Vittorio Grigolo sings the title role of the tortured poet in Offenbach’s glittering treatment of the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Bartlett Sher’s production provides a vibrant backdrop for this operatic journey through the hero’s many love affairs. Johannes Debus conducts.
Premiere: Opéra Comique, Paris, 1881. After becoming the toast of Paris with his witty operettas, Jacques Offenbach set out to create a more serious work. He chose as his source a successful play based on the stories of visionary German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Three of these tales—at once profound, eerie, and funny—were unified in the play by a narrative frame that made Hoffmann the protagonist of his own stories. Each episode recounts a catastrophic love affair, and throughout the opera, Hoffmann is dogged by a diabolical nemesis and accompanied by his faithful friend Nicklausse.
Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) was born Jacob Offenbach in Cologne, Germany, of Jewish ancestry. He moved to Paris in 1833, where he became a hugely successful composer of almost 100 operettas. Jules Barbier (1825–1901) was the librettist for many operas, including Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette. He frequently collaborated with Michel Carré (1822–1872), with whom he wrote the play on which the Hoffmann libretto is based. E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) was a German author and composer whose stories have inspired a variety of subsequent works, including Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker.
The action of the prologue and epilogue takes place in an unnamed German city, in “Luther’s tavern.” The tavern setting (as well as the lurking presence of a diabolical client) recalls the Faust legend and casts an otherworldly ambience on the subsequent episodes. Each of these flashbacks occurs in evocative settings representing a cross-section of European cultures: Paris (Act I), Munich (Act II), and Venice (Act III). In Bartlett Sher’s production, the world of Franz Kafka and the era of the 1920s provide a dramatic reference point.
Offenbach’s music is diverse, ranging seamlessly from refined lyricism to a broader sort of vaudeville, with the extreme and fantastic moods of the story reflected in the eclectic score. The composer’s operetta background is apparent in the students’ drinking songs in the prologue and epilogue, in the servant’s comic song in Act II, and in Act I’s glittering entr’acte and chorus. The juxtaposition of beauty and grotesquerie, which is such a striking feature of the drama, is also found throughout the music.