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The Sunday Opera: Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann"

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It’s a perennial favorite on this week’s Sunday Opera (6/26 3:00 p.m.) as we turn to Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 look at thwarted love in “The Tales of Hoffmann.” The opera was Offenbach’s last work as he died in 1880, four months before its premier. Its libretto is by Jules Barbier and is based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, who is the protagonist in the opera.

Most people know the story of the poet Hoffmann who is thwarted in his love for four women. The three stories are framed by a story that begins with Hoffmann waiting for his current love, the singer Stella, in a Nuremberg tavern. This love is thwarted by the evil Lindorf who has intercepted a letter and key sent to Hoffmann by Stella. While waiting for Stella, Hoffmann drinks and tells the assembled students about his other three loves.

The first is Olympia who is a real doll – literally. She is the creation of the scientist Spalanzani, but it is the evil Coppelius who sells Hoffmann the magic glasses that make Olympia appear real. Hoffmann falls in love to disastrous effect after Olympia is torn apart by Spalanzani.

His next love is Antonia whose father, Crespel, has hidden her away from Hoffmann. Antonia is gifted with her mother’s beautiful singing voice but suffers from an unnamed illness that means that she will die if she sings. The evil in this act takes the form of Dr. Miracle who conjures the spirit of Antonia’s mother, and Antonia sings, then dies.

The last act takes place in Venice where Hoffmann is under the spell of the courtesan Giulietta. He thinks she returns his affections, but she is just as soulless as the evil here is in the form of Dapertutto who has promised her a diamond if she steals Hoffmann’s reflection in a charmed mirror. Hoffmann is also challenged to a duel by a previous victim of Giulietta, Peter Schlemihl, whom he kills. In the end, Giulietta gets his reflection or shadow, and this act ends with Giulietta leaving with Dapertutto although in some versions, Giuletta is accidentally poisoned and dies.

Through everything, Hoffmann is accompanied by his comrade Nicklausse who is actually the muse of poetry and seems to have been making sure that Hoffmann will continue to focus on his writing and not be distracted by love.

In this recording from 1991, you’ll hear Francisco Araiza as Hoffmann and Samuel Ramey as Lindorf, Coppelius, Miracle, and Dapertutto. Eva Lind is Olympia, Jessye Norman is Antonia, and Cheryl Studer is Giulietta. Nicklausse is Anne Sofie von Otter and the voice of Antoina’s mother is sung by Felicity Palmer.

Other members of the cast include Riccardo Cassinelli, Boris Martinovitch, Jean-Luc Chaignaud, Georges Gautier, Rolf Tomaszewski, Peter Menzel, and Jurgen Hartfiel. Jeffrey Tate is the conductor, and he leads the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

We’ll finish our time together with more music of Offenbach and excerpts from his only full-length ballet “Le Papillon” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge.

It’s another afternoon of glorious music and singing, and we hope you’ll join us this Sunday.

Since it’s the last Sunday of June, we also hope you’ll be joining us as a supporting member of The Classical Network as we work to balance our books as the fiscal year ends and we look forward to our upcoming 40th anniversary year. Simply go to WWFM.org, and click on “Donate” in the upper right-hand corner to pledge your support and keep the music alive over these airwaves.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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