Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
#7: The Tales of Hoffmann
Who wrote it?
Les contes d’Hoffmann is an opéra fantastique by Jacques Offenbach, and it is probably his most durable and most-loved work.
The work is loosely based on three stories of the German poet and thinker E. T. A. Hoffmann, all written in the early 1800s. The libretto was written by Jules Barbier and is a skilful and witty framework. The opera had its first performance, albeit in a truncated form, at the Opéra Comique in 1881, shortly after the death of the composer who had left a more or less complete piano score but only parts of the work orchestrated.
The work as heard today is largely in the version completed by Ernest Guirard. The uncertainty over Offenbach’s final intentions means there is no definitive performing version – the three central Acts are often performed in differing orders according to the whims of directors and conductors.
What is certain is that the opera is a vivid experience within the theatre and offers wonderful opportunities for the singers. The work has a comic side, but the fantasy is often dark and full-blooded – and truly operatic.
What’s it all about?
The story revolves around the poet Hoffmann, suffering from alcoholism following three unhappy affairs with and perhaps having lost his muse. We first meet him in the ‘Prologue’ in a tavern adjoining an opera house where his latest paramour, the operatic diva Stella (a speaking role) is singing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Also present is the wealthy councillor Lindorf, who also wishes an assignation with the singer. Hoffmann’s fellow students crowd the tavern and persuade the poet to sing a song and entertain them, despite the protests of Hoffmann’s young companion Nicklausse. He sings a comic song about a dwarf Kleinzach, but goes into a reverie and is then persuaded to tell of his three loves – Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta.
Act One relates the story of Hoffmann’s encounter with Olympia, the “daughter” of inventor Spalanzani. She is an automaton, and Spalanzani has had to enlist the assistance of rival inventor Coppelius to provide her with realistic and working eyes. Spalanzani intends to defraud his rival, giving him a worthless cheque as payment. Coppelius has also provided Hoffmann with some special spectacles that allow him to visualise the robot as real. At a grand party Olympia amuses her father’s guests by singing a virtuosic aria. Hoffmann is smitten. They dance. Coppelius wreaks a horrible revenge and Hoffmann’s folly is revealed.
Recovering from that episode Hoffmann is found pursuing two other women. One is Antonia, the ailing and fragile daughter of Dr Crespel. Her mother, now deceased, was a famous opera singer. Antonia is in the care of Dr Miracle, a somewhat malevolent medic who certainly gives his profession a bad name. Crespel prevents his daughter from singing believing it harms her, and is not best pleased with Hoffmann who frequently tries to woo her. She expires in Hoffmann’s arms.
The third lady is the avaricious Venetian courtesan Giulietta, hopelessly in thrall to the evil magician Dappertutto – who “steals” the spirits and shadows of vulnerable young men such as Giulietta’s current beau Schlemil. He enlists Giulietta’s help to steal Hoffmann’s reflection, and gives her a huge diamond as payment. Hoffmann fails for Giulietta’s charms, but they are interrupted by Schlemil who challenges Hoffman to a duel. Hoffman is victorious but finds to his horror that his reflection has gone, as has Giulietta…
In the ‘Epilogue’ the now-drunken poet is back in the tavern surrounded by his exhausted but enchanted audience. Stella arrives to meet him. Drunkenly he associates Lindorf with Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dappertutto as incarnations of the same malevolent spirit that haunts him and Stella as the latest representative of his ill-fated lovers. She leaves on Lindorf’s arm, the adoring crowd following her. Left alone with Hoffmann, Nicklausse is revealed as Hoffmann’s muse and encourages him to write…
Look out for…
Offenbach’s music is splendid and regularly excerpted. Hoffmann is sung by a romantic/heroic tenor and has many opportunities to shine.
Each of the three ladies has a moment in the spotlight. Occasionally the three roles are sung by the same soprano, although as three separate types of voices are required – coloratura, voluptuous mezzo and lirico-dramatic soprano – this is not always ideal.
Likewise the extrovert roles of Lindorf, Coppelius, Dappertutto and Dr Miracle are often assigned to the same bass-baritone – each character having a showcase aria. The most famous extract is the ‘Barcarolle’ from the Venetian Act which is sung by Giulietta and Nicklausse. The extended trio between Antonia, the spirit of Antonia’s mother and Dr Miracle is a thrilling moment if the voices are right.
Who’s in it?
Bartlett Sher’s production is conducted by French-opera specialist Yves Abel, so the performance should be authentic! The title role is sung by rising superstar Vittorio Grigolo, a fine singer and actor – the part should suit his extrovert qualities. The four villains are sung by Thomas Hampson – again his theatrical qualities are never in doubt. Erin Morley should dazzle as Olympia when fully charged (!), and Hibla Gerzmava has all the requisite vocal qualities for Antonia. Christine Rice will sing the voluptuous Giulietta.
When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself, starting at midday, otherwise it is internationally cinematic on Saturday January 31.