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Jacques Offenbach

The Tales of Hoffmann

E.T.A. Hoffmann


Hoffmann then turned to his chief interest, music, and held several positions as conductor, critic, and theatrical musical director in Bamberg and Dresden until 1814. About 1813 he changed his third baptismal name, Wilhelm, to Amadeus in homage to the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He composed the ballet Arlequin (1811) and the opera Undine (performed in 1816) and wrote the stories in Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier, 4 vol. (1814–15; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner), that established his reputation as a writer. He was appointed in 1814 to the court of appeal in Berlin, becoming councillor in 1816.

Although Hoffmann wrote two novels, Die Elixiere des Teufels, 2 vol. (1815–16; The Devil’s Elixir), and Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler, 2 vol. (1820–22; “The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, with a Fragmentary Biography of Conductor Johannes Kreisler”), and more than 50 short stories before his death from progressive paralysis, he continued to support himself as a legal official in Berlin. His later story collections, Nachtstücke, 2 parts (1817; Hoffmann’s Strange Stories), and Die Serapionsbrüder, 4 vol. (1819–21; The Serapion Brethren), were popular in England, the United States, and France. Continued publication of the stories into the second half of the 20th century attested to their popularity.

In his stories Hoffmann skillfully combined wild flights of imagination with vivid and convincing examinations of human character and psychology. The weird and mysterious atmosphere of his maniacs, spectres, and automata thus intermingles with an exact and realistic narrative style. The struggle within Hoffmann between the ideal world of his art and his daily life as a bureaucrat is evident in many of his stories, in which characters are possessed by their art. His use of fantasy, ranging from fanciful fairy tales to highly suggestive stories of the macabre and supernatural, served as inspiration to several operatic composers. Richard Wagner drew on stories from Die Serapionsbrüder for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), as did Paul Hindemith in Cardillac (1926) and Jacques Offenbach in The Tales of Hoffmann (1881), in which Hoffmann himself is the central figure. The ballet Coppélia (1870), by Léo Delibes, is also based on a Hoffmann story, as is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite, The Nutcracker (1892).

E.T.A. Hoffmann, in full Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, original name Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, (born January 24, 1776, Königsberg, Prussia [now Kaliningrad, Russia]—died June 25, 1822, Berlin, Germany), German writer, composer, and painter known for his stories in which supernatural and sinister characters move in and out of men’s lives, ironically revealing tragic or grotesque sides of human nature. The product of a broken home, Hoffmann was reared by an uncle. He was educated in law and became a Prussian law officer in the Polish provinces in 1800, serving until the bureaucracy was dissolved following the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806.

Jacques Offenbach  - Tales of Hoffmann

The "Hoffmann" of our title was a gifted German author, lawyer, composer, literary critic, and caricaturist who was christened Ernst Theodor Wilhdm Hoffmann. He altered his third name to Amadeus out of love for the works of Mozart, of whose Don Giovanni he wrote an influential and highly romantic interpretation. He also wrote the three stories on which this opera is based, though he himsdf was the hero of none of them and though they are far more macabre and romantic than their familiar transmogrifications in the libretto. (For the curious with a literary bent: the titles of the original tales are The Sandman, New Year's Eve Adventure, and Councillor Crespel. They are wdl worth reading.)

Thirty years before the opera was produced, its librettists had had performed, at the Od6on in Paris, a not very successful comedy called Les contes d'Hoffmann, in which the three young heroes of these tales were transformed into Hoffmann himself, thus making a kind of pun on the title’s preposition: they are tales “of’ Hoffmann because they are both by and about him. When the comedy was quite dead, Barbier reworked it into libretto form and offered it successively to Hector Salomon, Charles Gounod, and Jacques Offenbach. Salomon was very much attracted but graciously turned over the opportunity to his colleague, Offenbach.

At the time, Offenbach was the most brilliantly successful composer of French operettas—and no one has begun to rival him since. He had produced almost a hundred of these confections, but never a serious work. He therefore set great store by this effort, worked very hard at it, and, being seriously ill at the time, only prayed that he might live to see it on the stage. He did live to see a private run-through with piano accompaniment, and then went back to work to rewrite the role of Hoffmann, which had been intended for a baritone, into a tenor role. But he did not live to see its immensely successful premiere, or even to complete the orchestration. The first act he did himself; the balance had to be completed for him by Ernest Guiraud, who performed an analogous service for Carmen when he composed its recitatives after Bizet’s death.

