The Tales of Hoffmann

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Les contes d'Hoffmann
The Tales of Hoffmann
Opéra fantastique by Jacques Offenbach
Les Contes d'Hoffmann.jpg
Scenes from the Paris premiere
Librettist Jules Barbier
Based onthree short stories
by E. T. A. Hoffmann
10 February 1881 (1881-02-10)

The Tales of Hoffmann (French: Les contes d'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.


Composition history and sources

Offenbach saw a play, Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann, written by Barbier and Michel Carré and produced at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1851. [1]

After returning from America in 1876, Offenbach learned that Barbier had adapted the play, which Hector Salomon  [ fr ] had now set to music at the Opéra. Salomon handed the project to Offenbach. Work proceeded slowly, interrupted by the composition of profitable lighter works. Offenbach had a premonition, like Antonia, that he would die prior to its completion. [2] [3]

Offenbach continued working on the opera throughout 1880, attending some rehearsals. On 5 October 1880, he died with the manuscript in his hand, just four months before the opening. Shortly before he died, he wrote to Léon Carvalho:

"Hâtez-vous de monter mon opéra. Il ne me reste plus longtemps à vivre et mon seul désir est d'assister à la première."
("Hurry up and stage my opera. I have not much time left, and my only wish is to attend the opening night.") [3]

The stories in the opera include:

Performance history

The death of Antonia (act 2) in the original 1881 production. In front: Adele Isaac; in back (left to right): Hippolyte Belhomme, Marguerite Ugalde, Pierre Grivot, Emile-Alexandre Taskin, Jean-Alexandre Talazac. La mort d'Antonia Act3 Les contes d'Hoffmann 1881 - Yon 2000pla22.jpg
The death of Antonia (act 2) in the original 1881 production. In front: Adèle Isaac; in back (left to right): Hippolyte Belhomme, Marguerite Ugalde, Pierre Grivot, Émile-Alexandre Taskin, Jean-Alexandre Talazac.

The opera was first-performed in a public-venue, at the Opéra-Comique on 10 February 1881, without the third (Venice) act. [8] It was presented in an abridged-form at Offenbach's house, 8 Boulevard des Capucines, on 18 May 1879, with Madame Franck-Duvernoy in the soprano roles, Auguez as Hoffmann (baritone) and Émile-Alexandre Taskin in the four villain roles, with Edmond Duvernoy at the piano and a chorus directed by Albert Vizentini. Besides Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, the director of the Ringtheater in Vienna, Franz von Jauner, was also present. Both men requested the rights, but Offenbach granted them to Carvalho. [3]

A four-act version with recitatives was staged at the Ringtheater on 7 December 1881, conducted by Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., [9] although a gas explosion and fire occurred at the theatre after the second performance. [10]

The opera reached its hundredth performance at the Salle Favart on 15 December 1881. [8] The fire at the Opéra-Comique in 1887 destroyed the orchestral parts, [10] and it was not seen again in Paris until 1893, at the Salle de la Renaissance du Théâtre-Lyrique, when it received 20 performances. [11] A new production by Albert Carré (including the Venice act) was mounted at the Opéra-Comique in 1911, with Léon Beyle in the title role and Albert Wolff conducting. This production remained in the repertoire until World War II, receiving 700 performances. [8] Following a recording by Opéra-Comique forces in March 1948, Louis Musy created the first post-war production in Paris, conducted by André Cluytens. [8] The Paris Opera first staged the work in October 1974, directed by Patrice Chéreau with Nicolai Gedda in the title role. [12]

Outside France, the piece was mounted in Geneva, Budapest, Hamburg, New York, and Mexico in 1882, Vienna (Theater an der Wien), Prague, and Antwerp in 1883, and Lvov and Berlin in 1884. Local premieres included Buenos Aires in 1894, St Petersburg in 1899, Barcelona in 1905, and London in 1910. [12]


