Les contes d'Hoffmann - The tales of Hoffmann
Something about Les contes d’Hoffmann
Jaques Offenbach died on October 5, 1880. If you look at the premier date below, you can conclude that he never witnessed Les contes d’Hoffman played. In the tragic company of many other great compositions during the centuries (Turandot, Carmen, Requiem by Mozart), Offenbach’s masterpiece was unfinished at the composer’s death.
Sad, but maybe he just took too long to write it… Already in 1851, Offenbach witnessed a play written by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, Les contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann. He considered the actual narrative, but more so, he realized that the way the many different and fantastic tales were tied together was a good foundation for an opera. Because the play, as well as later the opera, was based on not one, not two but several books.
The many stories were all written by the famous Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, a Prussian writer, composer, and painter. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s narratives often included magic, fantasies, and other strange twists, to a degree that made the great Walter Scott once exclaim:
– Hoffmann needs medical attention more than he needs literary criticism.
Why it took almost 30 years to finish the project…
Offenbach had a lot on his table in the 1850s. And in the 1860s, the political situation in Europe with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 closing in, was unsteady. It would take 20 years before he had time and peace to engage in the writing of the opera.
In the meantime, Barbier had already adapted the play for orchestration. As Offenbach wasn’t yet available, another composer, Hector Salomon, wrote a score for the material but with minimal success. So, the project was already sort of underway when Offenbach started working on it in 1873.
Unfortunately, a series of bankruptcies delayed the opera for years. And every time, Offenbach had to rewrite at least some of the scores for the new situations. After Théâtre Lyrique had failed, the last theater to get involved was Opera Comique.
They had just engaged a new, and despotic manager by the name of Lèon Cavalho. Offenbach had already engaged the famous bass Alexandre Taskin to sing the role of Hoffmann, who at that time was supposed to be a bass. Cavalho didn’t care much for that idea, though. Instead, he insisted on Hoffmann being sung by a tenor. And so, everything had to be rewritten again. Taskin was instead engaged to sing the four evil guys.
After the composer’s death, Ernest Guiraud, who by the way also wrote the recitatives for Bizet’s Carmen, finished the opera. It premiered on February 10, 1881, in Paris but with only 2 (4) Acts. The first version of 3 (5) Acts was set up in Hamburg in December of the following year. Read more about all the different versions here.
Premiere – February 10, 1881, Opéra-Comique, Paris, France.
Composer – Jacques Offenbach
Librettist – Jules Barbier
Running Time – Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes plus intervals. But this is an approximation. The second and third Acts are sometimes swapped.
Five Acts (3 Acts with a prologue and an epilogue.)
There is no Overture
Prologue: ca 30 minutes
First Act (Olympia): ca 50 minutes
Second Act (Antonia): ca 45 minutes
Third Act (Giulietta): ca 30 minutes
Epilogue: ca 10 minutes
Something about the many characters:
Offenbach’s original idea was to have one female singer sing all four women… Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. Similarly, one man should sing all four bad guys… Lindorf, Coppelius, Doctor Miracle, and Dapertutto. But while the four villains are much the same type of voice, the four women are not. Especially Olympia is way outside the normal straightforward Lyric Soprano. Stella sings very little if she sings at all. Antonia and Giulietta are not the same but at least reasonably similar. Olympia has her doll-aria and to make it justice, it takes an expert Coloratura Soprano. Singing all four roles by one and the same Soprano is extremely challenging. It has been done, but it’s rare.
On the other hand, the four Bass-Baritone parts are normally sung by one person. And that makes all the more sense. And the ever-present assistant, Andrés, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio are normally sung by one Tenor. The Muse and Nicklausse are often doubled which also makes a lot of sense. Many other parts can be doubled, but in every case, it’s a director’s individual decision.
Main characters (… and there are quite a lot.)
Hoffman: Lyric Tenor. A poet.
- Lindorf: Bass-Baritone. A municipal councilor
- Coppelius: Bass-Baritone. An inventor.
- Doctor Miracle: Bass-Baritone. A physician.
- Dapertutto: Bass-Baritone. A sorcerer.
- Stella: Soprano. A famous singer.
- Olympia: Coloratura Soprano. A mechanical doll.
- Antonia: Lyric Soprano. A sick young woman who dreams of singing.
- Giulietta: Dramatic Soprano (or at least a little darker and bigger than Antonia). A courtesan.
