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Chapter Thirteen— The Odd Couple: Offenbach and Hoffmann
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Chapter Thirteen—
The Odd Couple:
Offenbach and Hoffmann

There are a number of worthy and still-popular operas by composers who wrote only one (the best known is perhaps Beethoven's Fidelio ), or at least only one that survives in the repertory. What makes Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann unique is that it's the one enduring serious opera composed by a man who earned his reputation, and his lasting place in social and musical history, by writing 105 decidedly non serious works, usually identified by diminuitive labels like "operetta," "opéra comique," or "opéra bouffe." Arthur Sullivan, who learned a great deal from Offenbach, tried to make a similar leap into the ranks of serious composers with his romantic opera Ivanhoe , which he wrote after eleven successful comic-opera collaborations with W. S. Gilbert.

But Ivanhoe has disappeared, whereas Offenbach's serious, symbolist, death-and devil-haunted work is still regularly revived, with all-star casts and lavish new productions, at major opera houses in Europe and the United States. It's as if the world's most popular comedian had a try at playing Hamlet just before he died, and pulled it off successfully.

Or almost successfully. Even favorable critics still tend to describe The Tales of Hoffmann as Offenbach's "problematic," "potential," or "unresolved" masterpiece. Scholars, conductors, and producers keep rewriting its text and score, rearranging its scenes, and making new cuts and additions, which doesn't always make the opera more clear. (Offenbach died before he finished it, so the game is fair.) No two commentators can even agree on what the opera means, which is rarely the case with Offenbach's lighter-hearted hits.

The three bass/baritone villains, plus Lindorf, are usually sung by the same actor, to make a dramatic and metaphysical point, and to save on singers' fees. The parts of Hoffmann's three loves (four, if you count Stella, who usually has two


words to say) are written for radically different vocal types, and are traditionally assigned to three sopranos. But occasionally one singer—Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills have both done it—will accept the challenge of playing all of these roles. This may either clarify or muddy the plot. Sometimes a dancer is hired to mime the part of the automate Olympia—as Moira Shearer did on film—while an unseen soprano trills her lines offstage. The four character-tenor servants may be thriftily combined in one singer as well.

Hoffmann's friend and protector Niklausse may or may not also be his muse. Her (or his) role may be minimal or substantial, depending on whose version of the text you use. The character of Hoffmann may be played as if staggering drunk or sober, in his twenties or his forties, or as if visibly aging through the three tales. Placido Domingo (who began singing the role at the age of twenty-four, and was still singing it twenty-five years later) has said that he sees the poet as about twenty with Olympia, thirty-four with Antonia, forty-five with Giulietta, and nearing fifty with Stella.

But then sometimes Giulietta's scene is played before Antonia's, which complicates that approach. Because the recitatives were not composed by Offenbach, some producers scrap them altogether and substitute spoken dialogue borrowed from the original play. The prologue and epilogue may be expanded to explain and unify the opera, or they may be dropped altogether. Two of the most popular musical numbers in the opera—Dapertutto's "Scintille, diamant," which he sings to the diamond he is about to offer Giulietta, and the "septet" (for six solo voices, plus chorus) that climaxes this scene—although set to music by Offenbach, were inserted after his death. In recent years, some scrupulous conductors have elected to remove them, and to turn Coppélius's evil "eye-selling" aria back into a trio.

For many years, producers were content to take the libretto and stage directions literally. They recreated the three central scenes as exotic, twisted love stories "evoked" by the poet Hoffmann out of his own past. He appeared on stage introducing these tales to his companions in Luther's tavern in Berlin, while Mozart's Don Giovanni (starring his current lady-love) was in progress at the opera house next door. Some producers even left the tavern and its inhabitants visible as a "frame set" throughout, to make this tale-telling concept more explicit.

