The libretto was written by Jules Barbier, based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann. E.T.A. Hoffmann himself is a character in the opera just as he often is in his stories. The stories upon which the opera is based are Der Sandmann,Rath Krespel, and Das verlorene Spiegelbild.
The opera contains a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. Offenbach did not live to see his opera performed, since he died on October 5, 1880, just over four months before its premiere. Before his death, Offenbach had completed the piano score and orchestrated the prologue and the first act. Since he did not entirely finish the writing, many different versions of this opera emerged, some bearing little resemblance to the original work. The version performed at the opera’s premiere was that by Ernest Guiraud, who completed Offenbach’s scoring and wrote the recitatives.
The most famous aria from the opera is the “Barcarolle” (Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour), which is performed in Act 2. Curiously, the aria was not written by Offenbach with Les Contes d’Hoffmann in mind. He wrote it as a ghost-song in the opera Les fées du Rhin (which premiered in Vienna on February 8, 1864 as Die Rheinnixen). Offenbach died with Les contes d’Hoffmann unfinished.
Ernest Guiraud completed the scoring and wrote the recitatives for the premiere. He also incorporated this excerpt from one of Offenbach’s earlier, long-forgotten operas into the new opera.
The Barcarolle has been incorporated into many movies including Life Is Beautiful and Titanic.
- The Tales of Hoffmann at Lyric Opera (chicagoreader.com)
- Susan Dormady Eisenberg: As Wolf Trap Opera Marks 40th Year, 14 Star Alumni to Return for Benefit Concert (huffingtonpost.com)