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.
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.
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.