The Tales of Hoffmann

Music by Jacques Offenbach

Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré; Performing Edition based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, by arrangement with Schott Music

A sensitive poet searches for love and repeatedly finds it lies just beyond his reach in this marvelously melodic masterpiece. Singing the title role is tenor Matthew Polenzani, who was praised by The New York Times as "coming into his prime...singing with increasing ardor, richness and power." He is joined by the always-astonishing Natalie Dessay, who gave "a precise, luminous and impeccably controlled performance" (San Francisco Chronicle) in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor (2008), as Antonia; Hye Jung Lee, who was praised for her vocally "fierce, gleaming beauty" (San Francisco Chronicle) as Madame Mao in Nixon in China (2012), sings Olympia; in their Company debuts, Irene Roberts as Giulietta and mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, is Nicklausse, The Muse; and charismatic bass-baritone Christian Van Horn performs the villains who thwart Hoffmann's desires. Laurent Pelly (The Daughter of the Regiment, 2009) directs a new production of this richly imaginative, psychologically astute gem.

Sung in French with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours, 25 minutes including two intermissions

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona) and L’Opera Nacional de Lyon

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio excerpts are from the November 23, 1996 performance of The Tales of Hoffmann with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Steven Mercurio.


Hoffmann Matthew Polenzani
The Muse/Nicklausse Angela Brower *
Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf Christian Van Horn
Antonia Natalie Dessay
Olympia Hye Jung Lee
Giulietta Irene Roberts *
Stella Jacqueline Piccolino *
Frantz, Andrès, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio Steven Cole
Nathanaël Matthew Grills *
Spalanzani Thomas Glenn
Crespel James Creswell *
Hermann Joo Won Kang
Luther, Schlemil Hadleigh Adams *

Production Credits

Conductor Patrick Fournillier
Director Laurent Pelly
New Libretto Version/Dramaturg Agathe Mélinand
Set Designer Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer Joël Adam
Projection Designer Charles Carcopino *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Associate Director Christian Räth

* San Francisco Opera Debut


In Luther’s tavern, a chorus of spirits of wine and beer is heard, while inside the adjoining opera house there is a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The Muse appears, professing her love for the poet Hoffmann. To protect him in his adventures, the Muse transforms herself into his faithful friend Nicklausse with help from the spirits. Councilor Lindorf bribes Andrès, a servant of the singer Stella, to intercept a note she has written inviting Hoffmann to meet her after the performance. Lindorf himself will keep that appointment. As offstage applause signals the end of the opera’s first act, students fill the tavern, among them Hoffman, accompanied by his friend Nicklausse. Students urge him to drink and sing, and he tells them the ballad of a dwarf named Kleinzach, then calls for the punch bowl. Noting the devilish Lindorf, he senses bad luck. When the students tease him about Stella, he begins the stories of three past loves….
The inventor Spalanzani is aided by his servant, Cochenille, in assembling a mechanical doll, Olympia. With her, he hopes to recoup the fortune he lost in the collapse of the banking house of Elias. Hoffmann declares his love for her, and Nicklausse hints that he is making a fool of himself. Coppélius, Spalanzani’s partner, sells the poet a pair of glasses that make Olympia appear human. Spalanzani and Coppélius haggle over the doll, and Spalanzani agrees to pay 500 ducats by way of a draft on the house of Elias. Guests arrive and Olympia captivates them with a charming song. Oblivious to the periodic mechanical difficulties of the doll, Hoffman is enchanted. When the guests leave for dinner, Spalanzani leaves the two alone, and Hoffmann declares his love. When he grabs her hand, she whirls out of control. Coppélius returns, bent on revenge for having been given a worthless bank draft. As the guests start to dance, Olympia is destroyed.
The musician Crespel has fled to Munich with his daughter, Antonia, hoping she will forget her love affair with Hoffmann there. She sings and becomes exhausted. Her father demands that she never sing again, since it will endanger her life, and he orders his deaf servant Frantz to allow no one into the house. Frantz tries to sing and dance. Hoffmann’s voice attracts Antonia, and they swear eternal love. Breaking her promise, she sings for Hoffmann. The sinister Dr. Miracle appears, whom Crespel considers an omen of doom because Miracle treated Crespel’s wife the day she died. The evil doctor inquires after Antonia, while Hoffmann watches. The charlatan begins to “examine” the girl, then commands her to sing—and her voice is heard. Miracle offers medicines to save her. The father, knowing this means death, throws Miracle out. Hoffmann begs her not to sing and leaves. The doctor reappears, taunting Antonia with prospects of glory as a singer and invokes the memory of her mother, a famous singer. As Miracle plays his violin, Antonia sings until she collapses and dies.
Hoffmann and Nicklausse are in Venice at the palazzo of the courtesan Giulietta, who has discarded her lover Schlemil in favor of a poet. Hoffmann drinks to pleasure, and Giulietta takes her guests to the gambling tables. Nicklausse warns his friend, who declares that should he fall in love, the Devil may take his soul. The magician Dapertutto declares he will bribe the courtesan by means of a glittering diamond. She has already obtained Schlemil’s shadow (or soul) for Dapertutto, who now insists on possessing Hoffmann’s reflection. The poet capitulates to her, and Dapertutto, Schlemil, Nicklausse, Pitichinaccio, and the chorus view the obsession of love. Schlemil, who refuses to give Hoffman the key to Giulietta’s apartment, is killed by the poet in a duel. As Nicklausse drags Hoffmann away, Dapertutto gloats in triumph.
As Hoffmann finishes his tales, the crowd goes to supper. When the students hail Stella, she finds the poet drunk and leaves on Lindorf’s arm. The Muse claims Hoffmann, who remains behind to create new works.