The opera was enormously successful from the beginning, in Paris, where it received 101 performances in its first season. On its first trip outside of its native country, however, it encountered an ironically tragic fate. During its second performance at the Ringtheater in Vienna, the house burned down and there were many fatalities. This is precisely the same fate that had befallen Hoffmann’s own masterpiece Undine sixty-five years earlier in Berlin. The parallel, which would have appealed to the imagination of Hoffmann himself, impeded the quick success of the Tales in Germany. But eventually it became part of the permanent standard repertoire in that country, as it had meantime everywhere else.

The original intention, seldom carried out today, was to have the roles of Lindorf, Coppdlius, Dapertutto, and Dr. Miracle sung by the same baritone, thus showing Hoffmann’s series of evil geniuses to be the same person in disguise. Similarly, one soprano was supposed to impersonate Stella, Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia—all four the loves of Hoffmann. But the vocal requirements for these roles vary so much that few modem baritones or sopranos can be found to cope successfully all evening. However, if one remembers the original intention, it may lend a fresh, if possibly spurious, dramatic perspective to the tales. An analogous intention for the secondary tenor roles of Andres, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio, and Frantz seems to be inspired more by economical than by dramatic interest.


(Les contes d"Hoffmann)


Opera in prologue, three acts, and epilogue, by Jacques Offenbach
with libretto in French by Jules Barbier based on a play by him and Michel Carre,
based in turn on three stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann

Lindorf, a councilor of Nuremberg

Stella, an opera singer
Andres, her servant
Luther, an innkeeper
Hoffmann, a poet
Nicklausse, his companion
Spalanzani, an inventor
Cochenille, his servant
Coppelius, a partner of Spalanzani
Olympia, a mechanical doll
Giulietta, a courtesan
Schlemil, her lover
Pittichinaccio, her admirer
Dappertutto, an evil genius
Crespel, a councilor of Munich
Antonia, his daughter
Frantz, his servant
Dr. Miracle, a doctor
The voice of Antonia’s mother
The muse of Poetry

Time: early 19th century
Places: Germany and Italy
First performance at Paris, February 10, 1881




Bass. A councillor of Nuremberg, he loves Stella, the diva loved by Hoffmann. As Hoffmann tells the stories of his previous unsuccessful loves, it becomes clear that they were all thwarted by manifestations of Lindorf: Coppélius, Dr Miracle, and Dappertutto. Created (1881) by Alexandre Taskin.

Soprano. An opera singer with whom Hoffmann is in love. She is the model for all the other women loved by him - Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. Created (1881) by Adele Isaac.

Andres, her servant. Tenor.
Luther, an innkeeper. Bass.


Tenor. A poet, based on E. T. A. Hoffmann. In love with the diva Stella who is loved by Lindorf. Hoffmann regales his friend Nicklausse with stories of his past loves, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. All these affairs have been thwarted. Nicklausse points out that all the women Hoffmann has loved have been manifestations of Stella, but adds that the experiences will make him a better poet. Created (1881) by Jean‐Alexandre Talazac.


Tenor. An inventor who made the mechanical doll Olympia, with whom Hoffmann falls in love. Created (1881) by Mons. Gourdon.

Cochenille, his servant. Tenor.



Baritone. Scientist and inventor of dolls’ eyes, including those for Olympia, with whom Hoffmann falls in love. Cheated by his rival Spalanzani, he destroys Olympia. Created (1881) by Alexandre Taskin.


Soprano. A mechanical doll created by the inventor Spalanzani, her eyes provided by Coppélius. Believing her to be Spalanzani's daughter, Hoffmann falls in love with her. She is destroyed by Coppélius. Aria: Les oiseaux dans la charmille (‘Birds in the hedgerows’). Created (1881) by Adèle Isaac.


Soprano. In Venice, Hoffmann falls in love with her. The magician Dappertutto promises her a diamond if she obtains for him Hoffmann's soul. Hoffmann kills a rival, takes the key to Giulietta's room, but sees her floating away in a gondola with someone else. Duet (with Nicklausse): Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour (‘Beautiful night, O night of love’)—the famous Barcarolle. Creator (?1905) not traced.


Bass. Lover of Giulietta, killed by Hoffmann. Creator (?1905) not known.


Tenor. Servant and admirer of Giulietta. She floats away in a gondola with him just as Hoffmann comes to claim her. Created (?1905) by Pierre Grivot.


Bass/bass-baritone. A sorcerer, he bribes Giulietta to obtain for him the soul of Hoffmann. Created (1905) by Maurice Renaud.


Bass or bass‐baritone. Violinmaker. Father of the sick Antonia. He keeps her hidden in order to protect her. Created (1881) by Hypolite Belhomme.

Soprano. A singer in Munich, daughter of Crespel. Created (1881) by Adèle Isaac.

