To Be read before
Jacques Offenbach was born on June 20th 1819 in Cologne and died on October 4th 1880 in Paris.
The son of a cantor at the synagogue in Cologne, Offenbach came to Paris at an early age. After studying at the Conservatoire he joined the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique as a cellist. In 1849, he was appointed conductor of the orchestra of the Théâtre Français and, in 1855, he founded the Bouffes-Parisiens (originally situated where the Théâtre Marigny now stands) which he directed until 1866. He created a large number of his operettas there, including his first great success, Orphée aux Enfers (1858) and, in other theatres, La Belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-Bleue (1866), La Vie parisienne and La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), La Périchole (1868), etc. In 1873, Offenbach became director of the Gaîté Lyrique. However, in spite of the success of Orphée aux Enfers, remodelled as a spectacular fantasy opera, the theatre rapidly went bankrupt. Ruined, the composer lived from hand to mouth (even undertaking a tour of the United States), which was to exhaust him. Worn down by gout and rheumatism, he died before managing to finish Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the work which was to bring him recognition as a “serious composer”.
The libretto is taken from a play that Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (the librettists of works such as Gounod’s Faust) had themselves put together around three tales by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. All three stories concern manipulated women (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta). Hoffmann, transformed into the central character, is both the narrator and the unhappy hero. A fourth tale introducing another woman, Stella, provides a framework to the opera. In each case, the quest for the ideal woman is foiled by a diabolical character (Lindorf, Coppelius, Miracle, Dapertutto). The universe of these tales is deliberately fantastic and certain were used by Freud as a basis for his theories on “Unheimlich”.
Offenbach certainly saw Barbier and Carré’s play when it was first performed at the Odéon in Paris in 1851. But it was only in 1876, upon returning from his American tour, that he decided to transform it into an opera. He set to work and significantly modified the original structure of the work. When he died the score was far from complete and required a great deal of work before it could be performed. (For information concerning the version chosen by the Opéra National de Paris for this production see Alain Patrick Olivier’s article “La dramaturgie introuvable”.)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann was created on February 10th 1881 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.
The work at the Paris Opera
After numerous performances at the Opéra-Comique, Les Contes d’Hoffmann was first performed at the Palais Garnier on October 28th 1974, under the direction of Georges Prêtre in a production staged by Patrice Chéreau with sets by Richard Peduzzi and costumes by Jacques Schmidt. The cast included Nicolai Gedda (Hoffmann), Eliane Manchet (Olympia), Régine Crespin (Giulietta), Christiane Eda-Pierre (Antonia) and Tom Krause (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto, Miracle). This production was given until 1980. In 1982, the Paris Opera presented the work at the Opéra-Comique in an adaptation of the Salzbourg Festival production (staging and sets by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle). The conductor was Alain Lombard. The cast included Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Nelly Miricioiu (the four female roles), Jean-Philippe Lafont (the four diabolical roles). Finally, in April 1992, the work was performed at the Opéra Bastille under the direction of Ion Marin and staged by Roman Polanski (sets and costumes by Franz Salieri) with Francisco Araiza (Hoffmann), Natalie Dessay (Olympia), Lella Cuberli (Antonia), Nadine Denize (Giulietta) and José Van Dam (the four diabolical roles).
This production by Robert Carsen was first performed in March 2000, directed by James Conlon and with Janez Lotric, Natalie Dessay, Andrea Rost, Enkelejda Shkosa and Samuel Ramey.