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 celluloid pals? For all intents and purposes, W’ere on Our Way to Rio can be 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 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 outcome 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 in W’ere on Our Way to Rio, 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 rectified. 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 structures — 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 (2X’s)

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 salts 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’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 be 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 viewing audience (which must have gotten a big guffaw in the theater). Huge palm fronds and vegetation are seen 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 one might imagine. 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 symbolism.

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 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.

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. And 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 sailing lads, Popeye and the boorish Bluto, along with other characters, were recruited by the major studios to star in period-flavored cartoon 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 created 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., Brazil’s burgeoning movie industry, was still in its infancy, many Brazilians had gotten hooked on film-watching 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” feature). 

As an unique form of recreation, cartoons began to reach their peak in the U.S. 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 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, 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 location. 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 (voiced by Jack Mercer) accompany that rotund heavy, Bluto (Dave Barry), to an unidentified Caribbean port. It seems the boys were taking 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” (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 quick 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 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. 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. And 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 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. 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

Mussorgsky in the Raw: The Met’s ‘Boris Godunov’ — An Opera for Our Time

A scene from Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ with Rene Pape as the title role (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

A Matter of Authenticity

Watching the online streaming of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (given at the Metropolitan Opera on October 23, 2010), I was bombarded with thoughts of this country’s current struggles: an out-of-control pandemic, political conflict and upheaval, governance at a standstill, a suffering populace, and a divided nation facing mounting pressures from within and without. How much of a comparison, really, can one draw from a mid-19th century operatic work written by a minor government functionary and confirmed alcoholic? To be honest, quite a few.  

Mussorgsky, the “minor functionary” and alcoholic in question, took as his source a play by famed poet Alexander Pushkin. Setting his opera to the unwieldy spoken drama of Pushkin’s text, Mussorgsky revolutionized Russian opera by implementing his own ideas about how to replicate natural speech in song. While there’s a kernel of truth to the notion that he adapted existing folk material for some of the numbers (the most obvious being the Prelude and the Innkeeper’s little ditty in Act II), Mussorgsky went on to employ a technique whereby he was able to convey his characters’ thoughts and moods through shifting rhythms and bold harmonics.

If, in 1870, the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg had rejected Boris Godunov for its lack of a female lead and, to put it bluntly, its bold unconventionality, the composer’s 1872 revision (which the Met brought to the fore back in 1974) settled the matter once and for all where the original was concerned.              

Most people (yours truly included) have been seduced by the luxuriousness of the version set by Mussorgsky’s younger colleague, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who completely recomposed and re-orchestrated the work. Granted, the result was exotic, lush and pleasing to the ear, brilliantly sonorous, and regrettably termed “correct.” A teacher of composition and a strict academician down to his toes, Rimsky lamented his friend’s “obstinate, bumptious amateurishness.”

The Holy Fool (Andrey Popov) refuses to pray for Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) (Photo: Met Opera)

Years after Mussorgsky’s 1881 passing, Rimsky the perfectionist went about readjusting the score to his particular musical style, basically eliminating what he deemed were “impractical difficulties, fragmentary musical phrases, clumsy vocal writing, harsh harmonies and modulations, faulty counterpoint, poverty of instrumentation, and general weakness from a technical point of view.”        

For years, this drastically altered edition toured the world’s theaters, which, if truth be told, certainly contributed to its acceptance as a major addition to the standard repertoire. Such artists as the great Fyodor Chaliapin, Adamo Didur, Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela made a specialty out of the title role. After the rediscovery of Mussorgsky’s original manuscript (occurring sometime in the mid-1960s), a slow and steady encroachment took hold in that what had been deemed as amateurish and unperformable was now looked upon as worthwhile.

In our opinion, the only authentic version, then, is that of Mussorgsky, sans the optional Polish scenes. Its stark, angular, primal, and primarily string- and woodwind-based instrumentation, with lower vocal lines for Boris and a spare orchestral palette overall are emblematic both of Russian nationalism intermingled with emerging modernist tendencies.

In contrast, Rimsky’s romanticized rewriting was the result of a conventionally-minded pedant obsessed with rectifying (or “improving,” if you will) his contemporary’s vision, as sincere and ultimately wrongheaded as his motives may have been. History, as relentless a force as this opera has shown it to be, has vindicated the original’s standing as a unique and ultimately revolutionary masterwork.

The ‘Time of Troubles’

Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) contemplates his fate in a scene from ‘Boris Godunov’ (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan’s 2010 production had been plagued with its own troubles from the start. The original director, the feisty 72-year-old German theater titan Peter Stein, came up with a viable adaptation that incorporated Mussorgsky’s 1872 revision, along with the St. Basil scene from the 1869 original. Contributing to his vision were set designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel.

About mid-July of that year, Stein groused to Met Opera officials about the stodginess of the proceedings, how he regarded the company as a “factory,” amid myriad problems with the U.S. Sate Department in obtaining a proper work visa. One thing led to another, until Stein abruptly quit the production. In response, the Met’s management summoned director Stephen Wadsworth, whose previous efforts at the company included Handel’s Rodelinda and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, to pick up where Stein had left off. 

This resulted in a hodgepodge of stylistic components, some of which melded seamlessly into the framework, while others stuck out or stretched authenticity to a noticeable degree. In sum, though, this newest Boris can be considered a triumph, due principally to several factors: one, to the magnificence of the Met Opera’s Chorus (kudos, as always, to chorus master Donald Palumbo); two, to Wadsworth’s last-minute salvage job; three, to the suppleness of the Met Opera Orchestra, under Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s leadership; and last, but not least, to the magnificence of German basso René Pape as Boris.

Lasting nearly five hours in performance (with two intermissions), this latest excursion down the treacherous path of Russian history (Mussorgsky’s other historical epic, the never-completed Khovanshchina, was last given at the Met in 2012 in the Shostakovich edition, with the final scene orchestrated by Stravinsky) featured a large and varied cast of singing actors.

The Holy Fool (Popov) prays for Mother Russia (Photo: Met Opera)

The time is the mid-17th century. The oppressive police state, manned by soldiers, boyars (rich landowners), guards and other malcontents, is omnipresent. The system of serfdom had also recently been implemented. Repression and beatings were commonplace. The Holy Fool (tenor Andrey Popov), sometimes called the Idiot or the Simpleton, is the first character we see. He is an outcast, a constant symbol albeit of a lowly person of little distinction, yet filled with a higher wisdom and insight into Mother Russia’s fate. He’s a prophet in disguise, and, much like John the Baptist, unheralded in his own land.

The opera begins and ends with the Holy Fool. The uncrowned Boris (the aforementioned Pape) rushes forth from his palace to confront this disheveled soul. The Fool presents him with a stone. Boris looks at the object, a token of the simple life, of home and hearth, and of a country in peril. The mood changes with the entrance of the populace. Whips are cracked (as well as heads). Violence, as stated, is the predominant way of life. The people cross themselves repeatedly (in the Eastern Orthodox manner from right to left), praying for deliverance from evil, from pain and suffering, and from the guards’ brutality.

Responding to the crowd’s pleas for aid, the Secretary of the Duma (the Russian ruling body), the noble Shchelkalov (baritone Alexey Markov), informs the peasants that the regent Boris Godunov has again refused take up the title of Tsar. (Note: See Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the titular “noblest Roman of them all” thrice refused the laurels). He asks for prayers to the Almighty so that Boris will relent.

Secretary of the Duma, Shchelkalov (Alexey Markov) asks the crowd’s prayers for Boris (Photo: Met Opera)

The scene changes to Boris’ coronation before the Kremlin in Moscow. In the original Mussorgsky arrangement, the orchestral sound is thinner and leaner, the harmony skewed, rising and falling steeply, while searching for tonal consistency. A factor of Russian music is the repeated ostinato marking, a stubbornly insistent phrase so characteristic of this work in general and Mussorgsky specifically. Bells and trumpets herald the pronouncement by the duplicitous Prince Shuisky (tenor Oleg Balashov) that “Boris Feodorovich is to be hailed as Tsar” of all the Russias.    

Concentrating the drama on characterizations (as the composer preferred), René Pape’s towering portrayal of Boris, a flawed leader brought low by past atrocities, dominates his various scenes. Already, we sense his unwillingness to rule. He’s accompanied by his daughter Xenia and his young son Fyodor. Boris’ soul is grieving, his heart heavy with remorse and responsibility. Still, onward he trudges. The crowd hails his decision to accept the crown: “Slava! Slava!” they shout in glee. “Glory! Glory!” 

The Russian people maintain their presence throughout, either out front or in the background; on the sidelines of history or as vital participants. They are the true protagonists of the drama. The Pretender Dimitri (the novice monk Grigory in disguise) is the second most prominent character, with Boris, the newly crowned Tsar, the third in line. And why is that? In Mussorgsky’s vision, Boris is the symbol of flawed authority, a reluctant ruler burdened by the duties of his office (Tsar Nicholas II would be his closest historical counterpart, although Nicholas was but six years old at the time the opera premiered in 1874).

