The Tales of Hoffmann /Les contes d’ Hoffmann

Andriana Chuchman as Olympia, Steven Cole as Cochenille and Michael Barrett as Spalanzani in the Canadian Opera Company production of The Tales of Hoffmann, 2012.

Ιn Toronto, on April 15, 2012, was the second performance of the Les contes  d’ Hoffmann, an opera with a prologue, three acts and an epilogue by Jacques Offenbach, with a libretto in French. It is a third derivative of the original, the stories by E.T. A.  Hoffman. ( E.T.A. is not to be confused with the Basque terrorist organization).Two French writers, Michel Carré  and Jules Barbier, were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s stories and wrote a play, which was not very successful when it was staged. Thirty years later Jules Barbier modified the play into an opera libretto. According to the prevailing opinion The Tales of Hoffman is an opera, rather than operetta, of which Hoffmann wrote many.  

According to Henry W. Simon’s “100 Great Operas and Their Stories” the E.T.A. Hoffmann was a German composer, lawyer, author, literary critic, and caricaturist. His name at birth was Ernest Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, which reads rather as E.T.W. Hoffmann.  He became so delighted by Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, that he changed his third name from Wilhelm to Amadeus and so became E.T.A. Hoffman. He is the author of three stories on which each of the three acts of this Offenbach’s opera. The stories were originally titled as The Sandman, New Year’s Eve Adventure and Councilor Crespel. The barcarolle in   Act 3 is an operatic evergreen, if such a category exists, and its sublime rendition can be found on YouTube with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanča.

It is admirable for a French-naturalized German Jew to compose a hit song associated with the Venetian gondoliers and their songs. There could hardly be anything closer to Venetian gondoliers than the associative power of this song in Act 3. Offenbach lived in Paris, where he had years of career as a cellist in an orchestra. His entrepreneurial spirit soared and there was a time when he managed 3 opera houses in Paris. The core of the repertoire was operetta, which was popular at the time.  Offenbach wrote about a hundred operettas, and only one opera—The Tales of Hoffmann. The popularity of Offenbach made the way for his place in many books on opera even though he composed only one such. A highbrow authority, Sir Denis Foreman, did not find Offenbach qualified to have a separate entry. In his almost 1000-page-long book titled “A Night at the Opera” there are only two cursory references to Offenbach, neither of which speaks about his creative work as a composer. They are about his business as an opera house manager and the wholesale purchaser of the best librettos in the niche market of light-opera scripts. The end of Offenbach’s life suffered the misfortunes, an unsuccessful tour to the USA, and the dwindling of his opera management business so that he had to shut down his third theatre. He did not live to see the premiere of Les contes d’Hoffmann.

The COC’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann bears the expressiveness of the time it was conceived. The program says that this is a production of Vlaamse Opera last seen at the COC in 24 years ago. It has as its centrepiece an early 19th-century relationship between a man and a woman. The staging follows the narrative of the libretto. It is executed correctly. No attempt was made to explore the potentials of this libretto beyond its face value.

Ms. Andriana Chuchman, a Canadian singer from Winnipeg. As Olympia Ms. Chuchman was cute and sang her difficult coloratura aria with ease.

The most delightful part of this performance for me was the sound of the COC orchestra. Our Canadian Opera Company music director and conductor Maestro Johannes Debus spun a fine fiber of coherent sound. He dived into research and digested the flavours and influences surrounding the fact that the work was unfinished by its original author, and therefore open for exploration. In an interview with Susanne Vanstone published in the program Johannes Debus shares his first impressions: ”When I saw it for the first time I remember feeling that it was a clear counter, or anti-concept, to the megalomanic concept of Richard Wagner and his view on mankind. It couldn’t be more opposite. But I needed both Wagner and Offenbach in my life!  I’m glad that Offenbach had these extraordinary visions. He was called the Mozart des Champs-Elysees, because he has a Mozart quality that empathizes with the human soul and human being.”  It was the sound of the orchestra that night that maintained the delicate balance between humorous and sad on which this opera hinges.     

Johannes Debus



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