(Source of the Synopsis)


The poet E.T.A. Hoffmann is in love with Stella, a renowned opera singer. Lindorf, a rich counselor, also loves her and has intercepted a note she has written to Hoffmann. Lindorf is confident he will win her for himself. Arriving at Luther’s tavern with a group of students, Hoffmann sings a ballad about a disfigured dwarf named Kleinzach. During the song, his mind wanders to recollections of a beautiful woman. When Hoffmann recognizes Lindorf as his rival, the two men trade insults. Hoffmann’s Muse, who has assumed the guise of his friend Nicklausse, interrupts, but the encounter leaves the poet with a sense of impending disaster. He begins to tell the stories of his three past loves.


In his workshop in Paris, the eccentric inventor Spalanzani has created a mechanical doll named Olympia. Hoffmann, who thinks the girl is Spalanzani’s daughter, has fallen in love with her. Spalanzani’s former partner Coppélius sells Hoffmann a pair of magic glasses, through which he alone perceives Olympia as human. When Coppélius demands his share of the profits that the two inventors expect to make from the doll, Spalanzani gives him a worthless check.

Guests arrive at the fairground, and Olympia captivates the crowd with the performance of a dazzling aria, which is interrupted several times in order for the doll’s mechanism to be recharged. Oblivious to this while watching her through his glasses, Hoffmann is enchanted. He declares his love, and the two dance. Olympia whirls faster and faster as her mechanism spins out of control. During the melee, Hoffmann’s glasses break. Coppélius, having discovered that the check was worthless, returns in a fury. He grabs Olympia and tears her apart as the guests mock Hoffmann for falling in love with a machine.


At an elegant home in Munich, the young girl Antonia sings a plaintive love song filled with memories of her dead mother, a famous singer. Her father, Crespel, has taken her away in the hopes of ending her affair with Hoffmann and begs her to give up singing: She has inherited her mother’s weak heart, and the effort will endanger her life. Hoffmann arrives, and Antonia joins him in singing until she nearly faints. Crespel returns, alarmed by the arrival of the charlatan Dr. Miracle, who treated Crespel’s wife the day she died. The doctor claims he can cure Antonia, but Crespel accuses him of killing his wife and forces him out. Hoffmann, overhearing their conversation, asks Antonia to give up singing, and she reluctantly agrees. The moment he has left, Miracle reappears, urging Antonia to sing. He conjures up a vision of her mother, who claims she wants her daughter to relive the glory of her own fame. Antonia can’t resist. Her singing becomes more and more feverish until she collapses. Miracle coldly pronounces her dead.


At her palace in Venice, the courtesan Giulietta joins Nicklausse in singing a barcarole. A party is in progress, and Hoffmann mockingly praises the pleasures of the flesh. When Giulietta introduces him to her current lover, Schlémil, Nicklausse warns the poet against the courtesan’s charms. Hoffmann denies any interest in her. Having overheard them, the sinister Dapertutto produces a large diamond with which he will bribe Giulietta to steal Hoffmann’s reflection—just as she already has stolen Schlémil’s shadow. As Hoffmann is about to depart, Giulietta seduces him into confessing his love for her. Schlémil returns and accuses Giulietta of having left him for Hoffmann, who realizes with horror that he has lost his reflection. Schlémil challenges Hoffmann to a duel and is killed. Hoffmann takes the key to Giulietta’s boudoir from his dead rival but finds the room empty. Returning, he sees her leaving the palace in the arms of the dwarf Pitichinaccio.


Having finished his tales, all Hoffmann wants is to forget. Nicklausse declares that each story describes a different aspect of one woman: Stella. Arriving in the tavern after her performance, the diva finds Hoffmann drunk and leaves with Lindorf. The muse sheds the form of Nicklausse and resumes her true appearance, telling the poet to find consolation in his creative genius.

A neurotic author seeking inspiration in alcohol

During the period from 1830 to 1840, Hoffmann was the most popular German romantic author among the French. He had a profound influence on an entire generation of authors: Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, George Sand and Alexandre Dumas owe him a debt.   In 1836, Théophile Gautier noted, not without irony: “His tales have been read by everyone; the charwoman and the grand lady, the artist and the grocer were all thrilled with them”. His success was such that it offended Scottish novelist Walter Scott, the most widely read novelist in France at the time. Seeing him as a potential rival, Walter Scott helped give Hoffmann the image of a neurotic author seeking inspiration in alcohol… Nothing would ever overcome this image of a bohemian artist, exalted lover and unhappy man who drowns his pain in wine, the main driver of his inspiration. In his Psychanalyse du feu (1938), Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) refers to the “Hoffmann complex” that led the writer to free his imagination through punch, madness and drunkenness. Present throughout Offenbach’s work, drinking choruses take on singular importance in The Tales of Hoffmann: they open and close the evocation of past loves on the border between dream and reality. (Source)

Jules Barbier and Michel Carré built their play by blending real elements from Hoffmann’s life with elements from his fantasy short stories. Jules Barbier came up with the idea of making the poet both the narrator and the protagonist of the drama. In his search for the ideal woman, the unhappy hero comes up against a diabolical character who manipulates the women he loves.(Source)

It is hopeless to try to define a work that is much like a kaleidoscope, blending the real and the imaginary, literature and music, love and artistic creation. What Arianna’s thread can we follow to account for all these detours? The game of mirrors expands: a single soprano to embody four women, a single baritone to belt out the sniggering of four characters, a single tenor to play four puppets worthy of an operetta: Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio… And as many versions as productions, each favouring different editions, whether that of Choudens, chosen until 1970, or those of Fritz Oeser or Michael Kaye who is favoured today. A sombre, complex and powerful work, The Tales of Hoffmann avoids all the clichés attached to the man who, in the Second Empire, established himself as the unchallenged emperor of opera buffa.  (Source)

I watched on the Paris Opera Orchestra version with Robert Carsen as Stage director and Michael Levine as set and costume designer. I enjoyed it very much.


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