When Jacques Offenbach began writing The Tales of Hoffmann, in 1877, he hoped the opera would boost his reputation to a whole new level. It did exactly that -- but unfortunately, the composer never lived to see it.
During his lifetime, Offenbach became world famous as the composer of operettas -- often lightweight comedies, boasting scores of catchy tunes that have often outlived the works they were written for. The prime example is the ubiquitous "Can-Can" from his operetta Orpheus in the Underworld -- a number that tosses out three or four instantly recognizable melodies, all within the space of about ninety seconds.
Still, despite his fame, Offenbach wanted to be known for more than just his frothy operettas, and hoped The Tales of Hoffmann would establish him as a recognized master of serious opera.
The drama is based on a play by the writers Jules Barbier, who wrote the opera's libretto, and Michel Carré. The play takes the real life German poet, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and makes him a character in some of his own, fanciful stories. Offenbach's drama follows the same scheme, placing the title character into three stories of failed love. The result is one of the grandest and most expressive of all 19th-century French operas -- achieving a combination of emotional depth and musical brilliance that only the finest opera composers ever equaled.
The Tales of Hoffmann was scheduled for a premiere at a Paris theater called the Gaite-Lyrique, during its 1877-78 season. When that theater suffered budget cutbacks, Offenbach continued work on the opera -- now intended for another venue, the Opera-Comique. But Offenbach died in 1880, while the premiere production was still in rehearsal, leaving the score incomplete.
Over the years, all the way to the 1980s, scholars continued to find manuscripts for the opera that were left behind, and many different versions of the score have been assembled. But despite those difficulties, The Tales of Hoffmann has long been one of the most popular operas in the standard repertory.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Offenbach's magnum opus in a production from the Grand Liceu Theatre in Barcelona. The title character is played by tenor Michael Spyyres. Hoffmann's three loves are sung by three different sopranos -- Kathleen Kim, Tatiana Pavlovskaya and Natalie Dessay -- while the multiple villain roles are all sung by bass-baritone Laurent Naouri.