Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann

OffenbachThe Tales of Hoffmann (Les contes d’Hoffmann) is an opera composed by Jacques Offenbach (picture at left). To my thinking it’s not only his best, it’s one of the best operas ever written by anyone, a masterwork. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see his opera performed.

To fully appreciate the caliber of this operatic performance, it helps to understand the background of the real person for which it is named and on whose writings the opera is based.

The real Hoffmann, one Ernst Theodor Amadeus Wilhelm Hoffmann (the Amadeus is assumed), was an 18th century German author, composer, music critic, draftsman, caricaturist, and illustrator.

This real Hoffmann was a well known, successful author in his day and his works are still being read.  He was an influential literary figure who favored and followed his muse. Numbered among his works are The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, upon which Tchaikovsky based his ballet The Nutcracker, and The Sandman, upon which Delibes based his ballet Coppelia.

As a writer, Hoffmann was (and is) best-known to the public by his shorter penname, E.T.A Hoffmann, which he used for his fantasy and horror story publications.

The whole of this written outpouring is highly imaginative, very inventive, and darkly reflective—on occasion even humerous and spooky. He played a key role in establishing the horror story and fantasy genres and his works stimulated other important writers of the Romantic period to do the same.

Offenbach not only named his opera after this real writer Hoffmann, he remade the real writer into the opera’s central character and patterned its plot after three of his stories. Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is based partly on Hoffman’s story The Sandman, and also on two others of Hoffmann’s works, Councillor Krespel, and The Lost Reflection.

eta_hoffmannBut the character named Hoffmann is nothing like that of the real person. The Hoffmann in Offenbach’s opera is perpetually bipolar—in love and lovelorn, alternately lucky and luckless, naive but world-wise; he’s a wanderer and adventurer, a larger-than-life misguided and fantastical artist-dreamer who is ready to fall in love or fight a duel at the drop of a hat. He’s an archetypical Romantic period poet like Byron or Shelly, as the Europeans of their time mistakenly imagined their poets to be.

The real Hoffmann lived a tough, hard, unhappy (albeit creative) life. His fantasy and horror stories are products of his imagination more than they are products of his personal experience.

But somehow, with his lively music and immense sense of humor, Offenbach manages to transform Hoffmann’s fundamentally drab and serious materials into farce. Offstage, the original author’s stories are somber, even phantasmagorical; onstage Offenbach instills into them a sense of everlasting joy, gay and sardonic humor, farce, and wonderment. Hoffmann’s dour dreams become inspirations and symbols for the vigorous, animated stories Offenbach tells; they become ideal vehicles for his great music.

2011, Decision Consulting, Inc. (DCI). All rights reserved. All copies must include this copyright statement.

This entry was posted in Arts Criticism, Composer, General, Literature, Music, Opera and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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