Les contes d'Hoffmann (in English: The Tales of Hoffmann) is an opera by Jacques Offenbach. It was first performed in Paris, at the Opéra-Comique, on February 10, 1881.
The libretto was written by Jules Barbier, based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a prolific German writer and composer of the Romantic era. E.T.A. Hoffman himself is a character in the opera just as he often is in his stories. The stories upon which the opera is based are Der Sandmann, Rath Krespel, and Das verlorene Spiegelbild.
There are several recordings of the opera, and it is regularly performed. It was filmed as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).
The different editions of the opera
The opera contains a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. Offenbach did not live to see his opera performed, since he died on October 5, 1880, just over four months before its premiere. Before his death, Offenbach had completed the piano score and orchestrated the prologue and the first act. Since he did not entirely finish the writing, many different versions of this opera emerged, some bearing little resemblance to the original work.
The main modifications often encountered :
A recent version including the authentic music by Offenbach has been reinstated by the French Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck. A successful performance of this version was produced at the Lausanne Opera (Switzerland). However, most producers still prefer the traditional Choudens version, with additions from the version prepared by Fritz Oeser. Another recent edition by Michael Kaye, has been performed at the Opéra National de Lyon and the Hamburg State Opera.
A complete explanation of the different versions, as well as translation of the libretto into English and IPA and translation into English of the literary sources is available through Pendragon Press: The Tales of Hoffmann: A Performance Guide by Mary Dibbern. ISBN 1-57647-033-4
A tavern in Nuremberg. The Muse appears and reveals to the audience her purpose to draw Hoffmann's attention to herself, and to make him abjure all other loves, so he can be devoted fully to her: poetry. She takes the appearance of Hoffmann's closest friend, Niklausse. The prima donna Stella, currently 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, is intercepted by the Councillor Lindorf, who is the first incarnation of evil; Hoffmann's Nemesis. Lindorf intends to replace Hoffmann at the rendezvous. In the tavern students are waiting for Hoffmann. He finally arrives and entertains them with the legend of Kleinzach the dwarf, and is coaxed by Lindorf into telling the audience about his life's three great loves.
Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, an automaton created by the scientist Spalanzani. Coppélius, Olympia's co-maker and this act's evil incarnation, sells Hoffmann magic glasses which make Olympia appear as a real woman. Here Olympia sings one of the opera's most famous arias Les Oiseaux Dans La Charmille where she periodically keeps winding down just before hitting the final high note. Hoffmann is tricked into believing his affections are returned, to the bemusement of Niklausse, who subtly tries to warn his friend. While dancing with Olympia, Hoffmann falls on the ground and his glasses break. At the same time, Coppélius appears and tears Olympia apart, in retaliation for having been tricked out of his just dues by Spalanzani. In the middle of the crowd laughing at him, Hoffmann realizes that he was in love with an automaton.
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 when Crespel decided to hide his daughter from Hoffmann. Antonia has inherited her mother's talent and voice, but her father forbids her to sing because of the mysterious illness from which she is suffering. He also forbids her to see Hoffmann, who is encouraging Antonia in her musical career, and is therefore a danger to her without his knowing it. But when Crespel leaves his house, Hoffmann takes advantage of the occasion to sneak into the house, and the lovers are re-united. When Crespel comes back, he receives the visit of Dr Miracle (this act's evil incarnation), who forces Crespel to let him heal Antonia. Still in the house, Hoffmann listens to the conversation and learns that Antonia may die if she sings too much. He returns to her room to make her promise to give up her artistic dreams. Antonia reluctantly accepts her lover's will. Once she is alone, Dr Miracle enters Antonia's room and try to persuade her to sing and to follow her mother's path to glory, stating that Hoffmann is sacrificing her to his brutishness and loves her only for her beauty. Having some mystic powers, he raises a vision of Antonia's dead mother and induces her to sing to death. Crespel arrives just in time to witness his daughter's last breath. Hoffmann enters the room and Crespel wants to kill him, thinking that he is responsible for his daughter's death. Nicklausse saves his friend from the old man's vengeance.
Venice. Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta and thinks his affections are returned. But Giulietta is seducing Hoffmann under the orders of Captain Dappertutto, who promised to give her a diamond if she filches Hoffmann's reflection from a mirror. Schlemil (see Peter Schlemihl for the literary antecedant), a previous victim of Giulietta and Dappertutto (he gave Giulietta his shadow) wants to save Hoffmann from his foolish passion for the courtesan by killing him. He challenges the poet to a duel, but is killed. Niklausse wants to take Hoffmann away from Venice and goes looking for horses. Meanwhile, Hoffmann meets Giulietta and cannot resist her: he gives her his reflection, only to be abandoned by the courtesan, to Dappertutto's great pleasure. Hoffmann tells the evil man that his friend Niklausse will come and save him. Dappertutto prepares a poison to get rid of Niklausse, but Giulietta drinks it by mistake and drops dead in the arms of the poet.
The tavern in Nuremberg. Hoffmann, drunk, swears he will never ever love again, and explains that Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are three facets of a same person, Stella, representing respectively the young girl's, the musician's and the courtesan's side of the prima donna. When Hoffmann says he doesn't want to love anymore, Niklausse reveals himself as the Muse and reclaims Hoffmann : "Be reborn a poet! I love you, Hoffmann! Be mine!" The magic of poetry reaches Hoffmann's limb : "Beloved Muse, I am yours". At this moment, Stella, who is tired of waiting for Hoffmann to come to her rendezvous, enters the tavern and finds Hoffmann drunk. The poet tells her to leave ("Farewell, I will not follow you, phantom, spectre of the past"), and Lindorf, who was waiting in the shadow, comes forth. Niklausse explains to Stella that Hoffmann does not love her anymore, but that the councillor Lindorf is waiting for her. Some students enter the room for more drinking, while Stella and Lindorf leave together.
The most famous piece from the opera is the "Barcarolle" which is performed in the third act. This has been incorporated into many movies including Life Is Beautiful.