Here’s a little background information on British director, stage actor and painter James Whale, who the horror genre owes several debts of gratitude for his excellent work for Universal Pictures and other studios. Whale lent his flamboyant personality and insightful interpretation to such classics as FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), his masterpiece; and the first sound version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s SHOW BOAT (1936). His life and career, as well as his mysterious “end,” were dramatized in the film GODS AND MONSTERS (1998). In it, Whale was played by the equally formidable Ian McKellen. Along with a fabulous performance by Lynn Redgrave as Hanna, his insistent housemaid, the film features Brendan Fraser (not so marvelous) as his handsome gardener Clayton Boone, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes and Rosalind Ayres as Elsa Lanchester. An early icon of gay culture, Whale’s lifeless body was found floating in his swimming pool, his death never fully explained. The film hints at a possible suicide. McKellen’s take on Whale as a washed-up old “flame” is spot-on all the way. But the tired old device of interjecting biographical data via the lazy artifice of someone — in this case, a local university student working on his PhD of Hammer Horror Films — interviewing the lead character about his life and experience is dead on arrival. Whale’s interest in his pretty boy gardener is a key diversion. However, Fraser plays him as if he wandered in from another movie entirely. Still highly recommended for McKellen and Redgrave’s cantankerous yet understated rapport.
Writer-director John Harrison, visual effects supervisor Ernest Farino, editor Harry Miller, and production team assistants Greg Nicotero and Tim McHugh participate in the audio commentary that accompanies the Special Edition Director’s Cut of Artisan’s three-disc DVD edition of Dune. The following represents an annotated transcription of their thoughts, opinions and viewpoints on the subject of Frank Herbert’s cinematic novelization.
Originally, the first scene of the Sci-Fi Channel’s three-night Dune series took place on the Harkonnen home planet of Giedi Prime, with the bad guy, the overly rotund Baron (Ian McNeice), pontificating at length about the plot, and the subsequent relationships between himself and the various characters. However, the consensus among these craftsmen became that audiences would rather see the “hero” (young Paul Atreides) right off the bat, the one who would emerge as the saga’s chief protagonist, ergo the one to root for.
This conceit might possibly have been rethought for the upcoming Denis Villeneuve version (soon to appear in theaters and online streaming). That remains to be seen. Usually, the bad guys tend to be the most interesting characters. Whether this is true or not is a matter of opinion. Certainly the “baddies” are notoriously the best acted and/or the sexiest members of the cast — at the least, that is the perception. If this holds true, then viewers are in for an exciting ride.
As previously indicated, sound stages in Prague, Czech Republic, were set up for the Sci-Fi Channel’s series and utilized in a quasi-operatic “stage style,” offset with trans-lights and green screens. Too, the lighting style was most effective as background. Accents, that is foreign accents, represented a jumble of Irish brogue and American English with regional Czech and/or Eastern European influences, along with cultivated British-speak and a touch of Scottish burr. Believe it or not, these were basically unplanned. To viewers’ good fortune, this United Nations-polyglot assemblage of makeshift “ambassadors” made for enriched performances.
The essence of a scene was preserved, the rule of thumb being, “Are we telling the story efficiently and quickly?” Sets were built to scale (remarkable in widescreen mode), with sufficient scope and size to impress home viewers, but not to overwhelm the actors. Wooden floors, beautifully crafted and constructed, stood out prominently, although some sequences were “adapted,” in Harrison words, with an eye toward “keeping the spirit of a scene.”
For instance, the Atreides bunch are different from the Harkonnens, in looks and bearing. Also, the soundscape was created to give the impression the capital city of Arrakeen was alive and present (even though sequences were shot on a soundstage). That clash of accents and the lack of intelligibility hampered the production crew at the start of filming, but they quickly overcame the hurdles (Miloš Forman’s Amadeus was also shot in Prague with a predominantly Czech crew and extras).
Hot reds, cool blues, warm browns — this color palette proved useful to the emotional content of the storytelling, as suggested earlier, plus the added advantage of elaborate costumes in support of this theme. These were employed in tandem with the exaggerated (the term “hyperbolized” was again voiced) lighting effects, which embodied the theatricality aspects the creators found to their liking. Subtle changes within scenes, temperature gradations and such, were, as noted, done in “concert with the script and the requirements, emotionally and plot-wise, of the story itself.”
Problems with noise and booms on the soundtrack necessitated redubs of dialogue to stress understanding and audibility, the result of lighting designer Vittorio Storaro’s use of sound boards — a clear example of the technical aspects of filmmaking clashing with the needs of the production.
FX – Special and Otherwise
One question that continued to crop up: How did the FX crew provide the glowing blue eyes of the Fremen, and of young Paul as Maud’ Dib? They determined that to paint each of the eyes digitally was not only impossible but unworkable — there were too many of them to begin with. Their solution? Contact lenses treated to reflect black light, thus making the spice’s effect believable as well as practical.
Other matters, for instance time-changing aspects, geared specifically to the novel, and those infamous interior monologues — the thing that bogged down the David Lynch production — were carefully considered. Instead, a straight-ahead, basically linear narrative was utilized to preserve clarity for the viewer. Writer Harrison opted for “suggestive motives” for the characters’ behavior or action. Where internalization was called for, a less subtle solution was applied.
Another FX challenge was the ornithopter or “thopter” for short, those insect-like flying contraptions with wings that flutter, in itself an aerodynamically implausible design and tricky to realize. As a compromise, the production crew went about modifying a delta-wing design that was split in the back to give the “sense” of flying wings without actually flapping in fact (as real-world insects would). This solution has been worked out, more or less successfully, in the 2021 Dune feature, which reverted to Frank Herbert’s original intensions for this airborne transport.
On a side note, the character of Liet Kynes, played by English actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster, the Dune planet’s so-called environmental “planetologist,” has undergone a gender as well as a color change to a Black female in director Villeneuve’s Dune production. In the context of this latest entry, these alterations make perfect sense: Zendaya, the young actress hired for the role Chani, is also dark-skinned. And as fans of the novel know, the warrior maiden Chani is revealed to be Kynes’ daughter. So, in terms of story, this gender-substitution actually helps the plot along rather than detracts from it.
Genealogically speaking, desert dwellers do tend to be darker skinned than their lighter-skinned counterparts. This would mean that, in general, North African and Middle Eastern residents have darker complexions so as to reflect the sun’s rays. In a similar light, Scandinavians, because of their colder climate, have blondish hair and much lighter skins, which tend to absorb sunlight.
Area 51, the FX specialists involved in the production, created a CGI-desert cyclorama that resembled the Prague stage set in most respects. The thopter, in the initial sandworm sequence at the start, really looked like a flying insect, all of them CGI effects that, according to the techies, took “weeks and weeks” of planning and work to get right.
Oftentimes, the FX shots were blended many weeks and months after the actors themselves have been shot. Composites were needed to be made that complemented what the actors were either referring to or looking at: i.e., those giant sandworms, in one instance. The right emotional quality must be matched and timed to perfection. Let it be known that the worm attacks, and several others later on, remain one of the most impressive in the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 version, a real accomplishment for early television CGI work.
The Shadow of His Smile
The shadow that crosses and divides Paul’s facial features as he and his father ride past a group of Fremen villagers indicates a split in Paul’s nature. At first, he is simply the son of Duke Leto Atreides. Later, Paul becomes the future savior of his people, thus the lighter and darker facets of his character are brought out and stressed, done literally with lighting. Both the danger and the serene aspects that reside within the younger Atreides, and that inevitably clash within him, have yet to take shape. That occurrence will shortly consume him, as his part in the nascent saga — at best, a very crucial part — emerges and develops.
Camera movement, sharp right angles for the Harkonnen, tilted, raked and distorted, along with that red and black color scheme, all factor in the visuals. There is a dark contrast between this brutish bunch and the earth-bound inhabitants of Arrakeen. This leads to Paul’s on-the-spot learning about Arrakis and the Fremen’s mythology. Harrison comments that several sequences in the book were combined and/or excerpted into others, principally (as stated earlier) for clarity. “The book is dense,” Harrison goes on to mention, and thick with symbolism, heavy with meaning. “The spice is everywhere.” And we should feel ourselves being enveloped by it.
Hunter-seekers, those tiny dart-like weapons, are everywhere as well. If one of them gets into your bloodstream it can disrupt the nervous system. One particular hunter-seeker meets a violent end in a water pitcher. This bold attempt to take Paul’s life is greeted with the appropriate action: an enraged Duke Leto issues an order to find the person responsible. “I want him alive. Alive!” the Duke demands. Unfortunately, his war master Gurney Halleck (P.H. Moriarty) disposes of the traitor all-too-handily. This sets up a conflict in which the audience is led to believe that Gurney could have turned on the Duke and his clan.
At the Atreides gathering that evening, a fancy ball is in progress. According to actor William Hurt, who embodied the elder Duke, he envisioned Leto as a “doomed character. And Leto knows it.” Ergo, Hurt played him that way. His focus and purpose was to prepare his son Paul to take over the reins of power and leadership. This inevitability, the fact that Paul’s father is on an irreversible course, makes Duke Leto out to be a mythic character, a “hero” in the classic sense — Achilles, Siegfried, Darth Vader, et al. Leto guides his son along a predestined path, to follow in his footsteps (to coin a cliched phrase) as the next in line for dukedom.
“Trust no one,” Leto admonishes. This limits Paul’s chances for intimacy with, well, basically everyone, even the captivating Princess Irulan. Who can he trust? Who can he confide in? It’s lonely at the top, isn’t it? And if the Harkonnen can kill within the palace walls, who is left to stop them?
‘To Be or Not to Be’: That’s a Question, Not an Answer
At the start of the saga, there were 244 FX shots. The special effects team ended up with over 600 shots! Ecology, as the main theme, took precedence. Interior monologues were eliminated, as previously asserted. Harrison continued to stress that he had to seek ways to externalize those monologues through action and dialogue. “Nothing slows a movie down like listening to a character’s thoughts,” he mused. For example: “Is there a traitor among our own?” This can be both an external idea and an internal one. Which way is better? There is no “right” answer. But one thing is certain: repetition breeds contempt for the process.
Gurney Halleck, the Duke and Paul’s protector, manages to convince young Atreides of his sincere love for his father. “Whiny, bratty and petulant” Paul, as described by Irulan and enacted by Alec Newman, learns to become a man. The commentary here indicates that Harrison was criticized for treating the character as a spoiled child at the start. Later, of course, Paul becomes a godlike messiah. Similarly, Luke Skywalker also began as an impetuous, adventure-seeking adolescent until, through circumstances out of his control, he acquired self-knowledge and realized his potential as a future Jedi master.
The hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell phrased it, has come full circle.
Later that night, Paul has a vision of his father’s death. And Paul breaks down, weeping bitterly. At this juncture, Duncan Idaho (James Watson), one of Duke Leto’s most trusted advisers, introduces him to a potential ally: the distrusting, steely-eyed Stilgar. Paul’s transformation — his spiritual journey, as it were — is played out over three parts, or “acts.” He proves himself a worthy student of politics. And “Graeme Revell’s music carries the spirit of the story. It becomes a story element in itself” (as previously discussed in Part Four: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2021/06/20/i-will-face-my-fear-the-mind-killing-little-deaths-of-dune-part-four/).
The shot of the empty chair, an effective use of the lighting board (with lights going out on the chair itself) symbolizes the coming demise of Leto’s power and influence. Yet, the Duke continues to make sporadic appearances throughout the series, sometimes in Paul’s dreams, at other times in surreptitious circumstances.
He’s like the Ghost of Hamlet’s deceased father, murdered by his uncle Claudius, the current occupant of the throne and an adulterer to boot. In this context, Paul is Prince Hamlet, youthful, immature, unsure of what to do, unable to act. “To be or not to be?” To act or not to act? What to do? How to do it? And when? Indecisions, indecisions, always indecisions!
This all changes with his coming of age, as we shall see.
You heard it here, folks! The Met Opera is back — in full force and with a vengeance. Or, rather, it WILL be back. Bigger and better, is our hope.
The official start date will be Monday, September 27th. As a warm-up, however, the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus, led by their dynamic music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and chorus master Donald Palumbo, offered bereft audiences a special live performance of Verdi’s Requiem on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The featured soloists were soprano Ailyn Pérez, mezzo Michelle DeYoung, tenor Matthew Polenzani, and bass-baritone Eric Owens.
Broadcast on the PBS Network as well as via live streaming, this one-of-a-kind event was well-attended and well-received by an opera public starved for fine singing and quality playing. The packed gallery of attendees that gathered — most of them left in the lurch by a continuing pandemic of historic proportions — rose as one in a prolonged and highly-merited ovation for Maestro Yannick and his soloists.
Chief among the participants was the emotionally charged and uplifting work of Ms. Pérez (superb throughout and positively ethereal in the concluding “Libera me”), along with the equally responsive chorus (their massed and hushed voices were a balm to the soul) and the sublime orchestra.
At the work’s conclusion, there was a quiet calm. Nézet-Séguin, who slowly but gradually took in the moment for what seemed an eternity, stood silent and motionless. One could not help feeling that this performance would never come to an end. Yet, with the camera fixed firmly on his person, Yannick, his eyes closed, the sweat running down his face and neck, serenely and ever-so-deliberately put down his baton. As the maestro lowered his arms, the audience broke out in staggering acclaim for what can only be deemed as an historic moment.
Back in 2017, disgraced maestro James Levine, the former music director and driving force behind the company’s past accomplishments, was pummeled in the press by revelations of sexual misconduct over the course of his long career. Consequently, a flummoxed Met management summarily dismissed Mr. Levine. He was replaced with a younger and less intransigent colleague, Mr. Nézet-Séguin.
General Manager Peter Gelb’s faith in Maestro Yannick’s initiatives and vision has not only been tested and confirmed, but stands as an essential vote of confidence. It is also symbolic of a new direction that may bring opera, as a viable art form, closer to everyday reality; one that would capture the essence of what the future may hold for opera in North America and beyond.
A cursory look at the Metropolitan’s resuscitated and award-winning Live in HD series for 2021-2022 boasts a lineup of extraordinarily topical operatic fare. Not just well-worn favorites — the proverbial outmoded wine in shinier bottles — but completely refashioned revivals and reworked originals, not to mention several Met Opera premieres.
