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The revenge of the devil

When Offenbach was writing Les Contes d’Hoffmann, he could not have anticipated that his only 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. He wrote in a letter: Les contes d’Hoffmann will kill me.

In 1859 Offenbach had a huge success with his first full-length operetta Orphée aux enfers. The devil may have been upset at this satirical representation of hell. In 1881 the Ring theatre in Vienna burned down during the second performance of Les Contes d’Hoffmann and in 1887 all the orchestral parts of Hoffmann were destroyed forever during the fire of l’Opéra Comique in Paris. Without any proper parts 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!
Trying to put a version together is the biggest challenge for anyone who attempts to produce it.
It seems that the doomed score is each time a creation that the devil is trying to destroy. But 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.

Set in a burned theatre the spirit of Offenbach is trying once more to defy the devil by completing today’s performance of his opera. He is helped by the 3 muses of opera: Terpsichore, Erato & Calliope. Together they follow Hoffmann through a journey that will become one of the most loved French operas.

Are Les contes d’Hoffmann dreams or nightmares? They are certainly filled with drama, laughter and spectacle. They are, above all, a journey into the unconscious of a composer who tried to find love and create his ultimate masterpiece. 

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