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Opera Essentials: Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Our quick introduction to Tales of Hoffmann, the wonderful final work from a master of French music theatre.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

27 October 2016 at 9.02am | 4 Comments

The Story Begins…

The poet Hoffmann has fallen in love with the opera singer Stella, but their relationship is threatened both by Hoffmann’s alcohol addiction and by the strange and sinister Councillor Lindorf. In a tavern, Hoffmann tells his friends of the three loves of his life – Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia – and of the mysterious villain who resembles Lindorf and has blighted each of his love affairs. Will this love affair be any different? And will Hoffmann’s Muse convince him to put art before alcohol?

Epic Tales

John Schlesinger’s magnificent production combines styles from Hoffmann and Offenbach’s times. It reflects the epic nature of Hoffmann’s tales through rich and detailed sets (including a re-creation of a German beer cellar, and an opulent Venetian palazzo complete with gondola) and sumptuous costumes. Schlesinger explores the darker elements of Hoffmann’s character (highlighting his drunkenness and paranoia) but ultimately reveals his commitment to his art.

From the Farcical to the Sublime

Les Contes d’Hoffmann illustrates Offenbach’s versatility as a composer. There are lively choruses and quirky character numbers such as Hoffmann’s ‘Chanson de Kleinzach’, Lindorf’s roguish aria in the Prologue and Frantz’s aria in Act III; but there are also exquisite lyrical episodes, including the Barcarolle that opens Act II, and Antonia’s aria and duet with Hoffmann in Act III. Other treats include Olympia’s coloratura showpiece aria in Act I, and the thrilling septet at the end of Act II, as Hoffmann realizes he’s been cheated of love once again.

Fact and Fiction

Offenbach and his librettists Barbier and Carré deftly blended fact and fiction. They loosely based their protagonist on the writer, lawyer and musician E.T.A Hoffmann. However, they modelled each act on one of Hoffmann’s stories, substituting the poet for his fictional protagonists. They also invented the character of Miracle in Act III, thus creating the sense that throughout the opera Hoffmann is constantly stalked by a demonic villain, just as he is protected by his ‘Muse’, Nicklausse.

Offenbach’s Greatest Achievement

Les Contes d’Hoffmann was Offenbach’s final work, and only his second opera (as distinct from operetta). The composer died four months before the opera’s premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 10 February 1881; his friend Ernest Guiraud completed the orchestration for the premiere, which was given without the Giulietta act. The opera was a great success, and has continued to be regularly performed in a variety of versions, some including material only discovered in recent decades.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs 7 November–3 December 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 15 November 2016. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Catherine W. responded on 3 November 2016 at 3:08pm Reply

    Hello, I have never seen John Schlesinger’s production. Is it based on the old Choudens edition (1907) – stricto sensu or loosely? And who is the revival director? Thanks.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 3 November 2016 at 3:14pm

      Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for your query. John Schlesinger's production primarily uses the Choudens edition. The 2016 revival director is Dan Dooner.

      All best,

  2. Andrena Sutton responded on 19 November 2016 at 12:18pm Reply

    I saw Les Contes d'Hoffman last night - dare I just say I really enjoyed the whole production. I knew nothing of the opera before I watched/listened and so it was all so new to me. The automaton - Olympia I think - was gloriously funny and for me she stole the show. Kept thinking "operatic Stepford Wives" - a pliable angelic obedient robot woman - a "dream" wife. I got confused in Act 3 the last act with who was who and their significance, but I can cope with that. I can't compare this production, this singer or that singer, who was better etc., for me it was a great night out and the music and singing were glorious.

  3. Catherine F responded on 25 November 2016 at 5:27pm Reply

    How I agree with all the sentiments expressed by Adrena Sutton.

    We saw the production last evening and it was a wonderful experience to see such traditional sets combined with the glorious singing of the cast. Well done ROH!

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