The Tales of Hoffmann (French: Les contes d'Hoffmann) is an opéra fantastique by Jacques Offenbach. The French libretto was written by Jules Barbier, based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who is the protagonist of the story. It was Offenbach's final work, as he died a year before the premiere.
Prologue (or epilogue), in the 1881 première
A tavern in Nuremberg. The Muse appears and reveals to the audience that her purpose is to draw Hoffmann's attention to herself, and to make him abjure all other loves, so he can be devoted fully to her: poetry. She takes the appearance of Hoffmann's closest friend, Nicklausse. The prima donna Stella, currently performing Mozart's Don Giovanni, sends a letter to Hoffmann, requesting a meeting in her dressing room after the performance. The letter and the key to the room are intercepted by Councillor Lindorf ("Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux" – In the languid lovers' roles), who is the first of the opera's incarnations of evil, Hoffmann's nemesis. Lindorf intends to replace Hoffmann at the rendezvous. In the tavern students wait for Hoffmann. He finally arrives and entertains them with the legend of Kleinzach the dwarf ("Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach" – Once upon a time at the court of Eisenach). Lindorf coaxes Hoffmann into telling the audience about his life's three great loves.
Act 1 (Olympia)
This act is based on a portion of "Der Sandmann" (The Sandman).
Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, an automaton created by the scientist Spalanzani. Hoffmann falls in love with her, not knowing that Olympia is a mechanical doll ("Allons! Courage et confiance...Ah! vivre deux!" – Come on! Courage and confidence ... Ah! to live!). To warn Hoffmann, Nicklausse, who knows the truth about Olympia, sings a story of a mechanical doll who looked like a human, but Hoffmann ignores him ("Une poupée aux yeux d'émail" – A doll with enamel eyes). Coppélius, Olympia's co-creator and this act's incarnation of Nemesis, sells Hoffmann magic glasses that make Olympia appear as a real woman ("J'ai des yeux" – I have eyes).
Olympia sings one of the opera's most famous arias, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" (The birds in the arbor, nicknamed "The Doll Song"), during which she periodically runs down and needs to be wound up before she can continue. Hoffmann is tricked into believing that his affections are returned, to the bemusement of Nicklausse, who subtly tries to warn his friend ("Voyez-la sous son éventail" – See her under her fan). While dancing with Olympia, Hoffmann falls on the ground and his glasses break. At the same time, Coppélius appears and tears Olympia apart to retaliate against Spalanzani, who tricked him out of his fees. With the crowd laughing at him, Hoffmann realizes that he was in love with an automaton.
Act 2 (Antonia)
This act is based on "Rath Krespel".
After a long search, Hoffmann finds the house where Crespel and his daughter Antonia are hiding. Hoffmann and Antonia loved each other, but were separated when Crespel decided to hide his daughter from Hoffmann. Antonia has inherited her mother's talent for singing, but her father forbids her to sing because of the mysterious illness from which she suffers. Antonia wishes that her lover would return to her ("Elle a fui, la tourterelle" – "She fled, the dove"). Her father also forbids her to see Hoffmann, who encourages Antonia in her musical career, and therefore endangers her without knowing it. Crespel tells Frantz, his servant, to stay with his daughter, and when Crespel leaves, Frantz sings a comical song about his own talents "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre" – "Day and night I quarter my mind."
When Crespel leaves his house, Hoffmann takes advantage of the occasion to sneak in, and the lovers are reunited (love duet: "C'est une chanson d'amour" – "It's a love song"). When Crespel returns, he receives a visit from Dr Miracle, the act's Nemesis, who forces Crespel to let him heal Antonia. Still in the house, Hoffmann listens to the conversation and learns that Antonia may die if she sings too much. He returns to her room and makes her promise to give up her artistic dreams. Antonia reluctantly accepts her lover's will. Once she is alone, Dr Miracle enters Antonia's room and tries to persuade her to sing and follow her mother's path to glory, stating that Hoffmann is sacrificing her to his brutishness and loves her only for her beauty. With mystic powers, he raises a vision of Antonia's dead mother and induces Antonia to sing, causing her death. Crespel arrives just in time to witness his daughter's last breath. Hoffmann enters the room and Crespel wants to kill him, thinking that he is responsible for his daughter's death. Nicklausse saves his friend from the old man's vengeance.
Act 3 (Giulietta)
This act is very loosely based on Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht (A New Year's Eve Adventure).
Venice. The act opens with the barcarolle "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" – "Beautiful night, oh night of love". Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta and thinks she returns his affections ("Amis, l'amour tendre et rêveur" – "Friends, tender and dreamy love"). Giulietta is not in love with Hoffmann but only seducing him under the orders of Captain Dapertutto, who has promised to give her a diamond if she steals Hoffmann's reflection from a mirror ("Scintille, diamant" – "Sparkle, diamond"). The jealous Schlemil (cf. Peter Schlemihl for a literary antecedent), a previous victim of Giulietta and Dapertutto (he gave Giulietta his shadow), challenges the poet to a duel, but is killed. Nicklausse wants to take Hoffmann away from Venice and goes looking for horses. Meanwhile, Hoffmann meets Giulietta and cannot resist her ("O Dieu! de quelle ivresse" – "O God! of what intoxication"): he gives her his reflection, only to be abandoned by the courtesan, to Dapertutto's great pleasure. Hoffmann tells Dapertutto that his friend Nicklausse will come and save him. Dapertutto prepares a poison to get rid of Nicklausse, but Giulietta drinks it by mistake and drops dead in the poet's arms.
The tavern in Nuremberg. Hoffmann, drunk, swears he will never love again, and explains that Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are three facets of the same person, Stella. They represent, respectively, the young girl's, the musician's, and the courtesan's side of the prima donna. When Hoffmann says he doesn't want to love any more, Nicklausse reveals herself as the Muse and reclaims Hoffmann: "Be reborn a poet! I love you, Hoffmann! Be mine!" – "Renaîtra un poète! Je t'aime, Hoffmann! Sois à moi!" The magic of poetry reaches Hoffmann as he sings "O Dieu! de quelle ivresse – "O God! of what intoxication" once more, ending with "Muse whom I love, I am yours!" – "Muse que j'aime, je suis à toi!" At this moment, Stella, who is tired of waiting for Hoffmann to come to her rendezvous, enters the tavern and finds him drunk. The poet tells her to leave ("Farewell, I will not follow you, phantom, spectre of the past" – "Adieu, je ne vais pas vous suivre, fantôme, spectre du passé"), and Lindorf, who was waiting in the shadows, comes forth. Nicklausse explains to Stella that Hoffmann does not love her any more, but that Councillor Lindorf is waiting for her. Some students enter the room for more drinking, while Stella and Lindorf leave together.