When Offenbach was writing his Tales of Hoffmann, he could not have anticipated that his grand opera would become so successful and yet be such a puzzle. He worked on the score for seven years, but left it incomplete when he died – which is the biggest challenge for anyone who attempts to produce it.
Many of Offenbach’s colleagues took on the task of re-writing and rearranging, following what they claimed were his basic intentions. Since then many specialists and scholars have claimed to have put together the definitive version, until a few years later, when someone else comes along to claim otherwise. A few years ago, parts of the Hoffmann manuscript were discovered under some filthy mattresses piled under a staircase. They were found in the castle of Cormatin in Burgundy which had once belonged to Raoul Gunsbourg, director of L’Opéra-de Monte-Carlo (who himself tried to re-organize the “Giulietta” act and even re-wrote some music). All together, if everything found so far were to be performed in its entirety, the opera would be endless. This might satisfy the scholars but exhaust the patience of any audience!
We offer the idea that the opera itself is a labyrinth. When its doors or windows open, we may be misled in another direction; we may find ourselves climbing stairs to non-existent landings! And what if Offenbach himself is the one misleading us through it all: by hiding parts of his score and by playing some roles he has stolen from the singers? After all, he even borrowed Hoffmann’s most famous melody, “La Barcarolle,” from his earlier but unsuccessful opera Les Fées du Rhin / Die Rheinnixen.
We decided to start with a speech Henri Meilhac gave on the occasion of the unveiling of a memorial statue of Offenbach. As a crowd gathers to pay him homage the statue comes back to life followed by one of the Muses, who becomes Nicklausse. Together they follow Hoffmann through a journey that will become one of the most loved French operas.
Are The Tales of Hoffmann dreams or nightmares? They are certainly filled with laughter, drama and spectacle. They are, above all, a journey into the unconscious of a composer who tried to find love and create his ultimate masterpiece.