Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881)

Opera in five acts (or Prologue, three acts, and epilogue). Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

At last it arrives! I dedicate this to Nick the OperaScribe who has been requesting this for months.

This review matches the 1972 Julius Rudel recording with the London Symphony Orchestra with Stuart Burrows in the title role and Beverly Sills in the four soprano roles.

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This is a rare instance of the “package opera”. Like a World War 2 era Disney package film, it consists of a series of seemingly unrelated short stories framed by a story of equal brevity.

SETTING: Nurnberg, Munich, Venice, early 19th century. E.T.A. Hoffmann recounts four stories at the request of the wicked Councillor Lindorf that make him look like a romantic loser. He ends up losing out on an opera prima donna due to the intervention of Lindorf and La Muse (not in connection to each other) in getting Hoffmann drunk.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A tavern in Nurnberg, during the intermission of a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (30 minutes)

0: The opening ** consists of an extremely brief faux-Spanish prelude and a tippy-toe chorus (to harp accompaniment) then a monologue in which La Muse explains that she wants to attract Hoffmann’s attention (so she disguises herself as his friend, the mezzo trouser role of Nicklausse) followed by a more wordy chorus, then more tippy-toe out.

6: After intercepting a letter by the prima donna Stella to Hoffmann (requesting a romantic rendezvous) Councillor Lindorf (who represents evil for some reason) schemes that it will be he who will meet Stella in her dressing room after the performance in an odd aria with a rather beguiling string tune **.

9: A weird (starchy) drinking chorus *.

15: Hoffmann’s Tale of Kleinzach the Dwarf ** (ugly, the dwarf not the piece) it gets interrupted in the middle by a glorious passage in which Hoffmann reveals his desire to possess the beautiful Stella.

20, 26, 28: A more bouncy chorus * (albeit brief) leads to  Lindorf asking Hoffmann for tales of his three great loves. Most of this occurs over a long (nine minute) recitative which eventually takes on a strong orchestral accompaniment * followed by a solemn closing chorus as Hoffmann begins the first tale *.

ACT 2: A salon in the home of the scientist Spalanzani. (37 minutes)

0: If not for the orchestration, it would be easy to misidentify the entr’acte as an 18th century piece **.

4: Hoffmann’s love song about Olympie **.

8: Nicklausse’s warning ** in the form of a story about a human-like doll (irony).

11: The arrival of Nemesis, in this act the evil Doctor Coppelius who sells Hoffmann some magic glasses that make Olympie seem real in a wicked bass-baritone aria **. It is followed by an idiot ensemble.

15: The entrance of the chorus to the same tune as the entr’acte ** and is followed by the introduction of Olympie to the people in a charming chorus *.

20: Olympie’s famous Doll Song *** in which she sings about birds because…she sings like one? Her windup-toy origins are revealed three times.

26: Yet another reboot of the triumphal theme from the entr’acte in choral form *, which time much shorter.

27, 31, 34, 37: The brief Hoffmann-Olympie duet ** in which he declares his love to her shrikes of “Oui! Oui!”. It has a nice flute accompaniment and blossoms just before deflating. After an interaction with Nicklausse, Doctor Coppelius decides to reveal the deception by dismantling Olympie piece by piece so as to extract revenge on Spalanzani. A lovely waltz tune pops out of the orchestra **. Olympie’s sings until she no longer is functional ** and Spalanzani comes on with pieces of Olympie. Hoffmann realizes Coppelius’ deception and is laughted at by all * (Nicklausse and Spalanzani excluded).

ACT 3: Venice. (29 minutes)

1: After a brief prelude, the famous Barcarolle *** sung by Giulietta and her friends. Also, not an original composition: it was taken from Offenbach’s own Die Rheinnixen of 1864.

5: Hoffmann’s love song *** (the choral aid brings it to this level). He believes Giulietta loves him but she is only under orders from a certain bass-baritone Captain Dapertutto, who is after his shadow/soul for some never fully disclosed reason.

9, 11: Hoffmann meets the courtesan Giulietta (the soprano from the Barcarolle) ** prompting Darperutto’s Diamond Aria * (also an addition to the score, apparently based on a theme from a overture by Offenbach for a completely different opera)

14, 18: The exchanges between Hoffmann and Giulietta turn into a high drama duet, particularly Hoffmann’s semi-set piece *** resulting in Hoffmann giving her his reflection and she goes off like a psychotic rocket in a duet ***.

22: The arrival of the rejected suitor Schlemil prompts a glorious ensemble ***.

25: A rather stupid duel is fought over a reprisal of the Barcarolle **. One of two conclusions happen, either Giulietta drinks a poison meant for Nickalausse (given to her by Daperutto who wants to keep him from warning Hoffmann) or Giulietta deserts Hoffmann (who kills Schlemil in the duel due to Daperutto’s magic) by taking off in a gondola with a dwarf named Pittichinaccio (I’m not making this up!).