Tales Retold: Offenbach's Ironic Swan Song

Thomas May

“One could not imagine music more melodious, witty, lively, and lucid than his….No doubt he will earn the blame of those gentlemen who compose dry-as-dust music for showing that all their technique gets them nowhere. But, unlike them, he will be able to please the public, and that is not to be despised.”

Download a PDF of this article here


Michael Spyres (Hoffmann, center left) in the title role
of our current production as seen in Barcelona earlier this year.
A. Bofill/Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona

Thus wrote a critic in the journal La France Musicale following a concert of his own music Jacques Offenbach organized in Paris in the spring of 1846. By presenting a portfolio of operatic excerpts, he was attempting to rally supporters in his campaign to win over the aloof cultural gatekeepers of the Opéra-Comique, one of the leading houses in the international operatic capital of the era. In his mid-20s at the time, Offenbach had earned the rare distinction of early admission to another august French institution, the Conservatoire, when he was still a teenager but soon dropped out to follow his own path. He had subsequently been making his name both as a cellist (note the juicy tunes given to that instrument in Hoffmann’s score) and as a clever composer and personality at the leading salons of Paris. By 1844, Offenbach had even toured England and charmed Queen Victoria in a royal command performance.

Pleasing the public—and he did so naturally at the height of his career, to the point of redefining public taste—may not have been something to look down on, but in the end it failed to satisfy the ever-curious Offenbach. His effort to find a place on the Opéra-Comique stage, which would continue to meet with frustration for years, not only underlined the young composer’s great resourcefulness but foreshadowed the need Offenbach felt in his final years to prove he could “make it” in another sense as well: that is, to fulfill the ambition, which had hitherto eluded him, of creating a serious opera. The product of that ambition, The Tales of Hoffmann, has earned Offenbach a place in the pantheon of great opera composers. Yet its posthumous vindication of his genius—Offenbach died at only sixty-one, four months before his masterpiece was given its world premiere on February 9, 1881, at the Opéra-Comique—is riddled with fascinating contradictions, biographical and artistic alike.

James Morris (Coppélius) and Plácido Domingo (Hoffmann) in our 1987 production
Photo by Ron Scherl

Hoffmann has come to be considered Offenbach’s signature work but in fact marks a radical aesthetic shift for a composer who had built his career on light-hearted comic fare and parody. As Bay Area writer David Littlejohn wryly notes, it’s “as if the world’s most popular comedian had a try at playing Hamlet just before he died, and pulled it off successfully”—and not only pulled it off, but became known above all for that valedictory feat. Hoffmann also flies in the face of Offenbach’s famed (or, to his detractors, notorious) compositional facility and efficiency. Gifted with an ability to compose enchanting tunes on the spot and an unrelenting work ethic, he generated a jaw-dropping output that includes roughly 100 stage works, as well as numerous revisions, ranging from one-acts to full evening productions. And yet Offenbach lingered over writing Hoffmann, a score that obviously contained deep meaning for him and which he preferred to work on in solitude. He began composing it in 1877 but did not live to complete a final version of the Epilogue—in particular, the music for Hoffmann and his diva love, Stella, and the concluding “apotheosis” with the Muse—and died while involved in discussions with his producer at the Opéra-Comique, Léon Carvalho, over suggested adjustments to what was after all still a work-in-progress (see the previous A Tangled Tale).

