“Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” or “The Stories of Hoffmann,” a fantastic opera, in three acts and a prologue and epilogue, with text by Jules Barbier and music by Jacques Offenbach, was first performed at Offenbach’s residence in Paris, May 18, 1879, and was formally produced Feb. 10, 1881.
Olympia. Cochenille. Giulietta. Pitichinaccio. Antonia. Franz. Nicholas. Coppelius. A voice. Dapertutto. Hoffmann. Dr. Miracle. Spallanzani. Luther. Nathaniel. Hermann. Crespel. Schlemihl.
The prologue is played in Luther’s tavern in Nuremburg. It is a favorite resort of the students, who enter to make merry. While they are remarking the delay of their favorite Hoffmann, that gentleman appears with his friend, Nicholas, and calls for a place, a glass and a pipe. The students ask for a song and Hoffmann sings the ballad of Kleinzach, with its ” clic clac ” chorus. Some one mockingly accuses Hoffmann of being in love. He utters a vehement word of protest, whereupon they hasten to assure him that such a condition is nothing to be ashamed of and refer to sweethearts of various of their number. Hoffmann disdains them all. They then inquire if his love is such a jewel that none of theirs may compare with her.
“My love ! ” exclaims Hoffmann. ” Say rather my three. Shall I tell you my adventures?”
” Yes, yes, we listen ! ” shout the students.
” The name of my first was Olympia,” begins Hoffmann.
At this the stage grows dark and the curtain falls. When it rises Hoffmann’s first love-story lives upon the stage. A luxurious office is shown. Dr. Spallanzani is plotting to recover through ” Olympia ” the five hundred ducats he lost to the bankrupt Jew, Elias. Hoffmann and Nicholas arrive and the physician goes away temporarily. Hoffmann parts the curtains of the adjoining apartment and sees Spallanzani’s daughter, the lovely Olympia, asleep. He falls in love with her at sight and gives vent to many extravagant expressions. Nicholas advises him to know her better and he replies that it is easy to understand the soul one loves.
Coppelius arrives and Spallanzani, who has returned, speaks of marrying Olympia to the ” young fool.” For payment of his debt to Coppelius, he sends him to get his money from the Jew, Elias, whom Coppelius does not know is bankrupt. Coppelius leaves. Now Spallanzani leads in his charming daughter and introduces her to the company. Her father declares that she is ever amiable, exempt from fault and accomplished. He asks her to sing and as if to arouse her from her excessive modesty, he touches her reassuringly upon the shoulder. She consents, and again he touches her on the shoulder and she sings. It is a brilliant performance with many trills and flourishes.
Supper is served but the lady does not care for refreshment. Hoffmann remains to hover over her breathing his devotion. He is grieved that Olympia is so taciturn. Occasionally, it is true, she utters a monosyllable. Nicholas comes from the supper-room to tell his friend that the company are laughing at him. Coppelius returns furious, having learned that Spallanzani has duped him with a worthless note. He mutters that he will get even. The music plays for .the ball. They give Olympia to the infatuated Hoffmann, placing her hand in his. She dances divinely, but goes swifter and swifter in spite of the pro-tests of her father. She shows no exhaustion, but not so with Hoffmann, who grows dizzy and faint. Suddenly there is a sound of snapping springs and Olympia falls. taking Hoffmann with her. She is a skilfully made automaton. Coppelius has wound her up to the breaking point and thus gets even with Spallanzani for his failure to pay him for making the puppet’s eyes.
The second act or story is placed in Venice at the Palace of Giulietta, a lady with many lovers. Hoffmann and Nicholas are with her. Schlemihl, a jealous lover, arrives unexpectedly and reproaches Giulietta for amusing herself during his absence. Nicholas tries to get Hoffmann away but Hoffmann boasts that he is absolutely unsusceptible. On hearing this boast, Dapertutto resolves to have Hoffmann victimized, like all his predecessors have been. He induces Giulietta to try her arts upon the newcomer. She does and wins, coaxing his likeness from him as a love-token. Schlemihl discovers them and he and Hoffmann fight a duel. Hoffmann vanquishes his opponent but when he comes to claim Giulietta she mocks him and runs away laughing with Pitichinaccio. Hoffmann calls for revenge but Nicholas persuades him to go away.
The scene of the third adventure is laid in Cremona, where Hoffmann, after long wandering, again finds Antonia, she of the beautiful voice, whom he loves. She is weak-lunged and Crespel, her father, fearing that she will share the fate of her mother, who died of consumption, makes her promise never to sing. He is angry with Hoffmann, for he knows that the youth loves his daughter’s art and is reluctant to see her sacrifice it. Hoffmann draws from her the promise to marry him secretly on the morrow. Crespel’s enemy, Doctor Miracle, who is also jealous of Hoffmann, arrives. Crespel is wild, calling him a grave-digger and accusing him of hoping to murder his child as he did his wife. Miracle sweetly declares that he will cure Antonia, and that she will feel no more pain, offering the contents of certain mystic flasks. He urges her to sing, telling her that a great career is better than love which will not last. Antonia persistently refuses. Finally, Miracle calls the mother’s voice from the grave and it urges her to sing. Antonia obeys and falls fainting to the floor. Crespel comes in to find her dying and, seeing Hoffmann present, blames him and calls for a knife that he may bring the color to Antonia’s cheeks with Hoffmann’s blood.
In the epilogue the company praises Hoffmann’s stories and he ends the song of Kleinzach begun in the prologue.
Personally, Offenbach considered this his best opera. He expended infinite pains upon it, and hoped that this more serious work would crown his musical achievement. He died, however, before the orchestration was completed and at his funeral part of the music was adapted to the service. ” Les Contes d’Hoffmann ” is the opera which was being performed at the Ring Theatre at Vienna when it was burned with enormous loss of life.