Lately, the three love stories have been depicted in more psychodramatic ways, as the bad dreams of a drunkard, or the distorted and fantastic products of Hoffmann's sick imagination. In such versions, Hoffmann's double may lie asleep at his desk, or on his bed, all through the opera. The characters in his dreams or fantasies may wear masks, dress in black, or move like hellish puppets about a barren, claustrophobic space. Walter Felsenstein and Patrice Chéreau (among other producers) have endeavored to render their versions of the opera more "Hoffmannesque" and less "Offenbachian." In his austere Paris Opera production of 1974–1978, Chéreau


OFFENBACHThe Tales Hoffmann , Placido Domingo (right) and Michael Rees Davis,
San Francisco Opera, 1987.
Photograph by Marty Sohl.


claimed he had tried to suppress all "the wretched 19th Century theatrical naivete," and "to eliminate anything that smacked of Paris 1880."

The confused and problematic nature of The Tales of Hoffmann is partly the result of Jacques Offenbach's untimely death, which left producers with a text that cries out for reconstructive surgery. But it is even more the result of his uncharacteristic choice of a source.

In 1851, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (who also reduced Goethe's Faust and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to texts for Gounod) wrote a play entitled Les Contes d'Hoffmann , which opened at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris on March 21. For this play, the two authors very loosely combined bits of three fantastic stories by the German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822), plus references to four or five others. They then concocted the ingenious stage conceit that these stories were episodes from Hoffmann's own past, which he was relating to his tavern companions on a single evening shortly before his death.

Hoffmann did hang out at Lutter and Wegner's wine cellar in Berlin after 1814, where he traded stories with his friends, and probably drank too much. But his own life—at least his documented life—was far less exotic and adventurous than were his weird Romantic tales. As far as we know, the real Hoffmann was never in love (a) with a mechanical doll who went all to pieces, (b) with a great singer doomed to die if she sang, or (c) with a Venetian prostitute who stole his reflection—although he did write stories about unfortunate lovers in each of these situations. He dreamed all of his life of traveling to Italy, but never escaped the King of Prussia's domains. He developed a passionate infatuation for a fifteen-year-old singing pupil when he was thirty-five, the memory of which seems to have haunted him for years. But he appears to have remained faithful to the Polish woman who had married him in 1812, and who supported him through a life of considerable poverty and pain.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (he changed his third name from Wilhelm in honor of Mozart) is still taken quite seriously by scholars of German literature, and by cultural historians examining that phase of European art and thought we call Romanticism. Almost all studies of Hoffmann's writing are in German, and a great part of his literary work—which includes forty-nine tales, two novels, several semifictional essays on music, and a great deal of music criticism—has never been translated into English. Most of his life was divided between music (which he adored) and the law (which paid the bills). Only in the last years of his life did he begin to write the strange, supernatural stories that won him a brief but extraordinary international vogue. His tales were widely translated during the 1830s and 1840s (especially in France) and had a marked influence on authors like Gogol and Dostoevsky; Gautier, Nerval, and Baudelaire; Thomas Carlyle and


Hans Christian Andersen; and two American authors of "tales of mystery and imagination" very like his, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Although Hoffmann's own musical compositions (including eight operas) have been judged tame and uninspired, his music criticism was prescient and occasionally profound. He wrote passionate defenses of Bach, Gluck, Mozart, and especially Beethoven, whom he worshipped, and of the spiritual nature of music in general. Robert Schumann named two of his piano cycles (Fantasiestücke and Kreisleriana ) after Hoffmann's creations. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet is based on a few of the healthier episodes in one of Hoffmann's bizarre children's stories. Delibes's ballet Coppélia makes use of the same story as Act I of Offenbach's opera. Wagner and Weber both acknowledged the influence of his musical ideas. Busoni and Hindemith used his plots for operas.

But virtually no one (except scholars) reads Hoffmann any more. For reasons of cultural change, he comes as near as any significant nineteenth-century author can come to being "unreadable" today, unless one is dutifully studying his puzzling time. The force that has almost singlehandedly kept his name alive outside of Germany (and German departments) is an odd opera written by a fabulously popular German Jewish Parisian best known for his satiric and sexy operettas. Professional Hoffmannites profess to be dismayed that the public reputation of their idol has been sustained almost solely by The Tales of-Hoffmann , this confusing musical mélange of his life and work put together by a composer they regard as hopelessly frivolous and (even worse) French.

Jacques (originally Jakob) Offenbach was born near Cologne in 1819. His father, an itinerant cantor and music teacher named Isaac Eberst, had adopted the name of his native town, Offenbach-am-Main. He brought Jacques to Paris at the age of fourteen. There he was first a music student, then an orchestra cellist, then, successively, a salon performer, a conductor, a composer, a theatre manager, an entrepreneur, and ultimately an international celebrity and bon vivant. In the process, he became (despite a German accent and a Jewish nose his detractors loved to mock) more Parisian than the Parisians—and decidedly more so than the second emperor himself, Napoleon III, son on a Corsican, married to a Spaniard. Naturalized a French citizen in 1860, Offenbach was awarded the Légion d'Honneur in 1861.

The French Second Empire (1852–1870) is a period that gossipy amateur historians adore and serious moralizing historians deplore. In all of their accounts of Paris during these hectic, high-colored eighteen years, Jacques Offenbach—Orpheus in Paris, the king of the Second Empire, the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées—looms so large that he has become (along with Charles Garnier's extravagant new opera house) an overly facile symbol for all of Second Empire Paris.

His career as the favorite entertainer of Le Tout Paris (i.e., the fifty-six hundred


well-to-do Parisians who "mattered," out of almost two million) began at the International Exhibition of 1855, when he leased a fifty-seat theatre on the Champs-Elysées and began grinding out one-act, three-character musical farces that were livelier and funnier than anything on stage at the Opéra-Comique. Visitors to the fair, pleasure-seeking Parisians, and a young soprano he discovered named Hortense Schneider helped fill the little bonbonnière every night. When the fair ended, he moved to slightly larger and more comfortable quarters in the Passage Choiseul (the theatre is still there), for which he wrote a silly Mikado -like chinoiserie called Ba-ta-Clan . In the process, Offenbach invented what we now think of as the comic light opera. Gilbert and Sullivan, Franz Lehár, and Johann Strauss, Jr. all followed in his path.

In the next fourteen years, Offenbach wrote 64 more operas bouffes or comiques, which divides out to an average of 4.6 a year. He also ventured his first serious opera, Rheinnixen , for Vienna in 1863. It ran for eight performances, and survives today only as a footnote to The Tales of Hoffmann , because Offenbach had the wit to transfer its hypnotic, waving barcarole from the Rhine to the Grand Canal.

Among Offenbach's full-length, full-cast effusions during these years (he wrote music like a man possessed, scribbling scores on a lapboard in jolting carriages, or while carrying on animated conversations at his Friday night soirees) were Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld ), of 1858; La belle Hélène , of 1864; La Vie parisienne , of 1866; La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein , of 1867; and La Périchole , of 1868.

Today, all five of these witty, establishment-mocking, melodically captivating shows are still regularly performed, either as light relief by the world's grand opera companies, or as regular fare at today's equivalent of the Boulevard musical theatres of the Second Empire.

In point of fact, they often seem slightly ill at case in modern-day performance. The Met's pompous, kitschy La Périchole of 1956 was a case study in how to submerge a great operetta in overproduction. Régine Crespin is great fun to watch, and a joy to hear, as Offenbach's grand duchess. But she could never (and would never) ape the raw raunchiness of Hortense Schneider, "La Passage des Princes," a fleshy sexpot offstage and on who was meanly caricatured as "Nana" by Émile Zola—a liberal reformist who despised Jacques Offenbach and all of his works and pomps:

The big wench slapped her thighs and clucked like a hen, shed round her an odor of life, a sovereign feminine charm, with which the public grew intoxicated.

From the second act onwards everything was permitted her. She might hold herself awkwardly, she might fail to sing some note in tune, she might forget her words—it mattered not: she had only to turn and laugh to raise shouts of


applause. When she gave her famous kick from the hip, the stalls were fired, and a glow of passion rose upward, upward, from gallery to gallery, till it reached the gods. . . . Hand on hip, she enthroned Venus in the gutter alongside the pavement. And the music seemed made for her vulgar voice—shrill piping music, music that recalled the Saint-Cloud Fair, with wheezings of clarinets, and playful trills on the little flutes.

Most current producers insist on rewriting Offenbach's operetta texts to incorporate twentieth-century gags, and on importing Top 40 Offenbach hits from his other operas, to satisfy the mobs they hope to attract. But originally these works emerged from and criticized the air, the life, and the style of a city whose intense, false, fleeting image they helped to fix in the world's imagination. Between their thumping, intoxicating carousel galops and their mock-lyric outbursts, these sharp, satirical comedies inevitably included asinine aristocrats (or deities) not unlike Napoleon III, the Empress Eugénie, and their comic-opera courtiers; outrageously "French" sexual license; and sharp jabs at grand opera. We can catch alluring glimpses and faint sounds of Offenbach's Paris from the music and lyrics of these scintillating works. But we can never recapture the genuine thrill of recognition, the journalistic precision of the effect they must have had on Parisian theatregoers of the years between 1858 and 1868.

Nathanael rushed in, impelled by some nameless dread. The Professor was grasping a female figure by the shoulders, the Italian Coppola held her by the feet; and they were pulling and dragging each other backwards and forwards, fighting furiously to get possession of her. Nathanael recoiled with horror on recognizing that the figure was Olimpia. Boiling with rage, he was about to tear his beloved from the grasp of the madmen, when Coppola by an extraordinary exertion of strength twisted the figure out of the Professor's hands and gave him such a terrible blow with her, that Spalanzani reeled backwards and fell over the table among the phials and retorts, the bottles and glass cylinders, which covered it: all these things were smashed into a thousand pieces. But Coppola threw the figure across his shoulder, and, laughing shrilly and horribly, ran hastily down the stairs, the figure's ugly feet hanging down and banging and rattling like wood against the steps. Nathanael was stupefied—he had seen only too distinctly that in Olimpia's pallid waxed face there were no eyes, merely black holes in their stead; she was an inanimate puppet. . . . And now Nathanael saw a pair of bloody eyes lying on the floor staring at him; Spalanzani seized them with his uninjured hand and threw them at him, so that they hit his breast.

Then madness dug her burning talons into Nathanael and swept down into his heart, rending his mind and thoughts to shreds. . . . His cries passed into a brutish bellow that was awful to hear; and thus raging with the harrowing violence of madness, he was taken away to the madhouse.


This passage from "The Sandman," the tale on which Offenbach's Olympia episode is based, is not untypical of the breathless, antirational, willfully Romantic and supernatural works of E. T. A. Hoffmann. The original "tales of Hoffmann" are populated by monstrous dwarfs, magic potions, bizarre transformations, cabalistic lore, various succubi, and diabolic powers, as well as good ordinary European gentlemen (usually artists) driven mad by insensitive bourgeois, by all manner of obsessions, and by fiery, though never consummated, sexual passions. In their time, these stories were treasured, like early Romantic music, as a liberating escape from the strict rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Today, they are analyzed microscopically by Freudian psychologists and literary critics.

The real source, I believe, of the nagging puzzlement many people still feel at Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann , for all its musical and vocal felicity, derives not from its incompleteness or its internal inconsistencies, but from the uncomfortable union of composer and subject.

Why did Jacques Offenbach, the original gay boulevardier, choose for his ultimate text, the one most dedicated effort of his life, a play based on the life and works of so alien an artist? Or to put it more simply, what has Offenbach in common with Hoffmann? It is as if a Parisian prince of light collaborated with a Prussian prince of darkness, resulting in the opera we know.

