January 21, 2021 – Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann
On this week’s Thursday Night Opera House please join us for an encore broadcast, hosted by the late Al Ruocchio, of Jacques Offenbach’s last stage work (and only true opera): Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). Born Jacob Offenbach in Cologne, Germany in 1819, his father took him to Paris in 1833, where he was enrolled at the Conservatory. After becoming one of Europe’s finest cellists, Offenbach began composing operettas for important theaters like the Bouffes-Parisiens. A string of hits–Orphée aux enfers (1858), La belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866), La vie parisienne (1866), and La Périchole (1868)–soon followed.Offenbach was working on Les Contes d’Hoffmann when he died on October 5, 1880. A fascinating and at times disturbing work, it tells three inter-connected stories in which Hoffmann is thwarted in love by his evil genius. Ideally, the four villains should be sung by the same man, and the four heroines by the same woman, as they are aspects of the same person. The work, existing in piano score only, was orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud, who also made a few additions. Hoffmann was premiered in Paris on February 10, 1881.
The opera opens in Luther’s beer cellar in Nürnberg, Germany, where students await the end of a performance of Don Giovanni, starring Stella (soprano Edita Gruberova), amorously pursued by the poet Hoffmann (tenor Plácido Domingo) and also by the sinister Counselor Lindorf (baritone Andreas Schmidt). To pass the time, Hoffmann tells the story of his three great loves, in all he is aided by his young friend Nicklausse (mezzo-soprano Claudia Eder)–who’s later revealed to be the embodiment of the Muse of Poetry. In Paris, Hoffmann is sold a magical pair of glasses by Coppélius (bass-baritone Gabriel Bacquier) and falls in love with Olympia (Gruberova), the “daughter” of the inventor Spalanzani (tenor Gérard Friedman). She turns out to be a mechanical doll, which Coppélius destroys when he discovers that Spalanzani has double-crossed him.
In Venice, Hoffmann is having an affair with the courtesan Giulietta (Gruberova), who–at the urging of the magician Dapertutto (bass Justino Diaz)–steals his reflection. Hoffmann kills Giulietta’s former lover Schlémil (bass Richard Van Allan) in a duel and flees for his life, having witnessed Giulietta leaving with another man. In Munich, Hoffmann has fallen in love with the singer Antonia (Gruberova). Her father Crespel (bass Harald Stamm) has forbidden her to sing, without telling her the reason: she is consumptive as was her dead mother, also a great singer. The evil quack Dr. Miracle (bass-baritone James Morris) brings to life the portrait of her mother and urges her to sing ever more ecstatically. The strain is too much and she dies in Hoffmann’s arms. Back in the beer cellar, it becomes apparent that all three of Hoffmann’s lovers are aspects of the diva Stella. Hoffmann is now totally drunk, and a triumphant Lindorf escorts Stella away. The opera ends with Nicklausse urging Hoffmann to return to poetry.
Seiji Ozawa conducts the ORTF Chorus and Orchestra in this 1990 Deutsche Grammophon recording.
From a 2000 production, Natalie Dessay sings Olympia’s aria, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille”: http://youtu.be/LwfGFgWRfd4.
Be sure to tune in to The Classical Station this Saturday, January 23rd, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern for the Metropolitan Opera’s January 27, 1961 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Leontyne Price is Leonora, Franco Corelli is Manrico, Mario Sereni is Count Di Luna, Irene Dallis is Azucena, and William Wilderman is Ferrando. Fausto Cleva conducts.
Next Thursday, January 28th, please join me for a pair of pastiche operas inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). First performed in 1790 and 1791, Der Stein der Weisen (The Philosopher’s Stone) and Der Wohltätige Derwisch (The Beneficient Dervish) include music by Mozart, Johann Baptist Hennebert, Benedikt Schack, Franz Xaver Gerl, and Emanuel Schickaneder. Martin Perlman conducts Boston Baroque in these 1999 and 2002 Telarc recordings.
The Thursday Night Opera House is heard every Thursday evening at 7:00pm Eastern on 89.7 FM in central North Carolina, online at http://www.theclassicalstation.org, and on our streaming apps.
Robert Chapman, Host of the Thursday Night Opera House