Frantz, his servant. Tenor


Dr Miracle:
Baritone. A doctor who forces the sick Antonia to sing, thus causing her collapse and death. Created (1881) by Alexandre Taskin.





The curtain rises on the empty tavern of one Luther in Nuremberg. Next door a performance of Don Giovanni is supposed to be reaching its intermission, but no sounds can be heard excepting an invisible chorus of the “Spirits of Beer” singing in praise of themselves. Presently Councilor Lindorf appears and bribes Andres, servant to the prima donna Stella, to give him a letter. It is addressed to the poet Hoffmann and contains a key to her room for use later that night. (In many performances this incident is entirely omitted, along with the roles of Lindorf and Stella.)

When the intermission in the imaginary opera house is reached, a chorus of students troops into the wine cellar, demanding refreshment from the good host Luther. Presently they are joined by Hoffmann, who is accompanied by his everpresent Mend, Nicklausse. Hoffmann is in a strange mood. He has just run across a drunk in the gutter, and he describes him poetically and realistically. A song is called for, and Hoffmann obliges with The Legend of Kleinzach. In the middle of it he falls into rhapsodizing about his beloved Stella; but he finishes the Legend and, after making a few unpleasant remarks to Lindorf, proposes to spend the evening telling his boon companions the story of his three loves. (Stella, he says in an aside, symbolizes all three of them—as artist, as courtesan, as young girl.) And as the prologue ends, he announces the name of his first love. It was Olympia....


Prologue, in the 1881 première

ACT I  (Olympia)

There are two villains in the first of Hoffmann's tales— Spalanzani and Copp61ius. Together, these charlatans have built a pretty mechanical doll named Olympia, and they quarrel about ownership. Hoffmann, a young student, wishes to study with the pseudo-scientist, Spalanzani, and, catching a glimpse of the doll Olympia, falls melodiously in love. His friend, Nicklausse, tries to tease him out of his infatuation by singing an apropos ballad, Une poupil aux yeux d"email, but Hoffmann does not understand the warning so gaily delivered. And then Coppe&ius sells Hoffmann a pair of magic glasses which make Olympia look real.

Now Spalanzani and Coppelius come to an agreement: Spalanzani offers a check of five hundred ducats on the banking house of Elias to buy out Coppelius. The latter, greatly elated, agrees, and he advises Spalanzani to marry off his Olympia to the silly youngster, Hoffmann.

Announced by the stuttering servant Cochenille, a large crowd of guests arrives to see Olympia. She is brought out and, to the accompaniment of a harp, sings a pretty, and very difficult, coloratura aria (Les oiseaux dans la charmille). Everybody then goes out to dine, and Hoffmann is left alone to make love to the doll. He wears his magic glasses; he acci-dentally presses one of Olympia's mechanical buttons; and when she utters the words "yes, yes,” he is in heaven, for he thinks she has accepted him. He runs after her, and a moment later Coppelius re-enters. He has discovered that Spalanzani’s check was bad, as Elias had failed, and he now vows revenge.

A waltz is heard as the guests return. Olympia, as Hoffmann’s partner, dances so hard that her inventor fears she will hurt herself. But nothing can stop this mechanical doll. She even sings the whirling waltz, reaching up to an almost incredible A-flat above high C. Right out of the room she waltzes, and Coppelius steals after her. Before anyone can stop him, he seizes the doll and smashes it to pieces. In the excitement Hoffmann’s magical glasses fall off, and he cries despairingly: “It’s automatic; it’s automatic!” The guests laugh at him; the two villains fight angrily; and everything is in a fine tumult as the act ends.

The Olympia act, as staged at the 1881 première

ACT II  (Giulietta)

The second act might be called the Barcarolle Act. It begins and ends with that familiar, undulating melody—and is dominated by it. (Offenbach borrowed the tune from one of his own operettas, Die Rheinnixen.) It is first sung by the courtesan Giulietta, Nicklausse, and the guests assembled at a party in her luxurious home in Venice. Then Hoffmann, one of the guests, sings a song that derides enduring love. But the ever-wise and ever-futile Nicklausse sees trouble ahead. Hoffmann, he believes, is destined soon to be a rival to the evillooking Schlemil, Giulietta’s lover. Hoffmann, for his part, only laughs at the idea of falling in love with a courtesan.

But now a really sinister figure comes on. He is Dapertutto, and he sings his sinuous Diamond Aria, extolling the almost supernatural merits of his jewel. He summons Giulietta, and, by playing on her vanity, persuades her to try to capture Hoffmann's reflection—as she has already captured her lover Schlemil’s. Dapertutto means “reflection” literally—as in a mirror; but this is the symbol of the soul, and that is what the evil genius wants.

