Theatre / The Tales of Hoffmann

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French title: Les Contes d’Hoffmann. A five-act opera in French, with score by Jacques Offenbach and libretto by Jules Barbier. The writer protagonist is a fictionalized version of E. T. A. Hoffmann, and the plot draws from three of the real Hoffmann’s stories: "The Sandman", “Councillor Krespel”, and the “The Lost Reflection” episode from A New Year Eve's Adventure.

Hoffmann is a writer and bon-vivant who at the start of the opera visits Luther's Tavern during the entr’acte of a production of Don Giovanni (starring Stella, the current object of his affection). The other patrons ask him to entertain them with stories. In the mix of drinking and storytelling, Hoffmann's mind starts to wander, and he blurts out mentions of his old loves. This intrigues the patrons and so he starts telling how he met and lost each of his previous three great loves: Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. Meanwhile, the sinister Councillor Lindorf, his Unknown Rival for the affections of Stella, and his seemingly normal friend Nicklaus, carry their own agendas and interests for Hoffmann.

The opera was Offenbach's final work and he died before completing it. Most operas tend to change and alter the opera and make changes to the ending as per the vision and design of the directors, composers and singers, and there's no final consensus on the true vision of Offenbach's works since his papers burned in the 1887 fire at the Opera-Comicque. It is was adapted into a famous film version by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which in addition to being an opera is also a ballet, and converts recitative sequences in the opening prologue into silent ballet pieces, featuring much of the same cast as The Red Shoes.

The opera is especially famous for the Duet that opens the "The Tale of Giullietta" (Venice section), known as the Barcarolle, featured in many movies like Life Is Beautiful, Midnight in Paris and whose tune was borrowed by Elvis Presley for "Tonight is so right for love".


Tropes used in The Tales of Hoffmann include:

  • The Alcoholic: The framing narrative is all about Hoffmann getting drunk and regaling tavern revelers with his tales and ultimately getting so intoxicated that he forgets about Stella. The real Hoffmann incidentally did have a drinking problem.
  • Artistic License – History: It's not intended to be a Biopic exactly of Hoffmann's life, but since the Opera (and its film adaptation) tends to be the introduction for many people to Hoffmann, a few facts have to be pointed out:
    • Unlike the hapless loser of Offenbach's opera, the real Hoffmann was the son of Prussian nobility (a long line of civil servants) who was quite functional and rational. While he did have a drinking problem, he never quite descended to the Butt Monkey status of the opera's version. He did experience crippling poverty and loneliness but that came out thanks to unemployment on account of Napoleon's invasion of Prussia (which ended the old bureaucratic corps for which Hoffmann had a post in place).
    • Likewise, Hoffmann was a married man with children, and while he did have a few unconsummated crushes and perhaps some extra-marital liasions, he was outwardly a family man, an attorney and bureaucrat who had no real problems managing his artistic activities and his real life responsibilities, unlike the Hoffmann of the opera.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: This Hoffmann's stories are autobiographical.
  • Biography à Clef: The conceit of the opera is that Hoffmann's famous tales were grounded in real-life trauma and bad experiences and that he finally got out of that rut, by writing them down.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Most productions and Offenbach's original notes, end with Hoffmann encouraged by the Muse to make his suffering count by refocusing attention on his art.
  • But You Were There, and You, and You:
    • Hoffmann’s four nemeses are all played by the same baritone: Councillor Lindorf (frame story), Coppélius (Olympia’s story), Dr. Miracle (Antonia’s story), and Dappertutto (Giulietta’s story). They can be interpreted as a single demonic nemesis who takes multiple forms.
    • There are also four different servants played by the same character tenor.
    • And some productions cast the same soprano as all four of Hoffmann’s love interests.
  • Butt Monkey: Hoffmann is among the unluckiest of all opera protagonists and every tale ends with him repeatedly humiliating himself.
  • Crosscast Role: Nicklausse, sort of – he’s a form taken by the (female) Muse.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Hoffmann is perennially unlucky in love, and loses every girl he falls for. The Muse insists that he direct his passions to art instead.
  • Downer Ending: Many productions and the 1951 film, end with Hoffmann falling so drunk that he misses to meet Stella who finally walks out with Lindorf. In these productions, Stella back longingly at Hoffmann, and even leaves a flower, suggesting that Hoffmann really did miss out on his true love.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Hoffmann starts out drunk and grows more and more intoxicated as he keeps recounting his tales and finally passes out.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Councillor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, are all baritone parts, and usually played by the same actor.
  • Framing Device: The opera starts and ends in a bar, where the patrons have asked Hoffmann to entertain them with stories. The three inner acts are the stories that he tells.
  • Germanic Depressives: It's a French opera about a German writer, and while Hoffmann tries to be a party animal and boozehound, he eventually falls into morbid loneliness, pining after romantic rejection and lack of fulfillment.
  • Hero's Muse: The Muse, who protects and inspires Hoffmann throughout all his adventures, and ultimately encourages him to choose art over earthly romance.
  • Leitmotif: There’s a recurring ominous riff that introduces each new incarnation of the baritone villain.
  • Mad Scientist: Spalanzani is often played this way.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Olympia
  • Made Myself Sad: The opera plot and the telling of tales kicks in during the middle of Hoffmann's Kleinzach song, where the song suddenly shifts when he describes Kleinzach's impossible desire for love, reminding himself of his own loss. The music itself suddenly shifts in tone, going from light and bouncy to romantic and passionate. Hoffmann's own mood kicks in needless to say by the end.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Miracle
  • Muse Abuse:
    • A literal example. In the Epilogue, Hoffmann gets so drunk and angry that at one point he attacks Nicklaus (who unbeknownst to him is The Muse).
    • An inverted example is the case of recent productions, where the Muse is shown manipulating Hoffmann into dead-end relationships in a Batman Gambit to provide Hoffmann the suffering he needs to become a great artist. In the 2009 Met version, the Muse is shown collaborating with the Villain to make sure Hoffmann never sees Olympia's wind-up actions, and generally looking the other way whenever the Villain concocts his schemes. In other words, the Muse is abusing the artist to help him make better art.
  • Shapeshifting: The Muse takes the form of Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse.
  • Shout-Out: When Nicklaus/The Muse greets Hoffmann, he sings out the opening bars of Leporello's song in Don Giovanni.
  • Your Soul Is Mine: Giulietta steals her clients’ reflections/souls for Dappertutto. In the 1951 Powell-Pressburger version, she sings the Barcarolle in duet with her own reflection, implying that her own soul was lost to Dappertutto, which suggests that she entraps others for her own freedom rather than malice.

Alternative Title(s): Les Contes D Hoffmann

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