- Andrés: Tenor. Stella’s servant.
- Cochenille:Tenor. Spalanzani’s assistant.
- Frantz: Tenor. Crespel’s servant.
- Pitichinaccio: Tenor. Giulietta’s lover.
The Muse: Mezzo-soprano
Nicklausse: Contralto. Hoffman’s friend.
Spalanzani: Tenor. The inventor of Olympia.
Crespel: Bass. Antonia’s father
The voice of Antonia’s mother: Mezzo-soprano.
Schlemil: Baritone. Giulietta’s lover
Nathanaël: Tenor. A student.
… and many more.
Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.
Background – Les contes d’Hoffmann is set in…
… Sort of. There are three stories told in the opera. They are set respectively in Paris in France, Munich in Germany, and Venice in Italy. But these are the tales and they are all told inside a Tavern in Nürnberg while Hoffmann is drinking with his friends.
The time is set at the beginning of the 1800s.
Would you like to visit Nürnberg?
Would you like to see the sites where the Opera takes place?
The Tavern, Maître Luther in Nürnberg.
The Muse explains the purpose of the tales…
– Once grateful for my inspiration, now heedless of my wrath. He now pursues the prima donna and not the Muse.
She will try to make the poet see how the search for illusive love only brings sorrow, while art, music, and poetry will always be faithful. Because Hoffmann is in love with the prima donna of the Opera right next door (… Playing Don Giovanni by Mozart). The beautiful and seductive singer’s name is Stella. The Muse takes the appearance of Hoffmann’s closest friend, Nicklausse.
Stella’s servant, Andrès, has an envelope with a key and a letter for Hoffmann. But as he hasn’t arrived yet, Lindorf, the city counselor, and Hoffmann’s rival buys it from Andrès for forty taler. Lindorf intends to present himself at the rendezvous instead of Hoffmann.
Hoffman enters and is immediately asked by all the half-drunk students to tell a story. He sings a song about Klenzack, the dwarf.
– Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach…
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novel, Little Zaches Called Cinnabar.
This is Hoffmann’s most famous song, and it’s a beautiful example of how Offenbach shows the inside of his characters. It’s a funny, strophic piece with an incredible amount of rimes of Kleinzach. In the middle of the song, Hoffmann drifts off into a dream… And the orchestra changes from umpa-umpa to a lyrical, romantic score.
Lindorf enters and he and Hoffmann start to quarrel. They are rivals in love after all. After more wine, arguments, and opinions about women, Hoffmann agrees to tell them all about the three great loves of his life.
And these three loves are, in fact, the three acts of the opera:
First Act – Paris, Olympia.
The Parlor of Spalanzani.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story: Der Sandmann.
Spalanzani presents himself. He is an inventor who has invented a mechanical doll, an automaton, in the shape of a beautiful young woman. In this story, Lindorf plays the role of Coppelius, an optician and shareholder in Spalanzani’s project.
Hoffmann is already in love. He sings out his passion:
– Allons! Courage et confiance…Ah! vivre deux! (Come on! Courage and trust… Ah! to live together)
Nicklausse (who is the Muse in disguise) tries to tell him about the doll, that it’s mechanical…
– Une poupée aux yeux d’émail… (…A certain newly invented plaything. Lifelike with blue enamel eyes…)
… But he doesn’t get it.
Coppelius enters and manages to sell a pair of glasses to Hoffmann. These are special glasses and they make him fail to see the obvious mechanical features of the automaton.
Now it’s time for the performance of Spalanzani’s doll which he presents as his daughter. The crowd enters, and everybody is excited about the fabulous invention. Hoffmann is the only one who still doesn’t get it, and he falls deeper in love at every glance due to his magical glasses.
Olympia sings the famous doll-aria…
– Les oiseaux dans la charmille…
This is a demanding piece for a good Coloratura Soprano. But it’s worthwhile for anybody who has the voice for it because it’s a wonderful stand-alone concert piece. In the opera, if it’s done well, expect a long and persistent applause.
Hoffman and Olympia are left alone. When the poet expresses his love for her, he unintentionally touches her shoulder, and she answers him
– Yes, yes…
But when he passionately touches her hand, she starts to run around the hall and then exits through one of the doors. Hoffmann is left troubled…
Later Hoffmann and Olympia are dancing a waltz (which includes more vocally demanding coloraturas for the Soprano…). Spalanzani stops his creature instantly with a touch, and Hoffmann falls, breaking his glasses. Coppelius enters, furious. The check Spalanzani had paid him bounced, and to revenge himself he wrecks Olympia.
