Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Beyond superlative... glorious artistry... a delightful opera
that is ironically about a man on the edge of losing his soul.
by Karen Shearer Voorhees*

Jacques Offenbach's' Les contes d'Hoffmann / a Metropolitan Opera production
stage direction: Bartlett Sher / music direction: James Levine
photos courtesy and © Ken Howard

We are used to excellence from the New York Metropolitan Opera, but its 2009-10 season production of Tales of Hoffmann was beyond superlative. This viewer would gladly have sat through it again the same day. The exuberant, over-the-top staging struck some false notes, but these were few and far between. They could not dim the delightfulness of this opera that is, ironically, about a man on the edge of losing his soul.

The magic of the Met Opera’s ongoing HD Simulcast program allowed this traveling viewer to watch Tales of Hoffmann last December far from home, it in a theater near Palm Springs, California. The program seems to be attracting a rapidly growing audience around the world; the show in Palm Springs was sold out. (Most of the audience looked over fifty, though; the simulcast program may not be drawing younger generations to opera). This broadcast had none of the technical problems that have marred some previous ones, such as the repeatedly fuzzed sound in Aida. The only technical quibble would be the frequent camera close-ups that sometimes felt intrusive.

The young soprano Kathleen Kim, who played the mechanical doll Olympia, was a revelation. Likewise the new tenor Joseph Calleja who sang the role of Hoffman for the first time, and mezzo Kate Lindsey as the androgynous Niklausse. The audience gave them well-deserved roaring ovations. Other singers were also at the top of their form, including the superstar Anna Netrebko who appeared as both Stella and the doomed Antonia.

The libretto (by Barbier and Carré) is based loosely on several of the short stories written by E. T. A. Hoffmann early in the nineteenth century. Hoffmann had lived a life of excess, and died at age 46 of alcoholism and syphilis. (His life helped create the cliché of the tragic romantic artiste). This opera’s florid libretto and score are based as much on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s life as on his tales. Hence the name of the opera’s protagonist, and of the opera itself.

The composer Offenbach died in 1880 before finishing the score for Tales of Hoffmann. There is no one authoritative version, so different productions can vary hugely. Part of the fun in seeing this opera staged is in comparing the differences. The version assembled for this Met production deliberately emphasizes the psychological depths that were such a notable part of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original stories, and it heightens the ambiguities. In other productions the role of Hoffmann has been played as moody or morbid. Here he is played warmly and openly (matching Calleja’s clear, golden voice), and therefore easily deluded. By way of balance, Hoffman’s muse/companion Niklausse has become darker and more menacing. Inspired staging makes it clear that s/he is fully in league with the demonic Lindorf, which is not the case in other versions. Niklausse and Lindorf collude to ensure that Hoffman is always thwarted in love.

Among the many brilliant staging elements is the addition of Hoffmann’s table and typewriter downstage right all through. Hoffmann begins and ends the opera here, and returns to it often during the tavern scenes and the three love stories. Along with other elements of staging, this heightens the surreal ambiguity: How much of this drama is external reality? How much of it is an inner drama between aspects of Hoffmann’s own psyche? The story line works at both levels throughout. In this way it is much like the hit Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera, which was clearly inspired in large part by this opera.

As the opera begins we are in a tavern in Nuremburg. Hoffman is carousing with friends while waiting for his beloved Stella to arrive. To entertain the crowd he begins a song about a pathetic dwarf named Kleinzach. This short but essential ballad is a reference to E. T. A. Hoffmann. Like Kleinzach, the original writer of these Tales had been abnormally short with a very large head, very small hands and feet, and facial tics. He had bitterly felt like an outcast and freak his whole life. This Met production’s brilliantly staged Ballad of Kleinzach makes a deep impression, as it must, for it will be crucial again at the end of the opera.

