The first I'd ever heard of Jaques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman was back in a music appreciation lesson in grade school. The teacher would play melodies from a variety of classical compositions and we would be given a lyric to sing along to as a kind of mnemonic device to help us remember the melody. The lyric from the Offenbach opera is still embedded in my memory: "Barcarole from Tales of Hoffman written by Offenbach." While some might wonder how this kind of thing could lead to anything like appreciation, somehow it did. Indeed one of the first recordings of classical music in my budding record collection some years later was an album of highlights from Hoffman, an album that has long since disappeared, to be replaced by a full cast recording led by Placido Domingo, which has also disappeared.
Now along comes a remastering of a monaural recording of a December, 1955 Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of the opera conducted by Pierre Monteux and starring the magnificent Richard Tucker as Hoffman, a trio of all star sopranos—Roberta Peters, Rise Stevens and Lucine Amara—as his three loves, and Martial Singher as his various nemeses. And while I am not sure that Offenbach's opera gets the same kind of respect accorded to some other composers, I am sure that Les Contes d'Hoffman is not only filled with romance, drama and humor, but with some brilliant music as well. More importantly, this is a recording that does it full justice.
The opera begins with a prologue in which the poet, Hoffman, meets his rival for the love of the prima donna, Stella, and is coaxed into telling the stories of the three great loves of his life. The first act deals with his love for Olympia, a mechanical doll, who he is tricked into thinking is a real woman. The second act in this production takes place in Venice and tells of his love for the duplicitous courtesan Giulietta who has been bribed to steal his shadow. Act III is the story of Antonia, who suffers from an inherited weakness that may kill her if she sings. In the opera's epilogue, Hoffman resolves to give up Stella an devote himself to his muse. The stories are all adapted from the actual stories of the fantasist, E.T. A. Hoffman.