Most significantly, then, Hoffmann in a sense represents Offenbach’s last will and testament as an artist, but a testament that can be read in divergent ways, since there is no authoritative “final” version of the opera. To this day, each new production stirs up controversy in the community of Offenbach scholars, involving as it does a balancing act between corrupt performance traditions (if these are challenged at all) and the most recent discoveries in a labyrinth of archival material. Though the composer does seem to have conceived of the work in its complete form, a mix of interventions by those later involved in producing Hoffmann (even to the point of omitting the Giulietta act or changing its order in the whole), as well as belated discoveries of previously unknown sketches and manuscripts, has complicated the desire to arrive at an unadulterated performing version.

Andrew Lamb, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, points out that “it is anyway impossible to produce a ‘definitive’ text for an opera of which some parts were composed two or three times over but which lacked the final finish and pruning.” Moreover, observes biographer Alexander Faris, “even if he had reached the last note of the opera, we must remember that Offenbach did not think of a work as complete until it had been performed before an audience, after which he would revise and finalize it.” The prima was something he thought of “as a basis for negotiation with public opinion; his assessment of audience reaction was a factor in his method of composition.”

Portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann

That knack for getting it right with audiences served Offenbach well even while the doors of the Opéra-Comique were closed to him. Born in Cologne in 1819 to a synagogue cantor, Jacques (né Jacob or Jakob) in fact reinvented himself several times before the masterful makeover he achieved with Hoffmann. He faced both anti-Semitic and anti-German bias in his adopted country yet, through his intelligence and artistry, developed his incisively comic style into a defining trait of Parisian culture of the Second Empire (1852–1870). (As a typical example of his irrepressible wit and love of wordplay, the composer, who should be on anyone’s list of “must-have” dinner guests from the past, sometimes gave his autograph as “O. de Cologne.”)  Offenbach’s cultivation of operetta and its uniquely French form of opéra bouffe at the theater he founded in 1855 resulted in winking, parodistic treatments of moralizing classical myths—not to mention the stuffiness of certain slavishly formulaic opera composers—that also often served up biting contemporary political commentary, as in his smash hit (and first full-length opéra bouffe), Orpheus in the Underworld. With another gear shift, contemporary Parisian life itself became the focus in the hugely successful La Vie Parisienne, while Offenbach later experimented with wildly allegorical satire in King Carrot (another Hoffmann-based story, which called for a ballet with dancers attired in various insect costumes) and even a sci-fi take on the genre of opéra-féerie with the Jules Verne-inspired Trip to the Moon.

Offenbach of course had his share of fiascos as well, from which he learned a great deal, but the fundamental political-cultural shift that followed France’s defeat by Prussia and the violent suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 posed an unprecedented new challenge as le tout Paris, for a brief period, turned against him. Though he soon found success again, his growing awareness of the transience of fashion may have directed Offenbach’s creative thoughts toward a more substantial project. Others point to his precarious health and fear of impending death as a motivating factor. Yet because of Hoffmann’s unique position within his oeuvre, a tendency to mythologize and exaggerate such sensitivities has become bound up in the opera’s reception history. As with other unfinished works—Turandot, Mozart’s Requiem, Bruckner’s Ninth or Mahler’s Tenth—the fact of the composer’s death while still at work on the score has itself become associated with Hoffmann: as if Antonia were some sort of uncannily Hoffmann-esque doppelganger of the composer, dying as a sacrifice to art, a victim of the desire for artistic validation. And accidental posthumous events such as a devastating fire in the theater soon after the Viennese premiere in 1881 have only added to the lore of a Macbeth-like “curse.” (Curiously, the score’s afterlife has been one of increased discovery rather than disappearance of the composer’s complicated legacy of notes, sketches, and manuscripts.)

