Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jacques Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann—Barcarolle



In this 1951 British film adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffman), Ludmilla Tchérina, a French prima ballerina, plays the role of Giulietta. The aria is sung by Margherita Grandi, who performed at the Royal Opera House from 1947 to 1950. The barcarolle, Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour, opens Act III. The synopsis of the plot can be found here.

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The barcarolle is a folk song sung in the Venetian style, where one would imagine gondolier's stroke in rhythm to the music. The 1951 British film adaptation was written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with choreography by Frederick Ashton. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed the music under the direction of Sir Thomas  Beecham.

It was a grand undertaking, allowing certain production techniques that could not be done on stage. Although a film adaptation, it remains an opera in every sense of the word and a lush production that can be considered a true masterpiece. Even so, it's not everyone's cup of tea, including The New York Times fim critic, Bosley Crowther, who in his 1951 review of the film, made it abundantly clear that he disliked it:
But, oddly enough, despite its opulence, coupled with a brilliant rendering of the score by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham's bristling baton and some masterly singing of the libretto (in English) by a host of vocal cords, this film version of the opera is, in toto, a vastly wearying show. And that is because it sates the senses without striking any real dramatic fire.
But I strongly disagree, as do many others today. Crowther was out of touch and proved wrong by history. Crowther's high-handedness and mean-spirited nature, combined with a poor understanding of modern film techniques, eventually led to his departure from The Times in 1967. In contrast, consider what one British film reviewer wrote in 1997:
Sets by the great stage and screen designer, Hein Heckroth, were never better than in Tales of Hoffman. Sequences such as when Giulietta and Dapertutto move towards Hoffman in their gondola to the music of the Barcarolle or when Lindorf strips off a series of masks to expose his various roles in Hoffman's undoing are literally unforgettable. 
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Like Scorsese, I was entranced by my first exposure to Tales of Hoffman, and saw it seven more times before its season in Melbourne in 1952 ended. It was a great grief to me that it was never revived in Australia, and I now count having come across the Criterion discs a few days after their release, in the course of a short visit to New York, as one of my luckier experiences. If there had never been a Criterion Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, Citizen Kane or now Brazil - if the Voyager Company had never produced anything but Tales of Hoffman - movie lovers would have ample reason to be grateful. A classic movie collection without Tales of Hoffman cannot be other than incomplete. 
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For those interested, more information on the Criterion Collection (1952) can be found here.

2 comments:

  1. Offenbach is a great composer--unrecognized as such since he wrote operettas, which are generally not respected. His music keeps both the gondola and the movie afloat.

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  2. Thank you for your comments: I wholeheartedly agree.

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