The Tales of Hoffman
(Les Contes d'Hoffmann)
by Jacques Offenbach
Paris Opera, Paris France
First Performance: February 10, 1881, Opéra Comique, Paris
Jacques Offenbach's opera is taken from German Romantic author
E.T.A. Hoffman's stories, integrating three of them into a
multi-layered larger story that combines romance, villainy and mysticism.
In the opera Hoffmann is a bohemian poet who is ever seeking true love.
His poetic muse tries to protect him and
guide him to develop his considerable genius,
but Hoffmann's tender love affairs continue to plunge him into romantic
It is early evening in Hoffmann's favorite tavern, and guests are expected.
First to arrive is his poetic muse. Knowing
the dangers to Hoffmann,
his muse calls on the spirits for help, then departs to assume the disguise
of Hoffmann's friend, Nicklausse.
Hoffmann is madly in love with Stella, an opera diva performing in
Don Giovanni at a nearby opera house. She has sent a message asking him
to meet her in the tavern where he entertains drinking buddies with his
The evil Councilor Lindorf bribes Stella's servant to intercept the message.
He reads the message and schemes to once again ruin a romance of Hoffmann's
and make it his own.
Hoffmann and his friend, Nicklausse (his muse) appear at the tavern
where a crowd of noisy students urge him to drink and sing.
Enjoying the comradery, he begins singing the ballad of a grotesque dwarf,
then drifts into memories of past loves. From the edge of the crowd,
Lindorf exchanges insults with Hoffmann, altering the pleasant
Nicklausse interrupts the exchanges. When the students tease him about
his romance with Stella, Hoffmann avoids answering them by telling
the sad tales of three bygone loves as follows:
Inventor Spalanzani has invited guests to a party to celebrate
his newest creation, a mechanical doll whom he has named Olympia.
He hopes to use it to restore his money lost in a bank collapse.
Hoffmann arrives at the party, sees Olympia, and falls in love with her.
While the inventor and some of his guests haggle over money,
Olympia sings a beautiful aria. Hoffmann is enchanted.
The others go to dinner, leaving Hoffman and Olympia together.
Hoffmann kisses her. She begins whirling and whirls out of the room.
Nicklausse observes that she might not be alive, but the infatuated poet
refuses to listen. Guests return from dinner and begin to waltz.
Hoffmann and Olympia join them and whirl faster and faster
until Hoffmann falls. A guest, feeling vengeful over losing money in
grabs Olympia and tears her apart.
Sitting at the harpsichord, Antonia is singing a sad love song.
Her father, Crespel, urges her to give up singing because of her fragile
He also wants her romance with Hoffman ended. He prepares to leave,
telling Frantz, his hard-of-hearing servant to allow no one to enter the
Frantz entertains himself and Antonia by singing and dancing.
Soon Hoffmann and Nicklausse arrive.
Nicklausse reminds Hoffman of his romantic misfortunes and suggests
that Hoffmann focus on his art. Hoffmann is too enamored with Antonia
to be persuaded, and declares his devotion to her. He asks her to sing.
Together they sing a love duet, totally exhausting the weakening Antonia.
Her father returns home and is alarmed when Dr. Miracle appears.
Implicated in the death of Antonia's mother, the doctor is now asking
about the health of Antonia. Her father, knowing Dr. Miracle to be less
he claims to be, forces him out of the house. Hoffmann is also alarmed
Antonia's reluctant promise not to sing. Receiving it, he leaves the
Dr. Miracle reappears, telling Antonia of the fame she can have as a singer.
Antonia appeals to the portrait of her mother, who had been a famous singer,
to help her ignore the persuasive Dr. Miracle. The wily doctor conjures
her mother's portrait to come to life, and tells Antonia that her
is speaking through him and challenging Antonia to equal her fame.
Dr. Miracle plays his violin wildly and Antonia sings with more and more
animation until she falls from exhaustion.
Hoffmann, rushing in, finding his beloved Antonia dead.
In a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere in a Venetian palace, Nicklausse is
by lady of the court Giulietta in a barcarole (a gondola rowing song).
The mood changes, however, when her lover, Schlemil, scornfully speaks
of her affection for Hoffmann. Hoffmann then comments on
pleasures of the flesh.
Giulietta, tired of negative banter, suggests that they go
to the gaming tables. Nicklausse quietly warns Hoffmann not to become
romantically involved with Giulietta. Hoffmann chuckles that he is
not interested in her, adding that if he should be so foolish
the devil could have his soul.
Dappertutto is Giulietta's master, using her to steal men's souls.
He overhears the comment and schemes to bribe Giulietta to steal
Hoffmann's reflection. Having already stolen Shlemil's shadow,
Giulietta accepts Dappertutto's bribe and sets about to seduce Hoffmann.
He succumbs immediately to her charm and they sing a passionate duet.
As they sing, she steals his reflection.
When Schlemil returns he accuses Giulietta of being in love with Hoffmann.
Dappertutto observes Hoffmann's paleness and comments on it.
Hoffman looks in a mirror and discovers that he has lost his reflection.
Nevertheless, he is still in love with Giulietta.
Guests are leaving. Schlemil refuses Hoffmann's demand for the key
to Giulietta's room. Enraged, Hoffmann challenges him to a duel and kills
with the sword given to him by Dappertutto. Taking the key from Schlemil's
he rushes to Guilietta's room and finds that she is not there.
He returns to see her leaving the palace with the dwarf Pitichinaccio.
She embraces the dwarf.
The despondent Hoffmann has finished his tales and wishes
only to continue drinking to drown his sorrows.
Nicklausse observes that a different aspect of Stella
is in each of the women Hoffmann has revealed in his tales.
Stella arrives at the tavern after finishing her operatic performance
and finds Hoffman drunk.
As Stella prepares to leave with the triumphant Lindorf,
Hoffmann offers them one last verse of "Kleinzach," then he collapses.
When all have gone, only his muse remains. He is hers at last.