The staging of the first of the three Tales piles on the “romantic” excess. This reviewer loved it all. Dr. Spalanzani costumed as Dr. Mengele! The gooey eyeballs! The descending spiral stairway, painted as a dragon, that seemed to devour Hoffmann! The bizarre outfits on everyone! And above all, the glorious, festive music! Hoffmann, here an eager student of science, is complicit in his own deception. He willingly puts on the glasses of illusion that make the mechanical doll Olympia appear to be a living woman. He falls in love with a thing that isn’t even alive. When the two doctors tear the doll apart at the end of the scene (quarreling over money, significantly), Hoffmann is shattered.

While perhaps the most lyrically beautiful, the score for the second Tale is more muted than the other two. The staging is appropriately spare, even stark, in powerful contrast to the scenes before and after. Antonia is ill and must conserve her strength. She must choose between married life and a brilliant public career as a singer. Hoffmann, now a serious musician, seems about to have a happy, fulfilled “bourgeois” life with her, but Lindorf and Niklause prevent this by driving Antonia to death. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s hatred of bourgeois life and culture is reflected here in a duet between Antonia and Lindorf.

The exquisite Barcarole that begins the third Tale does not take place with the usual gondola ride through the canals of Venice. Instead we are indoors at an orgy in the salon of the courtesan Guilietta. Nearly naked dancers writhe in choreographed coitus. (Here was one of those times when camera close-ups undercut the stage magic. The intended eroticism was lost in vistas of bulging calf muscles of monstrous size).

Now a cynical man-of-the world, Hoffman insists that he is immune to love. Nonetheless he falls hard for the courtesan Giulietta the moment she turns her wiles on him. Goaded by Lindorf, who has bribed her with a magnificent diamond, Giulietta steals Hoffmann’s shadow—a metaphor for loss of one’s soul. In this version, unlike some others, Hoffman doesn’t get his shadow back when Giulietta drops him. Niklausse helps lure Hoffmann into this situation, then helps him escape after he kills a rival in a duel.

The opera ends with a final short scene in the tavern where it began. By now Hoffmann is too drunk to respond to Stella when she arrives. She leaves with Lindorf. Aware that he has lost her for good, Hoffmann erupts in self-hatred and identifies himself with the defective, deformed dwarf Kleinsach. Niklausse gently guides him back to his typewriter and urges him to fulfill his true calling as poet.

Hoffman has been “saved” from a fulfilled relationship with a woman. Will he instead use his energies to fulfill a “higher” calling as an artist? Will he transcend by distilling his misery into poetry? Or is he too far gone in alcoholism? Will he disappear into a bottle? The luminous hymn with which the opera ends implies transcendence. But the behavior of Niklausse, who has encouraged his drinking throughout, and the loss of his shadow, imply that alcoholism has won. The ambiguity at the opera’s end is total.

Or will the protagonist do both, like his namesake E. T. A. Hoffman, who died of his excesses after an astonishingly brilliant and productive artistic career? We don’t know. We leave the theater drunk on glorious artistry.


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*Karen Shearer Voorhees was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in California near the San Francisco Bay Area. Her early fascination with Tolkien's "Lord of the Ring" cycle led her to become a Medievalist. In college she soon realized that Wagner had drawn on the same mythological material for his Ring Cycle as Tolkien had--in fact, Wagner was one of Tolkiens greatest inspirations. From Wagner her love of opera expanded through Mozart to the rest of the greats. She received a Ph.D in History of Art and Medieval Studies from UC Berkeley in 1988, but withdrew from academia to pursue writing, editing, and meditation. She now lives with her husband on the north coast of California, surrounded by redwood trees, in view of the Pacific Ocean.

Opening music is excerpted from the famous Barcarole in Act Two of Tales of Hoffmann, taken from the London recording with Richard Bonynge conducting the L'Orchestre de las Suisse Romande with Placido Domingo as Hoffmann and Dame Joan Sutherland as Olympia, Giulietta, Antonia, and Stella.

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