Role Voice type [13] Premiere cast,
10 February 1881
(Conductor: Jules Danbé)
Hoffmann, a poet tenor Jean-Alexandre Talazac
Olympia, a mechanical or an animatronical doll soprano Adèle Isaac
Antonia, a young girlsopranoAdèle Isaac
Giulietta, a courtesansoprano
Stella, a singersoprano
Lindorf bass-baritone Émile-Alexandre Taskin
Coppéliusbass-baritoneÉmile-Alexandre Taskin
Miraclebass-baritoneÉmile-Alexandre Taskin
Andrèstenor Pierre Grivot
CochenilletenorPierre Grivot
FrantztenorPierre Grivot
Crespel, Antonia's father bass Hippolyte Belhomme
Hermann, a studentbassTeste
Wolfram, a studentbassPiccaluga
Wilhelm, a studentbassCollin
Lutherbass Étienne Troy
Nathanaël, a studenttenorChennevières
Nicklausse mezzo-soprano Marguerite Ugalde
The musemezzo-sopranoMole-Truffier
Peter Schlémil, in love with Giuliettabass or baritone
Spalanzani, an inventortenorE. Gourdon
Voice of Antonia's mothermezzo-sopranoDupuis
Second Voice in the Barcarollemezzo-soprano
Students, Guests



Prologue (or epilogue), in the 1881 premiere Pierre-Auguste Lamy (%3F) - Les contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, prologue.jpg
Prologue (or epilogue), in the 1881 première

A tavern in Nuremberg: The Muse appears and reveals to the audience her purpose is to draw Hoffmann's attention, and make him abjure all other loves, so he can be devoted to her: poetry. She takes the appearance of Hoffmann's closest friend, Nicklausse. The prima donna Stella, performing Mozart's Don Giovanni, sends a letter to Hoffmann, requesting a meeting in her dressing room after the performance. The letter and the key to the room are intercepted by Councillor Lindorf ("Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux" – In the languid lovers' roles), the first of the opera's incarnations of evil, Hoffmann's nemesis. Lindorf intends to replace Hoffmann at the rendezvous. In the tavern, students wait for Hoffmann. He finally arrives, and entertains them with the legend of Kleinzach the dwarf ("Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach " – Once upon a time at the court of Eisenach). Lindorf coaxes Hoffmann into telling the audience about his three great loves.

Act 1 (Olympia)

The Olympia act, as staged at the 1881 premiere Pierre-Auguste Lamy (%3F) - Les contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, Olympia act.jpg
The Olympia act, as staged at the 1881 première

This act is based on a portion of "Der Sandmann".

Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, an automaton created by the scientist Spalanzani. Hoffmann falls in love with her, not knowing Olympia is a mechanical doll ("Allons! Courage et confiance...Ah! vivre deux!" – Come on! Courage and confidence ... Ah! to live!). To warn Hoffmann, Nicklausse, possessing the truth about Olympia, sings a story of a mechanical doll with the appearance of a human, but Hoffmann ignores him ("Une poupée aux yeux d'émail" – A doll with enamel eyes). Coppélius, Olympia's co-creator and this act's incarnation of Nemesis, sells Hoffmann magic glasses to make Olympia appear as a real woman ("J'ai des yeux" – I have eyes).

Olympia sings one of the opera's most famous arias, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" (The birds in the arbor, nicknamed "The Doll Song"), during which she runs-down and needs to be wound-up before she can continue. Hoffmann is tricked into believing his affections are returned, to the bemusement of Nicklausse, subtly attempting to warn his friend ("Voyez-la sous son éventail" – See her under her fan). While dancing with Olympia, Hoffmann falls on the ground and his glasses break. At the same time, Coppélius appears, tearing Olympia apart to retaliate against Spalanzani after cheating him of his fees. With the crowd ridiculing him, Hoffmann realizes he loved an automaton.

Act 2 (Antonia)

Antonia and Dr. Miracle, 1881 Les contes d'Hoffmann - Antonia act - Dr. Miracle and Antonia.png
Antonia and Dr. Miracle, 1881

This act is based on "Rath Krespel".

After a long search, Hoffmann finds the house where Crespel and his daughter Antonia are hiding. Hoffmann and Antonia loved each other, but were separated after Crespel decided to hide his daughter from Hoffmann. Antonia inherited her mother's talent for singing, but her father forbids her to sing because of her mysterious illness. Antonia wishes her lover would return to her ("Elle a fui, la tourterelle" – "She fled, the dove"). Her father also forbids her to see Hoffmann, who encourages Antonia in her musical career, and therefore, endangers her without knowing it. Crespel tells Frantz, his servant, to stay with his daughter, and after Crespel leaves, Frantz sings a comical song about his talents "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre" – "Day and night, I quarter my mind."

