Scenes from The Tales of Hoffmann from the Paris premiere
A tavern in Nuremberg. The Muse appears and reveals to the audience that her purpose is to draw Hoffmann's attention to herself, and to make him abjure all other loves, so he can be devoted fully to her: poetry. She takes the appearance of Hoffmann's closest friend, Nicklausse. The prima donna Stella, currently performing Mozart'sDon Giovanni sends a letter to Hoffmann, requesting a meeting in her dressing room after the performance. The letter, and the key to the room, are intercepted by Councillor Lindorf (Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux), who is the first of the opera's incarnations of evil, Hoffmann's nemesis. Lindorf intends to replace Hoffmann at the rendezvous. In the tavern students are waiting for Hoffmann. He finally arrives and entertains them with the legend of Kleinzach the dwarf (Il ètait une fois à la cour d'Eisenach), and is coaxed by Lindorf into telling the audience about his life's three great loves.
Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, an automaton created by the scientist Spalanzani. Hoffmann falls in love with her, not knowing that Olympia is a mechanical doll (Allons! Courage et confiance...Ah! vivre deux!). Nicklausse, who knows the truth about Olympia, sings a story of a mechanical doll that looked like a human to warn Hoffmann but is ignored by him (Une poupée aux yeux d'émail). Coppélius, Olympia's co-creator and this act's incarnation of Nemesis, sells Hoffmann magic glasses which make Olympia appear as a real woman (J'ai des yeux).
Olympia sings one of the opera's most famous ariasLes oiseaux dans la charmille ("The Doll Song") in which she periodically runs down and needs to be wound up before she can continue. Hoffmann is tricked into believing that his affections are returned, to the bemusement of Nicklausse, who subtly tries to warn his friend (Voyez-la sous son éventail). While dancing with Olympia, Hoffmann falls on the ground and his glasses break. At the same time, Coppélius appears and tears Olympia apart, in retaliation for having been tricked out of his fees by Spalanzani. With the crowd laughing at him, Hoffmann realizes that he was in love with an automaton.
Venice. Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta and thinks his affections are returned (Amis, l'amour tendre et rêveur). Giulietta is not in love with Hoffmann but only seducing him under the orders of Captain Dapertutto, who has promised to give her a diamond if she filches Hoffmann's reflection from a mirror (Scintille, diamant). The jealous Schlemil (cf.e Peter Schlemiel for a literary antecedent), a previous victim of Giulietta and Dapertutto (he gave Giulietta his shadow), challenges the poet to a duel, but is killed. Nicklausse wants to take Hoffmann away from Venice and goes looking for horses. Meanwhile, Hoffmann meets Giulietta and cannot resist her (O Dieu! de quelle ivresse): he gives her his reflection, only to be abandoned by the courtesan, to Dapertutto's great pleasure. Hoffmann tells Dapertutto that his friend Nicklausse will come and save him. Dapertutto prepares a poison to get rid of Nicklausse, but Giulietta drinks it by mistake and drops dead in the arms of the poet.
After a long search, Hoffmann finds the house where Crespel and his daughter Antonia are hiding. Hoffmann and Antonia loved each other, but were separated when Crespel decided to hide his daughter from Hoffmann. Antonia has inherited her mother's talent for singing, but her father forbids her to sing because of the mysterious illness from which she is suffering. Antonia wishes that her lover would return to her (Elle a fui, la tourterelle). Her father also forbids her to see Hoffmann, who is encouraging Antonia in her musical career, and is therefore a danger to her without knowing it. Crespel tells Frantz, his servant, to stay with his daughter and when he leaves, Frantz sings "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre".
When Crespel leaves his house, Hoffmann takes advantage of the occasion to sneak in, and the lovers are reunited (love duet:C'est une chanson d'amour). When Crespel comes back, he receives the visit of Dr Miracle, the act's Nemesis, who forces Crespel to let him heal Antonia. Still in the house, Hoffmann listens to the conversation and learns that Antonia may die if she sings too much. He returns to her room to make her promise to give up her artistic dreams. Antonia reluctantly accepts her lover's will. Once she is alone, Dr Miracle enters Antonia's room and tries to persuade her to sing and follow her mother's path to glory, stating that Hoffmann is sacrificing her to his brutishness and loves her only for her beauty. With mystic powers, he raises a vision of Antonia's dead mother and induces Antonia to sing, causing her death. Crespel arrives just in time to witness his daughter's last breath. Hoffmann enters the room and Crespel wants to kill him, thinking that he is responsible for his daughter's death. Nicklausse saves his friend from the old man's vengeance (C'est l'amour vainqueur).
