Talking Pictures

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The Tales of Hoffman, UK

Posted by keith1942 on April 4, 2015

Hoffman title

This was a Michael Powell and Emeric Production. It is an adaptation of the opera by Jacques Offenbach and was filmed in Technicolor and includes both operatic and ballet sequences. Both in terms of the Production team and the casting the film followed on from the success of one of the finest Powell and Pressburger collaborations, The Red Shoes (1948). The original opera was based on stories written by E. T. A. Hoffman who is also the key protagonist in the drama. The opera consists of a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. Offenbach died before completing the work and this was done by Ernest Guiraud. His contribution included recitatives, which are not always used: Offenbach preferring speech to recitative. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1881 and has remained a popular favourite: especially the bacarolle from Act 3.

Hoffman was part of the German Gothic literary movement, writing in the transition from the C18th to C19th. Michael Powell himself noted that he used techniques from German expressionism, which he had encountered first hand in the early part of his career. He writes extensively about the production in the second volume of his autobiography ‘Million Dollar Movie’ (1992).

This opera was one of several suggestions for film adaptations made by Sir Thomas Beecham. He was heavily involved in the production. At an early stage he played through the entire opera score for Michael and Emeric who busily made notes and decisions about their inclusion and treatment in the film. There are minor changes for the film, which does use recitative: the most significant change is that Act 2 and Act 3 are reversed so the film ends with Antonia, a more tragic event.

Beecham conducted the performance of the opera that provides the soundtrack and which was used in the filming for the ‘playback mode’. He also selected two singers who were part of the onscreen cast, though most of the players had their singing dubbed. And he appeared conducting the The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the final frames of the film. The final frame has ‘The End’ followed by a stamped ‘Made in England’ – a nice touch for the premiere in New York, USA.

Hoffman observed by Lindorf

Hoffman observed by Lindorf

The prologue is set in a Nuremberg beer-cellar where we met Hoffman and his friend Niklaus: we also encounter another character Lindorf and learn of a lover figure Stella. Hoffman recounts three love affairs to a group of students: each love affair occupies one act and involves in sequence Olympia, Giuletta and Antonia. The final epilogue returns to the beer-cellar and Hoffman and his friend. A conflict which has underlain the actions and stories of the opera now come to ahead and resolution.

One of Offenbach’s intentions was that all the women should be performed by the same singer. And he also wanted the four ‘villains’ sung by the same male singer. The film follows the latter option but not the former. This is partly that the film makes greater use of ballet, with Michael and Emeric wanting to repeat their success with The Red Shoes.

The film is a sumptuous treat. The settings of the opera provide splendid opportunities for the Production Designer Hein Heckroth and his colleagues. The sets are beautifully constructed, decorated and coloured. The cinematography by Christopher Challis, who had worked on earlier films with Jack Cardiff, is very fine and at times reminiscent of the work of the great Technicolor master. [There is though one oddly inverted shot in this version?] The film is obviously a studio production, mainly shot at Shepperton. And it uses quite a few technical tricks for effect. Pressburger, who was always, quite rightly, credited as co-director with Powell, devised one of these, a lovely transition from Act 1 to Act 2.

Moira Shearer as Olympia

Moira Shearer as Olympia

Moira Shearer dances the main ballet presentation, in Act I with Olympia and she does this with great skill and elan. The embodiment of trickery and deception right through the film is Robert Helpmann, and who performs his own singing. Another performer who appears in all the three acts or stories is Leonide Massine. He, along with Ludmilla Tchérina appeared in The Red Shoes. In Act 2 of this film Tcherina plays Giuletta. The supportering dancers for both acts are also very well done.

The central problem in the film is the two actual opera singers: as I mentioned both were selected by Beecham. Whilst he was clearly an important and influential member of the production I don’t think he had a great cinematic sense. The character of Hoffman is sung and performed by Robert Rounseville. He is extremely wooden, lacking either intensity or mobility. Powell makes light of this in the book, but Rounseville does dampen what in many cases should be vital and passionate scenes. The other singer is Ann Ayars who performs Antonia in Act 3. I am afraid she is rather similar to Rounseville in her performance style. Alongside Hoffman is his friend Niklaus played by Pamela Brown. She was normally a fine actress and was also a redhead – a predilection of Powell. But she is as lacking in passion as Rounseville. She may have restrained he performance because of his: but there is also a strong homosexual strand in the relationship, which may also have been a factor.

The music, of course, is very fine. I am not that skilled in opera and I have never seen The Tales of Hoffman. But I was not that struck with the singing: especially of Rounseville and Ayars. In fact the most compelling singing for me were two duets: one from Act 2 and one from Act 3 and both including Owen Brannigan.

So the best aspects of this film are the visual and the ballet. And the bfi having bought out a DCP have made a good transfer from 35mm. Note though the opening logo is in 1.85:1 whilst the actual film is in 1.37:1. This may explain whilst the screening I attended did not have the masking set in.

Ludmilla Tchérina as Giuletta

Ludmilla Tchérina as Giuletta

I have seen The Tales of Hoffman in the past. I always thought that it was a less than successful follow-up to The Red Shoes and lacked that film’s intense drama. I still think that the latter film is definitely superior, both in performance and in drama. However, this time I felt that the two central performances I mention were the major problem, I think a more intense centre would improve the film immeasurably.

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