Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Four) — Opera Out of the Norm

The Grand Ball – Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’ at the Met Opera 2002

After a brief hiatus to finish work on my book about Brazil’s Fat Lady, I’m back in business and more than willing to discuss the slimmed-down Metropolitan Opera radio season. In this post, we’ll look at broadcast and streaming performances of works from the recent past that, to the untrained ear, bear little resemblance to what has normally been categorized as your average “standard repertoire.”

Although one can hardly consider such titles as Giordano’s Fedora or Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta as routine matters, they and other like productions are representative of an operatic mind-set that has taken the term “restoration” to new and impressive heights. Other works, such as Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Puccini’s perennial Tosca, revealed heretofore unexpected nuances for this confirmed opera lover.

But let’s start with the latest bulletin: Namely, the announcement a few weeks ago that Met Opera musicians finally agreed to the company’s terms in receiving their long-delayed paychecks. I, for one, greeted the news with mixed feelings. Several news outlets, including the online New York Times, reported on March 17 that the terms included a return to the bargaining table, “where the company is seeking lasting pay cuts it says are needed to survive the pandemic.”

To this, we say: Caveat emptor! It’s nothing but a Pyrrhic victory — no more, no less. If you’re not up on your ancient history, a “Pyrrhic victory” happens to be one where you win the battle but lose the war. In this instance, the toll is so great that it basically negates any gains achieved in the conflict. I’m afraid that going forward (or backward, if you prefer), this may mean the end of large-scale opera production as we know it. Why, the cost factor alone would seem to preclude many gargantuan works, not to mention star singers and musicians.

But let’s not grumble too much about the cost, lest we troll away this win into virtual nothingness. We begin our survey of the latest noteworthy performances:     

Met Opera on the march: A scene from Part II of Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’

War and Peace (2002) – One such rarely-heard item is Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s homage to wartime heroics and youth-filled fervor. Despite its four+-hours length, for all intents and purposes War and Peace is a bona fide masterwork. The composer’s treatment of Tolstoy’s massive tome, devoted to Napoleon’s invasion of Mother Russia, is nothing less than monumental and more than mere bombast.

True, there are patriotic anthems galore, with the concluding paean the most moving of all, albeit anticlimactic. Its similarity to the main theme from film director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Prokofiev scored and later re-purposed as a cantata, will not escape listeners’ notice. Nor did it escape that of American composer James Horner, who used a portion of that theme in his Oscar-nominated score for Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), a Civil War epic about the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Prokofiev fretted over his magnum opus. A performance of Part I was staged in 1946, however the “nationalistic” second half was aborted during rehearsals, no doubt due to Chairman Josef Stalin’s heavy-handed interference. The post-war purges of “rogue” artists and their work had begun, with fellow composer Dimitri Shostakovich and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold among the prime targets.

Prokofiev, like his friend Shostakovich, managed to avoid being dragged to the dreaded gulag. Instead, he and others like him suffered mental anguish. Considering the circumstances his colleagues found themselves in, psychological suffering may have turned out to be a fate worse than death. Admittedly, there was no pleasing Uncle Joe (the nickname FDR gave the Soviet dictator). Not even after Prokofiev’s claim that Stalin was a stand-in for Marshal Kutuzov, the savior of the Russian homeland (much as Eisenstein had treated the historical Nevsky); juxtaposed against the Hitler-like aggressor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his Grand Army forces (that is, the German war machine).

Marshall Kutuzov (Samuel Ramey) marshalling his Russian forces in Part II

Ironically, both Prokofiev and Stalin passed away on the same day: March 6, 1953. Joined with another musician, the Frenchman Hector Berlioz, whose own efforts in the epic realm, Les Troyens, met a similar fate (and remained unperformed during his lifetime), Prokofiev never witnessed a complete version of his work. With cuts and re-arrangements, the present “complete” edition is the one the Met Opera utilized for its premier outing.

Lacking the essentials of traditional Russian opera in his earlier stage pieces (the absence of lyricism among the most obvious), Prokofiev triumphed nevertheless with a score that captured him at his inspirational best. One can cite three major examples that rise to the heights of what Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky had achieved with Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin, respectively. The ones that come to mind are that lusciously jagged waltz theme (which reappears at Prince Andrei’s death and follows a path Prokofiev first took with his ballet, Romeo and Juliet); the opening arietta for the embittered widower Andrei; followed by Natasha and Cousin Sonia’s harmonious balcony duet (so similar in style and atmosphere to the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé).

We could add a fourth example: the aforementioned death scene, with its repetitive “piti, piti, piti” background vocalism (sung by the chorus), Andrei’s heart-breaking reunion with lost-love Natasha, and his final moments where we sense the prince’s life ebbing away — bit by sorrowful bit. How about that rousing chorus that closes the mammoth epic? As a lead in, Andrei sings the first few bars of this tune just before Natasha’s entrance in Part II. Few numbers in opera, let alone of the Russian variety, can match its fervent emotionality, with echoes of the Russian Orthodox liturgy — an ode to the embattled nation.

The March 2, 2002 performance of War and Peace (the opera premiered on February 14, 2002) was re-broadcast, for the first time in nearly two decades, on Saturday, December 5, 2020 — the opening item of the Met’s 2020-21 radio season now that live performances were banished from the airwaves due to the continuing coronavirus situation. It marked the 89th consecutive season of Saturday afternoon opera, as well as commemorated the on-air debut of Russian lyric Anna Netrebko, a then-fast-rising star in the Met’s operatic firmament, as the petulant Natasha Rostova.

Her counterpart was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky, as handsome a leading man as they come. Among the large and we do mean LARGE cast (68 parts sung by 50 or more artists) were tenor Gegam Grigorian as Pierre Bezukhov, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Sonia, mezzo Elena Obraztsova as Mme. Akhrosimova, contralto Victoria Livengood as Helene Kuragina, tenor Oleg Balashov as Anatole Kuragin, bass Vladimir Ognovenko as Prince Bolkonsky, baritone Vassily Gerello as Napoleon, and bass-baritone Samuel Ramey as Marshall Kutuzov, with baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Dolohov and bass John Cheek as Rostov.

Natasha (Anna Netrebko) waltzes with her partner, the dashing Prince Andrei (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) in Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’

Valery Gergiev, a past exponent of his country’s repertoire, presided over the sturdy Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a production from the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. The whole affair was shaped by some formidable forces, to include those of Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky, set designer George Tsypin, costume designer Tatiana Noginova, lighting designer James Ingalls, and projectionist Elaine McCarthy.

The relative absence of set pieces took a backseat to Kutuzov’s lengthy discourse in Part II, most memorably delivered (in his then-current wobbly state) by the potent Mr. Ramey. Ms. Obraztsova exuded star power in her brief turn as Natasha’s great aunt who berates her niece for betraying Prince Andrei with that no-account womanizer, Anatole Kuragin. Mr. Grigorian proved a stentorian Pierre, searing in his most ardent moments and red-faced with fury at his brother-in-law’s offenses. And, yes, there were layers upon layers of plot. So much so that, much like what Tchaikovsky did with Eugene Onegin, Prokofiev had to keep the sheer volume of episodes down to a minimum. Notably, he sliced several scenes out of the finished product, preserving but the barest outlines of the winding story line.

This places War and Peace (in Russian, Voyna y Mir) in a category by itself. An uniquely individual piece, which should have been labeled “Peace and War,” its brassy sonorities can be tricky to fathom. Those military marches and endless parade sequences may be out of style (truth be told, they were already passé when the visiting Bolshoi Opera premiered it at the Met in the mid-1970s), yet the work is most accessible vocally.

As long as Ms. Netrebko stayed front and center before the microphones, we were guaranteed a first-rate hearing. Her young soprano rang out thrillingly in the house. Even better, she and Dmitri made for a marvelous romantic couple: He, with fire in his eyes and ice in his veins; she, with passionate intensity and tenderness in her tone. The essential allure and strength of both Netrebko and Hvorostovsky’s authentic Russian accents were enough to carry the day. They certainly won all hearts, and that’s what counts.

Prince Andrei (Hvorostovsky) on his death bed, with Natasha (Netrebko) by his side

How much have live audiences and their radio counterparts missed with live opera? Quite a lot, I’m afraid. On a personal note, what have we ALL missed of late? For one, Hvorostovsky’s raw outpourings toward the end of Prince Andrei’s suffering brought to mind his own untimely passing, a little over three years ago, on November 17, 2017.

In one of the Met’s Live in HD presentations, specifically of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, “Dima,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, was presented with bouquets of flowers upon his return from surgery. Among the greeters onstage was Anna Netrebko, his Natasha in that long-ago War and Peace performance of 15 years prior. As Dima took in the ovation, the camera caught Netrebko wiping away tears from her eyes. She knew, instinctively, that her prince’s days were numbered.       

Ariadne auf Naxos (1988) – Not a work that I would have counted as among my favorites, this live transmission of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera-within-an-opera (from March 12, 1988) is one that completely bowled me over. How so? Well, this so-so Bogo Igesz production, with sets by legendary designer Oliver Messel, and conducted by the estimable James Levine, took me down a path with Strauss that I have rarely ventured.

The Prologue to Strauss’ ‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’ at the Metropolitan Opera 1988

Originally intended as a two-part, evening’s-length entertainment, which was to have encompassed a German-language rendering of Molière’s overly talky Le bourgeois gentilhomme or “The Middle-Class Gentleman,” adapted by Hofmannsthal himself (which made for an extremely long evening), the idea of separating the two works into (1) an expository Prologue; and (2) a combination of opera seria with commedia dell’arte antics, proved not only desirable but perfectly suitable for aural consumption.      

In the revised Prologue, the unheralded star of the proceedings was American mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as the Composer. Hers was a deeply committed interpretation, full of youthful vigor and optimism one minute, and downright horrified in the next by what was happening to “his” classical creation. Note that Strauss’ Composer is another of those so-called “trouser” roles, where a female artist takes on the aspects of a daring young man. Much as Strauss and Hofmannsthal had done with the fiery nobleman Octavian (from Der Rosenkavalier), here the nameless Composer is portrayed as a highly charged, emotionally unbending artist of integrity and resolve.

Mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as the volatile Composer in Strauss’ ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’

The conflict, in the main, revolves around a princely aristocrat’s request, no, order (after all, he is the young Composer’s benefactor) to perform his heroic Greek tragedy and the comic interlude to come (a mad Harlequinade, if you’re interested) together as one piece. The reason behind his request: There’s a fireworks display at the end. But the prince is unwilling to wait that long for the fireworks. Egad! What fools these impatient princes be!

The Composer is all for putting the burlesque off as long as possible, while the comedic players, including the flirtatious Zerbinetta, could care less: for them, it’s just another payday. Still, the fired-up Composer longs to have his heroine Ariadne fall into the arms of the god Bacchus (a classic combination of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements in art, placed symbolically into one perfectly acceptable union). He rebels at this mockery of his life’s work, which will resound with audience members who remember Mozart’s escapades at the court of Emperor Joseph II and the battles the composer waged with Salieri, his Italian counterpart, in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.    

Troyanos’ impassioned delivery of her lines (described as her “burning intensity”) and the wearing of her anguished heart on her flowing white sleeve won the plaudits of both critics and fans. This was as authentic a depiction of her artistry as any, a role most congenial to the mezzo’s fiery temperament. At that point in her Met career, Troyanos had Strauss (ahem) firmly under her belt, having appeared innumerable times as Octavian and as the bouncy Cherubino (another of those “pants parts”) in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

It’s by no means unreasonable to assume — and, we daresay, quite logical — that playwright Shaffer may have modeled his Mozart characterization on Strauss’ idealistic musician, who, in Hofmannsthal’s writing, doesn’t even get the benefit of a name. He’s known as the Composer. Thus, he’s stands for all musicians with bruised egos. The petulance, the impatience of youth, the righteous indignation — all of them attributable to “Wolfie.” Those traits come together in Strauss’ opera proper, a veritable free-for-all, where the commedia dell’arte troupe prances about the stage in counterpoint to Zerbinetta’s warbling.

In the meantime, an opera seria straight out of Gluck is taking shape, a snail’s-paced opus that neither resembles his Orfeo ed Euridice nor his Iphigenia operas, both of which thrived on classical structures. This latter portion of Ariadne, i.e., the auf Naxos (“from the Isle of Naxos”) part, pleases me less than the Prologue. Portentous and soporific, the opening numbers are inert, that is until the fun sections take command.

When the god Bacchus arrives to claim Ariadne for his bride, he’s voiced by the estimable James King, a heldentenor of yore in his twilight years. King hurled his high notes to the winds. An effective Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre, he enjoyed a brief run in the Prologue as the befuddled Tenor (also nameless). But here, one half expected King to be in his element. And, indeed, the voice was impressive for a 63 year old (at the time). Its major defect, however, was its lack of suppleness and flexibility, while the tenor’s deportment was stiff and unyielding to match. King creaked along dutifully, though his words had little snap or verve.

The Diva herself: Famed soprano Jessye Norman as Ariadne

On the opposite front, soprano Jessye Norman as the Prima Donna/Ariadne outdid herself. She opened the floodgates with her soaring tones, an ocean of depth and impressive size. Truly, a one-of-a-kind voice that hit the listener between the eyes with the force of a gale wind (she was all of 43). Like her partner King, Ms. Norman showed a lighter side to her talents. She had one of her funniest moments when she went into a swoon in Act I, which drew a hefty guffaw from the audience. Norman landed, full-force, on a conveniently placed armchair. Indeed, she timed it to perfection.

Bass-baritone Franz Ferdinand Nentwig as the Music Master was acceptable, but no more. Hardly memorable as well was Joseph Frank’s Dancing Master, who sounded underpowered. High praise is reserved for commedia dell’arte performers Stephen Dickson (Harlekin), Allan Glassman (Scaramuccio), Artur Korn (Truffaldin), and Anthony Laciura (Brighella). In fact, a more diverting bunch would be hard to find. That old standby, tenor Charles Anthony, had a brief cameo as the Officer, who woos the always accommodating Zerbinetta. He all-but stole the show, the voice remaining firm and forceful throughout his long Met career.

And speaking of Zerbinetta, former Met coloratura Kathleen Battle mopped the floor with the role’s requirements. The aptly-named Battle managed this highwire act with aplomb, and was especially outstanding in the Prologue where she joined Troyanos in quite possibly the loveliest unforced moment on stage, where the two artists merged their separate thoughts into a single duet. We cannot praise Ms. Battle enough for her pert and frothy Zerbinetta in that character’s lengthy scena later on. High notes or low notes, neither held any terror for this artist.

Second in command: Coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle as the flirtatious Zerbinetta in ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’

In retrospect, Zerbinetta is a frivolous individual. However, her obsessive compulsion with the opposite sex (a reversal of the usual girl-crazy youth) grates on the nerves after a while. Does she think of nothing else? We could say that Strauss and his librettist invented a modern-day liberated character, very much ahead of its time. Zerbinetta may be two-dimensional, but those stratospheric notes are to die for.

In our estimation, the one outstanding performer — another in a long-line of Met Opera and NYCO comprimarios — was tenor Nico Castel as the self-important Major Domo. Strictly a non-singing part, the Lisbon-born Castel, whose given name was Naftali Chaim Castel Kalinhoff, brought professional flair to this and many other assignments. His crystal-clear diction and superb enunciation of the text were a constant wonder and source of inspiration. He brought a lifetime of experience as a voice teacher and interpreter, a language expert, a diction coach, and a translator to everything he did. At the Met, he was known as the Professor Henry Higgins of opera. Raised in Venezuela, Castel attained fluency in six languages, the knowledge of which he shared with all his colleagues.  

With such an outstanding array of artists, a perfect sendoff would be to pay homage to all the above participants. In particular, to two of the finest performers that have ever graced the Met stage: the aforementioned Hvorostovsky and Troyanos. Coincidentally or not, both Dima and Tatiana passed away at the same age 55. Ars longa, vita brevis.       

End of Part Four

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Drummer Speaks — Memoirs by William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III

William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (1936-2021)

On Thursday, March 25, I read, with heavy heart, guitarist and bandleader Ken Avis’ sad notice and jazz writer David Adler’s detailed obituary about my close friend, jazz drummer William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III’s passing on March 20, 2021, of complications due to COVID-19.

I knew Buddy well, we talked often on the phone together.

At first, way back in 2004, I wrote a somewhat disparaging piece about him, entitled “Damn the Drummer, Where’s the Composer,” about his claim to have been instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing the classic Jazz Samba album on Verve to light, and (most importantly) the music of Brazilian bossa nova to the U.S.

Later — to be exact, seven years later, in 2011 — after receiving Buddy’s letter, I contacted him via email and landline. We became fast friends. The unusual aspect of all this was that it took him seven years to respond. Imagine, seven years! That’s how patient the man was. I asked him why he took so long to write. His response: “Because I was busy teaching and playing.” It was only after some of his students brought my piece to his attention that, after letting his initial reaction simmer for seven years, he finally decided to write back.

The funny thing was that he understood where I was coming from (and told me so, many times). He even sent me a lengthy printout of his curriculum vitae, but the best thing was that I ultimately came around to take up and champion his cause (well supported by the facts) that he, along with Keter Betts, the bassist, and Charlie Byrd, the great jazz guitarist, were THE key figures in that 1961 U.S. State Department visit to Latin America that brought the Brazilian bossa nova beat to American ears. Much later in our relationship, Buddy sent me his original itinerary for that trip, which I’m glad I made a photocopy of and will treasure as a personal keepsake. Of course, I mailed the original back to Buddy. It meant so much to him. It surprised me, too, that he still kept it, but that was Buddy. His seemingly rough exterior was only a cover for what I ascertained to be a sentimental streak. You loved him more for that.  

I had the utmost pleasure and fun in meeting and interviewing Buddy at the Strathmore Music Festival for the JAZZ SAMBA SYMPOSIUM, held there in June 2014. Afterward, we went to lunch together, where we were joined by famed audio engineer Ed Greene. We remained close friends afterward, and corresponded with each other via snail mail (Buddy hated computers) and frequent telephone calls. And, Ken Avis — by the way, Buddy’s response to Chuck Redd’s question about why jazz musicians were wearing tuxedos was a classic retort. What Buddy actually said was, “Because we were a class act!” That left the audience in attendance laughing their heads off. But, again, that was classic Buddy. He had an answer for every occasion, no matter the subject.

Buddy Deppenschmidt at the JAZZ SAMBA SYMPOSIUM, Strathmore Music Centre, June 2014

He was a REAL gentleman, too. And why was that? Didn’t he hobnob with some rough sorts (and heaven knows, some jazz giants could be really obnoxious)? Not Buddy. He treated everyone he met with the same deference and respect he gave Brazil’s music and musicians. And his love was genuine. I should know. I am Brazilian born. I’ve written about Brazil. I lived and worked in the country. My parents were Brazilian. All my relatives are Brazilian or have Brazilian blood flowing in their veins. I could sense that Buddy was not the type to put on airs. He was curious about Brazil, but most especially about the sensuous and beguiling music that would charm and seduce the world. And he was right.

This is why words cannot express my sense of loss for such an estimable artist and friend as Buddy Deppenschmidt.

In his last years (from about 2017 to 2020), Buddy had come down with a debilitating cough that, no matter how hard he tried, was simply unable to shake. The loss of his home in Bucks County really set the man back, more than most people can imagine. I will not go into the particulars at this stage, mostly out of respect for our friendship. Perhaps one day, I or someone with a knack for putting down Buddy’s eventful life onto paper, will take up the daunting task of documenting his life story. It’s a story worth telling.

Yet, despite his travails, Buddy never lost his sense of humor. He came from a musical family — he even gave me a treasure trove of self-made CDs and much, much music from his dad, Buddy Sr., and fabulous stories about his Danish-born grandmother who loved to listen to opera and famed Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior (also of Danish descent), whom grandma went to see often. Buddy told me a story that, when he was very young, he would sit on the floor in his living room and listen, all afternoon long, to big band music and classical music recordings — but especially jazz.

A few years ago, before Buddy was relocated to a nursing home in Doylestown, PA, he tried, at my urging, to write down his memoirs. You have to understand something about Buddy: He was a simple high school kid. He never attended college or had advanced degrees. What credentials he had were earned on the street. That may sound like a cliché, but it was pure Buddy. That’s who he was, and that’s how he expressed himself: rough, ready, stinging at times, but truthful and to the point. I never let his cantankerous nature get in the way of our relationship. And, boy, could he get cantankerous! And cranky, too. Still, I treated him as if he were a second father: with love, with kindness, with understanding, patience, and with respect.

In closing, here, for the first time, is the sum total of Buddy’s “memoirs,” just as he wrote it. In his voice, in his tone. It’s fitting that he should have the last word. It’s also fitting that he ended his reverie with that long-ago trip to Brazil. And you know something…. although he would never admit it, I think Buddy was a Brazilian at heart.

Rest in peace, old friend….

A younger Buddy Deppenschmidt at his Drum Kit

The Drummer Speaks — Memoirs by William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III

I was born on February 16, 1936, in Philadelphia and lived there until [I was] four years old. At age four my mother and father divorced and she and I moved back to my mother’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia. She had met my father there while he was playing tenor sax with the Johnny Brown Orchestra at Tantilla Gardens, a famous ballroom in Richmond and where I would, many years later, play with the Newton Thomas Trio. Life is so unpredictable!

At any rate, I went to Westhampton Junior High School where at age ten and in the fifth grade I joined the band. They came to my homeroom and asked, “Who would like to get in the band?” I raised my hand! The next question was, “What instrument do you play?” Well, I didn’t play any instrument and I didn’t know what to say. So I turned to the guy sitting next to me, who had said he was in the band and, coincidentally, whose name was also “Buddy” — Buddy Tyler — and said, “What instrument do you play?” He said, “Drums,” so I said “I play drums.” That’s how much serious thought went into that serious career choice (smile).

Anyway, I gave it my all. Buddy Tyler and I used to march around our neighborhood with our parade drums slung on our drum slings playing our marching beats and, believe it or not, no one complained. Guess we were in a very tolerant neighborhood.

I got my first drum set when I was in my second year of high school because I had been offered an opportunity to play in a small Dixieland band called the Sophocats. Their drummer was going off to college and they thought I had talent. Well, we played for school dances and many university fraternity parties, etc., and I learned to play the drum set “on the job.”

I had an endless library of phonograph records at home (classical, big band, Dixie, jazz, ragtime, boogie woogie), you name it, we had it! So I was always listening to music. As soon as I got home from high school I’d lie down on the floor with my head in front of the speaker and listen and analyze the music.

My dad said, “If your mother says you’ve been practicing, I will get you a really good drum set next year.” Well, I didn’t need a calendar! And he kept his promise! He got me a beautiful 1950s Gretsch set and it sounded great!!! That’s the set I took to South America, Central America and Mexico (not to mention all over the United States!) and recorded on it, too. You hear it on The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd and I think it’s the best drum sound I have ever heard and I’ve listened to a lot of records!

I am talking just the drum sound. I am surely not intending to brag about my playing, although I thought it was pretty good for having been with the band only four days! Check it out — on the Riverside label owned by Fantasy in California. They bought all of Riverside’s masters when Riverside went out of business.

Back in Richmond, I was getting quite a lot of work and listening to a local Latin radio station [where] the D.J. spoke in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word but the music was terrific. After countless hours of listening to those Latin rhythms, I started playing all those Latin beats pretty well and as a result I started to get gigs from the Arthur Murray Dance School since I was one of the few drummers in town who could play a good rumba, samba, tango, mambo, etc. It was great experience and a lot better than working in some “fast food joint.”

I continued to stay busy in Richmond. Soon after high school, I went on the road with the Ronnie Bartley Band, a territory band that toured the mid- and Southwest United States. Upon returning to Richmond, I began playing with the Newton Thomas Trio. Newton was an amazing self-taught jazz piano player that played all the tunes in any key even though he couldn’t read a note of music. If we were backing up a vocalist and she said, “That key’s too high for me,” he would take it down a half tone or a whole tone or whatever. I don’t know how he did it! And he was a country music D.J. at one of the local radio stations as a “day gig.” What a guy!

Anyway, we were playing the Virginia Beach Jazz Festival and we surprised everyone, to say the least, even Dave Brubeck and Charlie Byrd, who were also on the bill. No one expected us to bring down the house, but we did! Two nights later, Charlie Byrd, his drummer and his wife, and Charlie’s wife [Ginny] came into the club where Newt and I were working and offered me a job. The rest is history which I will explain later.

Shortly after that I moved to D.C. from Oceanview, VA, and joined Charlie Byrd’s Trio which included bassist Keter Betts and after being with him only four days we had a recording date. Charlie said, “Have you ever recorded?” And I said, “Oh yes, I’ve made tapes.” He said, “I mean a commercial recording.” And I said, “Oh, no.” He said, “Well, we have a recording date on Saturday.” That was just four days away! And it went very well! In fact, Charlie called the record “Charlie’s Choice” because he thought it was his (to date). It later was reissued and the name changed to The Guitar Artistry.

Well, it was about six months later that we got the State Department tour of eighteen South American, Central American countries and Mexico City (three months) in 1961, March to early June. Needless to say, it was an education, a vacation and I also got paid for doing what I loved to do! I guess it doesn’t get better than that!! I felt truly blessed.

We started in Caracas, Venezuela. And after our first concert we were asked to do a command performance at the president’s palace. I was taking my shoes off (as I always did when I played drums) and someone said it was wrong to do so in the president’s palace, and I said to her, “If you played piano, would you do it with gloves on?” I think she got the message! (Smile)

 From Venezuela we went to Brazil, which was my favorite country. We went to all of the major cities except Rio. It was there that I fell in love with the music and the people of Brazil. We were in Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador da Bahia, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba and Porto Alegre. I made several friends in Brazil. 

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Animated Brazil — Part Three: Samba Your Cares Away!

The Cafe in Rio, with Bluto (L.) & Popeye (R.), in the cartoon short ‘W’ere on Our Way to Rio’

A Clubbing We Will Go

In the next sequence, Popeye and Bluto stride brazenly towards a nameless establishment — with the word CAFÉ (sans l’accent aigu) blazoned prominently above the marquee. The boys, strolling shoulder to shoulder, give a U.S. Navy salute to the two uniformed doormen standing at attention and stationed on opposite sides of the entrance.

The viewer’s attention is centered on the main stage. A young couple is outlined in silhouette. The gentleman, at left, politely flicks his cigarette lighter open for an elegant young lady seated to our right. The flame partially illuminates her profile, revealing a charming and, one would imagine, thoroughly sophisticated nightclub-goer.

Moving closer to the main stage, the café’s modest orchestra can be spotted atop a balcony. An extremely large, outsized tambourine — in this case, a pandeiro, the Brazilian equivalent — has been placed against the wall and just below the balcony.

The cartoon’s camera angle now focuses attention on the percussionist’s hands as they work the chocalho, an instrument resembling the maracas. Three musicians swing their clarinets in time to a bouncy samba-like theme (but at a slower pace), one reminiscent of chorinho, a popular music genre at the time. Prominent at right are the drummer’s arms beating a trio of tom-toms.          

Suddenly, the focus shifts to the giant pandeiro. Behind it we see the upside-down figure of a lady. The pandeiro flips over to reveal a Carmen Miranda-esque beauty. Why, it’s Olive Oyl, dressed in an exotic baiana (or Bahian) outfit. On her head is a fruit-basket hat, with a necklace of pearls dangling from her neck. She’s wearing a black vest-like blouse with puffy red sleeves; a colorful red, orange and yellow skirt wraps around her torso. Her bare feet are cushioned by sandals, and her toenails are painted red.

Olive Oyl as a samba dancer (possibly Carmen Miranda) in ‘W’ere on Our Way to Rio’ (Paramount Pictures)

With horns blaring, the orchestra blasts out a major-key theme that introduces the sultry singer to our eager swabbies. Not surprisingly, the boys overreact to her physical presence: their eyes automatically widen, while their bodies become rigid with attention.

Bluto sits directly behind Popeye. At Olive’s entrance, Bluto grabs his pal’s neck and covers Popeye’s gaze with his big hands. It doesn’t take a confirmed Freudian to notice that Bluto’s stiffened posture mimics a straight-on erection (that is, in another part of his body) — a natural reaction under the circumstances. Bluto eventually comes down from his “high,” but ends up barking like a trained seal. A passing waiter tosses a fish to the astonished sailor. This scene is almost a direct steal from one in Kickin’ the Conga Round, where the waiter delivers a can of spinach to Popeye’s table.       

True to the spirit of the locale, the singer puts her best feet forward. Olive — we assume it’s Olive because of our familiarity with her face and features, even though she’s not identified as such — starts the program off with a Brazilian Portuguese rendition of the song, “Samba Lelê,” the original lyrics of which are given below: 

Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver, o
Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver

Samba lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da
Samba lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada

Eu já sou de fato bamba
Não preciso de muamba
Sou o rei, sou coroado
No batuque sou formado

Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver, o
Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver

We’ll get into the specifics, and provide the English translation surrounding this decidedly buoyant and engagingly melodious number, in Part Four of our series. For now, let’s concentrate on the cartoon’s setting and historical background.

The Games People Played

The real Cassino da Urca in Rio de Janeiro

Despite the fact that the actual name of the café where the action takes place is never shown or mentioned, audiences can make an intelligent “leap of faith” guess in identifying the nightclub in question: It’s the renowned Cassino da Urca.

Because of the cartoon café’s proximity to Guanabara Bay, it being situated at the foothills of Sugar Loaf Mountain (see Part Two for details: and part of a peninsula that harbors the much smaller Urca Mountain, this would be the place to start.

The classy Cassino da Urca was, at one time, a major showplace for illustrious foreign visitors (for instance, President Roosevelt, Bing Crosby, Josephine Baker, Orson Welles, and the Nicholas Brothers), as well as for locals of financially-elevated means. Too, the Urca was significant as a sought-after leisure spot where, among the multi-talented artists who appeared there, the most conspicuous were Carmen Miranda and her younger sister, Aurora. This makes perfect sense, then, in the cartoon’s depiction of “Olive” as an exotic samba dancer.

Originally a type of beachfront property, the Urca became fashionable as a casino and gambling joint during the heyday of such venues as the Copacabana Palace (first established in 1923; closed between 1926 and 1930; reopened in 1932), the Cassino Atlântico (from 1935 on), and ultimately the Cassino da Urca (inaugurated in 1936). At their dizzying heights, author Ruy Castro, in his book A noite do meu bem (“The Night of My Love”), placed the official count at 80 for gambling houses that once flourished throughout the country.   

