Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Tales of Hoffmann: How to Make Opera Into a Movie?

Criterion has issued the 1951 Powell-Pressburger film of The Tales of Hoffmann on DVD. The movie doesn't succeed on all levels in its intended synthesis of various of the arts, but it's nonetheless a fascinating attempt: a qualified failure.

First, let's cut to the chase: how does the new disc look? The picture--one of the peak examples of three-strip Technicolor--looks more deeply colorful and has better contrast via Apple's DVD software than the screen captures at (one of which is reproduced below) would seem to indicate. There are some color misregistration problems resulting in "fringing," most seriously in the last half hour or so, and worse in some segments than others.* The high-definition transfer emanates from the negatives stored at the British Film Institute, and is not likely to be bettered in the here and now. (As for hi-def, we shall see.)

Nothing is likely to ever make me care for the opera, which for some reason I've never cottoned to, but the film--which combines opera, dance, film, and visual effects in a way that would not be possible on stage--makes a reasonably good case for it. It's presented in an English translation which is not always easily intelligible. The performers are all dubbed with the voices of opera singers; the technique here is less distracting than it can be, in spite of the fact that it's often ballet dancers who are miming the soundtrack.

Tenor Robert Rounseville (the only one of the opera's principals to appear onscreen) may not rise to the level of the best tenors in the part, such as Tucker, Kraus, and Domingo, but in the event, he sings prettily and acts acceptably well in an operatic way. There's also some attractive dancing by the film's ostensible star, Moira Shearer, and an excellent commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and director Martin Scorsese. (Your film education is not complete until you've heard Scorsese draw parallels between The Tales of Hoffmann and Taxi Driver.)

Musically, the film has one unbeatable asset: Sir Thomas Beecham,** who finally appears on-camera in the final frames, vigorously conducting the Royal Philharmonic. Those moments alone are priceless.


* Lowry Digital Imaging, the firm that has been responsible for many of the most prestigious transfers of vintage Technicolor films for Warner (Gone With the Wind, Singin' In the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, et al.), has developed a system to correct for misregistration, but Criterion tends to do better with its own transfers (The Red Shoes, The River, Black Narcissus) in terms of color accuracy and the authentic look and feel of three-strip Technicolor. If only the best points of each technique could be combined...

** whose original preference, according to Eder, was to film either Carmen or La boheme, both of which were rejected by director Michael Powell as not fitting properly into his conception.