During a visit to America, Offenbach conceived the idea of the large-scale opera that was to be his masterpiece. By 1878, he had completed all three acts of Les Contes d'Hoffmannn in piano score and orchestrated the Prologue, but sadly he never lived to see it performed, and it was completed and produced by his friend Ernest Guiraud.
The opera opens in a Nuremburg tavern, to which the scene returns at various points as Hoffmann, with his companion Nicklausse and his poetic muse, tells of a series of amorous adventures with, in turn, a mechanical doll, a Venetian courtesan, and a young opera singer. The scheme works sufficiently well to avoid discontinuity, though it could easily be regarded as a linked set of one-act operas with related themes -- deception, betrayal, and death. A thread of philosophical melancholy runs through Hoffmann's tales, strongly suggesting that Offenbach was a dispirited and disappointed man, who no longer wished to be known only as a purveyor of musical soufflés.
This edition of the libretto is in both the original French and in an English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin.