7 November 2016 at 12.22pm | Comment on this article
For the world premiere of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which began at 8.35pm on 10 February 1881 at the Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart) in Paris, we lack one significant piece of information: what did Jacques Offenbach, the composer of the opera, think of it?
The reason for such a gap in the records is that Offenbach had died four months before, while the work was still in preparation. He had been ill for some time, yet had completed the major part of the opera and even attended a couple of initial rehearsals. But his death delayed the scheduled premiere and allowed for others to make changes on his behalf that may have surprised him.
As the curtain rose on Act I and Luther’s tavern, Offenbach would have recognized a lot of his own conception, although he may have been surprised by the use of two different performers for the Muse and Nicklausse. This was not his original intention – he’d imagined the transformation of the Muse into Nicklausse and then back again into the Muse at the end made a clear dramatic point, and explained Nicklausse’s moderating, warning and counselling relationship to Hoffmann. Instead, at the premiere the role of the Muse was turned into a spoken one and a good deal of Nicklausse’s music was dropped.
Act II would have given Offenbach the satisfaction of seeing other parts of his concept of multi-faceted personalities in action: from Act I, the singers performing Stella, Councillor Lindorf and the servant Andrès became respectively, for Act II, the doll Olympia, the sinister Dr Coppélius and the valet Cochenille. So far, so good. But Act III would have been a shock in comparison. Offenbach would have expected his Act III to be the story of Councillor Crespel and his daughter Antonia, which it was; and indeed the same pattern of singers as Antonia, the sinister Doctor Miracle and the valet Frantz was maintained. But Crespel’s house was now in Venice, not Munich, and from outside the appropriately Venetian Barcarolle could be heard. The opera had been deemed too long and so cuts were made that removed the whole fourth-act Giulietta story, but kept its geographically sensitive Barcarolle by relocating the Antonia third act.
Within a decade of the premiere Les Contes d’Hoffmann had been presented by some 15 opera houses, and the Giulietta act in Venice began to be reinstated. But the fact that there was no definitive version ready at the time of his death, has led to a good degree of second-guessing as to Offenbach’s true final intentions – or has sought to shape the work to cover up what have been interpreted as dramatic deficiencies left unresolved in the received scheme. The most notable of such accretions came about in a production in Monte Carlo in 1904, for which the composer André Bloch was asked to provide a climactic ensemble for the Giulietta act (placed as Act III, with the Antonia story as Act IV), and to develop a new aria for the villain Dappertutto (derived from material in Offenbach’s 1875 operetta Le Voyage dans la lune). With a few further changes this interpretation was made available through a printed score of 1907 and has become the longest established and most familiar version, similar to what is used for this production by The Royal Opera.
We do know that Offenbach was a great practical man of the theatre, so what mattered to him ultimately was what worked. That Les Contes d’Hoffmann has succeeded in finding a lasting place in the opera repertory in whichever form would undoubtedly have delighted him, and indeed it is likely that he would not have been especially thrown by the many alterations to the material. Although there are now recordings and productions that reinstate alternate material, alter the order of the acts and use either recitative or dialogue, ultimately, it is not these additions, omissions and re-orderings that have kept the work in the main opera repertory for so long. Instead, Les Contes d’Hoffmann has earned its place through the innate quality of its essential musical core. And of one thing we can be sure: that is most definitely down to Offenbach, and no one else.
This is an edited extract from John Snelson’s article ‘A Posthumous Pleasure’, available to read in full in the digital programme for Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
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 staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.