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January 03 , 2008

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann - Les Contes d’Hoffmann: A Short Guide To A Great Opera


During the Second Empire of Napoleon and Eugénie, Offenbach’s tiny theatre, Les Bouffes-Parisiens on the Champs Elysées, was one of the sights of Paris. But the purveyor of a hundred frivolous operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène and La Vie Parisienne, wanted to bequeath one serious opera to posterity. He chose a difficult subject in The Tales of Hoffmann, which depicts three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, an influential German writer, with wild imagination. Hoffmann portrayal of his unhappy sexual experiences with three of his mistresses, represented by a soulless doll or automaton, a Venetian courtesan, and a twenty year-old singer who displays passionate love explore philosophical and psychological issues untouched by Offenbach.

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There are too many characters, and too much drink, but the memorable gondola song, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour, is among the ‘Hundred Best Tunes’.

Hoffmann’s rival is the devil incarnate, who hopes to seduce the latest object of his attentions, an opera diva. Hoffmann tells his three tales to his fellow drinkers, and gets so drunk that there is no chance of him having her.

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Each at around the price you pay for a standard opera-house programme, and available from all popular ebook retailers and ereaders, they are the perfect accompaniment to a night at an opera – whether that’s at home, or at the opera house, or in the cinema for opera on screen, such as ROH Live, Met Opera HD Live, or Glyndebourne Festival in cinemas.

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