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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 Nicklausse, 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 Opéra-Comique. It 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:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The endings of the original tales are all changed to varying extents.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication:
    • The 1951 film never establishes that Nicklausse is a muse in disguise, portraying them mostly as some androgynous person who just kinda hangs around.
    • The opera cuts the opening from The Sandman (1816) which shows the backstory and start of the rivalry between the protagonist and Coppélius, explaining why the latter was so keen on selling spectacles to the former. The 1916 film partially restores this, however.
    • Also Inverted: in the 1916 film, which adds a motive for Miracle's murder of Angela and her daughter Antonia. (Specifically, spite over having had his advances toward them refused.)
  • 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.
  • Alternate Show Interpretation: The Tales of Hoffmann has become prime fodder for this, with some stagings downplaying the Unintentional Period Piece elements in favor of more Surrealism, alter the Significant Double Casting to suit the ranges of the actors, and/or put new spins on the costuming.
  • Anachronic Order: Offenbach intented the acts to go in the order Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta, giving Hoffmann a clear Character Arc. However, several productions instead use the order Olympia-Giulietta-Antonia, with the logic that the climax of The Tale of Antonia works better as a Grand Finale. (Incidentally, the actual Hoffmann stories were published in the order Giulietta-Olympia-Antonia.)
  • 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.
  • Beast and Beauty: In the original version of the opera, as restored by Michael Kaye and Jean Christoph-Keck, Giulietta, a gorgeous courtesan, would be in love with her jester, a hideous hunchback Pitichinaccio. When Hoffmann kills him at the end of the act Giulietta is left heartbroken.
  • 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.
    • The 1970 film takes it even further by letting Hoffmann publicly humiliate Lindorff at Luther's Tavern, and while our protagonist Did Not Get the Girl, it's implied that his rival didn't either.
  • Break the Cutie: A typical example in that Hoffman, at the start of Act I, is full of love and optimism, and by the end of Act III is a miserable drunkard. A more literal example is when Coppelius breaks harmless Olympia to pieces to get back at Spalanzani.
  • Brick Joke: In the prologue, Hoffman amuses his drinking buddies by beginning the comic-grotesque story of a dwarf jester named Kleinzach. Three acts later, in the epilogue, Hoffman remembers to end the tale of Kleinzach.
  • But You Were There, and You, and You: Going all the way back to the original run, several actors are often very deliberately cast in similar roles in each act.
    • Hoffmann’s four nemeses are traditionally 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 usually played by the same character tenor.
      • The 1951 film plays with this by casting Leonide Massine as Spalanzani, Franz and Schlemil, who are all Butt-Monkey characters to some extent.
    • 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.
  • Canon Welding: The opera connects three unrelated Hoffmann stories — "The Sandman", “Councillor Krespel”, and A New Year Eve's Adventure — by framing them as (maybe) real events which happened to the author himself, combining him with his various protagonists. The framing device might be (quite loosely) based on his stories "Don Juan" and "The Serapion Brethren." Hoffmann also sings a song about the title character of "Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober."
  • Casts No Shadow: Peter Schlemil, the previous victim of Giulietta and Dapertutto, has no shadow, due to giving it up for Giulietta's love.
  • Continuity Snarl: The opera has become infamous for this, as Offenbach was still workshopping ot by the time of his death, with numerous writers later finishing it in their own ways. As a result, characterizations and story elements can vary quite a bit between productions. At least four main versions exist of The Tale of Giulietta, with the most drastic difference perhaps being the ultimate fate of the title character.
  • 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.
  • Duel to the Death: Hoffmann and Peter Schlemil, Giulietta's lover, engage in a swordfight. The former wants the key from Giulietta's boudoir, while the latter is jealous of Hoffmann wooing Giulietta.
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: A rather cruel example: act I ends with the guests mockingly laughing at Hoffmann’s infatuation with Olympia.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Dapertutto, through and through. Kinda expected, as he is clearly a Devil in Disguise.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Councillor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, are all baritone parts, and usually played by the same actor.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Crespel orders his daughter Antonia never to sing again and to give up her dream of becoming a famous singer. To an outside world this may seem strange, considering Antonia has a lovely voice and Crespel himself is a famous orchestra conductor and violin-maker, but he has a pretty solid reason to act this way: Antonia has an inherited illness, which would eventually kill her if she continues to sing.
