Classical Cancan

Les contes d’Hoffmann

an opera by Jacques Offenbach, directed by Bartlett Sher, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 26–October 28, 2017
Bibliothèque de l’Opéra Garnier, Paris/Bridgeman Images
Jacques Offenbach; engraving by André Gill from the cover of La Lune, 1866

By the time he died in 1880 at the age of sixty-one, Jacques Offenbach had composed more than one hundred works of musical theater, from two-character sketches to full-scale operas. Yet today, in the United States at any rate, his reputation rests primarily on just one piece, his very last—Les contes d’Hoffmann. Hoffmann is a staple of the operatic repertoire and has been recorded many times, while the works that made Offenbach world-famous in his lifetime—comic operettas like La belle Hélène, Orphée aux Enfers, and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein—are known only to devotees. And even they represent just the peaks of Offenbach’s immense output; there must be many hours of his music that no one alive today has ever heard.

This bifurcation of Offenbach’s achievement, into Hoffmann and everything else, makes it hard to appreciate his real significance—not just as a composer but as a major figure in the history of popular culture. For Hoffmann is, both musically and thematically, unrepresentative of his work. It is an intellectual, poetic, and melancholy creation, the story of a poet’s disillusionment in love. But if you asked a Parisian theatergoer in the 1860s what was unique about the shows known as offenbachiades, he would have named quite different qualities. They were comic, knowing, exciting; they lampooned everything respectable, from classical mythology to military glory to the sanctity of marriage; they featured actresses baring their legs and shoulders as they danced the cancan. The contrast can be captured in the two tunes of Offenbach’s that are best known today: the Barcarolle from Hoffmann, with its swaying langour, and the galop infernal (often referred to as Offenbach’s cancan), with its mad propulsion.

The moral insouciance of Offenbach’s stage works was crucial to their appeal from the beginning. His first hit was a sketch called “The Two Blind Men,” which featured a pair of beggars who fake blindness and quarrel over prime begging spots. Several of Offenbach’s collaborators urged him not to stage the piece, on the grounds that it was in bad taste to mock the poor; but he was vindicated when it drew cheers and laughter. He pushed the envelope further with Orphée, which became a worldwide sensation by spoofing classical myth, turning Orpheus and Eurydice from symbols of deathless love into a pair of quarreling, adulterous spouses. Offenbach, who delighted in musical parody, impudently quoted the aria “Che farò senza Euridice?” from Gluck’s version, sticking out his tongue at its sublimity.

The show’s popularity was ensured when an indignant music critic, Jules Janin, lambasted it in print as a “profanation of holy and glorious antiquity.” It was as if Janin was auditioning for the role of Public Opinion, who serves as the moralistic chorus in Orphée. (It is Public Opinion who…

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