ACT 4: The House of Crespel in Munich. (45 minutes)

0, 5, 8: The entr’acte is full of doom *, followed by an aria for Antonia *** about doves flying away, followed in turn by a brief recitative with her father Crespel ** who warns his servant Frantz to watch Antonia and keep her from Hoffmann, prompting him into a comic aria ** in which his voice fails him so easily.

13: Hoffmann arrives, prompting Antonia into full on prima donna mode and the Hoffmann-Antonia duet ***. It does break down in the middle (turning to just a harp accompaniment which takes a while to sustain itself on a singular melody), but it begins and ends splendidly.

20, 24, 27: The arrival of Doctor Miracle (the bass-baritone nemesis again, what did you think it was Crespel?) **. After much meandering we get a trio as Hoffmann overhears from Miracle and Crespel that singing will cause Antonia to die ** and then another ensemble ** (starting with a low string barkingtheme).

30, 33, 38, 42: The last fifteen minutes contain a series of predictable elements: First, Hoffmann warns Antonia to give up her musical career ambitions *. Second, Miracle gets to her * but doesn’t succeed in convincing her to his death-by-music scheme until he uses magic to cause her dead mezzo-soprano mum to rise from the dead and tell her to sing **  in a glorious duet with her. Third, all this excitement prompts Antonia to succumb to her illness ** and she dies in her father’s arms. Crespel is under the impression that Hoffmann has prompted her to sing and tries to kill him (again Nicklausse intercedes).

ACT 5: Same as Act 1. (9 minutes)

4, 6: The epilogue is comparatively a bit of a let down, starting with an inconsequentially solemn entr’acte (emphasizing horn and flute). Hoffmann is drunk by this point and explains (somehow) that the three women in the stories are all aspects of the personality of one woman: the prima donna Stella. The chorus gets very excited * and Nichlausse reveals to Hoffmann that he/she is La Muse (explaining in yet another monologue) and reclaims Hoffmann from all women save herself. Hoffmann appears to be content with this ** although the entire situation could be seen as a female on male date-rape (including the Sylvia Scarlett routine La Muse as been pulling the entire time). Stella arrives, is told off by Nichalausse to go with Lindorf and the chorus cheerfully parties on.

COMMENTS:

In spite of my glowing star-ratings for the Giulietta Act, the Antonia Act is the best. This is  a comic opera, ultimately, so the fact that none of the four stories really make any logical sense shouldn’t matter (although they do have deep psychological meanings, apparently). I actually least liked the Giulietta Act in terms of the story, although I gave it the most musical praise. The Antonia Act is the more interesting story, as well as the only story that can really be seen as sad. Another problem is that most of the recitatives (which are frankly incredibly boring) were not written by Offenbach (seeing as he had been dead for a year before the first performance). Most of the spoken dialogue (except for the passages for La Muse) was apparently set to music by someone else and this lengthens the opera by close to half and hour. The Olympia Act is just harmless fun, except maybe to wind-up dolls who will probably see it as their equivalent of a nuclear holocaust or the Morloch Scene of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The framing device (intermission during a performance of Don Giovanni) is both effective and a little disturbing. I don’t love this work, but I do like it and I can recognize its wide cultural impact (particularly the soprano arias), but something about it causes me to ultimately find it a little uninteresting, possibly the fact that the title character is dramatically such a loser, maybe the fact that we are never sure if La Muse and Lindorf are working together or that they happen to be floating around Hoffmann at the same time is just a coincidence. An alpha, just the same.

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36 thoughts on “Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881)

    1. Yeah, the surreal element might be why I’m not so into it. I tend to find it unappealing. The score is very beautiful and certain pieces are famous even outside the music world. Beverly Sills is, for me, the greatest coloratura soprano ever (even Dessay who comes close does not eclipse her) so I knew I couldn’t hate the experience (this was actually my first time hearing an Offenbach work from beginning to end). Sills’ Maria Stuarda spoiled me for any other interpretation, especially the crude attempts at giving the title role to a mezzo.

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    1. But Offenbach’s wonderful – one of the best tune writers, clever, and funny. If you like Meyerbeer, you’ll like Offenbach too. You’ve got a treat, then: hearing Orphee aux enfers, Belle Helene, Grande duchesse de Gerolstein, Perichole, Vie parisienne, Brigands, Bataclan, and M Choufleuri for the first time! And that’s just for starters.

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    1. Dude. You should be interested in Offenbach. His scores are full of *** (oh, and also good music). He’s also one of the few opera composers who’s actually fun.