The tremendous guilt that Boris feels involved the crime of butchering the young heir Dimitri, son of his father-in-law, the late Tsar Ivan IV, dubbed “the Terrible” (in Russian, Ivan Grozny) — often mentioned but never seen. Historians and revisionist scholars have absolved the real Boris of his crimes. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky preserved the play’s conclusion that Boris was indeed to blame for the heir’s death.

The scene shifts to the Chudov Monastery in Moscow, where the aged monk Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) serves as the chronicler of Russia’s turbulent past. Tellingly, Boris looms in the background, sitting on his throne and lifting his scepter in the air. Pimen is also filled with sorrow, his eyes show dark lines beneath them. Yet, he is sleepless and ever-mindful of the heavy task before him. “Still one more story to tell,” the monk muses. His languorous theme underscores the endless notations. Pimen sits atop an enormous volume of Russia’s history, the “great book,” as we like to call it. He labors over this ever-present image that occupies practically every scene — a reminder of past misdeeds and the as-yet-to-be-written tale.

The old monk Pimen (Mikhail Petrenko) contemplates his next entry into the great book of Russia’s history (Photo: Met Opera)

There are many individual vignettes throughout this work. Mussorgsky was astute enough to capture this and other moments in short, descriptive passages: the greediness of the Innkeeper, the raunchiness of the rogue friars Varlaam and Missail, the traitorous aspects of Prince Shuisky, the idealism of the politician Shchelkalov. They push the dramatic arc along its solemn course: from top to bottom, a parable of political and moral failings.  

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory/Dimitri is a revelation, an authentic Slavic voice in the grand Russian manner. Although he’s a native of Latvia, “Sasha” Antonenko made his mark at the Met as the Prince in the 2009 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Sturdy of tone and of timbre, the novice Grigory fantasizes about a life outside the monastery. Pimen instructs him on the brutal record of Ivan the Terrible’s reign (whom he praises to the rafters), contrasted with that of Boris’ murderous rise.

When he learns from Pimen that the murdered heir to the throne, the infant Prince Dimitri, would be about the same age as himself (had he lived, of course), Grigory hits upon a scheme of impersonating the deceased heir as the Pretender. Inspired by his dream, Grigory leaves the monastery in disguise.

Immediately, we are taken to the frontier border between Russia and Lithuania. The lusty Innkeeper (mezzo Olga Savova) warbles a sprightly theme to herself. She is interrupted by the arrival of two boisterous friars, Varlaam (bass Vladimir Ognovenko) and Missail (tenor Nikolai Gassiev), who force themselves on their hostess. All they ask is for good wine and a good night’s rest. The friars spot the fugitive Grigory in disguise. They ponder his moody aspect and the fact that he’s sullen and withdrawn. Varlaam goes into a rowdy screed about Ivan the Terrible’s bloody siege of Kazan. After a few more cups of wine, the friar is sufficiently calmed. He places his head on the Innkeeper’s lap while singing himself to sleep.

Taking advantage of the lull, Grigory inquires about the safest route out of Russia, but the Innkeeper warns him of guards at every check point. Paying for her advice, Grigory learns of an alternate route, which interests him. Everyone is awakened by soldiers hot on the trail of an escaped fugitive named Grishka (a nickname for Grigory). But the Police Officer (Gennady Bezzubenkov) is illiterate and cannot read the warrant for Grishka’s arrest. In fact, he suspects that Varlaam is the man he seeks — especially after Grigory changes the fugitive’s description to match that of the drunken friar. Incensed, Varlaam barely manages to make out the correct description: It’s Grigory, the very person he is staring at! The novice then makes a run for it, with the soldiers and Police Officer in pursuit.        

The drunken Varlaam (Vladimir Ognovenko) reads the description of the fugitive “Grishka,” aka the escaped novice Grigory (Aleksandrs Antonenko)

The next scene takes place in the throne room. We are in the presence of Boris’ family members: his son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) and daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) whose betrothed has recently died. The Nurse (Larissa Shevchenko) entertains the youths with a literal song and dance. These poignant sideshows are designed to temporarily distract (and provide relief) from the larger context of the country’s unresolved ills, which lead to a scene in the Duma. The Tsar’s own love for his children and his tenderness towards them betrays his inner torment where worldly affairs invade his private thoughts (surely inspired, one would think, by Verdi’s Philip II in Don Carlos — had Mussorgsky been aware of it).

Wracked with remorse and overwhelmed by his duties, Boris is faced with confronting Russia’s dark past, a constant reminder of which is embodied in the immense history volume that dominates this scene. In the monologue, “I have attained the highest power,” Boris bemoans the fact that he is blamed for every conceivable ill, no matter what good he has attempted to bring. Plots are everywhere, and Shuisky’s sly machinations are always afoot. The boyars, who control the workings of the state, lament Shuisky’s absence from their meetings. “He’s a schemer and not to be trusted,” they complain, “but we need his advice.” Small comfort, indeed! He’s not the only one: the populace itself is wary and fickle, and easily swayed by rumors of a Pretender, the allegedly resurrected Dimitri, in league with the Poles and ruled by the ambitious Princess Marina Mnishek (mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk).

Both Shuisky and Boris stand, at one point, on opposite ends of the great book. Who will write the next horrific chapter, as Pimen had earlier prophesied? Tormented by a conscience that won’t quit, Boris begins to experience hallucinations of the dead and bloodied Dimitri, rising up ominously to confront him. Boris breaks down under constant psychological torment (the male version of a “Mad Scene”), falling to the ground in a delirium in the famous “Clock Scene,” the music of which depicts the monotonous ticking of a clock. “Get away! Get away from me!” Boris shouts to the monstrous vision. The act ends with his begging for God’s forgiveness.

The Fate of Mother Russia

The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni (Evgeni Nikitin) plots with Princess Marina (Photo: Met opera)

Through-composed sequences and so-called “set pieces” have been integrated into the whole. Still, the added Polish scenes are the opera’s weakest section. After the original 1868 opus was turned down for performance in 1869, Mussorgsky crafted these additions to placate the “professors,” as well as provide audiences with a “love interest.” Critics at the time felt the opera needed a feminine presence, a sort of comfort filler to suit contemporary tastes. It was felt, too, that the opera concentrated too much attention on the Tsar’s foibles at court. Nothing is lost by the Polish scenes’ elimination, which can seem superfluous to the main plot. In compensation, there is much lovely music (the sprightly polonaise for one, reminiscent of Chopin’s A major Military Polonaise). Some marvelous tableaux are also present, as is a carpet version of the great book.

Speaking of the Polish scenes, a different type of politics emerges, centering on the radical Jesuit priest Rangoni, as unctuous and loathsome an individual as the two drunken friars. Impersonated by bass-baritone Evgeni Nikitin, the scheming Rangoni entices Marina to seduce the willing Pretender and, most ingeniously, to align himself with their cause and that of their people. “Surrender to the Church, surrender to me,” he charges her, a warning with more than a hint of personal gratification. This would fulfill their mission of delivering Russian Orthodoxy into the lap of the Holy See in Rome — i.e., the unification of the Eastern and Western Church, which has been an unfulfilled goal for a millennium.

For his part, Dimitri is only too eager to be part of their campaign. He falls easily in “love” with the Princess, but make no mistake: They are using each other to further their individual gains, each with his or her own agenda. Ambition rules both Marina and Dimitri’s motives, but “power,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” And so it is with these supposed lovebirds, each one testing the other with feigned expressions of ardor, their true intentions coded yet made overt. We can be secure in the knowledge they are both on the same wavelength; their goals are one and the same, despite the play on words. Equally matched and desirous of the other’s charms, they give in to their passion.

Dimitri now stands on the great book of history. He will write his own story, knowing full well what lies ahead. In turn, Marina takes up her position on the great book, indicating that regardless of their union, she has every intention of following her own path. (We make note that Boris and Dimitri never meet; Mussorgsky wisely kept them physically apart, but individually they cannot help to be mindful of one another.)

Princess Marina (Ekaterina Semenchuk) tries to entice the Pretender Dimitri (Aleksandrs Antonenko) to her cause (Photo: Met Opera)

The Holy Fool reappears before the Church of St. Basil, along with the starving crowd. He wears a tin pot on his head, pleading for the people to pray to God for deliverance. Suddenly, a kopeck he has found gets snatched from his hand by one of the street urchins. Boris strolls past with his family and retinue. He is drawn and muted, his hair a premature gray. He distributes bread to the famished bystanders, while the masses beg for mercy. “We are hungry. Give us bread, for God’s sake,” they plead. Famine has ravaged the once fertile land.

At that moment, the Tsar is attracted by the Holy Fool’s pitiless wails. “They have robbed me!” he cries. Both Boris and the Holy Fool find themselves on opposite ends of the great book. But the Holy Fool refuses to pray for Boris. “One can’t pray for a Tsar Herod,” he discloses, a reference to the biblical king who murdered the firstborn of Israel to prevent the Messiah from reaching manhood, as well as a direct indictment of Boris’ own crimes.

