Saturday, 6 June 2020

A fascinating conundrum - Les contes d'Hoffmann: with its troubled genesis & editorial confusion, Offenbach's final opera seems unique, yet it developed out ideas from the composer's lesser-known late period

The Tales of Hoffmann – scene from the premiere, showing Adèle Isaac as the dead Antonia,
Offenbach: Les contes d'Hoffmann – scene from the premiere in 1881
with Adèle Isaac as the dead Antonia,
Jacques Offenbach's output is so large (close to 100 stage works) that we tend to be familiar with only a small number of his operas. So, a work like his grand opera Les contes d'Hoffmann seems to appear out of nothing, and to bear little resemblance to other key works such as Orphée aux enfers or La belle Hélène.

It does not help that matters are confused by the editorial difficulties, performing material being difficult to obtain, manuscripts being dispersed and the fact that a number of Offenbach's works exist in significantly different versions.

Jacques Offenbach photographed by Nadar in the 1860s
Jacques Offenbach
photographed by Nadar in 1860s

But as reliable editions of his works become available and some of the lesser known pieces are explored, we can begin to appreciate the shape of Offenbach's career and come to understand how a work like Les contes d'Hoffmann developed out of the works that Offenbach was writing during the decade leading up to his death.


Offenbach's career split into a series of distinct periods and can be understood partly through the composer's complex relationships with Parisian theatres. Born into a musical Jewish family in Cologne, the young Jacob and his brother Julius were so talented that their father took them to Paris to study at the Conservatoire, though Jacob (now Jacques) left after a year and preferred being a freelance virtuoso cellist. Though he would conduct at the Opéra-Comique, he was never asked to write for them despite success elsewhere. Offenbach's talents as a composer were recognised by the impresario Hervé, who had pioneer French light comic opera (opérette) and whose company performed some of Offenbach's one-act operas.

This led to Offenbach founding his own company, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens and abandoning ideas of the Opéra-Comique where his sense of irony and satirising of the very repertory which it performed were not appreciated. So started Offenbach's first period, a mad dash through an enormous number of one-act pieces, all written for a tiny theatre with just three singers as the maximum (owing to licensing restrictions). But his timing was good, the 1855 Great Exhibition flooded Paris with visitors. His works were popular, but the company was perpetually short of money, as Offenbach spent rather too freely.

From the first, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens was never just about Offenbach, and it performed works by many other composers, giving premieres of operas by Charles Lecocq, Georges Bizet, Léo Delibes, and Hervé, including Emmanuel Chabrier's L'étoile in 1877 (though the modest orchestra was appalled at the difficulty of Chabrier’s score, which was much more sophisticated than anything Offenbach wrote for the theatre).

Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens during Le mari à la porte' in 1859
Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens
during Le mari à la porte in 1859
Finally, in 1858 licensing restrictions were relaxed and authorities allowed secondary theatres to show an unlimited number of characters on stage. For the first time these smaller theatres could compete on equal terms with the official theatres like the Opéra-Comique. Offenbach's first work to take advantage of this was the one act Mesdames de la Halle (1858) which had over a dozen character, and Offenbach produced his first full-length operetta, Orphée aux enfers, later that year, in a lavish production with scenery by Gustave Doré, lavish costumes, a cast of twenty principals, and a large chorus and orchestra.

This would lead to Offenbach's glory decade, the 1860s. He became a French citizen by personal command of Emperor Napoleon III. And it would be this period which produced his major operas, La belle Hélène (1864), La Vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) and La Périchole (1868); works which satirised the society of the French second Empire, hidden carefully under a cloak of classicism. It is in the late 1860s that a change starts to come over Offenbach's work. Pieces like La Périchole (1868) and Les brigands (1869), mark a departure from exuberant satire and show an interest in more romantic comedy, with strong human interest.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and fall of the Second Empire left Offenbach at something of a loss, and his former German nationality was noted in a wave of anti-German sentiment. The 1870s would be marked by foreign tours, to the UK (where his operas were popular) and to the USA. Though he did produce new works, he also produced new versions of earlier ones so that we have grander versions of operas like Orphée aux enfers which date from this period. During the 1860s he had been used to having works running concurrently in a number of establishments in Paris, but this did not happen so much in in the 1870s.

