Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique »The Tales of Hoffmann« from 1881 is based on stories by the Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann, who also appears in the opera as a lovesick poet (and who functions as the narrator). In this sophisticated mashup of reality and imagination, he encounters his own literary figures: the mechanical doll Olympia, the artist Antonia and the courtesan Giulietta, none of whom prove to be the long-desired ideal lover. Employing a richly suggestive visual language, director Johannes Erath examines the fate of a man who longingly stretches out his hand for love, but who pulls back when it threatens to become real.
The Muse introduces herself as the protector of Hoffmann and announces that she will contend against the singer Stella for Hoffmann’s love and art. Stella, the celebrated primadonna, has just performed as guest in Mozart’s »Don Giovanni«. Gloomy Lindorf, who crosses Hoffmann’s path whenever he experiences misfortune, intercepts a letter from Stella which is meant for Hoffmann and ridicules the women who favour the unsuccessful artists over him. Meanwhile, in a social get-together in Luther’s wine cellar, Hoffmann is missed. When he appears in a melancholic mood, the group urges him to entertain them with the legend of the dwarf named Klein-Zack. Hoffmann fulfils the request but loses the thread half way through and describes his ideal woman – Stella – instead of the malformed dwarf. Goaded on by Lindorf and the friends, he starts to tell the tales of his three loves.
At Monsieur Spalanzani’s, Hoffmann and the Muse meet the unbelievably beautiful Olympia. Hoffmann is immediately fascinated by her and ignores the warnings of his sceptical companion. The mysterious Coppélius then appears who sells »eyes« and also does business with Hoffmann. Coppélius and Spalanzani furtively argue about the price of »their« Olympia. Later, Spalanzani introduces Olympia as his »daughter« to his invited guests – they are all impressed by her perfection particularly Hoffmann who, in a quiet moment, declares his love for her. As they dance a waltz together, Olympia is almost unstoppable until the betrayed Coppélius furiously lunges towards her and destroys her. Hoffmann realises that he has fallen in love with a mechanical doll.
Antonia is longingly waiting for Hoffmann with whom she used to make music before her father Crespel fled to another city with her and stopped her from singing. After a short but happy reunion with Hoffmann he is witness to a mysterious act which the sinister Doctor Miracle carries out on Antonia. Hoffman learns of Antonia’s illness which leads to the death of the young woman if she sings – Antonia’s mother, a famous singer, died of the same illness. Hoffmann gets his loved one to promise that she will never sing again. Both swear their love to one another. However, Hoffmann has only just gone when Miracle appears who awakens Antonia’s ambition. With her mother’s voice in her ears, Antonia is persuaded to sing again – and dies.
Hoffmann has renounced love but Giulietta is used to every man falling for her. With the promise of a sparkling diamond as reward, she promises the demoniac Dapertutto that she will seduce Hoffmann and steal his reflection just as she did with Schlemihl’s shadow. She does, indeed, manage to awaken Hoffmann’s passion until he is prepared to give her what she wants if only he can live together with Giulietta. Too late, he realises that, with the loss of his refection, he has also lost his self.
The Muse recognises that the three aspects of Hoffmann’s failed loves – the doll, the artist and the courtesan – are united in one woman: Stella. However, burnt out from his losses, Hoffmann does not find his way to her. One is great through love but greater through the tears declares the Muse. Lindorf’s shadow, however, lies on Hoffmann’s soul.