“Weep, weep, oh faithful soul. Sorrow, weep, oh starving people.” The Holy Fool finds rest atop the great book, using its mammoth pages as a makeshift bedcover. He seeks protection from the elements — and from the inevitable march of history.

Back at the throne room, the boyar Shchelkalov reads Boris’ proclamation, urging any and all Russians to crush the Pretender Dimitri. The ruling court passes a stern judgment on Dimitri and his followers, one they will come to regret. Prince Shuisky enters. Shrewd and manipulative, he plays both sides of the political aisle. Boris is in a pitiful state, he relates, and incapable of governing. At that, the Tsar enters, crying out for the “dead” Dimitri to leave his sight. Continuously wracked by guilt, Boris sits on his throne (which is turned round to face the audience). The presence of the old monk Pimen is announced, and he is ushered in. He has a story to tell about a vision of the coming Pretender, but Boris can hear no more. He goes into a death spiral, dismissing the boyars and summoning his remaining family members.

A tortured Boris (Pape) bids farewell to his daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) & son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) (Photo: Met Opera)

Left alone, Boris bids farewell to his son and daughter. In a final gesture, he appoints Fyodor as his successor. Near death, Boris pleads for God’s mercy. “Prostii menya, prostii. Bozhe, smert! Prostii…” His few, fleeting words reveal his humbled state of mind: “Forgive me, forgive. Lord, death! Forgive…” The stricken Tsar collapses to the ground, his two children left weeping at his side.

The scene changes swiftly to the Kromy Forest on the outskirts of Moscow. Peasants enter. Symbolically, they tear the great book apart. What will become of Mother Russia, now that the history of the realm is in tatters? The boyars are taken captive. Taunted and tortured by the crowd, one of them is executed outright, the populace taking out their mounting anger on their former oppressors; it’s clearly mob rule. The two drunken friars reemerge, as does the Holy Fool. The friars drag one of the guards with them, bloodied and bound. They squabble atop of what’s left of the great book. A near riot breaks out, but the bloodlust grinds to a halt when Dimitri leads Marina into view, riding a magnificent steed. The Polish banner precedes their triumphant entrance.

The rejoicing is interrupted by Jesuit priests, several of whom are hung on the spot. Dimitri spares the lives of two of the Jesuits. With that, the treacherous Shuisky comes forward, accompanied by Rangoni. The two conspirators are obviously pleased with the results, but they eye each other suspiciously. The crowd praises the new young Tsar as their deliverer. On the sidelines, the two friars marvel at Dimitri in recognition of this Pretender as the fugitive novice Grishka. Dimitri begs his followers to walk with him to glory. The two remaining Jesuits kneel in prayer for the dead.

But the Holy Fool — the Idiot, the “guileless” Simpleton — repeats his poignant plea for Russia to weep for her soul. With arms raised upward, he looks to heaven, the unmistakable image of Our Lord in supplication.

Darkness falls. 

The Holy Fool holds up the Byzantine Crucifix to Heaven (Photo: Met Opera)

And where is our “happy ending”? Nowhere in sight, I’m afraid. History tells us that once he was established in Moscow, the newly crowned Tsar Dimitri put Boris’ son Fyodor to death. Within a year of the Pretender’s triumphant entry, he too was murdered shortly after his marriage to Marina Mnishek. Upon Dimitri’s death, Prince Shuisky assumed the title of Tsar. And within a few years after that, Tsar Shuisky himself was captured by the Poles and later died in one of their prison camps. Turnabout is fair play!

Amazingly enough, two more false Dimitris emerged, each coming to an ignominious end. To borrow a phrase from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One, “It’s ‘tough’ to be the king.” 

It sure is! And it can even get you killed. 

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Two) — Roku You!

Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Continuing from where we previously left off, below are my opinions and views of various Metropolitan Opera productions over the years. All are available online via the Met Opera on Demand app, or in this case through the Roku streaming device (and others). 

Eugene Onegin (2013) –  Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the dreamy Tatiana is the big draw, in this new production designed by Deborah Warner. If you ask me, it’s more Ingmar Bergman than Tchaikovsky, with obvious inspiration drawn from the Swedish director’s Smiles of Summer Night (1955), as well as Sondheim’s musical comedy A Little Night Music.

The title character, Onegin, is portrayed by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, the romantic poet Lensky by Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova is Tatiana’s sister Olga, bass Stefan Kocán is the aging Prince Gremin, and conductor Robin Ticciati leads the Met Opera Orchestra.   

Caveat emptor: Suspension of disbelief is definitely called for. That a matronly prima donna of Netrebko’s caliber (she had put on considerable weight since giving birth) can convince audiences that she’s a lovesick teenager bursting at the seams is a major triumph in itself. We say it’s chutzpah, but call it what you want, Anna nailed the part! Her apple blossom cheeks, full-moon facial expressions, and (ahem) buxom form did not stand in the way of her portrayal of a girl in the passionate throes of unrequited first love. Her schoolgirl crush on the brooding older gentleman Onegin is the stuff of drawing room drama. Still, the excitement of discovery, the sleepless nights, the realization that this is the man of her dreams — all of these emotions are captured by the diva with total sincerity and honesty.

Before long, one is forced to believe that a major artist is standing at the pinnacle of her career. When Onegin confronts Tatiana with her letter, a tome in which she bares her soul (perhaps too hastily) to this undeserving soul, we feel her disappointment. For Onegin’s part, and to his credit, he does not take advantage of the situation, despite her innocence and vulnerability. A man in his position, and worldly experience, could easily have had his way with her — and with society’s consent, we’ll have you know (see Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the details). Instead, Onegin takes apart her arguments before her tearful eyes. The girl’s esteem and self-respect has been shattered for all time.

Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) has a heart-to-heart with Onegin (Peter Mattei) in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s interpretation works within the confines of the story. Periodically brushing away the tears and/or wiping her eyes, Tatiana weeps openly during Onegin’s passionless oratory and justification for not accepting her declaration of love. Shattered and hurt to the bone, Netrebko captures every facet of this book-loving youth. It was a masterful performance, her letter writing scene being the highpoint of the drama. When she finally collapses to the floor, the audience greets her with a massive roar of approval.

Mr. Mattei’s personification of Onegin — tall, distinguished and emotionally distant — was but a cipher in comparison. Plainly, it’s not his fault that despite being the titular protagonist, the composer made Tatiana and Onegin’s friend Lensky the recipients of extended scenes. The poet’s sprightly air to Olga in Act I and his dour soliloquy in Act II are a lyric tenor’s dream. Unfortunately, Onegin is denied any such display. His explanation to Tatiana is altogether brief and to the point, no more. He does have an Act III arioso, but it’s based on the same melody that Tatiana sang in her declaration at the start of the Letter Scene. And that’s about the extent of it.

That final demoralizing confrontation where the now-married Tatiana rejects Onegin’s hopeless affirmations of affection — one she seals with a prolonged kiss — represents the final thrust of the dagger to his heart. Contrast this with his earlier brotherly buss on her forehead and you will come to understand Tatiana’s motives for doing what she did, which is giving this selfish suitor the brushoff and a bitter taste of his own medicine.  

Tenor Dolgov (a marvelous singing actor) performs the part of the poet to perfection. There’s something to be said for native Russian artists in this and other key roles. They bring a sense of authenticity to everything they do. Dolgov’s smallish stature and lean physique contrasts markedly with that of the much taller Mattei, which added to the impression that these two friends were miles apart in their views. Their awkward handshake and embrace before the fatal duel (leading to Lensky’s demise) are evidence of the gap that existed between them: Onegin, willing at least partially to concede to his error; and Lensky, unwilling to forgive his friend’s shameless flirting with the poet’s fiancé Olga. Their respective stations in life demand satisfaction, even if it ends in death.       

Oscar (Harolyn Blackwell) brings King Gustavo (Luciano Pavarotti) up to speed in Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Un Ballo in Maschera (1993) – Here’s a blast from the Met’s stolid past: A traditional staging of one of Verdi’s most unique works. However, the general stiffness of this production, stemming from that “stand up and sing” aesthetic previously discussed, pretty much places the spotlight on our old pal, tenor Luciano Pavarotti. To be honest, he luxuriates in the role, indeed the part was one of his finest creations. This, dear friends, is Pavarotti in his prime, with all his faults and pluses.

As the bumptious King Gustavo (or Riccardo, whichever you choose), Luciano regales the audience with his flamboyant personality. True he gives it his considerable best; and despite his sheer bulk, the tenor was able to convince viewers that he completely identified with this protagonist: carefree, loving, loyal, and in the end merciful. His name can be placed alongside such past proponents as Caruso, Pertile, Bonci, Gigli, Tagliavini, Bergonzi, and others.

