La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Everything you need to know about ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
7 min.

‘Love makes us great, but tears greater still…’ This season, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jacques Offenbach with a new production of his musical will and testament, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The fantastic tale, the musical archaeology of the score, and the staging choices: they all take you on fascinating but winding roads. Follow the guide!


In Luther’s tavern, Hoffmann waits impatiently to be able to join Stella, who is performing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni nearby. The singer has sent him a letter containing the key to her dressing room, which is intercepted by the Councillor Lindorf, one of her admirers. Hoffmann is accompanied by the Muse who, disguised as his best friend Nicklausse, is hoping to revive his artistic fervour. Urged on by a group of students and fuelled by alcohol, Hoffmann begins to tell his three love stories…

Images de scènes des « Contes d’Hoffmann » après la première parisienne
Images de scènes des « Contes d’Hoffmann » après la première parisienne

It’s a big night for the scientist Spalanzani, who is due to unveil his new creation to his guests: an automaton called Olympia. Her eyes were supplied by a man called Coppélius, who, unknowingly, got paid with a bad cheque. The charlatan now sells Hoffmann some glasses that make him see Olympia as a real woman. The poet falls madly in love with her, despite Nicklausse’s warnings. While he is waltzing with the automaton, Hoffmann stumbles and his glasses break. At the same time, having discovered that he has been the victim of financial trickery, Coppélius bursts in. He takes his revenge and destroys Olympia before the eyes of the crowd, who ridicule Hoffmann’s foolishness.

Antonia, Councillor Crespel’s young daughter, is in the grip of a terrible illness. She must avoid singing at all cost, despite the wondrous beauty of her voice, which she inherited from her late mother, who was herself a famous opera singer. Hoffmann and Antonia love each other, but they have been separated by Crespel because the poet is encouraging his daughter to pursue a musical career. Hoffmann takes advantage of the father’s brief absence to enter the house. On his return, Crespel receives a visit from the terrifying Doctor Miracle who offers to treat his daughter. Hiding, the poet learns of the illness that Antonia suffers from and makes her promise to give up singing. The young girl reluctantly agrees but, once left alone, she is then persuaded to pursue her dream by Doctor Miracle, who conjures up her mother’s ghost. Antonia launches into song and collapses, dying, in her father’s arms.

A palace in Venice. Hoffmann, disillusioned by his previous experiences, sneers at love and celebrates drunkenness, vowing not to succumb to the charms of the courtesan Giulietta. She takes on the challenge of seducing him and, on the orders of Captain Dapertutto, of stealing his reflection using a magic mirror. Hoffmann cannot resist and the courtesan succeeds. Schlemil, one of Giulietta and Dapertutto’s previous victims, tries to save Hoffmann, who will hear none of it. The two men provoke each other to a duel. Schlemil is killed and Giulietta takes a new lover.

Back at Luther’s tavern, Hoffmann, completely drunk, vows to renounce love. Stella appears and, discovering the pitiful state he is in, leaves on Councillor Lindorf’s arm. Left alone with the poet, Nicklausse reveals that he is really the Muse and tells him that ‘love makes us great, but tears greater still…’


At the Théâtre de l’Odéon, in Paris in 1851, Jacques Offenbach attended a performance of a play entitled Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Years later, in 1876, he learned that one of its authors, Jules Barbier, was adapting his own play as a libretto to be set to music by the composer Hector Salomon. The latter agreed to hand the project over to his colleague. The writing was arduous and, in 1880, conscious of his poor health, Offenbach worked twice as hard in the hope of living long enough to complete the work. Unfortunately, he died four months before the premiere, with the manuscript in his hands.

Jacques Offenbach dans les années 1860, photographié par Nadar
Jacques Offenbach dans les années 1860, photographié par Nadar

During the evolution of his opéra-fantastique, the composer worked on many versions. After his death, his collaborators and interpreters had to bring order to a labyrinth of verses and ensembles in order to reconstruct a complete work. Ernest Guiraud took on the task of orchestrating the pages left without instrumentation, composing recitative sections, and making cuts following the directives of the director Léon Carvalho, who decided to remove the ‘Venetian’ act. Following the premiere, the Choudens publishing house printed two scores: the one used by the Opéra Comique and a second one including the recitative sections and the Venetian act, shortened to a single condensed scene. At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Choudens published a ‘definitive’ version that remained the standard for several decades.

In the 1940s, Offenbach’s heirs began to sell their legacy and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France acquired the full autograph score for voices and piano, orchestrated and completed by Ernest Guiraud, of the Antonia act. In the early 1970s, new key sources were discovered. The composer’s family gave the German musicologist Fritz Oeser access to more than a thousand pages from their archives. There was, however, still too much material missing to constitute a definitive version. In the mid-1980s, new crucial manuscripts were sold at auction and a libretto was discovered in the archives of the Parisian office of censorship of the time. The musicologist Michael Kaye used those manuscripts to publish a hybrid and incomplete score that is nonetheless much closer to Offenbach’s original drama. In the early 1990s, another discovery made it possible to complete the Venetian act.

Since 2005, Michael Kaye and the French musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck have been collaborating on the development of an exhaustive and workable edition of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. According to them, the opera has become, of necessity, a collective work, open to the artistic choices of conductors. It is in that same spirit that our Musical Director, Alain Altinoglu, has chosen to present the new edition at la Monnaie.


In Brussels, in May 2019, in a small space in the heart of the La Monnaie Workshops, Krzysztof Warlikowski made a presentation to a few lucky guests, describing his vision of Les Contes d’Hoffmann for this new production. Despite its legendary musical numbers, the work for him remains open, open to being rediscovered and redefined. What point of view should be adopted then, given the problematic history of this work, and the formal complexity of its narrative style? How do you approach an opera for which neither the score nor the libretto have a fixed structure? With the help of his usual collaborators, Warlikowski has devised a production capable of being enriched by the opera’s volatile nature.

In terms of its dramatic composition, several of the themes in this new production are intrinsically connected to the concept of theatre, largely thanks to the tension created by the intimacy of the story and of the human dramas within it and its monumental, lyrical, and dreamlike aspect. The second fundamental aspect of the Polish director’s approach draws on the influence of US cinema. With elements inspired by A Star Is Born, The Shining, and Inland Empire, the history of the opera is told through the prism of film. The emancipation of a mysterious and multifaceted woman, the tribulations of a film-maker in crisis, his addictions, and his subjective ramblings all lend themselves to a metatextual exploration of the mysterious dialogue between the fable and the storyteller, the artist and his work.

The tales, the score, and this production are three chapters of a single shared story that began a long time ago with the poet ETA Hoffmann and the inspiration that led him to write his first pages, a story that treads pathways through the imaginations of all who hear it.

Text by Thomas Van Deursen

Translation by Laura Jones