Les Contes d’ Hoffmann

(Hoffmann’s Tales)

Fantastic Opera in three ants by Jacques Offenbach Text by Barbier

The first scene, a prologue, is laid in Luther’s famous wine-cellar in Nuremberg.

The hero of the opera, Hoffmann himself , is there, drinking with a number of gay young students, his friends. He is in a despondent mood, and when urged by his companions to tell them the reason of his depression he declares himself ready to relate the story of his three love adventures, while his friends sit round a bowl of flaming strong punch.

Now the scene changes and the curtain rises on the first act. We find Hoffmann in Spalanzani’s house. This man is a famous physiologist, and Hoffmann has entered his house as his pupil in order to make the acquaintance of the professor’s beautiful daughter Olympia, whom he has seen at a distance.

This daughter is nothing more than an automaton that has been manufactured by Spalanzani and his friend, the wizard Coppelius. This doll can sing, dance, and speak like a human being. Spalanzani hopes to become rich by means of this clever work of art. As half of Olympia (this is the doll’s name) belongs to Coppelius, Spalanzani buys her from him, paying him by a draft on the Jew Elias, though he knows him to be bankrupt. Hoffmann has been persuaded by Coppelius to purchase a pair of spectacles, through which he looks at Olympia, and taking her for a lovely, living maiden, falls violently in love with her.

Spalanzani now gives a grand entertainment at which he presents his daughter Olympia (the automaton), who surprises everybody by her loveliness and fine singing. Hoffmann is completely bewitched, and as soon as he finds himself alone with her he makes her an ardent declaration of love and is not at all discouraged by her setting stock still and only answering from time to time a dry little “ja ja.” At last he tries to embrace her, but as soon as he touches her she rises and trips away.

Hoffmann’s friend Niklas finds him in the seventh heaven of rapture and vainly endeavors to enlighten him as to the reason of the beauty’s stiffness and heartlessness.

When the dancing begins Hoffmann engages Olympia, and they dance on, always faster and faster, until Hoffmann sinks down in a swoon? his spectacles being broken by the fall. Olympia spins on alone as fast as ever and presently dances out of the room, Cochenille vainly trying to stop her. Coppelius now enters in a fury, having found out that Spalanzani’s draft on Elias is worthless. He rushes to the room into which Olympia has vanished, and when Hoffmann revives he hears a frightful sound of breaking and smashing, and Spalanzani bursts in with the news that Coppelius has broken his valuable automaton. Thus Hoffmann learns that he has been in love with a senseless doll. The guests, who now enter, shout with laughter at his confusion, while Spalanzani and Coppelius load each other with abuse.

The second act takes place in Giulietta’s palace in Venice. Everything breathes joy and love. Both Niklas and Hoffmann are courting the beautiful lady. Niklas warns his friend against her, but Hoffmann only laughs at the idea that he is likely to love a courtesan. The latter is entirely in the hand of the wizard Dapertutto, who acts toward Hoffmann as an evil spirit under three different names in each of his three love affairs. Giulietta has already stolen for him the shadow of her former lover Schlemihl; now Dapertutto wounds her vanity by telling her that Hoffmann has spoken disdainfully of her, and makes her promise to win the young man’s love and by that means to make him give her his reflection from a looking glass.

She succeeds easily, and there ensues a charming love duet during which they are surprised by the jealous Schlemiel. Giulietta tells Hoffmann that her former lover has the key of her apartments in his pocket, she then departs leaving the two lovers and Dapertutto alone. When Hoffmann peremptorily demands the key from Schlemihl the latter refuses to give it up. The result is a duel, for which Dapertutto offers Hoffmann his sword.

After a few passes Schlemihl is killed and Dapertutto disappears. A few moments afterward Giulietta’s gondola passes before the balcony and Hoffmann sees her leaning on Dapertutto’s arm singing a mocking farewell to the poor deserted lover.

The third act takes place in Rath Krespel’s house. His daughter Antonia has inherited her mother’s gift of a beautiful voice, but also her tendency to consumption. The greatest joy of her life is singing, which, however, her father has forbidden, knowing this exertion to be fatal to his darling.

She is engaged to be married to Hoffmann, but Krespel is averse to the marriage, seeing in it another danger for his daughter’s health, as Hoffmann is musical and encourages Antonia to sing. Krespel has forbidden his servant Franz to let anybody see Antonia while he goes out of the house, but Franz, who is very deaf, misunderstands his master’s orders and joyously welcomes his mistress’s suitor. A delicate love scene follows, during which Antonia shows her lover that her voice is as fine as ever. When they hear Krespel returning, Antonia retires to her own room, but Hoffmann hides himself in an alcove, determined to learn why Antonia is so closely hidden from the world.

Immediately after the father’s return Doctor Mirakel enters. Krespel is mortally afraid of this mysterious man, as he believes him to have killed his wife with drugs, and that now he aims at his daughter’s life.

This Mirakel is a demon who acts as in the two former instances as Hoffmann’s evil genius. From the conversation of the two men Hoffmann learns the secret of his bride’s dangerous   inheritance, and when Mirakel has at last been driven out of the room and Krespel has left it too, the lovers both come back again. Hoffmann by earnest entreaty succeeds in gaining Antonia’s promise never to sing any more. But when he has left, Mirakel returns and by invoking the spirit of her mother he goads her on to break her promise. She begins to sing and he urges her on, until she sinks back exhausted. It is thus that her father and her lover find her, and after a few sweet words of farewell she dies in their arms.

The epilogue takes us back to Luther’s cellar, where Hoffmann’s companions are still sitting over their punch, the steam of which forms clouds over their heads, while they thank their poor, heart broken friend for his three stories with ringing cheers.