The Italian names of some of the characters — Renato, Amelia, Samuele, Tommaso, etc. — were utilized, however the looks and costumes all point to pre-Revolutionary Boston mixed with Louis XIV (or was it George III?) outfits and décor: the powdered wigs and the natty waste coats, alongside your standard three-cornered hats. Why, the opera might have been mistaken for a roadshow production of the musical 1776, but I do digress.

As for the other cast members, soprano Aprile Millo’s portrait of Amelia is a caricature of a prima donna, all surface and superimposed from without, as if her somewhat mannered approach and cliched posturing were valid substitutions for actual, real-life emotions. Her singing is faultless, as was her vocal resemblance to Italian diva Renata Tebaldi. But beyond that, there is little depth to this assignment. Italian baritone Leo Nucci’s lightweight tone and relentless barking as Renato, the cuckolded husband, is crisply enunciated and marvelously inflected, even if his vocalism was less than high-powered.

Some quite novel casting choices was apparent, in that I detected the presence of four major African American singers on the Met Opera stage: coloratura Harolyn Blackwell as a chirpy and lively Oscar the page, bass Terry Cook’s mellow sounding Sam, contralto Florence Quivar’s earthy prophetess Ulrica (albeit a bit stiff in her overall deportment), and baritone Gordon Hawkins’ smoothly sung messenger.

That old reliable, tenor Charles Anthony, appears as a model Judge, his diction and projection well-nigh perfect and unbeatable (Signor Nucci could have taken a lesson from this old pro). And, of course, the very young conductor James Levine’s unquestioned musicianship gets him through this score’s trickier aspects, although coordination between the pit and stage was off in spots (most notably, during the many ensemble passages).

All in all, this Masked Ball was enjoyable vocally, but scenically and histrionically a desultory affair. The sets are ugly and dull and representative neither of time nor of place; with few exceptions they were very much in the style of the dreary staging for Giancarlo del Monaco’s Simon Boccanegra (see below).            

Amelia (Kiri Te Kanawa) & Gabriele (Placido Domingo) hear Simon (Vladimir Chernov) pass judgment in Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Simon Boccanegra (1995) – Talk about static! This production of Verdi’s dark and tragic middle period work (revised extensively, years after its premiere, by the poet-composer Arrigo Boito) is dead on arrival. Most of the characterizations are as immobile as marble statues, their movements stilted and choreographed with the calculation of pieces on a massive chess board (think: Harry Potter). Now, what’s the word I’m looking for… How about “dull, dull, dull”?

In the title role, the decent sounding Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov has a gorgeous voice. His delivery is full throated, the high notes secure, a true Verdian in its richness and timbre. The effect, however, is mitigated by his short stature and frozen facial expressions. On records, this is hardly an issue, but on the stage these detriments can be amplified in the extreme. A shame, really, for Chernov, in his relatively brief Met Opera career, pointed the way for many wonderful lowered-voiced artists of Russian and/or Slavic descent, among them the late and much lamented Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the young Alexey Markov.

New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa is an odd choice for Amelia (or Maria, if you will — the plot is most confusing and I won’t get into the particulars, thank you!). She’s as cold as a two-day-old mackerel. Lighting a match under her “might” have helped. Her Act I duet with Chernov hardly raises the pulse level. Let’s say that “tepid” is about the best description one can give concerning her participation. With that said, British basso Robert Lloyd’s weighty Fiesco suffices without being either menacing or exciting. And bass-baritone Bruno Pola is an underpowered Paolo, a key role and a missed opportunity for sparks to fly. What we get are regional flares, and nothing more.

The much heralded Council Chamber scene, the one that Verdi and Boito had slaved over and inserted into the earlier version of Simon, went by the numbers. When adequately performed and executed, the effect this addition can have on audiences is nearly foolproof. Alas, not here. In fact, one of Master Verdi’s most inspired sequences, one that looks forward to Otello in many spots, went for naught — it made too little impact. About the only saving grace of this performance is tenor Plácido Domingo’s virile Gabriel Adorno. He, above all the others, brought genuine vocal fire and muscularity to his role. The rest went by the wayside.   

Tristan (Robert Dean Smith) professes his love for Isolde (Deborah Voigt) in Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Tristan und Isolde (2008) – This performance was first transmitted as a live Saturday afternoon broadcast on March 22, 2008. Due to tenor Ben Heppner’s indisposition, noted Wagnerian Robert Dean Smith was flown in from Germany as a last minute substitute for the grueling role of Tristan. He did not disappoint. And what an impressive debut! At the time, Dean was a relatively unknown artist who had an established career in Europe, but in 2008 (at age 52) he made for a sensational contrast with soprano Deborah Voigt’s singularly successful assumption of Isolde.

I’m sure there are fans out there who remember the classic teaming of Kirsten Flagstad with Lauritz Melchior, two large and outgoing singers from the Met’s Golden Age. Some might recall the lava-like outpourings of Birgit Nilsson with Jess Thomas, or Nilsson with frequent stage and recording partner Wolfgang Windgassen at the Bayreuth Festival in the mid-1960s. More modern ears may boast of having heard the Austrian Helga Dernesch with the fabled Jon Vickers at Salzburg. But this Wagner lover will have to give the Voigt and Smith partnership their due in Dieter Dorn’s strikingly abstract production — a hell of a lot more impressive (and far more interesting), in terms of the scenic potential of the story, than the Met’s somberly lit newest version.

James Levine simply adored this score, and the former Met maestro gave it his undivided attention in that customary leisurely stride of his. For one, the opera is given note complete, a major undertaking in itself. For another, a good supporting cast was a most welcome plus. It included mezzo Michelle DeYoung as the somewhat sisterly handmaiden Brangäne, baritone Eike Wilm Schulte as Tristan’s faithful retainer Kurwenal, a still potent Matti Salminen as a massive-voiced King Marke whom Tristan betrays, Stephen Gaertner as the unctuous knight Melot, Matthew Plenk as the Sailor, and Mark Schowalter as the Shepherd.

Finnish bass Mr. Salminen was near the end of a long career. Still physically imposing and vocally formidable, Matti made for a sorrowful monarch. Although his basic timbre is marked by a certain “yawning” quality, his characterization was moving and spot on. His roles at the Met, and elsewhere, have encompassed such outstanding portraits as the villainous Hagen in Götterdämmerung, a towering Boris in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and a regal King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Ms. Voigt’s Isolde was heard to much better advantage than her strained Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, the voice full and opulent on top, with plenty of body and roundness (this was near the start of her slimming down period), something she ultimately lacked during that disastrous 2011 run of the Ring cycle. Tristan’s delirium in Act III and the lovely Liebestod (“Love Death”) are some of the highpoints of the work (if you’re interested), but the entire opera is well represented as a tragic tale of misguided love and mutual misunderstanding between couples. I was especially impressed with the bold and stark color design and scheme. Indeed, this was a production to die for.

It’s a shame it was so quickly abandoned for the current “empty vessel” addition, played out in near total darkness. What gives with these new productions, anyway? I’m thinking that the barebones nature of many of them have a lot to do with budget cuts and the like. Well, with the Covid-19 pandemic still running rampant in this country and elsewhere, who knows when things can get back to a semblance of normalcy.

Lisette (Lisette Oropesa) & Prunier (Marius Brenciu) look on, as Ruggero (Roberto Alagna) raises his glass to the swallow (Angela Gheorghiu) in Puccini’s ‘La Rondine’ (Photo: Met Opera)

La Rondine (2009) – Now here’s an odd little bird. It’s a mature Puccini work, and then it isn’t. It has catchy waltz tunes and beautifully crafted melodies that seem disembodied from the main plot. We’ve called this opera a Traviata wannabe, and there’s much truth in that assessment. To be honest, there’s very little drama to grab one’s attention, an atypical Puccini piece. Lacking a truly compelling story line, in all fairness La Rondine (or “The Swallow”) possesses charm if little else. Being from the period post-La Fanciulla del West and before Il Trittico, there’s an unmistakable Puccianian “air” about it.

The main problem, in our opinion, is the opera’s frivolity. The main characters — Magda, the titular swallow; Ruggero, her earnest young lover; Prunier, the misanthropic poet; and Lisette, Magda’s highly opinionated housemaid — are caricatures of better, more substantive individuals found in such works as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Fledermaus, and, yes, La Traviata, not to mention that most characteristic of all Puccini’s oeuvres, the poetic La Bohème, which it most closely resembles.

La Rondine is the least appreciated (and, ergo, least produced) of all Puccini’s mature works. This swallow can go back to Capistrano with but little fanfare or loss. Still, the Met’s lavish Nicolas Joël production, starring the former “love couple” Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, exuded abundant allure and a good deal of panache, with Gheorghiu operating at low voltage. Conductor Marco Armiliato held the varying elements together; his own passion for this buoyant if puzzlingly empty score revealed an inner beauty and tunefulness not normally achieved in other productions.         

