LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN
Opéra in a prologue, 3 acts, and an epilogue
Libretto: Jules Barbier, after Barbier and Michel Carré’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, based on Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann
Notes: Offenbach’s last opera. There is no fixed score, and various versions exist, as Offenbach died before he could complete the work. The Venice (Giulietta) act, for instance, wasn’t performed at the première, and the Antonia act was moved from Munich to Venice so they could use the famous Barcarolle. Two of the finest pieces in the score – the aria “Scintille, diamant” and the Septet – weren’t composed for the opera.
First performed (without the Venice act): Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 10 February 1881
First complete performance: Opéra-Comique (2e salle Favart), Paris, 13 November 1911
Offenbach’s last work is astonishing. It’s an opera of ideas rather than of feeling; it comments on the nature of opera and the creative artist’s imagination, while blending science fiction and fantasy with comedy.
And it features a drunken poet, a robot, mad scientists (one with a collection of eyeballs), a singing painting, a courtesan and a dwarf out of a Weimar cabaret, four devils, and the artist’s Muse.
Heady stuff for the 1880s.
Hoffmann is the protagonist of his own opera. The conceit is that he tells his drinking cronies the stories of three women he loved: Olympia (in Paris), really an automaton; Giulietta (in Venice), who stole his reflection; and Antonia (in Munich), who sang herself to death.
He reveals at the end that all three women – the wind-up doll who sings mechanical coloratura, the heartless courtesan who fakes emotion, and the consumptive soprano who surrenders her life to her desire for fame and glory – are the same woman: the opera singer Stella.
The three heroines are (as the Seattle Opera Blog suggests) embodiments of opera:
- Olympia, in the comic Paris act, is French coquetterie, a doll who’s trotted out to display her accomplishments for her wealthy admirers, just as many singers and ballerinas eked out their earnings by genteel prostitution;
- The decadent Venetian courtesan Giulietta is Italian vocal virtuosity and faked emotion. Significantly, she has no aria of her own, but only sings in duets. If an aria is an expression of interiority, she has no self to express; she counterfeits emotion, and can only do so in duets or ensembles.
- Antonia is the star singer’s ego. The villain appeals to her vanity, and makes her destroy herself by luring her into singing an Italianate cabaletta, a crowd-pleasing aria that shows off the soprano’s high notes.
Offenbach parodied grand opera – particularly Meyerbeer and Rossini – in his opéras bouffes. Here, in a full-blown opera, he condemns opera itself as empty spectacle catering to singers’ vanity.
Hoffmann, like Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and Wagner’s Meistersinger, is also about the creative artist. Berlioz and Wagner show the revolutionary Romantic genius triumphing over his bourgeois critics / rivals in love and getting the girl. Hoffmann – dreamer, poet, and idealist – is unsuccessful in love; his art is his consolation.
His Muse, disguised as his friend Nicklausse, accompanies him on his adventures. She is ambiguous, even sinister; she blocks Hoffmann, and even helps the Enemy (the villain in each episode, all played by the same baritone) thwart his efforts to find true love. She needs Hoffmann to suffer to create stories.
(Is artistic inspiration a parasite?)
Hoffmann takes events, the raw material of truth, and turns them into literature. Those stories are fictionalized versions – not memories – of what happened. The bulk of the action – three whole acts – doesn’t take place. (I can only think of one near-contemporary opera with a similar idea: Saint-Saëns’s Timbre d’argent, also by Barbier and Carré.)
This is sophisticated stuff, and anticipates twentieth century literature: an unreliable narrator and a narrative that calls attention to its own fictionality and critiques its form.
It is only a small step from Hoffmann to the absurdist, Modernist operas of the twentieth-century – to Strauss, Korngold, Weill and Hindemith.
Oeser edition: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Luciana Serra (Olympia), Jessye Norman (Giulietta), Rosalind Plowright (Antonia), José van Dam (Villains), Ann Murray (Nicklausse/the Muse), conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, Brussels Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, EMI 1988
Kaye-Keck edition: Roberto Alagna (Hoffmann), Natalie Dessay (Olympia), Sumi Jo (Giulietta), Leontina Vaduva (Antonia), José van Dam (Villains), Catherine Dubosc (Nicklausse), conducted by Kent Nagano, Opéra National de Lyon, Erato 1996
Inauthentic, but well sung: Plácido Domingo (Hoffmann), Joan Sutherland (Heroines), Gabriel Bacquier (Villains), Huguette Tourangeau (Nicklausse), conducted by Richard Bonynge, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Decca 1971
DVD: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Gwendolyn Bradley (Olympia), Tatiana Troyanos (Giulietta), Roberta Alexander (Antonia), James Morris (Villains), conducted by Charles Dutoit, Metropolitan Opera of New York 1988
Imaginative performance, using a traditional score. Watch it online at the Met’s website.