A French movie poster for the 1951 film version of The Tales of Hoffmann
A French movie poster for the 1951 film version of The Tales of Hoffmann
Still, even as a work that stands apart, Hoffmann hardly repudiates Offenbach’s past, even as it reinvents it. The decision to base an opera on this source was actually rooted far back in his career, when Offenbach first became aware of the original play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (on which the libretto was eventually based). Faris reports that Offenbach even conducted the incidental music during the original run in 1851, telling the authors “that the piece would make a good opéra-comique” (meaning here a special Parisian genre blending musical numbers and spoken dialogue, not necessarily a “funny” story).

Even more, by deciding to take on Hoffmann as what became his great valedictory project, Offenbach turned his gaze backward toward the culture of his native Germany: the real-life E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) was one of the foundational figures of quintessentially German Romanticism not only in his glorification of the irrational and the imagination but in the genre-defying scope of his work. (Also known by the epithet “Mozart of the Champs-Élysées,” Offenbach idolized Mozart as much as Hoffmann, who actually changed one of his names to “Amadeus” as homage.)

It’s no surprise that Hoffmann nourished the creative fantasy of leading figures in the world of music, whether in actual settings of his tales (Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker) or in more abstract instrumental form, as in Schumann’s Kreisleriana for piano or the imaginative world of Mahler. Along with his innovative works as a novelist and story writer, Hoffmann was a composer, playwright, director, artist, music teacher, and (when drink and syphilis didn’t impede his day job), a legal bureaucrat. While his own operas wielded no notable influence, Hoffmann’s insightful music criticism had an enormous impact, defining music’s prerogative as a reservoir of profound philosophical truths that transcend ordinary language (itself an essential Romantic tenet).

Catherine Keen (Giulietta) and Jerry Hadley (Hoffmann) in our 1996 presentation
Photo by Ron Scherl

The Barbier-Carré team made a specialty of adapting literary classics for the stage (they also authored Gounod’s librettos for Faust and Roméo et Juliette). For Tales of Hoffmann, their chief sources were three independent narratives written by Hoffmann (The Sandman, Councilor Krespel, and The Lost Reflection for Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta, respectively); in addition, they cleverly established a framework by using Hoffmann’s hybrid story-musical critique novella Don Juan for the Prologue and Epilogue, in which Donna Anna is interpreted as the key to Don Giovanni’s deeper, esoteric meaning (hence it is this character with whom Stella is identified as a performer). To link all these pieces together, they conflated the historical Hoffmann (who never traveled to Italy, for example) with his various fictional alter egos.

The issue of identities and alter egos becomes crucial in the opera, both in Offenbach’s musico-dramatic strategies and in its overall interpretation.  In a sense, you could say that readings of the work fall somewhere in the spectrum between the highly distinctive artistic personalities of Hoffmann and Offenbach. At one extreme is a more straightforward focus on the Romantic and phantasmagorical aspects of the stories, which made Hoffmann the writer so attractive to contemporary French readers (who would similarly be drawn to Edgar Allan Poe) and which found its modern counterpart in the famous 1951 film adaptation of the opera by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

At the other end of the spectrum, Offenbach’s unique vision takes precedence: whether the characters are considered psychological projections by the composer, with the demonic figures as shades of his own self-destructive impulses, or the opera is understood as an intricately layered meta-commentary on the art form itself. A major clue to the latter comes in the Prologue, for example, with the seeming mere “entertainment” the poet Hoffmann performs for his comrades with his legend of the grotesque dwarf Kleinzach. In the middle of singing what seems a simple, predictable form, the poet enters a trance and swerves into a private, rhapsodic fantasy, losing himself entirely.

This swerve marks just the first of the opera’s subsequent splinterings of identity, from present moment to recollected reverie, from self-conscious performance to genuine emotional intensity, from appearance to revelation. Musically, as Faris aptly observes, “the sudden unexpected lyricism of the passage creates a feeling of unease” that will linger throughout the entire opera. Hoffmann managed to capture his imagination as the focus for a serious opera because Offenbach “was too much of an ironist to write a Romantic grand opera,” notes Faris: “If he was to compose seriously he required an anti-heroic subject,” settling on a narrative “in which the protagonist, three times a loser with women, ends up dead drunk while his ‘ideal woman’ leaves him to prostitute herself with an elderly rival.”


