by Eugene Toth
On February 28, 2015 the Metropolitan Opera presented Les Contes d’Hoffman, three short and striking operas by the composer Jacques Offenbach.
In 1819 Jacques Offenbach was born the son of a synagogue cantor in Cologne, Germany. The young Offenbach began his career as a virtuoso cellist. Until that time, most composers wrote long and complicated operas lasting several hours. Offenbach pioneered short operas, simple and easy to understand. He broadened the appeal of opera. Offenbach grew so famous that the Emperor Napoleon offered him French citizenship.
In the first of three tales about the youth Hoffman, Spalazani, an inventor, had created a beautiful doll named Olympia. Meanwhile, Spalazani also taught science to his student Hoffman. Hoffman believed Olympia was Spalazani ‘s daughter.
Spalazani’s former partner in science and business, Coppelius supplied to Spalazani limbs and other body parts for Olympia. Coppelius demanded that Spalazani pay him for Olympia’s body parts. Spalazani handed to Coppelius a check for five hundred ducats.
To Hoffman Coppelius sold a pair of glasses which made Olympia look real. Contemplating the beautiful Olympia, Hoffman swayed with emotion. His love for the doll soared.
In honor of Olympia, Spalazani threw a party. First singing an aria Olympia dazzled the crowd. As she sang, Spalazani, from time to time, recharged her. Then she danced very fast, amazing the crowd. Trumpets accompanied her movements. Through the glasses Hoffman could not see that Olympia was a doll. He considered her real. He adored Olympia as if he would sacrifice his life for her. Into an aria he poured all his emotions.
Discovering that the check of Spalazani was worthless, Coppelius burst into the scene and tore apart Olympia. The crowd mocked Hoffman for falling in love with a puppet.
In a second tale, Hoffman loved Antonia, a beautiful young girl. In a love song she recalled her deceased mother. To distance Antonia from Hoffman, Crespel, Antonia’s father, moved with her to Munich. Persisting in searching for Antonia, Hoffman traveled to Munich. There he found her. Nervous to meet Antonia again after they had been apart, Hoffman explained how he had missed her. Singing with all her heart in a duet with her love Hoffman, Antonia collapsed. The same doctor who had treated Antonia’s mother arrived to help Antonia. Violins expressed the sweet love of Antonia and Hoffman. With furrowed brow, Hoffman compelled Antonia to promise never to sing again. Antonia could not stop herself. Singing an aria, Antonia fell and died.
In a third tale, in the company of the courtesan Guiletta, Hoffman visited a barcarole, a great place of gaiety. The frivolous Guiletta introduced Hoffman to her current lover. Hoffman’s friend warned him not to fall in love with Guiletta. The friend warned that Guiletta would never return Hoffman’s love. To his friend, Hoffman denied any interest in Guiletta.
Hoffman had not paid a debt he owed to Dapertutto, an evil tax collector. Dapertutto offered to Guiletta a large diamond if she could drive Hoffman mad. Guiletta loved jewels. To win a diamond, she would ruin a person’s life.
As Guiletta flirted with Hoffman, they peered into a mirror. Hoffman could not see his own reflection. He saw only Guiletta. Guiletta so fascinated Hoffman that he forgot himself. He could not take his eyes from Guiletta. His eyes gleamed with madness. He loved Guiletta so intensely that he hated himself. Violent percussion and brass music expressed Hoffman’s madness.
Of these three tales of Hoffman, the first intrigues us most. Can science create an ideal woman? Can young men resist her? How amazing that two centuries ago people imagined robots. That a man can love an unreal image shows how little people understand themselves. Hoffman’s fascination with Guiletta shows the power of a courtesan to capture a man’s mind, the power of passion to obliterate reason. Hoffman’s loves present dramatic moments for Offenbach’s music.