  • 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.
    • In fact, Offenbach himself was born in the Germanic state of Prussia before moving to France.
  • Goggles Do Something Unusual: Coppélius gives Hoffmann a pair of spectacles which changes the wearer's perception, making him think that she's alive. (In the original story, a spyglass filled the same role.) They are conveniently destroyed just in time for the Robotic Reveal.
  • Greedy Jew: Subverted with the banker Elias. Coppélius is unable to cash out a check from him... but that's only because he's legitimately gone bankrupt. Ultimately, the character is treated like a reputable man who became an Unwitting Pawn in Spalanzani's scheme. (It's worth mentioning that Offenbach himself was Jewish.)
  • Hero's Muse: The Muse, who protects and inspires Hoffmann throughout all his adventures, and ultimately encourages him to choose art over earthly romance.
  • Kiss Me, I'm Virtual: In Act I, Hoffman is deeply in love with Olympia, and has failed to notice that she's mechanical, complete with a wind-up key on her back - and she ain't one of the smarter robots, either. He doesn't take the revelation that she's mechanical very well.
  • Leitmotif: There’s a recurring ominous riff that introduces each new incarnation of the baritone villain.
  • Long Neck: One of Spalanzani's dolls grows one in the 1951 film.
  • Love at First Note: Played with. Hoffmanns is already in love with Olympia, but when he hears her singing he becomes completely obsessed. In the original version of Act 3 Giulietta is supposed to sing a romantic aria to her guests, which makes Hoffmann (who was indifferent towards her before) to become smitten with the courtesan.
  • Mad Scientist: Spalanzani is often played this way.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Played with - Olympia is introduced as Spalanzani's daughter, when she's actually his creation.
  • 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.
  • Match Cut: The 1951 film uses this toward the end, where a fade transforms the flower motif on a lowered stage curtain into the patrons at Ludvig's Tavern.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's never clear if the stories of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta really happened, or if Hoffmann just made them all up as fantastical allegories for his failing romance with Stella, with each "lost love" representing a different aspect of her. Productions where all the heroines are sung by the same soprano highlight the ambiguity. To make matters more complicated, there's also the implication that the poet is Believing Their Own Lies.
    • Interestingly enough, both interpretations manage to be fairly in line with Hoffmann's stories. On one hand, they often feature supernatural beings masquerading as normal people. On the other hand, he did also draw much upon real people and personal experiences while writing them.
  • Mind Control: In the original ending of Act 3 Hoffmann would try to stab Giulietta, only for Dapertutto to cast a spell on his sight and poet ends up killing Giulietta's jester and lover Pitichinaccio. It could be suggested that Dapertutto is the one who influenced Hoffmann to try to murder Giulietta in the first place.
  • Missing Reflection: By the end of Act 3 Hoffmann has no reflection, as he gave it up to Giulietta and Dapertutto. Very few productions or adaptations reveal whether he managed to get it back or not.
    • The 1951 film is a rare exception, as Hoffmann regains it after breaking Giulietta's mirror.
  • Mistaken for Profound: Olympia. Her long silences, broken only by exclaiming "Ah!" or "Oui!" are taken by Hoffman to be signs of feeling - feelings for him, naturally.
  • 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.
  • Necromancer: Dr.Miracle is seemingly this. At the end of Act 2 he summons a spirit of Antonia's late mother.
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: It's pretty much obligatory for The Tale of Giulietta to start with a gondola ride through Venice set to the barcarolle. Who the lovebirds actually are varies. It might be Giulietta and Nicklausse, Giulietta and Dapertutto, of some random couple who are never seen again.
  • Paranoia Fuel: Dr.Miracle and Hoffmann never meet face to face until the end of the act. Neither was the former physically present during Hoffmann's and Antonia's reunion. Yet when Miracle appears in Antonia's room (through supernatural means) it becomes clear he knows perfectly well about Hoffmann and his plan to elope with Antonia.
  • Robot Girl: Olympia, whom Coppelius introduces to high society. The partygoers coo over her music-box like singing and jerky dancing.
  • Robotic Reveal: Olympia is revealed to be a robot at the end of Act 1.
  • Self-Plagiarism:
    • Offenbach recycled some compositions from his earlier work. The famous Barcarolle originated as the overtune of his 1864 production Die Rheinnixen (The Rhine Fairies). Hoffmann's Drunken Song was also originally performed by the character Conrad from the same opera.
    • In a strange mixture of this and pure plagiarism, the Diamond Aria was set to the overtune of Offenbach's Le voyage dans la lune (an adaptation of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon). Unlike the earlier examples, it was only added in 1905, 25 years after Offenbach's death.
  • Setting Update: The early nineteenth century time period is usually kept, but the opera still changes the setting of Hoffmann's stories.
    • "Updated" from Real Life, the inspiration for Luther's Tavern is actually found in Berlin, not in Nuremberg as the opera claims. This change was probably made because of Rule of Symbolism. (Worth pointing out is that the 1970 film uses the "proper" city.)
    • The Tale of Olympia, originally set in an unnamed German university town — possibly Göttingen — has now been moved to Paris, France. Some Creator Provincialism may have been involved here...
    • The Tale of Giulietta was moved from Florence — the setting of the short story and the earlier play adaptation — to Venice at Offenbach's own request. This also allowed for the inclusion of the famous Barcarolle.
    • The Tale of Antonia is generally set in Munich, and while it's not clear where in Germany the original tale was set, the name did start with an "H". The original staging moved the story to Venice to get some use out of the sets constructed for the then-cut Giulietta act. (Ironically, the original story does have Antonia's parents meeting in Venice, in a flasback cut from the opera.) The 1951 film instead uses a remote Greek island as its setting.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: In the intended order of the acts, Hoffmann goes from an idealist to a cynic after a series of failed romances. Depending on the production, the Muse may or may not show up at the end and restore some of his lost idealism.
  • Sliding Scale of Robot Intelligence: Olympia is "smart" enough to sing a complicated aria and dance the waltz - but not smart enough know when to stop dancing (such as when her human partner is nearly dead on his feet).
  • Shapeshifting:
    • The Muse takes the form of Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse.
    • The 1951 film plays up this aspect of the villain(s). Dapertutto transforms into a pole to spy on our heroes. He also appears as a cloaked figure to observe the duel, and Miracle later uses the same disguise while preying on Antonia. Finally, the end of the film has Miracle, Dapertutto, and Coppélius all remove Latex Perfection masks, revealing the face of Lindorff underneath.
  • Shout-Out: When Nicklausse/The Muse greets Hoffmann, he sings out the opening bars of Leporello's first aria from Don Giovanni to imply that Hoffmann treats him like a servant. (As mentioned, said play is also performed In-Universe.)
  • Show Within a Show: The 1970 film gives a brief glimpse of Stella performing in Don Giovanni. The 1951 film instead uses the fictional ballet The Dance of the Butterflies.
  • Significant Double Casting: Robert Helpmann plays all four of the main villains in the 1951 film.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The 1951 film ends with the cheerful "Drinking is divine" song playing over... Stella reluctantly going off with the manipulative Lindorf while Hoffmann is Drowning His Sorrows. (The song also appears in the 1970 movie, but more as background noise and as a lead-in to Hoffmann's meeting with his muse.)
  • Supernatural Aid: Hoffmann manages to kill his rival Schlemil with the help of Dapertutto, who gives poet a magic sword. Some productions also depict Dapertutto either controlling Hoffmann's movements during the duel or obstructing Schlemil's sight, allowing Hoffmann to strike him dead.
  • Surprisingly Creepy Moment: In a staging-wise sense. Olympia's act is followed by Antonia's act. The former cheerful, bright and almost comedic in nature thanks to the work being a comic opera, while the latter is sinister, somber and tragic.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: The main conflict in the Framing Device is formed by Hoffmann and Lindorf competing over Stella's affections.
  • Villainous Harlequin: Pitichinaccio- Giulietta’s hunchbacked jester and willing accomplice (as well as a lover). Doubles with Monster Clown.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: While the characters are generally indicated to already know each other, the plot still kicks off with Hoffmann, Nicklausse and Lindorff meeting at Luther's Tavern, while Stella performs next door.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!: Giulietta steals her clients’ reflections/souls for Dapertutto. 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.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Les Contes D Hoffmann


Olympia’s true identity

Olympia is revealed to be a robot.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / RoboticReveal

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