Giulietta goes about her work well. She pleads for the love of Hoffmann, and he gives in with passion and abandon. But as they kiss, the whole company, led by the jealous Schl&nil, finds them together. Dapertutto now shows Hoffmann that he no longer has a reflection-or a soul—and a wonderful sestet ensues. Out of the music emerge the various themes of the Barcarolle,and then tire Barcarolle itsdf is played once more from beginning to end. Only the voices of the off-stage chorus are heard, but the action is very dramatic. Hoffmann demands Schl&nil’s key to Giulietta’s room. A dud ensues in which Hoffmann uses Dapertutto’s sword; Schlemil is killed; Hoffmann seizes the key; and at that moment he sees Giulietta sailing by in a gondola—in the arms of the dwarf Pittichinaccio. He has been once more betrayed, and Nicklausse has to hurry him off before he is arrested for the murder of Schlemil.

The Giulietta act, as staged at the 1881 première

ACT III  (Antonia)

The last act tells the fete of Hoffmann’s last great love-Antonia. Antonia is a young, inexperienced singer, the daughter of a great one. She lives in Munich with her father, and when the act opens, she is in the music room, singing of her lost love. This is Hoffmann, whom she has not seen in a year but hopes to see again. Her father, Councilor Crespel, begs her to give up singing, and she promises to do so. For, unknown to hersdf, Antonia is sick almost to death with consumption.

When Crespel orders Frantz, a deaf servant, to keep all visitors out, he responds with very comic misunderstandings. In fact, he feels rather sorry for himself—as he tdls us in a little song concerning his unappreciated musical talents. Of course, he fails to keep out Hoffmann, who comes to see Antonia once more. The two lovers greet each other warmly, and soon are singing together a sweet duet that they had sung together in better times C’est un chanson d'amour. Hoffmann is worried by Antonia’s unexplained ill-health, and when she leaves, he hides behind a curtain to try to solve this mystery.

Now the evil genius in this act enters in the shape of Dr. Miracle, a charlatan who had caused the death of Antonia's mother. Crespel cannot get him out of the house, and Dr. Miracle proceeds to examine Antonia's health, making believe she is present even though she is in another room. He even forces her to sing off-stage. Hoffmann, listening to this, begins to understand; and as Miracle prescribes for Antonia, as Crespel objects, and as Hoffmann is amazed at the evil he sees, a male trio devdops. At last, Miracle is driven out of the house; and when Hoffmann once more meets Antonia, he forces a promise from her never to sing again.

But it is Dr. Miracle who has the last word. He returns miraculously through a wall and tries to persuade Antonia to sing. At first he fails, but then he works a miracle on a picture of Antonia's mother that hangs on the wall. The picture begins to urge Antonia to sing; Dr. Miracle seizes a violin to accompany; and Antonia's voice rises higher and higher. It is finally too much for her; and as she falls back, dying, Hoffmann rushes back into the room and cries out his despair, while Crespd's accusations of Hoffmann prove equally futile.

The death of Antonia, in the original 1881 production. 


While the scenery is being changed, the orchestra quietly plays a chorus that Hoffman's drinking companions had sung shortly before he began his recital at the end of the prologue. And when the curtain rises, we are back in Luther's tavern, with everyone in the pretise position he had occupied when the curtain last went down on it.

“That was the tale of my loves,” concludes Hoffmann. “I shall never forget them.” At this point Luther breaks the spell the poet has woven by coming in to announce that Stella has been a smashing success in Don Giovanni; and Lindorf, unobserved, goes out to meet her. Nicklausse, meantime, explains the meaning of the Tales of Hoffmann: Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, artist, innocent, and courtesan, are all embodied in one woman—Stella. He proposes a toast to her, but Hoffmann angrily forbids it and suggests instead that everyone get drunk. As this is the more enticing prospect, the students take up their glasses, sing their drinking song, and file off into the next room.

Only Hoffmann remains behind, dejected and considerably the worse for wine. The Muse of Poetry briefly appears to him and consoles him with the thought that one is made great through love but even greater through tears. Inspired by this elementary tenet of romanticism, Hoffmann bursts into the passionate melody he had sung to Giulietta and then falls back into his chair, quite overcome. There Stella finds him as she passes through the room on the arm of Nicklausse. “Hoffmann asleep?” she asks. “No, just dead drunk,” answers his good friend, and he turns her over to her new lover, Councilor Lindorf. But before they go off together, she tosses a rose at the feet of the unconscious Hoffmann. Off-stage, the students repeat their drinking song.

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