Hoffmann's biographers and critics tend to be offended by Offenbach's shallow, tuneful redaction and reduction of their dark hero and his works. Offenbach's biographers and critics acknowledge that he achieved a greater musical sophistication and range of vocal expressiveness in Hoffmann; but on the whole they prefer his earlier operettas to this strange Teutonic swan song. Siegfried Kracauer has written, "All the same, this [The Tales of Hoffmann ] was not the most significant of his works. Others, like him, had wrestled with demons, but no one but he could have written the Offenbachiades ." According to James Harding, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann will always be an interesting but unequal achievement. . . . His most truly rounded genius should be discovered in Orphée, La belle Hélène, La Vie Parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse, La Périchole ."

Trying to fit the opera to the man, biographers strain to find or force connections between Hoffmann and Hoffmann. Offenbach was, after all, Légion d'Honneur or no, German born, too. After the ignominious French defeat by Prussia in 1870, a number of popular papers dragged out his German origins as a sign of subversion (he had fled his adopted country during the war), and denounced him as "Herr Offenbach," a "tool of Bismarck," le grand responsable . They pointed at the cynical "decadence" of his popular works as one of the reasons for France's defeat. "The brilliant theatrical era that opened with La belle Hélène ," argued one critic in 1871, "contributed, by its spirit of satire and disrespect, to the woeful work done by


unbounded skepticism, triumphant materialism, and social decadence." "Our unfortunate country will plunge into ruin if she does not quickly recover her good sense and good taste by throwing out once and for all these impudent corroders of the theatre," wrote another in 1873. The mockery of German militarism in La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein no longer amused the authorities. Productions of the work in France were banned in 1875.

After the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the tide of Parisian taste turned (at least temporarily) against the larking, mocking "Offenbachiades." The composer had not had a genuine hit since La Périchole in 1868, and even that represented an effort on his part to write something more lyrical and sweet than his norm, something in tune with a public that was growing tired of the cynical amoralism of La Vie parisienne . His health had been in painful decay since the early 1860s. By 1875, he was nearly paralyzed with rheumatism and gout, and sometimes had to be carried from chair to carriage, from carriage to chair. He was reduced to putting on pumped-up Las Vegas-revue (or English pantomime) versions of his old hits just to pay his bills. In 1875, one of his more grandiose ventures as a theatre manager went bankrupt. He had to rent out his beloved seaside villa (the Villa Orphée, named for the operetta that financed it) and agree to a money-making tour of the U.S. centennial celebrations in 1876. On his way back across the Atlantic, he was overheard making fun of the new French Republic by a French republican senator, who passed on an exaggerated version of his remarks to the sensitive, left-leaning Paris press. A minor scandal ensued.

All of this, his biographers claim, plus a sense that his end was near, disposed Jacques Offenbach to see in the darkly visionary, deeply German, death-obsessed Hoffmann a kindred spirit during his own declining years. According to James Harding:

The libretto had poignant undertones for him. In 1878, whell he finally began work on it, he sensed that death could not be far off. Like Antonia, he also knew that making music would hasten his end, but an impulse that could not be demed forced him on. Les Contes d'Hoffman was his own story and symbolised his own career. . . . Prematurely aged and ill with the stabbing pain that scarcely ever left him, he thought of an old ambition, one he had nurtured since the earliest days. . . . He wanted to be the composer of a real opera, of a work of art. . . . Les, Contes d'Hoffmann was to be his testament. It so possessed his whole being that, unconsciously, he reached back into his past, towards his roots and the music of his native country. . . . The main flavour of Les Contes d'Hoffmann is German.

Siegfried Kracauer claims:

The reason he coveted it so ardently [the Barbier and Carré libretto] was that he was now actually living in Hoffmann's ghost world. . . . As an old man


doomed to die he resembled Hoffmann himself, like the latter, he, too, was now wrestling with evil spirits. . . .