After Crespel leaves his house, Hoffmann takes advantage of the occasion to sneak in, and the lovers are re-united (love duet: "C'est une chanson d'amour" – "It's a love song"). After Crespel returns, he receives a visit from Dr Miracle, the act's Nemesis, forcing Crespel to let him heal her. Eavesdropping, Hoffmann learns Antonia may die if she sings too much. He returns to her boudoir, and makes her promise to give up her artistic-dreams. Antonia reluctantly accepts her lover's will. After she is alone, Dr Miracle enters Antonia's boudoir to persuade her to sing and follow her mother's path to glory, stating Hoffmann is sacrificing her to his brutishness, and loves her only for her beauty. With mystic powers, he raises a vision of Antonia's dead mother and induces Antonia to sing, causing her death. Crespel arrives just in time to witness his daughter's last breath. Hoffmann enters, and Crespel wants to kill him, thinking he is responsible for his daughter's death. Nicklausse saves his friend from the old man's vengeance.

Act 3 (Giulietta)

Giuletta act, 1881 Pierre-Auguste Lamy (%3F) - Les contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, Giulietta act.jpg
Giuletta act, 1881

This act is loosely-based on Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht (A New Year's Eve Adventure).

Venice. The act opens with the barcarolle " Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour " – "Beautiful night, oh night of love". Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta, and thinks she returns his affections ("Amis, l'amour tendre et rêveur" – "Friends, tender and dreamy love"). Giulietta is not in love with Hoffmann, but seducing him under the orders of Captain Dapertutto, promising to give her a diamond if she steals Hoffmann's reflection from a mirror ("Scintille, diamant" – "Sparkle, diamond"). The jealous Schlemil (cf. Peter Schlemihl for a literary antecedent), a previous victim of Giulietta and Dapertutto (he gave Giulietta his shadow), challenges the poet to a duel, but is killed. Nicklausse wants to take Hoffmann away from Venice, and goes looking for horses. Meanwhile, Hoffmann meets Giulietta, and cannot resist her ("O Dieu! de quelle ivresse" – "O God! of what intoxication"): he gives her his reflection, only to be abandoned by the courtesan, to Dapertutto's great pleasure. Hoffmann tells Dapertutto his friend Nicklausse will come and save him. Dapertutto prepares a poison to get rid of Nicklausse, but Giulietta drinks it by mistake, dropping dead in the poet's arms.


The tavern in Nuremberg: Hoffmann, drunk, swears he will never love again, and explains Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are three facets of the same person, Stella. They represent, respectively, the young girl's, the musician's, and the courtesan's side of the prima donna. After Hoffmann says he doesn't want to love any more, Nicklausse reveals she is the Muse and reclaims Hoffmann: "Be reborn a poet! I love you, Hoffmann! Be mine!" – "Renaîtra un poète! Je t'aime, Hoffmann! Sois à moi!" The magic of poetry reaches Hoffmann as he sings "O Dieu! de quelle ivresse – "O God! of what intoxication" once more, ending with "Muse, whom I love, I am yours!" – "Muse que j'aime, je suis à toi!" At this moment, Stella, tired of waiting for Hoffmann to come to her rendezvous, enters the tavern and finds him drunk. The poet tells her to leave ("Farewell, I will not follow you, phantom, spectre of the past" – "Adieu, je ne vais pas vous suivre, fantôme, spectre du passé"), and Lindorf, waiting in the shadows, comes forth. Nicklausse explains to Stella that Hoffmann does not love her anymore, but Councillor Lindorf is waiting for her. Some students enter the room for more drinking, while Stella and Lindorf leave together.

