OFFENBACH: The Tales of Hoffmann
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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes dHoffmann
In the realm of the opérette, or more specifically its more effervescent hybrid the opéra-bouffe, Offenbach was the greatest of innovators. Ensconced from 1855 until 1870 at the Bouffes-Parisiens, he presented annually inventive essays in his new style which, with the "triumphantly extrovert" Orphée aux enfers (1858) as a prototype, distilled the musical essence of the Second Empire for world consumption: the first of its genre and a transatlantic hit soon after its première, this firm favourite still holds its place in the repertoire after more than 150 years. When he died, in Paris on 3rd October, 1880, Offenbach was Europes undisputed master of French frivolity: a double-edged sword, this, for universal acclaim as a purveyor of froth made him by definition a less-than-serious composer and denied him full and unqualified critical recognition at the time of his passing, during rehearsals of his swan-song, the grand opera which he had hoped would redress the balance, but left in an unfinished state.
Now long regarded as Offenbachs masterpiece, Les contes dHoffmann was first produced at the Opéra-Comique on 10th February, 1881, in a version tastefully edited and orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud (1837-1892), based on Der Sandmann, Geschichte vom verlorenen Spiegelbilde and Rat Krespel, stories selected from E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), which its librettists Jules Barbier (1822-1901) and Michel Carré (1819-1872) had presented three decades earlier as a comédie at the Paris Odéon, in 1851. Instead of their original spoken dialogue Guiraud added sung recitatives to this "fanciful opera" which, Gustav Kobbé reminds us, "offers an excellent frame for the music, bringing on the stage in their fantastic form three of the prettiest tales of the German story-teller, connected with each other in an ingenious fashion, with the contrasts which present themselves".
The narrative structure of Les contes dHoffmann is contrived by a Prologue and Epilogue. These provide a frame for three inter-connected vignettes in which Hoffmann pursues different incarnations of his beloved and is thwarted by his own evil genius : the first act object of his affections is the beautiful Olympia, a mechanical doll who finally falls to pieces at the whim of her creator; in Act 2 he is rejected by the courtesan Giulietta, and in Act 3 he falls for Antonia, a singer whose compulsive vocalising only hastens her impending death.
The company on this 1948 recording comprises leading singers of the inter-war and immediate post-war French opera scene, Opéra-Comique regulars many of whom also enjoyed illustrious international careers.
After study in his native Canada, Quebec-born tenor Raoul Jobin (1906-1974) began singing there in concert in 1929 before embarking on further study at the Paris Conservatoire. After his operatic début at the Paris Opéra (1930) he returned in 1931 to his homeland for concert tours and subsequently appeared in opera in the United States with the San Carlo Opera. His Paris Opéra career took off from 1934, and in 1937 he made both his Opéra-Comique and Covent Garden débuts. He made his New York Metropolitan Opera début in 1940 as Des Grieux to Grace Moores Manon, and was frequently heard there in a variety of lyric rôles until 1950.
Born Renée Dumazert, in Perpignan in 1921, Renée Doria studied in Marseilles before making her concert début at the age of eighteen. Her dazzling coloratura soprano was first heard as Rosina in Rossinis Barbiere di Siviglia in Marseilles in 1942. Her 1943 Paris début, as Delibes Lakmé, was followed in 1946 by her début in the same rôle at the Opéra-Comique. In 1947 she appeared at the Paris Opéra as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.
A native of Ghent the lyric-soprano Vina Bovy (Johanna Pauline Bovi, 1900-1983) worked in a cigarette factory to finance her vocal studies. Her professional operatic début in Ghent in 1919 in Hansel und Gretel was followed by a three-year stint at the Brussels Monnaie. In 1925 she made her first appearance at the Opéra-Comique as Manon and until 1939 her rôles at that theatre included Rosina, Mimì in Bohème and Leila in Les pêcheurs de perles. She sang at the Paris Opéra during the 1935-1939 seasons and again in 1947, as Gilda in Rigoletto. She made her début at the Colón in Buenos Aires in 1927 and was first heard at the Met in La traviata in 1936.
Born in Toulouse in 1918, Géori-Boué studied at the Toulouse Conservatoire and made her début in that city as the Page in Meyerbeers Huguenots in 1935. Her début at the Opéra-Comique as Marguerite in Faust in 1941 was followed by appearances in works by Lalo, Wagner and Verdi at the Opéra, where she was also a noted Thaïs.
A specialist in operetta and musicals, Fanély Révoil was born in Marseilles in 1910. Her reputation in Paris was first established at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1932 and later triumphs at the Châtelet and elsewhere made her one of the most sought-after French artists of her generation. An operetta star, she also sang soubrette parts at the Comique where, between 1936 and 1946 she was heard in works by Roussel, Hahn, Chabrier and Pierné.
The bass-baritone André Pernet (1894-1966) is perhaps best remembered as the Father in Abel Gances 1939 film of Charpentiers Louise, starring Grace Moore and Georges Thill. After serving as an officer in World War I, Pernet studied at the Paris Conservatoire before making his début, in Massenets Hérodïade, at Nice, in 1921. He sang in Paris at the Opéra from 1928 in a variety of rôles, including several premières. His parallel career at the Comique lasted from 1932 until 1948.
The husband of Géori-Boué and a star singer in his own right, high baritone Roger Bourdin (1900-1973) later won celebrity as a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. Born in Lavallois he studied in Paris at the Conservatoire and made his début at the Comique in 1922 as Lescaut in Massenets Manon. In 1930 he sang Pelléas at Covent Garden and from 1934 until 1954, often partnered by his wife, was heard regularly at international venues, including La Scala, Milan, the Barcelona Liceo and the Colón in Buenos Aires.
A noted French lyric-tenor who began his career with tenor leads and ended it playing comprimario rôles, René Lapelletrie (1884-1956) made his Parisian début at the Trianon-Lyrique, in 1908. His début at the Comique, as Werther, in 1919 was followed by a succession of rôles, including Hoffmann, Don José in Carmen, Des Grieux in Manon, Alfredo in Traviata and Cavaradossi in Tosca. A professor of singing at the Bordeaux Conservatoire from 1941, from 1946 his repertoire at the Comique comprised mainly buffo parts, notably Spalanzani.
After the Prelude  the offstage strains of a drinking chorus are heard  from Luthers Tavern adjacent to the Nuremberg opera house where a performance of Mozarts Don Giovanni is in progress, starring the opera-singer Stella, an old flame of the poet Hoffmann. The sinister Lindorf, councillor of Nuremberg, also enam