For instance, at the beginning of 1878 Les Contes d'Hoffmann had been abandoned by the Théâtre Lyrique, as the theatre had had to close, the premiere of Madame Favart at the Théâtre des Folies-Dramatiques had been postponed because another composer's piece had been unexpectedly successful, and another project got no further than the discussion stage, so that when Maître Péronilla premiered at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in March 1878, it was Offenbach's only work in the theatre in Paris at the time.

Hortense_Schneider as La Périchole
Hortense_Schneider as La Périchole
The operas of the 1870s are rather more varied, no-longer would Offenbach just call them all opérette or opéra bouffe/bouffon, and we start to have works labelled opéra comique. He had written for the Opéra-Comique back in 1860, but that piece, Barkouf, was not a success. In 1867 he wrote Robinson Crusoé for the Opéra-Comique and would write a number of other works for the establishment, works which are closer to the Opéra-Comique model. Robinson Crusoé was probably his grandest work to date, though it was not a major success, neither was Vert-Vert (1869), nor Fantasio (1872).

These works are closer to what is thought of as opéra comique, amiable and subtle rather than crazy and clownish, with none of the zaniness of the 1860s. They explore the comic/romantic vein more, and leave satire far behind; for instance, despite some of its mad-cap plot Fantasio is a somewhat melancholy piece. And Offenbach explored this vein elsewhere too, so that though not performed at the Opéra-Comique, both Madame Favart (1878) and La fille du tambour-major (1879) are labelled opéra comique, the one a fantasy plot about the real-life French actress Marie Justine Favart and the other, based on a plot similar to Donizetti's La fille du Regiment, became his most popular opera of the 1870s. And Maître Péronilla (1878), though labelled an opera bouffe was regarded by critics as an opéra comique, and in fact had a huge number and variety of characters. Maître Péronilla is almost unique in Offenbach's output in that the composer wrote the libretto. And the orchestra has a larger role to play, it no longer is content to just accompany but is a more active, suggestive participant in proceedings.

But Offenbach continued to use his works to provide a mirror of society, even if he no longer sent things up in the same way. A number of the operas of the 1870s are set in the world of commerce, La Jolie Parfumeuse (1873), La boulangère a des écus (1875/76), and Maître Péronilla (1878) all reflect the way the rise of commerce and the commercial class has changed society.

If we understand Offenbach's career in this way, then the jump to the 'Grand Opera' of Les contes d'Hoffmann is not too far. And it helps if we understand a little of the strange background to this work. But first, it is worth diverting back to Vienna in 1864. Offenbach's Les fées du Rhin was a four-act romantic opera written for the Vienna Court Opera and performed there in a German translation as Die Rheinixen. Unfortunately, the leading tenor was ill and the opera presented in truncated form. It never seems to have been repeated and disappeared, with Offenbach re-using one piece from it as the 'Barcarolle' in Les contes d'Hoffmann. Only recent scholarship has allowed the work to be presented in the form which Offenbach intended, giving us a chance to explore his earlier flirtation with Romantic grand opera. It shows us Offenbach experimenting with the Romantic tradition in the manner of Weber! It has another problem, it is far too long. Offenbach cut the piece to suit the illness of the first tenor, and never had chance to re-shape it into a more satisfactory format.

Dr. Miracle and Antonia in the 1881 premiere of Les contes d'Hoffmann
Dr. Miracle and Antonia in the 1881 premiere
of Les contes d'Hoffmann
Offenbach saw a play, Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann, written by Barbier and Michel Carré and produced at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1851. It was only in the 1870s that he set about creating an opera from it. The work was initially to be for the Théâtre Lyrique and would ultimately be written for the Opéra-Comique with spoken dialogue. In its combination of Romantic drama and comedy, we can see links back to Offenbach's works of the 1870s. It is not such a jump from pieces like Fantasio to the original conception of Les contes d'Hoffmann.