The tavern in Nuremberg. Hoffmann, drunk, swears he will never love again, and explains that Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are three facets of a same person, Stella. They represent, respectively, the young girl's, the musician's, and the courtesan's side of the prima donna. When Hoffmann says he doesn't want to love any more, Nicklausse reveals himself as the Muse and reclaims Hoffmann: "Be reborn a poet! I love you, Hoffmann! Be mine!" The magic of poetry reaches Hoffmann as he sings O Dieu! de quelle ivresse once more, ending with "Muse whom I love, I am yours!" At this moment, Stella, who is tired of waiting for Hoffmann to come to her rendezvous, enters the tavern and finds him drunk. The poet tells her to leave ("Farewell, I will not follow you, phantom, spectre of the past"), and Lindorf, who was waiting in the shadows, comes forth. Nicklausse explains to Stella that Hoffmann does not love her any more, but that Councillor Lindorf is waiting for her. Some students enter the room for more drinking, while Stella and Lindorf leave together.
The most famous number in the opera is the "Barcarolle" (Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour), which is performed in Act 2. Curiously, the aria was not written by Offenbach with Les contes d'Hoffmann in mind. He wrote it as the 'Elves’ Song' in the opera Die Rheinnixen (Les fées du Rhin), which premiered in Vienna on February 8, 1864. Offenbach died with Les contes d'Hoffmann unfinished. Ernest Guiraud completed the scoring and wrote the recitatives for the premiere. He also incorporated this excerpt from one of Offenbach's earlier, long-forgotten operas into the new opera..
Offenbach did not live to see his opera performed, since he died on October 5, 1880, just over four months before its premiere. Before his death, Offenbach had completed the piano score and orchestrated the prologue and the first act. Since he did not entirely finish the writing, many different versions of this opera emerged, some bearing little resemblance to the original work. The version performed at the opera's premiere was that by Ernest Guiraud, who completed Offenbach's scoring and wrote the recitatives.
The main modifications often encountered are:
Addition of extra music not written by Offenbach for the work
Commonly directors choose among two arias in the Giulietta act:
"Scintille, diamant", based on a tune from the overture to Offenbach's operetta "Journey to the Moon" and included by André Bloch for a Monaco production in 1908.
The Sextet (sometimes called Septet, counting the chorus as a character) of unknown origin, but containing elements of the Barcarolle.
Changing of the order of the acts
The three acts, telling different stories from the life of Hoffmann, are independent (with the exception of a mention of Olympia in the Antonia act) and can easily be swapped without affecting the overall story. Offenbach's order was Prologue–Olympia–Antonia–Giulietta–Epilogue, but during the 20th century, the work was usually performed with Giulietta's act preceding Antonia's. Only recently has the original order been restored, and even now the practice is not universal. The general reason for the switch is that the Antonia act is more accomplished musically.
Naming the acts
Also the designation of the acts is disputed. The German scholar Josef Heinzelmann, among others, favours numbering the Prologue as Act One, and the Epilogue as Act Five, with Olympia as Act Two, Antonia as Act Three, and Giulietta as Act Four.
Changing the story itself
This opera was sometimes performed (for example during the premiere at the Opéra-Comique) without the entire Giulietta act, though the famous Barcarolle from that act was inserted into the Antonia act, and Hoffmann's aria "Amis! l'Amour tendre et rêveur" was inserted into the Epilogue. In 1881, when the opera was first performed in Vienna, the Giulietta act was restored, but modified so that the courtesan does not die at the end by accidental poisoning, but exits in a gondola accompanied by her servant Pitichinaccio. This ending has been the preferred one since then almost without exception.
Changing the spoken dialogue to recitative, resulting in the removal of some acts
Due to its opéra-comique genre, the original score contained many dialogues that have sometimes been replaced by recitative that so lengthened the opera that some acts were removed (see above).
Changing the number of opera singers performing
Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann's unreachable love. Similarly, the four villains would be performed by the same bass-baritone, because they are all manifestations of Evil. While the doubling of the four villains is quite common, most performances of the work use multiple sopranos for the heroines. This is because different skills are needed for each role: Olympia requires a skilled coloratura singer with stratospheric high notes, Antonia is written for a more lyric voice, and Giulietta is usually performed by a dramatic soprano or a mezzo-soprano. When all three roles (four if the small but important role of Stella is counted) are performed by a single soprano in a performance, it is considered one of the largest challenges in the lyric-coloratura repertoire. Famous sopranos who have attempted all three roles include Karan Armstrong, Dame Josephine Barstow, Ninon Vallin, Beverly Sills, Anja Silja, Edita Gruberová, Carol Vaness, Catherine Malfitano, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Virginia Zeani. Joan Sutherland, Josephine Barstow, and Elena Moșuc have performed all four roles.
A recent version including the authentic music by Offenbach has been reinstated by the French Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck. A successful performance of this version was produced at the Lausanne Opera (Switzerland). However, most producers still prefer the traditional version published by Editions Choudens, with additions from a version prepared by Fritz Oeser, for financial reasons. Another recent edition by Michael Kaye has been performed at the Opéra National de Lyon and the Hamburg State Opera with Elena Moşuc singing the roles of Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and Stella in the 2007 production.
A complete explanation of the different versions, as well as a translation of the libretto into English and IPA and translation into English of the literary sources is available.