The film of The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) is celebrated but not, I don’t think, loved; admired but, I suspect, not much watched and watched again. Even in the superb new colour restoration now on DVD, its crimson quality, scarlet even, cannot hide its bloodlessness.
It’s got lots going for it: an Archers Production, so in the hands of those two maestros, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; production design by Hein Heckroth; camerawork by Christopher Challis; top choreography; music conducted by Beecham from a memorable score by Offenbach; last but not least, powerful story-telling by ETA Hoffmann. A sumptuous feast for eye and ear. . .
. . . which still fails to satisfy. That thought, possibly heretical, is prompted by having seen a staged version by English Touring Opera at Snape Maltings on 14 November. This was the film’s opposite: modest on the spectacle front (ETO has a shoestring air about it, which I like) but very arresting in the conflict between Hoffmann’s romantic love and Lindorf’s diabolical annihilation of it. You are with Hoffmann, but Lindorf’s evil is not to be resisted, especially by some drunken lout who cannot get his poetry together, let alone his life.
In the ETO opera, Hoffmann looks a loser, but in the film he looks a winner:
This is because he is acted and sung by Robert Rounseville, a conventional handsome light tenor, matinée idol more like, who doesn’t look as if he would ever drown his sorrows in drink. Lindorf is better, as played in hammy fashion by Robert Helpmann.
Rounseville’s characterisation grounds the film in the banal, enslaves it to its source. The ETO production liberates the opera from its source, and by making Lindorf (Warwick Fyfe) – and his avatars in the three tales – a Nosferatu-like figure, gives this telling of it real power.
Two centuries on, hats off to ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822) for the potency of his stories.