One may well wonder why a French composer chose to set an opera based on three fantastic tales of an eccentric German writer—why The Tales of Hoffmann is set, in Seattle Opera’s production, in the Opéra Garnier in Paris, instead of in a tavern in Nuremberg, as in the original. The Garnier, of course, is no stranger to phantoms, boasting one of its own, but is it really the place to house the marvelously fantastic stories of one of Germany’s great storytellers?
Elise Bakketun, photo
In 1836, an up-and-coming young critic named Théophile Gautier reviewed Les contes d’Hoffmann, Massé Egmont’s recent French translation of Hoffmann’s short stories; in it, he claimed that Hoffmann was more popular in France than in Germany. Gautier’s assertion was true. Hoffmann’s genius was first recognized outside of the Teutonic region; shortly after his death in 1822, his works were translated in French, and it was in this language that his works spread widely throughout Europe. Writers as far afield as America (Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe), Italy (Camillo Boito), Russia (Nikolai Gogol), England (Charles Dickens) and Scotland (Robert Louis Stevenson) were deeply influenced by Hoffmann.
Why did the French love Hoffmann so much? Gautier narrowed it down to a stubborn preference for reality. Hoffmann’s tales do not have the long-ago-and-far-away appeal of the Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tales, nor the exotic allure of the Arabian Nights, so popular in nineteenth-century Europe. Hoffmann’s stories are always grounded in a mundane reality familiar to his readers; they dance on the thin boundary between the plausible and the implausible, fantasy and illusion. Gautier observes that by nature “the Frenchman is not fantastic, and in truth it is hardly easy to be so in a country where there are so many streetlights and newspapers. Twilight, so necessary for the fantastic, exists neither in French thought nor in the French language.”
Perhaps Hoffmann’s ability to straddle fantasy and reality so adeptly was the reason for his undeniable influence on French culture. Anyone who flips over Gautier’s short stories will see traces of Hoffmann. The two men had much in common: they shared the same vocation, that of a critic, as well as a passion for the arts. Gautier, like Hoffmann, was a talented artist, and his short stories enter the same realm as Hoffmann’s, where subjects such as madness and the supernatural plague his characters. Nowhere is this dichotomy more exaggerated than in the short story “The Priest” (La Morte amoureuse, published in 1836, the same year as his review), which concerns a young man fresh out of seminary who is pursued by a female vampire. Four years earlier, Gautier wrote a story (conte fantastique) that featured Hoffmann’s name in the title, “Onuphrius Wphly, ou Les Vexations fantastiques d’un admirateur d’Hoffmann.” The young painter Onuphrius is just as disturbed and haunted by demons and phantoms as any Hoffmann protagonist.
The French also loved Hoffmann himself (or at least the perpetual myth that surrounded him). Offenbach was not the first to place Hoffmann as a central character in a tale. In addition to adapting The Nutcracker in 1844, Alexandre Dumas père wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, La Femme au Collier de Velours, loosely inspired by Hoffmann’s “Councilor Crespel” (source of the opera’s Act Two) in which Hoffmann is the center of the story. As Arthur Ransome notes, Dumas’ description of Hoffmann’s room may not necessarily be true of a physical space so much as his brain: “It was the room of a genius at once capricious and picturesque, for it had the air of a studio, a music-shop, and a study, all together….a whole world of things, but a whole world not worth twenty-five silver thalers. Was the occupant of the room painter, musician, or poet? We do not know.”
The arts are always tied up as the subject matter, indeed the essence, of Hoffmann’s tales. Gautier wrote, “Painter, poet, and musician, he [Hoffmann] grasps everything from a triple perspective: sounds, colors, and feelings.” Music, and musical instruments, are often major themes in his stories. In “Councilor Krespel”, for example, the violinmaker Krespel tells the narrator of the mysterious properties of an ancient and delicate violin: a perfectly inanimate object which speaks to Krespel “in a strange way of itself.”
Perhaps no French composer more so than Hector Berlioz, the composer of the Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste thoroughly absorbed the flavor of Hoffmann. When the tales first appeared in French in 1829, he devoured them. Just as Hoffmann wrote stories that were influenced by music, Berlioz’s symphony was distinctly programmatic, built on a narrative that dealt with a young man’s irrational fixation with a woman, delusions, and descent into visions of supernatural forces. The young man is often assumed to be Berlioz, who suffered from a pathological infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson (who he later divorced—ah, young love), but the central character of the symphony may as well be Anselmus from Hoffmann’s “The Golden Pot” or Nathanael in “The Sandman,” both of them victims of uncontrollable yearning (which Hoffmann deemed the “essence of romanticism”), anguished to the core, and ceaselessly tormented by forces of the supernatural (brought on by hallucinogens or otherwise). The light of day and reverie of night are present in both Berlioz’s programmatic symphony and Hoffmann’s tales. And like a Hoffmann tale, music and words blend together as the key elements of the narrative. For Berlioz, the fantastic is the subject, the language is music; for Hoffmann, the subject is music and the language is German.
The posthumous myth of Hoffmann blurred with the characters he created, and the image of the Hoffmann we perceive in Offenbach’s opera is that which was perceived and perpetuated by the French: a man, tormented but affable, convivial to the core, puffing smoke rings from great clay pipe in Luther’s Cellar in Nuremberg while spinning a fantastic tale over a stein of beer “surrounded by chimerical branches, young serpents, and other frills and absurdities” (to quote Gautier). No surprise then, that this is the Hoffmann we meet in the 1851 the five-act “drame-fantastique” by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Offenbach saw the play when it premiered and, like the critic who noted that it would make an excellent comic opera, saw the potential for a musical treatment of the story. Once Offenbach secured the rights to adapt Barbier and Carré’s play, he devoted himself completely his operatic adaptation. Hanslick noted that the haunted world of Hoffmann always appealed to Offenbach, and that in his last years, the aged composer “looked like a transparent, pale, sadly smiling ghost from [Hoffmann’s] The Serapion Brethren. ”
In his book Orpheus in Paris, Siegfried Kracauer reads the tale of Olympia as the portrayal of the senseless, crazy activity of the Second Empire: an era of automatic gaiety and vain champagne parties; the tale of Giulietta in Venice symbolizes the joy of the fleeting moment and passing day. The spirits that haunted Hoffmann and his protagonists were not unique; rather, they presented themselves in various guises throughout the turbulence of France in the nineteenth-century. No person understood this more than Offenbach, who Kracauer called that “fallen Ariel, a spirit of the air brought down to live among the haunting spirits of earth.” It seems that, contrary to Gautier’s observation, Hoffmann’s spirits found a way to dance in the city of light after all.
Seattle Opera Community Programs Manager