      This is your homework:

      No, I’m not watching Die Feen, unless there’s a video. Just listening to an opera is like trying to judge a movie by reading the shooting script.

      I make exceptions for Meyerbeer, Offenbach, maybe Rameau and Massenet.

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    1. What! NO! Okay maybe you could cut the Handel down, I would never review all of Handel because I’m not interested in killing myself (I have a bad relationship with Giulio Cesare, but I’m told Rodelinda is good by someone who loves Handel). From there I would probably just pick one from: Alcina, Serse, Semele, Ariodante, Orlando, Theodora, Rinaldo, and be done with it. Also I’m already working on La belle Helene, a live performance. I’m a half hour in and I’m not enthralled. Les Brigands was actually third or fourth in line for me regarding Offenbach. Thank you for not giving me Orphee!

      Most of the time I have to “just listen” to an opera.

      Meanwhile here is something for you!:
      http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEF8AECA3EB90E9DD

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      1. I’ll reply more fully later. Which recording of Helene are you listening to? The best is the Minkowski, with Lott.

        We’re in the middle of a heat wave – 28 degrees inside overnight, even with a fan on – so something less heavy than Wagner is called for!

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      2. I’m watching the Minkowski with Lott! I don’t understand it at all and I only like two of the arias (I am, however, only 30 minutes in, because I decided to review a 3 hour long Wagner opera instead). I will get to the rest at some point for sure and I might end up liking it in the end.

        Meanwhile, if you aren’t going to review Die Feen now, you could at least comment on my review! 🙂

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      3. Ah, in this case, listening to that production is better than watching it. It’s a modern Regie concept production.

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      4. Adamo’s Little Women is in English if I remember correctly because he is an Italian American. The Albeniz operas Merlin and Pepita Jimenez are also in English so I am not sure why you dropped them (I reviewed Merlin for goodness sakes!) Blow’s Venus and Adonis is also in English. Appolloni’s L’Ebreo might be interesting. I did Na uranku, but it isn’t that interesting. The three Birtwhistle operas are all in English. You could do Bona’s Don Carlo and Burch’s Die Loreley but I already did them. Busoni’s operas are interesting.

        Erkel’s Bank Ban and Hunyadi Laszlo are classics of Hungarian opera, I’m surprised I haven’t reviewed them both yet because I’ve heard both and they are “must sees”. You slightly mislabeled Brankovics Gyorgy under “Ferenc” which is Erkel’s first name. The first opera I ever did for Phil’s Opera World was Brankovics Gyorgy so I wouldn’t tell you not to do that one.

        Fibich’s Bride of Messina would be interesting, but I’ve only hear bits of it.
        Foerster would be interesting for me to read as it is Slovenian. Giuranna’s Meyerling, I did that one do, I would suggest it be on your list. Gotovac is THE Croatian composer apart from Zajc. Wuthering Heights would be an interesting choice, also the Gurlitt Wozzeck as a comparison to Berg’s. Kalman was sort of the Hungarian Offenbach, just saying, and you must do Brundibar! I’m surprised I haven’t yet. I would suggest the Lisinski and Lysenko operas as well. Manru (Paderewski) would be interesting. You must do Parma’s Ksenija, it is the most performed opera in Slovenia, Melania would punish you otherwise. I am actually shocked that you would drop Ksenija after my glowing review of it! And it isn’t even 45 minutes!

        Pugnani’s Werther I have heard of, if you can find a recording I would do it. I have Respighi’s La fiamma in the works. Kullervo might be good. Smareglia’s La falena might be okay (I did it) and maybe Nozze istriane or Oceana. The Susa opera Danerous Liaisons sounds interesting (I’m guessing John Philip?) Taneyev’s Orestia I actually got a half hour into before I set it aside, but I would do it. Also Nikola Subic Zrinjski (the one Zajc opera on the list).

        The rest I would probably add to “the fallen”, although I would do one Vivaldi (random choice).

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      5. Thanks for the suggestions! Can I find translations in a language I understand? English language isn’t the only factor for removing them, though; some of these are *very* obscure.

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      6. I haven’t heard it for – when was the Dessay / Florez Met production? It’s fun, I remember, and has that catchy “Tous les trois réunis”number.

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      7. I’ve just put up Massenet’s Jongleur. Yes, it’s a straight lift from my Massenet article – but I don’t think it can be improved.

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    2. I’m just a little sad because I’m the one who reminded you to add Die Feen to your list in the first place (read the comments for your post of Cagnoni’s Re Lear). I personally think it is on par with Puccini’s La Rondine in terms of greatness (Forman said Die Feen was “something between a beta and a gamma”), but the music is nice to have on when you are doing something else, especially the overture. Like your darling Das Liebesverbot, it is probably the last Wagner opera to “suck you in”.

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