The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Tales of Hoffman

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Edition of 1920. See also The Tales of Hoffman on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

TALES OF HOFFMAN (Les Contes d'Hoffman), Opera comique in prologue and three acts by Jacques Offenbach (libretto by Barbier), first produced at Paris, 10 Feb. 1881, several months after the composer's death. In spite of the unparalleled success which Offenbach had achieved with his light-hearted, clever and unfailingly melodious operas bouffes, he evidently desired to bequeath to posterity a work of more serious artistic import; and he spent his most ambitious efforts and years of his life on the ‘Tales of Hoffman.’ As his end approached, he begged the manager to produce it in time for him to witness the premiere. While he did not live to see it, the public took to the work no less heartily than to the operettas and it will undoubtedly outlive them. The story is novel and cleverly put together. The prologue shows Hoffman and his fellow students in Luther's Inn at Nuremburg; he is persuaded to tell of his three love encounters and these form the three succeeding acts. The opera ends as it began, Hoffman acclaimed a hero by his admiring friends. Inspired by its romance and fantasy, Offenbach has written a genuinely attractive score, which displays his talent for melody-making and ingenious characterization at its best. The barcarolle, in the second act, once heard, is never to be forgotten. Alone it would have made the opera, but there are many other numbers worthy of recall — the burlesque ballad of Kleinzach, sung by Hoffman in the prologue and epilogue. Nicklausse's song of the doll, the automaton's song, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” Antonia's romance, “Elle a fui,” and the trio finale of the third act. Offenbach's treatment of the dramatic situations is always clever and at times subtle. The orchestration, while simple, is refined and the general artistic level of the work greatly above that on which he was usually content to stand. In Europe, ‘Tales of Hoffman’ has been pursued by superstitious fear on the part of the managers owing to the fact that its first performance at the Ring Theatre in Vienna was the occasion of a conflagration which caused great loss of life. Its revival in New York by Oscar Hammerstein in 1907 proved that its original appeal is still potent.

Lewis M. Isaacs.