Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: "A New Year's Eve Adventure"

Peter Schlemihl, sans shadow.
This is a rather strange tale in structure, perhaps another experiment by Hoffmann?

It's narrated by a "Traveling Enthusiast" who goes to a New Year's Eve party in Berlin, and as a sort of surprise by his host, is reunited by his long-lost love Julia, who treats the narrator coldly and cruelly...and never tells him she is married to someone else. Distraught, he leaves the party and finds a beer cellar.

There he encounters Peter Schlemihl and his frenemy Erasmus Spikher. Schlemihl lacks a shadow, and as such is shunned by human society. Spikher lacks a reflection, and tells the narrator how he lost it. Interestingly, his tale is of an obsession with a beautiful courtesan, Giulietta, who bounces between warmth and cruelty, and Spikher abandons his family for her, eventually losing everything.

It's a somewhat intriguing tale, but it can seem a bit opaque at times, largely because Peter Schlemihl is forgotten today. He was a character created by Adelbert von Chamisso for a pious children's book (published in 1814) about a man who sells his shadow to the devil for an ever-full purse, but eventually discards it and finds redemption as a humble observer of the world. "A New Year's Eve Adventure" was published in 1815 and one supposes that technically this could be considered copyright infringement, if such a thing were being enforced in 1815. But in the past, there were many such crossovers, with authors lifting another author's character and having them face a new situation or team them up with a new character.

The story itself is a classic "beware the femme fatale" or a retread of Keats "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," which went on to the toxic dames of film noir and the sexy ladies of direct-to-video erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s, which I once saw referred to as "La Belle Dame Sans Panties" (I want to use that for a title sometime, perhaps a play.) It's a classic trope, as misogynist as it may be, but we recognize its familiarity. Although it can also be seen as a commentary on the central characters' weaknesses; they simply can't let go of their obsession with Julia/Giulietta, and that obsession leads to their self-destruction. Ultimately, nobody in this is really good or admirable. Julia may be a cold, manipulative bitch, but the men she leads around are no better, fools who cheat on their spouses and can't move on from a sexual obsession.

This story formed the basis of the third act of Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffmann," and includes of the most famous tunes from the opera, and one of the popular tunes in the general classical repertoire, the "Barcarolle." You've probably heard it somewhere, even if you're not a classical fan. Here's an instrumental version...

All told, "A New Year's Eve Adventure" is an OK tale, with some atmosphere in the rathskeller scenes and some effectiveness in Spikher's story of his self-destruction, and some universal truths when it explores how sometimes your encounters with lost loves are just damned painful. But the business with Peter Schlemihl is a problem; you end up having to do some research just to understand part of what's going on. It hasn't aged completely well.

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