“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.”
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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
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.