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 enamoured of Stella, enters the tavern with Stellas manservant Andrès and intercepts the singers letter of assignation, addressed to Hoffmann. Whilst acknowledging himself an unlikely suitor , Hoffmanns evil genius and alter ego Lindorf resolves to keep the assignation himself . A group of students enter and sing in praise of beer and wine .
Hoffmann and his friend Nicklausse enter. Having just watched the unattainable Stella in the opera, Hoffmann is at first forlorn but agrees to entertain his colleagues with a song . The Legend of Kleinzach, a quaint ditty about a dwarf, arouses first the students enthusiasm then their incredulity as his romantic musings divert him from his tale to thoughts of his beloved. The students jog his memory, however, and finally he returns to Kleinzach . The students complain about Luthers beer but the conversation soon turns to girls and, by way of diversion, Hoffmann agrees to relate the three great loves of his life . The first of these was Olympia.
Act 1 opens to the strain of a minuet upon the Parisian salon of the inventor Spalanzani who is awaiting the arrival of guests invited to the coming-out party of Olympia, his lifelike mechanical doll. His pupil Hoffmann has fallen in love with the sleeping Olympia, whom he takes for the inventors daughter . Left alone, Hoffmann summons courage and declares his love . Nicklausse arrives and informs Hoffmann that Spalanzani is obsessed with physics and that Olympia is merely a doll, but Hoffmann is not convinced . Spalanzanis rival, the scientist Coppélius, arrives and sells Hoffmann a pair of magic spectacles through which Olympia appears even more beautiful . Spalanzani returns and Coppélius, who made her eyes, demands his share of the profit from the impending sale of the doll. Spalanzani obliges with a worthless cheque , the guests arrive and Olympia is led out before the admiring assembly . She launches into a coloratura aria, which goes well until her mechanism winds down in mid-verse . Hoffmann, enchanted and still unwilling to accept reality, tries to accompany her to supper but is persuaded by the cunning Spalanzani to stay behind . Hoffmann sings to her and takes her hand but, doll-like, she gyrates in various directions and, to his dismay, disappears -. Nicklausse, meanwhile, has returned and attempts to enlighten him, but still he will not listen. Coppélius enters and threatening revenge over Spalanzanis cheque conceals himself in Olympias room as the guests reassemble for Olympias dance. Hoffmann takes her as his partner and they whirl faster and faster around the room, until they are finally intercepted by Spalanzani. Hoffman falls and his magic spectacles are broken. He recovers, but his composure is soon replaced by disillusionment when, from the next room, the sound of breaking machinery is heard as the vengeful Coppélius destroys Olympia .
Act 2 is set in Venice, in a palace overlooking the Grand Canal. The scene opens with an enchanting Entracte, the famous Barcarolle, sung by Nicklausse and the courtesan Giulietta . She is loved by Hoffmann who, with the assembled company, next launches into a drinking song. Giulietta, who is currently attached to Schlémil, introduces Hoffmann to her lover and another admirer, Pitichinaccio.
The trio go off to play cards, leaving Hoffmann alone with Nicklausse, who advises his friend to be more discreet in his advances to Giulietta . As they leave, the sorcerer Dapertutto enters. By using Giulietta as his accomplice he has already enslaved Schlémil and now intends to capture Hoffmann, too. In an aria he tells of his intention to bribe Giulietta with a diamond into stealing Hoffmanns soul. She will captivate Hoffmann by making him gaze into the magic "mirror by which the lark is caught" . Giulietta returns and agrees to do his bidding. As Dapertutto leaves, Hoffmann returns. He declares his love to Giulietta who, pretending to return it, also warns him of Schlémils jealousy and advises him to leave Venice . Imploring him to look into her mirror, so that she may retain his likeness after he has gone, she promises to join him later. First in an aria then a duet, the mystified and enraptured Hoffmann sings of the passion which overwhelms him . Schlémil returns with Pitichinaccio and renounces Giuliettas infidelity  and Dapertutto hands Hoffmann a mirror in which, horrified, he discovers that his reflection has vanished. As Nicklausse attempts to lead him away, Hoffmann declares his simultaneous love and hate for Giulietta and in an ensuing fight kills his rival Schlémil with Dapertuttos sword . Hoffmann rushes off to find Giulietta who now, in the arms of her new lover Pitichinaccio, sails away to the strains of the Barcarolle in a gondola. The disillusioned Hoffmann, Dapertuttos latest victim, is dragged away by Nicklausse .
Act 3 takes place in the house of Crespel, a councillor of Munich. After an Entracte his daughter, Antonia, who loves and is loved by Hoffmann, sings a disconsolate air to her own harpsichord accompaniment . Crespel enters, distressed that she has broken her promise never to sing (she has inherited from her late mother both a voice and a tendency to tuberculosis). Having brought her to Munich to escape Hoffmanns advances, he blames the poet for her disturbed state of mind. Antonia renews her promise not to sing and as she departs Crespel orders his deaf old servant Frantz to admit no one to the house . Left alone, Frantz sings a comic song  and when Hoffmann arrives with Nicklausse, having misheard his masters orders, he admits them . Hoffmann heralds his arrival with a snippet of the love-duet he used to sing. Antonia enters and their voices blend in an impassioned duo . She again becomes faint and, hearing her father approaching retires to her room while Hoffmann hides. Frantz announces the arrival of the evil quack, Doctor Miracle, who enters and insists on treating Antonia. With spells and incantations he diagnoses her illness and prescribes a cure for Antonia, who again retires . Furious, Crespel, who is reluctant to see his daughter die at the hands of a charlatan, succeeds only after various attempts in expelling Miracle . Antonia returns to find Hoffmann who before leaving urges her to give up her ambition for singing. Reluctantly, she agrees , before Miracle, as it were by magic, re-appears. Reproaching her for wasting such talent, he predicts for her a great career as a singer. Seeking guidance, Antonia gazes upon her mothers portrait which, to her astonishment, comes to life, Her mother bids her to sing, which she does, to Miracles frenzied violin accompaniment. Her voice soars higher and higher and as Miracle vanishes and the maternal image again becomes a portrait, she falls lifeless to the floor . Crespel rushes in to his daughters last words and when Hoffmann enters he blames him for the tragedy. Hoffmann instructs Nicklausse to call a doctor, whereupon Miracle re-appears and pronounces her dead .
After a short Intermezzo based on the Barcarolle (, we return again to Luthers tavern. Hoffmann tells his friends that his tales are at an end. Distant cheers are heard for Stella (the performance of Don Giovanni has just ended) and Lindorf goes to meet her. Nicklausse explains that Stella is the apotheosis of Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia and all drink her health. Hoffmann, at first infuriated, proceeds to drown his sorrows. The students take their exit leaving him alone, slumped intoxicated over a table. In his stupor the Muse of Poetry appears before Hoffmann and asks him to follow her, to which he willingly agrees. Stella enters and Nicklausse explains that Hoffmann is drunk and as Lindorf draws her towards him the students voices are again raised in a rousing drinking-song ).
In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMGs Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marstons name is synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs. Opera News calls his work revelatory, and Fanfare deems him miraculous. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophones complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mints Arturo Toscanini issue and BMGs Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on recordings released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by lifting the voices off his old 78rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.
Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann)(more info)