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.
The highlight of the prologue is Tucker’s aria in which he tells the story of the dwarf, Kleinzach, as is his beautiful “Allons! Courage et confiance—Ah! Vivre deux” in the first act. Roberta Peter’s first-act rendition of the famous “Les Oiseaux dans la charmille,” in which the mechanical doll keeps running down and has to be rewound is appropriately doll-like. The second act opens with the first appearance of the “Barcarole” theme sung by Rise Stevens and Mildred Miller as Hoffman’s muse. Echoes of the theme are repeated in the wonderful sestet that closes the act, and it reappears as an orchestral interlude between the third act and the epilogue. Singher’s aria, “Scintille diamante,” and the dramatic duet between Stevens and Tucker are the highlights of the second act. Act III has a number of wonderful moments including Lucine Amara’s opening aria, “Elle a fui, la tourterelle!” and the stirring trio with the mother’s voice (Sandra Warfield), Antonia and the evil Dr. Miracle (Singher). Then, of course, there is the dynamic finale that ends the epilogue.
Les Contes d’Hoffman is probably one of the most accessible of operas and in the hands of this wonderful cast it shines like a jewel. Altogether it is a production to be savored.