He discovered that he shared the fate Hoffmann, the hero of the drama—nay, more, that he was Hoffmann's double. Like Hoffmann, who had never achieved any of his three loves, Olympia, Antonia, or Giulietta, he had never attained the object of his love, grand opera. Like Hoffmann, he had been fooled by an evil spirit, who had estranged him from his true vocation. . . .

This opera was the judgment that Offenbach passed on himself; and the music, which is full of the panic of a child lost in the dark, betrays how many demons stormed in upon him during the process, in which his whole artistic existence was at stake.

I've tried hard, but I just can't buy this romantic notion of an identification in extremis. It reminds me of a past generation of Mozarteans who were certain they heard some "metaphorical shudder," some "fatalistic plunge," some "tragic despairing gloom" every time Mozart composed a work in a minor key, and then presumed there must be some deep, biographical impulse behind it. The very score of Offenbach's last opera seems to puncture such speculations.

The music of The Tales of Hoffmann is richer, more varied and expressive than that of his operettas. But it's still Offenbach: still full of joy and esprit, still far more French than German, still wholly at odds with the fundamental spirit of its source. Everything Offenbach ever wrote, it seems to me, leads up to it—given, for once, that he had real time to write and a serious artistic purpose. The party scenes of the Prologue, at Spalanzani's, and in Venice; the mechanical doll's coloratura, the comic-character turns are all precisely the sort of things he had been dealing with for years. Comparing modulations, rhythms, melodic structures, and orchestration song for song and scene for scene (which would take another essay), one could, I believe, demonstrate that the best of Offenbach's operettas are very close musical cousins of The Tales of Hoffmann .

This runs counter to the kind of "autobiographical" explanations of works of art many people enjoy. But I honestly believe that Jacques Offenbach had virtually nothing in common with Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann—or no more, let us say, than Charles Gounod had in common with Goethe or Shakespeare. Given all one can honestly learn about the composer from his letters, memoirs, and music, the romantic fantasy that in his dying years he flet compulsively drawn to his native German roots just doesn't hold up—let alone the idea that he felt some occult kinship with E. T. A. Hoffmann, this concocter of infernal, neurotically overimagined fairy tales out of another world.

I think that Jacques Offenbach simply wanted a good story for his legacy-opera: one that would allow him to indulge all of his known compositional skills; still be popular enough to be taken on by the Opéra-Comique (as it was); ensure his own artistic immortality; and, as he promised his wife just before he died that it would do, make their grandchildren rich.


From the time it was first produced in 1851, people had talked of Barbier and Carré's play, Les Contes d'Hoffmann , as a natural for musical setting. Olympia, after all, has to waltz wildly and sing brilliantly. (Originally, her voice was an offstage English horn.) Antonia is a star soprano by definition—and a dying consumptive soprano at that, in the manner of Violetta or Mimì, who hears her dead mother singing Schubert's "Marguerite." In her scene in the play, Hoffmann is a composer as well as a poet, and Dr. Miracle accompanies her dying air on his magic violin. Stella, too, is an opera star, based on a character in Hoffmann's essay-story about Mozart's Don Giovanni . Barbier and Carré wrote drinking songs for the two outer frame scenes and for Giulietta's Venetian orgy. Much of the play was written in verse; the text lent itself to musical setting with remarkably little revision.

Offenbach had been tempted by the play in 1851. By the time he declared his interest to Barbier a second time, in 1878 (Carré was by then dead), the author had already completed an opera-libretto version for another composer, who generously gave up his prior claim when he learned that Offenbach was interested. Barbier then rewrote his libretto to fit Offenbach's musical ideas—but not, from the evidence, all that much.

All of this leads me to believe that Offenbach felt no special attraction to Hoffmann; rather, that he liked Barbier and Carré's cleverly condensed, largely demystified theatrical-exotic Parisian stage version; and felt that, given his own musical skills, he could do something very special with it. Taking great pains for once in his life—he spent the better part of two years on his unfinished score—he managed, before he died, to do precisely that.



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