The Tales of Hoffmann

Josephine Grahl finds that The Tales of Hoffmann never quite comes alive.

tales-of-hoffmann-the-1951-006-moira-shearer-as-automaton-olympia I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more films based on operas. Opera seems to offer so much potential to film-makers: an opportunity to play with the fantastic and fascinating but at the same time to magic away the awkward nuts and bolts of live theatre production – creaking stages, sweating singers, the graceless thump of ballet shoes on the stage belying the apparent effortlessness of the dance. A few directors have tried over the years – Zeffirelli’s lush cast-of-thousands La Traviata; Joseph Losey’s over-faithful version of Don Giovanni; perhaps the most successful is Ingmar Bergman’s TV adaptation of The Magic Flute, which begins with close-ups on the faces of the audience as they listen to the overture and only occasionally allows the viewers to forget that they are watching a theatrical production.

Michael Powell was intrigued by the idea of filming opera, and in particular of the ‘composed film’ – a film not just set to music, but edited to it to create an integral work of art in which music and image are equal partners. The ballet sequence of Powell and Pressburger’s earlier film The Red Shoes was a gorgeous moment in which the film moves into a fantasy performance – within the narrative of the film, we are watching a ballet performance of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, but without the proscenium arch the ballet becomes more than a theatrical performance; it’s an expression of Moira Shearer’s dilemma of choosing between her art and her love; that the dilemma is expressed through her performance tells us how crucial the decision will be for her.

Three years after the success of The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger made a film of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales Of Hoffmann. Offenbach’s opera is loosely based on three short stories by the German romantic author ETA Hoffman, a man of strange and disturbing imagination. The central character in the film is Hoffman the writer (acted and sung by tenor Robert Rounseville) who is in love with the ballerina Stella (played by Moira Shearer). His rival for her attentions is the sinister Councillor Lindorf (acted by Robert Helpmann and sung by Bruce Dargarvel), who intercepts a note from the balllerina to Hoffman. Receiving no reply from his beloved, Hoffmann retreats to a tavern to drown his sorrows and there tells the stories of his three disastrous love affairs, which become the three sections of the film.

The first section tells the story of Olympia, the beautiful mechnical doll (again played and danced by Moira Shearer, but sung by soprano Dorothy Bond) built by Spalanzani and the maker of magic spectacles Coppelius. When Hoffman puts on a pair of Coppelius’s spectacles, Olympia seems to come alive, dancing and singing; Hoffmann falls in love with her, until Coppelius destroys her in revenge for Spalanzani defrauding him, ripping the rose-tinted spectacles from Hoffmann’s eyes as he does. (The Sandman, the original ETA Hoffmann story on which this section is based, inspired Freud’s essay on the uncanny, the unsettling combination of the familiar and unfamiliar which fascinates as much as it unsettles.)


The next section takes place in Venice, where the courtesan Giulietta (acted by Lyudmila Tchérina and sung by Margherita Grandi) seduces Hoffmann in order to steal his reflection for the Svengali-like magician Dapertutto. Finally in the most tragic section, Hoffmann falls in love with the soprano Antonia (acted and sung by Ann Ayars) who has an incurable illness which means that singing is fatal for her; in return for Hoffman’s love she promises never to sing again, until the evil Dr Miracle persuades her that her art is worth more than her love; singing, she has a vision of her dead mother and dies in the arms of Hoffmann.

The weirdness of ETA Hoffmann’s vision is matched by Offenbach’s score and the plot would seeem to offer enormous scope for the sinister theatricality which Powell and Pressburger do so well in The Red Shoes. The three women, each offered the love of Hoffmann but led to their doom by a sinister, Svengali-like figure, are shown in the final few minutes of the film to be three facets of the same woman, the ballerina Hoffmann loves; the sinister male figure Coppelius/Dapertutto/Dr Miracle is played  throughout by Robert Helpmann.

Art, love, death, and magic: The Tales of Hoffmann seems to offer the potential for Powell and Pressburger to expand on the sinister theatricality of The Red Shoes. Aside from Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, the central roles are played by Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann, backed up by Lyudmila Tchérina and Léonide Massine – all ballet dancers first, actors second, and singers not at all. Choosing not to have actual singers on film seems as though it ought to free the film-makers from the difficulty of reining in the exaggerated acting of opera singers used to having to make their gestures understood in the back row of the gods; but ballet dancers are, it seems, no subtler. Robert Helpmann in particular is not far off panto villain through most of the film, in a role which would be far more effective played with a quieter, more threatening darkness.

But somehow the whole thing falls flat. The opera was recorded in advance (the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Beecham) and the film is edited to match the rhythms of the music, but it lacks the energy of a live performance without seeming fully to exploit the possibilities for artifice, magical effects and sleight of hand that film ought to provide.


The restoration of the film is a huge improvement on the positively muddy DVD version; the film glows with deep jewel tones, each love sequence having its own primary colour. The art design is high camp post-austerity extravagance, setting the opera in a wonderland between Mittel Europe, Paris (“before the Eiffel Tower was built” state the titles) and Venice.

A few moments – when Robert Helpmann as Dapertutto casts a glamour over the drips from candles to make a jewelled necklace for Giulietta – capture the spookiness and sparkle that ought to pervade the whole opera, but mostly it seems neither to break out of the Shepperton sound stages in which it is filmed, nor, like the greatest film musicals, to create a magical and glamourous otherworld within their limits – realism be damned.

The restored version of The Tales of Hoffmann returns to cinemas on 27th February, at BFI Southbank and other cinemas nationwide. 

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