The Tales of Hoffmann
has become one of the best-loved specimens of nineteenth-century French opera. Yet it represents an outlier within Jacques Offenbach’s prolific catalogue in its experimentalism with genre as well as its protracted genesis. The composer’s source for the libretto was a play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who introduced their five-act “fantastic play” Les Contes d’Hoffmann
in 1851 in Paris, drawing on the wildly imaginative stories by the early-romantic figure E.T.A. Hoffmann.”
Offenbach himself seems to have attended the play during its highly successful run, but another composer, Hector Salomon (1838–1906), was the first to set the Barbier-Carré Tales
as an opera in the late 1860s, using a libretto adapted by the authors. That version remained unstaged when casting complications arose—a harbinger of the challenges Offenbach himself would face to create his most ambitious opera.
After Carré’s death in 1872, Offenbach worked with Barbier to have him prepare a suitable libretto. The overcommitted composer was able to write the bulk of the score in 1877, but changes in the fortunes of Paris’s leading theaters delayed his original plans for how the opera should be introduced. Eventually Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique and a legendary impresario, offered to back the venture there. This meant tailoring the vocal characterizations to the company’s star singers as well as following the Opéra-Comique’s particular conventions, especially the use of spoken dialogue rather than sung recitatives. Alterations in the previously announced casting during rehearsals further affected Offenbach’s original conception of such elements as the Muse/Nicklausse’s role in the scenes framing the opera.
The composer died on October 5, 1880, while discussions with Carvalho of important changes for the premiere were still underway. The Tales,
which was introduced to the world in February 1881, therefore varied distinctly from what is known about the composer’s intended design; as an experienced man of the theater, Offenbach surely would have suggested myriad other changes during the original production. The most striking difference was Carvalho’s decision to eliminate the Giulietta act entirely. Meanwhile, New Orleans-born composer Ernest Guiraud was chosen by Offenbach’s family to prepare a workable edition from the composer’s mass of manuscripts and score-in-progress. Guiraud’s efforts included supplying orchestration and recitatives unfinished by Offenbach (for performances beyond the Opéra-Comique). In a later edition, Guiraud brought back some of the music that had been cut with the Giulietta act, but now positioned between the Olympia and Antonia acts.
The corruptions to Offenbach’s original ambitious plan that became part of the performing tradition of Tales
thus involved cuts and reordering of his material. With an important new production in Monte Carlo in 1904, the mutations further extended to the spurious interpolation of new numbers, above all in the Giulietta act: Dapertutto’s “Diamond Aria,” which recycles an earlier Offenbach tune (a procedure the composer himself admittedly followed in some of the score), and a newly composed septet based on the barcarolle melody.
[Irene Roberts (Giulietta) and Christian Van Horn (Dapertutto) admire the diamond he has given her.]
As if these layers of posthumous changes weren’t convoluted enough, the afterlife of Tales
entered a new phase in the 1970s with the sudden rediscovery of unknown manuscripts and related material from the armoire of Offenbach’s grandson. Published by Fritz Oeser, these included most of the original autograph piano-vocal score and Barbier’s sketches for recitatives. Still later, even more previously unknown material from the work-in-progress has resurfaced.
The performing edition used for this production by San Francisco Opera is based on the integral edition of the opera that has been fastidiously edited by Offenbach scholars Jean-Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye. This edition includes numerous viable alternatives from among the existing materials for the Giulietta act and for the apotheosis of the epilogue above all.
[James Creswell (Crespel), Christian Van Horn (Coppelius) and Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) in Atonia's house.]
Originally prepared by director Laurent Pelly in collaboration with dramaturg Agathe Mélinand for a new production in Lausanne in 2003, this version of Tales of Hoffmann
has been further revised since then and includes several significant differences from the more “traditional” score that San Francisco Opera’s audiences are familiar with from past productions. Even the Company’s previous presentation (1997), which did include a few of the more recent discoveries, was essentially based on the traditional version.
Most noticeable in our current version is the substitution of entirely new dialogue written by Mélinand. In the Giulietta act, the sextet is gone, but the Giulietta act has also been filled out with other material in the complete form originally envisioned by Offenbach. According to Kaye, it was the epilogue that gave the composer the most trouble, and Offenbach died before he could wrest it into a final form. The extensive epilogue presented in this version therefore likely poses the greatest surprise to longtime lovers of Tales
[Photos by Cory Weaver, 2013]