Home theatre fans seeking the ultimate visual reference disc to show off their system need look no further than Criterion's eye-poppingly spectacular dvd release of Powell and Pressburger's visually out-of-this-world film version of Jacques Offenbach's celebrated fantasy opera,THE TALES OF HOFFMANN. This offering displays quite possibly the most spectacular panoply of colors ever committed to film. Of course Powell and Pressburger's ingenious and inventive use of the Technicolor process prior to the release of this amazing film was well-known as THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES (all available in first-class dvd editions from Criterion) and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (reputed to be a future release from Sony) had established the duo as the most consistently bold and groundbreaking team ever to bend the rules while stretching the capabilities of the cumbersome yet never-equaled 3-Strip Technicolor system. But not even those legendary cinematic gems could have prepared audiences for the feverishly varied and exhilarating manner in which the Technicolor process caresses some of the most elaborate and magnificent sets ever as well as costumes of festival brilliance which never fail to dazzle the eye.

As a cinematic experience, THE TALES OF HOFFMANN represents the one and only time wherein at least two-thirds of an opera has been successfully transferred to the screen. (Those who fawned on Baz Luhrman's appallingly vulgar MOULIN ROUGE need read no further.) In Offenbach's fantasy opera E.T.A. Hoffmann dreams of three women - a mechanical performing doll, a bejeweled siren who steals his reflection, and the consumptive daughter of a famous composer - who break his heart in various ways. Prior to relating these three very different tales, director Powell wisely opens the film with a prologue that spotlights the incredible abilities of prima ballerina Moira Shearer (star of THE RED SHOES) in a stunningly shimmering dragonfly dance created by Frederick Ashton especially for this film. Shearer then returns in the first (and most fully-realized) tale as the mechanical doll and commences to flawlessly perform the most intricate and witty choreography I've ever seen in a segment that glitters and shines like the jewel that it is. 

In the second and most romantic tale Ludmilla Tcherina (also seen in THE RED SHOES) essays the role of the bejeweled siren but is unfortunately called upon more to pose exotically than to dance. However it is this segment that insidiously manages to weave an uncommonly languorous and luxurious spell primarily due to the inventiveness of Powell, the seductive costumes and set designs of Hein Heckroth and the liltingly unforgettable melodies of Offenbach, which are magnificently rendered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. Unfortunately, the last episode, which tells of the soulful love of Hoffmann for a consumptive singer, is a tedious let-down; which is made even more glaringly evident as it is forced to follow the sprightly splendor and mesmerizing romantic brilliance of all that has preceded it. 

The challenge of accurately transferring a film which contains such a mind-blowing array of varied colors must have been a daunting one, and Criterion rises to the occasion with splendid precision, managing even to outclass their previous full-screen Technicolor dvd rendition of THE RED SHOES. (No higher praise can be given.) The monaural sound is as crisp and clear as can be and yet I can't help wishing (blasphemy?) that a 5.1 Surround Sound option had been created for this earth-shatteringly magnificent looking and sounding cinema milestone. 


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