A bold investment in the company’s future? We certainly hope so!
Leading the list is an October 9, 2021 revival of Stephen Wadsworth’s production (in the original 1869 edition) of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, with German bass René Pape as Czar Boris, tenor David Butt Philip as Grigory/the Pretender Dimitri, bass Ain Anger as the monk Pimen, tenor Maxim Paster as Prince Shuisky, baritone Alexey Markov as Shchelkalov, bass Ryan Speedo Green as Varlaam, and tenor Miles Mykkanen as the Holy Fool, conducted by Sebastian Weigle.
The opera was previously reviewed by yours truly in the later revised version (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/11/08/mussorgsky-in-the-raw-the-mets-boris-godunov-an-opera-for-our-time/). Readers should make note that the original Mussorgsky adaptation of Pushkin’s play lacks the so-called Polish Scenes. That is, no female love interest (the Princess Marina) and no rogue priest (the Jesuit Rangoni). Also missing will be the Kromy Forest sequence, replaced in the original by the St. Basil episode in which Czar Boris is confronted by the Holy Fool. What the Met will make of their original production (and its use of the same sets and costumes) is worth exploring.
Story-wise, the opera is a timeless tragedy of power’s corrupting influence and the pernicious effect it exerts on the protagonists — none of whom can be deemed outright “good guys” or “bad guys” in the generally accepted terms. For instance, Boris, the title character, harbors the best of intentions, but is unloved by the people. They blame him for the famine, in spite of his efforts at mitigating their losses. Along comes Grigory, a young monk who disguises himself as the usurper Dimitri. Suddenly, Mother Russia believes in this “hero,” one she can love and look up to, or so she THINKS.
Things do not end well where politics gets in the way of progress.
Next up, on October 23rd the Met will bring the company premiere of jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons’ Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first EVER work by a Black American composer to grace that stage. Based on the memoirs of New York Times graphic artist and journalist Charles M. Blow, the opera stars baritone Will Liverman as the older Charles, Walter Russell III as Baby Char’es, soprano Angel Blue (fresh from the Met’s 2019 Porgy and Bess) as Greta and the dual Destiny/Loneliness characters, soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’ mother Billie, Chauncey Packer as Spinner, Chris Kenney as Chester, and mezzo Cierra Byrd as Bertha. Yannick Nézet-Séquin presides.
For details concerning the opera’s background, see the New York Times and the September 2021 issue of Opera News, which includes an extensive interview with Mr. Blanchard. Incidentally, Blanchard is well established as a film composer. His scores for director-writer-producer Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and especially Inside Man (2006) are particular favorites of mine.
As for Mr. Blow’s memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Columbia Law School Professor Patricia J. Williams has described his work as a jeremiad, a “lengthy lamentation, cresting in a battle of polarities — classically between spirit and flesh — and ending with the triumph of one over the other.” It’s a harrowing story of mistreatment by others, of sexual abuse, and of boundless self-exploration, ending in a quasi-emotional and spiritual compromise. And, above all, you’ll learn that this Black life matters and, most emphatically, that we’re all-too-human under the skin.
Another Met debut, on December 4, will be a new opera, Eurydice, by American composer Matthew Aucoin with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl. Adapted from her 2003 stage play, the work is a modern re-imagining of the Greek myth of Orpheus, but from lost love Eurydice’s point of view. The production, by Mary Zimmerman, features coloratura soprano Erin Morley singing Eurydice, baritone Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as his alter-ego, bass-baritone Nathan Berg as the heroine’s father, and tenor Barry Banks as Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Maestro Nézet-Séguin again conducts. This thrice-told chronicle of love lost and love found, then lost again, has been adapted and performed since time immemorial. In fact, there are more operas on this one subject alone than possibly any other. Can this latest edition prove to be as long-lasting?
And now, for some lighter fare: a retelling of Cinderella will be given special treatment on New Year’s Day. It’s an all-new English translation of a 90-minute abridged presentation of Massenet’s delightful Cendrillon, with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as the heroine “Cindy,” mezzo Emily D’Angelo as her Prince Charming, perky soprano Jessica Pratt as the feisty Fairy Godmother, the formidable mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Cinderella’s mother, and dependable bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as the girl’s doting father. Emmanuel Villaume will conduct. If you would like to read more about the opera’s background, please see my earlier review: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/massenets-cendrillon-a-fairy-tale-wish-comes-true-at-the-met/).
In this, and in ALL such versions of this timeless bedtime story, the title character’s goodness and decency eventually win out over her deceitful relations. How truthful is that in real life?
Verdi’s ever-popular Rigoletto, in an Art Deco-style that takes place in decadent 1920s Europe, will be given a reworking by Bartlett Sher (direction) and Michael Yeargan (sets), with costumes provided by Catherine Zuber. In the cast is Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey as the hunchbacked title character (a role debut at the Met), with soprano Rosa Feola as his daughter Gilda, and Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the duplicitous Duke of Mantua. Maestro Daniele Rustioni will lead the Met forces in a performance slated for January 29, 2022.
We don’t know how much this latest incarnation of Verdi’s masterpiece will succeed over the earlier Michael Mayer-directed 1960s Las Vegas casino production. It’s the one where the Duke doubles as a Frank Sinatra-style lounge singer, and his courtiers are all part of the Rat Pack, with parallels to such personalities of the era as Don Rickles, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine. Whatever the outcome will be, you can be sure that Verdi’s music will survive the transition.
Star of the moment, the sensational big-voiced Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, is scheduled to sing on March 12, 2022, in the late Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Marek Janowski conducting. Davidsen will take on the dual role of the Prima Donna in the Prologue and the abandoned Ariadne in the opera proper. Her colleagues will include soprano Brenda Rae as the spritely Zerbinetta, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as the passionately involved Composer, and tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the Tenor and the god Bacchus. (For additional background and appreciation, please see my review of the Met’s older production: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2021/04/10/stream-for-your-supper-after-dinner-treats-with-met-opera-on-demand-part-four-opera-out-of-the-norm/).
Here’s some interesting news: maestro Nézet-Séguin will be presiding over the Met Orchestra and Chorus in a brand new staging, by director David McVicar, of Verdi’s five-act French version of Don Carlos. This will be first time the composer’s original will be presented in full. A first-rate cast should do justice to this mighty epic — in that, the Met will not disappoint. Tenor Matthew Polenzani will tackle the role of the emotionally disturbed Don Carlos, soprano Sonya Yoncheva is Elisabeth de Valois, and baritone Étienne Dupuis will assume the part of Rodrigue (or Rodrigo) the Marquis of Posa, with mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča as the haughty Princess Eboli, and bass-baritones Eric Owens and John Relyea appearing as King Philippe II and the Grand Inquisitor, respectively. A grand time will be had by all this coming March 26!
This longest of Verdi’s output (with the earlier I Vespri Siciliani, in its Gallic guise as Les Vêpres Siciliennes, coming in a close second), Don Carlos has finally assumed its rightful place as one of the Bear of Busseto’s finest efforts, superseding his own Aida in the epic vein. And why is that? For over a century and a half, Aida had been looked at as the “be-all” and “end-all” of what grand opera aspired to, especially by the Italians. Well, for one thing the years have not been kind to poor old Aida. She’s been misused and mishandled by artists as far afield as Elton John and Tim Rice. For another, the ersatz storyline — about a Black slave and secretly disguised Ethiopian princess Aida, who falls in love with white-Egyptian army captain Radames, who is also loved by a white Princess Amneris, has fallen into disrepute of late as stereotypical and inauthentic.
Personally, I believe it has more to do with opera house budgets (or the lack thereof) than any underlying racial issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are points to made, both pro and con, with regard to ethnicity problems. To this point, the inability of singers to do justice, vocally and histrionically, to the various roles, in particular that of the tenor taking on Radames, is a huge factor. Historically, not since the larger-than-life voices and/or outgoing personalities of Messrs. Domingo, Giacomini, Vickers, Corelli, Tucker, and Del Monaco has the part been sung with anything like the heroic quality that these artists brought to the Met and elsewhere. I’m afraid the situation has not improved to any noticeable degree.
The same goes for Puccini’s Turandot, which returns to the Met stage in Franco Zeffirelli’s grandiose, overblown production, to be performed on May 7, 2022. Big-voiced Russian diva Anna Netrebko should live up to the advance publicity as she tackles the titular “ice princess.” Attempting to thaw her out will be Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, one of those big tenor voices who should be able to withstand the vocal onslaught, along with soprano Ermonela Jaho as the slave-girl Liù, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as the blind Timur. Marco Armiliato will mount the podium for this one. Make way for the paparazzi, people! Why Turandot has remained in the Met’s repertory and Aida has been closeted and mothballed away is a problem that defies resolution, at least for the foreseeable future.
A brand new staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor will be on tap for May 21st. It will be the work of Australian film and theater director Simon Stone — so one can expect a multimedia extravaganza, from all reports. Riccardo Frizza will lead the Met Orchestra and Chorus. Soprano Nadine Sierra, no stranger to stratospheric vocal assignments, will sing the hapless heroine Lucia, with Mexican high-note specialist Javier Camarena as her lover Edgardo. Also in the cast is baritone Artur Ruciński as Lucia’s bully of a brother, Enrico, and British bass Matthew Rose as her spiritual advisor, Raimondo.
One of Donizetti’s most popular pieces, Lucia has been and will forever remain a much adored favorite among singers. All vocal categories, whether male or female, simply love, love, love this work. The original plot, taken from one of those Romantic-era, Gothic-type ghost stories — in this case, by Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, he of the historical Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, and the narrative poem The Lady of the Lake —dramatizes the plight of the financially strapped Lady Ashton to marry her daughter Lucy off in a loveless arrangement to the rich Francis, Lord of Bucklaw. Listening to the informative Met podcast, “Aria Code,” I learned that women, in the eighteenth-century, notably upper-class girls of marriageable age, were treated more or less as chattel, as bargaining chips for their parents’ use and abuse. No wonder Lucy went mad!
And finally, the North American premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hamlet will take place on June 4, 2022. With a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn and adapted from Shakespeare’s most famous play (and one of his longest!), the opera premiered at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival in England to positive reviews. Neil Armfield is credited with the staging and Nicholas Carter will pick up the baton. According to advance publicity, most of the original cast will take part, to include tenor Allan Clayton as Hamlet, soprano Brenda Rae as Ophelia, mezzo Sarah Connolly as Gertrude, baritone Rod Gilfry as King Claudius, and British bass John Tomlinson, a worthy Wotan and Hagen in his day, as the ghost of Hamlet’s dearly departed parent whom, as we know from reading the Bard in high school English class, was murdered by his own brother. Phew, talk about family values!
Are you not entertained? Is this not an ambitious program? Oh yeah! But the bigger and more pertinent questions are these: Can the Met really pull these huge rabbits out of a continuously shrinking hat? And can this new, bold initiative bring in the overflow crowd back home? Or has the company bit off WAY more than it can chew? And will this premature re-opening have that flowing red carpet pulled from under it?
Will Live in HD survive? Or will it crumble into Met Opera memories? We’ll soon find out, won’t we?
As the old saying goes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” But, then, so has the opera.
It’s true that opera has gone about as far as a performing art could go — that is, along the compositional front. But how much further must it travel before it can achieve a rebirth in the face of the continuing coronavirus pandemic? No one really knows.
Be that as it may, loyal fans of the genre were cheered to learn that the Metropolitan Opera will be back, in full force, come September 27, when the company reopens its doors to live performances. The scheduled work, the long-awaited premiere of jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on New York Times journalist Clarence Blow’s memoirs, will be co-directed by James Robinson and choreographer Camille A. Brown. Both artists were credited with the company’s successful The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess run.
Okay, that’s one down and about 21 other works to be revived and presented, not including a recital by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva and a one-off of Verdi’s Requiem Mass on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Can the Met pull off such a Sisyphean task? Will it be forced, in the long run, to close up shop in the event of a mass outbreak? We’ll have to wait and see.
Frankly, this overly-ambitious program, which boasts four Met Opera premieres, six new productions, and 16 repertory favorites, is not only aimed at economic survival, but has its mind set on placating subscribers as well as easing the public’s fears about COVID (okay, we buy that). Will they be enough to ensure that all is right with Gotham’s theaters? We’re not so sure.
Hey, most of Europe has succeeded in revving up their stage output. Why can’t Broadway do the same, or should we say Manhattan’s West Side, where Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts happens to be located? Why, it’s been a veritable ghost town since the shutdown took hold. Time to get things rolling again, right? Ka-tching, ka-tching, ka-tching go the coffers! People’s livelihoods are at stake, so let’s get those shows on the road.
But aren’t we being a tad premature in our expectations? Aren’t opera and theater companies taking enormous risks with their patrons’ health and lives? With tempting fate beyond the perceived norms? That in moving too quickly, they’ll be inviting the unwelcome Delta variant onto their stages? With another variant named Mu still waiting in the wings? Good points, all!
As a general rule, there are plenty of risks already, especially where opera is concerned. Many of them have to do with the ever-expanding repertoire: the range and styles of works offered, in a variety of foreign formats (poetic English to be included), and the nature and extent of the pieces themselves.
Then, there are the artists who bring opera to life: the singers, the conductors, the musicians, the chorus, the sets and costume designers, the carpenters and the scenarists, the digital display technicians and the other contrivances that old-timers (such as myself) have come to grapple with and, inevitably, accept as the means by which works are disseminated and deployed.
All this (and a whole lot more) requires not only talent but money — and plenty of it. What makes reviving the art form during a still-thriving pandemic such a necessity in trying times? Our collective sanity perhaps? Saving civilization and civility as we know them?
I like to think it has more to do with preserving our culture, our way of life, and of saying to oneself, “This is the natural order of things. As our lives go, so goes the artistic life.”
And there’s no business like show business!
The More We Watch, the More We Want
During this “stay at home” period, I’ve enjoyed tuning into Met Opera on Demand. For the home-bound crowd among us, we’ve been able to “catch up” with dozens upon dozens of major and minor works, all in the comfort of our living rooms — many of which we would never have had the opportunity to enjoy and learn about had it not been for this 24-hour service.