I fondly remember a PBS television production with a very young Teresa Stratas and rising tenor Anastasios Vrenios that, if truth be told, caressed both the eyes and ears, but was as pointless as it was unfulfilling. Blame the composer, whose heart was never in this poor excuse for a comedy-drama. The abrupt changeover to “tragedy” at the end feels unearned. It’s so sudden as to be off-putting. Not that the two stars suffered because of it: they were ideal at this point, acting and emoting to their fans’ delight. Perhaps they were TOO ideal — stage life would soon imitate reality life, as the love couple subsequently parted ways, never to be united again.

The Met’s supporting cast did wonders with this tuneful piece, especially with the secondary couple, convincingly sung and acted by debuting tenor Marius Brenciu as Prunier (a substantial part) and the lovely Lisette Oropesa as her namesake Lisette (pert and frisky). Veteran bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, who has seen better vocal days, supplied the few lines allotted to Magda’s sugar daddy Rambaldo; he’s the Baron Douphol character if you recall your Traviata. Magda’s tarty friends, Yvette, Bianca and Suzy, were taken by Monica Yunus, Alyson Cambridge, and Elizabeth DeShong.

This, then, is the fate of La Rondine: to be forever lost and on the wing. Signor Alagna cried real tears, and so do we at the outcome. The similarities to other, better works proved too much to surmount the general sense of too little, too late. Puccini’s swallow flies off in all directions at once, but never really lands. A wasted opportunity, we’re sad to note.  

End of Part Two

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: The Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Three)

Time to Name That Tune!

Elis Regina and her Mia Farrow look (Photo: last.fm)

There are billions of stars in the evening sky

But only one can be viewed with the naked eye

— The Author

The month was mid-July, the year 1971. I had just turned seventeen, still thirteen months away from 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. 

Another trip to Brazil was planned. I would once again meet and greet our relatives, most of whom I had not seen or heard from since 1965.

Over on the distaff side, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, at age twenty-six, was already Brazil’s most popular recording and concert artist. She was born on March 17, 1945, in the southern city of Porto Alegre, State of Rio Grande do Sul. Yet, wherever I traveled around the vicinity of São Paulo, and whoever I discoursed with — especially in the households of cousins, friends, and family members my age or older — the topic would unavoidably come around to the singer’s powerful vocals.

That’s where I stumbled.

“Elis … Elis … What’s her name again?” I would inquire.

“Elis Regina,” came the response. “Why do you ask? Don’t you like her?”

I must confess that, at the time, I felt embarrassed, confused, and completely out of my element at being placed in the delicate position of having to defend my ignorance of this subject.

My excuse for having been put in such a tortured, tongue-tied state was that I had no idea who Elis Regina (her stage name) was or what she had sung that made her so popular. Although I kept hearing one of her songs on countless occasions, once our Brazil trip was over and we returned to busy New York City, for the life of me I could not recall the title of that piece, nor could I tuck away the melody into any conceivable corner of my memory for future reference. I knew the number to be extremely catchy, though, and oh-so-heavily pop driven. But beyond that, I was left adrift.

Psychologically, I must have blocked the song from my subconscious. Indeed, there could be no other explanation for my apparent brain freeze. Not that I disliked the number — to be honest, I reveled in its light and airy feel, coupled with the loose approach that Elis took in the Philips album that introduced it. It reminded me of something Sinatra might have taken a “nice and easy” approach to in his day. But no matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many Google searches I launched throughout the coming years (and then some!) in a last-ditch effort at naming this enigmatic tune, I was unable to pin the title down.   

And then, out of nowhere, the mystery was solved.

One weekend in mid-August 2020, I happened to have been on the cellphone with my brother Anibal, explaining to him that I had just about finished the Fat Lady’s story; that the last thing I needed to get straight was this missing chapter about the pop star, Elis Regina. Our discussion then turned to that unnamed number and my lingering frustration with it.

“Oh, yeah, I know it,” he stated calmly.

“What? You know it? After all this time?”

“Sure,” he confirmed. Instantly, my brother began to hum the mysterious tune, the one that had been wracking my middle-aged intellect for so long.

“My God, you remembered! That’s it!” I shouted. “That’s the song!”

Exhilarated at the prospect of having finally unraveled this decades-long conundrum, I rushed to the living room and handed the cellphone to my wife, Maria Regina, our resident expert on matters Brazilian and — another stroke of luck — the one person who considered her namesake to be among her favorites.

“Dear, quick! What’s the name of this tune? My brother’s going to hum it for you.”

Thank goodness my wife remembered the song, but, like me, the title had completely escaped her. My hopes seemed to have been dashed in the moment of claiming victory. Still, both she and my brother continued to hum the number together. Well, if they didn’t know the title, at least they were familiar with the melody (and to my surprise, my wife even mouthed some of the words). There was hope after all!

After a quick look-up on YouTube, it finally came to her: the title, that seemingly unattainable object of my desire; the one that had so eluded detection for nearly half a century.

“Here it is,” she announced triumphantly. “ ‘Vou deitar e rolar.’ ”

Ah, so that’s it! “Vou deitar e rolar,” (loosely translated as “I’ll make my bed and lie in it”), written in 1970 for the album … Em Pleno Verão (“… At the Peak of Summer”). The authors were songwriter-guitarist Baden Powell and poet-composer Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, both natives of Rio de Janeiro and known quantities in the pop-music field. Produced by the ubiquitous Nelson Motta, with arrangements by Erlon Chaves, Elis Regina’s bandmates included José Roberto Beltrami on piano, Luiz Claudio Ramos on guitar, Luizão Maia on bass, Wilson das Neves on drums, and Hermes Contesini on percussion.

As bouncy as a Copacabana beach ball, as refreshing as the carioca dew at sunrise, this irresistible number was delivered by a performer at the absolute “peak” of her profession. The song makes reference to a young girl who, aware of having been two-timed by her lover, shoves the betrayal to his face by vowing to “do her own thing” no matter what. He’s shown the door with a hearty “Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah,” a hilarious sendoff that indicates to her former paramour that she who laughs last, laughs best.

I thanked my brother for his timely assistance. His response told me all I needed to know about what he thought of this little mini-project of mine: “You can take the boy out of Brazil, but you can’t take Brazil out of the boy.” Amen, brother, amen.

The song illustrated both the highs and the lows of a remarkable singing career that began at age fifteen and ended prematurely at thirty-six.

A young Elis Regina from the 1960s

 A Flickering Light that Burned Too Bright

Ambitious, audacious, extroverted, and charismatic on the stage and on live television, the highly-charged personality known as Elis Regina was also capable of turning shy in private, even reserved to the point of inhibition. Decidedly pugnacious when the mood suited her, she was fearless and confrontational. At times, Elis experienced a devastating stage fright before performing — astonishing for one so gifted with such a natural-born propensity for picking the right style for every occasion.

For example, in 1965 she debuted on national television, in the First Festival of Popular Music, with “Arrastão” (“Fish Net”), a song about a poor Northeastern fisherman written by singer-composer Edu Lobo with the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Sporting a beehive hairdo (which made her look like one of The B-52’s) and extending her arms high above her head, Elis swung her limbs in a backwards swimming motion (very 1960’s, we might add). To most viewers, she appeared to mimic the rotating blades of an airplane, movements that baptized her with the first of several nicknames: “Hélice” Regina, or “Propellor” Regina. It also won her nationwide acclaim.  

At other times, Elis would turn destructive — what today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, earning her the sobriquet pimentinha (“little pepper,” which also described American cartoonist Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace). She took no prisoners. And by taking a virtual wrecking ball to her associations with both men and women, Elis damaged their personal property as well: The well-worn story of her flinging ex-husband Ronaldo Bôscoli’s entire Sinatra collection into the sea is, unfortunately, all too true (the discs were last “spotted” somewhere off the coast of West Africa).

I can hear it now: “Let it all go to hell!”

That sounds like something Furacão (“Hurricane”) Elis would have said. With few exceptions, her choice of repertoire was also frequently eclectic as well. Despite kicking off her recording career with the 1961 album, Viva a Brotolândia (“Long Live Teenybopperdom”), devoted to adolescent drivel, Elis displayed a seasoned professional’s knack for capturing exactly the sound the pubic was yearning for.

The essence of Elis Regina – Expressed in this beautiful mosaic

And contrary to what most pop-music mavens might have believed, she did not possess a natural “voice” for bossa nova but rather developed her skills through trial and error. Elis eventually came to grasp what the bossa nova idiom had begun to imply: that is, as a window into other Brazilian song forms and influences. In her mind, samba and pop blazed a much wider (and richer) trail, and were a lot more diverse and meaningful than,say, bossa nova’s basic “love, flower, ocean” themes would have you believe. In that, she shared the sentiments (on and out of the spotlight) of her nearest rival, Nara Leão, only less overtly. 

Yet, of all the aspiring female talents at or below her level of excellence (and there was quite a hefty assortment to choose from), Elis Regina is the only one, in my mind, to have been considered worthy of comparison to her illustrious predecessor, the equally volatile Carmen Miranda.

