Notes on the Melancholy Metaphysics of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann

Les Contes d’Hoffmann is Jacques Offenbach’s unfinished opera, based loosely on stories by the influential writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet is also based on a story of Hoffmann’s. Hoffmann, who was an adept musician as well as writer, is particularly known for his review of Beethoven’s fifth symphony in Leipzig’s Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.

Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach

Les Contes d’Hoffmann represents its composer’s intent to leave behind a work more serious in subject and structure than any of the over a hundred gaieties and operettas that had made his name and fortune. Offenbach, Prussian by birth, was a canny musical entrepreneur with successes to his credit in France, England, and the United States. He introduced the can-can to the stage of the Second Empire (certainly a winner, as Napoléon III made him a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur as early as 1861), and made certain that Orpheus would be jolly about his stay in the Underworld once the Third Republic had established itself.

As the work was left incomplete at the composer’s death at the age of 61 in 1880, both the order of the internal three acts, which are framed by a prologue and an epilogue giving the state of the character Hoffmann, as well as the content of each of the five acts, are somewhat uncertain, although the composer’s order is Prologue-Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta-Epilogue. The orchestration and additional recitatives were created for the première, in Paris three months after Offenbach’s death, by Ernest Guirard.

The opera was mounted recently by Edmonton Opera, in an excellent realization and production that I saw on February 3rd. I had not seen this opera for quite a number of years, and looked forward to it. The Antonia act was selected as the middle act, and hence the dramatic, and very moving, pivot, by director Joel Ivany (who also devised the surtitles, in a nice stroke for representational unity).  The overall rendition by the cast and chorus was excellent. Teiya Kasahara sang the fiendishly difficult role of Olympia with great success and assurance, and the Edmonton Symphony, under the direction of Christopher Campestrini, accomplished the score with a great fineness, including navigation of the several highly exposed parts designed to thwart the French horns.

E.T.A. Hoffmann

E.T.A. Hoffmann

This only serious opera of Offenbach is disturbingly accurate about the behaviour of human love, and its existence between the poles of good and evil. As presented in the opera, good wants but is not always able to aspire, and evil hunts with Satanic intent. Both good and evil effect a transmogrification of love’s behaviour, whose constant accompaniments are the illusions of fantasy and the delusions proffered by artifice. The context of accompaniment includes drink, violence, the evanescence of being, and the vanity of redemption. Even the most remarkable, and astonishingly moving, triumph of Antonia over evil is succeeded by her early death, immediately followed by the character Hoffmann’s further disintegration beyond reclamation.

What is most interesting about the opera is that it enlists the phantasmagoria of the real in a manner that invokes the surreal, so to reveal what are the essential compatibilities and relationships of each to one another. And so is propounded their inextricability, a condition that many artists claim to be aware of, and so hence often inducing the endeavour to traverse the relationship between the two so as to bind this duplicity within a sustainable understanding. This is most tellingly spelled out musically in the trio between Antonia, Dr. Miracle (Satan) and La Voix (the voice of the spiritual mother):

Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Les Contes d’Hoffmann

It is not accidental that the Prologue opens in a Nuremberg tavern next to an opera house in which Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he the lover who does not escape the force of the underworld, is being performed. Perhaps there is some satisfaction in stupefaction.


For a another CulturalRites article on vocal music, see an introduction to the Cantatas of J.S. Bach.

2 thoughts on “Notes on the Melancholy Metaphysics of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann

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