“I have very little time left to live and my only desire is to attend the premiere,” Jacques Offenbach wrote of his final work and only proper opera, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, shortly before his death in October 1880. Alas, he succumbed to heart failure brought on by gout four months before the curtain went up on Hoffmann. The orchestration, unfinished at the time of Offenbach’s death, was completed by his son, Auguste, and the composer Ernest Guiraud in the short time before the premiere. The opera was a stunning success, scoring over a hundred performances by the end of 1881. It enjoyed a swift slew of international premieres and rapidly rose to a place in the standard repertoire. And though no definitive edition has been produced, it remains his most lasting work.
Offenbach was hardly a struggling artist when he expired before seeing Hoffmann staged. The son of a German cantor who had completed a year at the Paris Conservatoire as a teenager, Offenbach enjoyed a successful twenty-year career across Europe as a cellist and conductor before turning his hand to composition. His main idiom was operetta, a newer, lighter, and more accessible form of musical theater pleasing to the middle-class tastes of France’s Second Empire. Turned down repeatedly by Paris’s Opéra-Comique—where Hoffmann later premiered—Offenbach for a time operated his own theater to present his works. They proved successful enough to conquer Paris and win him entrance into the city’s difficult theatrical establishment, as well as notoriety among the imperial government, whose mores and politics he lightly skewered on stage.
Offenbach’s success under the empire was so profound, in fact, that the regime’s fall in 1870 temporarily tarnished his reputation by association. After a few years abroad, however, he returned and was handed a libretto by Jules Barbier, derived from a stage play—which Offenbach had admired—by Barbier and his collaborator Michel Carré. Its subject came from three short stories published by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann between 1814 and 1818; all three feature the author as the protagonist of a distinct failed love story. The objects of his love are Olympia, a mechanical doll whom Hoffmann sees as a real girl thanks to magical spectacles; Antonia, a young singer whose respiratory illness will not allow her to sing; and Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan of incredible beauty. Hoffmann’s adventures end in disaster: the vindictive creditor Coppélius destroys Olympia, revealing to a devastated Hoffmann that she never was a real human; the quack Doctor Miracle encourages Antonia to sing, causing her death; and Giulietta, who turns out to be in league with the diabolical Dapertutto, uses her charms to steal Hoffmann’s soul before abandoning him.
Offenbach’s opera frames these stories—each of which gets its own act—within a fourth failed love story told in the prologue and epilogue. In a Nuremberg tavern, Hoffmann himself awaits an assignation with the Italian diva Stella, who is in town to perform in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Hoffmann’s three beloveds, we learn, were merely embodiments of Stella’s personality; she is thus the culmination of his prior loves. Goaded by a crowd of students, Hoffmann launches into the tales of his failed romances while yet another villain—the city councilor Lindorf—contrives to divert Stella away from the writer, whose drunkenness makes the task easy in the epilogue’s finale. Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse, a male role sung by a mezzo-soprano who accompanies him on his adventures as a muse, consoles him with the philosophical observation that we grow through love, but even more through suffering.
Robert Carsen’s Hoffmann production for the Paris Opera opened nearly a quarter of a century ago but retains its vigor. It is updated to approximately a century after the opera’s premiere, with crowds clothed in 1970s styles. The sets are evocative of Don Giovanni itself, in which another anti-heroic seducer is frustrated in his amours; indeed, Mozart’s opera suffuses Offenbach’s. Just as the fires of Hell consume Don Giovanni in Mozart, the villains who beset Hoffmann seem to be tools of supernatural interference: they are performed by the same singer across all three acts, as well as the prologue and epilogue. It would have been consistent within that theme and structure to cast the same female singer for all of Hoffmann’s doomed loves; this is how Offenbach intended the opera to be performed, though the vocal demands of such a design are immense. Here three different singers serve (Stella appears without singing), with varying degrees of success. Still, the point is made.
The Swiss tenor Benjamin Bernheim has worked his way through French-lyric tenor parts here and elsewhere. He delivered an impassioned and sympathetic Hoffmann, resonating with unceasing authority. At every step our Hoffmann was confounded by the superb American bass Christian Van Horn, arguably the world’s reigning basso cantante. Possessed of a firm legato and an ability to soar to elegant highs, he was charmingly diabolic in ways that recalled his triumph as Méphistophélès in Charles Gounod’s Faust (another Barbier libretto) here last season. The American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower was a compelling muse as Nicklausse. Casting different singers as Hoffmann’s loves has conceptual pitfalls to begin with, and in this performance the three singers declined in quality as the night went on: Pretty Yende, a South African wonder, was by far the best, delivering a superb Olympia whose clear, taut coloratura was matched by a wonderfully entertaining facility for acting. Rachel Willis-Sørensen gave a pallid company debut as Antonia. Antoinette Dennefeld was a vocally forgettable Giulietta.
Eun Sun Kim, the music director of the San Francisco Opera, made her Paris debut in this production. She led a well-timed and well-balanced performance that brought a palpable energy to Offenbach’s creations.