“Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour…” The strings, the harp, the flutes; the lilting women’s voices; the delicate intervals are instantly recognisable – but there is much more to Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann than nights of love, and indeed than the beloved Barcarolle. Born out of a desire to shake off his reputation as a composer of light-hearted operettas, prolific and beloved as he may have been in this role, Offenbach’s opéra fantastique tells the story of a man facing up to the eternal choice between love and art, as ETA Hoffmann takes the stage to regale his drinking buddies with tales of his past loves, inspiring and disastrous in equal measure. Through this framing device, the nineteenth-century writer of Gothic fantasias thus not only provides the material for the opera’s strange and magical stories, but becomes its protagonist and narrator. 

Three of Hoffmann’s stories form the backbone of the opera: The Sandman, Councillor Krespel (also sometimes translated as The Cremona Violin), and The Story of the Lost Reflection. Each contrasting vignette spotlights a woman who is made to symbolise a different stage of our hero’s rich love life: childish infatuation (Olympia), sentimental foolishness (Antonia), erotic entrapment (Giulietta) – all transient, and all ultimately cast aside, along with Hoffmann’s latest crush, the opera singer Stella, as he chooses Art, and follows the Muse home. Though long plagued by questions of authenticity concerning the order in which the three central acts should be performed, or which songs should be included, in terms of its broad symbolic framework, the opera is a balanced creation, carefully composed, where each of these sections is set in a different city and given depths by the apparition of a tricky villain: smooth-talking Councillor Lindorf in Nuremberg, evil dollmaker Coppélius in Paris, tricksy doctor Miracle in Munich, and scheming magician Dapertutto in Venice. 

By the time they find their way into the play which Offenbach saw in Paris in 1851, the original tales have been heavily reworked, snipped up and mixing together elements from throughout Hoffmann’s œuvre while casting the writer himself as narrator and main character of the whole. Jules Barbier, co-author of this play with Michel Carré, becomes Offenbach’s librettist in 1876.

Caricature of Jacques Offenbach by André Gill (1874)
© Public domain

But the road to creation (perhaps less than coincidentally) does not run smooth, and at this point in the history of the opera’s genesis, everything grinds to a halt. Years pass without a score materialising. Offenbach takes on better-paid work, though he is haunted by the possibility of never seeing his Tales staged: a few months before his death, he writes to the Opéra Comique’s director, asking him to hurry up with the staging: “I do not have long left to live and my only desire is to attend the opening night.” 

That wish was not to be fulfilled. Offenbach’s last opera, which missed the deadline for its premiere and was left unfinished at his death, finished and revised by his colleagues and a number of scholars and composers in the following decades, is therefore not a fixed entity. In the first staging at the Opéra Comique, almost a third of the work was cut, including the entirety of the Venice section. Sometimes part of the text is presented as sung recitative, sometimes as spoken dialogue. Acts 2 and 3 are sometimes spun round. Even today, in the aftermath of serious critical work – including Michael Kaye’s scholarship and Jean-Christophe Keck’s rediscovered “original” score – rival versions coexist and vie for dominance on the world stage. How to tackle the opera – as pastiche, as playful, as deadly serious allegory? And then there is the eternal practical question of how to cast it, with two singers cycling through the various principal roles – a baritone as the four villains Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dapertutto; a soprano as the four lovers Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella; or one per part? If you count the minor parts of lovers, courtesans, magicians and dwarves, it can make for an ambitious production.

Illustration from the 1881 premiere of Les contes d'Hoffmann showing the Prologue
© Public domain

Were it not for its extraordinary qualities, the opera could very easily have disappeared without a trace. Bad luck plagued the early performances. The deadly Ringtheatre gas explosion in 1881, reputed to have caused more than four hundred deaths (very nearly including Sigmund Freud), followed by a fire at the Opéra Comique which destroyed the orchestral parts. According to the Grove Dictionary of Opera, this “reputation for bad luck” slowed the opera’s international acceptance and very nearly sank it: “Only after a spectacular production in Berlin in 1905 did it really establish its international popularity.”

Since then, it has never really waned. Philosophical without dreariness, weird without nihilism, the opera has spoken in different ways to the audiences of the postwar and postmodern eras. If the cultural impact of ETA Hoffmann’s tales – Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Freud’s work on the uncanny – is not to be underestimated, then neither is Offenbach’s, from the Can-can to the Barcarolle, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Powell and Pressburger, not to mention La vita è bella. Something about the Contes continues to surprise and inspire. Its contemporary incarnations bring something new to the forefront every time, from Bartlett Sher’s gilded, Baz-Luhrmann-worthy extravagance at the Met to an unheimlich staging in Zürich last year, with sets reminiscent of MC Escher, or Alice in Wonderland. With its magic and its allegories, its love triangles and heartbreaks, Les Contes d’Hoffmann is alive and kicking, rich and strange.

The opera is a glittering whirlwind of set pieces and catchy arias, with a strong current of underlying pessimism. Love, to the writer, is desirable above almost all else, but can only lead to deception, theft, mirage. Lengthy, convoluted, in places very silly – this is an opera that opens with the spirits of Wine and Beer singing “Glou, glou, glou!” (glug, glug, glug) – Contes d’Hoffmann is also inescapably dark. Hoffmann’s women suffer terribly for their treachery: the doll Olympia is smashed to pieces, Antonia is tricked into singing herself to death, and Giulietta is either poisoned or nearly stabbed with a magical sword, depending on the version. Amorous pursuits, it seems, will distract you from your work, shatter your rose-tinted spectacles, lead you to give up your very soul. Yet Hoffmann cannot think, or sing, about anything else. At the end, the Muse suggests to our drunk and exhausted hero that this is the road to healing, and that genius springs “des cendres de ton coeur” (from the ashes of your heart). Love, in other words, cannot be escaped. You can only live, and hope to tell the tale(s).