Yes, day in and day out, the Met, in its duty as the country’s premier opera showcase, has allowed anyone and everyone, from non-subscribers and newbies to rabid fans, the unique opportunity to indulge themselves in past and near-present performances ranging from standard repertory items (La Bohème, Carmen, Aida, Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Rigoletto, The Magic Flute, Die Walküre, Der Rosenkavalier) to out-and-out rarities (Akhnaten, Agrippina, The Nose, War and Peace, Nixon in China, From the House of the Dead, Doctor Atomic, etc.).
Unfortunately, as with life itself, all good things must come to an end.
At the close of July 2021, the Met Opera ceased its temporary “no cost” streaming service and reverted to past paying form. Of course, you’ll be able to access short previews of choice items. But the whole shebang? Well, that’ll cost you. Mind you, I’m not upset. Just saddened that art — especially the operatic art — must give way to reality. And what is that reality? That opera is an extremelyexpensive proposition; that it comes with a heavy, and we do mean HEAVY price tag; and that it takes a tremendous amount of effort, sweat, guts, and sacrifice to make it come alive.
How I wish that weren’t the case. This large, unwieldy, by turns frustrating and heartbreaking, yet always alluring and life-affirming, and, yes, quite irresistible force continues to wield its power over us. Its ability to fascinate and consume listeners, for as long as it’s been around, continues to hold sway. Still captivating, still unnerving, but very much alive and thriving. The Energizer Bunny of Song. THAT’S opera!
Opera exerts a powerful hold on listeners. It speaks our language. No, not Italian, not French, not German, not Spanish or Russian, nor even Czech. Those are obvious features. But another language entirely, one that strikes at the very heart, the very soul, the very fiber of our being, like no spoken language we know of. It’s both a musical idiom and a literary one, separate but always together. And acceptance of its cost is a vital aspect of operatic life, an unalterable component. The alternative is extinction, and that we cannot allow.
The chance to revisit old friends is worth the extra time and effort. The same goes for the unfamiliar. In that, I’ve come to accept this opportunity, vis-à-vis the ever-expanding repertoire, with open arms and a good deal of curiosity. Lots of hits and misses, though, which we’ll get to in due course.
Keep in mind that opera is not just Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini. There’s a whole bunch of viable stuff out there, if one bothers to look for and listen to them. But it’s never a bad start when you begin with the tried and the true.
Along those lines, I was encouraged recently by an addition to my listening habits of a Met Opera podcast called “Aria Code.” Now THERE’S a perfectly tuned ad line if ever I heard one (wish I’d come up with that!).
This free streaming series, hosted by musician, performer, and singer Rhiannon Giddens, a native North Carolinian of note, is both a refreshing take on the subject of podcasts and an highly informative essay about, of all things, the opera. Guests have included sopranos Anna Netrebko and Nadine Sierra, tenors Javier Camarena and Vittorio Grigolo, German bass René Pape, and a slew of teachers, artists, writers, musicologists, and so forth, whose unquestioned expertise in the field takes one’s breath away.
The purpose of the program is to breakdown well-known arias into their basic components by way of historical analysis and musical extracts, providing background, explanations, and contrast as well as personal reflections by singers associated with the aria’s style. It’s a beguilingly entertaining half hour of music and talk, the kind that inspires and elevates the subject in a friendly, non-condescendingly down-to-earth manner.
So with that, let’s go on with the show!
The Barber of Seville (2007). Rossini’s ever-popular The Barber of Seville, or to use its Italian title Il Barbiere di Siviglia (originally, Almaviva, ossia l’Unitil Precauzione – “or The Useless Precaution”), starring Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Figaro, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Rosina, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Count Almaviva, bass-baritone John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo, and Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea as Don Basilio, is always welcome in one’s household.
This is the Met’s current Bartlett Sher production, another of his deftly humorous yet slightly contemporary (one could say, off-kilter) take on a standard repertory piece. I remember an older one (from the early 1980s) with Marilyn Horne, Rockwell Blake, Pablo Elvira, Enzo Dara, and Ara Berberian. Ah, but those were the pre-supertitle days! About the only words that audiences back then were able to discern were Ms. Horne’s “It’s the list of last-week’s laundry,” which always drew hearty guffaws.
From the Live in HD performance of March 24, 2007, all the cast members shone in their parts. They’d better, or might as well get into another line of work. With that said, the oh-so-tall Mattei made for an involved, but understated Figaro. A good thing too, for things got out of hand soon enough. His singing was above complaint, especially after getting through his high-lying introductory cavatina. From there, Mattei and his capable cast sailed through with the proverbial flying colors. There were extra characters galore, including that lively bunch of hangers-on who encircled the barber’s pushcart whenever he was within earshot.
Novelties and innovations abounded, especially in Mr. Sher’s world, and this production was no exception. He managed to bring this old warhorse to sparkling life with enough fizz as to give “champagne” a new meaning. With the stratospheric Juan Diego Flórez in firm control as Count Almaviva, the vocal pyrotechnics were intact. And with that wily minx, Ms. DiDonato, there was much to admire. Both singers had a field day: he as the amorous Count, she as the ditzy, accident-prone, self-motivated Rosina — like a spider waiting to pounce on her unsuspecting prey. In this setting, the comic antics took center stage, a welcome treat for tired minds.
Rossini’s opus was not the first incarnation of French author, the Marquis de Beaumarchais’ play. That happened to be one by composer Giovanni Paisiello, which the Rossini version soon displaced. So beloved was the older Paisiello piece that Rossini was reluctant to use the original title. A substitute was hastily arranged: the above-mentioned Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution. It did not help that the lead artist, Spanish tenor Manuel García, the scion of a notable singing family, decided to incorporate one of his own songs into the Count’s serenade. Despite this audacious act, the opera overcame a nearly disastrous premiere to become one of the public’s favorites.
The plot, sans those pre-revolutionary rumblings, involves a rascally doctor (Bartolo) who wants to marry his young ward (Rosina) with the help of an avaricious music master (Basilio). A young nobleman (Almaviva) has amorous designs of his own, but wants the ward to love him for himself, not his money. To aid in his scheme, Almaviva enlists a jack-of-all-trades barber (Figaro) in a preposterous plot that forces Bartolo to see the error of his ways. In the end, all ends happily as the doctor consents to Rosina and the Count’s marriage.
That first act ensemble and finale of this production led to one of the funniest and liveliest gatherings in many a decade. So many simultaneous back-and-forth double takes occurred, many of which would be lost if not for the closed captioning. And hilarious, indeed, was the late John Del Carlo’s potently-voiced, rapid-fire delivery, and perfectly-timed Dr. Bartolo, especially his quarrelsome give-and-takes with sleep-deprived servant Ambrogio (actor Rob Besserer) and the constantly-sneezing maidservant Berta (mezzo Claudia Waite).
Maurizio Benini led the Met Orchestra and Chorus in this rollicking, good-time, good for a hearty laugh-or-two gala, surely one of the better Barbers in many a year. Honorable mentions go to Relyea’s well-sung, over the top “Calumny” aria, and Juan Diego’s last-act addition, to the same melody of Angelina’s air in the same composer’s La Cenerentola (Rossini’s Mediterranean take on another Frenchman, Charles Perrault’s classic Cinderella story).
Le Nozze di Figaro (1998). Otherwise known as The Marriage of Figaro, this Jonathan Miller production, circa November 11, 1998, boasted soprano Renée Fleming as the melancholy Countess, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as the hard-pressed barber-turned-servant Figaro, mezzo Cecilia Bartoli as his crafty wife-to-be Susanna, baritone Dwayne Croft as an older, smoothly plotting Count, rising mezzo Susanne Mentzer as the highly-strung Cherubino, bass Paul Plishka as cantankerous Dr. Bartolo, mezzo Wendy White as the jilted maidservant Marcellina, tenor Heinz Zednik as a sniveling Don Basilio, bass Thomas Hammons as inebriated gardener Antonio (who, by the way, gives away too much of the secret goings-on in the Count’s palace), and perky coloratura Danielle di Niese as his daughter Barbarina. James Levine led the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
Well, to put it bluntly, I’m not as indulgent of Mozart’s four-act masterwork as I was with Rossini’s raucous take on the tale. Mozart’s version was written before the popular Rossini piece — in fact, the Barber is the first in a trio of plays by Monsieur Beaumarchais, the second being La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (“The Mad Day, or…”), with the third one entitled La Mère Coupable, or “The Guilty Mother.” Still, I find Wolfgang and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s magnum opus to be long, long, long in the hearing. A little too much of a good thing, if such were possible.
In this sequel, the formerly above-board Count has turned into a randy old shirt-chaser. He can’t keep his aristocratic paws off Figaro’s intended, Susanna, nor can he resist the endearing young charms of the frisky Barbarina (or any other damsel within his grasp). This sets up some winding machinations by the women, whereby Susanna and the Countess (the former Rosina) plan to teach the carousing Count a lesson he’ll never forget, but in a less confrontational sense. Figaro, too, gets his “comeuppance,” to a degree, but all is resolved in the end, thanks mostly to Mozart’s love for his characters. While the buffo elements are intact, it’s the composer’s music and the way he suffuses his characters with nobility and purpose that remain the opera’s saving graces.
That’s not to say that I dislike the work. Quite the contrary. Le Nozzedi Figaro, to give its Italian rendering, was one of the first pieces I studied while at Fordham University. Our teacher, Dr. Kurtz, lavished all-due praise on the opera, with good reason. To peak our interest, Professor Kurtz played the fine Carlo Maria Giulini recording on EMI/Angel, with a sterling cast headed by Giuseppe Taddei, Anna Moffo, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Eberhard Wächter in the principal roles, as a superior example of Mozart singing and conducting. I buy that, but for me, at least, I’m afraid this work has its longueurs. In fact, it never seems to end. Just when you think you’ve reached the point of a scene, another one begins.
“Too many notes?” as Emperor Joseph II termed it. (Of course, he was referring to The Abduction from the Seraglio, but if the shoe fits…). Well, I’ll leave it to viewers to make that determination. I’ve made my peace with the piece, so that settles that.
Meantime, the assembled roster frolicked in Miller’s re-interpretation, which became a lot more than your typical drawing room farce. Ribald and obvious were more the themes. Bartoli’s constant mugging for the cameras and lightning quick vibrato were distracting, to say the least, but her artistry managed to squeak through, nonetheless. She included a rarely heard “number” in one of her scenes, but otherwise this singer’s mannered approach to everything remained a turnoff.
Ditto for Mr. Terfel. I was reminded of how well his acting chops were in 1998, and how little actual mugging he did. That’s not the case today, where his constant eye-popping and leading with his chin get in the way of his portrayals. Lately, they have all tended to be cut from the same cloth, with little variation or follow through. Here, though, I found his Figaro to be a most pleasant diversion. The robustness of the voice impressed (more baritone than bass) and was of good quality. For once, Terfel lived up to the promise of his youth. “Bravo, Signor Figaro, ma bravo!”
Dwayne Croft, as the Count, was surprise casting. One tends to forget how burnished a sound the Cooperstown native once possessed and could muster. A dependable and durable artist, Mr. Croft was normally cast in supporting roles. But his star turn as Billy Budd, his sympathetic Sharpless in countless Butterfly assignments, and his Ping in the trio of Ping, Pang and Pong in Turandot, have enlivened many a dull proceeding of these works.
Tall and striking, Croft stood out from the crowd, especially once Ms. Fleming entered the picture. The soprano was in her element, but her blowsy way with the words made her sometimes droopy intonation of the Countess’ marital woes a bit of a chore. One could sense the deep hurt she felt at her husband’s betrayal, though, so similar in comparison to Fleming’s heartwarming portrait of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. On the youth front, Ms. Mentzer’s boyishly charming “little cherub” was another well-cast part, her pointedly supple mid-range conveying the inner cravings (and outer yearnings) of a horny, pubescent boy on the cusp of manhood. As a consequence, this gave believability to Act II’s shenanigans and subsequent madcap finale.
Both Mr. Plishka and Ms. White huffed and puffed and gusted to their hearts’ content, but their third act revelation that they are, in reality, Figaro’s long-lost parents — a long-kept secret, so we were informed — brought down the house. I found that last act wrap-up, where the Count asks the Countess to forgive his less than debonair carousing, to be a letdown and far less moving than is the wont (it was a finely focused feature of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus film project and of Peter Shaffer’s stage play). Otherwise, I was more than happy to re-live this work, albeit in fast-forward fashion.
Beth speaks very little. She is sullen and serious, taciturn to a fault. She’s experienced death at an early age. What more must a young girl learn about the cruelties that life can impose upon her?
One extraordinarily revealing sequence occurs late in Episode One, where the high school chess club coach, Mr. Ganz (Jonjo O’Neill), presents young Beth with the gift of a doll. Beth does not know what to do with the doll. She looks to Mr. Shaibel for a sign as to how to behave. Shaibel motions with his head and eyes, signaling her to show some gratitude to the coach. Beth manages a forced smile and blurts out the words, “Thank you.”
No sooner is their meeting over when Beth, dragging the doll by the arm, disposes it in the nearest waste basket. So this is what she thinks of “childish things.” She has matured far beyond her years. For her, childhood never came and will never arrive. Thrown, unprepared, by a horrendous car crash into the adult world, the flashbacks to her and her mother’s vagrant lifestyle reflect a plunge into survival at the cost of all else. But the memories remain intact. The knowledge that Beth’s mother has run away at every opportunity, in avoidance of responsibility, will continue to haunt her footsteps.
There is no point in Beth’s life that she can look back on with nostalgia or enjoyment. She lives in a joyless world, not always of her own making but put upon her by circumstances out of her control. Only now, control is in her court. It will take the remainder of the series to explore how Beth Harmon loses that control — through pills, alcohol, sex, what have you — and eventually regains it by way of, first, manipulation of the men and those around her; and second, by her understanding of her role in affecting a more positive change to her nature and, ultimately, her behavior. A realization that she needs the companionship of both sexes, male and female, to accomplish her goals.
To triumph over the hardships that Beth herself has placed before her is a tall order for one with such small shoulders. To bear that burden will come at a cost. Will Beth be willing to pay that cost?
