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Les Contes d'Hoffmann

by Jacques Offenbach


[This synopsis, like my others, is very, very brief. The reason is that I find the normal programme note much too long, and needlessly detailed and complicated. What I want is more of an overview. If I’ve read an overview – a sort of synopsis of a synopsis – I find that, particularly with the help of surtitles, there is then absolutely no need for a blow-by-blow description of the plot.]



The opera tells three stories originally written by the German poet and Renaissance man, E T A Hoffmann (1776-1822). The stories are romantic and tragic, with much magic and fantasy thrown in. Hoffmann himself is the main character in the opera.


There is a Prologue set in a tavern, in which Hoffmann, in love with an opera singer, Stella, and beleaguered by a wicked rival, announces that he’ll tell the stories of his three troubled love affairs. Each story has its own evil character, normally (perhaps always) sung by the same singer as has played the wicked rival.


The first story (Act 1) is about Hoffmann’s love for a mechanical doll, Olympia, which has been invented by a scientist Spalanzani. The wicked Coppelius, who has helped making the doll (by supplying the eyes), has fallen out with Spalanzani. He sells Hoffmann magic rose-tinted spectacles that make the doll seem human. In his rage against Spalanzani, he destroys the doll. Moral: don’t fall in love when wearing rose-tinted spectacles.


The second story (Act 2) is set in Venice. It is about the courtesan Giulietta who seduces Hoffmann. The villain is Dappertutto, a collector of human spirits. He gets Giulietta to steal Hoffmann’s reflection. Hoffmann fights a duel with and kills one of her previous lovers, who had had his shadow removed. Giulietta leaves the reflection-less Hoffmann. Moral: don’t sell your reflection, or your shadow – or your soul – to the Devil, particularly when dealing with courtesans.


The final story (Act 3) is about Hoffmann’s true love for the singer Antonia, who Hoffmann and her father try to persuade not to go on singing, which they know will kill her – and settle down to domestic bliss. The evil Dr Miracle persuades her to carry on singing, which does indeed kill her. Moral: is there one? - go for domestic bliss and avoid aiming for the moon?


In the Epilogue and back in the tavern, Hoffmann descends into drunkenness. His villainous rival goes off with Stella. Hoffmann is persuaded to devote himself to Art.

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