There was a time in Brazil, and especially in Rio (before, during, and shortly after the Second World War), where betting on cards and roulette were given pride of place for those in the highest echelons of  Brazilian society. Other patrons included performers in the entertainment field, politicians, diplomats, ministers of state, major and minor celebrities, businesspeople, high-class call girls, wealthy Latin Americans (especially Argentines), and vacationing Europeans.

The good times came to an end, however, when Brazil’s long-serving president and dictatorial strongman, Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), finally left office. His successor, General Eurico Gaspar Dutra, implemented a nationwide decree (which began as a widely circulated rumor) closing down all existing casinos that exploited “games of chance in every region of the country.” The decree took effect on April 30, 1946.

As a result, the Cassino da Urca, along with comparable establishments, suffered huge job losses: from cooks, waiters, dishwashers, telephone operators, hat-check girls, busboys, and publicists to musicians, soloists, acrobats, comics, singers, makeup artists, engineers, set and costume designers, tailors, and dressmakers. Many places continued as resort hotels, the Urca and Copacabana Palace among them. Sadly, the vast assemblage of performers and instrumentalists dwindled to a relative handful, but the music continued on, if in more subdued fashion.

Fortunately for movie audiences, by the time W’ere on Our Way to Rio was launched in the U.S. (on April 21, 1944, to be exact), the casinos in general, and the Urca in particular, were still in full and thriving operation — ergo, its presence as an hospitable “welcome port” for homesick seamen.          

Who’s That Girl?

Olive the samba dance, with an extremely shy Popeye in ‘W’ere on Our Way to Rio’ (Paramount Pictures)

As hinted at in Part Two, decades have passed in wild speculation as to who might have supplied the samba strutting Olive’s vocals. After spending the better part of two-and-a-half years in research and in tracking this elusive individual down, I have been unsuccessful in discovering the name of the person responsible.

With that admission out of the way, I can state, with complete conviction, that the voice provided is definitely not Carmen Miranda’s nor that of her sister Aurora; nor can it be attributed to anyone with the characteristics of a feminine Brazilian voice.

This would have to mean that either Margie Hines or Mae Questel were the actors responsible for voicing Olive, correct? Um, not so fast. In my research, I was able to unearth an abundance of useful information that quantified the exact dates of their participation as Popeye’s girlfriend. The dates also bolstered my suspicions that Olive was not performed by an American voiceover artist.

To begin with, Margie Hines began her association with the Fleischers in 1931. She shared the role of Betty Boop with the above-named Mae Questel until approximately 1932, when Ms. Questel became the official “Boop voice” provider. It was also in 1932 that Ms. Hines signed with the Van Beuren studios. (On a side note, most online websites reference Bonnie Poe, née Clara Rothbart, as having initially done Betty Boop — alongside Questel — as well as sporadic turns as Olive between 1933 and 1935.)

When Max and Dave Fleischer decided, in 1938, to make the move to Miami, Mae refused to uproot herself. Consequently, Margie accepted their offer to relocate and provide Olive’s voice along with that of baby Swee’ Pea. It should be noted, too, that Margie was married at the time to Jack Mercer (Popeye) — their home life must have been anything but routine, to say the least. The couple divorced in 1950.    

Jack Mercer (Popeye) & Margie Hines (Olive Oyl)

You may recall that Hines did the “Cuban” version of Olive in 1942’s Kickin’ the Conga Round. She continued her voiceover work for the Fleischers in Florida until the end of 1943, when Paramount bought the brothers out and renamed their company Famous Studios. The move back to midtown Manhattan occurred in early 1944. Margie Hines’ last voiceover as Olive, then, took place with the December 31, 1943 release of The Marry-Go-Round, her final cartoon short.

Shortly afterward, Mae Questel returned to the role of Olive Oyl with the fortuitous May 26, 1944 release of The Anvil Chorus Girl, the first of the newly refurbished New York Popeyes. That would make W’ere on Our Way to Rio, issued the month before on April 21st, the last to be produced in Miami. Both Jack Mercer and Dave Barry (as Bluto) recorded their parts in Florida. There is a conspicuous gap of nearly five months (between December 31, 1943 and May 26, 1944) where neither Hines nor Questel were available for voiceovers. Indeed, all evidence points to this fact.

Unfortunately, most online websites, including IMDb, still credit either Hines, Questel, or the pseudonymous “Uncredited” as having been the singing and speaking voice of Olive in W’ere on Our Way to Rio. I have no objection to “Uncredited,” but the others should make the issue plain: Margie Hines and Mae Questel were not responsible for laying down the vocals for the Brazilian samba dancer.

So who voiced Olive? And why couldn’t it have been either Carmen or Aurora Miranda? They certainly seemed like the logical choices. After all, how many Portuguese speakers were employed by Hollywood at the time? Not many.

The basic problem, for one, is that Carmen was under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox. And the head of Fox Studios happened to be Darryl F. Zanuck. According to various sources, including Ruy Castro’s definitive study, Carmen: Uma biografia, Zanuck would never have permitted Carmen, or any of his stable of stars, to play fast-and-loose with their contracts, only to do lowly voicework at some rival studio, especially one whose subsidiary was on the opposite side of the country — in this case, Famous Studios, owned by Paramount Pictures and the entity that bought the Fleischers out.

Even more obvious, especially to anyone with a decent pair of ears, is for one to make the comparison of Carmen’s singing and speaking voice with the Popeye cartoon version: in truth, they sound nothing alike.

We concede that younger sister Aurora Miranda might have been a workable alternative. But after Aurora’s lengthy outing for Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros (distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, first in Mexico City on December 21, 1944, and subsequent release in the U.S. on February 3, 1945), with a full year of post-production work behind her, the littlest Miranda showed no interest, neither was she approached for the assignment. Besides, Aurora lived in Beverly Hills, along with big sister Carmen.

Aurora & Carmen Miranda, at the Urca Casino in the number,”Cantoras do Radio” (Radio Singers), 1936

Aurora participated in few Hollywood films of the period. Compared to Carmen, her total output numbered a mere handful of productions, i.e., Universal’s Phantom Lady (January 28, 1944), Warner Bros.’ The Conspirators (October 24, 1944), and Republic Picture’s Brazil (November 30, 1944) and Tell It to a Star (August 16, 1945).   

All right, but who did Olive? Possibly somebody who knew Brazilian Portuguese and could sing the language relatively well. But the accent is off. It’s definitely not a carioca (a native of Rio de Janeiro), the enunciation of which stresses the soft “shush” sound. Olive’s speaking voice does have a distinctly Latin tinge, the pronunciation most likely of Cuban or Puerto Rican origin, even Colombian, with the emphasis on a hard “r” sound rather than the softer Portuguese style.

However, the game was finally given away: first, at the phrase “Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver” (“I’m a crackerjack at this sort of thing, so let’s see what I can do”); and second, with the English verses to “Broadway Samba,” the American version of “Samba Lelê.” At first, I felt that two voices were hired for this assignment: one for Portuguese, and one for English. Realizing that no studio worth its salt would have the resources to afford two actors for one cartoon short, I concluded that a single voiceover was responsible for the singing and dialogue.

Also, in the original Portuguese lyrics, a true carioca would have “swallowed” the moleque portion, to the point that it would come out sounding like “muh-lek” — a short and crisp absorption of the final syllable. These affectations, as well as that characteristic “shush” sound, are closely associated with the citizens of Rio and which were strongly influenced by their Portuguese colonizers (the original settlers). But here, they are nowhere to be found.

There is also little attention paid to rhythmic accentuation, little flowing of the melodic line, weak adherence to meter or tempo, and a passing respect for quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. An unknown, uncredited artist, or a local Miami resident, with a working knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese and a sense of the Brazilian style of vocalizing, would be the prime candidate.

This makes perfect sense. One source I consulted on JSTOR, entitled “The Cuban Experience in the U.S., 1865-1940: Migration, Community and Identity,” by Gerard E. Poyo for Cuban Studies, Vol. 21 (1991), pp. 19-36 (University of Pittsburgh Press), indicated that many Cubans came to the Key West and Tampa areas by virtue of the cigar and tobacco industry during the 1930s. Travel back and forth between Cuba and the Florida mainland was all-too common, in particular after the 1933 military uprising (which brought a young Cuban named Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, aka Desi Arnaz, to our shores) and the later 1940 election of President Fulgencio Batista.

It is conceivable, based on the evidence at hand, that Famous Studios took advantage of the available Latin market in and around Miami in Dade County, to include Tampa and quite possibly Key West. For a definitive take on the matter, I conferred with Ruy Castro, who I had corresponded with earlier in reference to Carmen Miranda, samba, and Brazilian-related cultural matters.

“As for the female singer in the cartoon, you’re right — it definitely isn’t Carmen,” Castro pointed out, “nor even a Brazilian singer. It’s some Spanish-born imitator. There were several of them in the USA at the time.” So there you have it.

Despite Ruy’s candid assessment above, my investigation into who voiced Olive in W’ere on Our Way to Rio will continue, as will my analysis of the song “Samba Lelê” and the unexpected revelation of another “Sambalelê” with almost the same melody and lyrics.

Stay tuned!

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Three) — More, More, More!

The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, New York City

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

It’s been a long time for listeners to go without live opera. And it may get longer still.

Depending on how successful (or not) the United States, the European Union, Latin and South America, and/or Asian nations are in vaccinating their inhabitants — and keeping up with social distancing, mask wearing, and such — we, the fanatical opera buffs of this world, will have to settle for pre-recorded events for the foreseeable future.

Not that pre-recorded events are necessarily a “bad” thing in themselves. As a matter of fact, some are quite extraordinary. And many are downright pleasurable. But what I’ve been reading online, though, does not bode well for the operatic arts in North America.

For example, there are substantial and completely justifiable complaints concerning the Metropolitan Opera not having paid their laid-off musicians during the pandemic hiatus. True, the top talents always seem to get the lion’s share of assignments. Lamentably, those lesser mortals who labor in subordinate positions, or behind the scenes (as artisans, craftspeople, scene painters, costumiers, stage designers, digital technicians, and the like), have been short-changed by the unavailability of work. Work, in this case, should be viewed as a steady stream of employment via frequent performances and long-term engagements.

And while we’re at it, when will opera return to “normalcy,” whatever “normalcy” happens to be in these trying times? Did we say “trying”? Maybe “critical” is a better word for conveying the dysfunction at hand. Surely, there must be some sort of reckoning, either now or in the years to come, involving this unresolved dilemma.

The astronomical cost of producing live opera may have to take a backseat to other lingering and far more pressing concerns, with our lives, health, and well-being top-most among them. Failure to address these concerns will ultimately lead to a perfect storm of problems and, quite possibly, the very extinction of what we hold most dear.

Sooner or later, these very issues (money, relevance, need, etc.) will have to be resolved. And one of them should be how important opera and the performing arts — not to mention orchestral and choral concerts, live theater, Broadway musicals, the ballet, and others — are to our lives and to the national conscience. For the past four years, there has been little regard in this country for the arts in general. By “arts,” we also mean the cinematic and television arts and all that those entail.

In our estimation, they are all linked, in an unbroken chain, to keeping faith with music and art as a viable means of expression, along with sustaining our humanity in the face of negative forces. Luckily, those negative forces, represented in this instance by the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, are slowly but surely being confronted and addressed.

Our hope lies in whether or not we, as a species, can survive in a conscious show of support for one another, and for the arts — the arts that we, ourselves, have created. Then, and only then, will we have conquered the darker forces of our nature. To defeat this foe, this coronavirus, and any other crisis that may arise, will be deemed a victory for humankind.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to watch, read, enjoy, and review what there is of this artistic life (via streaming or other means), as embodied by our collective works. Let us also be reminded of the fact that “opera” is the plural form of the word “opus” or “oeuvre,” both of which mean “work” — a true collective in every sense.  

For those science fiction and Star Trek fans out there, here’s a bone for you: all we ask is that you think of opera as the Borg of the artistic community. Yes, yes, I’m aware they’re supposed to be the bad guys, but please bear with me for a minute. Like the Borg, opera assimilates. It complies to accepted (and unaccepted) norms. It adapts and it survives, for the benefit of the hive. A true collective, in every sense. Know, too, that although it may be a contradiction in terms, there are such things as “good” Borgs and “bad” Borgs.

For me, opera is a “good” Borg. And resistance to it is futile.

How Do You Like It?

Welcome back to the golden days of opera viewing, a time when the old “stand up and sing” methodology persisted in just about every Metropolitan Opera production, all the way up to the 1980s and, sometimes, beyond.

As I indicated in earlier posts, this approach was much favored by the Met Opera management. My own thoughts about this debatable technique go back to the types of productions staged at the time. Many of them featured a series of steps, an ongoing hazard of such presentations as Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (by John Dexter) and the same composer’s Ernani (by Pier Luigi Samaritani).  

For now, it’s on with the show:    

Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price & Met General Manager Rudolf Bing (ca. 1961)

Il Trovatore (1961) – The 2020-2021 radio season peaked early on with a re-broadcast of a classic Saturday afternoon live performance from the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street. That performance took place on February 4, 1961, and documented the dual radio debuts of legendary diva Leontyne Price as Leonora and spinto tenor Franco Corelli as Manrico, her lover. Mario Sereni, a rising Italian baritone at the time, appeared as Count Di Luna, with bass William Wilderman as the family retainer Ferrando, and mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as the crazed Azucena. Fausto Cleva, an old favorite at the old Met, conducted the orchestra and chorus.   

If you’ve been privy to the Marx Brothers’ ribald comedy A Night at the Opera, then you’d have a good idea what Il Trovatore is about. This work, which is filled with side-splitting quirks and last minute rescue attempts, has been parodied and hooted at long before Groucho, Chico, and Harpo put it out of its misery. Even the team of Gilbert and Sullivan took their pointed potshots with The Pirates of Penzance. So who are we to add fuel to this gypsy fire?

Listening to the re-broadcast of Il Trovatore proved enlightening. Maestro Cleva whipped the Met’s forces into submission, pacing the piece as if it were running in the Belmont Stakes. The rapidity with which he moved the work along meant that rush hour came early that day. True, Cleva’s exaggerated tempos took one’s breath away, but left most of the singers in the dust. An example was Leonora’s entrance aria: it was over before it began, with Ms. Price gasping audibly for air, a feat I never thought possible.

Another inexcusable yet common practice at the time were the vicious cuts to repeats and cabalettas. What’s the hurry, anyway? One answer may be that Trovatore, an opera in four acts, demands an intermission between each act. That’s three intermissions, people, each one lasting a half hour or so. This adds to the work’s overall length (about two and half hours’ worth). Indeed, despite the numerous cuts you’re talking about a very long afternoon.

After four hours of dramatic singing, here were my takeaways: the youthful Ms. Price earned and received an enormous ovation for her sublimely sung Leonora, emitting a seamless line of perfectly placed legato in a melting display of prima donna vocalism. Mr. Corelli, a big favorite with the partisan crowd, hit his stride early on with a top D in the Act I trio (marvelous!). Here at last was a truly robust tenor voice! Although Franco took the ringing “Di quella pira” down a tone (pulling off a high B instead of the unwritten C), his virile bearing and long-lined fluidity in his various romanzas brought a tear to the eye.  