The formula is set and must be adhered to. Old World decorum and ritual must be observed. These will enable Beth to move forward with her plans. She will conform, but will others conform along with her? Her only equal, she soon discovers, is snot-nosed Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the reigning U.S. chess champion and as vain and full of himself and his abilities as Beth is not. Others will fall in line, but there will always be those who do not. Such is life.
Acceptance is routine, but not for Beth. The means by which she ultimately accomplishes her goal is what fascinates us. These are director/writer Scott Frank’s opening moves, whereby his “queen” is sacrificed at the outset so as to attain a higher purpose: that of improving oneself.
Beth does not “need” men, at least not for the usual purpose. Nor, for that matter, does she need women. Or so she thinks. She accepts who she is; she’s comfortable in her own skin. After all, she’s the queen, so she must dress the part. Whatever approbation she has earned in the end must stand for the one she has so longed for in life: acceptance of one’s fallibility. No one is perfect, not even a queen.
Still, she must confront several dilemmas in her interaction with others: 1) her fear and/or failure to commit to close relationships with the same or opposite sex; and 2) her realization that a father and/or mother figure is as important in her life as they are for every other person. This dualism in her psyche and nature leads to an awkward situation when Beth catches the unrequited love of her life, the handsome journalist and chess player Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), in a hotel room with another man. Later, there’s a “reveal” (in more ways than one) that somehow placates Beth’s crushed ego/illusions about this so-called dreamboat.
Subverting Accepted Norms
There’s another incident, the “one off” she experiences with the boastful Benny, that could either lead to nowhere emotionally or cement an already budding acquaintanceship that, by all rights, will place these two sparring partners on a more-or-less equal plane. We know that Beth delights in subverting accepted norms, in overturning preconceived notions of a woman’s place in society.
At her first chess tournament, the looks and stares she receives do not thwart her ambitions; quite the contrary, they embolden her. Her aim is to beat those preconceived ideas about what women can do in a man’s world. In this instance, the world of professional chess. Beth tries to fit into this world, but there are those who serve as constant reminders that she’s a square peg trying to squeeze into a very round hole. Don’t let that awkward turn-of-phrase stop you from thinking the obvious. There are literally dozens, if not more, girls and women who would like to see Beth get “screwed” (in every sense), along with an equal number of men (boys included) who’d like to do the screwing.
But Beth does not give up her “charms” so easily. Having grown up with no strong male models, no loving father figure she can call “Dad,” and no close relations to confide in, Beth remains what she’s always been: a loner. Her stepfather, the brooding Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy), is an uptight traveling salesman who spends more time away from home and his alcoholic, manic-depressive spouse Alma (Marielle Heller) than making a life for his newfound family. His condescending remarks to Alma and to the couple’s adopted stepdaughter cut the teenaged Beth to the bone. However, they do serve to steel Beth’s resolve to be the best at what she’s best at.
After Mr. Wheatley abandons Alma, Beth becomes the main bread winner. Having won a chess tournament in Cincinnati, Beth is interviewed by a chain-smoking female LIFE reporter who might have been modeled after Hollywood costume designer Edith Head or novelist/screenwriter Ayn Rand. This reporter is more masculine than the men that Beth emasculates. While the reporter attempts to psychoanalyze her motives vis-à-vis the language of chess, Beth’s reaction is plain: all she wants to do is “play.” “Chess can also be … beautiful,” is her thoughtful riposte to a question about whether she sees the king as a male and the queen as a female in the age-old war of the sexes.
The LIFE article goes deeper, though, by depicting chess champion Beth as “out for blood.” Adjectives such as these abound in The Queen’s Gambit. In fact, they get to the central issue of whether a girl, a woman, a physically mature and mentally capable member of the opposite sex can overturn those boxed-in, narrow-minded opinions about the traditional roles women were meant to play.
The Chess Game of Life
Speaking of which, Beth’s frequent chess partners, like her precious chess pieces, are introduced one by one: Matt and Mike, the garrulous twin brothers; Harry Beltik, the grandmaster who harbors an unrequited affection for Beth; and bad boy Benny, the self-assured braggart in the cowboy hat (dressed all in black) with a heart of gold. Again, the outfits have determined the actors’ roles in the chess game of life. Some are pawns, some are rooks. The twins are bishops, perhaps even knights. The others take turns as kings. Benny, for all intents and purposes, is more of a rogue piece: You never know where he stands or what his next move is. Symbolically and logically, Bess is always the queen.
Unfortunately, this queen turns once too often to alcohol. Bess is actually a lowly pawn who tries a bit too hard to surmount her present position. We know that she constantly strives to improve herself through her playing skills. She develops “defenses”; she studies her past moves on her own, the opening gambits, the usual and unusual plays, the strategies, the outcomes — all of them acting as a buffer against the (you’ll pardon the expression) vicissitudes of her life.
Beth, and the viewer, learn that all the pieces in chess can be sacrificed. Yes, all, that is, except one: the king. Even the queen can be given up. But the king is always the last piece left standing. So why is the queen the most powerful? And why is the king so helpless, so useless, in fact? All the king does is retreat. That’s not so in life, now, is it? These are matters worth pondering.
In Episode Six, we’re back to where the series first began. Beth is startled awake by the concierge pounding loudly at her hotel room door. She’s late for her match with Soviet-Russian chess champion Borgov. Earlier in Episode Three, she meets up with Benny Watts in Las Vegas, where they officially introduce themselves to each other. Benny beats her, badly, in speed chess and in tournament play. Beth takes the losses badly. My, my, how the mighty have fallen.
After Beth tries to cut Alma down to size, her stepmother rather bluntly tells Beth that now she knows how it feels to lose. Beth isn’t mad at Alma, or that she lost to Benny. No, she’s more upset at Townes, the man she reconnected with in Vegas, whom she earlier caught sharing a room with another man. She and Townes were beginning to get intimate when Roger, the roommate, barged in unannounced and unexpected. That ended a relationship before it had begun. Poor Beth. A woman spurned, she takes her disappointment out in drink.
She and Alma depart the hotel in a taxi. Beth reaches out to hold Alma’s hand, as mother and daughter, the two commiserating as one. Two queens, still alone but needing each other all the more.
Scorching obsessions, mad love interests, infidelity, misplaced feelings, misunderstood motives. These are the kinds of things we’ve been talking about: something to test our ability to listen, judge, learn, and absorb; to push that operatic envelope about as far as it can go — or as far as we allow ourselves to get pushed.
Some works, by their very nature, are impossible to classify, while others stick out by virtue of their originality. Still others may or may not play well on your average stage.
One such novelty would be German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1965 gargantuan Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), an incredibly dense and immensely complex score (and plot) that resembles, in many respects, a nightmarish amplification of Berg’s Wozzeck, right down to its female protagonist, both named Marie. This is what we mean by the term “opera on steroids.” It was staged in New York at the Park Avenue Armory back in 2008.
Requiring multiple stage platforms and simultaneous action, in addition to extra-musical sound effects, we doubt it will ever see the light of day on the Met Opera stage. It’s much too nonconformist. We’ll call this one as we see it: A once-in-a-lifetime experience, but no more.
No, our dose of relevancy and that needed jolt to the system can be found in the modern-esque efforts of a senior citizen of Czech descent and a much lauded British composer.
This Prison Life
From the House of the Dead (2009). I’m a huge admirer of Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s music. In fact, his concert pieces are regularly performed the world over, and with positive results. Listen, for instance, to his exceedingly sonorous orchestral showpiece, the Sinfonietta (1924), and especially to those marvelous opening brass fanfares which periodically return and conclude this lushly scored opus.
Or to the jubilant Glagolitic Mass, another striking effort (the tenor solos are exacting, to say the least). This is not at all what can be considered your normal ecclesiastical experience, but an intensely “festive, life-affirming pantheistic” expression of the human spirit, so wrote the composer.
His operas Jenůfa (1904) and Kat’a Kabanová (1921) have been performed in every major house, including at the Met, with the former work returning to the repertoire in 1974 after a 50-year absence. Sung first in English translation, Jenůfa featured Polish soprano Teresa Kubiak, American mezzo Astrid Varnay, Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, and Canadian Jon Vickers, whose crooning of the heroine’s name, “Yen-OO-fa,” threw native speakers of Czech into a fit (the accent is placed on the first syllable, YEN-u-fa).
The latter work, Kat’a Kabanová, went on to premiere, in 1991, in the original Czech language. Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, an acknowledged authority on Janáček’s music, it starred Czech-born soprano Gabriela Beňačková as Kat’a and the legendary Leonie Rysanek as Kabanicha. Talk about authenticity! The same two protagonists, Beňačková and Rysanek, were paired again in a 1992 revival, for the first time in the original Czech language, of Jenůfa, with Madame Rysanek tearing the place apart with a roof-raising performance of the Kostelnička, or the Sexton’s wife.
Another of the composer’s offbeat stage works, the opera The Makropoulos Case (1926), was based on Karel Čapek’s play, a veritable Victorian-era horror show, with a shadowy lead figure — the cold and beautiful opera star Emilia Marty — depicted as ageless, thanks to a secret life-extending formula. The opera had its Met debut in 1996, with diva Jessye Norman, singing in English, bringing the 337-year-old Ms. Marty to life, as it were. Later revivals included sopranos Catherine Malfitano and the Finnish Karita Mattila.
I’m still waiting for the Met to stage the delightful and stunningly gorgeous The Cunning Little Vixen (1923) or, to use its literal title, Tales of Vixen Sharp-Ears, a wonderful fairy-tale-like parable that takes place in the natural world along with the creatures that inhabit it — in particular, a clever female fox named Vixen, her mate, and, in the final scene, her little brood.
Called the most “cinematic” of all his stage works, the plot of The Cunning Little Vixen is comprised chiefly of episodic scenes in the strictly “symbolic” relationship between the Vixen and the Forester, and the endlessly repetitive cycle of life itself. But make no mistake: This is a most moving and philosophical conception. Many listeners will be hard-pressed to equate the story with Walt Disney’s Bambi, but the comparisons are viable and not far from the mark. As a matter of fact, the original Vixen story appeared as a newspaper tale accompanied by cartoon strips. Imagine that! What next, an opera based on Charles Schultz’ Peanuts gang? Why not! It did well on Broadway, so why not in the opera house?
A nationalist down to his bones, Janáček continuously mined his country’s folk music for inspiration as early as the late 1880s. In addition to incorporating a vast amount of material into his creations, the composer went on to develop a signature form of notation, a series of sharp-edged, jagged, staccato-based motifs, injected specifically into his final work for the stage, the three-act From the House of the Dead (1928). We should make note that the composer’s last four operas were written after the age of 65, which place Janáček into that elite category of older masters whose late-blooming opuses have set them apart from their earlier triumphs.
Inspired by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s voluminous writings of prison life (that is, his own) in a Siberian labor camp, there is no set plot, only separate vignettes scored, mostly, for male voices who are part of a collective chorus. The libretto is by the composer himself. From the chorus, individual stories emerge and are intoned as, one by one, each prisoner steps up to give a personal account of their harrowing existence and the brutality encountered in the camp. Originally in three acts, the opera was given straight, without intermission.
Their grueling existence and the pervasive bleakness of the surroundings (termed “grim, dissonant and disconnected” by reviewer Michael Kennedy in Opera on Record 2) are indicated in the opening prelude. Its monotonous repetitiveness and propulsive stridency grind on listeners nerves, almost to the breaking point. In essence, we experience the same kind of nauseatingly pointless routine, in music, as do the prisoners. “Intense,” is how one critic described this searing work. One of the few moments of hope takes place when an eagle lands in the prisoners’ midst, its wings damaged. As the opera ends, the eagle, its wings now healed, is lifted and released into the wild, a symbol of life-affirming continuity in the face of bleakness and despair.
The connection of From the House of the Dead to filmmaker Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption should not be lost on viewers. Others may find notable similarities present in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and his three-volume non-fiction text, The Gulag Archipelago (1973).
With a large ensemble cast headed by Peter Mattei, Willard White, Stefan Margita, Heinz Zednik, Peter Straka, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kurt Streit, Jeffrey Wells, Adam Klein, Richard Bernstein, John Cheek, Scott Scully, Peter Hoare, et al., and Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the masterful Met Opera Orchestra, this 2009 production was spearheaded by debuting French director Patrice Chéreau. You will recall that the late Monsieur Chéreau was responsible for the Met’s recent Elektra production and, of course, his epoch-making 1976 Bayreuth Centenary production of Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Most audience members as well as viewers were caught off guard by the sheer starkness of the work and, most importantly, by the moving performances, especially those of Mr. Mattei and Mr. White. A triumph in every respect, and ultimately a validation on the struggle of individuals for survival at any cost.
Men at War
Billy Budd (1997). Survival and the enduring humanistic spirit in man are but two of the themes in British composer Benjamin Britten’s seagoing saga, Billy Budd, based on a novella by Herman Melville (Moby-Dick). The libretto was adapted by novelist E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, Howards End, A Passage to India) and librettist Eric Crozier. Originally premiered in 1951 in four acts, Britten heavily revised the work in 1964, partitioning it into two acts, with a Prologue and Epilogue. This version met with success and the opera is now considered one of Britten’s finest large-scale achievements.
Director John Dexter’s classic 1978 Met production, with William Dudley’s cutaway set that rises and lowers, gave audiences the impression they are glimpsing an authentic British man-o-war on the high seas. That this 1997 revival still convinces, after so many decades of use, is a remarkable testament to its durability and utilitarian aspects. Conductor Steuart Bedford, who worked alongside Britten in his last years, especially with the composer’s semi-autobiographical valedictory piece, Death in Venice (1973), presided over the Met Opera Orchestra and all-male Chorus.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars era, there are boundless similarities to Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series of books (1969-1999) and director Peter Weir’s subsequent 2003 film version, with preparations for an actual sea battle about to take place on the stage — a remarkably vivid recreation, enlivened by “real” cannon shots off the starboard bow.
The central character of Billy Budd is defined as possessing “beauty, handsomeness, and goodness.” Billy’s buoyant nature is preserved in descriptive language throughout and in how he’s regarded by fellow shipmates, much of it streamlined for operatic purposes. The conflicts between the HMS Indomitable’s Captain Vere, moralistic upholder of order and British maritime law; John Claggart, the brutishly depraved master-at-arms, blinded by his “motiveless malignity,” who lusts after Billy but vows to destroy him at all costs; and the too-good-to-be-true Billy Budd, the young and eager foretopman exuding affability, bonhomie, and loved by all (including the aforementioned Captain Vere), are skillfully juxtaposed against one another.