The work had rather a long and complex genesis, partly because the planned venue kept being changed, partly as directors changed and partly as the theatre situation in Paris was volatile and companies went  bankrupt, so the project moved from Opéra-Comique to Théatre de la Gaîté to Théâtre-Lyrique (the Théatre de la Gaîté under a new name) to Opéra-Comique.  And each time, adjustments had to be made. But in 1879 a private performance of extracts was put on in Offenbach's home, with the directors of the Ringtheater, Vienna and Opéra-Comique present. At this point, the role of Hoffmann was a baritone and the four soprano heroines sung by a lirico spinto, but afterwards the title role was re-cast for tenor (for Alexandre Talzac) and the four sopranos were to be sung by a brilliant coloratura soprano, Adèle Isaac, so this role was adjusted too.

Whilst Les contes d'Hoffmann was premiered at the Opéra-Comique, the event took place four months after Offenbach's death and the version presented was some way from Offenbach's original conception. The version seen at the premiere was created by Ernest Guiraud, who finished the orchestration and applied the cuts demanded by the Opéra-Comique's director, Leon Carvalho. Then for the work's Viennese premiere later that year, Guiraud supplied recitatives. But this wasn't the end of the story.

The opera's dress rehearsal had lasted from 8pm to 12.30am, and the Giulietta act, with its three scene changes, took nearly an hour. The act was reduced to a single scene and then Carvalho removed it entirely, tacking the 'Barcarolle' onto the Antonia act! This has bedevilled the work ever since. Also, the first Niklausse was evidently not entirely satisfactory, so much of the role was cut and the doubling of Niklausse and the Muse was dropped, thus weakening the opera's raison d'etre.

By the early 20th century, the unsatisfactory nature of the piece was apparent and for performances in Monaco the impresario Raoul Gunsbourg commissioned the composer André Bloch to remedy things. So Dapertutto acquired a new solo "Scintille, diamant", based on a tune from the overture to Offenbach's operetta A Journey to the Moon, and the Guilietta act acquired a new conclusion, a Septet based on the 'Barcarolle'. This crystallised in the 1907 Choudens score, and for much of the 20th century you had to perform this version because, if you dropped the Septet then there was no viable alternative conclusion to the Giulietta act, as Offenbach's original intentions were not known.
   
Ilona Domnich as Stella - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, 2015 © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich as Stella - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, 2015
© Richard Hubert Smith
The manuscript of the opera as left by Offenbach seems to have been split into pieces, and the elements unused at the premiere dispersed so that the reconstruction of what Offenbach actually wrote has required significant detective work in the 20th and 21st centuries. A fire at the Opéra-Comique in 1887 meant that the performing parts were damaged beyond repair; the copyist's score with Guiraud's annotations disappeared, only resurfacing in 2004 in the archives of the Paris Opera! From somewhere, Raoul Gunsbourg had acquired a sheaf of Offenbach's manuscripts including numbers cut before the premiere (Gunsbourg was friends with the publisher Paul Choudens and with Offenbach's grandsons, so they probably came from one of these soruces), and these were the basis of the first reconstruction of the opera by Michael Kaye. In 1976, more manuscripts were discovered in a cupboard of one of Offenbach's descendents, and then at Raoul Gunsbourg's former residence further important manuscripts were found, the material cut before the premiere. Finally in 1993, the finale to the Giulietta act was found, the last material that Offenbach worked on, and this was in surprisingly good shape with the piano score in the composer's hand, the lyrics corresponding to the version of the libretto sent to the censors. Finally, we have a critical edition edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christoph Keck.

It has taken a long time to recover all Offenbach's surviving material, particularly for the Giulietta act, and the work in this format is still not well known. Modern scholarship means that we can substantially recover everything that Offenbach wrote, though Guiraud's orchestrations of necessity have to remain.

Offenbach intended the soprano parts to be sung by the same singer, Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia are three facets of Stella; similarly the four villains (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) would be performed by the same bass-baritone, because they are all manifestations of evil. Whilst it has become common to cast Giulietta as a dramatic mezzo-soprano, if we recover Offenbach's original writing for the role then there are commonalities with the other three roles, though the composite role still remains a striking challenge to any singer.

If we take all of Offenbach's surviving music and add the later recitatives then we have an opera which, like Die Rheinnixen, is far too long. Even with spoken dialogue, as Carvahlo found before the premiere, it is a long piece. The problem is that Offenbach habitually over-wrote, and cut in rehearsals. He was not able to do this process, thus leaving us with a strange conundrum.

Offenbach: Fantasio - Hanna Hipp - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Hanna Hipp in the title role - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
The opera's later history has meant that, like Ambroise Thomas' Mignon, Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Carmen, the addition of recitatives the work moved away from its origins towards a more grand opera conception which seems to set it apart from Offenbach's other music. With its multiplicity of styles, the music of Les contes d'Hoffmann (particularly if we consider the version with spoken dialogue) can very much be traced back to Offenbach's gradual move from operette and opera bouffe to opera comique. If Offenbach had lived, then we would have had a final opera comique version, and he would also have supervised the creation of a grand opera version with recitatives. Quite what shape that this would have taken is one of those intriguing questions which history cannot answer.

Further reading:
  • The critical edition of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann by Michael Kaye and Christophe Keck is available from Schott, and they also publish and admirable booklet which describes the complex history of this fascinating work.

Further listening:
There are many classic recordings of Offenbach's operas which are pretty essential. But it is worth trying a number of modern recordings where scholarship has enabled performers to give rather fuller versions of the operas. There is, as yet, no ideal recording of the Kaye-Keck edition with spoken dialogue.
  • Les Fées du Rhin (Die Rheinnixen) - Nora Gubisch, Orchestra National de Montpelier, Friedeman Layer - Accord
  • Orphée aux Enfers/La belle Hélène/La grande duchesse de Gérolstein [6CD box set] - Marc Minkowsky - ERATO
  • Vert Vert - Philharmonia Orchestra, David Parry - OPERA RARA
  • La Perichole - Aude Extremo, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski - BRU ZANE
  • Maitre Peronilla - Veronique Gens, Eric Huchet, Orchestre National de France, Markus Poschner - BRU ZANE
  • Fantasio - Sarah Connolly, Brenda Rae, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder - OPERA RARA [See my review]
  • Les contes d'Hoffmann (Kaye-Keck Edition) - Roberto Alagna, Opera National de Lyon, Kent Nagano - ERATO

Elsewhere on this blog
  • A sense of shimmering silence: music by the Catalan composer Josep Maria Guix on Images of broken light from Neu records - CD review
  • A remarkable achievement: Gustavo Díaz-Jerez's Maghek, a cycle of seven symphonic poems inspired by the Canary Islands recorded on Signum Classics - Cd review
  • Song recitals return to Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3, with Lucy Crowe and Anna Tilbrook celebrating the 20th anniversary of their partnership - Concert review
  • Live music returns to the Wigmore Hall: Stephen Hough in Bach/Busoni and Schumann - concert review
  • Adventures on the Green Hill: with no Bayreuth Festival this year, Tony Cooper looks back at previous festivals - feature article
  • Thaïs: Massenet's lyric drama gets a rare outing on disc in a stylish performance with Canadian forces conducted by Sir Andrew Davis - CD review
  • Uncompromising large-scale drama: composer and performers on thrilling form in Adès conducts Adès from Deutsche Grammophon - CD review
  • A disc that I never wanted to end: Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe displays clarity, structure and an innate sense of elegance in Bach's solo lute music on Delphian - CD review
  • Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua - A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint - CD review
  • Tracing a youthful relationship: Tony Cooper looks at Britten's links to Norfolk & the city of Norwich - CD review
  • Clouds, Clocks and Improvisation: I chat to composer & pianist Karol Beffa about the separate but related acts of improvisation & composition - interview
  • 'Home

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