Although a tale of one man’s repeated romantic failures may not seem the most Christmassy choice, the Royal Opera House’s winter offering is actually a story of true love and the redemptive power of poetry. Les Contes d'Hoffman, Jacques Offenbach’s famous opera in three acts, follows the poet Hoffman as he relives the three great love stories of his life and promises to leave you feeling uplifted and warm inside.
The piece is Offenbach’s only opera (though he wrote close to 100 operettas between the 1850s and the 1870s) and the great tragedy is that he died before it was finished. He was desperate to see it staged but, having completed the vocal score and begun work on the orchestration, his gout finally defeated him in 1880 and he died just four months before opening night, reportedly with the manuscript in his hand. His own striving could be seen to mirror that of his final protagonist, though Hoffman’s ending is much more positive, as he finally finds happiness with his own art form.
The opera is based on three short stories by the writer and dramatist Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, with one story making up one of each of the opera’s acts, and each featuring one of Hoffman’s loves and one of his evil nemeses. We begin, however, in Nuremburg, with the Muse of poetry who wants Hoffman to cast aside his failures (his likely next one being a prima donna called Stella) and devote himself to his art. She disguises herself as Nickalusse – his closest friend – and settles in to listen to Hoffman’s tales.
He begins with Olympia – a beautiful mechanical doll, created by the scientist Spalanzani and Hoffman’s first nemesis, Coppelius. Coppelius has given Hoffman magical glasses which make Olympia appear like a real woman. Although Nicklausse repeatedly tries to warn him, Hoffman, naturally, falls in love with her and believes his affections are returned until he falls while they are dancing together and smashes his glasses. Coppelius – having found out Spalanzani has cheated him out of his fees – arrives at that moment and tears Olympia to pieces leaving Hoffman both heartbroken… and a laughing stock.
So far, so tragic. Act Two is not much different – though this time our focus is Antonia. She does indeed love Hoffman back, and the two have bonded over his encouragement of her singing career, but her father has stolen her away and hidden her, due to a mysterious disease which will kill her if she sings too much. Hoffman’s second nemesis – the wryly-named Dr Miracle – convinces Antonia’s father to let him heal her. Having overheard the conversation, Hoffman understands, and goes to Antonia to plead with her to stop singing. She agrees, but when Dr Miracle comes to see her alone and conjures a vision of her mother (who suffered from the same fatal talent) she cannot resist and sings herself to death. Her father is distraught and Hoffman only escapes his wrath thanks to Nicklausse’s intervention.
The Third Act brings no respite for poor Hoffman, as this time he has fallen in love with a courtesan called Giulietta. Again, he believes his feelings are requited, but again his nemesis (this time the villain is Captain Dapertutto) has other ideas. Dapertutto has promised Giulietta a diamond if she can seduce Hoffman and steal his reflection. Eventually she succeeds but is killed by a poison Dapertutto prepared for Nicklausse to stop him from saving Hoffman once more.
Back in the present day, and Hoffman has (understandably) had enough. Just as he is denouncing women altogether (having realised that prima donna Stella is no more than a composite of Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta – the young girl, the musician, and the courtesan) the Muse reveals herself and declares her love. Struck by the magic of poetry, Hoffman reciprocates and… they all lived happily, poetically ever after!