But the surprise hit of the afternoon, for yours truly, was Mario Sereni’s heroically forthright Count Di Luna, the supposed “villain” of the piece. Sereni was well on his way toward making a name for himself in several studio recordings (among them, the classic Angel/EMI release of Puccini’s La Bohème with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Gedda, and the RCA Red Seal Ernani by Verdi, with Ms. Price and tenor Carlo Bergonzi). One thing was certain: the clarity of Sereni’s Italian diction and his easy top notes were a breath of fresh air. If you’re in the mood, check out his superbly sung Carlos Gerard in the EMI/Angel recording of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, with fellow label mates Antonietta Stella and Signor Corelli.

Another fascinating discovery was the ease with which William Wilderman, a reliable old standby, interpreted the thankless part of Ferrando. A potent yet flexible basso, Wilderman was much admired in his day for his versatility. The only adverse aspect was that he, and others in the cast, were incapable of producing the requisite trills demanded of their roles. For example, “Abietta zingara,” which opens the piece, went strictly by the boards, especially in Cleva’s rapid-fire reading. And those triplet notes were nowhere in sight. What gives?

Another downside was the execrable Italian enunciation of Irene Dalis as the mad gypsy woman Azucena. Recognized for her wildly wicked Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin and the evil Nurse in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, as well as her sensuously intoned Kundry in Parsifal, Ms. Dalis, a native of San Jose, California, ran aground in Trovatore. Her phrasing of the line, “Sul capo mio le chiome sento drizzarsi ancor” (literally, “It made my hair stand on end”), and the repeated phrase, “drizzarsi ancor,” were marred by an imperfect “r” sound (much too Americanized). Shame, shame. Goodnight, Irene!          

Giuseppe Giacomini as Don Alvaro (left) & Leo Nucci as Don Carlo in Verdi’s ‘La Forza del Destino’

La Forza del Destino (1984) – The refurbished John Dexter production, with sets by the late Eugene Berman (responsible for the Met’s long-lived Don Giovanni, reviewed in Part One) and spanking new costumes and uniforms, was one I saw live in October 1983. In that performance, I was disheartened to learn that the originally scheduled Sherrill Milnes as Don Carlo was indisposed and would be substituted by Italian baritone Silvano Carroll in his Met Opera debut. Carroli proved an acceptable alternative, if without much individuality. He did possess a warm and manly tone, and wore Milnes’ uniform about as well as one could given the last minute notice.

The leading man was the Spaniard José Carreras (he of the Three Tenors). He, too, was announced as being under the weather but acquitted himself well as Don Alvaro, despite a cautious approach to his high notes (this was before he was diagnosed with leukemia). Fluttery veteran soprano Lucine Amara took on the daunting challenge of Leonora (to be frank, she was a major disappointment), and bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi sang the gravely part of Padre Guardiano. Buffo baritone Enrico Fissore was a fussy Melitone, while mezzo Barbara Conrad appeared as the gypsy fortune-teller Preziosilla. James Levine conducted.

In the live telecast in question (from March 24, 1984), things improved markedly with prima donna Price’s star turn as the stratospheric, hard-pressed Leonora (there are multiple Leonoras in opera, not all of them of the Italian variety). At full voice or in those soaring high-lying passages that Verdi allotted the soprano, Ms. Price outdid herself, betraying only a momentary scooping up to high notes. Her potent mid-range was particularly effective, but the hollow sound she emitted at the lower end of the scale was troubling.

Only a year or so later, Price would retire from the Met stage (see Aida below). But her legacy as a model and unrivaled Verdi singer, and especially her acceptance as an African American artist of the absolute front rank, will remain with us for as long as artistry and exquisite singing are in vogue.

This opera, long sliced and diced by the Met (I heard a peculiarly distressing performance on the radio, back in March 1968, which placed the famous Overture between Acts I and II), was presented here, in 1984, as nearly complete. I say “nearly” because, as long-time fans may know, the original 1862 St. Petersburg, Russia production featured an entirely different ending (where Don Alvaro leaps from a parapet to his death) and an additional aria for our leading man. This initial version, put on by the Mariinsky Theater and preserved on CD, was led by Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. It deserves a second hearing.

In 1984, however, listeners were shown as complete a presentation as was possible. The plot, to state the obvious, is preposterous in the extreme. Coincidences and chance encounters abound, some more outrageous than others. But the prevailing theme of “revenge,” that relentless “Force of Destiny” indicated by those triple horn blasts throughout the work, marches inevitably on. Revenge and honor envelope the protagonists in a winding storyline that takes them from a Spanish mansion to the fields of battle, from an inn filled with rowdy patrons to a convent inhabited by pious monks, to a military encampment and army field hospital, and finally to a hermit’s grotto. Whew! Talk about destiny!     

Verdi loved his Spanish sources, and this one — from the play La Fuerza del Sino by the Duke of Rivas — was a real barn-burner. There are dramatic twists of fate from the hand of German playwright Friedrich Schiller, as well as heroic shades of the composer’s earlier triumphs, Il Trovatore and Ernani. Something about the Spanish thirst for vengeance and honor, at all costs, captured Verdi’s imagination. The emotional quandaries found in Luisa Miller may also have been influential.  

The story, in sum, is old-fashioned and far-fetched. Still, I like what author William Berger, in his book Verdi With a Vengeance, had to say about Forza: It’s “not how events unfold in real life but how passion dictates lives.” Ain’t it the truth? And passion is what governs this work, from beginning to tragic ending. There are flaws aplenty, that much is certain. But a great cast can, and will, do wonders. Assembled in this 1984 production were the likes of Ms. Price as Leonora (one of her specialties), mezzo-soprano Isola Jones as Preziosilla, dramatic tenor Giuseppe Giacomini as Don Alvaro, baritone Leo Nucci as Don Carlo, bass Bonaldo Giaiotti as Padre Guardiano, and the aforementioned Enrico Fissore as Melitone. 

Giacomini at the time was a rare find, a heroic-sounding vocal product of solid bearing and purpose. His ringing quality and sonic semblance to Corelli (particularly in lower passages) is noticeable from the outset. However, the higher up the range he goes, the more diffuse the sound. The voice tends to spread and lose focus, while the highest notes squeeze out in sometimes strangulated fashion. Despite all that, Giacomini brought luster to a shrinking vocal category: that of a true Verdian of respectable proportions. His model was Mario Del Monaco, and it clearly showed.

It’s a shame to have to fault his inability to act. Giacomini’s Don Alvaro, of noble Incan ancestry, molded the character through purely vocal means. Visually, he was the romantic hero to a “T,” balanced against the one-track-minded Don Carlo di Vargas of Leo Nucci. Nucci, a shade underpowered in other roles, outdid himself in pure villainy. Though short of stature, with a faintly bawling mannerism, Nucci managed the high-lying tessitura with ease, inserting a few extra high notes when called for (as in his Act II aria, “Son Pereda, son rico d’onore,” and at the fiery climax of the duet, “Invano Alvaro,” in Act IV). Both he and Giacomini earned a massive ovation for their work together, the highlight of the evening.

Bonaldo Giaiotti’s firm-toned Guardiano was fine in its lowest reaches, but wobbled mightily up on top. His “enactment” of this part was limited to raising his arm up or down, as the need arose. Fissore continued to top his previously fussbudget portrayal of a friar at the end of his patience. Mezzo Isola Jones and a stalwart cast of supporting players rounded out the proceedings. A youngish James Levine led a virile reading of this bombastic score, while the Met Orchestra and Chorus continued their stellar work in providing a solid musical accompaniment.    

Luciano Pavarotti as Ernani, with Leona Mitchell as Elvira in the Met Opera production of ‘Ernani’

Ernani (1983) – This Pier Luigi Samaritani production, from December 17, 1983, preserved what was best and what was worst about the Met at that time. In the title role was warm-voiced tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who brought a bel canto refinement to a part previously given to more, shall we say, “robust” instruments. The likes of Giovanni Martinelli, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and the later Marcello Giordani were among the era’s biggest (and loudest) vocal attractions. That Signor Pavarotti deigned to venture into such illustrious company said a lot about the star tenor’s ambitions.

Amazingly, Pavarotti did not come off too badly. In fact, his singing was above reproach, and much less mannered than it became later on in his career. Free-ringing and wide-ranging, Lucky Luciano made it through this grueling assignment, one of the more “dramatic” turns in the standard repertoire. He even got to sing one of those rarely heard extracts that was inserted before the second act finale. Bravo to that! Histrionically, the outcast Ernani (in reality, the royal-blooded Don Juan of Aragon) seeks revenge against the Spanish King Don Carlo, soon to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. You’ll remember him from Verdi’s Don Carlo: he’s the ghostly apparition who appears, as the contrived deus ex machina, toward the end of that work (Oy vey, these names, these names!).

African American soprano Leona Mitchell, once heavily criticized (if you can believe that) for taking on the highborn Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, made an auspicious appearance as (come on, now, you can guess it) Donna Elvira, the object of the tenor’s, and baritone’s, AND the bass’s affections — yes, a veritable ménage à quatre. No, really! In this early work, Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave (a favorite of the Bear of Busseto), surpassed themselves in playing up the honor angle to the hilt. This “honor” business soon becomes a running joke, to put it mildly.

We turn once again to William Berger, who had a tongue-in-cheek knack for encapsulating the least desirable aspects of classic works: “The characters rave at great length about their honor, and generally act without any except when they are grandstanding.” That’s Ernani in a nutshell. Verdi later mocked the notion of honor somewhat, with Falstaff’s Act I “Honor” monologue.

Nevertheless, Ms. Mitchell fulfilled every prerequisite, including the wide-ranging leaps and bounds, so reminiscent of Abigaille in Verdi’s first big hit, Nabucco, but without that hysterical quality. The opera’s hysterics, such as they are, were reserved for the ludicrous (and constant) clash of egos, both in Act I and in the remaining three sections. Regardless, there are more melodies per pound in this work than in any number of similarly themed pieces.    

In support, Sherrill Milnes had a good night as the lustful Don Carlo (boy, talk about a reoccurring motif!), his high notes blasted at full volume. After a while, his basic sound quality began to waver, and during the intervening years between 1984 and 1992, when Milnes reappeared as Sheriff Jack Rance in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, his assignments on the Met stage were few and rife with cancellations. His wan rendition of Rance, more muffled than of yore, bespoke of better days. But his stalwart stage presence, as authentically American as apple pie, reigned supreme. Milnes could have stepped out from a John Wayne movie or a Kevin Costner Western. He looked THAT good.

In any event, Milnes got the most massive reception for an outstanding “O, de’ verd’anni miei” and the follow up, “O sommo Carlo,” which led to one of those impressive ensembles that Verdi was supreme master of, a harbinger of similar ones to be found in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, and, of course, Aida.

Bologna native Ruggero Raimondi’s smoothly-shaded bass-baritone nearly equaled Milnes in volume and output as the dastardly Don Ruy Gomez da Silva (aka Silva), the old fogey who longs for his youth and believes, that by marrying Elvira, he can recapture his glory days. Sorry, Señor Silva! One thing about Raimondi that remains paramount: he possessed powerful high notes and a rock-solid technique. Where he was most wanting was in his all-but nonexistent low tones. They tended to disappear below the staff, as that long-ago Padre Guardiano pointed out and to which I was privy.

We would be remiss in our duty to also point out the obvious: This production was in the old “stand up and sing” tradition from the minute the curtains were parted. This egregious practice continued unabated, with Mitchell staring into space and spreading her arms out in imitation of a doll atop a bedroom vanity. Pavarotti peered out wide-eyed at the conductor, sweating profusely beneath a full-headed wig. Milnes’ generalized raising and lowering of his arm, an affectation he employed in countless stage assignments (for instance, in the January 1979 Luisa Miller broadcast), grew more monotonous with each passing gesture. And Raimondi’s hand on heart (or hand on sword hilt, take your pick) grew tiresome with every succeeding act.   

With those beefs out of the way, it was wonderful to hear veteran Charles Anthony’s solid character tenor in the short but crucial part of Don Riccardo. And James Levine’s bombastic conducting of anything by Verdi was masterful, as always, his love for this opera shining through in every bar and in every musical statement.         

Leontyne Price in her signature role as Aida, her farewell to opera and to the Met

Aida (1985) – Billed as the night Leontyne Price bid farewell to her opera career, this January 3, 1985 performance of Aida, one of the soprano’s most celebrated roles, remains a cornerstone of her artistry. Her “soaring phrases,” the “shimmering top” notes, and that absolutely emotional quality she brought and was known for throughout her career continued to make an impact.

Price had to hold back the floodgate of tears as the audience filled the soundtrack with well-deserved bravos — in fact, it hardly let up at all. Hearing her anew as Leonora in that now-historic 1961 Trovatore, in which Ms. Price was greeted with prolonged cheers throughout and at the end, solidified the irrefutable view that the Mississippi-born singer was and will forever remain an audience favorite.

Beginning with that incredible breath control she displayed in “Ritorna vincitor” from Aida’s Act I aria, and moving on to the most moving of all her Met Opera appearances, that third act “O patria mia,” where an obviously emotional Price refused to break character to acknowledge the endless applause, this Egyptian princess proved her mettle in a way only an artist of her exalted caliber could.

If only the production itself, a barebones affair exemplified by circular platforms, dreary costumes, and outlandish headgear, could match the diva’s stately stage presence. Instead, we had old school bawling from powerhouse Italian mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto as Aida’s jealous rival Amneris. Usually an invaluable artist, on this occasion I felt that Ms. Cossotto overdid the strictly vocal portions. She over-sang to the point that her fourth act Judgment Scene lacked the impact it normally would have, had the sparks not been expended early on. Anyway, that’s my take.

Simon Estes as Aida’s father, Amonasro, certainly looked the part of the King of Ethiopia. But his bark proved worse than his bite, the voice seemingly swallowed up by the vast Met Opera reaches. As it happened, Estes scored an early career triumph with his portrayal of the doomed Vanderdencken in Harry Kupfer’s 1978 Der Fliegende Holländer production at Bayreuth. He also appeared as Porgy in the Met’s 1985 production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and as Wotan in The Ring cycle in 1983, all three roles more congenial to his nature.

In the role of Radames, hefty heldentenor James McCracken appeared over-parted as Radames, his “Celeste Aida” lacking in comfort and the basic long-lined legato called for. In the role’s heavier moments (from Act III on), McCracken’s largish voice and squeezed-out high notes chewed up the scenery. This was not a particularly commendable assumption for the blue-eyed, barrel-chested artist, but he did give the part his considerable all. A famous Otello and Florestan, McCracken had to wrestle with an ill-fitting costume topped with an atrocious headpiece. John Macurdy’s sturdy bass as the High Priest Ramfis anchored the ensembles well enough. And once again, maestro James Levine brought a knowledgeable command of Verdi’s bombastic score.     

Not as festive an occasion as one would have hoped for, still Aida was an acceptable sendoff for one of opera’s most beloved and truly irreplaceable artists, the immortal Ms. Leontyne Price.

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Family Time — A Change of Scenery

Gordon Scott as “Coriolanus: Hero Without a Country” from 1964

The month was mid-July, the year 1971. I had just turned seventeen, still thirteen months shy of my high school graduation. Unsure of what to do, unclear as to what path I might lead, I struggled with the thought of what the next four years would be like. Fortunately, another trip to Brazil was being planned. That was good. Once again, I would meet up with our relatives and friends, most of whom I had not seen or heard from since 1965.

However, the years had not been kind to our family. Grandpa Chico had passed away in 1967. Other relatives and not-so-near relations had gotten older, much older in fact. Both grandmothers were still around, thank goodness, but some previously married couples had split and gone their separate ways. Others had tied the knot or gotten engaged, but had not chosen their mates wisely. On the brighter side, the next generation had finally begun to mature, giving hope to people that a younger crop of Brazilians — new leaders, new singers, new artists in general — would be capable of filling the weighty shoes left vacant and behind by their antecedents’ demise.

With age, comes maturity. But maturity, as I later learned, is a relative thing. Some people mature early on in life, while others do not. Some never reach that point of adulthood, no matter their physical age. Some refuse to let go of the past, never profiting from their mistakes. The error of their ways, the wrong turns, and the bad company they kept continued to stalk their paths regardless of how much time had elapsed. That is sad.

My father, for one, suffered greatly from the past. Anxiety neurosis, that was his problem, along with perfectionism. In times of stress, dad lashed out at whoever was present. It took an unreasonably long time for him to come down from the “high” his fixations had left him with. In the interim, recipients of his wild mood swings (my mom, myself, my brother, dad’s brothers and sisters, and principally his mother) would either suffer in dumb anguish or lash out in equal measure — not a wise choice, under any circumstances.

Dad was never more volatile than when we vacationed together as a group. I was told, by those who knew him, that when he was a traveling salesman for the Confiança Company he would be unable to sleep the night or two before a trip. Too worried about some misplaced document or leaving behind something important, dad would waste hours of precious time needlessly fussing over the slightest details. He carried this defect over into his personal life, in that he made every plane ride, every bus journey, every family outing a living hell, no matter where we went or who we had gone to visit. We had to watch what we said to him, too, or there would be a tongue-lashing the likes of which would have made a longshoreman blush.

There were times when I wanted to bust out of this mind-numbing confinement. In Brazil, where I was surrounded by others less troubled by dad’s bouts of nerves, I found relief. We could go out on our own, explore the neighborhood, chat with people of our age group. We could forge new relationships, build better associations with some of the younger members of our family. In other words, we could finally enjoy ourselves by, basically, just being ourselves instead of minding our every spoken syllable.

It was during this time that I was introduced to two distant cousins, Ana Maria and Suely, sisters of roughly similar age (perhaps a few years apart and a little older than I was). The daughters of my father’s ex-partner “Noca” and his wife, Lisbete, one of mom’s first cousins, they were openly pleasant to me and my brother. Ana Maria had two girlfriends, Márcia and Edna, who were a foot or more from each other in height. Márcia was the tallest (I nicknamed her girafa) and the most personable — man, what huge blue eyes; Edna was the shortest (we called her formiga, or “ant”) and the more serious of the two. I paired up with Márcia, while my brother took charge of little Edna.

One evening (it might have been either a Friday or a Saturday night), all five of us (with the exception of Suely, who was engaged to a fellow named Flávio) went out to the movies. It was my first double-date; in fact, it was the first double-date I had ever been on with members of the opposite sex. I can’t for the life of me recall if we paid their way or if mom and dad had reimbursed them later for the tickets. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had, since I was completely unaware of the finer points of dating.

The city square known as Largo da Concordia, where movie theaters were situated – Bras, Sao Paulo, circa the 1950s

Nevertheless, there we were, locked arm-in-arm, escorting Ana Maria and her friends to the local fleabag theater. Ana Maria had told our parents that we were going to see a Gordon Scott picture, the title of which was Corionlanus: Hero Without a Country. It was one of those Italian-made sword-and-sandal epics from the mid-sixties. Luckily for me, I was absolutely captivated by these types of films; anything relating to Hercules, Samson, Maciste, and Goliath was right up my alley. Steve Reeves was my favorite strongman, but Scott would do in a pinch.  

After a fifteen- or twenty-minute stroll down endless winding paths, whereby I engaged in flirtatious banter with my date — Márcia was certainly a chatterbox, which helped ease my apprehension somewhat — we arrived at our destination. And there it was, a big color poster of the musclebound Mr. Scott, a former lifeguard and movie Tarzan, as our titular Roman general. Was this really happening? I started to tense up. Being completely naïve about feminine wiles it never occurred to me that muscleman pictures were not the sort of thing that bright-eyed young ladies were into.

Well, well, was I in for a surprise! Instead of leading the charge to screen glory with Coriolanus, Ana Maria stepped up to the ticket-booth and handed over our money to where they were showing something called O quanto amor, o qual amor (“How Much Love, Oh What Love”), the Brazilian equivalent of the Italian sex comedy La Matriarca (translated in the U.S. as The Libertine) from 1969. The film starred French-born Belgian actress Catherine Spaak, who I wrongly assumed to be American (and associated with Star Trek’s resident alien, Mr. Spock), and French leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant. An Italian sex comedy, of all things! Where the characters spoke Italian and French. With Portuguese subtitles. And nudie shots of T and A (“tits and ass,” for the uninitiated).

What was Ana Maria thinking? What fancy ideas had gotten into her head? I couldn’t tell. I was too disheartened (and not very amused) by this last-minute bait-and-switch my cousin had pulled on us. I didn’t hold it against her, though. Really, what choice did I have? Maybe it was Ana Maria’s way of getting her and her friends to see something foreign and unique. Remember, this was years into Brazil’s military dictatorship. Censorship of television and the press was customary and to be expected. The movies, especially foreign-dubbed ones (including those made in the USA), were practically the only means where some kind of freedom of expression was exercised, but to a limited degree. The other reason was more practical: unescorted girls at the movies were easy prey for wolves on the prowl. Although this was undoubtedly a bold move on her part, I couldn’t blame my cousin for doing it. I just didn’t have the heart to reproach her. She was family.

After the film had ended, the girls walked me and my brother back to our Aunt Iracema’s house, where our family had been staying. Boy, what dopes we were back then! Neither of us had the slightest clue about etiquette, never mind the social graces. The truth is, we boys, as the “gentlemen” of the group, were supposed to have escorted the girls to their homes. Then, and only then, could we return to our dwelling. I’m sure the girls didn’t mind returning us to our roost. After all, we were their guests, we did not officially reside in São Paulo, and we were not familiar with the surroundings. Nor could we have found our way back if we wanted to, so many were the twists and turns we confronted that it would have taken half the night to get to where we needed to be. If you ask me, this was a blessing in disguise.

We went on one more date, this time with two of our visiting cousins, Dario and Dan. There might have been one other person involved, but I can’t remember. All I know is that I was pleased to see Márcia again — and I sensed the feeling was mutual. And where did we go? Why, to the movies, of course, to the same fleabag arena that good old Coriolanus had been playing in. Except this time, the main attraction was a recently released first-run feature, Brother John, starring Sidney Poitier, which was more my style (and with the dialogue in easier-to-follow English).

Poster for the movie “Brother John” (1971), starring Sidney Poitier

I felt more at ease this time around. And when it was over, we did the right thing: my cousins and I, along with my brother, escorted the girls to their homes. I have no recollection of how we did it, but we also managed to find our way back to Aunt Iracema’s house. Nothing like prior experience to help pave the way.  

I learned something else about those two date nights: that girls have a mind of their own; that they know what it is they want; and, most startling of all, they know exactly how to go about getting it.   

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Animated Brazil — Part Two: Won’t You Be My Good Neighbor?

“W’ere on Our Way to Rio” from 1944 (Photo: Paramount Pictures Inc.)

Our first post of the New Year picks up where we left off, in that this article is a continuation of my research into animated films and cartoons that depict Brazil and Latin America with their respective customs, music, and culture.

Commentary and insight into the countries and artists involved will accompany an analysis of the cartoon features in question.

Let Us Entertain You

Nothing succeeds like success. And to repeat a successful formula, by definition, is to profit from it. But to insist, then, that the next Latin-flavored entrée in the continuing catalog of Popeye the Sailor shorts was little more than a rewrite of previous material is to ignore the obvious differences.

For one, the sunnier ambience showcased in 1944’s W’ere on Our Way to Rio (brought to you by Paramount Pictures in glorious Technicolor), and buoyed by the tunefulness of its lively musical score (with two, count ‘em, TWO highly infectious numbers), no doubt eclipsed its 1942 predecessor, Kickin’ the Conga Round, by a nautical mile.

For another, the May 1939 arrival of a Portuguese-born, Brazilian-bred entertainer named Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, aka Carmen Miranda, to North American shores, and her subsequent 1940s incursion into Hollywood’s mainstream, spawned a host of Latinx-Hispanic imitators. It also set movie theaters ablaze with her exotic looks and sassy personality.

Now, is that what the film capital needed at this point, another spitfire in the volatile Lupe Vélez mold? Not exactly. While no pushover herself, Carmen possessed singing and dancing talent to go with her newly-acquired comedic skills. No wonder movie audiences were quick to equate her with the loopy Ms. Vélez.

True, both were short in stature, and both burned up the silver screen with, shall we say, their “bubbling effervescence.” But there was something more to Carmen Miranda’s mien than bright eyes and luscious lips, a je ne sais quoi aspect that endeared her instantly to American audiences — at least, for the duration of the war.

This was somewhat in line with what former film siren, the Mexican-born Dolores Del Rio, had brought to her own screen roles, i.e., passion, personality, and temperament. Alongside a genuine Brazilian leading man — the suavely sophisticated Raul Roulien — and the boyish Gene Raymond (the “third wheel” in this patented love triangle), Del Rio had earlier starred in RKO Radio Pictures’ Flying Down to Rio (1933), a musical-comedy landmark that served as a springboard for the dancing talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Dolores Del Rio & Gene Raymond as lovers in “Flying Down to Rio” (1933)

By the way, that seemingly innocuous title — a Freudian slip if ever there was one — not only poked fun at Dolores’ surname, but betrayed more than a hint of the old maxim that “there’s no sin south of the border.” The point being that this, and other judiciously employed “double entendres,” were no strangers to La-La-Land, as we shall soon see.

Flying Down to Rio takes place in and around a studio-recreated Rio de Janeiro, with superimposed images shot on the sunny shores of Malibu, California; and the famed Copacabana Palace Hotel, where this author had spent his honeymoon and where both Carmen Miranda and that devil-may-care auteur, Orson Welles, were once holed up. It should be noted, too, that Welles and Del Rio carried on an illicit affair for several fractious years in the early 1940s, despite their conjugal obligation to others.

In the movie, the Astaire-Rogers duo introduce a musical number dubbed the Carioca, a word whose roots go back to Brazil’s colonial period, and that in the Native Indian language (translated into Portuguese as o cara da oca), meant “man from the house” (o cara = man, da = from, oca = the house or hut). That phrase was soon shortened to carioca. In modern-day parlance, carioca indicates an inhabitant of Rio, implying that the eponymously titled dance had been derived from the city that gave it life.

Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire do the ‘Carioca,’ in RKO Radio Pictures classic “Flying Down to Rio” from 1933

The real issue, however, is that this purported dance number is a complete fabrication, a Hollywood invention that placed several Brazilian rhythms (maxixe and samba) into a tangy mixture of Cuban rumba laced with a shot of Manhattan foxtrot. Instead of dancing “cheek to cheek,” as the couple did in successive features, Fred and Ginger banged their heads together in a sensuous yet superbly choreographed sequence (by Dave Gould and the young Hermes Pan) that landed them in Pre-Code heaven. While the couple made screen history together, one that would eventually lead to bigger and splashier productions, the Carioca itself failed to catch on.

On the other hand, our little “Carminha,” dubbed by columnist Earl Wilson as the Brazilian Bombshell, went on to reveal a hitherto untapped talent for slapstick and rapid-fire dialogue (already noticeable in many of her song hits), something that movie fans in Rio were completely unprepared for.

As well, there were subliminal nods to the glamorous Dorothy Lamour in Carmen’s lavish costumes and fruit-basket headgear — especially when Ms. Lamour, a Paramount Studios co-star by dint of her second feature, The Jungle Princess (1936), began to be paired with stand-up comedian Bob Hope and radio crooner Bing Crosby in the popular Road pictures.

What does all this have to do with Popeye and his friends? For all intents and purposes, W’ere on Our Way to Rio can be equally viewed as a spoof of Carmen Miranda and a takeoff on Paramount’s moneymaking Road series. And we can appreciate why, since both the Popeye cartoons and the Road franchise were produced by the same studio, if on opposite coasts. Note the friendly rivalry, the petty resentments, the constant one-upmanship, and the snappy banter redolent of the Bing-Bob-Dorothy threesome which, in turn, may have been borrowed wholesale from the likes of the Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto dynamic.    

Still, the fifth Hope-Crosby-Lamour product, Road to Rio, released three years later (in 1947), should have been the natural outgrowth of such an apparent association — the one paying homage to the other, and vice versa. But the film came too late to have made much of an impact. By the end of the decade, and well into the 1950s, the quality and quantity of the Popeyes and Roads had sadly declined, with both lapsing into standard formulae and a “been there, seen that” sameness — the tried-and-true turned tired-and-abused.

Poster art for the Hope-Crosby-Lamour picture “Road to Rio” (1947)

Nevertheless, alert audiences may have noticed (if you happen to look fast) that the band leader, conducting the orchestra at the Café where Olive Oyl performs her samba routine, bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob Hope — right down to his ski-sloped proboscis. How’s THAT for paying homage?

“W’ere on Our Way to Rio” (1944)

Once again, Jack Mercer captures Popeye’s guileless grasp of the situation with his self-deflating asides (“I don’t do no sambo dancin’” and “Senhorita, this is embarraskin”). Speculation about who did Olive’s voice continues to this day. Was it Carmen Miranda, or her little sister Aurora? Was it good ole Margie Hines, who voiced Olive from 1938 to 1943; or maybe Mae Questal (Betty Boop), who did it from 1944 up until 1957 when the series ended? We will explore this aspect, along with a few others, in Part Three of the series.

Dave Barry does double duty as the superb singing and speaking voice of Bluto, Popeye’s bosom buddy and all-too-frequent contender for Olive Oyl’s hand. In all, Barry provided the voicework for six Popeye shorts, all of them uncredited: 1942 – “Kickin’ the Conga Round”, “Alona of the Sarong Seas”, and “A Hull of a Mess”; 1943 – “Seein’ Red, White N’ Blue” and “Too Weak to Work”; and 1944 – “W’ere on Our Way to Rio” (Barry’s final contribution).

After the usual introduction boasting the Paramount and Popeye logos (with the familiar theme of the sailor’s hornpipe starting things off), we begin this cartoon feature with a third title card. After years of watching, one can easily overlook the fact that “We’re,” the preferred contraction for “We are,” is presented in a most unusual form: W’ere. It’s an aberration few viewers may have noticed or paid much attention to, but that immediately draws one’s attention from the start.

Where did this peculiarly non-standard contraction derive from? In an online blog entry, one of the contributors indicated that “ ‘W’ere’ is commonly seen in some French-Canadian publications.” I have been to Quebec province, and specifically to Montreal, with a close friend who grew up and studied there. Neither he nor I could ever have imagined that the English phrase “We are” could be contracted as “W’ere” in French-Canadian. The Quebecois, as they are called, speak a variant of the French language that can still be considered as legit français. But the natives do speak English, though, with most road signs printed in both languages (at least, they were when we last visited).

The point is this: No matter how you look at it, “W’ere” is definitely off the beaten path. Perhaps this was an unforced error, an unnoticed misstep on the producers’ part that has never been properly corrected. One possible explanation could be the use of Ye Olde High English in place of the Modern Standard variety. A strong possibility, though not a practical one. But that’s for philologists to decide. Surely, to most audience’s minds (and to mine as well) this grammatical faux pas need not detract from our enjoyment of this worthwhile feature.

As the story opens, our boys are once again en route to shore leave. They are riding what appears to be a modified version of a Brazilian bull. This is an odd choice for public conveyance, one more typical of the rural Northeast (for instance, Bahia and Recife) than of the burgeoning cosmopolitan metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. To most eyes, Popeye and Bluto are seen passing through a tropical jungle, a huge stretch by any measure.  

Bluto (Dave Barry) steers the bull, while Popeye (Jack Mercer) plays his guitar

Consider that Rio, as portrayed in this 1944 cartoon — a place exploding with people, buildings, stores, buses, bicycles, automobiles, and other physical attractions — looks nothing like the European-styled city as depicted in photographs from the period. Obviously, the animators must have gotten carried away with the tropical exuberance of the setting; or perhaps they were guided by other ideas, that is, overly inflated notions about what Rio may have been like. Whatever ideas they were, they certainly had little to do with the mid-twentieth century.

No matter. The boys lapse into song, with music and lyrics provided by veteran arranger Winston Sharples; a rousing duet that instantly touts the familiar themes of romance, companionship, and (for now) the thrill of having a good time:     

Bluto & Popeye: I’m on my way to Rio

Popeye: To love and laughter and soft guitars

Bluto: It’s always gay in Rio …

Popeye: With lovely ladies, meet the stars

Both: We’ll take a short ride, so be good

Bluto: And I’ll be good, so have no fear

Bluto & Popeye: Tell all the girls in Rio

Singly & Together: That Popeye and Bluto are here

There’s a camaraderie present between the two salts that, as true fans of the series know, will be short-lived. Sitting back-to-back on their mount, Bluto steers by way of the bull’s horns. Popeye sits with his legs crossed while strumming a guitar. They start things off in unison: “I’m on my way to Rio.” Then, Popeye looks up at Bluto and momentarily growls the line, “To love and laughter and soft guitars.” But as Bluto mouths the words, “It’s always gay in Rio,” Popeye picks up his instrument and caresses it with his hands, giving off a visual clue as to his intentions at the line, “With lovely ladies, meet the stars.”

At the next phrase, “We’ll take a short ride, so be good,” the massively sculpted Bluto smiles openly and widens his eyes as he looks down on his smaller partner. “And I’ll be good,” he emphasizes, “so have no fear.” He completes this sentiment with a knowing wink. Popeye glances up at his companion with a dubious glare — he gives notice that he’s ready to rumble, but recovers sufficiently to resume his position. With a wave of their arms (and lifting their chins closer together), Popeye and Bluto join voices (and do likewise with their heads) at the chorus, “Tell all the girls in Rio / That Popeye and Bluto are here.”    

Compare this number to “We’re Off on the Road to Morocco” by composer-songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen and his lyricist, Johnny Burke, from Road to Morocco, released by Paramount on November 10. 1942. You’ll recall that Hope and Crosby are seated atop a fake camel. Their song provides a melodic backdrop that is stylistically “similar” to Popeye and Bluto’s opening ode. But the lyrics to our animated sailor boys’ paean are nowhere near as biting, nor as comically satirical, as those of their human counterparts. Two cynics lost in the studio desert, as opposed to two sailors on dry land.

The mood changes somewhat with the arrival of a parrot on Popeye’s finger. The sailor greets the colorful bird with a hearty, “Hiya neighbor,” the first hint of the U.S.’s Good Neighbor policy put into practice. Borrowing the sailor man’s trademark pipe, the green, red, and orange-tinted parrot repeats the phrase, “Hiya neighbor.” The parrot giggles uncontrollably in a facsimile of Popeye’s little laugh. They both smile at each other as Popeye continues on his way.  

Popeye greets a Brazilian parrot (who takes a puff of his pipe) in “W’ere on Our Way to Rio”

Next, the boys pass under some banana trees, with fruit that’s ripe for the picking. Bluto takes advantage of the bounty by grabbing hold of a banana and peeling it. He downs the fruit in one voracious gulp. Meanwhile, Popeye peels a banana of his own, but there’s something unique about this banana. Instead of the succulent fruit, a thin red tongue emerges. Popeye’s jaw drops in alarm, but “have no fear.” The protruding appendage and the yellow beak that accompanies it belong to a multicolored toucan, a neotropical denizen of the Brazilian rain forest.

As the bird flies safely away, we’re given a lush, nighttime vista of a picturesque Guanabara Bay near Copacabana Beach. There’s a full moon out, too, which anyone familiar with Universal Pictures’ classic horror films of the period will tell you, is a clear indication of trouble to come.

The camera pulls back to reveal a modern beachfront community (at last!), a rare glimpse for North Americans of a ravishing Rio de Janeiro, with Sugar Loaf Mountain (or Pão de Açucar) prominent in the background. Lighted buildings and sprawling high-rises dot the landscape. The only sights that are missing are the smaller Urca Mountain and the lofty Corcovado peak with its emblematic Christ the Redeemer figure on top. (Note to Readers: Corcovado, a Native Indian word meaning “the Hunchback,” could not possibly have been seen since, as this “tourist” can attest, the mountain with Christ’s statue is physically situated in the exact vantage point where Popeye and Bluto happen to be.)

“Oh, boy!” Bluto blurts out.    

“Rio!” shouts Popeye in accompaniment.

Popeye & Bluto reach the beautiful Guanabara Bay, with Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background

Their trip will take them through a winding path down to the beach. The bull stops momentarily to shake its rear end at the audience (which must have gotten a big guffaw in the theater). Huge palm fronds and vegetation are viewed at left as the boys make their descent. With a repeat of “Tell all the girls in Rio / That Popeye and Bluto are here,” the story proper can take place.

Barely a minute and 44 seconds have transpired, yet we have only scraped the surface of what’s been shown. Talk about innuendo, this brief sequence, when watched one frame at a time, is filled with hidden meaning: from the subtle hints and sideways glances of the two sailors, to the various phallic symbols on display, represented for the most part by the plethora of bananas and birds, and specifically in the song lyrics.

This was not so out of bounds as might be thought. A year earlier, in December 1943 to be exact, 20th Century-Fox released The Gang’s All Here, a Carmen Miranda picture, directed and choreographed by the military-minded Busby Berkeley, and starring Alice Faye, Phil Baker, Charlotte Greenwood, Edward Everett Horton, and Eugene Pallette. This lavishly staged production cornered the market in archetypal Freudian imagery.

The most notorious number of all, “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” involved the use of literally hundreds of rubber bananas, hung upside down, right-side up, and every which way; along with xylophones layered with bananas as keys, enormous banana bunches swung this way and that (many in the shape of erect penises), in addition to supersized, overripe strawberries that opened and closed to the rhythmic thrust of the bananas — movements that left nothing to the imagination.   

Bananas is Carmen Miranda’s business in the famous number, ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,’ from “The Gang’s All Here” (1943)

There is no way on this good earth that any of the participants involved in the making of this classic Popeye short, or Busby Berkeley’s picture, could have known that, years later, Rio would become a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, or that Carmen Miranda herself would be turned into an icon of gay culture. She would soon be joined by the likes of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Sal Mineo, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and others of their standing.  

The moral is: Never underestimate the ability and ingenuity of Hollywood to state the obvious. And, try as they might, the movie studios’ artists, writers, designers, and craftspeople could never completely hide or escape from their intentions — not from sharp-eyed viewers, they couldn’t.

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Animated Brazil — Part One: Kickin’ the Country Around

Popeye (right) escorts Miss Olivia Oyla to the Cafe La Conga in “Kickin’ the Conga Round” (1942)

I’m Popeye the sailor man / I’m Popeye the sailor man

I’m strong to the fin-ich / Cause I eats me spin-ach

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man

Written in 1933 by Samuel “Sammy” Lerner for a seven-minute and thirty-seven second cartoon, one that included a guest appearance by the Fleischer studios’ favorite kewpie doll, Miss Betty Boop, this catchy little ditty introduced audiences to the crusty but goodhearted Popeye. His seeming gruffness and slender build masked an underlying urge to defend the weak and the helpless — the kind of jolt that Depression-era audiences were longing for. 

And, boy, oh boy, was he ever strong. Those ham-fisted forearms of his packed quite a punch, even without his green-colored power snack. He certainly got around a lot, too. But most fans would expect that from a seafaring adventure seeker, what with the country’s shifting priorities during wartime superseding most other activities. Join the Navy, see the world! That’s the ticket! Oh, and while you’re at it, have fun with the locals.   

As sure as Lady Liberty’s torch would light up New York harbor, our hearty sailor lads, Popeye and the boorish Bluto, along with other cartoon characters, were recruited by the major studios to star in period-flavored shorts in support of the war effort. This took place in the early to mid-1940s.

Even more strategic for the Roosevelt Administration was its implementation of the so-called Good Neighbor Policy, or, as it was known in Brazil, A Política de Boa Vizinhança. This policy, administered by the Office of Inter-American Affairs and placed in the willing hands of a young magnate named Nelson Rockefeller, was established as a means of bringing Latin countries closer to the American fold — and away from Nazi and/or Fascist influence.

Brazil, a nation almost the size of the Continental U.S., and the largest one south of the border, represented a huge, untapped market and business challenge. Yet despite its growing coffee and steel mill production, the Great Depression, and now the war, continued to hamper Brazil’s efforts in other key areas — infrastructure and primary goods among them — to include her ability to address those lingering concerns.

Distraction from both the reality of rationing and the lack of basic services had become almost as viable an alternative for the locals as it had been for North Americans. While one of these diversions, i.e., the burgeoning movie industry in Brazil, was still in its infancy, many Brazilians had gotten hooked on film-watching (especially those from America) as far back as the silent era.

My father, as frequent and knowledgeable a moviegoer as they come, spent a good portion of his youth at the Saturday afternoon matinee. Similar to what transpired up north, the matinee ritual would start (in wartime) with civil defense announcements, followed by a newsreel or two, some Movietone shorts, and the inevitable cartoons — all of this coming before the main attractions, typically defined by the letters “A” and “B” (as in the “A” and “B” features). 

As an unique form of recreation, cartoons began to reach their peak in the U.S. both during and after the 1930s. However, not every bold endeavor was rewarded with commercial lucre. In 1939 the Max and Dave Fleischer studios, which had earlier profited from the iconic Koko the Clown and Betty Boop series, alongside their well-received Popeye output, decided to move the animation unit from their cramped New York headquarters to sprawling Miami, Florida. Cheaper labor, better working conditions, avoidance of growing union unrest, and a fresher outlook overall were what the Fleischer brothers had in mind.

The Fleischer Animation Studio in Miami, Florida ca. 1940s

Unfortunately, the dearth of available talent, and the brothers’ inability to compete with Disney and his innovative team of artisans, remained a hindrance to the Fleischers’ success. With the failure of their full-length features Gulliver’s Travels (1939) and Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), the studios’ distributor, Paramount Pictures, decided to cut their losses and pull up stakes. Paramount also severed ties to the Fleischers themselves, who lost control of their workshop after a two-decade run.

Under the re-branded Famous Studios moniker (a reference to its forbearer Famous Players) , Paramount brought the animation business back to the Big Apple. Whatever staff members were left standing (or sitting, as the case may be) and willing to take the relocation plunge to Midtown, would continue to plow their trade in an area relatively close to their original locale. Among the survivors were Sam Buchwald, the fellow in charge; lead animator Seymour Kneitel, who happened to be married to Max Fleischer’s daughter; and story man Isadore “Izzy” Sparber. Both Kneitel and Sparber alternately took over the reins of Popeye’s continuing adventures, in addition to those of that other Man of Steel, the mighty Superman.    

“Kickin’ the Conga Round” (1942)

A month and ten days after Pearl Harbor, the Fleischers’ most popular creation, Popeye, was summoned for active duty. Released on January 17, 1942 — and as one of the studio’s first Good Neighbor-themed shorts — the lively Kickin’ the Conga Round (in inky black-and-white) has our mumbling, squinty-eyed seaman (Jack Mercer) accompany that rotund heavy, Bluto (Dave Barry), to an unidentified Caribbean port. It seems the boys took the “have fun with the locals” advice to heart.

(Note: Due to the origin and nature of the conga, however, this Caribbean port and the idyllic story-setting could only have been situated in Cuba. Also, with the studios’ relocation to the Sunshine State, the subsequent close proximity to and growing influence of the Latino community could not have been overlooked).

Popeye is pining away at a reflection of his chest tattoo: It’s a portrait of a dark-skinned beauty, La Señorita “Olivia Oyla” (voiced by Margie Hines, in her best ZaSu Pitts impression, with an ersatz Spanish accent). But his best bud Bluto beats him to the punch with plans of his own: He steals the lovely lady’s phone number (CONGA 1-2-3) in order to book her for a date, but pronto. Armed with this tidbit, Bluto makes a beeline for the exit, forcing his pal to miss the boat for shore leave. Round one goes to Bluto.

Bluto (left) muscles in on Popeye’s action in “Kickin’ the Conga Round”

At an outdoor dining area, Bluto entertains Ms. Oyla with silly parlor tricks. Just then, Popeye shows up and gains the upper hand by outdoing Bluto with some tricks of his own. Popeye leaves his “buddy” with a huge head bump and dark shiner, thus winning the second round. Our hero is now free to escort his date to the Café La Conga.

At the club, Olivia insists he dance the conga with her, but Popeye balks at the request. Taking full advantage of his friend’s reluctance, Bluto reappears and politely invites Olivia to do the conga with him. In seconds, Olivia jumps into the waiting Bluto’s arms; they’re sweeping each other off their feet in a laughably-exaggerated dance display (more in the nature of a Parisian Apache Dance). Popeye can only sit and brood, his little pipe boiling over at the sight of his girl being tossed around like a rag doll.

In that moment, a waiter walks by with a fresh can of spinach for the sorry-eyed salt to sample. Popeye gulps the contents down in no time. With that, the re-energized sailor man turns into a conga-strutting dynamo. Shoving that show-off Bluto to the side, Popeye makes quite an impression on Ms. Oyla — to the point that as they whip up a storm on the dance floor, an enraged Bluto decides to cut in, only to be pummeled by Popeye.

A light-on-his-feet Popeye dances the conga with Olivia Olya

A veritable free-for-all ensues, as both sailors forget their manners and go at each other’s throats, shot for shot, punch for punch. Also forgotten in the melee is an irate Ms. Olivia Oyla, who runs off to seek assistance. While the rivals are knocking one another about, two shore patrol guards (or SP’s) arrive on the scene. They grab the two offenders (who they refer to as “Jeebs,” a period slang term) and march them off to the brig — each guard kicking the rear ends of their prisoners to the beat of the conga. The winner and still champion: the shore patrol. Certainly, the Café La Conga won’t have these two sailor boys to “kick around” anymore.      

Needless to say, friendly Inter-American relations took a few noticeable steps backward with this entry into the Good Neighbor sweepstakes. Still, there are some pleasant (if sometimes violent) moments to savor. Bluto is surprisingly light on his feet, with the flatfooted Popeye equally dexterous (allowing for the timely aid of his spinach, of course). In one sequence, the sailor physically up-ends himself — that is, his arms and hands replace his legs and feet, which continue the conga moves in tandem. The pacing throughout the feature is swift, the gags witty and light.

Musically, arranger Sammy Timberg has the session players strike the main conga motif in a repetitive TA-ta-ta-ta-ta-TUM, TA-ta-ta-ta-ta-TUM rhythm. There’s no real melody as such, only a rapidly-pulsed theme similar to the cha-cha (also of Cuban origin) but to a quicker conga step. Which is just as well, since the music fits the occasion and the cartoon’s purpose of furnishing an atmospheric backdrop.

Credits — Direction: Dave Fleischer, a common practice at the time, although there is no indication he actually directed the piece; animators: Thomas Johnson, George Germanetti, and Frank Endres; story: Bill Turner, Tedd Pierce (credited under Ted Pierce); music: Sammy Timberg.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part Three)

The studious Princess Irulan (Julie Cox) confers with Count Fenring (Miroslav Taborsky) in the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

Wonder Women

Powerful female figures are the themes of the day in the Dune stories. Indeed, the women are the grand plotters and instigators of the winding storyline. To his and the viewer’s good fortune, writer-director Harrison was especially blessed with having several fine actresses at his disposal for the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 presentation.

First among worthy participants is London-born artist Saskia Reeves, whose elegantly enacted Lady Jessica flawlessly captures all the nobility and astuteness of her key character, along with that slight but perceptible air of detachment even Shakespeare would not have hesitated to bestow upon his beloved heroines. (As we know, the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon was particularly fond of lacing his female protagonists with wit and wisdom.)

Reeves makes for a loving partner to the short-lived Duke Leto Atreides. Their scenes together turn out to be especially poignant the closer to impending disaster the winnowing plot starts to embroil them in. Later, she’s recruited to replace the elderly Fremen Reverend Mother. And later still, Jessica gives birth to her only daughter, Alia, who is Paul’s sister and addressed, by Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen (the admirably understated Zuzana Geislerová), as the Abomination. You’ll see what we mean when the time comes for the big reveal.

Lady Jessica (Saskia Reeves) studies the coat of arms that hangs in the Arraken Palace in the Sci-Fi Channel’s ‘Dune’

Speaking of which, Alia, played by Laura Burton, is quite the little mischief maker, isn’t she? If her vicious nature wasn’t the result of a liberal sprinkling of Naga Viper pepper inside Jessica’s womb, then I don’t know what is. Such a monstrous child would send shivers down anybody’s spine, were it not for the fact that Alia is a fierce defender of big brother Paul. That the infantile Ms. Burton steers the tiny tot in the proper direction (and succeeds in not making a meal out of her role) is a relief to all concerned.    

We’ve already discussed the charming Julie Cox as Princess Irulan, whose part is pleasantly expanded in Children of Dune. My, my, what a supremely gifted politician and strategist our little princess has turned out to be. And Ms. Cox is a constant joy to watch. She lights up the television display whenever she’s on screen — and in any number of fancy getups.

Another excellent cast member is Barbora Kodetová as fearless warrior Chani, the Fremen daughter of Imperial Planetologist Dr. Liet Kynes (a particularly inscrutable Karel Dobrý) and later Paul Muad’Dib’s official concubine. A native of Prague, Ms. Kodetová brought a naturalness to her assignment, along with a fierce determination and drive. The guiding force of her persona, and her steadfast belief in Paul as the savior of her people and planet, propel the story along through the twists and turns of the intertwining plot.

As a result, Chani remains credible throughout, her motherly instincts to protect her family uppermost in her thoughts and actions. In many ways, Chani is a rival to both Lady Jessica and the Princess Irulan (especially to mother-in-law Jessica), despite never directly competing with either of them. No, Chani’s more subtle than that. She doesn’t avoid conflict entirely, mind you, but manages to escape harsh criticism even when events turn against her.    

The Fremen warrior Chani (Barbora Kodetova), her eyes glowing blue, marvels at her consort, Paul Atreides, in ‘Dune’

Chani, too, is redeemed in the end, but we won’t find that out until the Children of Dune series kicks in.

Gloom, Then ‘Dune’

Nothing can redeem the unremitting ugliness and ultimately senseless spectacle of Lynch’s mid-1980’s adaptation of the saga. Who knows what evil lurked in the hearts of men, or possessed the artist-director’s waking thoughts in the midst of this unmitigated disaster. Many blamed executive producer, Dino De Laurentiis, and his producer daughter Raffaella for chopping the picture down to (ahem) “manageable” levels — movie-speak for making a quicker buck.

All the stories you’ve heard about this adaptation of Dune are (and aren’t) based on fact. At the time, this long-awaited 1984 release got a much-needed-yet-perplexing big-screen reworking from Lynch, who admitted later that he hadn’t really read the novel (how’d that work out for you?). Why, even fans of Herbert’s dense work were dismayed at the resultant mishmash of Middle Eastern philosophy, Zen Buddhism, corporate greed, political machinations, religious fanaticism, and seventies pro-ecological concerns — that is, if one could make out any of these themes in the gumbo soup mix.  

Regardless, the viewer is left wanting at every turn. The film’s basic problem, among a veritable multiplicity of inconsistencies, is the presence of too many parallel plots and too few explanations in a two-hour-and-seventeen-minute time slot. If anything, this Dune was doomed from the outset. In the first place, it has little narrative clarity with, as hitherto mentioned, much of the dialogue spoken in endless, tiresome voiceovers. We’re given scraps of information in the mouths of underdeveloped characters, many of whom either enter or exit at a frenetic pace, spouting gobs of pseudo-scientific gibberish in between dollops of unintelligible twaddle.         

Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) prepares to do battle in Lynch’s ‘Dune’ (1984)

So many wrong turns are taken, most noticeably in the makeup and design departments, that it boggles the mind as to how certain scenes managed to avoid winding up on the cutting-room floor. Is that really Kenneth McMillan as a warty, boil-covered, and spittle-spouting Baron Harkonnen? (By the way, the name is pronounced HAR-konnen, with stress on the first syllable.) He’s evil incarnate, all right, and he uses his voice in unexpectedly wicked ways. (How did he learn about the Weirding Way?) But don’t you think he’s a little TOO obvious to be truly effective as the villain? Who, in their right mind, would fall for such a venomous beast?

Oh, and what about rocker Sting as the Baron’s nefarious nephew Feyd Rautha, emerging nearly naked from his steam bath and wearing a metal jockstrap? How much did they have to pay him to do THAT? A six-hour photo session at the Cannes Film Festival would have sufficed and gotten more bang for the buck. In essence, Sting’s presence is strictly for show: It amounts to a virtual walk-on (screaming “I will kill him!” at the top of his lungs), yet he’s top-billed all the same, a clear case of caveat emptor. Worst of all, Sting substitutes smirking for acting — never a good choice in the best of times.

Feyd Rautha (the notorious Sting) in his silver-plated codpiece (!) by way of Lynch’s ‘Dune’

Not to be too critical about it, there are “some” redeeming features inherent in this mess. One of the best is the young Kyle MacLachlan in his screen debut as Paul. Kyle was 25 at the time of filming, even though the character, as Herbert conceived him, is supposed to be all of 15. Outside of that faux pas, Kyle convinced most skeptical critics and viewers that Paul was indeed a messianic figure-to-be. He radiates magnetism, which is essential if the character is to avoid pomposity.

In the FX department, those massive sandworms are indeed impressive, as is the score (composed and performed by the American band Toto), with the so-called “Prophecy Theme” credited to Brian Eno of ex-Roxy Music fame. Unfortunately, the music hardly ever varies, playing consistently in the background, droning on and sputtering about at assorted frequencies with little contrast or nuance. A non-stop tape loop would have been enough.

With McMillan’s disgusting portrayal of Baron Harkonnen (a fierce presence throughout and spot-on casting) and that of MacLachlan, the rest of the international cast, including an uncomfortable Jürgen Prochnow (Duke Leto Atreides), lovely Francesca Annis (Lady Jessica), bushy-browed Freddie Jones (Thufir Hawat), bald-pated Sian Phillips (the Reverend Mother), Richard Jordan (Duncan Idaho), and Max von Sydow (Liet Kynes), gets short shrift. They try mightily to overcome the pervasive dreariness of the surroundings, to little avail. In fact, Jordan’s Idaho, an important character, comes and goes with little afterthought.

Also left adrift in space are veterans José Ferrer (Emperor Shaddam IV) and Dean Stockwell (Dr. Yueh), newcomer Sean Young (Chani), nervous Brad Dourif (Pieter De Vries), tiny Linda Hunt (Shadout Mapes), a wasted Virginia Madsen (Princess Irulan), and a pre-Next Generation Patrick Stewart as weapons master Gurney Halleck.

The special effects are nothing to brag about, really, and surprisingly sub-standard (cheesy would be a better designation) considering the exorbitant funds that were supposedly expended. Indeed, the strangest effect of all comes from the peculiar apparition known as the Navigator, which resembles a free-floating talking epiglottis (I thought it looked more like a giant vagina, but that’s for my analyst to decide). Is that a New York City subway car it’s riding? For goodness sake, let’s have MORE of this kind of risible dreck, shall we?

Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer) meets with the Navigator: A one-way subway ride for both, in Lynch’s ‘Dune’

Lynch’s film does retain a certain cult following, if you can believe that. However, it’s hideous to look at, lugubrious in pacing, and fairly incomprehensible story-wise to all but those intimately familiar with the book. By the way, the film should have come with a warning label in that it took untold liberties with its source. The DVD/Blu-ray edition (the one in the metal box) includes an additional hour of footage used in the special TV-showing. It’s credited to the pseudonymous Allan Smithee. As for Lynch, he has disowned this version.

“The saga of Dune is far from over….”

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part Two)

An older but wiser Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) massaging his forehead in the 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

The Origin of Series

The premise for the science-fiction novel Dune revolves around the manufacture and exploitation of melange. A hallucinatory and highly addictive substance, the drug-like “spice” can only be found on the desert planet Arrakis (Iraq?). It is much coveted throughout the known universe for its miraculous “psychic” properties (i.e., mind expansion, healing, life extension, past and future visions, folding space, good vibes, what-have-you).

Spice is what makes the world of Dune go ‘round. It’s the most sought-after element of its kind. As the plot thickens and expands (proportionate to the Baron Harkonnen’s girth, one would think), we learn where the spice’s origins lie — in the belly of those gigantic beasts, the sandworms — and what other properties it holds for the user: some good, of course, but much that is bad (even deadly).   

Attack of the giant sandworm against an Ornithopter in the 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

Former journalist and author Frank Herbert’s novel and subsequent follow-up works delved deeper into this theme (that of drug dependence, for one) than was the norm. it would soon be a common thread throughout the 1970s and beyond. But his book also raised issues around the evolving 1960s environmental movement, as well as those relating to ecology, politics, philosophy, economics, militarism, religion, mysticism, and metaphysics.

Constructed primarily from various sources, including two earlier novellas, Dune World and The Prophet of Dune, that first appeared in Analog magazine between 1963 and 1965, and an unpublished article concerning sand dunes in Oregon State, Dune was the author’s second novel (after The Dragon in the Sea in 1955). Although the story itself takes place in a far distant future (the year 10,140 AG in the 23rd millennium), the main structure governing the ruling body known as the Landsraad (comprised of the Great Houses of Atreides, Harkonnen, Corrino, etc.) was that of medieval feudalism. Note the similarities to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, aka Game of Thrones.

Politics, religion, and monied corporate interests clash and intermingle to great effect, with the combined forces of the CHOAM Corporation and the Spacing Guild — its monopoly on space travel being of particular consequence and concern — in symbiotic opposition to the demands of the female dominated Bene Gesserit order, which wields religious power and influence.    

For the Spacing Guild to profit from and succeed with their mining operation, swift and stable transportation has become essential. Thus the increased need for more spice, especially among the so-called Navigators, who were once very much human but have been transformed (through the ingestion  of spice) into prescient beings capable of interstellar travel. The Navigators’ ability to fold space has strengthened the Spacing Guild’s hold on both interplanetary excursions and commerce. These achievements have also consolidated the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV’s power base, which should make him a very happy man — shouldn’t they?

The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Giancarlo Giannini) in thoughtful contemplation in the 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

You would think these incredible strides would have also brought peace and tranquility to a warring universe. Not a chance. And no matter what advances have been made, human nature has not been transformed by them. Jealousy, distrust, and avarice continue to reign supreme, while achieving and maintaining power at all costs remains an all-consuming passion among the Great Houses.

The Emperor, in particular, is envious of Duke Leto Atreides’ growing popularity. The Baron Harkonnen hates House Atreides for their past slights. And the Bene Gesserit sisterhood is wary of the Emperor’s motives, as are the Spacing Guild and their kind. To put it bluntly, trust is at an all-time low.

By contrast, there’s the Fremen. A desert people of human origin, the Fremen are fierce fighters, independent thinkers, and religious zealots of a nonconformist kind. They operate on their own time and turf, that of the blisteringly hot sand dunes of Arrakis, and under their own rules. For them, pride and fanaticism are a way of life — and of death. Compare their nature to that of the warlike Klingons of the Star Trek universe. Herbert modeled the Fremen after the Bedouin tribespeople of North Africa. Surely, the influence of Lawrence of Arabia (both the historical figure and the 1962 epic) are worth noting.

The Fremen chieftain Stilgar (German actor Uwe Ochsenknecht) in the 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

Mighty warriors, proud and defiant, and loyal to their leader and to one another (to a point) — these are the fearless Fremen. In the novel, one sietch (or cave dwelling) of Fremen is led by their chieftain, the naib (or “sovereign ruler”) Stilgar (German actor Uwe Ochsenknecht), a major ally in the fight against tyranny. Whoever can harness the Fremen and their untested “desert power” will lord it over everyone else.

Among these seemingly simple people there exists a myth, a legend of sorts boasting of an invincible warrior, an off-worlder of all things, who could unite the disparate forces into a cohesive whole. Does this legend have a name? Could it be the Kwisatz Haderach, or “the one who can be in many places at once?” And could Paul be that person? What of the Mahdi, the “Rightly Guided One,” whose return has been prophesied for eons?

Part of the fascination readers and fans continue to have with Herbert’s coming-of-age story is learning how, when and why the young and impressionable Paul is able to overcome the adversity that surrounds him; to rise above the terrible din and take his rightful place as the sought-after liberator.   

‘Dune,’ and Doom

The wait us fans have had to endure for the definitive screen adaptation of the saga has indeed been a long and tedious one. Still, the Sci-Fi (aka Syfy) Channel’s 2000 miniseries Dune and its sequel, Children of Dune, are, in our humble opinion, the closest thing so far to Herbert’s singular vision — and galaxies ahead of anything that has come before.

Though shot in a studio, with a predominantly Czech Republic film crew and supporting cast, this version is clearly the best of the lot — so far as what’s currently available. The next question to be put to readers, then, is this: Will Warner Brothers’ highly touted big-screen rendition, slated for October 1, 2021 live-streaming via HBO Max and a later theatrical release, be the Kwisatz Haderach of cinematic treatments? Or will it die an ignominious little death?

That remains to be seen (literally).

An impressive cast would lend credence to any Dune project, even one by by the established Warner Brothers studio. While there are few truly “name” performers in the Sci-Fi Channel’s year 2000 ensemble, the hulking presence of lead actor William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides and Italian film veteran Giancarlo Giannini as Emperor Shaddam IV are a start.

Duke Leto Atreides (William Hurt) in the Arrakeen palace

Hurt is low-key, as was his wont, in the role of Duke Leto, his speech measured (some might say “mannered”) and reserved, at times to the point of stiffness. Hurt embodies the thinking man’s hero, a pensive soul of “noble” character and birth, and the upholder of all that’s right with the world. Likewise, Leto is righteous and right-minded, and that’s a good thing.

One of my favorite Hurt performances is his smash screen debut as Edward Jessup, the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde pathologist in British director Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980). Hurt played a research scientist who experiments with mind-altering drugs (no, not the spice) and isolation tanks, which transform him into a primal man-ape — sort of the evolutionary process in reverse. He brings the same kind of internalized intensity to Leto as he did with Jessup. Too, his American accent underlines the class differences between him and his subjects.

Giannini’s fiery temperament and established screen presence also give a needed lift to the scheming Emperor Shaddam IV. That Mediterranean tendency of his to overreact to every situation, exploited by Italian director Lina Wertmueller in such classics as Love and Anarchy, Swept Away and Seven Beauties, is toned down somewhat. Nevertheless, Giannini is the genuine article and a first-class acquisition, one that added stature and legitimacy to director Harrison’s concept.     

Scottish-born actor Alec Newman (a Glasgow native) is a believable Paul Atreides. Only 26 at the time, Newman convinced viewers of his ability to metamorphize into young Paul’s persona: from that of a petulant teenager to a serious-minded freedom fighter. Note how the makeup, lighting and hair design change Newman’s appearance in order to give the impression of early youth. Later, Paul, now a mature adult, has his hair brushed back. You can see his spine stiffening as he assumes his proper place in the pecking order. Newman also employed a most convincing American accent. Once this hurdle was overcome, the rest of the cast fell into place (more on that later).

The petulant Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) at a conference on Arrakeen

As writer/director Harrison envisioned, the overall methodology for the Dune miniseries was simple: it was to be played more like a repertory piece, a daring television experiment that, after multiple viewings, I still find endlessly fascinating and unique; a workable and less expensive solution that gave the story dramatic heft and a flavor all its own. One can easily apply the hackneyed term “theatrical” in describing the look and feel of the piece, but that’s too pat an answer.

To what do we attribute this starkly innovative approach? I like to think that the propitious hiring of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a certifiable genius, made all the difference and was the determining factor in giving Dune the shape of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Stratford-Upon-Avon. Storaro’s basic color scheme — sand and earth tones for Arrakis (the desert planet Dune), harsh reds and inky blacks for Giedi Prime (the Harkonnen home world), and a cool blue-white palette for Kaitan (the Emperor’s realm) — serve the purpose of associating the principal players with their immediate surroundings. In some cases, their very personalities are hinted at, with occasional scenic and lighting modifications such as you would find in live theater.

This “theatrical aesthetic” is present throughout Harrison’s version, with particular emphasis on the writing. We all worship and laud those wonderful Shakespearean soliloquys: for instance, “To be or not to be” and “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” from Hamlet’s lips to the audience’s ears. These are only two of the more familiar examples. There’s also Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” And how about, “Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears!” from Julius Caesar?

Harrison, surprisingly and to his credit, does away with soliloquys altogether. Instead, we’re given the gist and bare essence of Paul’s “I must not fear” speech. But the rest are only hinted at or expressed in strictly visual terms, or through the mouths and eyes of other actors.   

Compare this technique with the endless, internal monologues demanded by producers Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis for David Lynch’s version, most of which are spoken in half-tones and whispered voiceovers. Without the benefit of closed captioning, however, these mini-speeches would be unintelligible to human ears (I know, I’ve tried listening to them without the subtitles). The unremitting torpor and tediousness of this practice takes Lynch’s interpretation out of the running.

That same theatrical sensibility holds true for the elaborate costume designs, courtesy of Prague native Theodor Pistek (Amadeus, Valmont), right down to the differing military uniforms for Leto’s forces, the flowing Middle Eastern robes for the desert people (the Fremen), and the strictly utilitarian wardrobe for the Emperor’s Sardaukar terror guards, not to mention the Emperor’s blue-tinged robes.

The women are spectacularly garbed as well. For instance, some of the haughty Princess Irulan’s flowing gowns (e.g., that lovely butterfly-winged party dress at the Emperor’s banquet where she first meets Paul) are especially flattering. This character, who was used primarily as window dressing in the original novel and as the brainy chronicler of historical events (less a participant and more of an observer), has been thoroughly fleshed out here. In the capable hands of English actress Julie Cox (raised in Scotland and Indonesia), the princess’ intelligence and rapier wit are established from the get-go.      

Princess Irulan (Julie Cox) in her fabulous butterfly-wing gown in Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 ‘Dune’

The entire concept, then, has been executed with foresight and consistency. This is also reflected in the superb lighting design (as previously indicated), which follows Storaro’s color patterns most advantageously. There are dramatic shifts in tone and mood, as there would be if this were a straight play. It’s all part of Harrison’s novel interpretation of science fiction as epic theater, one not limited by the proscenium but rather extending outward-and-beyond the focal point of what lies ahead. Clearly, Harrison was aiming at his target audience’s imagination. And in that, he succeeded marvelously — if one is willing to give his concept a chance.    

Initially thought to be dull, bland and undernourished, nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the setup. Sometimes, the simplest of means can be the most effective in conveying character and plot. And there’s a heck of a lot of plot to distill. Yes, it’s set-bound, with enormous backdrops that “fill in” for actual location scenery — a workable solution when you’re on a super-tight budget (as this production most assuredly was). And, obviously, taking this cost-cutting measure to heart is what led to some staginess on the part of the performers.

In a few cases, the acting was rather broad, with some of it verging on the hammy. For me, though, the Shakespearean model worked best, as did the standard “space opera” approach. Or shall we say “Wagnerian” ethos, the sense that fate has an inevitable hand in all that the characters say and do. In sum, this is science-fiction grandiosity at its absolute finest. The violence is toned down proportionately, too, even by European standards. In the extended version, there are brief nude scenes and a few bloody passages, but nothing to raise eyebrows about. It’s all part of the show.

And, yes, even the music (subtle, mostly woodwind- and percussion-based), composed by New Zealand native Graeme Revell, lend a mystical Eastern-air that was reminiscent in spots of Siegfried’s Forest Murmurs. Indeed, much of Revell’s score is mixed at lower levels than is the norm and frequently heard in the background, a “third major character” that comments on the action or gives hints of trouble to come.

Mostly, the subtle use of underscoring mirrors or tempers the (ahem) broadly enthusiastic acting — I’m thinking of portly Ian McNeice’s corpulent Baron Harkonnen (marvelously unctuous yet cunningly subtle), or his easily combustible nephew Glossu Rabban (László I. Kish). Verily, I say onto thee, they doth protest too much.

My personal favorite is the way the slimy Baron ends each of his scenes with a rhyming couplet. His devious plotting of Leto’s demise, along with those of the Duke’s family and followers, is in fact quite ingenious. For starters, the Baron’s turning of the trusted Atreides’ Suk physician, Dr. Wellington Yueh (Robert Russell) into a traitorous turncoat — despite the mark on his forehead, indicative of a loyal family retainer — is remarkable for its duplicity and stealth.

Unfortunately, as with most traitors, Dr. Yueh’s reward is a bitter taste of his own medicine. In death, the poisoned gas the good doctor has “procured” (via a false tooth inserted into Leto’s upper mandible) brings a swift end to several of the nefarious plotters, the evil Baron H. the sole exception (curses, foiled again!). Yueh is, in a way, redeemed by his actions.

“The saga of Dune is far from over….”     

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part One)

‘Dune’ – Fan Art by Toadz (Lawrence Rhodes) (Photo: Deviant Art)

A Test of Survival

There are many kinds of fear in this world. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of dying, fear of living, fear of making a fool of oneself. Fear of making the wrong decision. Fear of the other and of those who are different. An overwhelming, all-enveloping state of being that thwarts one’s best laid plans.

How does one overcome such fears?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt railed against fear. At his first inaugural address, the new president charged his fellow Americans with a task: to conquer their fear. What was he referring to? To the mindless, unpredictable illusion of fear and what it can do to those who give in to it; of inaction in the face of dread, the kind that prevents real action from taking place.

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR at his First Inauguration, March 4, 1933, in Washington, D.C.

After three years of an ever-deepening and ultimately stupefying depression, President Roosevelt knew that by convincing Americans of the need for firm decisions and an immediate plan of action, he could rally the nation’s forces to surmount their fear. But by what means could he do this? By being honest with them.

“In every dark hour of our national life,” he went on, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

The president’s mantra suggested that the way forward was to confront one’s fear. In this way, the immense problems the country and its people had been facing could be turned around. He did this by challenging them, and by giving them a choice: either to take that fear and work their way out of their troubles, or give in to despair.

Paul Atreides, all of fifteen years of age, had a lot to fear. His father, Duke Leto of House Atreides, had been assassinated by his adversaries — indeed, by the very spies the detested Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, his family’s sworn enemy, had planted within the palace at Arrakeen.

Alone, except for his surviving mother, the widowed Lady Jessica, young Paul grew out of his fear to become that indomitable force of nature that would unite the desert tribespeople known as the Fremen — that is, the “free men” of Arrakis.

Arrakis, the “Dune” planet, where giant sandworms roamed the arid, windswept vistas. Where water, the very symbol of life itself, was scarce. Where spice, an even more precious commodity, could be harvested and utilized. But for what purpose?

Paul Atreides would inspire all people of faith and those who longed for freedom from tyranny to prevail over their fears, to face down their foes, numerous as they were, and to succeed in spite of the insurmountable odds against them.

Early on in the story, the novice Paul, uncertain and unsure, is tested by the Bene Gesserit witch, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. He’s told to place his hand inside a small box. As he does so, the Reverend Mother swiftly raises her arm to his neck, pointing a thimble with a deadly dart at his artery. This is the Gom Jabbar, the crucial test of pain.

Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) places his hand in the Pain Box, as Reverend Mother (Sian Phillips) holds the Gom Jabbar to his neck

Paul must resist the pain at all costs. If he removes his hand prematurely from the box, the Gom Jabbar will pierce his neck, resulting in immediate death.

Can he survive the test?

While his hand is in the Pain Box, Paul experiences a torture of the mind. He has horrible visions of his limb burning and melting, the flesh and bone ripped from his person; the excruciating pain of his hand and wrist being torn apart before his eyes.

If Paul pulls his hand out, he recalls to mind, the Reverend Mother will kill him — instantly and with no regret. Instead, Paul wills himself to conquer his anxieties and confront the trial head on. Having been taught the litany against fear by Lady Jessica, Paul recites its precepts silently to himself: 

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”  

This scene, as brief as it is, remains crucial to the Dune ethos. It is the declaration of Paul’s independence, his unshackling, as it were, a liberation from the stifling coils of the Bene Gesserit order. His triumph begins an affirmation of a new way of life, that of choice: either to live his life in fear, or live to survive; either to take up the challenge, or allow himself to wallow in self-pity. From self-pity comes destruction of the self and that of an entire race. Which is it?

Paul chooses wisely. He does not give in to fear, but allows it to pass over and through him. He would see his fear evaporate before his mind’s eye. And when it has gone past and through him, there will be nothing. Only he, Paul Atreides, the future Muad’Dib, will remain — until the end.

A Classic Revisited

Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune is a long, drawn out Greek tragedy of quasi-Shakespearean protagonists and complications. Barring further unforeseen developments (the coronavirus pandemic, for one), this long-admired magnum opus, a seminal work in its day — and for all time — is scheduled for re-emergence in the Fall of 2021. You can sense the excitement brewing.

Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) in the Arrakeen desert — Scene from the 2000 miniseries (Photo: Sci Fi Channel)

Surely, French-Canadian film director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), the cinematic visionary who deigned to lay hands on Herbert’s 1965 epic novel, will kindle fond (and not-so-fond) memories of previous traversals so that the spaces of one’s mind can be folded.

The hope is that this newest iteration of the tale, a timely science-fiction “space opera” worthy of the collective wisdom of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and other farsighted auteurs, will snatch Herbert’s victory from defeat through the gaping jaws of Arrakis’ monstrous sandworms.

At least, that  is the expectation. Will this be a case of “third time’s the charm”? Or will it grind this hoary old fable down into the dust from which it came; one more failed attempt at maintaining the status quota — the oft-repeated catchphrase, “the spice must flow” — by becoming just another “doomed Dune”?

To address these concerns, we’ll take a time-traveling peak into prior motion-picture efforts at resurrecting this enduringly popular fable.

Although we will eventually explore it, the less said at this point about Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted mid-seventies sojourn, the better for all concerned. While exceedingly ambitious and exorbitantly over-priced at the time, Jodorowsky’s wildly imaginative concept, to feature such erratic casting choices as Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, never reached fruition. A shame, really, but over-ambition killed this cat before it left the shop.

For an in-depth glimpse into that abandoned project (and for pure entertainment value), I strongly recommend watching the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’sDune’. It’s guaranteed to activate those science-fiction salivary glands. However, prepare yourself for a letdown.  

Art work from the 2013 documentary of ‘Jodorowsky’s ‘DUNE”

What remains is not exactly what we would call “choice.” Instead, the surviving examples of Dune pictures are more in the way of “acceptable” fare or, at the very least, worth a “once-over.” As a matter of choice, one of them, issued by Artisan and available (if you’re fortunate enough to acquire it) in a three-disc extended edition with tons of supplemental extras, merits repeat viewings. Mainly, its value is in satisfying one’s curiosity regarding creative mind-sets, what those hearty individuals who participated in the project felt about Herbert’s writings; and how the problems they faced were addressed within the limited means given to them.

We will be discussing the superior 2000 version, which debuted as a miniseries that stretched over three nights in that year (from December 3 to 5) on the Sci-Fi Channel. Written and directed by John Harrison, this Dune will be measured alongside that of esoteric filmmaker David Lynch’s idiosyncratic 1984 Reader’s Digest edition, or, as I like to describe it, a messy “baroque meets punk” eyesore.

For curiosity seekers, there’s also Sci-Fi Channel’s 2003 Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, an inferior sequel (also written but not helmed by Harrison) based on the original author’s Dune Messiah (1969) and Children of Dune (1976). The casting of young James McAvoy as Leto II and veteran actress Susan Sarandon as the wily Princess Wensicia are the main attractions.

With many of the same performers taking on different roles, this rather tame effort to keep the narrative alive (and the spice flowing) only brought painful reminders of how much better the year 2000 production was by comparison. Unless you’re an absolute completist, I’d give this one an especially wide berth.   

“The saga of Dune is far from over….”

(To be continued).

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes