The Tales of Hoffmann

This article is about Offenbach's opera. For Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1951 film of the opera, see The Tales of Hoffmann (film).
Les contes d'Hoffmann
Opera by Jacques Offenbach

Scenes from the Paris premiere
Description opéra fantastique
Translation The Tales of Hoffmann
Librettist Jules Barbier
Language French
Based on three short stories
by E. T. A. Hoffmann
Premiere 10 February 1881 (1881-02-10)
Opéra-Comique, Paris

The Tales of Hoffmann (French: Les contes d'Hoffmann) is an opéra fantastique by Jacques Offenbach. The French libretto was written by Jules Barbier, based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann is the protagonist in the opera.

Composition history and sources

Barbier and Michel Carré had previously written a play, Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann, which was produced at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1851, and which Offenbach had seen.[1] After returning from America in 1876 he learned that Barbier had adapted the play and it was being set to music by Hector Salomon at the Opéra. Salomon handed the project to Offenbach. Work proceeded slowly interrupted by the composition of more profitable lighter works. Offenbach himself had a premonition that like Antonia he would die prior to its completion.[2][3]

He continued working on the opera throughout 1880, attending some rehearsals, but died on 5 October with the manuscript in his hand four months before the opening. Shortly before he died he had written to Léon Carvalho: "Hâtez-vous de monter mon opéra. Il ne me reste plus longtemps à vivre et mon seul désir est d'assister à la première" (Hurry up and stage my opera. I have not much time left and my only wish is to attend the opening night).[3]

The stories used in the opera were:

Performance history

The death of Antonia (act 2) in the original 1881 production. In front: Adèle Isaac; in back (left to right): Hippolyte Belhomme, Marguerite Ugalde, Pierre Grivot, Émile-Alexandre Taskin, Jean-Alexandre Talazac.

The opera was first performed in a public venue, at the Opéra-Comique on 10 February 1881, without the third (Venice) act.[8] It had been presented in an abridged form at Offenbach's house, 8 Boulevard des Capucines, on 18 May 1879, with Madame Franck-Duvernoy in the soprano roles, Auguez as Hoffmann (baritone) and Émile-Alexandre Taskin in the four villain roles, with Edmond Duvernoy at the piano and a chorus directed by Albert Vizentini. Besides Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, the director of the Ringtheater in Vienna, Franz von Jauner, was also present. Both men requested the rights, but Offenbach granted them to Carvalho.[3]

A four-act version with recitatives was staged at the Ringtheater on 7 December 1881, conducted by Joseph Hellmesberger Jr.,[9] although a gas explosion and fire occurred at the theatre after the second performance.[10]

The opera reached its hundredth performance at the Salle Favart on the 15 December 1881.[8] The fire at the Opéra-Comique in 1887 destroyed the orchestral parts,[10] and it was not seen again in Paris until 1893, at the Salle de la Renaissance du Théâtre-Lyrique, when it received 20 performances.[11] A new production by Albert Carré (including the Venice act) was mounted at the Opéra-Comique in 1911, with Léon Beyle in the title role and Albert Wolff conducting. This production remained in the repertoire until World War II, receiving 700 performances.[8] Following a recording by Opéra-Comique forces in March 1948, Louis Musy created the first post-war production in Paris, conducted by André Cluytens.[8] The Paris Opera first staged the work in October 1974, directed by Patrice Chéreau with Nicolai Gedda in the title role.[12]

Outside France, the piece was mounted in Geneva, Budapest, Hamburg, New York, and Mexico in 1882, Vienna (Theater an der Wien), Prague, and Antwerp in 1883, and Lvov and Berlin in 1884. Later local premieres included Buenos Aires in 1894, St Petersburg in 1899, Barcelona in 1905, and London in 1910.[12]


Role Voice type[13] Premiere cast,
10 February 1881
(Conductor: Jules Danbé)
Hoffmann, a poet tenor Jean-Alexandre Talazac
Olympia, a mechanical doll soprano Adèle Isaac
Antonia, a young girl soprano Adèle Isaac
Giulietta, a courtesan soprano
Stella, a singer soprano
Lindorf bass-baritone Émile-Alexandre Taskin
Coppélius bass-baritone Émile-Alexandre Taskin
Miracle bass-baritone Émile-Alexandre Taskin
Dapertutto bass-baritone
Andrès tenor Pierre Grivot
Cochenille tenor Pierre Grivot
Frantz tenor Pierre Grivot
Pitichinaccio tenor
Crespel, Antonia's father bass Hippolyte Belhomme
Hermann, a student bass Teste
Wolfram, a student bass Piccaluga
Wilhelm, a student bass Collin
Luther bass Troy
Nathanaël, a student tenor Chennevières
Nicklausse mezzo-soprano Marguerite Ugalde
The muse mezzo-soprano Mole-Truffier
Peter Schlémil, in love with Giulietta tenor
Spalanzani, an inventor tenor E. Gourdon
Voice of the mother of Antonia mezzo-soprano Dupuis
Students, Guests



Prologue (or epilogue), in the 1881 première

A tavern in Nuremberg. The Muse appears and reveals to the audience that her purpose is to draw Hoffmann's attention to herself, and to make him abjure all other loves, so he can be devoted fully to her: poetry. She takes the appearance of Hoffmann's closest friend, Nicklausse. The prima donna Stella, currently performing Mozart's Don Giovanni, sends a letter to Hoffmann, requesting a meeting in her dressing room after the performance. The letter and the key to the room are intercepted by Councillor Lindorf ("Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux" – In the languid lovers' roles), who is the first of the opera's incarnations of evil, Hoffmann's nemesis. Lindorf intends to replace Hoffmann at the rendezvous. In the tavern students wait for Hoffmann. He finally arrives and entertains them with the legend of Zaches the dwarf ("Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach" – Once upon a time at the court of Eisenach). Lindorf coaxes Hoffmann into telling the audience about his life's three great loves.

Act 1 (Olympia)

The Olympia act, as staged at the 1881 première

This act is based on a portion of "Der Sandmann" (The Sandman).

Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, an automaton created by the scientist Spalanzani. Hoffmann falls in love with her, not knowing that Olympia is a mechanical doll ("Allons! Courage et confiance...Ah! vivre deux!" – Come on! Courage and confidence ... Ah! to live!). To warn Hoffmann, Nicklausse, who knows the truth about Olympia, sings a story of a mechanical doll who looked like a human, but Hoffmann ignores him ("Une poupée aux yeux d'émail" – A doll with enamel eyes). Coppélius, Olympia's co-creator and this act's incarnation of Nemesis, sells Hoffmann magic glasses that make Olympia appear as a real woman ("J'ai des yeux" – I have eyes).

Olympia sings one of the opera's most famous arias, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" (The birds in the arbor, nicknamed "The Doll Song"), during which she periodically runs down and needs to be wound up before she can continue. Hoffmann is tricked into believing that his affections are returned, to the bemusement of Nicklausse, who subtly tries to warn his friend ("Voyez-la sous son éventail" – See her under her fan). While dancing with Olympia, Hoffmann falls on the ground and his glasses break. At the same time, Coppélius appears and tears Olympia apart to retaliate against Spalanzani, who tricked him out of his fees. With the crowd laughing at him, Hoffmann realizes that he was in love with an automaton.

Act 2 (Antonia)

Antonia and Dr. Miracle, 1881

This act is based on "Rath Krespel".

After a long search, Hoffmann finds the house where Crespel and his daughter Antonia are hiding. Hoffmann and Antonia loved each other, but were separated when Crespel decided to hide his daughter from Hoffmann. Antonia has inherited her mother's talent for singing, but her father forbids her to sing because of the mysterious illness from which she suffers. Antonia wishes that her lover would return to her ("Elle a fui, la tourterelle - She fled, the dove"). Her father also forbids her to see Hoffmann, who encourages Antonia in her musical career, and therefore endangers her without knowing it. Crespel tells Frantz, his servant, to stay with his daughter, and when Crespel leaves, Frantz sings "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre - Day and night I quarter my mind."

When Crespel leaves his house, Hoffmann takes advantage of the occasion to sneak in, and the lovers are reunited (love duet: "C'est une chanson d'amour - It's a love song"). When Crespel returns, he receives a visit from Dr Miracle, the act's Nemesis, who forces Crespel to let him heal Antonia. Still in the house, Hoffmann listens to the conversation and learns that Antonia may die if she sings too much. He returns to her room and makes her promise to give up her artistic dreams. Antonia reluctantly accepts her lover's will. Once she is alone, Dr Miracle enters Antonia's room and tries to persuade her to sing and follow her mother's path to glory, stating that Hoffmann is sacrificing her to his brutishness and loves her only for her beauty. With mystic powers, he raises a vision of Antonia's dead mother and induces Antonia to sing, causing her death. Crespel arrives just in time to witness his daughter's last breath. Hoffmann enters the room and Crespel wants to kill him, thinking that he is responsible for his daughter's death. Nicklausse saves his friend from the old man's vengeance.

Act 3 (Giulietta)

Giuletta act, 1881

This act is very loosely based on Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht (A New Year's Eve Adventure).

Venice. The act opens with the barcarolle "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour - Beautiful night, oh night of love". Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta and thinks she returns his affections ("Amis, l'amour tendre et rêveur - Friends, tender and dreamy love"). Giulietta is not in love with Hoffmann but only seducing him under the orders of Captain Dapertutto, who has promised to give her a diamond if she steals Hoffmann's reflection from a mirror ("Scintille, diamant - Sparkles, diamond"). The jealous Schlemil (cf. Peter Schlemihl for a literary antecedent), a previous victim of Giulietta and Dapertutto (he gave Giulietta his shadow), challenges the poet to a duel, but is killed. Nicklausse wants to take Hoffmann away from Venice and goes looking for horses. Meanwhile, Hoffmann meets Giulietta and cannot resist her ("O Dieu! de quelle ivresse - O God! of what intoxication"): he gives her his reflection, only to be abandoned by the courtesan, to Dapertutto's great pleasure. Hoffmann tells Dapertutto that his friend Nicklausse will come and save him. Dapertutto prepares a poison to get rid of Nicklausse, but Giulietta drinks it by mistake and drops dead in the poet's arms.


The tavern in Nuremberg. Hoffmann, drunk, swears he will never love again, and explains that Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are three facets of the same person, Stella. They represent, respectively, the young girl's, the musician's, and the courtesan's side of the prima donna. When Hoffmann says he doesn't want to love any more, Nicklausse reveals himself as the Muse and reclaims Hoffmann: "Be reborn a poet! I love you, Hoffmann! Be mine! - Renaîtra un poète! Je t'aime, Hoffmann! Sois à moi!" The magic of poetry reaches Hoffmann as he sings "O Dieu! de quelle ivresse - O God! of what intoxication" once more, ending with "Muse whom I love, I am yours! - Muse que j'aime, je suis à toi!" At this moment, Stella, who is tired of waiting for Hoffmann to come to her rendezvous, enters the tavern and finds him drunk. The poet tells her to leave ("Farewell, I will not follow you, phantom, spectre of the past - Adieu, je ne vais pas vous suivre, fantôme, spectre du passé"), and Lindorf, who was waiting in the shadows, comes forth. Nicklausse explains to Stella that Hoffmann does not love her any more, but that Councillor Lindorf is waiting for her. Some students enter the room for more drinking, while Stella and Lindorf leave together.

Musical numbers

The aria "Chanson de Kleinzach" (Song of little Zaches) in the prologue is based on the short story "Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober" ("Little Zaches, called cinnabar"), 1819. The Barcarolle, "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" in the Venetian act, is the opera's most famous number, but was borrowed by Offenbach from his earlier opera Rheinnixen.[3]


The original E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822)

Offenbach did not live to see his opera performed. He died on 5 October 1880, four months before its premiere, but after completing the piano score and orchestrating the prologue and first act. As a result, different editions of the opera soon emerged, some bearing little resemblance to the authentic work. The version performed at the opera's premiere was by Ernest Guiraud, who completed Offenbach's scoring and wrote recitatives. Over the years new editions have continued to appear, though the emphasis, particularly since the 1970s, has shifted to authenticity. In this regard a milestone was the Michael Kaye edition of 1992, but then additional authentic music was found and published in 1999. In 2011, two competing publishing houses – one French, one German – were to release a joint edition reflecting and reconciling the research of recent decades. Here are some of the edition "variables" that have been circulating since Offenbach died:

Commonly directors choose among two arias in the Giulietta act:
"Scintille, diamant", based on a tune from the overture to Offenbach's operetta A Journey to the Moon and included by André Bloch for a Monaco production in 1908.
The Sextet (sometimes called Septet, counting the chorus as a character) of unknown origin, but containing elements of the Barcarolle.
The three acts, telling different stories from the life of Hoffmann, are independent (with the exception of a mention of Olympia in the Antonia act) and can easily be swapped without affecting the overall story. Offenbach's order was Prologue–Olympia–Antonia–Giulietta–Epilogue, but during the 20th century, the work was usually performed with Giulietta's act preceding Antonia's. Only recently has the original order been restored, and even now the practice is not universal. The general reason for the switch is that the Antonia act is more accomplished musically.
The designation of the acts is disputed. The German scholar Josef Heinzelmann, among others, favours numbering the Prologue as Act One, and the Epilogue as Act Five, with Olympia as Act Two, Antonia as Act Three, and Giulietta as Act Four.
The opera was sometimes performed (for example during the premiere at the Opéra-Comique) without the entire Giulietta act, though the famous Barcarolle from that act was inserted into the Antonia act, and Hoffmann's aria "Amis! l'Amour tendre et rêveur" was inserted into the epilogue. In 1881, when the opera was first performed in Vienna, the Giulietta act was restored, but modified so that the courtesan does not die at the end by accidental poisoning, but exits in a gondola accompanied by her servant Pitichinaccio.
Due to its opéra-comique genre, the original score contained much dialogue that has sometimes been replaced by recitative, and this lengthened the opera so much that some acts were removed (see above).
Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann's unreachable love. Similarly, the four villains (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) would be performed by the same bass-baritone, because they are all manifestations of evil. While the doubling of the four villains is quite common, most performances of the work use different singers for the loves of Hoffmann. This is because different skills are needed for each role: Olympia requires a skilled coloratura singer with stratospheric high notes, Antonia is written for a more lyric voice, and Giulietta is usually performed by a dramatic soprano or a mezzo-soprano. When all three roles (four if the role of Stella is counted) are performed by a single soprano in a performance, it is considered one of the largest challenges in the lyric-coloratura repertoire. Notable sopranos who have sung all three roles include Karan Armstrong, Vina Bovy, Edita Gruberová, Fanny Heldy, Catherine Malfitano, Anja Silja, Beverly Sills, Ruth Ann Swenson, Carol Vaness, Ninon Vallin and Virginia Zeani. All four roles have been performed by Josephine Barstow, Diana Damrau, Elizabeth Futral, Marlis Petersen,[14] Georgia Jarman,[15][16] Elena Moșuc[17] and Joan Sutherland.

A recent version including the authentic music by Offenbach has been reinstated by the French Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck. A successful performance of this version was produced at the Lausanne Opera (Switzerland). Another recent edition by Michael Kaye has been performed at the Opéra National de Lyon and the Hamburg State Opera with Elena Moșuc singing the roles of Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and Stella in the 2007 production.[18]

In early 2016 Jean-Christophe Keck announced that he had traced and identified the autograph full manuscript of the Prologue and the Olympia act, with vocal lines by Offenbach and instrumental by Guiraud. The Antonia and epilogue are in the BnF, while the Giulietta act is in the Offenbach family archives.[19]


The opera has been frequently recorded. Well-regarded recordings have included:



  1. Newman, Ernest (1954). More Opera Nights. London: Putnam. OCLC 920909.
  2. Kracauer, Siegfried (2002) [1938]. Orpheus in Paris: Offenbach and the Paris of his time. Translated by Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher. New York: Zone Books. ISBN 1-890951-30-7. OCLC 48098585.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Weaver, William (1986) [1972]. "The Man who wrote Hoffman". Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Liner notes). London: Decca Records. OCLC 15275271.
  4. "Der Sandmann" had provided the impetus for the ballet libretto of Coppélia (1870) with music by Léo Delibes.
  5. "Councillor Krespel" by E. T. A. Hoffmann, translated by Alexander Ewing
  6. "The Cremona Violin" in Weird Tales, vol. 1, 1885, translated by John Thomas Bealby
  7. Lamb, Andrew "Jacques Offenbach". In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Wolff, Stéphane (1953). Un demi-siècle d'Opéra-Comique (1900–1950) [A half-century of comic opera (1900–1950)] (in French). Paris: André Bonne. OCLC 44733987.
  9. Casaglia, Gherardo (2005).['Hoffmann "Les contes d'Hoffmann, 7 December 1881"]. Almanacco Amadeus (Italian).
  10. 1 2 Keck, Jean-Christophe. "Genèse et Légendes." In: Avant-Scène Opéra 235, Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Paris, 2006.
  11. Noël, Édouard; Stoullig, Edmond, eds. (1893). Les Annales du Théâtre et de la Musique (in French) (19th ed.). Paris: Georges Charpentier et Eugène Fasquelle.
  12. 1 2 "L'œuvre à l'affiche." In: Avant-Scène Opéra 235, Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Paris, 2006.
  13. Voice types as given in Avant-Scène Opéra 235, Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Paris, 2006, p 5.
  14. "Biography". Marlis Petersen. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  15. Jarman, Georgia. "English National Opera, Official Website". ENO. Retrieved 31 May 2012. (Video comment on performing all four heroines)
  16. Levy, Paul (February 17, 2012). "In Tales of Hoffman, All's Fair in Love". The Wall Street Journal.
  17. Basilica Opera program 1969
  18. Dibbern, Mary (2002). The Tales of Hoffmann: A Performance Guide. Vox musicae series, no. 5. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press. ISBN 9781576470336. OCLC 45223614.
  19. Coulisses: Pluie d'autographes. News item in Diapason No.645, Avril 2016, p12.
  20. Gammond, Peter (1986). The illustrated encyclopedia of opera. New York: Crescent Books. p. 143. ISBN 0-517-53840-7.
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