Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Here is the prologue of a recent production (December 19, 2009) of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann ("The Tales of Hoffmann), an opera in three acts. Performing the music is The Metropolitan Opera ("The Met) in New York City, with James Levine as conductor.

The cast is as follows:
Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja
Olympia: Kathleen Kim
Antonia / Stella: Anna Netrebko
Giulietta: Ekaterina Gubanova
Lindorf / Coppélius / Dappertutto / Dr. Miracle: Alan Held
Nicklausse / Muse: Kate Lindsey
Andrès / Cochenille / Pitichinaccio / Frantz: Alan Oke
Luther / Crespel: Dean Peterson
Nathanael: Rodell Rosel
Hermann / Schlèmil: Michael Todd Simpson
Spalanzani: Mark Schowalter
Antonias's Mother Voice: Wendy White
The French libretto was written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic author who is the main protagonist in the opera. The synopsis for the opera can be found here. It is set in Germany and Italy in the early 19th century. The Prologue is in Luther's Tavern in Nuremberg, Germany.


Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880): Circa 1860s. Offenbach did not live to see his opera performed, dying on October 5, 1880, aged 61, four months before its premiere.
Source: Wikipedia
Jacques Offenbach was born Jacob Offenbach to Isaac Juda Offenbach (né Eberst) and Marianne (née Rindskopf) in Cologne, Germany (then part of Prussia), on June 20, 1819, the seventh of ten children and the son of a Jewish cantor. Jacob's father, who had adopted the surname Offenbach officially in 1808, after the town where he was born, Offenbach am Main, moved to Cologne in 1816 where he worked as a music teacher. Later on, he secured permanent employment as a cantor of a local synagogue.

Jacob took up the violin at six, and the cello at nine. When Jacob was 14, he went with his brother Julius, 18, to study at the Paris Conservatoire under the direction of Luigi Cherubini. There they both adopted French versions of their names: Jacob became Jacques and Julius became Jules. His older brother graduated and became a successful violin teacher and conductor. Jacques dropped out after a year.

Jacques Offenbach had a difficult time for a few years, living hand to mouth, as it were, before securing a position as a cellist with the Opéra-Comique in 1835. He later took lessons in composition and orchestration from Fromental Halévy. His reputation eventually grew, playing in fashionable salons in Paris.

In an 1844 tour of England, he played with such luminaries as Anton Rubinstein, Felix Mendelssohn and Joseph Joachim. There was one more thing to do, which he did after his return. After converting to Christianity, Jacques Offenbach married Hérminie d'Alcain on August 14, 1844.  The bride was the daughter of a general. He was 25; she 17. The marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one.

In 1855, Offenbach rented his own theatre, the Bouffes Parisiens on the Champs Élysées, and began a successful career devoted largely to operetta and opéras comiques, which lasted till  his death. His best known operettas are Orpheus in the Underworld, La Vie parisienne, La Belle Hélène, and The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.

Offenbach wrote about 100 lighter pieces for the stage. His final work, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, is more serious than his other earlier works. It remained incomplete when Offenbach died of heart failure at the age of 61, and it was completed by Ernest Guiraud, Offenbach's good friend.  Les Contes d'Hoffmann premiered in February 10, 1881 at the Opéra-Comique. Here are some background notes from Opera Today (Aug 10, 2006):
His health had been in decline by the time Offenbach started to compose what he must have known would be his masterpiece, but he pressed on. In May, 1879, there was a private reading of Les contes d'Hoffmann at Offenbach’s home at which Carvalho, from the Opèra-Comique, and Jauner, from the Ring Theater, were present. Both men wanted the rights to the work, and the composer eagerly agreed. Eighteen months later Offenbach died without seeing his opera reach the stage. Les Contes d'Hoffmann premiered at the Opèra Comique, on February 10, 1881, and the original production played one hundred and one performances to overwhelming, public, and critical acclaim.

Elegy to Jacques Offenbach in the illustrated English magazine, Punch: Volume 79, Issue 14: October 16, 1880.
Author: Clement Scott (1841-1904)
Source: Wikipedia


  1. Light-hearted music is generally not considered great. This is a mistake. Offenbach's music can be thrilling. I especially like the cancan theme from his overture to Orpheus in the Underworld.

  2. I agree that there is a place for light-hearted music. Thank you for the link to the cancan theme.


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