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Assembling Les contes d'Hoffmann

by Garnett Bruce


  E.T.A. Hoffmann, self-portrait
E.T.A. Hoffmann
E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) never intended to be a writer. Throughout his life, he pursued music, law, painting, political cartoons—and often ran afoul of the civic leaders he mocked. Time and again, he found himself ostracized and forced to leave town to avoid scandal. His history also seems to indicate he never learned the lesson, repeating similar errors and winding up penniless. Yet his hobbies—his stories—lingered on, championed by students, inspiring the protés;gés;s of Goethe and Schiller to embrace the Romantic era. Hoffmann’s travels around central Europe included living in Nuremberg, Bamberg, Warsaw, Dresden, Leipzig, no doubt hanging out in taverns with like-minded Romantics of the day—even changing his middle name from Wilhelm to Amadeus to honor Mozart.

Hoffmann’s stories defy the eighteenth-century codes of the enlightenment by introducing supernatural elements and passionate emotions. Suddenly it was permitted to discuss your feelings and your fears. And, while the idea of forces beyond our control are as exciting as they are ludicrous, a nineteenth-century audience would have trouble denying these forces exist: Peter Schlémil sells his Shadow to the Devil, losing his ability to dream; a poet mistakes an “automaton” (a mechanical human) as real; children see the struggles of good and evil in a battle between nutcracker and mouse. Hoffmann’s influence spread far and wide—Dickens, Poe, Tchaikovsky and Freud are just the first of several key literary and scientific figures that Hoffmann inspired.

Jules Barbier and Michel Carré created a stage play for Paris in 1851 from three of Hoffmann's short stories—which a very busy Offenbach knew about and probably saw. Yet it would be 30 years before Offenbach would come close to completing his version of the tale. The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) interfered with Offenbach’s work (he was a German Jewish immigrant to France) and placed him on the margins of society. They loved his can-cans, but now loathed the man. Coupled with changing allegiances at various theaters, Les contes d'Hoffmann was neither completed nor performed while Offenbach was alive.

Offenbach caricature
Jacques Offenbach caricature
One of several existing caricatures of Offenbach,
this features him riding his instrument, the cello

The task of assembling materials for the first performance in 1881 fell to Ernest Guiraud (who had fleshed out Bizet’s Opéra Comique Carmen for full opera-house treatment a few years earlier) and much of Offenbach’s innovation was jettisoned for either pragmatic or stylistic reasons. The Giulietta act didn't sound like the raucous Offenbach of La belle Hélène or Orfée aux enfers and was cut from the first performance and the barcarolle moved to another act. The Opés;ra Comique’s tradition of spoken dialogue was abandoned and after a fire destroyed much of what did exist, the opera became subject to the inconsistencies of tradition. Acts were rearranged, other music (some only imitative of Offenbach) added to serve singers or directors, and like a weak carbon copy, much of the imagination and innovation of the score became lost.

In 1978, Fritz Oeser published his assessment of the existing materials, creating a new version of the score to serve conductors and stage directors looking for greater accuracy and authenticity. But many argued it went too far in eliminating sacred chestnuts like the Giulietta Septet and Dappertutto’s “Diamond Aria” which were created at the start of the twentieth century. Others argued Oeser’s edition did not go far enough, and Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck have now created their critical edition, containing nearly four hours of material they uncovered through years of exhaustive research and is the version currently performed at the Paris Opera.

For our performances at Peabody, we have chosen the Oeser edition and the spoken dialogues based on the original 1881 libretto. No two directors or conductors agree on a version of this opera, but I find the Opéra-Comique style serves us well, merging spoken text and the individuality of the performers with strong starts to musical numbers. Offenbach was, at his roots, a man of the theater, committed to keeping his public engaged and coming back, whether for fantastic tales or thinly veiled political jibes cloaked in the classics. It is this spirit of storytelling—inspired by Hoffmann and polished by Offenbach—that motivates and informs our choices in this production.

Hoffmann playbill       Return to top

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