Les Contes d'Hoffmann - Synopsis

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Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Jacques Offenbach
Libretto by Jules Barbier after the play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré


The Story


Act One

Hoffmann, a poet, has not been able to write even a single sensible line since his affair with Stella, a prima donna, began. Stella wants to make an assignation with him, but he hides from her. Due to his doubts about himself he resorts to alcohol and begins to drink. Nicklausse,
his muse, tries his best to get him to write and offers what diversion he can: Lindorf, who has also been seen with Stella, three students by the names of Hermann, Wilhelm and Nathanael and a number of their drinking-mates. They all try to raise Hoffmann’s spirits with large amounts of alcohol and lusty songs. What they would really like, however, is to hear one of his exciting tales and Hoffmann does not disappoint them: he recites the poem about the ugly dwarf Kleinzack – but suddenly seems to fall into a reverie and rhapsodises about the features of his beloved. When his companions interrupt him and bring him back to reality he promises that he will tell them the catastrophic stories of the previous loves of his life.

Act Two: Olympia

Spalanzani has invented a doll which is deceptively life-like: Olympia. He is now bankrupt and can no longer pay Coppélius, from whom he bought the eyes for the doll, what he owes him.He hopes to make a fortune with his supposed ‚daughter‘ and to this end has invited a number of guests to whom he wishes to present his invention. He is able to get rid of Coppélius by giving him a bond.

Hoffmann, who is not at all interested in physics and technology, has fallen in love with Olympia. He has bought a pair of spectacles from Coppélius through which he sees the doll as a real person. Nicklausse has nothing but scorn for him. Hoffmann, however, finds the singing  of the doll just as simple and charming as her shyness. Spalanzani’s guests are also quite charmed by her. Spalanzani even hopes that Hoffmann will marry his daughter, but at the same time is afraid that too much activity might endanger his creation. When Hoffmann begins to waltz wildly with Olympia they both work themselves ever further into a frenzy.

Coppélius, on the other hand, seeks revenge. Spalanzani’s bond was not covered and so he gets control of the doll and destroys her. Only now does Hoffmann realize that he has fallen in love with a piece of machinery.

Act Three: Antonia

Hoffmann very much wants to see the singer Antonia again, with whom he has fallen deeply in love. Antonia also longs to see her lover but her father, Crespel, keeps her completely hidden from the outside world. In addition, he has also had all her music locked away and made her promise never to sing again. What she does not know is that her mother, who was also a famous singer, died of a mysterious illness the symptoms of which her father has now discovered in her. He is afraid that singing could also doom her to die. However Antonia manages to steal the key for her music from the servant Frantz, who dabbles in the art of singing himself.

Hoffmann also manages to outwit Frantz and gain entrance to Crespel’s house. Nicklausse, who is at least happy that Antonia is not a doll but a talented singer, urges Hoffmann to devote himself to his art. But nothing can stop Hoffmann: Antonia and he have at last found each other again. When Crespel unexpectedly returns, Hoffmann just manages to hide but is thus forced to overhear the argument between Antonia’s father and Dr Miracle: Miracle offers to treat Antonia’s illness but Crespel holds him responsible for the death of his wife and bids him leave.

Hoffmann is horrified and asks Antonia to promise him, too, that she will never sing again and then leaves. Antonia believes her lover has taken sides with her father. Uncertain and with a deep longing for her art she takes up the music and hears the voice of Miracle, who tempts her to give in completely to her desire to sing. When her mother’s voice also speaks to her there is nothing more to stop her. She sings and breaks down in mid song. Crespel and Hoffmann are not able to save her. She dies.

Act Four: Giulietta

Guilietta, a prostitute, has become a slave to the wealth of Dapertutto, who demands that she should obtain for him the reflections and souls of young men. Together with Schlémil and Pitichinaccio she is also very successful in this. Hoffmann, however, does not seem to be at all interested in her charms. After all his dreadful experiences, wine and cards seem to him to be more attractive. Nicklausse warns Hoffmann that this behaviour will only create new problems.

Dapertutto spurs Giulietta on to greater exertion with regard to Hoffmann’s soul by promising to give her a huge and valuable diamond. She immediately tries to capture Hoffmann’s affections by responding to his song. Hoffmann sits down to play cards with Schlémil and Pitichinaccio. At first he loses, but spurred on by Giulietta his luck changes. Schlémil is jealous of Giulietta’s affection for Hoffmann, who now declares his love for her, whereupon Pitichinaccio tries to get Nicklausse out of the way and prepares a drink mixed with poison. But Nicklausse does not feel like drinking. When Giulietta prepares to retire with Hoffmann, Schlémil attacks Hoffmann with a knife, but the latter is able to defend himself and in doing so kills Schlémil. Giulietta pretends she wants to protect him from further attacks. Hoffmann is meanwhile completely besotted by her so it is very easy for her to steal his reflection. Dapertutto thinks that he has won. Giulietta receives the diamond, with which she becomes enraptured, and reaches for a glass to refresh herself – and drinks the poison which was intended for Nicklausse. She dies, to the horror of Pitichinaccio and Dapertutto. Nicklausse seizes the opportunity to free Hoffmann from his spell.

Act Five

The students and their friends are both enthralled and horrified by Hoffmann’s tales. One thing is clear to all of them: all three types of women are pesonified in one women-Stella. Hoffmann is too drunk to care. He collapses and Stella turns away from him in disgust. So he begins to commit his story to paper. Nicklausse the muse and all the other characters surround Hoffmann as if they were explaining to him what he has learned through his experiences: „Laugh at your pain! The Muse will ease your woes. For love makes man great, but sorrow makes him greater still.“