Exceedingly approachable as well is the music which Britten developed for this nautical tale. With a score based on old English sea chanties and folksong, this is a startlingly accessible work, tuneful and emotionally uplifting as well as vital. In this pre-HD transmission, the camerawork (supervised by veteran director Brian Large) focuses on the protagonists, especially Billy Budd (beautifully sung and acted by baritone Dwayne Croft in a blond wig), with the central theme being conformity to the norms required by the Articles of War.
Billy, an able and eager-to-please seaman, loves his work and takes to the rigors of navy life with ease and abundant good cheer, so much so that he earns the enmity of Claggart. Billy is the outsider, as Peter Grimes was in Britten’s eponymously titled opera written prior to this one. Billy and Grimes are both nonconformists in a society that thrives on conformity, where the letter of the “law” is the rule, not the exception.
Discipline is adhered to, and most rigorously so. As kind, empathetic, and liberal-minded as Vere purports to be (the men nickname him “Starry Vere”), he is nonetheless bound by tradition — that is, the British Navy’s code of conduct. His nemesis, Claggart (the hulking James Morris, impressive in both height and voice), is the harsh instrument of obedience to that order, the navy’s blunt-edged tool used indiscriminately to beat those codes into the skulls of men pressed forcibly into His Majesty’s service.
Claggart recognizes Billy for what he is: a “subversive,” the one who lives and breathes outside the boundaries of the law (think Cool Hand Luke). Billy can either bend to Claggart’s will (who secretly yearns to have his “way” with him) or be subjugated and cast aside. “I will break you,” Claggart vows, in his bleak Iago-like soliloquy. In the same breath, Claggart can turn friendly and receptive, extolling Billy’s handling of Squeak, one of the master-at-arms’ slimy accomplices (“handsomely done,” Claggart praises).
His face resolute, stern and sad in equal measure, Claggart is Billy’s demon, the evil tempter to his boundless good cheer. Low horns accompany Claggart’s every entrance (at times, stereotypically so), most prominently during his soliloquy. In opposition, Billy Budd is our Christ-like figure. Dansker (the wonderfully characterful Paul Plishka), an old salt himself, warns Billy to stay away from “Jemmy Legs.” “He’s got it in for you,” Dansker admonishes. But Billy pays little heed, citing Claggart’s praise as proof that he’s about to be promoted — er, so say his shipmates. That’s Billy for you, always looking on the bright side.
As it happens, Claggart forces the Novice (tenor Tony Stevenson, excellent by the way) to plant false proof on Billy’s person that he is planning to mutiny the crew against Captain Vere. When the inevitable confrontation takes place in the Captain’s quarters, Billy, who suffers from a stammer when provoked, is unable to verbally defend himself against the charges. Emotionally overcome, he lashes out violently at Claggart, who is instantly killed with one of Billy’s blows.
As the only witness to the event, Vere is torn as to whether or not to protect Billy from the crime of striking a superior officer. Pardoning him is impossible, yet Vere secretly harbors his own unrequited (and unrevealed) passion for the young seaman. Must he be the messenger of death? Vere knows the outcome. He must uphold the king’s law and British sovereignty over the Frenchies and their so-called “Rights o’ Man,” a phrase Billy earlier directed at his former ship before boarding the Indomitable — ultimately and tragically misinterpreted by the ship’s officers.
Darkness and Light, Good vs. Evil, Beauty vs. Ugliness, Law and Duty. Which will it be? All are intertwined in this battle of wills, of man’s eternal struggle to keep order in a discordant world.
Billy Budd is held prisoner in the ship’s hole. Earlier, he dreamt of drowning before being awakened by the Novice. Britten and his dramatists place Billy’s situation as a reenactment of Christ’s Passion and suffering. Captain Vere has become both Pilate and Herod, passing judgment over Billy’s fate as judge, jury and executioner.
The Christ analogy is taken a step further when Dansker visits Billy in his cell. Billy pleads with his old friend not to touch him, indicative of Jesus’ charging of his disciples to “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” The men are planning to mutiny, Dansker tells him, in order to save Billy from hanging. But Billy will have none of it. They will be hunted down and hanged as well. Thus, Billy urges Dansker to stand down. It shall be done.
The sentence is carried out. Billy walks the plank (offstage, that is) with a noose tied around his neck. But before he dies, Billy lets out a shout: “Starry Vere, God bless you!” This is Billy’s version of, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Lifted by two able seamen, he is hung for his crime. We, the viewers, are moved by his plight. But the opera is not yet over. Instead of a mutiny, the men, who began the opera with the chorus, “Oh, heave, oh, heave, oh heave,” now imitate Billy’s stammer in protest, humming the same tune but in wordless accompaniment, their mouths closed. The silence is deafening.
The now old and retired Captain Vere has the last word. In the Epilogue, he realizes his failure to save Billy — and himself. But the boy’s final words to him fill Vere’s soul with renewal and redemption.
The excellent all-male cast includes British tenor Philip Langridge as Captain Vere, baritone Dwayne Croft as Billy Budd, and bass-baritone James Morris as Claggart, with James Courtney as Mr. Flint, Victor Braun as Mr. Redburn, Julien Robbins as Lt. Radcliffe, Tony Stevenson as the Novice, star-in-the-making Nathan Gunn as Novice’s Friend, Bradley Garvin as First Mate, Kevin Short as Second Mate, Sven Leaf as a Sailor, Thomas Hammons as Bosun, Kim Josephson as Donald, John Osborn as Maintop, Bernard Fitch as Squeak, Robert Brubaker as Red Whiskers, and the young Anthony Dean Griffey, an American tenor (and native North Carolinian) who went on to star in the Met’s John Doyle production of Peter Grimes, as Arthur Jones.
A major highlight is the aborted sea battle with the Frenchies, where the fog overtakes the proceedings, amid the exhilarating chorus, “This is the moment, the moment we’ve been waiting for.” Yes, this is the moment AND the opera we’ve been waiting for. God bless you, Starry Met!
What is the current state of opera in the music and theater world? Where has it been and where will it go to attract newer and younger audiences, as well as keep up their interest? I’ve asked these questions before, and about opera’s continuing relevancy for our time. Today and in subsequent posts, we will explore some of the options.
After a year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic and after singers, directors, production personnel, chorus members, musicians, designers, and the like have insulated themselves in semi-seclusion, the opera world, like the 17-year cicada, is itching to bust out from self-imposed hibernation.
Yes, out of the deep, dark gloom and into the … where, pray tell? Hopefully, not the breach! Though opera’s demise has been foretold on more than one occasion, there is still hope for its redemption.
The Old and the News
The belated announcement of the Met’s having reached an accord with its staff and crew was most welcome indeed. The follow through, however, hasn’t been so pleasant: the Met asked those same folks for a 30 percent pay cut. Can you imagine? With prices soaring on a variety of goods and services (to include — but not limited to — gas, water, rent, electric, and other essentials), the priming of the economic pump doesn’t sound so tempting for us mortals.
As you can see, there are always compromises to be hammered out: some good, some not so good.
But it’s nice to know that we can still drown our sorrows out, but not our hopes, in beautiful sounds. And that’s what this latest essay is about: a brief rundown of Met Opera productions “On Demand” that we’ve missed reporting on and that have come to light by way of constant probing. Our never-ending quest for enlightenment, for something unique to watch and listen to, has elicited some unusual and quite extraordinary candidates for cogitation.
There once was a time when that trusty standby, the New York City Opera, led the way in providing avant-garde entertainment for consumer consumption. Readers may remember that two of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s more dissonant forays, the operas Don Rodrigo and Bomarzo, premiered at NYCO in the 1960s and ‘70s, with Don Rodrigo (1966) having introduced unsuspecting audiences to a strapping, up-and-coming lad named Plácido Domingo.
Other surprises boasted a new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (with Beverly Sills as the sultry Cleopatra, and Norman Treigle as Caesar), Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (also with Sills), Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (with Treigle’s superb Olin Blitch), Boito’s Mefistofele (Treigle again, in the title role), and many others. NYCO had also placed itself at the forefront of the bel canto revival in restoring Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to its proper place in the repertoire, presenting the opera complete for once; and in championing the same composer’s cause with the long-dormant Tudor trilogy of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux (all starring Ms. Sills).
They weren’t the only ones. Coming a tad late to the party, the Met hopped onboard the bel canto express in the 1970s with a new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s final opera, I Puritani. Was it too little, too late?
I Puritani (2007). This Sandro Sequi production from the bicentennial year 1976, with sets by Ming Cho Lee, certainly made up for lost time (well, sort of). The Met Opera reintroduced I Puritani di Scozia (its full title) into its now-expanding repertoire with a strong cast headed by Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, and James Morris. The conductor was Richard Bonynge, Sutherland’s husband. Not the subtlest of participants, but a most reliable group, nonetheless. With this effort, the Met did its best to welcome bel canto back into the fold, where Bellini’s opus had not been heard from in many a generation.
In this 2007 Live in HD revival, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko took on the part of Elvira (there goes that name again!), with lightweight tenor Eric Cutler given the nearly impossible task of singing Arturo (effortful high Cs and Ds, thank you), along with Italian baritone Franco Vassallo as Riccardo and Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea as Elvira’s uncle Giorgio. Patrick Summers took over the reins as conductor.
Musically and dramatically, there’s a multiplicity of coincidences in both Bellini’s opera and Donizetti’s output, specifically with his Lucia di Lammermoor. No one dies, thank goodness, in Puritani, but there’s a requisite Mad Scene for soprano in both works, as Elvira, in the Bellini opus, goes in-and-out of sanity, at times comically so. There’s also a baritone who’s smitten with the heroine and a rival beau to match (much as in Verdi’s Ernani), in addition to a pair of fatherly figures, one of whom, Giorgio, acts more like her surrogate papa. The minor role of Queen Henrietta (sung by mezzo Maria Zifchak), who plays a key element in the preposterous plot, figures prominently only in Act I.
So where’s the relevance? What’s missing is that essential connection one has to characters and their plight. I’m afraid that here, and in much (but not all) of Bellini’s output, the point remains the singing.
Vassallo had the right equipment, but missed the bel canto grace this assignment cries out for. Relyea’s imposing height and fullness of voice were right for his part. And to be fair, Vassallo and Relyea gave a rousing rendition of their Act II duet, “Suoni la tromba” (literally, “Sound the trumpets”), even if they made it sound more like Verdi. Cutler, on the other hand, struggled with the tessitura of Act III. Maestro Summers put the singers through their paces and kept a steady hand on the proceedings. Still, there was little he could do to enliven the proceedings, the staging and sets being from another generation’s aesthetic entirely.
Surely the raison d’être for this revival was the presence of Ms. Netrebko. She was the audience’s favorite, hands down, with her every utterance greeted by howls of approval. And without supremely talented colleagues, there is little impetus for playing this piece. The same goes for the tenor. Once such major advocates as Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Javier Camarena arrived on the scene, things took a decisive turn for the better. For the most part, the dreary staging mitigated whatever was going on vocally. Glory and honor are the main points of this piece; factor in a huge suspension of disbelief to accompany Elvira’s on-again, off-again mental state and you have an operatic cliché in the making.
One problem is that many productions of this and other Bellini works fail to take into account the delicacy with which the Sicilian-born composer, who died much too young in life, imbued his subjects. Most interpreters mistake him for his contemporary Donizetti, or the livelier bombast of Verdi. Nothing of the kind! Bellini’s music, like that of his contemporary Chopin, is of a delicate filigree; one that served as an integral link between the classical bel canto world of the early 1800s, with its impressive line and embellished strictures, and the rising tide of nationalistic vigor encompassed by late Rossini and early Verdi. Romanticism, in Bellini’s hands, remained subtle and vibrant.
As for Donizetti, the poor wretch ended up a syphilitic wreck, dying a miserable death in an insane asylum. Bellini, too, passed away much too soon of that least theatrical of illnesses: dysentery and/or gastric enteritis. With Rossini filing for early retirement, that left one man standing: Verdi. We need not tell you how his career turned out.
Meanwhile, Back at the Plaza…
Other pioneering efforts at City Opera showcased such rarities as Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) with Carol Neblett and John Alexander, Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re (“The Love of Three Kings”) with bass Samuel Ramey, and new takes on established classics, i.e., Frank Corsaro’s revelatory staging of Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s La Traviata (both of which I saw), with Treigle, then Ramey as the Devil, and Patricia Brooks and Dominic Cossa as Violetta and the elder Germont, respectively.
Fine, but what about the magnificent Met? Where has that venerable house been while these NYCO productions were upstaging their neighbor across the Plaza? To be honest, the stodgy old Met lagged behind her sister company in many respects, due mostly to its mission of, in the first place, preserving, protecting, and defending the core repertory; and secondly, in catering to deep-pocketed subscribers, many of whom had sustained the company through thick and thin. We know, too, that in times of financial distress those same subscribers lean more toward a “conservative” bent than to so-called vanguard elements. Understandable.
But the time to play it safe was over. Over the years, glimpses of innovation have emerged, both in the recent past and in future presentations. Some of these can be glimpsed through Met Opera on Demand, the company’s streaming service via the Roku app. Infrequently seen oddities such as Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur have proven their worth and been formerly reviewed by yours truly. Seeing them again, with different casts, can provide one with distinctly new and fresher perspectives, along with continuing regard (or not) for the results.
For instance, hearing Renata Scotto’s squally Francesca from 1984, alongside the outpourings of the dashing Domingo as Paolo, made one realize how much better their acting was this time around, as opposed to Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek’s inauthentic 2013 take on the part. In that same 2013 revival, Mark Delavan’s pugnacious Gianciotto and Marcello Giordani’s lover-boy Paolo could actually have passed for battling brothers, whereas Domingo and the mammoth-toned Cornell MacNeil bore no familial resemblance whatsoever. Straining credibility, then, can complicate matters when viewed from too close a perspective — one of the pitfalls of opera in high definition.
