Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 15. August 7, 1952
Hoffmann'S Schizophrenia — Opera Thru Magnifying Glass
Opera Thru Magnifying Glass
What a disappointment! I hesitated to write about "Tales of Hoffmann," a chromatic, vulgar mess of technical pretentiousness, when the simple and moving "Brief Encounter" is showing in town at the same time. One is a sincere work of real art; the other a self-conscious piece of artiness. But "Tales of Hoffman" has more popular appeal.
Michael Powell and Emeric Presshurger have always had my admiration as experimenters in the cinema, but their work is often spoilt by too many lapses into bad taste. "Stairway to Heaven" and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" showed this and when the team decided to film ballet in "The Red Shoes" all their virtues and shortcomings were there. "The Red Shoes" was a great commercial success and the producers were encouraged to film opera. They chose Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann"—a good choice.
In its plot and atmosphere there is plenty of scope for fantasy. The work consists of a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. We discover that Hoffmann loves an opera singer. Stella, but in competition with Councillor Lindorf, who gains possession of a note from Stella to Hoffman asking him to meet her after the show. Unaware of the message. Hoffmann tells his convivial tavern friends the stories of his previous love affairs. In Act I he falls in love with Olympia—so blindly that he is unable to see that she is only a doll. Hoffman only realises his folly when Coppelius, angry at having been cheated by the dollmaker, smashes Olympia. His second love is Giulictta, an agent for the magician Dapertutto who steals people's shadows and their souls. She persuades Hoffmann to part with his reflection as the price for her love. Hoffmann kills Schlemil, Giultetta's real lover, and gets the key to the enchantress's room. But discovers her floating away in a gondola with—presumably—her next victim. Poor Hoffmann again has fruitless love in the third act, this time for a delicate singer, who has been forbidden to sing by her father lest she should die. However. Dr. Miracle, through his magic, forces her to sing and she falls dead, leaving Hoffmann to mourn her loss. The three acts end and so to the epilogue. Stella comes to the tavern from the theatre only to find Hoffmann in a drunken stupor. The last he sees of his love is her walking out of the tavern with the wicked Lindorf on her arm.
The film accept this plot with little alteration but there are some lamentable additions, mainly as vehicles for dancers Shearer, Help-mann, Massine and Tcherina. The film has a promising beginning. I agree with Alan Dent when he says that the right idea of suitable decor is the shot of "the crowded weathercocks of Nuremberg in silhouette against a wan and livid sky." But as soon as the film's first act begins so does the decline of Taste in its decor. Why all those bright yellow gauze curtains in a scene that is meant to represent a dollmaker's workshop?
This act I must admit is, if not true opera, almost a sheer delight., The dancing of Molra Shearer as the doll, the handling of the dancing puppets, Massine as Spalanxanl, the dollmakcr, Helpmann and Ashton. But why—oh why—such decor?
The second act comes and with it an array of vulgarity; dozens of dye-dripping curtains, wax-dripping chromatic candlesticks, frightening figureheads and, yes, even half-naked women barely covered by purples, reds and greens. The camera also competes with almost all the trick-photography in its repertoire. Is it any wonder, then, that the plot and players fighting against such a display of technical ingenuity have a hard time of it? But, alas, they go too far. They strive to outdo their heavy neo-Gothic background and the result is that we see opera from the wings. Exaggerated make-up. exaggerated miming but not, thank Thomas, exaggerated singing.
A sickly episode is an altogether overdone film. Nevertheless Ludmilla Tchrrlna, dressed in ink-black tighis, succeeds in not looking ridiculous and given, in the part of Glulletta, a performance that I shall not easily forget.
Nor shall I easily forget the mishandling of the third act. If the second act was dramatic then this, set on a Grecian Isle, is lyrical. Such an act, then must have a back-ground made up of mainly soft colours and simple structures. But of course we don't get it; There is still the tendency for the grotesque, still the desire to startle. It's all very clever perhaps, but not moving as it should be. Perhaps the producers wanted a background that would run parallel to the hideous Dr. Miracle; but wouldn't a contrast have been more effective? Nevertheless, there has been more serious attempt to treat this act as straight opera and I must give credit for that. I shall try and ignore all the ruinous trick photography.
If the whole film had been treated an straight opera there would be more artistic unity instead of a haphazard potpourri of two art mediums. Apart from the ludicrous sight of llelpmann or Shearer performing ballet turns and at the same time singing at the top of someone else's voice, the added ballet sequences succeed only in holding up and ubscuring (the main flow of the opera's plot.
Not that the added sequences are always relevant. For example: The Dragon Fly ballet is too abstract and too much of the modern school to tit into the setting of a 19th century opera house. Nor are they always good bullet the Stella ballet at the end of the film, for example. "Tales of Hoffman" is a film suffering from a sort of cinematic schizophrenia, and it's only because of Sir Thomas Beechaia who handles the musical side, that the film is not a complete failure.
Advice to all opera lovers: obliterate the visual mess on the screen, i.e., close your eyes and concentrate on listening to the sound track. "Prospero" Beecham gives us music that is "full of sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." says Monk Gibbon, and I wholeheartedly agree. But his singers do well, too. Rounseville, as Hoffman, is both tender and strong; Ann Avars as Antonia. Is dramatically lyrical: Dorothy Bond as Moira Shearer's outer (or inner) voice and Bruce Dargeval as Helpmann's are the right voices for the parts.
Advice to Hein Hcckroth, the art director, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: a world fantasy cannot be created by trick photography, a galaxy of chromatic dyes, gauze curtains and papier machos. No amount of technical ingenuity can compensate for lack of Imaginative inspiration and artistic restraint.
Further advice to the producers: I like my opera neat.