The answer has its roots embedded in history: Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann – jurist, poet and painter, an adherent of romanticism, a refined critic and musical aesthete and a composer writing in Mozart’s spirit and style was a great admirer of the Salzburg genius whom he revered such an extent that he resolved to change one of his first names, Wilhelm, into Amadeus. This accounts for the order of Hoffmann’s initials familiar to us today: E.T.A. According to Jacques Offenbach’s daughter, who attended to the composer in the final year of his life when he set out to complete the “Contes d’Hoffmann” in the tranquillity of the Henri IV Pavilion in St. Germain – Offenbach often spent his time alternating between the score and Mozart’s biography which he knew by heart and which deeply roused his emotions.
Richard Wagner too, remarked that Offenbach displayed “a light touch, similar to the godlike Mozart”. Rossini referred to him as the “Mozart of the Champs-Elysées”. Thus the decision to stage this opera reflects allegiance in preserving the image of MOZART.
It is known that Offenbach was prevented from completing his masterpiece and that a number of its most beautiful melodies were originally written for other productions as for example the famous Barcarolle from the overture to the “Rhine Nixies”, the premiere of which had been given at the Alte Hofoper in Vienna. It is also known that the demoniac “diamond aria” in the unfinished “Venice” act originated from somebody else: although the work has come down to us as a torso, we deplore the numerous arrangements made of the opera which often run counter to the composer’s original intentions. On the other hand, the convincing force of the opera itself has testified to its ability to outlive all attempted “improvements”. In this respect the work may be said to bear some close relationship to one of Mozart’s own masterpieces: “Così fan tutte”.
In this production we have given due consideration to the latest results of critical research. To a large extent, we have allowed ourselves to be guided by the corresponding disc recording featuring world- famous musico-theatrical performers, in the version containing spoken dialogue intended by Hoffmann and created by his friend Guiraud for the Opéra Comique.
We are able to realize a whole number of Hoffmann’s visionary shapes along with figments of Offenbach’s lively imagination that are inevitably unattainable on “full-size” opera stages. The irreality associated with the Tales of Hoffmann is thus a challenge to the Salzburg Marionette Theater in mastering advanced performing techniques. The only part calling for a certain amount of reality is the setting in Luther’s Wine Cellar, whereas the three figures Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia merely exist in Hoffmann’s imagination. This explains why there are fewer stage props and instead more lighting ambience alternating with brief recurrent glimpses oi the wine cellar in which Hoffmann relates his romances.
Even in the introduction, Offenbach’s fine sense of irony transports us into an unrealistic, fantastic world inspired by alcoholic spirits, a world in which Hoffmann too, was fond of escaping in reality. Even the Muse does not appear from out a Greek temple belonging to her father Zeus, but emerges from a wine cask – transforming herself, before our very eyes, into Hoffmann’s “alter ego”, so as to protect the poet with guiding love from the hazards afflicting the soul while preserving the art of poetry -following the example of the adopted patron’s name, Niklaus.
The Tales of Hoffmann are focused on “crazy” love towards a singer: Stella – star in the operatic firmament and a celebrated Mozart interpreter. All that the poet fears is a rival: Lindorf, to whom his imagination, borne along by the influence of alcohol, imparts demoniac traits. First of all he is made to assume the role of “Coppelius” who, as his name implies, would appear to bestow the expression of life on the doll’s “vacant orbits”, providing them with artificial eyes. Stella’s servant Andres likewise accompanies us through each of the tales. He is transformed by Hoffmann into some less complimentary figures, the first of which is a “red shield louse” bearing the name, “cochenille”. Later, in the role of Pitichinaccio, he is caricatured in a Venetian mask and is finally compelled to don his own senile visage as the deaf servant Franz. – Very much like a figure having stepped out of Hoffmann’s Fairy-tales, we encounter Spalanzani, a ludicrous “ballyhoo man” who introduces himself as a designer of outward appearances – “physique”, creating and gearing human shapes to different degrees of imaginative conception.
Not only the producer and designers, but to a. considerable extent too, Salzburg’s marionette makers and players have drawn their inspiration from Hoffmann’s creative powers as a poet.
Unlike the other marionettes, Olympia, the mechanical doll – “an artistically contrived clockwork figure” as Hanslick wrote in his reviews appearing in Vienna in 1881 – is not manipulated by strings whose function it is to impart life to the “animated” figures. Instead, she is made to obey Spalanzani and ourselves by elaborate mechanism, some of which is mechanical, while another part incorporates an advanced system of electronic control.
In the same way as Giulietta and Antonia, the figure is, of course, designed with Stella’s distinguishing features. We also encounter Hoffmann’s demoniac opponent Lindorf, spruced up in Venice as “Dapertutto”, master of the beautiful courtisan and in the final episode as Doctor “Miracle”, a pale-faced “medicine man” guilty of the death of Hoffmann’s beloved.
Now that Hoffmann believes to have lost his soul to the beautiful Giulietta, we take leave of the fantastical settings associated with the first episodes and follow the poet’s fanciful recollections into the morbid narrowness of a music room which, responding to the charlatan’s display of artiface, is transformed into the expanse of a wraithlike burial ground.
Together with Hoffmann, we now depart the world of the fantastic and find ourselves back in Luther’s Wine Cellar. No original finale to the opera exists in Offenbach’s own hand. We have refrained from repeating excerpts from Act 1 as a “substitute” for unfinished verses. Instead we close with the apparition of the Muse that emerged at the beginning to win back Hoffmann for herself – for the art of poetry – thus enabling her to complete her mission.