Friday, February 24, 2012

Will the Real "Tales of Hoffmann" Please Stand Up?

(This essay was written for Opera Brooklyn's March 2nd concert performance of Jacques Offenbach's delightful opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) in James Chapel  in New York City).

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)
    It remains a curious sidebar of music history that one of the world’s most popular operas, the engaging and delightful The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), has had such a circuitous journey, from the many false starts as it was about to be premiered, to the plethora of varied performances it has had over those ensuing one hundred thirty years, all the way to today. 

     During this time, more than a dozen so-called “complete performances” have wended their way in and out of opera houses around the world, all to great admiration and acclaim. The problem is that not one of these reconstructions is exactly as its composer had written. To get a better understanding of these peculiar circumstances and the “whys and wherefores” of this lovely opera (oh yes, G and S loved Offenbach too!), it is worthwhile to take a brief look at the birthing of Hoffmann and the life of its composer, Jakob Eberst. Wait! You say? You thought that it was Jacques Offenbach who composed Hoffmann?  Well, you are right. Hoffmann was indeed composed by Jacques Offenbach – whose name was also Jakob Eberts; they are one and the same. It’s a long and true story, you see, a  tale akin to Hoffmann’s own, and it goes like this:

    Jacques Offenbach was born Jakob Eberst on June 20, 1819, in Cologne, in Prussia (Germany was not yet its own country). His father, Isaac, was a violinist and cantor, and was nicknamed der Offenbacher, after the family’s native town of Offenbach am Main (near Frankfurt in southern Germany). Isaac officially took the surname Offenbach in 1816. The two Offenbach sons (there were also eight Offenbach daughters in this prolific family) were highly musical. Jakob started on violin, and switched early on to cello, where he was quickly recognized to be a prodigy.  Much as the young Brahms would do as a solo pianist in Hamburg and later with the violinist Reményi on tour, Jakob, his brother Julius and his sister Isabella formed a piano trio (cello, violin, piano),  playing the saloons and inns of Cologne. Their precocious musical artistry quickly made them local celebrities, which prompted their father Isaac to find a way to send Julius and Jakob to Paris, to the Paris Conservatoire (a Parisian Juilliard or Curtis Insitute of Music, if you will, though of course, Parisians would say that Juilliard and Curtis are American versions of the Paris Conservatoire, and there is something to that), recognized as the epicenter of European musical pedagogy.

    In Paris, where Jakob impressed the director of the Conservatoire, (the Italian-born composer Luigi Cherubini),  he was duly admitted and changed his first name to Jacques (Julius/Jules got in as well). After studying there for only a year, the now newly-named Jacques Offenbach abruptly left and began freelancing on cello, eventually securing a permanent position in 1835 as a cellist at the Opéra Comique. In 1844, Offenbach went to England for a series of concerts, in some of which he had the opportunity to perform with the greatest violinist of the time, Joseph Joachim, and the brilliant composer and pianist Felix Mendelssohn, capping off his tour with a spectacularly successful concert at Windsor Court where he amazed the royal family with his artistry, prompting a reporter at the time to comment,  "Herr Jacques Offenbach, the astonishing Violoncellist, performed on Thursday evening at Windsor before the Emperor of Russia, the King of Saxony, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert,  with great success.”

    However, Offenbach’s true passion was opera, and composing operettas in particular, but his initial efforts, which he presented to Paris’ Opéra Comique, were summarily rebuffed. After a few other efforts in the genre which did not go very far, Offenbach succeeded in composing his first true hit, an opéra bouffe (a comic operatic farce with parody and satire, which we would term a full-scale operetta), Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), to a text and libretto by Halevy and Cremieux. It premiered in 1858 at the Theatre des Bouffes Parisien, and ran for an astounding 228 performances after opening night.  Orpheus is still popular and frequently performed, and is especially well known for its second act Galop Infernal, immediately recognizable today as the famous “Can-Can.”

