Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Six): The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of the Feat

Olympic flame and cauldron at Rio 2016 (Photo: Filipe Costa)

The Light that Lasts Half as Long

The cauldron that housed the Rio 2016 Olympic flame was also of modest degree and scope. However, to heighten the impact in a way that all eyes would be drawn to it, the cauldron was surrounded by a large, rotating kinetic sculpture constructed of recycled material.

Designed by American artist Anthony Howe, who specializes in these types of outdoor displays, the sculpture, with its 12.2 meter diameter (approximately 40 feet) and 1,815 kilo weight (close to four thousand pounds), clearly dwarfed the cauldron in importance.

Each individual segment of the wind-powered contraption, made up of “hundreds of reflective spheres and plates” arranged “concentrically around the cauldron and supported by a metal ring,” was specifically “designed to rotate independently” around a central ring, “creating a pulsating movement and millions of reflections from the cauldron’s flame.”

“My vision was to replicate the sun, using movement to mimic its pulsing energy and reflection of light,” Howe told contributor James Brillon, via a previously taped interview, and published in an August 2016 article for the online journal Dezeen.

The idea for the flame derived from one of the Rio 2016 Games’ themes, that is, the ever-mounting effects of global warming. “The International Olympic Committee did not specify the exact design they wanted me to make,” Howe continued. “They gave me fairly free reign. We went through several iterations and what we finally decided on was something that was most like the sun in its energy, reflectivity and light.”

Indeed, Olympic officials in Brazil stressed that the low-emissions cauldron should be smaller than past versions, mostly to give credence to the notion that reducing fossil fuel output and greenhouse gas usage would lead to similar reductions in global warming (or, to be precise, climate change).

Olympic cauldron burning bright at Rio 2016

Constructed at his home studio on Orcas Island, in Washington State, Howe’s mammoth structure was completed in Montreal, Quebec. From there, it was transported to Rio de Janeiro in time for the opening ceremony and beyond.

“I hope what people take away from the cauldron, the Opening Ceremonies, and the Rio Games themselves,” Howe concluded, “is that there are no limits to what a human being can accomplish.”

Victory Laps and Spats

If that is the case, then there is nothing that compares to skill on the field of competition. Olympic champions are made, not born. Many athletes devote their lives to participating in the quadrennial tourney. Many suffer for their pains, both physically and emotionally, and, yes, even monetarily. Regardless of the downsides, the visceral thrill of having accomplished one of life’s most challenging aspects stands uppermost on every athlete’s mind. For most of them, just being able to participate is victory enough. But for those select few, winning is everything.

No doubt, the undisputed superstar of the event, and a hero to those from the Third World, was Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. Showing off his patented “bolt of lightning” victory stance at every opportunity, Usain won an unprecedented third consecutive 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×400-meter triple run, “a feat that,” the official Olympics website informs us, “may well never be repeated.”

Next in line for glory was American swimming sensation Michael Phelps, who earned five gold and one silver medal in Rio, along with the honor of being named the most decorated athlete of all time, with 23 gold, three silver, and two bronze medals to his credit over a sixteen year span.

These were to be expected. What of the local population? How did they perform before the hometown crowd?

As fate would have it, the first gold to be won by a native-born Brazilian went to twenty-four-year-old Rafaela Silva in the 57-kilogram judo division. Born in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) slum complex of Rio, made famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) by the 2002 movie, Rafaela was disqualified four years earlier at London 2012 for an “illegal leg grab” during a fight against the challenger from Hungary.

Gold-medal winner Rafaela Silva (Photo: Correo del Sur)

Because of constant taunting and overt expressions of racism online and in public, Rafaela almost gave up the sport entirely. “Rafaela got depressed,” her sister Raquel related to The New York Times. “She watched television all day and cried alone in front of the TV. Our mother cooked her favorite things to cheer her up, but that didn’t work.” But for her fighting spirit, she might never have competed again. What made her snap out of her despondency was her instinctive defense mechanism.

Rafaela’s coach, Geraldo Bernardes, refused to give up on her as well. “Rafaela was really aggressive,” Bernardes claimed, “but in a way that I could direct her in a way that was good for the sport. Judo requires from the athlete a lot of sacrifice. But in a poor community, they are used to sacrifice. They see a lot of violence; they may not have food. I could see when she was very young that she was aggressive. And because of where she is from, she wanted something better.”

This is the experience of many of the favela’s residents, who become marginalized by their own fellow citizens only because of where they have lived or grown up. Nevertheless, Rafaela’s underdog status did not deter her fans from rooting for her success.