In the Berlioz work, tenor Bryan Hymel’s ringing tone and brilliant top notes as Aeneas (2012) clearly outclassed Domingo’s more modest resources (from 1984). Still, both artists did their best with what they had to work with: in Domingo’s case, a horribly ill-fitting costume stood beside ugly sets and décor. What helped was that his co-stars included two of the classiest singers this side of midtown: mezzo Tatiana Troyanos as Queen Dido, and Earth Mother Jessye Norman as the prophetess Cassandra. Wow! That combination beats Mr. Hymel’s partners, Susan Graham as Dido and Deborah Voigt as Cassandra, by a Gallic nose, but not by much.
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot of good and not-so-good in every work. How about the bad? I wouldn’t mention that term. My belief is that there is no “bad” as such in opera. To quote Master Yoda’s paraphrase of Shakespeare, “Do or do not. There is no try.” And try they must, even if the results fail to pan out.
At best, opera is the most arduous, the most taxing, truly the most demanding art form there is. Don’t forget, these artists are emoting at top volume. Take it from me, high and low notes can be effortful in the extreme, especially in a large theater. The work required to do justice to a part, to concentrate on the score, to remember your lines, to convey the text in intelligible fashion, and to know your place in the general scheme of things, while hurling the voice at full tilt into a massive auditorium — all of these take strength, concentration, stamina, and musicianship.
Opera tests a performer like no other form of entertainment. And it’s all done live, folks, and in your face. Or, in the case of online streaming, recorded and preserved live, as it occurs.
Was It Real or Was It Verismo?
So what gives with the staid repertoire, anyway? When will matters improve along that front? Will audiences ever get to experience such rarities as Leoncavallo’s Zazá, a work that once enjoyed currency at the old Met on Broadway and 39th Street? How about Mascagni’s Lodoletta, Guglielmo Ratcliff, or his charming L’Amico Fritz? What of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna and I Quattro Rusteghi? And how meaningful are these works for us today? I’m all for a production of Clièa’s L’Arlesiana, which deserves a fair shake. There are so many worthwhile items to explore from the verismo period alone that room should be given them on the Met’s production calendar.
Take, for instance, Leone’s opera L’Oracolo, a favorite of the great baritone Titta Ruffo. Certainly a revival or two can be called upon, can’t it? That is, if the money and circumstances prove favorable. Wishful thinking on my part? Perhaps. But, hey, what does the company have to lose, except new subscribers?
As a matter of fact, one of those old gems, Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac, was bought to the Met stage in 2005. It starred Roberto Alagna as the titular long-nosed hero (Domingo took up his sword for the 2017 revival). Was the opera an unqualified success? Did it stir the bones in like fashion? Not quite, wrong move. I heard the work on the radio and caught glimpses of it on YouTube. To be perfectly honest, this oddity did not merit the effort that was put into it. There’s little that was memorable. In fact, I held my own nose in order to get through it. Sorry people!
Not since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Broadway tour of 1984 has justice been done to French playwright Edmond Rostand’s poetic farce. The version I happened to catch (faithfully translated by Anthony Burgess) was headed by the estimable Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack. I’ll never forget the balcony scene where Mr. Jacobi as Cyrano, the spotlight focused on his illumined face and protruding proboscis, spoke the name of the woman he loved, “Roxane, Roxane,” over and over again in softly-whispered reverence. You could sense the entire Gershwin theater holding its collective breath as the actor luxuriated in the moment, a romantic respite between swashbuckling flights of fancy. Call it stage magic or what have you, no opera could hope to capture the profoundness of that sequence.
As for Alfano, his claim to fame was that he was the sole composer willing and able enough to have tackled Puccini’s unfinished score for Turandot. Not even the fiery conductor of the premiere, Arturo Toscanini, was pleased with the results. So what did he do? Well, Toscanini cut and re-scored Alfano’s ending to his satisfaction. I managed to hear the original Alfano orchestration when (you guessed it) the NYCO restaged the Beni Montresor production in the mid-1980’s.
So, what did I think of the refurbished Turandot? Let’s say that it was … uh, different, otherworldly, not quite what one expected, but full-bodied and entertaining (I really dug the extra high notes for tenor). Was I bowled over by it? Not really. I expressed a similar dissatisfaction for Luciano Berio’s tacked-on rewrite, first staged in 2002 at the Vienna State Opera, under Valery Gergiev’s direction. This highly bowdlerized edition was neither Puccini nor Alfano, nor was it very Italianate-sounding. It was patented Berio, whatever that means. Some experiments are just not worth the effort. They hold only modest interest for audiences of today.
So, can another chestnut from the golden age of verismo provide the requisite thrills?
Fedora (1997). Known as Umberto Giordano’s follow-up to his popular Andrea Chénier, the relatively short three-act Fedora, based on another of those Sardou specialty items for actress Sarah Bernhardt (his La Tosca became the source for Puccini’s eponymously titled opera), finally hit the Met stage in a lavish 1997 production by Beppe De Tomasi, with sets by Ferruccio Villagrossi, and costumes by Pier Luigi Cavallotti. The opera was conducted by Roberto Abbado.
With the likes of veteran soprano Mirella Freni as the titular Russian princess (vocally past her prime, but nicely interpolated), tenor Plácido Domingo as Loris (high-powered and committed), and baritone Dwayne Croft as de Sirieux (suavely sung) in the cast, you would think this old warhorse from the turn of the last century would have paid the dividends in terms of potency and staying power. Not quite. To compare it to the earlier Chénier (which premiered in the same year as Puccini’s La Bohème) does Fedora a disservice. The unusual settings — the story opens in Russia in contemporary times, which then switches to a swanky Parisian soirée and a Swiss mountainside villa for the two outer acts — are about as far from recognizable verismo as one can imagine.
True, red-hot passion, of the kind found in Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, the two most familiar models from the verismo repertoire, is certainly not lacking in Fedora. What’s missing is a believable story line: full of violence and obsessions (oh, gobs of it!), the plot blends sentiment and melodrama with murder, espionage, and secret trysts. For all the personal entanglements, real flesh-and-blood characters and credible responses are absent; the drama remains earthbound, the ending about as abrupt and tacked on as a power outage, though not so sudden as in La Rondine (see below).
Mainly, the action moves by way of letters, memos, and furtive notes, all of them delivered by timely post or last-minute messenger. You got to hand it to the postal service, though: They always deliver the bad news first. Whatever happened to efficient mail service, anyway?
Despite all this, the main aspect is that this piece, and numerous others that came before and after it, took up the prevailing trend of adapting existing literary works (i.e., period pieces and novels, along with newspaper accounts, personal journals, diaries, exposés, and such) by transforming them into operatic conveyances. One striking moment in Act II of Fedora introduces a concert pianist (real-life artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet) in the non-speaking role of Boleslao Lazinski, who plays a lovely nocturne in the manner of Chopin.
An opera in the grand tradition (scaled down for modern ears), Fedora will strike listeners as bearing a “passing” likeness to Puccini’s later La Rondine, especially in that work’s opening sequence which also features a pianistic platform for the tenor playing the poet Prunier. The soprano’s death by inhaling a poison is plainly reminiscent of Adriana’s passing in Cilèa’s opera, Adriana Lecouvreur.
This is another of those “pseudo-dramatic touches” that mark this and other related works for what they are. With its soaring vocal lines (the famously brief tenor arioso, “Amor ti vieta”), scorching obsessions, exotic locales, the presence of Russian spies, and a tragic suicide at the end — all of these taking place in either a Czarist St. Petersburg or a distinctly Russophile-flavored Gay Paree — Fedora has been better served on discs rather than in the opera house, an ironic fact of theater life.
In the commentary section of Artisan’s 3-Disc DVD Special Edition Director’s Cut of Dune, writer-director John Harrison and his crew discuss the various aspects of pre- and post-production. Executive produced by Richard P. Rubinstein and Mitchell Galin, produced by David Kappes, and edited by Harry B. Miller III, the driving force behind this Special Edition was Harrison’s love for author Frank Herbert’s original vision and pervasive worldview.
“But because of different broadcast requirements required around the world,” Harrison wrote in his Director’s Statement, “the definitive version of what we created has never been released until now” (circa the year 2002, that is). In his longer-by-30-minutes letterboxed cut, “scenes are restored and minor structural adjustments have been made which, in my estimation, make it the complete rendering of the story.”
What a refreshing point of view! If only that sound bit of advice had trickled down to the likes of David Lynch and the De Laurentiis production team for their own expanded, mind-numbingly static, three-hour edition. Truth to tell, that elephantine reinvigoration of Dune was fated to bite the proverbial dust from which it came, extended scenes or not.
“Like many of my generation, I read and was strongly influenced by Herbert’s epic novel when I was young. [Here, here!] A serious, often difficult meditation on political, social, and religious ideas, Dune is not simply a book of fantasy and adventure. It’s a book of philosophy. Still, I always believed this story could be accessible to a wide audience. It may be classified [as] sci-fi, but I prefer to think of it as a romantic epic in the classic tradition; a timeless myth-fable, after all.”
There’s an inherent structural sense to Dune, that of a classic Greek tragedy (or, if you prefer, coming-of-age story), in between the lines of social commentary and/or interpretation, of that we can vouch for. And of the Hero of a Thousand Faces, i.e. Joseph Campbell’s path-breaking research into mythology, which heavily influenced a fledgling producer-writer-director named George Lucas for his Star Wars saga.
Harrison continued: “I also believe the themes of Dune are more relevant today than they were when Herbert first wrote the book. The world in which we now live is far closer to the universe he created than the bipolar cold-war world of the fifties and sixties. And I consider it my extreme good fortune and enormous responsibility to have had the chance to adapt the book. Along the way, I gained a deeper and richer appreciation of the world of Dune than I ever had before.”
One couldn’t agree more. Indeed, our world has tipped ever-closer to the chaotic, for-profit business enterprises tied to governmental entities that pervade the Dune ethos than at any time in our history. “But while preparing to direct it, I also realized this Dune needed its own visual signature, its own singular identity. There has been a lot of discussion and speculation about the hyperbolized theatrical, almost operatic style of this version. It was a risky, unusual choice for a sci-fi epic. But without the artistry and the intrepid support of [the entire cast and crew]…, without the wealth of talent in all the roles, large and small, this Dune would have been simply ordinary.”
Far from being “simply ordinary,” as director Harrison phrased it, this version, initially prepared for European TV in a grandly stylized adaptation, fit Herbert’s themes to a comfortable T. In concluding his statement, Harrison expressed his thanks to all those “whose work is all over this production… For their efforts, their friendship and help, I’m extremely grateful, so that we could remain true to the spirit of Herbert’s monumental work at the same time we were fashioning an accessible and entertaining adventure. One that has a lot to tell us about our world, our society, and ourselves.”
The above statement was written and published in 2002, more than two decades after the original production debuted on the eve of the New Millennium. And, as noted above, our world has been tumbling into the chaotic free-for-all we are currently finding ourselves in. A world very much like that depicted in Herbert’s universe: where Spicing Guilds and religious zealots compete with ruthless authoritarian figures and bold individuals for dominance and profits.
As envisioned in Harrison’s concept, there is a boldly stylized look to go with the series. For example, on Kaitan, the Padishah Emperor’s home planet, the take is art nouveau, a touch of sophistication and classical refinement befitting of royalty, with lots of purple hues and swatches of blue. An elegance and refinement, by the way, that is in direct contrast to the plots and evil designs that lay beneath the surface textures. “Plans within plans,” you will recall.
On Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home world, reds predominate as well as solid blacks. Raked camera angles, a more severe look, along with cutting-edge pieces of architecture and décor — all designed to provide the viewer with a sense of unease, an off-balance feeling, of something not quite right, a world askew.
These are contrasted with the warmth of browns, tans, and earth tones on the planet Arrakis. In the capital city of Arakeen itself, this “elegance” theme is extended, offset against the harshness and dust of the ever-present desert, which has stood untouched for centuries, an ancient place with a history and a past. But does it have future? That remains to be seen.
As we transition to the Fremen, their sietches incorporate that “lived-in” look, of people who dwell in caves and rock-like dwellings. There is bas relief along their walls, and familiar images of the Jordan Desert. We get a sense, then, of who these people are and of how much they depend on each other for their survival. Again, sand and earth tones dictate the surroundings. They symbolize the Earth (our Earth, perhaps?) and the destruction that has been perpetrated on this world; the greed and the folly, the taking away of naturally occurring riches (that is, the Earth’s abundance), and replacing them with … well, basically nothing. This theme of depleting a planet’s natural resources is one that Herbert strove to ingrain into his work.
Shifting to choreography, the fight scenes are staged in a more stylized fashion than is usually the norm. Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art, but today practiced as a more-or-less graceful form of exercise where movements are performed in a slow, restricted, and flowing manner, are highlighted throughout. Although less exciting or stimulating than what Western audiences have been used to, they serve the purpose of introducing the viewer to an altogether different aesthetic.
It is here, too, that audiences can begin to appreciate Harrison’s vision for Herbert’s work. As stated in the director’s recorded commentary, the story is about everyday concerns. Harrison has also tried to bring an historical feel to the proceedings. Human politics and the all-too-human search for something better, those are the basic precepts. They involve complexity and the undercurrent of storytelling, the search for meaning in a universe torn apart by strife; a quest for something more than plain old science-fiction, an action-adventure piece that is also a morality tale.
We can look at Dune in two ways: one, as allegory, where the concern is with the exterior; and two, as myth, where the concern is with the individual, or the interior. In Herbert’s conception, exterior forces clash with those of the interior. This clash or conflict leads to chaos or lack of comprehension, along with resistance to change (termed “inertia”) and the resultant imposition of order. A rigorous, physically and mentally abusive order, to say the least, one that prefers the mistreatment of the governed (or those do not bend to their will) as imposed by those who govern (the exterior purveyors of conflict). The breakdown of the social order, in this scenario, will be the inevitable outcome.
And what is the source of that conflict? We know of one (among many): the spice, which must “flow” at all costs. The other, and most crucial where man’s survival is concerned, happens to be water. In Dune, water is not appreciated by all, with the Fremen people being the sole exceptions. Its life-giving, life-affirming properties are misunderstood and, because water is so scarce, one must pay for the privilege of imbibing it. This “water motif,” such as it is, contrasts symbiotically with what we see on Arrakis, what Harrison indicates are those numerous “aquarium shots” of large, inlaid panels where H2O is prominently exhibited as if it were a museum piece.
Interestingly, the water motif, and in contrast to this overall approach, is exemplified in the series’ music score. While the drama is rendered in flamboyantly theatrical fashion, New Zealand-born composer Graeme Revell propels the action along in varying styles. In Revell’s opinion, he did not want to emphasize any particular musical “theme” as such.
For instance, the House Atreides theme goes hand-in-hand with Paul’s journey. The Emperor’s theme takes a kind of warped, bourgeois approach, one out of sync with its surroundings (as the Emperor is out of sync with his people). And for the mysterious Navigator and the ideologically minded Reverend Mother, Revell employed some electronic music, with scoring for female chorus in the background.
A heavy concentration on ethnic music, of Middle Eastern motifs and sounds (the instrumentation is especially noteworthy, with flute and other wind instruments predominating), serve as timeless evocations of God and the deeper thoughts that have engulfed the Fremen and, by implication, the once and future Paul Atreides, henceforth to be known as Muad’Dib.
Beth Harmon’s life is determined in the first five minutes of Netflix’s 7-episode limited series The Queen’s Gambit. The opening “moves,” by writer-director Scott Frank (Minority Report, Godless) and creator-producer Allan Scott, flesh out the outlines and contours of the plot in sumptuous detail.
From the Oval Office-like interior of a hotel room in Paris, where an older but no wiser Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) awakens to the incessant pounding of her door, to the distinctive arenas where her chess matches are held, the series depicts the fall, the rise, and yet another fall and rise of a young female chess player through her development as a formidable challenger and champion.
Long in the planning, the series was based on novelist and short story writer Walter Tevis’ fourth book of the same name. Published in 1983, The Queen’s Gambit is a fictionalized account of the author’s personal prowess at chess and his own real-life struggles with tranquilizers and alcoholism. In fact, several of Tevis’ semi-autobiographical works have been turned into movies, including The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) starring David Bowie, and TheColor of Money (1986) with Newman again and Tom Cruise.
In the opening “gambit,” Beth is late for her match against Soviet-Russian champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński). From here, viewers are plunged into a fast-paced life driven by the girl’s desire to be the best at chess — a profession normally reserved for men. In the series’ script, chess is transformed into a spectator sport, with each episode strategically labeled as stand-alone elements in a unified whole: “Openings,” “Exchanges,” “Doubled Pawns,” “Middle Game,” “Fork,” “Adjournment,” and “End Game.”
Beth, a young and talented woman, emotionally scarred by a horrible tragedy (depicted near the start of the series), attempts to overcome this and other problematic events. All of it done in spite of Beth’s knack for hurling herself headlong into chaos, a whirlwind variation of a life as interpreted by the age-old art of chess. A contest of skill, the equivalent of a medieval clash for survival and wargames in miniature, chess is a battle of wits that becomes, in nine-year-old Beth’s mind, the thing she’s most adept at. She’s also good at math, which gives her an (ahem) “added” advantage.
Life for poor Beth gets off to a rough start. The director of Methuen Home for Girls in Lexington, Kentucky, Mrs. Deardorff (“Dear orphan,” or possibly “The orphan’s dread,” and dryly played by Christiane Seidel), can only preach to her young charges in platitudes, those meaningless formulaic clichés of little substance that forever miss their mark. In consequence, all the alleged adults speak in this highfaluting manner: from the Shakespeare-spouting Mr. Ferguson, the orphanage’s Black orderly, to Mr. Ganz, the glib high school chess club teacher. All of them, that is, except Mr. Shaibel, the chess-obsessed custodian.
Mrs. Deardorff chats matter-of-factly about Beth’s natural mother (Chloe Pirrie) who was killed early on in that terrible accident: a pickup truck stacked on top of a car, her mother’s lifeless body at the bottom, with only her legs protruding. Beth (Isla Johnson) is alone. It seems that life’s troubles have already begun to overtake her, even before she’s had a chance to evolve.
This is how writer-director Frank keys his audience in on what to expect. Why, you just know this child has a huge hurdle to surmount. What’s a little girl to do without her mommy? “She’s in a better place,” spouts the woman driving Beth to the orphanage, as if by repeating this useless piece of advice will make the youngster’s situation any less worrisome.
At the orphanage, Beth is shown what to wear, where to go, and what to do. She’s even given a pageboy haircut, with Mrs. Deardorff’s approval, of course — a control freak par excellence. Not a queen’s coiffure by any means, but that of the lowest subject in the orphanage’s pecking order.
Beth’s daily routine is a mind-numbingly monotonous compilation of busywork, all designed to keep the orphaned girls’ thoughts occupied with the possibility of adoption, hopefully by a loving and caring family. A possibility that grows more and more distant the older that Beth and her only companion, the foul-mouthed but straight-shooting Jolene (Moses Ingram), seem to get.
‘Name’ Your Game
Elizabeth, the name of a British queen. Two queens, to be precise: Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. In the case of the first Elizabeth, she was known to her subjects as “Good Queen Bess.” In little Beth’s case, however, her surname of “Harmon” gives further clues as to her attributes. First of all, Beth is far from experiencing any kind of “harmony” in her life; in truth, she rebels against it. Second, she discovers a central path, a harmony of sorts (or a middle ground) within herself in the male-dominated world of chess. Beth will only be in harmony with her environment in the very last scene of the series — wherein she becomes, quite literally, the queen of the chess tournament.
Headmistress Deardorff informs Beth about the rules and the dreary “facts” of orphanage life. She’s expected to conform to those rules. Quick though she is at sizing up a situation, Beth instantly grasps the true purpose of the orphanage: to place the most eligible girls with the most respectable families. This leaves Beth virtually out of the running.
Beth is revealed in subsequent situations as a nonconformist. She’s introduced to Jolene, whose strident off-camera voice lets out a few choice expletives. Jolene is Beth’s nonconformist partner-in-crime who grows to be her best pal and fellow conspirator. Also, her amateur shrink and adviser on matters relating to life in general, the worldly-wise companion who’s seen and done it all.
All the girls are kept in line. With that in mind, they are shown all manner of hygiene films, low-budget educational shorts that, if you grew up in the 1950s or 60s, should be all-too familiar with their triteness and stereotypical Wonder-bread sterility. Films depicting the onset of puberty, teenage dating etiquette, and of-the-period religious pictures are mined for their supposed Christian values. Immediately after these strictly anodyne features have ended, Mrs. Deardorff and her staff hold discussion sessions with the girls to talk about what they’ve seen. Dullness piled on top of dullness.
Lest you think otherwise, these early scenes in The Queen’s Gambit do not purport to turn the series into an all-girl version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And Mrs. Deardorff is no Nurse Ratched (she’s not even in the same league), neither are Beth and Jolene juvenile reincarnations of the disruptive R.P. McMurphy. Instead, what they share is a mutual contempt for authority, an absolute aversion to rules and regulations (and order for order’s sake) that govern these institutions. Jolene and Beth much prefer a disorderly world, one of their making that reflects their disoriented lifestyles.
During the course of the series, we see them make up their own rules as well as break quite a few others. But to whose advantage? And to what purpose? The good news is that they are both resilient in the face of onrushing obstacles, a majority of which Beth crashes into before formulating a way forward. Thus, the “crash” motif at the beginning takes on different forms, and with varying characters and circumstances, in a natural progression.
What Doesn’t Kill You….
Beth subsequently evolves, all right, but in a negative capacity. She develops a dependency on tranquilizers (those magical “little green pills”), and later to alcohol. Tranquilizers were often dispensed to orphanages in the 50s and 60s time period, under the pretext of controlling their charges’ mood swings and so-called behavioral issues.
As far as living conditions are concerned, the girls sleep in an enormous dormitory, with oblong-shaped beds that stand in for the squares of a chessboard. The girls are the pieces, mere pawns in Mrs. Deardorff’s hands, basically to do with as she sees fit. Indeed, all the characters are treated in this belittling manner, with Beth at the center (ultimately, the queen) and those around her as minor annoyances, to be captured and/or checkmated at will.
With the aid of those trusty tranquilizers, which she hoards near her night table and swallows before bedtime, Beth begins to envision giant images on the ceiling. These are imaginary chess pieces. Flashbacks to earlier episodes in her life are inserted at certain intervals, fleeting pieces of a larger puzzle that have yet to be completed.
Similarly, men are shown, in flashbacks, leaving her mother Alice, a once-brilliant mathematician in deteriorating mental states. There are no strong male figures in her mother’s life. Instead, they all seem to run away from responsibility or from the mistake of hooking up with the “wrong woman.” This will include Beth’s foster mother, Alma Wheatley, a troubled but goodhearted former concert pianist with myriad phobias of her own.
Unfortunately, Beth, too, cannot escape this fate. Her path has been predetermined from the start; and there’s no turning back. In the lexicon of inmates with no hope for parole, they are “lifers,” as Jolene describes herself and Beth, condemned for the crime of being an orphan — a crime they did not commit yet they are punished all the same. The analogy to prisoners in a prison ward is clearly felt.
One day, however, Beth is sent to the basement to clean the class’s erasers. She sees the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (a frumpy Bill Camp), playing a board game. Beth is intrigued. Mr. Shaibel, alone with his chessboard and black-and-white pieces, peaks Beth’s interest and her innate curiosity. She’s headstrong, that much is certain, and driven. She starts to take the tranquilizers before bedtime which brings on visions of the chessboard and the pieces in motion, all taking place in her head.
Every night, it’s the same: Beth sees the pieces move up and down the ceiling. She’s eager to play and eager to learn. “Girls do not play chess,” Shaibel insists. But she proves him wrong. The more she sees and feels, the more she wants to play. And she remembers how each piece moves on the board. Pleasantly surprised, Shaibel motions for her to take a seat. Later, in her dormitory, Beth recreates, with her hand, the motions that lead to Shaibel’s checkmate.
To escape from choir practice, Beth fakes the urge to urinate but takes a detour instead down to the basement — not the usual equivalent of Hell, mind you, but one of an improvised Heaven, a place of warmth and comfort, if dark and foreboding. In this encounter, Beth, with her main piece threatened, refuses to resign the match. So Shaibel topples her queen. In her anger at the custodian for taking away the only thing she’s able to hold on to — that is, her self-preservation — Beth calls him a “cocksucker,” not knowing exactly what that is. He tells her to get out. Still, she plays every day. After this temporary blowup, Shaibel teaches her strategies, all he knows, until Beth beats him, resoundingly.
“You’re astounding,” he pronounces. The barest hint of a smile appears on Shaibel’s face. Next, he introduces Beth to Mr. Ganz, the head of the high school chess club. Intimidation, that’s a sport for kings. And chess is the ultimate diversion to test that notion. Beth is invited to play at Ganz’s all-boys chess club, to meet her first outside challenge. Yes, intimidation.
As expected, she beats them all, including the chess club’s best player. “I mated him in 15 moves,” she boasts to a bemused Shaibel, while wolfing down snacks. The sexual connotation in the script pushes that aspect forward, i.e. the dominance, the foreplay, and the climax that chess, as a chivalrous rivalry between two gentlemanly players, has deteriorated to. It’s all there, if one cares to look.
….Makes You a Stronger Chess Champion
Flashbacks to before the car accident that killed Beth’s mom re-emerge, in fleeting moments of memory. Beth’s addiction to tranquilizers begin to overwhelm her, but inevitably the drugs are banned. Not surprisingly, Beth grows desperate. She greedily eyes a large bottle of green pills (euphemistically dubbed “vitamins”) in the drug repository. Unfortunately, they’re under lock and key. What to do?
One night, Beth sneaks away. She steals a screwdriver from Shaibel’s basement workshop and pries the lock open to the door that houses the pills. It’s no coincidence that, before she does this, the girls are forced to watch another of those religious pictures, 20th Century-Fox’s widescreen epic The Robe, where Richard Burton is put to death for his belief in Jesus as the Son of God. Beth’s actions in breaking into the dispensary and filling her mouth and pockets with tiny green pills leads to her collapsing onto the floor and spilling the broken jar’s contents before Mrs. Deardorff and the entire assemblage. Symbolically, her life is also in shambles of addiction and withdrawal. “Edgy” is how Jolene explains it. And she’s right.
Still, Beth is young and she’s talented. Unbeknown even to herself, she has an inner beauty that, upon reaching puberty, is expressed in physical attractiveness. But she hides it under layers of floppy clothing. Not realizing the affect she has on men (first young boys, then slightly older varieties), Beth slowly but awkwardly “reveals” more of her inner self — her charm, her personality, her intellect, and her razor-sharp wit — before, during, and after makeshift chess matches.
One’s belief in oneself is always challenged or, at best, put to the test. In this instance, Beth’s belief that she is above the older boys in that high-school chess club gathering. She holds the view that they are beneath her. In contrast, the chess pieces are placed far above her, there, on the ceiling of her dormitory and out of her grasp. They call to her, nightly, as if charmed by her obsession with them. Needy lovers, so close yet so far.
And later, of course, in that Parisian hotel room, and everywhere she looks. Chess appears to be above all things and all individuals. It’s still that classic game of strategy; of planning, of outwitting, of thinking five, six moves ahead of your opponent. Tactics are deployed in an orderly manner to defeat the enemy; and a battle plan is developed and acted upon, one so intricate that to rage against it will mean oblivion for one or the other combatant.
This is the outline for the series. Each episode of The Queen’s Gambit consists of a storyline from Beth’s life depicting her continuing struggles toward her goal as a chess master. It also documents how low her life will plummet in her quest for excellence (that is, to be the best of the best) and her eventual redemption as a human being.
Near the conclusion of “Samba Lelê,” Senhorita Olive Oyl blows a good-neighborly kiss to the overly timid Popeye the Sailor, whose heart, perched at the end of a collapsible wood-and-metal extension, beats so loud and so fast that it literally pops out of his chest (better that than his remaining eyeball).
Olive ends her dance (rather stiffly animated) by extending her right leg high above her head in a straight line from the ceiling to the floor. Ouch! Popeye and Bluto, like the female-starved seafarers that they are, carry on like there’s no mañana. They outdo themselves in exaggerated adoration, with Bluto pounding away on Popeye’s bottom(!) and both lads taking their dinner table for a ride around the salon— thus giving new meaning to the term “hobby horse.”
Next, the Bahian-clad Olive resumes her “Samba Lelê” routine for the boys’ personal enjoyment, this time warbling the number in an awkward English-language version known as “Broadway Samba.” She starts the song off with the following lines, but the words become more and more impenetrable in direct proportion to her Spanish accent (note the rolling “r” sounds):
Everyone does the samba, samba, Broadway Samba today
It’s proper to do the samba, in the group on the Gay White Way, oh
If you can do the Broadway Samba, then you really buffet
To get some to be solid, you must shake it the samba way
Samba Lelê, do you dig, dig, dig?
Don’t be an icky, be hip, hip, hip!
Samba Lelê, do you dig, dig, dig?
Get on the beat, be a pip!
Oh it’s Broadway, like the Bijou
All about it, like the Beacon
You’ll feel just like a king
Just when you start to take a spin
Everyone does the samba, samba, Broadway Samba today
It’s proper to do the samba, in the group on the Gay White Way, oh
If you can do the Broadway Samba, then you really buffet
To get some to be solid, you must shake it the samba way
Popeye gets so wrapped up in her performance that he wrings the tablecloth he’s holding into a knot, taking the table along with it. The resultant splinters end up on the dance floor. And so does Popeye’s elbow when he attempts to lean it against the missing piece of furniture.
At the conclusion of “Broadway Samba,” Popeye explodes in a thunderous verbal ovation. It’s a little too thunderous for the disapproving Bluto who, despite his efforts at grooming, grumbles under his breath the line, “I gotta get rid of that uncouth runt” — as if “uncouth” had no bearing on his own less-than-exemplary behavior.
To get even, Bluto comes up with the idea of pawning Popeye off as the “champeen samba dancer of the USA,” which immediately impresses the lovely senhorita (in a reversal of a similar gag in the previous Kickin’ the Conga Round). As usual, Popeye’s unwillingness to make a fool of himself holds no water with his biggest fan. And true to form, Olive skillfully coaxes the bashful salt onto the spotlight. “The samba!” she exultantly proclaims, which leaves Popeye to his own devices.
The orchestra launches into a choro variation of the “W’ere on Our Way to Rio” theme, while Popeye’s two left-feet whirl about him in an animated facsimile of a soft shoe. In the next instant, Popeye vanishes from the scene. As the spotlight searches the nightclub for the missing sailor, it alights on the upper balcony. There, it finds Popeye with his head buried in the woodwork. “What a spot I’m in,” the would-be ostrich mutters to himself. Popeye momentarily resumes the soft shoe, but just as swiftly disappears, exit stage left.
He’s found in the arms of a mermaid. Not a real mermaid, but a statue decorating the water fountain. “Ya got me,” Popeye giggles to himself, in self-deprecating acknowledgment that “the jig is up.” He good-naturedly accepts his predicament, an all-too-common situation for our hearty sailor man. The focus shifts to the orchestra’s trumpet player and bandleader, both dead-ringers for Paramount star Bob Hope (as we revealed earlier).
Popeye seems to be enjoying himself, finally. He picks up his spontaneous dance routine where he left off: at center stage. Once more unto the breach, he goes. And exits, stage right — running smack, dab into the jutting platform where Olive has just performed. The whole place erupts into gales of laughter.
“Oh, senhor, you’re so funny,” she adds. Popeye lifts his weary head to gaze sheepishly at the girl. As for Bluto, he’s gone into virtual hysterics, guffawing in baritone-like belly-laughs that all-but drown out the audience.
On cue, Popeye whips out a freshly-opened can of spinach (with 17 points of muscle-building iron, according to the label). He empties the contents in one gulp, which turn his hands into enormous chocalhos. Popeye’s prepped for action. As a lesson to bullies everywhere (that you can’t shove us Yankees around), he’s ready to teach movie audiences that laughing hyenas such as Bluto need their comeuppance. This sequence highlights an expertly rotoscoped display of superior dance moves, to the flashy orchestral accompaniment of “Samba Lelê.”
Popeye takes the obliging Olive into his arms and, together, they take over the salon. In retaliation, Bluto tosses out one of the pandeiros in an effort to disrupt his pal’s performance. But Popeye recovers nicely by hurling the pandeiro into the air with his feet, head and buttocks. He then flings the pandeiro at Bluto’s noggin, which utterly fails to beat some sense into it.
The couple approaches the dance platform, where behind the curtain Bluto plots his next move: he operates the lever that, once again, juts the platform out at Popeye. Bluto’s hopes for tripping his buddy up flop as Popeye, reminiscent of a similar move he made in Kickin’ the Conga Round, deftly up-ends himself by dancing with his hands while his legs and feet continue the arm movements. Nothing can stop this samba-swaying fiend, that’s for certain.
Our hero drags the reluctant Bluto out of his hiding place. Yanking him by his bristly beard, Popeye coaxes the blubbering Bluto onto the dance floor. Despite his entreaties, big bad Bluto gets pulverized with a punishing right and a kick to the chin. He lands in Popeye’s arms, which spin him around as if he were a human maraca. Bluto finally gets launched head-first into the giant pandeiro.
When the stage platform shoves Popeye into the waiting arms of Senhorita Olive, the two wind up spinning about the nightclub like oversized tops. In the whirlwind-like haze, Popeye manages to swap clothes with Olive. He’s now dressed in her Bahian outfit; she’s wearing his sailor outfit, complete with kerchief and hat. But the last “word” belongs to Olive as she lets out a couple of toots on her newly acquired pipe.
We return to the opening Paramount Pictures logo for the final band flourish. OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah. Ta-DAH!
A Song By Any Other Name
Whew! There’s so much frenzied action and outcome in this second portion of W’ere on Our Way to Rio that one hardly knows where to begin. We can start by recapping some of the highlights from Kickin’ the Conga Round, which basically (ahem) “kickstarted” the whole Good Neighbor series.
We mentioned before that the unnamed Rio café where Popeye and Bluto visit, and where Senhorita Olive performed her samba routine, is a stand-in for Cassino da Urca. In a comparable manner, the Café La Conga, pictured in Kickin’ the Conga Round, could have been a cartoon replica of the real-life La Conga Club, once situated on Broadway and 51st Street in Manhattan, where such legendary Cuban-jazz musicians as Mario Bauzá and his brother-in-law, Machito (aka Frank Grillo), played and prospered. By 1937, the club became “wildly popular,” to put it mildly.
Such coincidences abound in the 1940s. But in this case, there’s reason to believe that some of those transplanted New York writers and cartoonists, “serving time” in the Fleischer brothers’ Miami headquarters, may have based the animated Café La Conga on their nighttime excursions to the fabled La Conga Club. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, given that their old New York City hangout had once occupied space — first at 129 East 45 Street, and later in the Studebaker Building located at 1600 Broadway — near the Times Square theater district. Take it from this former New Yorker: that’s a stone’s throw away from 51st Street, comparable to a short one-station subway ride.
Returning to that catchy number that Olive sings and dances to — and the central theme of this last of the Fleischer’s Miami-based cartoon features — we’ll be providing an English-language equivalent which must be prefaced by some explanatory material.
First of all, the word Lelê (either upper- or lowercase) is an expression that describes a person who is nuts, crazy, or obsessed about something or with someone (usually, oneself); an individual who thinks he or she is the best at what he or she does, the king of all they survey. There’s an equivalent expression in Portuguese, o rei da cocada preta (“king of the black coconut”), which, if you’re familiar with healthy-looking coconuts, tend to be a solid-brown color on the outside and a milky-white one on the inside. Note that the color “black” is nowhere to be found. In other words, you’re the king of something that doesn’t exist, as in the American expression, “He’s a genius in his own mind.”
So, a person who’s “Samba Lelê” is, in their mind, the best at what they do, and that is singing and dancing the samba. Yet the song itself is a commentary on how one-sided that view tends to be. This is exemplified by the chorus: “Samba Lelê tá (short for está) doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da,” loosely translated as “Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up-up-up,” which is as close to the original meaning as one can get.
Putting it all together, here’s how this slang-filled ditty sounds in English:
I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me
I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me, oh
I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me
I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me
Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up-up-up
Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up
I’m the best at samba dancing
I’m not here just for the asking
I’m the king of all that’s crazy
Sound the drumbeat, I’m not lazy
I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me
I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me, oh
I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me
I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me
All right, I’ll admit that I’m no Stephen Sondheim. And I know the above lyrics cannot possibly compare to what Messrs. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or George and Ira Gershwin put out in the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley. But I’m sure you’ll agree they provide a much better context for non-Portuguese speakers than the spurious “Broadway Samba” lyrics do.
Speaking of which, the “Broadway Samba” version of “Samba Lelê” originally appeared in a 1941 Paramount Pictures musical short, entitled Copacabana Revue, directed by Leslie M. Roush (BW, 10 min., released Nov 21, 1941) and which pre-dated both W’ere On Our Way to Rio and the earlier Kickin’ the Conga Round. Apparently, Paramount had the number in mind since they owned the rights to the English version, safely locked away in its vaults.
Here’s another bit of trivia. There’s a plethora of African-based words, phrases, and nonsense syllables in Brazilian Portuguese, many of which pop up in songs of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and throughout the 1960s and well beyond. Idiomatic expressions from those periods are also prevalent, some associated with the genres of choro, samba, samba-canção, bossa nova, Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), and especially Tropicália.
Take, for instance, the word Pelé, which happens to be the nickname for one of Brazil’s most celebrated soccer players, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. In essence, there’s no real meaning attached to this word. It’s basically a nondescript substitute used to differentiate it from pele (without the accent on the final “e”), the Portuguese word for “skin.” So in essence, Lelê is no different than Pelé, except Lelê has more substantive significance.
Incidentally, the Carnival-based “Samba Lelê” was written in 1939 by composer and pianist Paulo Roberto. According to author Ruy Castro, Paulo Roberto “was a famous radio man and songwriter (he was also a respected medical doctor!),” and the “brother of Luiz Barbosa, who introduced the hard straw hat as a rhythmic samba instrument, and of the great comedian Barbosa Junior, who recorded several duets with Carmen Miranda.”
Equally incredible is that “Sambalelê,” formerly an unrelated nursery rhyme, was also a traditional children’s song. The existence of this second “Sambalelê” (as one word) was an extraordinary discovery, in that this simple tune happens to be the predecessor to the one used in the Popeye cartoon. It’s also the one that Paulo Roberto appropriated for his more rhythmic variation.
A combination lullaby and bedtime number, it starts off slowly with the same melody as the section, “Samba Lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da.” Only here, the main verse in Olive’s version differs at the second syllable of “le-LÉ” and the third syllable of “do-en-TE-TE” which, instead of rising to an A flat at the phrase “Samba Le-LÉ ta doenTE-TE” (with “LÉ” and “TE-TE”), falls on the lower F sharp in the children’s song. This results in a softer, subtler, less edgy declamation, as it would be, naturally, for a kid’s tune. You can hear this slower version on YouTube, performed by (among others) the Canadian-Armenian singer-lyricist Raffi, who gives it an unnatural Caribbean-calypso beat.
And while we’re at it, let me mention that Castro referred me to the original Victor (Brazil) 78-rpm, 10-inch, double-faced, October 26, 1939 recording, made in Rio (matrix 033245), of “Samba Lelê,” sung to perfection in an exceptionally clear and rhythmically precise interpretation by the Argentine-born, Italian-descended Brazilian singer Carlos Galhardo (real name Catello Carlos Guagliardi).
The handsome, dark-haired Galhardo, who resembled a cross between John Barrymore and Herbert Marshall, was part of a group of talented radio and nightclub performers from the so-called “Golden Age” of Brazilian popular music. Some of Galhardo’s contemporaries included the likes of Chico Alves, Orlando Silva, Silvio Caldas, and Mario Reis, all of them gifted beyond their years.
You can savor the tone of Galhardo’s superbly placed tenor voice, as it rises and falls in all the right places. His expert delivery of the text, crisply enunciated and beautifully captured by the elementary technique, is a wonderful testament to his artistry. Make note, too, of his deliciously rounded r’s, so marvelously natural, as well as his infectiously buoyant personality.
On a personal note, Galhardo’s 1941 recording of the Carnival march hit, “Alá-lá-o” (by Haroldo Lobo and Antonio Nássara), was one of my family’s favorites.
And it’s thus that we end this study of the Fleischer brothers’ South of the Border cartoon outings. It’s fitting, then, that in the finale to W’ere On Our Way to Rio, both Olive Oyl and Popeye exchange their clothes. Why fitting? Because Carnival demanded it!
When, during the prior year, could the average Brazilian, especially in Rio, play the role of a pauper or a king, to become, in make believe, a woman in a US Navy sailor outfit, or a man in a Bahian headdress and skirt? Why, during Carnival, of course! That’s the power of the celebration, of the Carnival spirit taking over your person, the very essence of what it is, of what it once used to be — and how it has been preserved in animated form.
Credits: Released April 21, 1944, Duration: 7:43 (or 7:51), #125 in the Popeye series. Produced by Famous Studios / Paramount Pictures (by arrangement with King Features Syndicate). This was the last cartoon produced in Miami, Florida. Direction: Isadore “Izzy” Sparber; animators: James “Jim” Tyer, Ben Solomon, William “Bill” Henning; additional animators and in-between artists: Tom Inada, Abner Kneitel, James Tanaka (all uncredited); producers: Dan Gordon, Seymour Kneitel, I. Sparber (all uncredited); associate producer: Sam Buchwald (uncredited); story: Jack Mercer, Jack Ward; voices: Jack Mercer (Popeye), Dave Barry (Bluto), “Olive” (unknown); musical arrangement: Winston Sharples; songs: “W’ere On Our Way to Rio”; “Samba Lelê” – recorded in 1939 by Carlos Galhardo, and “Broadway Samba” in 1941.
Many thanks to author Ruy Castro, to Carla Guagliardi (the daughter of Carlos Galhardo), and to my brother Anibal Lopes for their invaluable assistance in providing additional material for this piece.