It came as no surprise that both Carmen and Elis were of Portuguese descent, as were a sizeable proportion of Brazilians. Both artists were short of stature (five-feet-two-inches tall), both came from poor working-class backgrounds, and both had extraordinarily productive careers inside and outside Brazil, despite some negative reaction from the public and press. With respect to financial compensation, they were the highest paid female entertainers of their generation. Accordingly, both died from substance abuse: in Carmen’s case, from alcohol mixed with barbiturates and amphetamines; in Elis Regina’s, from cocaine and Campari.

What surprised me the most, in researching this topic, was that few if any authors have pointed the above coincidences out to readers. How strange. One can only conclude that Carmen and Elis had artificially extended their lives beyond all reasonable limitations because of their early demise. As iconic symbols of their respective fields, they had outlived the normal passage of time to become goddesses of popular song.

At first, Elis, to her good fortune, managed to survive the so-called “curse of twenty-seven,” the age at which many of her contemporaries (Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison) had succumbed to personal demons with their premature passing. That Elis’ cocaine use came near the end of her short life is doubly unfortunate.

Still, in spite of their professional accomplishments, Carmen and Elis’ private lives were anything but tranquil. Carmen’s sole marriage to a non-Brazilian was, if anything, loveless and abusive, while Elis’ two marital relationships ended in separation and divorce. The difference between them being that Elis left three young children for posterity (a boy, João Marcelo, from Bôscoli; and a boy and a girl, Pedro and Maria Rita, from second husband, pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano), whereas Carmen left no progeny behind.

 That ‘Sinatra’ Moment

A pair of Aces: Sinatra & Jobim, together on American television

If the Brazilian Bombshell’s latter-day notoriety as an emblem of gay culture has brought renewed interest in her artistry, then Elis Regina’s elevated status as Brazil’s most complete singer-performer can be reasonably assured.

As far as her fans were concerned, Elis’ time had finally come. Between February 22 and March 9, 1974, at MGM Studios in Los Angeles, the recording of the album Elis & Tom took place. An acknowledged “greatest hits” package of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s most accessible song works, involving three of his favorite songwriting partners (Vinicius, Chico Buarque, Aloysio de Oliveira), a number of items on eponymously titled Elis & Tom were arranged by the singer’s soon-to-be-husband Cesar Camargo Mariano.   

Listening to the album after so many years, the first thing one notices is that Elis had modulated her famously potent delivery to this more-intimate lounge setting. Compare her rendition of “Corcovado” (sung in Portuguese) with Frank Sinatra’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (in Gene Lees’ English translation) from Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim on Reprise (1967). Seven years — a lifetime in the recording industry — separate these two accounts; yet, how strikingly similar they sound: mellow, low-key, and softly executed, with a lighter than average orchestration (flute, clarinet, piano, violins, guitar, drums, percussion) on Elis’ version, and a jazzy interval taking up the middle portion, ending with Jobim’s participation (on voice and piano) at the fadeout.      

Oddly enough, “Corcovado” and “Triste” are the only two numbers found on Elis and Frankie’s respective forays (originally, “Triste” was not a part of either Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos or on Sinatra & Company, his 1969 follow up). Still, one can draw some basic conclusions, and a viable contrast, regarding these two settings, as performed by two incredibly gifted artists: first, to Sinatra and Jobim on “How Insensitive” — see the following link to my original article: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/brazils-musical-polyglots-part-two-the-american-side/); and, second, to Elis Regina on Tom and Vinicius’ sorrowful “Modinha.” Her voice, curt and trembling with barely restrained emotion, sets the norm for expressivity in this thoroughly committed, let-it-all-hang-out interpretation. 

The common denominator on both albums, of course, is Jobim. You would be shocked to learn that Jobim was hardly, if at all, impressed with Elis upon their initial encounter back in Rio in 1964. “Who’s this hick from the sticks?” he wondered upon catching sight of her at a recording studio. “She still reeks of burned charcoal,” hinting at her “down home” country roots and lack of refinement.

Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah, who’s laughing now, Tom?

The composer was forced to eat his words (mercifully, Elis never caught on) when the two of them appeared together to record, at that later session, what became the standard of all standards, the classic “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”). After years of subpar translations, Jobim decided to convert the Portuguese lyrics himself into plausible English: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road / It’s the rest of a stump, it’s a little alone.” Sung, here, in the original Portuguese, Tom and Elis play off one another beautifully in a joyfully brash battle of words, an “I say this, you say that” game of give and take — each egging the other on for as long as they possibly can. One could almost see them in your mind’s eye, smiling and giggling at the end result.       

You can also take the Sinatra connection a step further in that, during the latter part of the sixties and seventies, Elis Regina sported a stylish Mia Farrow-like haircut (courtesy of Rosemary’s Baby). Farrow, you may recall, was at one time briefly married to Sinatra. If one were to exercise some amateur analysis, I’d say the Brazilian singer conveyed a strong stylistic and unconventionally intimate connection to Ole Blue Eyes that went beyond international boundaries.

Tom Jobim meets Elis Regina. Object: Sublime music

Another, more moving performance in a similar vein, considered by many to be one of her finest, is Elis’ superb interpretation (on several YouTube videos) of the 1973 Chico Buarque-Francis Hime number, “Atrás da porta” (“Behind the Door”). The poetic lyrics by Chico, heavily laden with dramatic irony, sadness and pathos, and Hime’s simple, minimalistic theme express all the hurt, hate, love, and longing of a submissive woman left to beg and claw her way back from humiliation by a man who treats her no better than his pet dog.

Incredibly, a devastated Elis, sobbing real tears, allows us a glimpse into the immense tragedy that has engulfed this scorned lover. Is it over the top? Possibly. But If you want to call it “operatic,” then who am I to argue. In my observation, there’s a close affinity (and unstated pertinence) to Judy Garland and her sad ending, as envisioned in Peter Quilter’s hit Broadway play, End of the Rainbow. As with most artists of this caliber (Sinatra being at the very top), Elis Regina’s ability to turn a heartbreaking experience into a transcendent personal statement eclipses all other contemporary efforts.

Besides the obvious sincerity she brought to everything she did, our only concern is this: Were her reactions based on real-life circumstances or were they carefully rehearsed performance art? A little bit of both, one would think. Certainly, no singer of her generation has had as much awareness of and insight into the human condition as expressed in Brazilian popular song; and no subsequent artist has had as better a claim to the title of Brazil’s greatest interpreter of her music as Elis had. Her personal magnetism drew more people into her art than nearly any other performer, male or female.

Now, after all these years, I can finally respond to the question that was posed at the beginning of this essay: “Do I like Elis Regina? Yes, I do. I like her very much.” And there you have it: that guy Jairzinho, O Rei Roberto, the clown Chacrinha, and the pop star Elis Regina. Three singers, one host, all Brazilian. This began as a story of my youth. It ends with a plea for absolution. “Let it all go to hell?” I don’t think so. Better to preserve whatever memories we can still hold on to, the raison d’être for any discussion around Brazil’s Fat Lady. They may be all she has left.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Two)

The clownish TV host, Chacrinha (Abelardo Barbosa)

Days of ‘Whine’ and Roses

The interval between our first visit to Brazil and the one our family made in July 1971 was, indeed, an historically turbulent one. Censorship, in the form of suppression of the news and print media, had expanded to alarming proportions; the free-flow of ideas and the exchange of divergent opinions — and with them, the freedom to express those ideas and opinions — were vastly curtailed.

The critical year of 1968, for example, was one marked by violent demonstrations and brutal crackdowns throughout Continental Europe and the United States. Brazil was no different. But how much could a seventeen-year-old youth from the South Bronx have known of these events? Having lived and grown up in a New York City Public Housing Project, could he have been cognizant of the harsh realities facing the country of his birth? Was he attuned to the problems encountered by native-born artists, singers, songwriters, journalists, politicians, and the like, or did he remain blissfully unaware; just going about his business with nary a care in the world for what others thought or what they were going through?

“Let it all go to hell!” he would say.

No, that couldn’t have been the attitude. That’s not how Brazilians, especially the ones I got to know and love and respect, reacted to the troubles afflicting their beleaguered homeland. A large portion of the population, including most of my family members, were working-class stiffs who took what was occurring with their country in measured strides, not in resignation. If they also took their solace in song and other forms of entertainment, where expressions of hurt, loss, and frustration could be collectively shared via these means, who could blame them.

Chacrinha with songbird Robert Carlos

The Popular Song Festivals continued to be nationally televised, of course, but their glory days were over and coming to a swift and ignoble end. Tropicália had already been banned if not prohibited outright from public performance. It happened that the music and stagecraft that helped shape the tropicalismo movement were labeled as subversive and beyond the mainstream for the ruling classes to stomach. It would be many years before I, too, discovered how forward-thinking and “out there” this specific music genre had been.

