Wine and Opera part 11: Tales of Hoffmann31st March, 2014 by Rupert Millar
Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann) is an interesting addition to this list as the whole opera is effectively a drunken ramble in a pub through the shattered love life of a poet who’s hit an inspirational drought.
It is not without a fantastical edge though. The opera begins with “The Muse” appearing to tell the audience she intends to restore Hoffmann’s inspiration once she has purged him of his love for all the unsuitable women he has been pursuing.
Hoffmann’s current infatuation is Stella, the prima donna at the local opera and who is performing in Don Giovanni (which of course we know all about from part 6).
She sends Hoffmann a letter telling him to meet her after the performance but it is intercepted by Councillor Lindorf, Hoffmann’s nemesis.
The next three acts are each devoted to three different women, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta.
Olympia it turns out is actually an automaton, a mechanical doll which has been created by a scientist called Spalanzani.
Hoffmann is sold magic glasses (beer goggles?) by this act’s “nemesis”, Coppélius, who is the co-creator of Olympia (and generally played by the same singer as Lindorf).
Thus blinded, Hoffmann falls for Olympia and is only disabused of the fantasy when he falls over while dancing with her and breaks his glasses, swiftly followed by Coppélius destroying Olympia.
Antonia is a real person and does love Hoffmann but the two are separated by Antonia’s father, Crespel, who doesn’t want the poet to encourage his daughter to sing as this would apparently kill her (don’t ask it just will).
Rather than simply tell Hoffmann this he keeps them apart although Hoffmann then overhears Crespel revealing this fact to the act’s evil-doer, Dr Miracle.
Hoffmann persuades Antonia not to sing any more but she is then tricked into doing exactly that (foolish girl) by Dr Miracle.
She expires, Dr Miracle escapes and Hoffmann is blamed for the maiden’s demise – though he is saved from Crespel by his faithful friend Nicklausse who accompanies him one way or another throughout.
Things don’t get any easier in Act III when Hoffmann falls for Giulietta, unaware that she has been ordered to seduce him by Captain Dapertutto and then steal his shadow.
Hoffmann, the poor sap, gives her his shadow quite willingly before Dapertutto manages to poison Giulietta instead of Nicklausse who was once again riding to the rescue.
Giulietta expires in the poet’s arms as is right and proper.
The action then returns to the present in the pub and by now Hoffmann is thoroughly plastered and miserable.
He then admits, to both himself and the others, that the three women are in fact one and the same and represent the three facets of his current obsession, Stella.
Rejecting love The Muse appears and restores his poetic inspiration.
Stella, in a huff, appears and the drunken Hoffmann tells her it’s over at which point she leaves with Lindorf and Hoffmann and the students carry on with the serious job of drinking more.
There are many great and famous arias in Hoffmann, not least Olympia’s aria where her clockwork winds down at various points in the song and she as to be cranked up again.
Hoffmann and Giulietta’s duet, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour, is similarly well known. There is no specific drinking song but the one sung by the drunken poet at the opera’s end is a reprise of one also sung with Giulietta, O Dieu! De quelle ivresse.
“O Dieu! De quelle ivresse
Embrases tu mon âme!
Comme un concert divin
Ta voix m’a pénétré!
D’un feu doux et br¨lant
Mon être est dévoré;
Dans les miens ont épanché leur flamme,
Comme des astres radieux
Et je sens, ô ma bienaimée,
Passer ton haleine embaumée
Sur mes lèvres et sur mes yeux.”
“O God, with what intoxication
you fill my soul!
Like a divine concert,
Your voice has entered me.
With a sweet and brilliant fire
My being is devoured
Has poured its fire into mine
Like radiant stars,
And I feel, my beloved
Your sweet-scented breath pass over
My lips and my eyes.”
Even if the drunkenness is brought on by love rather than booze when it is first sung in Act III, by the end it can be taken rather more literally.
The video below stars the inimitable Placido Domingo as Hoffmann, singing the aria to Giulietta in Act III from a 1981 production at London’s Covent Garden.
Giulietta meanwhile is watching the evil Captain Dapertutto who is showing her the diamond he has promised her if she steals Hoffmann’s shadow.
Next time: O fortuna
Previously: Béatrice et Bénédict