Synopsis Les contes d'Hoffmann

Read the story of Les contes d'Hoffmann


The artist Hoffmann is besotted with the singer Stella, although he only admires her from a distance. On the other hand, he barely notices the nameless Muse, who is at his side in both happiness and sorrow, as an autonomous individual. Stella does not respond to Hoffmann’s advances, because Lindorf, another of Stella’s admirers, has intercepted her note to Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s despair does not cure him of his obsession. On the contrary, he proceeds to sing her praises to a group of students and his Muse and begins his narrative, reminiscing about his relationships with three women in particular—and with women in general.

The scientist Spalanzani has invented a beautiful, but blind, creature: his daughter Olympia. The louche tradesman Coppélius sells him eyes for her, which Spalanzani pays with an unindemnified IOU. Spalanzani hopes to turn a profit by selling Olympia to Hoffmann. Spalanzani forces Olympia to perform for an audience that includes Hoffmann. Even though Olympia’s singing continually peters out, no one seems to see through the façade. Quite the opposite: Hoffmann falls madly in love with her. The Muse is vexed by his blindness in matters of love. Following her vocal performance, Olympia must demonstrate her physical abilities. Meanwhile, Coppélius has discovered that Spalanzani has cheated him, and swears vengeance. While Hoffmann gets intimate with Olympia, Coppélius grabs her eyes back. Olympia dies in Hoffmann’s arms. Now Hoffmann understands the Muse’s warning that he was never to see Olympia’s true nature.

The instrument-maker Crespel has forbidden his daughter Antonia from carrying out her greatest passion: singing. He is afraid that she will fall victim to the same fate as her mother, who met a mysterious end. Crespel’s servant, Frantz, also sees his own suffering reflected in that of Antonia. He is drawn to artistic endeavours, but his pcircumstances make this impossible. While Antonia hopes that her affair with Hoffmann will enable her to wrest herself loose from her father, the Muse tries to explain to Hoffmann that women are like violins: under the unblemished exterior lies a soul that yearns for self-expression. But once again, her warnings fall on deaf ears. Hoffmann’s profession of love for Antonia soon turns to reproach that sounds all too much like her father’s prohibition: ‘I am jealous of the music that you love too much!’ The appearance of the nightmarish Dr. Miracle interrupts Antonia’s attempts to escape. The doctor claims that Antonia has a rare disease: if she continues singing, it will kill her. But he has a cure! Crespel indignantly shows him the door. Dr. Miracle exacts a gruesome revenge: he magically evokes the voice of Antonia’s mother, tempting her to sing. Once again, Hoffmann is unable to save his beloved: crushed between the desires of the men and her own longings, Antonia dies.

‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’—in her quest for true love, the Muse finds herself in unusual company: the courtesan Giulietta shares her yearning. Hoffmann, on the other hand, still smarting after his experiences with Olympia and Antonia, has sworn off women, and swears never again to fall in love: ‘Friends, tender and dreamy love is a mistake!’ But in a world of gambling fever and other addictions, he falls yet again prey to a woman: Giulietta. Hoffmann is unaware that Giulietta is under the influence of the sinister Capitaine Dapertutto. In return for diamonds and jewels, Dapertutto coerces her into making men dependent on her, and then robbing them of their identity. Her latest victim is Peter Schlémil, whose shadow she has stolen. Now she is to make off with Hoffmann’s reflection. In order to get into Giulietta’s boudoir, Hoffmann becomes a murderer: under the very eyes of the Muse he kills Schlémil, who has tried to prevent him from entering. Guilietta makes one last effort to dissuade Hoffmann from pursuing her, but he laughs her off. She then proceeds to complete her mission: she wraps Hoffmann around her little finger and carries out Dapertutto’s assignment: ‘Your reflection, your soul and your life... give them all to me, my friend!’ The Muse, in desperation, must witness Hoffmann’s obsession and, as a result, his complete loss of identity.

ACT V When Hoffmann resurfaces from his reminiscences, he sees the world through different eyes. His listeners mock him: in all three tales, it was in fact all about just one woman. But through his stories, Hoffmann has succeeded in freeing himself from his obsession with Stella. Instead, he finally realizes who the woman of his life is. The Muse’s ‘Adieu’ could mean a whole new beginning...

Tobias Kratzer, translation: Jonathan Reeder