And what of the others, the so-called “Jairzinhos” of their time? They had also come and gone: Having rightfully served their purpose, they were now being escorted off the platform. No longer did the former main attraction, Brazil’s Jair Rodrigues, who continued to hold sway as a human prancing pony, mow his audiences down with silly grins and pointless gestures. True to his tranquil nature, “that guy Jairzinho” continued on his merry way while remaining oblivious to the situation at hand.

An Uncommon Man

Most, if not all, of the television programs in São Paulo that I witnessed back in 1971 were preceded by the distinctive Censura Livre (“Cleared by the Censors”) logo before they began. And that included the ever-popular, late Saturday-afternoon show A Buzina do Chacrinha (“Chacrinha’s Horn”) on TV Globo. The clownish emcee Chacrinha, portrayed by comedian and Pernambuco-born actor José Abelardo Barbosa de Medeiros (1917-1988), was an eccentric and jovial radio and TV host from popular culture who personified (in attitude, if not in looks) not only the carefree and quick-witted prankster and folkloric disrupter of legend Macunaíma, but more appropriately the Common Brazilian Man.

Chacrinha wearing an outrageous “horn hat”

Resembling a potbellied, bespectacled, and top-hatted Harpo Marx, especially with that noisy contraption he carried by his side, the mildly pompous Chacrinha was the hardworking maidservant’s dream, a domestic’s ticket to possible fame and good fortune; and the one person in all of Brazil who could command the respect of the masses in a program tailored to their tastes.

Amateur contestants, rookie aspirants, and veteran competitors alike were corralled into shockingly simplistic (and occasionally embarrassing) skits, games, talent contests, and anarchic diversions (for example, the host’s tossing of live codfish into audience members’ laps), backed by an ever-present chorus line of leggy showgirls. All were at the mercy of Chacrinha’s earsplitting hooter and his fawning fan base, which consisted of everyday citizens: young and old, male and female.

Chacrinha, who never took himself too seriously, had about him an air of nonconformity. “I’m here to confuse you, not to explain things” was one of countless aphorisms designed to both distract and bemuse the wary visitor into submission. Faced with an avalanche of contradictory statements, it became increasingly difficult for anyone to pin Chacrinha down about anything. You might compare him to a resurrected anarchist, a person of his time but born at the brink of Modernism. The best one could say about this peculiar fellow was that he looked and acted outside the box.

Although I hadn’t known about it at the time, Chacrinha had been responsible for furnishing Caetano Veloso with the unambiguous title to one of the singer-songwriter’s most requested numbers, the song “Alegria, alegria!” According to Caetano’s account in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Chacrinha had appropriated the lyrics from a similarly-titled song by samba artist Wilson Simonal. And it didn’t take long for Caetano to do likewise, thus a classic was born out of the chaos.

Chacrinha (top) with the young Caetano Veloso, circa 1971

Another expression he employed with abandon, and that I recollect with mild amusement, was the recurrent phrase, “É hora! É hora!” (“It’s time! It’s time!”). Time? Time for what, I wondered. With finger raised and placed in the space between his nose and upper lip, the host would shout to the crowd: “É hora da Buzina! É hora da Buzina do Chacrinha!” I took this to mean, “It’s time for Chacrinha’s horn to blow!” And with the antics of funnyman Jack Benny’s The Horn Blows at Midnight reverberating in my head, the blast from the pernambucano‘s honker signaled the end of a contestant’s “dream” before it had begun.

From the above descriptions, one might have inferred that Chacrinha was a most congenial and approachable individual. Quite the opposite, his guile-driven nature was coarse and aggressive and anything but warm and fuzzy; and he certainly wasn’t ingratiating. You might also have picked up familiar elements from American TV-game shows such as Let’s Make a Deal, Truth or Consequences, and The Price is Right. And you’d be right on the money! Commercialism and mass marketing had begun to pervade the average Brazilian household as much as it had the American variety.

Seu Abelardo, as he was familiarly termed, knew his public well. For unlike many others, Chacrinha had kept in touch with reality by dexterously placing his pudgy hand on the nation’s pulse. In relation to Brazil’s economy and politics, the garrulous presenter sensed how the situation in the country had deteriorated over time and which had negatively affected his lower-class adherents. His outlandish mode of dress and outspoken demeanor were but covers for what lay beneath: an instinct for survival, shrewdly applied and projected, and utilized not to make fun of his guests but to throw the censors off his trail.

As a form of social criticism and a message to those who took undue advantage of their constituents, that wise-old clown Chacrinha and his popular television program represented a method of masking the people’s contempt for their government in ways they would better understand and appreciate.

What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

(End of Part Part)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilians Who Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part One)

The ‘Jovem Guarda’ crowd: Erasmo Carlos (l.), Wanderlea, Roberto Carlos

Remembrances of Memories Past

This is a story of my youth. More precisely, a story about what I remember of my youth from the limited times I visited Brazil — and how a song (no, several songs) transformed my opinions about the family and country I left behind.

My earliest recollections are, by curiosity and contradiction, both clear and vague: of seeing myself as a toddler, running wildly about our home in São Paulo; of bumping my eyebrow onto the sharp edge of a dining-room table and going to the doctor immediately afterwards to get my supercilium stitched up; of badly scraping my knee and wrist outside a street in the South Bronx, along with comparable mishaps. Depending on who was recounting the story, the accidents were either my fault entirely or the fault of someone else. Blame for their occurrences, I soon surmised, was swiftly assigned but not always fairly distributed.

Some of these memories get tangled up with the rare times my family returned to São Paulo and its surroundings. Over the years, it has become practically impossible for me to differentiate between one event I experienced at age five and similar incidents that took place a few years later. Anyone forced to recall their youthful wanderings, either in the writing of one’s memoirs or through therapy and analysis, will have faced a comparable predicament: invariably, specific episodes and personalities are remembered with clarity and intent; while others (dates, times, and places), not so much, and vice versa.

With the above caveats in mind, my first exposure to Brazilian popular culture occurred on or about the year 1965, a pivotal point for music in Brazil and for my growing awareness of a Brazilian identity growing inside this ten-year-old brain. It was the same year that bossa nova became a worldwide sensation. But in the country itself, a onda (that is, “the wave”) had receded. You could say it was paying a fond adieu to all that had come before. Yet, I remained oblivious.

By the time that our family had set foot again in “Sampa” (in the winter of 1965), the heat that bossa nova had produced around the pop-music world had substantially abated. New styles began to emerge by dint of the latest advances. The prevalence of television, for example, and, along with it, the phenomenon of mass viewership took hold of Brazilian audiences like nothing else before. Not inconsequentially, the military had staged a government takeover the year prior, in April 1964, which forever altered Brazil’s musical landscape — for better or for worse.

Tanks invade the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the military takeover of April 1964 (Photo: Agencia O Globo)

Strangely enough, bossa nova had completely bypassed my Brazilian-born parents, who, by their having moved to the South Central Bronx, remained remarkably uninformed as to the artistry and output that had circumnavigated the globe. In the interval between the year they left their homeland (1959) and the time that we, as a family of four, made our first return trip to the big city (1965), bossa nova had been replaced by popular song contests, possibly as a distraction from the bitter reality of military rule.

To get right down to it, bossa nova espoused a greater degree of sophistication, subtlety, and nuance than what had come before (choro, samba, and samba-canção). The artists who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, and then performed those same numbers, which abounded in poetic imagery and reflective ruminations, came out of an entirely separate reality, distinct and apart from that of the majority of Brazilians. The sparseness of the orchestration (for guitar, voice, drums, and percussion) belied the complexity of its arrangements. Too, the imaginative use of language and jazz-influenced instrumentation raised the intellectual level of both performers and listeners to undreamed-of heights.

Despite some awareness on my part, my limited knowledge of Portuguese prevented me from fully absorbing and appreciating the genre. Naturally, I was much too young, therefore deficient in the cognitive skills necessary to wrap my arms around bossa nova’s form. Despite this disparity and my lack of cultural refinement, a treasure trove of memorabilia laid before me: everything from MPB, bubble-gum music, iê-iê-iê, and Brazilian rock-‘n’-roll to classically derived constructs. These were much easier to absorb, due to their utter simplicity and absence of erudition. But bossa nova? Not a chance, at least not yet. Creatively speaking, the country had taken two steps forward, one step back.

Still, one couldn’t fault my parents for not having “kept up” with the latest trends. They had more pressing matters to concern themselves with — namely, making a life for us in New York City, and raising and caring for two small boys in a strange, bewildering land with its own distinct and immensely diversified culture.

As I mentioned, we immigrated to the U.S. in September 1959. Although my mother and her boys remained at home in the Bronx, my father had gone back to Brazil every other year up through 1965, and then some. Those excursions had something to do with his attending the annual Carnival pageant (in Portuguese, pular Carnaval). At the time, I had no comprehension of what that actually meant or entailed. Yet despite his weeks-long absences, dad always managed to bring back plenty of trinkets, souvenirs, and assorted keepsakes, provided, for the most part, by his and my mother’s respective families.

