It is nighttime in a tavern adjoining a theater, where the opera Don Giovanni starring the famous diva Stella is being performed. Amid a chorus representing the spirits of wine and beer, the Muse of Poetry appears. She is determined to make the poet Hoffmann dedicate himself to his art. To accomplish this, the Muse disguises herself as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend.
Lindorf, Hoffmann’s sinister rival for the diva’s affections, bribes Stella’s servant Andres into handing over a love letter she has written to Hoffmann. The envelope contains the key to her dressing room, and Lindorf resolves to take Hoffmann’s place there.
A group of students rushes into the tavern during intermission. Hoffmann arrives with Nicklausse (the Muse in disguise). Hoffmann is anxious, fearing a bad omen persecutes him. At a request from the crowd, Hoffmann entertains them with one of his many tales. Hearing a scornful laugh behind him, Hoffmann sees Lindorf, and says that he can never meet his rival without encountering misfortune, especially in matters of love. Hoffmann begins to tell the story of his three unhappy romances.
Act One: The Tale of Olympia (based on “The Sandman”)
Hoffmann has apprenticed himself to the inventor Spalanzani so that he can be near Olympia, whom he takes for Spalanzani’s daughter. Spalanzani and his servant Cochenille are making final arrangements for a party at which Olympia will be introduced to his friends. Spalanzani hopes she will help him become a rich man. Nicklausse warns Hoffmann to get to know Olympia more before making a fool of himself.
Coppélius, a rival inventor, reminds Spalanzani that he has a stake in Olympia too. Spalanzani pays him off and sends him away. Olympia entertains Spalanzani’s guests with a song. Hoffmann waltzes with Olympia, who flies out of control. Coppélius returns in a rage; Spalanzani’s payment is worthless. In revenge, Coppélius destroys Olympia. Devastated, Hoffmann sees that she was just a mechanical doll, as the party guests mock his naiveté.
Act Two: The Tale of Giulietta (based on “A New Year’s Eve Adventure”)
The seductive courtesan Giulietta speaks with the grotesque Pitichinaccio and other pleasure seekers at the Venetian palazzo of Schlémil, her “protector.” Hoffmann is now scornful of love and devotes himself entirely to drunken revelry.The diabolic Dapertutto arrives. He offers Giulietta a large diamond if she will comply with his macabre request: she has already given him Schlémil’s shadow; Dapertutto now desires Hoffmann’s reflection.
Hoffmann soon runs out of money at the gaming tables. Giulietta, following Dapertutto’s orders, begs him to stay, but Hoffmann cynically tells her she is too expensive for him. She falsely tells Hoffmann that she loves him, but that Schlémil carries the key to her room, where he locks her up every evening. When Hoffmann resolves to get the key, Giulietta promises herself to him—all she asks for in return is his reflection. Dapertutto and Schlémil return, and Hoffmann is shocked to discover that he no longer shows a reflection in the mirror. He asks Schlémil for the key to Giulietta’s room. Schlémil draws his sword and the two men fight a duel. Hoffmann kills his rival and takes the key. But he is too late—Giulietta is gone.
Act Three: The Tale of Antonia (based on “Counselor Krespel”)
Antonia is the daughter of a great Italian opera singer who died of a mysterious illness. Because she inherited her mother’s sickness, Antonia’s father, the Counselor Crespel, has strictly forbidden her to sing, for it would be fatal for her. He has hidden her in Munich, breaking her engagement with Hoffmann and her dream of becoming a singer herself. Crespel warns Frantz, his half-deaf servant, to let no one into the house, but Hoffmann manages to find her and the lovers are joyously reunited. Hearing Crespel return, Antonia rushes to her room and Hoffmann hides.
Frantz announces the arrival of the mysterious Dr. Miracle, whom Crespel blames for the death of his wife. Dr. Miracle carries out a hypnotic examination of Antonia as Crespel and Hoffmann watch in horror. Crespel forces Miracle out. Left alone, Antonia is tormented by Dr. Miracle again. The voice of Antonia’s mother is magically heard urging her to sing. Antonia, completely mesmerized, surrenders to Miracle’s spell. Unable to stop singing, Antonia dies.
Back in the tavern, Hoffmann finishes his last tale as the performance in the opera house comes to an end. When Stella arrives, Hoffmann is barely sober enough to recognize her. Lindorf steps forward, and the diva leaves on his arm. Hoffmann falls into a drunken stupor. Nicklausse returns, now transformed back into the Muse. She reassures Hoffmann that his misfortunes have provided inspiration for his artistry—although love may make a man great, tears make a poet greater.