Five characters appear in each tale:
Hoffmann is the great German writer who, in this opera, likes to sing in French.
Nicklausse is a teenage boy who follows Hoffmann everywhere. The mezzo-soprano who plays him also plays the Muse, the goddess of art and Hoffmann's guardian angel.
The Enemy, also known as Councilor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, is a shape-shifting demon with frightening magical powers, always out to destroy Hoffmann.
The Woman also takes on various forms; she is Olympia, a pretty doll; Antonia, a sickly young woman of great talent and promise; Giulietta, a high-class courtesan; and Stella, a star performer with a voice of gold.
The Servant always has some defect: he is Andrès, an imbecile; Cochenille, a broken robot; Franz, who cannot hear; and Pitichinaccio, who is deformed.
The Other Characters Include:
Nathanaël and Hermann, students and friends of Hoffmann and Nicklausse.
Spalanzani, a mad scientist interested in creating artificial intelligence.
Councilor Crespel, Antonia's father, a violin-maker.
The Portrait of Antonia's Dead Mother, which can come to life and sing.
Peter Schlemil, Giulietta's most recent lover.
E. T. A. Hoffmann was born in 1776 and died in 1822. The action presumably occurs when he's a young man, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
What's Going On?
PROLOGUE. The great writer, Hoffmann, stumbles into a bar for a drink during an intermission of Don Giovanni, which is playing nearby in a production starring La Stella, the current mistress of his heart. His friends, a rowdy gang of students, encourage him to entertain them with the stories of his previous love affairs. The three acts of the opera thus take place as flashbacks...
OLYMPIA. When Hoffmann was a young man, he toyed with the idea of giving up poetry and becoming a scientist. Accordingly, he apprenticed himself to Spalanzani, a famous inventor who had recently finished creating a very life-like robotic doll. Spalanzani introduced the doll to Hoffmann as his daughter, Olympia; and Hoffmann, seeing the doll through rose-tinted glasses sold to him by Spalanzani's business associate Coppélius, fell in love with her. At Olympia's debutante ball, Hoffmann amused all of Spalanzani's guests by failing to notice that he had fallen in love with a robot.
Meanwhile, Coppélius, who had manufactured Olympia's eyes, discovered that Spalanzani had cheated him. The inventor paid his supplier with a check from the banking house of Elias, and when Coppélius discovered that Elias had gone bankrupt, he crashed the party and ripped Olympia into pieces. Hoffmann was devastated to find that a) his beloved was dead, b) she was never alive, and c) everyone was laughing at him.
ANTONIA. Some years later, Hoffmann was found romancing Antonia, a girl from a musical family: her father, Crespel, was a violin-maker and her mother a great soprano who died of a strange disease that made singing lethal for her. Crespel kept Antonia healthy by locking her away in his middle-class house, away from admirers like the poet Hoffmann, who might encourage her to sing, and away from the wicked Dr. Miracle, the quack whose tinctures and potions only hastened his wife's untimely demise. But Hoffmann and Miracle found their way to Antonia nevertheless. When Hoffmann finally understood Antonia's predicament, he offered to marry her and set up an orderly household, like that of her father. But Miracle told Antonia she would be a fool to deny the world her beautiful voice, to silence herself for the sake of bourgeois respectability. The portrait of Antonia's dead mother came to life and implored her daughter to sing. The girl did, and it killed her. Her wretched father made a stab at Hoffmann, whom he blamed for his daughter's death; but Hoffmann's teenage amanuensis Nicklausse saved his life, and the devastated poet escaped.
GIULIETTA. Some time later, Hoffmann and Nicklausse turned up in Venice, gambling and whoring in that infamous cesspool of vice. Hoffmann fell for a beautiful courtesan named Giulietta, who was in the business of selling her favors in exchange for men's souls. She had just handed over the shadow of Peter Schlemil to Dapertutto, who kept her well-supplied with the jewelry she so craved. Dapertutto encouraged her to go after Hoffmann next. She made Hoffmann think she was falling in love with him and begged him to give her his reflection as a memento of him. No sooner had he agreed than Hoffmann found he couldn't see himself if he looked in a mirror. Hoffmann killed Schlemil in a duel, to get him out of the way, only to watch Giulietta run off with another admirer, the deformed midget Pitichinaccio. Hoffmann managed to escape with Nicklausse, but Dapertutto kept his soul.
EPILOGUE. Hoffmann has been telling stories through the entire second act of Stella's performance, and when she comes by the tavern, she finds him a bitter, self-pitying, drunken mess. She leaves on the arm of Councilor Lindorf, who bears an uncanny resemblance, in voice and appearance, to Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto. But still faithful to Hoffmann is Nicklausse, who turns out to be the Muse of Poetry. Women may fail Hoffmann, but art will never desert him.