Contes d’Hoffmann, Les (The Tales of Hoffmann)

  • Jacques Offenbach. Opéra fantastique in five acts. 1880.
  • Libretto by Jules Barbier, after the play by Barbier and Michel Carré, based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
  • First performance by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart, Paris, on 10th February 1881.
Hoffmann, a poet tenor
The Muse soprano
Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend mezzo-soprano
Lindorf, a councillor of Nuremberg bass-baritone
Stella, a prima donna soprano
Andrès, her servant tenor
Luther, an innkeeper baritone
Spalanzini, an inventor tenor
Cochenille, his servant tenor
Olympia, a doll soprano
Coppélius, Spalanzini’s rival baritone
Antonia, a singer soprano
Crespel, her father, a violin-maker baritone
Frantz, his servant tenor
Dr Miracle, a doctor baritone
Voice of Antonia’s mother mezzo-soprano
Giulietta, a courtesan soprano
Schlemil, her lover bass
Dapertutto, a magician baritone
Pitichinaccio, Giulietta’s servant tenor
Nathanaël / Wolframm / Hermann / Wilhelm, students baritone

Les Contes d’Hoffmann takes a series of separate stories, linked by the presence of the poet himself, with his companion Nicklausse. In the first act, which serves as a prologue, Hoffmann’s muse takes the form of his student friend Nicklausse. In Luther’s tavern in Nuremberg, Hoffmann sees his rival Counsellor Lindorf with his beloved Stella, enjoying apparent success. He tells the assembled students the story of Klein Zach and then agrees to tell them more. The second act deals with Hoffmann’s love for the doll Olympia, the invention of Spalanzini, frustrated by Coppélius, who claims part of the profits from Spalanzini’s invention, for his contribution of eyes. He is fobbed off with a worthless cheque and returns to break the doll, leaving Hoffmann to lament his folly, brought about through the magic spectacles that Coppélius had provided. Hoffmann now falls in love with the singer Antonia, daughter of the violin-maker Crespel. Here he is frustrated by Dr Miracle, who induces Antonia to sing, an activity which brings about her death from the lung complaint from which she suffers. In Venice Hoffmann is attracted by the courtesan Giulietta. The magician Dapertutto urges her to seize Hoffmann’s reflection for him. In a duel Hoffmann kills his rival, Giulietta’s former lover Schlemil, only to find his beloved in the arms of her servant Pitichinaccio. In a final act set in Luther’s tavern again, Hoffmann rejects Stella, who leaves with Counsellor Lindorf, while his muse returns, urging him to further literary effort.

Offenbach achieved something of his more serious ambition in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. In performance the bewilderingly large number of characters is reduced by allowing the same singer to take the parts of those who serve to frustrate Hoffmann, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dapertutto. The same tenor may take the character parts of the servants Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio, while in some productions the four soprano roles, Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta may be taken by one singer. In instrumental repertoire arrangements of the famous Barcarolle of the fourth act have proliferated, as in its vocal form as Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (Fair night, o night of love). Other excerpts heard in operatic recitals include Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach (Once upon a time at the court of Eisenach), Hoffmann’s tale of the impish Klein Zach, Olympia’s Les oiseaux dans la charmille (The birds in the garden walk) and Antonia’s Elle a fui, la torterelle (She has flown, the little dove).