New ‘Hoffmann'--It’s the Real Thing : Musicologist Promises More Authentic Offenbach Opera

<i> Freed is a critic, program annotator and executive director of the Music Critics Assn</i>

Mention the word authenticity to most musical laymen and they will think of Baroque composers and the original-instruments ensembles that have arisen to perform their music in the last few decades. Some may think of Beethoven on the Hammerflugel, or Mussorgsky without Rimsky-Korsakov’s polishing hand.

Few would think of Jacques Offenbach--but the version of his masterpiece “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” that will be given its premiere performances by Los Angeles Music Center Opera starting Friday is a consequence of a similarly intense quest for authenticity in the realm of 19th-Century French opera.

This “Hoffmann” differs significantly, in terms of substance, form and proportions, from any version of the opera known before.

Michael Kaye, the Washington-based musicologist who has spent the last three years putting the new edition together, is confident it is as close as we can get to the version Offenbach himself was preparing at the time of his death in 1880 four months before the work’s premiere at the Opera-Comique.


Like Mussorgsky, Offenbach has been represented almost entirely by posthumous editions of his works--revised, re-scored, in some cases virtually recomposed by admirers who felt they were only doing for him what he had been unable to do for himself. Kaye’s is not the first reconstructive effort, but it is only in the last dozen years or so that material has come to light that gives his a good chance of being the definitive one.

Because an orchestration of “Hoffmann” was completed after Offenbach’s death by the Louisiana-born composer Ernest Guiraud (remembered now more for his editorial work on the music of other writers than for any compositions of his own), it was generally assumed that Offenbach’s failing health had simply kept him from doing his own orchestration.

It was known, however, that the 61-year-old composer did supervise the rehearsals in the summer of 1880. (He died in October.) And, a few years ago, in an auction at Sotheby’s, in London, an American collector acquired 350 pages of the “Hoffmann” score, mostly orchestrated by Offenbach himself (pages are signed and dated in his hand), indicating that he had completed and rehearsed far more of it than anyone had imagined.

In 1975, in the course of his research for his thematic catalogue of Offenbach’s works, the conductor and scholar Antonio de Almeida discovered 1,250 pages of the “Hoffmann” score in a trunk kept by one of the Offenbach heirs outside Paris.


Almeida made this material available to the late German musicologist Fritz Oeser, who brought out his own performing edition of the opera the following year. (Both Guiraud and Oeser figure similarly in the history of another well-loved French operatic masterwork, Bizet’s “Carmen,” for which Guiraud, who had been a classmate of Bizet’s, composed recitatives, and of which Oeser published a new and still-controversial edition of his own in 1964.)

Kaye has based his new edition primarily on the “London manuscripts,” but has made use of all the authentic material that has become available.

The latest discoveries in particular, Kaye says, support both his conviction that “it is a mistake to think Offenbach was not himself a master orchestrator” and his determination to “restore the authentic score by a composer who was well schooled but has not been respected.”

The matter of orchestration, however, was by no means the only one in need of sorting out. The actual content and structure of the work were affected in the various performing editions. One of the most sweeping such alterations was made by Oeser, who changed the tonality of many of the individual numbers to keys other than Offenbach’s own and composed numerous bridge passages containing no music of Offenbach’s.

Offenbach designated the work a “fantastic opera in five acts,” these being a prologue, one act for each of the three loves narrated by Hoffmann, and an epilogue. In addition to the numbers that are sung, there is spoken dialogue, and there are melodrames in which lines are spoken over a musical background.

The publisher Choudens commissioned Guiraud to produce recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue. (Choudens alone published five different editions of “Hoffmann,” the last of which has served as the basis for virtually every production since 1905.)

In various productions, some sections have been shortened or eliminated; the sequence of the three big acts has been changed; individual numbers have been reassigned from one character to another, and moved from one act to another, etc.

The sections most affected in these respects have been Acts IV (the Venetian episode with Giulietta, often put in the middle of the work) and V (the epilogue, with Stella). Although the best-known of all Offenbach’s melodies, the famous Barcarolle, is heard in Act IV, the entire act was omitted in the Paris premiere and has never been given intact as Offenbach wrote it.


Another of the big numbers in the same act, Dapertutto’s aria “Scintille, diamant,” did not figure in the opera at all and was in fact not even composed by Offenbach. Andre Bloch wrote it for Raoul Gunsbourg’s Monte Carlo production of 1904, using a theme from the overture to one of Offenbach’s lighter works, “Le Voyage Dans le Lune,” and it was given to Dapertutto in place of “Tourne, tourne, miroir,” the aria Offenbach did write for him--which was transferred to the dollmaker Coppelius in the episode with Olympia, with new words (“J’ai desyeux”) by Pierre Barbier, the son of Offenbach’s own librettist Jules Barbier.

Hoffmann’s final aria in the traditional version, Kaye points out, is an apostrophe to his muse, using the same music as an aria he has sung earlier to Giulietta.

“Why would he sing the same music to his muse that he has sung to a whore in Act IV?” Kaye asks himself.

“The answer is that he did not. Because Act IV was omitted in the premiere, the aria sung to Giulietta was adapted for use in the epilogue, in place of Offenbach’s entirely different ‘Apotheosis.’ ”

Kaye, who used the latest computer technology in preparing the new edition, has a rich background in many facets of opera production and education as well as research. He has worked as translator, prompter and production adviser with major companies in this country and Europe and was an assistant to the late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

As an outgrowth of activity he began in Boston in 1971, Kaye founded the Children’s Opera Theater in Washington five years later, and he continues as its director, presenting programs in more than 120 capital-area schools.

It was while he was working as assistant to Almeida, at the publishing firm Belwin Mills, that Kaye had an opportunity to study numerous Offenbach manuscripts. Furthermore, Almeida made it possible for him to go through the private collections of the Offenbach family.

“My purpose is not to shatter tradition,” Kaye says, “but to establish what is authentic. Perhaps Offenbach himself would have made some changes if he had lived to see “Hoffmann” performed, but the point is that it is time for this music to be evaluated in the theater on its own terms.


“I’m grateful to Music Center Opera for this opportunity, and to have the interest of the greatest Hoffmann of our time, Placido Domingo, in making it happen. I’m grateful too that so important a publishing house as Schott has supported this project. The three years I’ve spent in making hundreds of restorations will have been worthwhile because Offenbach’s own genius will prevail.”