    Offenbach became a French citizen in 1860 and subsequently was bestowed one of France’s highest civilian honors, the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, by Napoleon III. Offenbach’s success with Orpheus was followed by other still popular works, most notably La Belle Hélène in 1864, La Vie Parisienne in 1866 and La Périchole in 1868. However matters turned sour for Offenbach in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war; Offenbach’s close relationship with the regime of Napoleon III made him somewhat of a persona non grata for a while. However, things improved by 1872 and Offenbach was back in favor in France, busily composing and conducting. He toured the United States in 1876, as part of its Centennial Exhibition, giving numerous performances to packed crowds in Philadelphia, as well as in New York City at a place called Gilmore’s Garden (and which is now called Madison Square Garden !).

    Les Contes d’Hoffmann was Offenbach’s last effort, a serious opera, and an unfinished work at that.  Hoffmann was based on a play by the librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, the same sophisticated and successful writing team who scripted Gounod’s Faust and Romeo et Juliette. Their stage play, Les Contes Fantastique d’Hoffmann (The fantastic Tales of Hoffmann) premiered in 1851 and was based on the life of a real poet, the German artist E.T.A. Hoffmann, making him a character in some of his own, wildly fanciful stories. Three of these stories (in English, they are titled “The Sandman,” “Councillor Krespel” and “The Lost Reflection”) serve as leitmotifs for each of the three acts of Hoffmann.  Offenbach's dramatic opera follows the same schema, placing the title and eponymous character  as a protagnoist within each of these three imaginary stories of failed love. The work became one of the most noble, nuanced, and expressive operas in the whole of the French tradition.
E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776 - 1822)

    E.T.A. Hoffmann was one of the last of the Romantic German writers, and his carefully developed and psychologically drawn stories served as inspiration for many subsequent literary works, ballets and musical compositions apart from Offenbach's Tales. Indeed, several of Edgar Allen Poe's short stories were influenced by Hoffmann's oeuvre, as were some of the novels of Pushkin, Chekhov's plays,  the early work of Dostoyevsky,  Delibes' Coppelia, and Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and Nutcracker ballet.

     One particular psychological trait, as Mary Dibbern eloquently writes in her source book on The Tales of Hoffmann, and which is one of the central motifs in Offenbach's  Hoffmann that stems directly from E.T.A. Hoffmann's original work,  is the notion of the double (or doppelganger) and its corollary concept of the "disintegration of the identity." This is evident in the fluidity of the characters in Offenbach's opera, especially in the various manifestations of Stella (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta);  Hoffmann's friend, the androgynous Nicklausse (who also inhabits the Muse at the end), and the evil-doers Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto.

   Hoffmann was to have premiered at the Gaîté-Lyrique in Paris during its 1877-1878 season, but budgetary cutbacks forced Offenbach to postpone its opening. It was then rescheduled for the Opéra-Comique, but a further series of snafus pushed back the premiere even further. All the while, Offenbach continued to tinker with the music as well as the libretto, and unfortunately he died while the production was still in rehearsal, and four months before it finally premiered, in February of 1881 at the Opéra Comique, leaving the score unfinished. The work’s orchestration was completed by Ernest Guiraud, who also wrote the recitatives and  spliced in the famously lovely and elegiac second act Barcarolle, or boat-song, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour, which Offenbach originally wrote as a ghost-song for one of his earlier ballet-operas, his now forgotten 1864 gem, Le Fée du Rhin, (The Rhine Fairy, or Die Rheinnixen as it was known at its Vienna premiere) .

    Over the ensuing one hundred thirty years, musicologists continued to uncover various parts of the manuscripts for the opera that Offenbach was continually editing. The result is that there have been numerous “completed editions” of Hoffmann. The milestone 1992 effort by Michael Kaye has recently been supplanted by a newer edition, completed in 2011  by two competing music publishers, one French, the other German (as befits Offenbach’s own Franco-Teutonic citizenship). These two houses have collected and collated all the known manuscripts and fragments to create a new collaborative edition which is arguably now a most definitive Urtext, as faithful to Offenbach’s original vision as possible. Despite, or perhaps because of, these many hurdles over the years, the version of Hoffmann that we can now enjoy today captures all of the spirit, nuance and beauty of Offenbach's timeless music, to timeless tales.
Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision


  1. As one who has known and loved
    Les Contes des Hoffmann since early boyhood. I am completely confused as to what recording of the work I I should purchase? Please reply to the quest at John B. Simpson Coveclubcapecod

  2. There are two, imho:
    Sills, Burrows and co. under Julius Rudel
    The other is Domingo and Corrubas and co.