Musical numbers

The aria "Chanson de Kleinzach" (Song of little Zaches) in the prologue is based on the short story "Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober" ("Little Zaches, called cinnabar"), 1819. The barcarolle, "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" in the Venetian act, is the opera's famous number, borrowed by Offenbach from his earlier opera Rheinnixen (French: Les fées du Rhin). [3]


The original E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) ETA-Hoffmann.JPG
The original E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822)

Offenbach did not live to see his opera performed. He died on 5 October 1880, four months before its premiere, but after completing the piano score and orchestrating the prologue and first act. As a result, different editions of the opera emerged, some bearing little-resemblance to the authentic-work. The version performed at the opera's premiere was by Ernest Guiraud, after completing Offenbach's scoring and recitatives. Over the decades, new editions continue to appear, although the emphasis, particularly since the 1970s, shifted to authenticity. In this regard, a milestone was the Michael Kaye edition of 1992, but, then, additional authentic music was found, and published in 1999. In 2011, two competing-publishing houses – one French, one German – released a joint-edition reflecting and reconciling the research of recent decades. Here are some of the edition "variables" circulating since Offenbach died:

Commonly, directors choose among two numbers in the Giulietta act:
"Scintille, diamant", based on a tune from the overture to Offenbach's operetta A Journey to the Moon and included by André Bloch for a Monaco production in 1908.
The Sextet (sometimes called Septet, counting the chorus as a character) of unknown-origin, but containing elements of the barcarolle.
The three acts, telling different stories from the life of Hoffmann, are independent (with the exception of a mention of Olympia in the Antonia act), easily-swapped without affecting the story. Offenbach's order was Prologue–Olympia–Antonia–Giulietta–Epilogue, but during the 20th century, the work was usually-performed with Giulietta's act preceding Antonia's. Recently, the original order was restored, but the practice is not-universal. The general-reason for the switch is the Antonia act is more-accomplished musically.
The designation of the acts is disputed. The German scholar Josef Heinzelmann  [ de ], among others, favours numbering the Prologue as Act One, and the Epilogue as Act Five, with Olympia as Act Two, Antonia as Act Three, and Giulietta as Act Four.
The opera was sometimes-performed (for example, during the premiere at the Opéra-Comique) without the entire Giulietta act, although the famous barcarolle from that act was inserted into the Antonia act, and Hoffmann's aria "Amis! l'Amour tendre et rêveur" was inserted into the epilogue. In 1881, before the opera was performed in Vienna, the Giulietta act was restored, but modified so the courtesan does not die at the end by accidental poisoning, but exits in a gondola accompanied by her servant Pitichinaccio.
Due to its opéra-comique genre, the original score contained much dialogue sometimes-replaced by recitative, and this lengthened the opera so much, some acts were removed (see above).
Offenbach intended the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann's unreachable love. Similarly, the four villains (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) would be performed by the same bass-baritone, because they are all manifestations of evil. While the doubling of the four villains is quite-common, most-performances of the work use different singers for the loves of Hoffmann because different skills are needed for each role: Olympia requires a skilled-coloratura singer with stratospheric-high notes, Antonia is written for a lyrical voice, and Giulietta is usually-performed by a dramatic-soprano or a mezzo-soprano. Any performance with all three roles (four if the role of Stella is counted) performed by a single soprano in a performance is considered one of the largest-challenges in the lyric-coloratura repertoire. Notable-sopranos performing all three roles include Karan Armstrong, Vina Bovy, Patrizia Ciofi, Edita Gruberová, Fanny Heldy, Catherine Malfitano, Anja Silja, Beverly Sills, Ruth Ann Swenson, Carol Vaness, Faith Esham, Ninon Vallin and Virginia Zeani. All four roles were performed by Josephine Barstow, Diana Damrau, Elizabeth Futral, Marlis Petersen, [14] Georgia Jarman, [15] [16] Elena Moșuc [17] and Joan Sutherland.

A recent-version including the authentic-music by Offenbach was re-instated by the French Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck. A successful performance of this version was produced at the Lausanne Opera (Switzerland). Another recent edition by Michael Kaye was performed at the Opéra National de Lyon in 2013 with Patrizia Ciofi singing the roles of Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta ; and at Hamburg State Opera with Elena Moșuc singing the roles of Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and Stella in the 2007 production. [18]

In early 2016, Jean-Christophe Keck announced he traced and identified the autograph-full manuscript of the Prologue and the Olympia act, with vocal lines by Offenbach and instrumental by Guiraud. The Antonia act and epilogue are in the BnF, while the Giulietta act is in the Offenbach-family archives. [19]


The opera is frequently recorded. Well-regarded recordings include:


Related Research Articles

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