And Hoffmann, without his glasses, realizes that he fell in love with a machine…
Second Act – Munich, Antonia.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story: Rath Krespel.
The Act begins with a beautiful aria sung by the young, and somewhat sick, Antonia:
– Elle a fui, la tourterelle.. (Gentle dove! Barred from her lover… Far away, far away she has flown.)
It is a melody about her lost love, Hoffmann, whom her father, Crespel has forbidden to see. But it is also in some way a sad reminder of her tragic disease (… and of course of how Hoffmann has lost his inspiration in his search for physical love.). Because Antonia, like her mother before her, suffers from a strange illness: She could die if she sings… And to be a singer is all she desires.
Crespel tells the servant, the half-deaf Frantz, not to let anybody in. Frantz constantly mishears instructions and if you’re good at French it’s actually quite funny. He then sings a comic little tune:
– Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre…
Hoffmann enters. Nicklausse again tries to set him straight:
– … At least this one lives, she has a soul. But she’s an artist and as such, her soul is like any other soul-less instrument.
The lovers are reunited and sing a love duet:
– C’est une chanson d’amour… (This is a love song…)
But suddenly Crespel comes back and Hoffmann has to hide. Immediately there’s a knock on the door… It’s Doctor Miracle (Who is Lindorf in this story). This sleazy physician manages to convince Crespel that he can cure his daughter.
Hoffmann finally understands the situation, and with grief he makes Antonia promise not to sing ever again. He leaves.
Now there’s a dark and shadowy scene where Dr. Miracle argues with Antonia. He has suddenly appeared to “help” her overcome her resistance:
– … Never sing again? So foolish! Imagine, though, instead, the debut long-awaited… A sublime final note and the crowd begins to roar…
And when he magically makes her dead mother appear and sing together with her, she cannot resist anymore. In unbridled joy, she sings herself to death.
Crespel bursts in. Then Hoffmann, and Nicklausse. Crespel misinterprets the situation and tries to stab Hoffmann, but Nicklausse saves him.
Third Act – Venice, Giulietta.
A beautiful palace on Grand Canal.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story: Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht.
The first thing that happens is a short flute melody. And we have arrived at the probably most known of all the melodies of the opera: La Barcarolle…
The situation is as follows: Giulietta is a courtesan and she already has two lovers when Hoffmann too falls in love with her. One is called Schlemil, and the other Pitichinaccio. But Giulietta doesn’t love any of them. She just follows her master’s orders and seduces… And her master is, yes, you guessed it, Lindorf, in this story dressed as a sorcerer by the name of Dapertutto (meaning “everywhere”). He sings the short aria:
– Scintille, diamant, miroir où se prend… (Sparkling diamond. Fanning the flames of desire… And lure my moth to the fire…)
Because he controls Giulietta with a diamond, of course symbolizing wealth.
Anyway, Giulietta and Hoffmann meet and he cannot resist her. He sings the short but powerful:
– O Dieu! de quelle ivresse…
At the end of it the courtesan asks him to give her something to remember him by. She urges him to leave Venice. She will follow him the day after:
– Écoute, et ne ris pas de moi! Ce reflet que tu vois sur le mien se pencher… (Promise not to laugh! The reflection of your face…)
Dapertutto has some sort of macabre collection of human attributes. He already has Schlemil’s shadow. Now he wants Hoffmann’s reflection in the mirror.
The others enter. Schlemil is jealous, Pitichinaccio wants to kill Hoffmann, and Dapertutto sarcastically shows him the empty mirror. And here the key from the prologue returns. Schlemil has it but Hoffmann gets it from him and runs to Giulietta’s chambers.
The ending can be in a few different ways. Normally Hoffmann kills Schlemil with Dapertutto’s sword, but in some versions he kills Pitichinaccio, and it’s even possible that Giulietta dies from poisoning.
Hoffmann is again saved by Nicklausse/The Muse who grabs him and flees when the police arrive.
Back at the Tavern, Maître Luther in Nürnberg.
And so, Hoffmann finished his story and we are back at the tavern. But what has Stella, the prima donna, to do with all this? Well, she is, in fact, all these women… The young, and obedient girl, the artist, and the courtesan… A perfect companion.