A portrait of Jacques Offenbach
Bridgeman Art Library

Offenbach had in fact grappled with serious or fantastic styles of writing, sans parody, in such earlier works as the more conventional Robinson Crusoe or The Rhine Nixies (his first through-composed score, with no spoken dialogue, written for a Viennese audience). He even recycles several ideas from previous scores (the famous barcarole melody, so instantly recognizable as the signature of the Giulietta act, originated as a depiction of the flowing Rhine in The Rhine Nixies). Rather than reject the modes and styles of his earlier operettas, Offenbach intensifies them in Hoffmann and places them in new ironic contexts. The work of such scholars as Antonio de Almeida, Fritz Oeser, Jean-Christophe Keck, and Michael Kaye has substantially corrected earlier sentimental readings of the opera as culminating in a tragic true love (with the death of Antonia). Nor is Hoffmann’s progression an episodic sequence of strange fantasies: it follows a gradual descent into disillusion as each of the poet’s inamoratas becomes more strong-willed. Antonia, after all, is essentially a puppet of Dr. Miracle, a few steps beyond the automaton Olympia, and each of the heroines gains a presence through some form of performing, up to Stella’s offstage operatic performance as Donna Anna. And with his reflection stolen by Giulietta, the poet can no longer rely on surfaces to cast back the image he seeks but is left at the end with the bitter truth that suffering surpasses even love as a teacher of the heart.
--Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera. He is the author of Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.

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Director's Note

Laurent Pelly

Renowned director Laurent Pelly, who made his San Francisco Opera debut with his charmingly inventive production of La Fille du Régiment in 2009, sat down with San Francisco Opera Magazine to discuss his production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, including his inspiration from Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spillaert and the edition of the opera that he and his team decided to work from.

Download a PDF of the program page here

Laurent Pelly
What was the inspiration for incorporating the painting style of Léon Spilliaert into the designs?

The association between the worlds of E.T.A. Hoffmann [the German romantic writer whose short stories inspired the opera] and Léon Spilliaert was immediately obvious to me. A realistic fantasy and mystery within everyday life can be found in the painter’s work of his central period, as with Hoffmann’s works. All of Spilliaert’s work seems to show a banal interior, animated by a disturbing magic. Through the eyes of the artist, every object, every piece of furniture, each colored wall takes the viewer into a deep and mysterious realm, transforming reality into something strange and surreal. It’s a traditional environment inhabited by shadows and secrets. We have chosen to take this fascinating world as the inspiration for the design of our production and create a space that comes from the imagination of the poet. A world both real and dreamlike, and a device that moves us from one story to another—a reality both in the theater as well as in the foolishness of Hoffmann. The staging is not designed to be a decorative piece, but as a tool for mobile storytelling.

What are the advantages of using the integral edition by Jean-Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye?

The strength of the Keck–Kaye edition is that it returns to the original form of the work—a “comic opera” alternating arias and dialogue— which was what Offenbach originally wanted, rather than incorporating the recitatives added by Ernest Guiraud after the work’s creation. [see A Tangled Tale.] Thus the work retains a truly dramatic coherence. This version also restores a number of arias and duets that were cut after the work’s premiere, which are indispensable both for dramatic tension and for understanding the plot.

Why are you fascinated with this piece?

Primarily, it is a piece full of exceptional dramatic richness. It is the combination of two geniuses: the poetical and fantastical world of E.T.A. Hoffmann combined with the musical inventiveness of Jacques Offenbach. It is the madness of a poet and the dream of a composer; an extravagant work that one can never completely circumnavigate, which successfully joins the grotesque and the sublime. While Offenbach never forgets the humor, he brings a dark, fatal dimension. In his quest for the absolute and ideal female to the adventures of the poet Hoffmann, Offenbach mixes exhilaration with the macabre, popular melodies with intense lyricism. Les Contes d’Hoffmann represents four eras in the emotional life of a man, four stories that together make a unique opera, a masterpiece of French romanticism, and a labyrinth of dizziness and lightness.

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Léon Spilliaert

A closer look at Léon Spilliaert, whose artwork inspired the look of this production.

Born in the Flemish seaside resort town of Ostend in Belgium, Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946) displayed a talent for drawing at an early age and was primarily self-taught. At 21 he went to work for Edmond Deman, a publisher of symbolist writers, which the artist was to illustrate and draw inspiration from. Spillaert particularly admired the work of Edgar Allen Poe.

The symbolist movement, which emerged in France in the late nineteenth century, was a rejection of realism and naturalism. These writers, visual artists, and musicians saw art as being subjective, ambiguous, and mysterious. Instead of looking to the outer world for inspiration, they divined their subject matter from their dreams and emotions. Spilliaert used a number of media—watercolor, gouache, pastel, charcoal—in combination to produce his haunting and dramatic works, many of them monochrome self-portraits and, later, seascapes. He would often record a banal image drawn from daily life, but give it a surprising and intriguing setting full of psychological tension, all in a deeply personal and inward-looking style.

Self Portrait (1907-08), gouache, watercolor and crayon on paper
Private collection, Bridgeman Art Library

The Second of November (1908), Indian ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium; Bridgeman Art Library

The Park, Trees (1944), pen & ink and watercolor on paper
Giraudon, Bridgeman Art Library


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A Tangled Tale

Thomas May

Some notes on the many editions of The Tales of Hoffmann

Download a PDF of this article here

Michael Spyres and Natalie Dessay in our current production of
The Tales of Hoffmann
as seen at Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu earlier this year.
A. Bofill/Gran Teatre del liceu, Barcelona

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.
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.
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.

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"So much of the production is so brilliant, and the singing so superb, that it simply MUST BE SEEN."
"So much of the production is so brilliant, and the singing so superb, that it simply MUST BE SEEN. A Hoffmann like this you have never seen before, and will likely not see again for many a decade."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Tenor Matthew Polenzani threw himself into the title role with a wondrous combination of vocal clarity and demonic theatrical energy."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Christian Van Horn was a commanding, big-voiced villain, bringing an air of suave menace."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Hye Jung Lee "sang her leaping coloratura passages with rare precision, rich tone and off-the-charts high notes."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Dessay, the French soprano and the cast's biggest star, sang with ethereal tenderness in her soft passages."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Irene Roberts "dazzled in her company debut; what a plush, opulent voice she has."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"The real triumph of the evening was the company debut of mezzo-soprano Angela Brower as the Muse and Nicklausse, in a phenomenal display of dramatic power and lush vocal prowess."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Polenzani in "a stupendous portrayal...singing with beautifully soft, honeyed tone."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Soprano Hye Jung Lee dispatched Olympia's glittering vocal roulades with ferocious precision and grace."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"A cast of first-rate actors."
"A cast of first-rate actors, and the orchestra, conducted by Patrick Fournillier, was crisp and popping—vivid sound from the opening moments—as was the chorus."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Brilliantly directed and costumed by Laurent Pelly."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice


Matthew Polenzani is memorable to San Francisco audiences for his performance in The Abduction from the Seraglio (2009):

(Look for Polenzani again at 2:22)


Natalie Dessay was unforgettable as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor (2008):


Watch Natalie Dessay perform Olympia's aria (Les Chorégies d'Orange, 2000):


Before Matthew Polenzani and Natalie Dessay are reunited on stage this summer, watch a clip of their performances in La Traviata (Metropolitan Opera, 2012):


Director Laurant Pelly returns after receiving rave reviews for his direction of The Daughter of the Regiment (2009):


This exciting new production draws inspiration for the work of Belgian Symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert. Discover his artwork:


Listen to Matthew Polenzani's beautiful rendition of "Oh Danny Boy":


  • Wed 06/5/13 7:30pm

  • Tue 06/11/13 8:00pm

  • Fri 06/14/13 8:00pm

  • Thu 06/20/13 7:30pm *

  • Sun 06/23/13 2:00pm *

  • Thu 06/27/13 7:30pm *

  • Sun 06/30/13 2:00pm

  • Wed 07/3/13 7:30pm *

  • Sat 07/6/13 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by Roberta and David Elliott, The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund, The Thomas Tilton Production Fund, and Chevron. Mr. Polenzani’s and Ms. Dessay's appearances are made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.