Les Contes d’Hoffmann

The big question presented in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” is: What is the deepest wish of the poet, the artist? Is it to have it both ways: success in the material world with all its public demands, and/or emotional fulfillment, i.e., love? Are they mutually exclusive?

Jacques Offenbach addresses these concerns in his last opera, a pre-Christmas offering at the Royal Opera House. We start out in a beer hall, where the massively drunk hero/poet explains in parables the story of his life. He is waiting for his love object, Stella, to appear after a singing performance. In a near-drunken stupor he recounts his romantic failures so far.

His first love was an automaton — a beautiful doll, Olympia — whose seeming perfections are a trap for Hoffmann. She is beautiful and compliant. She can sing coloratura in the most sublime (albeit mechanical) way, and is under the control of her father/inventor, to trap a wealthy husband. Hoffmann wears magic glasses that transform this mechanical, cold and clever invention into the woman of his dreams. But, alas, we all have been victim to this, ascribing the more delicate sensitivities to the object of our attraction, no matter how shallow they actually are. It ends badly with the automaton going a bit “haywire” and falling apart. Hoffmann is devastated by his shattered dream of love (as evidenced by the shattered doll in his arms).

The second act takes place in Venice. Hoffmann has fallen deeply in love with the courtesan Giulietta. He is a bit more cynical by now. Guilietta is the embodiment of sexual seduction. She has many lovers. She professes love for Hoffmann, but he realized that there may be a problem. Guilietta loves gold and jewels more than she can love any man, and his rival makes an offer she cannot refuse — a magnificent huge diamond. Though she can profess love on the one hand, she cannot curb her appetite for riches. Again, Hoffmann, poor lad, is betrayed, and she sails off laughing in her magnificent gondola staring avidly at the stone.

The third act is complex in its subtext. Antonia is a beautiful young woman who is sequestered by her protective father. Hoffmann loves her, but there is conflict as Antonia is a gifted singer, as was her deceased mother. Antonia admits to herself her incredible need for music that surpasses all else, but is also fully aware that the effort of singing, because of an unnamed disease, will kill her. Will Hoffmann’s love be enough for her? Can she give up her music for the promises of perfect domesticated bliss? A strange devil in her head tells her that by giving up her music she will be giving up life and that domesticity will be no substitute for the joy of art. She succumbs to this knowledge, sings her heart out, and it breaks. There is a proto-feminist message in this: What makes a life worth living — art, love? Is it possible to have both? Will trying to do so, kill us?

Hoffmann now faces an empty future, as we again find him drunk and disorderly back in the beer hall. Stella, his love object of the moment, appears and chooses another suitor; Hoffmann is nearly unconscious and hardly recognizes her. But there is a saving grace. His Muse appears in the form of a Greek goddess to remind him of his responsibility as an artist and hands him a notebook. He miraculously recovers his wits and begins to scribble. The opera ends on a hopeful note.

The role of Hoffmann sung by Vittorio Grigòlo is incredibly demanding as he appears in every act and meets every expectation as the disappointed lover and aspiring poet. All the singers, most notably the American Thomas Hampson, who assumes all the devilish roles, are magnificent. The production stems from the days of the great John Schlesinger. It is sumptuous, stunning and full of visual and aural riches. The ROH in the ’80s had plenty of money and the costumes and settings are spectacular. We live in more austere times, and so this is a great joy indeed.

Kaaren Hale


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