Hoffmann, now in an advanced state of drunkenness sings a last strophe of Kleinzack. and dedicates it to Lindorf. It is also possible that he sings O Dieu! de quelle ivresse… , the love theme from the Giulietta act, and dedicates it to the Muse.
This last part can be in one of many ways. The main details are that Stella enters but Hoffmann (the Muse) either tells her he doesn’t love her anymore, or he is simply too drunk to follow her. The Muse declares her love for him, and he resigns to his fate and returns his love for her (…or he does not). Stella leaves with Lindorf.
What to look out for.
Note: The timestamps are very approximative. And so is the order of the events. The Giulietta Act can come before the Antonia Act.
ca 20 minutes – Kleinzack Hoffman.
ca 15 minutes – Hoffmann gets his magical glasses.
ca 25 minutes – Les oiseaux dans la charmille. Olympia’s big coloratura aria.
ca 45 minutes – Hoffmann loses his glasses and realizes the bluff.
Beginning – Elle a fui, la tourterelle. Antonia’s aria.
ca 8 minutes – Jour et nuit Frans’ funny little song.
ca 20 minutes – C’est une chanson d’amour Hoffman’s and Antonia’s heartfelt duet.
Curtain up – Barcarole: Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour Giulietta and Nicklausse.
ca 15 minutes – O Dieu! de quelle ivresse Hoffmann’s aria.
Finale – Who dies? Schlemil Pittichinaccio or Giulietta?
The ending is very much up to the director. Just stay concentrated and try to understand the underlying message. Are they reconciled… The Muse and Hoffmann?
Why are there so many different versions?
So, the premiere took place in Paris on February 10, 1881. The score was completed by Ernest Guiraud who had to take orders from Lèon Cavalho. The famous Theater director didn’t want to tire his audience and he had Guiraud cutting quite a lot. The whole Venice Act was left out, and so was the role of the Muse. Moreover, the spoken dialogue was orchestrated into recitatives by Guiraud.
On December 7, 1881, it premiered in Vienna in German and without the Venice Act. But the day after the Ringtheater burnt to the ground in one of the worst fires of the 1900s. We don’t know exactly how many but at least 384 persons died, and it could have been as many as a thousand. The Venice Act as composed by Offenbach was expected to have been destroyed.
The first version with three (5) Acts premiered in Hamburg in September the following year. The Hamburg setup used Guiraud’s drafts for the Giulietta Act.
In the meantime, a completely different version with orchestrations by André Bloch was published by Choudens. That was followed by no less than four other versions by the same publisher within just a few years.
In 1887 there was another disastrous fire. This time it was Opera Comique that went up in flames with an estimated 200 deaths. And this time not only a part of the opera was supposed to have been destroyed but the whole lot… Offenbach’s original manuscript.
Therefore the Choudens version became the standard opera for many decades to come. Their publication of 1907 contained three Acts (with a prologue and an epilogue), but the Muse was still absent, and the Antonia Act was the last, after the Giulietta Act.
What can be found in old castles and archives.
In 1971, the Muse was finally restored. And so was some of the spoken dialogue. But the real scope was when 1250 pages of Offenbach’s originals which were thought to have been lost in the fire in 1887, were discovered in 1970. In 1984, another 350 pages by the hand of Offenbach were sold in an auction in London. and 1993 even more documents were found. This led to a series of critical editions that aimed at approaching the score to Offenbach’s original intentions as much as possible.
- In 1976 Fritz Oeser published the first critical edition. This is the first time the order of the Acts is correct: Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta. And they are named one-two-three with a prologue and an epilogue.
The two most important musicologists in this process were Michael Kaye, and Jean-Christophe Keck. Kaye published the results of his research in 1992. In 2003, Keck’s version put the four female roles together again, sung by one Soprano, as Offenbach had meant it to be.
In 2009, Kaye and Keck joined forces and published the most reliable score we have today.
Today many opera houses use the Kaye-Keck version, but often with minor or not-so-minor changes. Any director or conductor in any theater in any part of the world would definitelly have opinions about the opera, as well as preferred ideas of how it should be performed. And as there really isn’t any final agreed-upon consensus version, all these authorities can do more or less what they want.
To that comes the fact that Offenbach surely would have continued to perfect his score. He would have been the ultimate authority for cuts, rewrites, and complements. But he died before anything was determined, so, we just don’t know…
And that’s the reason why you can’t find two Les contes d’Hoffmann that are the same, with the same music and the same words in the same order.
Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.