Family. A word, a term, a concept this soon-to-be-eleven year old was but vaguely familiar with. The only “family” I knew, to be exact, was my younger brother Anibal, my father Annibal Sr., my mother Lourdes, her younger sister Aunt Deolinda, her husband Uncle Daniel, and my two older cousins Dario and Daniel Jr. A year or more before we made our trip, another of my mom’s charming sisters, Aunt Iracema, had spent a year in the Bronx living with us. In fact, she had immigrated to the U.S. in 1963, but returned to São Paulo in order to care for her ailing father Francisco, or “Grampa Chico” as we called him. He had been struck at age sixty-five with throat cancer.

Gather ‘Round the Television Set, Boys

“Quero Que Va Tudo Pro Inferno” – Original Single by Roberto & Erasmo Carlos (Discos CBS)

Much of the bounty dad had brought back from his trips was comprised of phonograph records, usually of the compacto duplo type. These dandy little items, known in the U.S. as EP’s (or “Extended Plays”), had the capacity for two songs per side, for a total of four numbers in all. A healthy smattering of long-playing records, Brazilian magazines (Manchete, Veja, Marie Claire, etc.), O Guia da Televisão (“TV Guide”), tasty and highly edible sweets, and a half-dozen or so children’s books comprised what remained of the lucre.

To me, the unfamiliar names of these Brazilian artists and entertainers, to be found among this random assortment of knick-knacks, were foreign-sounding and nearly unpronounceable. These were difficult enough for adults, but you can imagine how challenging they were for us kids. To compensate, I used what nascent abilities I possessed of the Portuguese language to try my hand at reading the Brazilian versions of Walt Disney comics: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Scrooge McDuck, anything I could get my little hands on.

To pass the time, I took it upon myself to draw these and other cartoon characters (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones) on makeshift writing pads; when those were unavailable, my mother would tear open brown-paper shopping bags for me to scribble on. I even tried jotting down my impressions of these characters in feeble-sounding Portuguese. Little did I know that my childish efforts at words and images would come in handy decades after the fact. On the days when I didn’t feel like drawing, I would listen attentively to the music.

One good thing did come out from all of these activities: the more songs I heard, the more I liked and learned from them. It never occurred to me that Brazil harbored such a wealth of music programs to accompany what I encountered in our makeshift record collection. Since I had grown up outside the country, I wasn’t privy to what the native population had been exposed to on an ongoing basis. To have noticed these melodies at the time this form of music was becoming more widely accepted and circulated proved a timely fluke.

One program that I heard mentioned was the weekly Festival de Música Popular. My boyish earbuds were primed for absorbing these fantastic new sounds. Consequently, earing the likes of Jair Rodrigues, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Erasmo Carlos, Wanderléa, Agnaldo Rayol, Dalva de Oliveira, Nana Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Agnaldo Timóteo, Elis Regina, and so many others shaped my appreciation for Brazilian music and song. The weird thing about all this was that I had never seen this music program while staying in Brazil, nor had I laid my eyes on these artists in any capacity, that is to say, until much later in life. I only learned about them from hearing my relatives discuss the merits of this or that singer who appeared on this or that showcase.

Speaking of which, the show Jovem Guarda on the newly christened TV Record had one of the highest national ratings (known as IBOPE) of any of these programs. Another was O Fino da Bossa (“The Best of Bossa”) and on the same network. Not knowing anything about ratings or programming, I became frustrated with my relatives’ efforts to initiate me into the electronic medium.

For instance, I heard so much talk about a fellow named Jair Rodrigues and his smash hit, the nonsense number “Deixe isso pra lá” (Alberto Paz/Edson Menezes), that in my infantile carnium I honestly believed that I had seen Jairzinho on Brazilian television.

‘O Fino da Bossa,” with Elis Regina & Jair Rodrigues

What typically transpired was that every time I found myself in someone else’s house or apartment, I would question the occupants about “that guy Jairzinho.” Their response would be, “Oh, you should’ve been here last night when he was on TV,” or “Come by our house next weekend, you are sure to see him then.” Seeing my disappointment, they would compensate by describing, in minute detail, Jairizinho’s over-and-under handsaw movements, which became his signature gesture; topped off with that broad, toothy grin, a smile that all-but enveloped the beaming audience but that, to me, seemed to emulate a dark-skinned version of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. What Chubby Checker and the Twist did for people’s hips, Jair Rodrigues did for Brazilians with his bare hand. Despite their kind offers to come over (usually, on the weekends), our time with the relatives was limited. Alas, I never got to see Jairzinho perform, no matter how many people I talked to or visited.

That same, frustrating response followed another popular singer of the period, the song idol Roberto Carlos Braga. Although he hadn’t yet become brega, a variant on his official surname (and what, in Portuguese, meant “tacky”), Roberto Carlos was the nearest thing to a world-renowned celebrity that Brazil had at its disposal, outside of soccer star Pelé. Still, there was one song of Roberto’s that, for me, stuck out from the rest of the mawkish round of ballads and teenybopper tedium. And that was the song, “Quero que vá tudo pro inferno” (“Let It All Go to Hell”).

I first heard this number in New York, possibly a year or more after we returned from our trip. Oddly (well, maybe not so oddly), I became fixated on the title — especially the “hell” part, which, if you were fortunate enough to have grown up in polite society, or in a somewhat religious environment, was strictly verboten. (You would REALLY burn in hell if you dared to speak the “F ”bomb in public!) Mesmerized by that word inferno — especially the way Roberto lingered over the “r” (“in-ferrrrr-huh-no”) in his capixaba accent — I listened carefully to the lyrics over and over again, not understanding the words or sentiments being expressed, yet all the while wondering to myself how the hell Roberto got away with saying this forbidden term:

De que vale o céu azul e o sol sempre a brilhar
Se você não vem e eu estou a lhe esperar
Só tenho você, no meu pensamento
E a sua ausência, é todo meu tormento
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

De que vale a minha boa vida de playboy
Se entro no meu carro e a solidão me dói
Onde quer que eu ande, tudo é tão triste
Não me interessa, o que de mais existe
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

Não suporto mais, você longe de mim
Quero até morrer, do que viver assim
Só quero que você me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Roberto Carlos “Compacto Duplo” from CBS Records

What is the blue sky worth or the ever-shining sun

If I’m left pining for you to be here by my side?

All I have is you, you are always in my thoughts

But your absence is a constant torment

All I want is you, to warm me through this winter

And that it all goes to hell

What good is this playboy life of mine

If I get in my car and this loneliness persists

Wherever I go, this sadness always follows

I don’t care about anything, and what’s more

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

I can’t take it anymore, you away from me

All I want is to die, than to go on like this

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

(English translation by the author)

Now, I ask you, what did I expect? Something insightful along the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? Witty poeticisms analogous to Baudelaire? This was nothing more than easy-listening music, a love poem pure and simple. Years later, I read that Roberto had written these verses to Magda Fonseca, his girlfriend at the time, who had gone abroad to study English in the U.S. His songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (né Erasmo Esteves), helped him to hammer out the lyrics. The orchestration was of its time: a bombastic Hammond organ solo, spiked with a “Roy Orbison meets the Beach Boys” aesthetic, surrounded by a surf-rock beat. The end result: Twenty-four-year-old Roberto’s honest expression of longing (caused by Magda’s absence) and his frustration with conditions in military-run Brazil spilled over into youthful rebelliousness.

Hell, I was all of eleven years old. What did I know of youthful rebelliousness? I knew nothing of the military’s overthrow of the Brazilian government, or that the CIA had orchestrated the bold power grab, or that barely three years later (in 1968) the suppression of dissidents would only add to the country’s ills by making things worse for the populace, leading to the expulsion of songwriters and others associated with the genre of Tropicália and such. Roberto Carlos’ “pure and simple” love poem, a monster triumph upon its release, signaled both the beginning of public outcry and the end of rebellion.

What I, myself, took away from our visit was not rebellion but a sense of togetherness. For the first time in my young life, I experienced a closeness to my Brazilian family members I never knew existed: from aunts and uncles I had not grown up with, from grandparents and cousins I had hardly known, and from newfound friends and acquaintances I had never met. I came away with the impression they all enjoyed each other’s company; that they exuded a spirit of fun just by being together and, you’ll pardon the expression, “in the moment.” Their openness to me and to my brother was warmly received and, to be honest, completely unanticipated.

Having spent several extremely cold winters and blisteringly hot summers in the Big Apple, and having my first and last names constantly misspelled and mispronounced by people unfamiliar with our language, the balmy sun-filled skies of São Paulo seemed to reflect back at me in the sunniness of the dispositions I encountered during our month-long stay. I felt accepted, understood, loved, and listened to, for once, by those inside and outside the family circle — feelings that were roughly alien to me for the first six years of our residence in the Bronx.

It would take another six years before I was able to recapture those feelings.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes