Les contes d'Hoffmann, Offenbach

The online opera guide on LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN

Interesting facts and great YouTube Videos about Jacques Offenbach’s «LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN». Highlights are «Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach» with Placido Domingo, «Les oiseaux dans la charmille» with Joan Sutherland and the Barcarolle.


Overview and quick access




Prologue (Tavern Scene)

Act I (Olympia Scene)

Act II (Giulietta Scene)

Act III (Antonia Scene)

Epilogue (Tavern Scene)




Il était une fois à Eisenach (Ballade of Kleinzach)

Les oiseaux de la charmille (Olympia)

Elle a fui la tourterelle (Antonia)

Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour (Barcarolle)

♪ Amis! Amour tendre et rêveur

Scintille o diamant (Diamond aria)

Helas mon coeur s’égare (Septett)

C’est une chanson d’amour

Adieu! Je ne veux pas te suivre



Roles and Overview









The libretto and the history of its creation

The two playwrights and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré wrote the play “Hoffman’s Tales” in 1851, the core of which consists of three tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann (“The Sandman,” “Counsel Krespel” and “The Adventures of New Years Eve). After Carré’s death in 1871, Barbier prepared a libretto for another composer, who kindly ceded it to Hoffmann when the latter expressed interest. The libretto that Barbier created is of high caliber, the plot is varied and offers good theater directors plenty of opportunities to make the performance a brilliant climax.

The genesis of this opera is very dramatic. Offenbach knew that his approximately 100 operettas would fall into oblivion. With the opera “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” he wanted to strive for the highest recognition and to leave the world a high quality, lasting work. His problem was that his health would not allow him forever to complete the opera. He began composing as early as the mid-70s, but progressed very slowly. He had to write many occasional works due to his unfortunate financial situation, despite his poor health. Unfortunately for him, the theater where the premiere was to take place went bankrupt a few months before the scheduled date. The dates fell through and the singers were already booked up again. So Offenbach had to plan the premiere at the Opéra-Comique, where, however, completely different and strict laws prevailed as to how an opera had to be in order to be performed. This meant that the entire opera had to be rewritten. In addition, Offenbach’s health was seriously impaired and he had to do a lot of work in his bed. Offenbach died four months before the premiere and significant parts of the opera were still unfinished.



The unfinished work – the many versions

Offenbach was able to compose much of the music in a piano score with singing parts. The greatest ambiguities and gaps were in the Giulietta act and the epilogue. The family commissioned the composer Ernest Guiraud to complete the work, who finished composing it with all the question marks and orchestrated it ready for the premiere. At the premiere, however, the theater director Carvalho decided to omit the Giulietta act. In the subsequent production, only a torso of this act was put on stage, and there were also disputes about the correct order of the acts. In addition, there were two versions, with spoken dialogues and recitatives and … and … and. This confused situation led to the fact that there are countless versions of this work. This means that the plot used in this opera guide is only one among many possible ones.




To interpret the play, it is worth knowing a few facts about E.T.A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann was a trained civil servant of the Prussian Empire. But he was also an artist who tried to make a living as a kapellmeister and as a writer all his life but lived partly under extreme poverty during the Napoleonic war years and always returned to his bread and butter profession. Thus we recognize in the plot the situation of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who vacillates between the pleasures and comforts of bourgeois life (epitomized by the women), the adversities of life (epitomized by Lindorf / Coppélius / Dappertutto / Dr. Miracle), and the striving as an artist (epitomized by the muse Nicklausse). The godfather alcohol also appears as a disturbing factor, whose destructive effect (E.T.A. Hoffmann was a severe alcoholic) endangers artistic productivity (the muse in the prologue spring from a wine barrel). Offenbach could very well understand Hoffmann’s personal situation he had grown up in great poverty and his field of tension was always between art and commerce, which was the motivation to create true art in later years with the “Contes d’Hoffmann”.



The challenges of casting the soprano role

Offenbach designed the vocal requirements of the female lead differently for each of the three middle acts. Olympia is written for a coloratura soprano, Antonia for a lyric soprano, and Giulietta for a dramatic soprano, yet Offenbach wanted the role to be sung by someone who must also be able to dance brilliantly. This demand of Offenbach’s could only be partially realized in reality. In recordings, the role is usually sung by one person, but in live performances, the the role is usually divided among three people, which means that it is very expensive in terms of casting, since three roles have to be filled for the female lead and three stand-ins have to stand by.



Premiere and success

Aufgrund von Offenbachs Tod wurde das Werk mit zweijähriger Verspätung am 10. Februar 1881 an der Opéra Comique in Paris uraufgeführt. Es wurde triumphal aufgenommen und erreichte im Dezember bereits die 100. Aufführung. Wien und Paris hatten sich um die Erstaufführungsrechte gestritten, so dass das Werk erst im Dezember (mit großem Erfolg) in der österreichischen Hauptstadt gezeigt wurde. Die Wiener Inszenierung stand unter keinem guten Stern und erlangte eine traurige Berühmtheit: In der zweiten Vorstellung verursachte eine Gasexplosion zu Beginn der Aufführung einen Großbrand. Das Ringtheater brannte bis auf die Grundmauern nieder und kostete mehrere hundert Menschenleben – einer der schwärzesten Tage der Operngeschichte.







Synopsis: In Luther’s wine cellar. The muse emerges from the wine barrel.

“Les Contes d’Hoffmann” has no overture in the proper sense. The opera begins with a few bars of introductory music and moves into a passage sung by an hidden chorus, after which Nicklausse’s mezzo-soprano enters beautifully above the chorus.

Glou! glou! glou! je suis le vin – Bonynge


Synopsis: Councilman Lindorf was able to intercept the note from the singer Stella, intended for his rival Hoffmann, and has the key to her dressing room. He triumphs.

Dans les roles – Bacquier/Bonynge

The ballad of Kleinzack

Synopsis: Hoffmann comes to the wine bar to drink with students during the intermission of “Don Giovanni”. He is watched by Lindorf, his rival for the favor of the opera singer Stella. Hoffmann waits for Stella who sings in “Don Giovanni”. He drinks with the students to forget his grief and sings them Kleinzack’s ballad.

Part of the charm of this aria comes from the German wordiness of the hard consonants like “cric crac” and “Kleinzack” and the awkward, dotted accompaniment of the orchestra. The ballad is divided into two parts, in the first major part Hoffmann sings about the whimsical dwarf Kleinzack and in the second minor part his thoughts wander off to Stella, the piece is therefore subtitled Rêverie.

You will hear this famous ballad in two interpretations.

First, you will hear a fantastic interpretation by Placido Domingo. His voice on the Bonynge recording sounds incredibly fresh and juicy.

Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach (1) – Domingo/Bonynge


Second, we hear Richard Tauber. Jürgen Kesting wrote about his Kleinzack: “The voice dances through the music, shimmers in many colors and colors the linguistic nuances. Inimitable the movement timing, the rubato effects. The elegiac minor episode, when Hoffmann is caught up by the memory of lost loves, gives the singer the opportunity for expansive and glowing phrasing.”

Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach (2) – Tauber







Hoffmann is in love with Olympia

Synopsis: Hoffmann first tells the story of Olympia, Spalanzani’s lifelike mechanical doll. It is because of her that he has been employed by Spalanzani. Hoffmann is in love with Olympia. He watches her as she sleeps.

This love aria captivates with its romantic melody and the expressive dialogue of the tenor voice with the solo horn.

Allons! Courage et confiance – Domingo/Bonynge


The second interpretation is by Julius Patzak and is expressive and sensual. Vibrato and swells convey an immediate emotion that grips the listener.

Ha, wie in meiner Seel – Patzak


Synopsis: Nicklausse warns him about the strange person, but Hoffmann has no ear.

Une poupee aux yeux d’email – Tourangeau



Synopsis: Hoffmann has bought a pair of glasses from Coppelius and so does not realize that Olympia is not a living woman. Spalanzani has invited guests to his salon to present her. They celebrate the inventive host and wish to see Olympia.

Non, aucun hôte, vraiment – Bonynge

Olympia – a unique role

Synopsis: Spalanzani makes Olympia dance and sing. Every now and then she loses momentum and she has to be wound up.

“Les oiseaux dans la charmille” is one of the most unique pieces in opera literature. The singing machine Olympia is on stage for half an hour and for a long time she only says “oui”. Finally, Olympia awakens and begins to sing. It is, of course, a caricature of the singers of the Grand Opéra, the coloratura singer only has to be wound up and she produces sounds like an automaton.

The aria is virtuosic with many coloraturas and at the same time the singer has to imitate with her voice the choppy singing and the mechanical dancing movement of a puppet, just as the composer had ingeniously set it to tones. This is a great challenge for the singer in live performance.

You can hear this aria in three versions, first by Joan Sutherland, whose nightingale throat earned her the honorary title of “La Stupenda”.

Les oiseaux dans la charmille (1) – Sutherland


You will hear another excellent interpretation from Rita Streich.

Les oiseaux dans la charmille (2) – Streich


Last, a great comedic realization in image and sound by Patricia Janeckova.

Les oiseaux dans la charmille (3) – Janeckova



The catastrophe

Synopsis: When the guests enthusiastically leave the room, Hoffmann stays with her and befriends the monosyllabic doll. When the guests return, Hoffmann dances with her. The doll dances faster and faster, gets out of control and falls over. Finally, the enraged Coppélius, who had contributed the eyes, appears and destroys the doll because Spalanzani’s check is not covered. Hoffmann realizes that the beloved was nothing but a mechanical doll.

Voici les valseurs – Domingo / Sutherland









Hoffmann tries his luck as a musician

Synopsis: In the next story, Hoffmann has given up being a scientist and has become a composer. He has fallen in love with the singer Antonia. Antonia inherited her lovely voice from her mother and loves singing. However, she suffers from a mysterious disease that makes singing worse and leads to death. Her father Crespel wants to forbid her to sing and has traveled to Munich to hide Antonia from Hoffmann.

Antonia’s aria sings of her desire to reunite with Hoffmann, who, like the turtledove (Tourterelle), is to return from her winter domain. The aria begins with a timpani roll, followed by harp sounds (a parodic combination). When Antonia begins, she has to stop the aria after the first verse; she is too weak. She tries again and begins with the beautiful melody. The voice spirals higher and higher until it arrives in high C. The second part repeats the first part, but at a slightly faster tempo.

Elle a fui la tourterelle (1) – Netrebko


Synopsis: The servant Frantz was supposed to watch over Antonia, but is overworked and mistakenly allows Hoffmann to see Antonia when he appears.

Offenbach wrote a witty parody of Don Giovanni’s “Notte e giorno faticar” of the servant Leporello.

Jour et nuit – Paolis

Synopsis: Hoffmann has composed a song for Antonia. Antonia is torn between her father’s prohibition and her desire to sing. She sings and assures Hoffmann of her love.

C’est und chanson d’amour – Gedda/los Angeles



Synopsis: When Hoffmann hears noise, he hides. Crespel appears. Now, to Crespels horror, Dr. Miracle also arrives, who was already responsible for Antonia’s mother’s death through his wrong treatment of her. Hoffmann overhears their conversation. Miracle hypnotizes Crespel and treats Antonia, whom he makes sing, and leaves the house.

From this scene develops a ghostly terzetto of male voices.

Que veux tu faire – Domingo / Bacquier / Plishka / Sutherland



Synopsis: When Miracle and Crespel are gone, Hoffmann tries to convince Antonia to marry him and give up singing. But Antonia is trapped by hallucinations after being treated by Dr. Miracle. She hears first her mother’s voice and then Dr. Miracle’s. Miracle picks up a violin in her imagination and accompanies her with a demonic song. As the girl’s voice goes higher and higher, she sinks onto the sofa to Miracle’s derisive laughter.

Tu ne chanteras plus – Domingo / Bacquier / Plishka / Sutherland


Synopsis: Antonia dies in her father’s arms, singing the words of Hoffmann’s love song as her last.

Offenbach, of course, composes the death as a parody; Antonia’s last notes are the trills of a nightingale.

Mon enfant! Ma fille – Domingo / Bacquier / Plishka / Sutherland









The Barcarolle – a stroke of genius by Offenbach

Synopsis: Hoffmann tells the third story, set in a palace in Venice, where Nicklausse and Giulietta sing of love.

Offenbach recycled this famous duet with choral accompaniment from the opera “Les fées du Rhin”.

Barcarolle (belle nuit, o nuit d’amour); Caballé/Verrett


Synopsis: Disillusioned with love, Hoffmann has devoted himself to the pleasures of wine and women. He is a guest in Schlemil’s lavish Venetian palazzo, whose mistress, the beautiful courtesan Giulietta, is hosting a decadent orgy.

Offenbach wrote a bravura aria for tenor in the form of a drinking song for the scene.

Amis! Amour tendre et rêveur – Domingo

“Sparkle diamond” – the diamond aria

Synopsis: Dappertutto approaches Giulietta. He promises her a diamond if she will take Hoffmann’s mirror image from him, as she had already done with her lover Schlemihl.

This famous aria is also called the diamond aria.

Scintille diamant – Bacquier/Bonynge

Synopsis: Meanwhile, Schlemihl has returned and sees Hoffmann.

“Helas mon coeur s’égare” is a large ensemble piece for six voices plus chorus. This beautiful piece may not have been written by Hoffmann, is dramatically unnecessary, and so is sometimes omitted.

Helas mon coeur s’égare (1) – Domingo / Baltsa / div.


Synopsis: The two duel and Schlemihl dies. Giulietta promises Hoffmann her love, and Hoffmann is lost. He must flee, however, and Giulietta asks him to leave his mirror image as a pledge.

This scene develops into a passionate duet.

Malheureux…o dieu quel ivresse – Domingo


Synopsis: Niklausse urges him to flee immediately. Hoffmann, however, wants to spend the night with Giulietta. Dappertutto gives Hoffmann a potion to sedate Niklausse for a few hours. By mistake, Giulietta drinks the potion and falls down dead.







Synopsis: Back in Luther’s pub: Hoffmann is drunk, Nicklausse transforms back as Muse and makes Hoffmann a declaration of love. Hoffmann passionately returns her feelings.

Et moi? Moi, la fidèle amie – Domingo / Tourangeau

Synopsis: When Stella finally appears, Hoffmann sees Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta in Stella and rejects her. Lindorf takes advantage of the situation and escorts Stella out. Hoffmann has also lost his fourth woman.

With a great trio, Stella and Hoffmann say goodbye under Lindorf’s gaze.

Adieu! je ne veux pas te suivre – Domingo / Tourangeau

Recording recommendation

EMI with Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland and Gabriel Bacquier conducted by Richard Bonynge and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN by Jacques Offenbach

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *