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LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN
(The Tales of Hoffmann)

by Jacques Offenbach
(1819-1880)

Libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier

Based on tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann

The Cast

Hoffmann 1881

Adèle Isaac as Olympia and Jean-Alexandre Talazac as Hoffmann
in the original 1881 production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann,
at the Opéra-Comique, Paris.

(in order of vocal appearance)

The Muse/Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s poetic muse, disguised as his friendMezzo-Soprano
Councillor LindorfBass
Andrès, Stella’s servantTenor
Luther, a tavern-keeperBass
Nathanaël, a studentTenor
Herrmann, a studentBass
Hoffmann, a poetTenor
Spalanzani, an inventorTenor
Cochenille, his servantTenor
Coppélius, an evil scientistBass
Olympia, a life-sized dollSoprano
Giulietta, a Venetian courtesanSoprano
Schlémil, her loverBass
Pittichinaccio, a dwarfTenor
Dapertutto, an evil magicianBass
Antonia, a young singerSoprano
Crespel, her fatherBass
Frantz, his servantTenor
Dr. Miracle, a charlatanBass
Voice of Antonia’s MotherSoprano
Stella, a divaSoprano

Party guests, servants, dancers, entertainers.

The Story

The Tales of Hoffmann is set in Germany and Italy in the early 19th Century.
Note: In performance, the second and third acts are sometimes switched.

Prologue

Luther’s Tavern, Nuremberg

The Spirits of Wine and Beer begin their revels. The Muse of the poet Hoffmann declares that Hoffmann must choose between her and his love for Stella, an opera singer. The Muse will assume the appearance of Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, to watch him. Councillor Lindorf appears and bribes Andrès, Stella’s servant, to intercept a note she has written to Hoffmann, which contains the key to her dressing room. Students fill the tavern, along with Nicklausse and Hoffmann, who is troubled. The students urge him to drink and sing. He regales them with the ballad of the dwarf Kleinzach, but is distracted by memories of love. Lindorf and Hoffmann exchange insults, and Hoffmann is left with a sense of foreboding. When the students tease him about his infatuation with Stella, he tells the story of his three past loves.

Act I

Spalanzani’s house

The inventor Spalanzani is preparing for a party. He admires what appears to be a girl behind a curtain in his parlor, and hopes that she will help him recoup his investment losses. His only fear is that his rival Coppélius will try to extort money from him by claiming paternity. Hoffmann arrives, and Spalanzani sings the praises of his daughter Olympia. Spalanzani leaves, and Hoffmann finds Olympia, whom he has seen briefly before, and who appears to be asleep. He is already deeply in love with her. Nicklausse appears and teasingly sings him a song about a living doll. Coppélius arrives and sells Hoffmann a pair of magic eyeglasses that will allow Hoffmann to see into a person’s soul. Now Olympia appears even lovelier to him. Spalanzani and Coppélius argue over Olympia’s value. Spalanzani gives Coppélius a bad check. The other guests arrive, and Spalanzani introduces Olympia — a life-sized mechanical doll. She performs a brilliant aria. Although she has to be rewound several times, Hoffmann remains infatuated. When he touches her, she whirls out of the room. Nicklausse tries to tell him that she isn’t human, but Hoffmann won’t listen. Coppélius returns, enraged that Spalanzani’s check has bounced. A waltz begins, and Hoffmann and Olympia dance faster and faster until Hoffmann falls and breaks the magic glasses. Coppélius takes his revenge by smashing Olympia. Hoffmann, horrified, at last sees that she was only a doll. (Based on Hoffmann’s tale “Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”).)

Act II

Giulietta’s palazzo on the Grand Canal, Venice

Nicklausse and the courtesan Giulietta sing a romantic barcarolle. Hoffmann then sings a cynical ditty about carnal pleasures. Giulietta’s lover Schlémil watches Hoffmann jealously. Nicklausse warns Hoffmann not to fall in love with Giulietta. Hoffmann replies that if he should fall in love with her, the devil can take his soul. Dapertutto, overhearing them, bribes Giulietta with a diamond to steal Hoffmann’s reflection, just as she already has stolen Schlémil’s shadow. She seduces Hoffmann, who falls in love instantly and agrees to give her his reflection. Schlémil interrupts them, accusing Giulietta of infidelity. When Dapertutto remarks on how pale Hoffmann is, Hoffmann looks in a mirror and is horrified to find that he has no reflection. But he is trapped by his infatuation. He demands that Schlémil give him the key to Giulietta’s room. Schlémil refuses, and Hoffmann kills him in a duel with a sword provided by Dapertutto. Hoffmann then rushes off to find Giulietta, only to discover her sailing away in a gondola with Pittichinaccio. Nicklausse drags Hoffmann away. (Based on Hoffmann’s tale “Die Geschichte vom verlornen Spiegelbilde” (“The Lost Reflection”).)

Act III

Crespel’s house, Munich

Crespel’s daughter Antonia sings a sad love song. Crespel begs her to give up singing, because it will make her ill; but Antonia is inspired by the memory of her late mother’s beautiful voice and cannot help but sing. Crespel blames Hoffmann for Antonia’s desire to sing; he had brought her to Munich to get her away from the poet. Crespel instructs his hard-of-hearing servant, Frantz, not to let anyone in the house while he is gone. Left alone, Frantz tries, and fails, to sing and dance. Hoffmann arrives with Nicklausse, who tries to persuade the poet to devote himself entirely to poetry. But Hoffmann ignores him and declares his love to Antonia. They sing a duet until Antonia nearly faints. Crespel arrives; Antonia flees the room and Hoffmann hides. Crespel is dismayed by the arrival of Dr. Miracle, who treated Crespel’s wife before she died and who Crespel believes will kill his child as well. Despite the girl’s absence, Dr. Miracle claims that her pulse is irregular. When he commands her to sing, her voice is heard. Dr. Miracle claims that he can save the girl, but Crespel throws him out. When Antonia returns, Hoffmann begs her not to sing. She reluctantly agrees, and he leaves, promising to return the next day. Dr. Miracle reappears, tempting Antonia with the prospect of becoming a famous singer. The girl calls upon her mother’s portrait to help her resist the temptation. Dr. Miracle magically brings the portrait to life; the portrait urges Antonia to sing with her. As Dr. Miracle wildly accompanies her on the violin, Antonia sings until she collapses. She dies in her grieving father’s arms. Hoffmann rushes in. Crespel threatens to kill him, but Nicklausse intercedes. When Hoffmann calls for a doctor, Dr. Miracle reappears and pronounces Antonia dead. Crespel and Hoffmann despairingly cry out to her. (Based on Hoffmann’s tale “Rat Krespel” (“Councillor Krespel”).)

Epilogue

Luther’s Tavern

Back at Luther’s Tavern, applause for Stella’s performance is heard in the distance, and Lindorf swears to make her his. Nicklausse realizes that the woman in each story represents a different aspect of Stella. He proposes a toast to Stella, which at first enrages Hoffmann; but the poet decides to just get drunk and forget. Hoffmann’s Muse magically appears, and Hoffmann declares his love for her. He falls into a drunken stupor just as Stella enters. Nicklausse tells Stella that Lindorf is waiting for her as the students continue their revels.

© 2011 Linda Cantoni