“Everybody here knows Rafaela’s history,” remarked Eduardo Colli, a Brazilian torcedor viewing the finals from the stands. “This is more than just a medal, it’s a victory for poor people. It’s hope for all of them.”

The second Brazilian athlete to win the gold was twenty-two-year-old Thiago Braz da Silva (no relation), from the municipality of Marília, in the state of São Paulo. The six-foot-tall pole vaulter managed not only to score a personal best, adding an additional eleven centimeters to his previous tries, but set a national and Olympic record on his second attempt at 6.03 meters (19.6 feet), beating out defending champion Renaud Lavillenie from France.

“Incredible,” commented Thiago. “My first time over six meters. My home town wanted me to win. The crowd [was] cheering me too much,” he added. “I had to fix my mind on my technique, forget the people.”

He may have tried to “forget the people” when it came to hitting the heights, but the people did not forget him. The reaction from former competitors and seasoned sports journalists said it better than I ever could.

“No way in your life have you seen drama such as this,” claimed former Olympic javelin silver medalist Steve Backley. “The place has gone wild. How on earth has he done that? The jump of his life!”

“I’ve seen some things in my years competing and watching athletes,” observed former Olympic 1500-meter silver medalist Steve Cram. “That has got to be one of the best moments. Home crowd, home boy, higher than ever, better than ever.”

BBC Sport’s Chief Correspondent Tom Fordyce underscored the magnitude of Thiago’s win. “That might just be the moment Brazil’s Olympics have been waiting for. Every Games needs an iconic gold in the Olympic Stadium — think Cathy Freeman in Sydney, Michael Johnson in Atlanta, Fermin Cacho in Barcelona, the Mo/Jess/Greg triptych in London — but with so few chances and all of them outsiders, we thought it might not happen in Rio … A local kid put that right in spectacular fashion, destroying his old personal best, smashing the Olympic record, dethroning the reigning champion.”

Not every victory was as impressive as this one; some were simply bittersweet. And it happened on the soccer field of shattered dreams at Maracanã Stadium. Brazil and their star striker Neymar met archrival Germany in an Olympic rematch that mimicked their 2014 World Cup semifinal encounter in Belo Horizonte. The outcome, for all intents and purposes, proved inconclusive.

“That was the World Cup,” trumpted Rogerio Micale, Brazil’s coach, “this is the Olympic team. Neymar never played in that match so there is nothing that could generate any type of feeling that we have to take revenge.”

He was right, of course. Neymar suffered an injury that left him out of that humiliating 7-1 defeat. Two years later, Rogerio pointed out, none of the players who took part in that loss were present for their current matchup. “It is a different time with different players and ages.”

At the twenty-seven-minute mark, Neymar scored first on a perfectly timed 25-yard free kick after a blatant Germany foul to the shins. The equalizer came not fifteen minutes into the second half when Germany’s captain Max Meyer scored off teammate Jeremy Toljan’s cross, making it an even 1-1. After thirty minutes of overtime play (and several close calls and near misses), Brazil settled the score with Germany via penalty kicks. Neymar struck the winning goal into the net after Brazilian goalie Weverton’s dramatic defense of Nils Petersen’s blocked shot. Neymar stepped up to rifle the ball into the top corner for the shootout win.

Neymar gives thanks for Brazil’s 5-4 win against Germany at Rio 2016

The explosion at Maracanã could be heard ‘round the soccer world. Olympic gold had proven elusive for the five-time World Cup Soccer champions. This time, though, they made it count. Brazil was back on top — or so they thought.

The aroma of that sweet smell of success, however, did not last into Russia 2018. Beaten 2-1 by the Belgians in their quarterfinal match in Kazan, Brazil had lost much of it luster four years earlier at the 2014 World Cup. It recovered its fighting spirit, somewhat, for the Olympics. The swagger, the temperament, the ability, and the love for the sport were still there, but to a diminished degree.

Reported on in July 2018 by USA Today, sports columnist Martin Rogers noted that “Brazil is caught in a void between its free-flowing past and a more modern, measured approach. Present-day formations are at their most-developed in Europe and hence European teams are shining [there] … It is not lost on Brazil that in part, it has been found out.” By that, Rogers meant that the days of “diving and faking and feigning,” which was a large part of the Brazilian game plan, are pretty much over.

“Brazil crashed out of the World Cup … for a simple reason,” Rogers reasoned. “It wasn’t good enough.” In his view, the dynasty had ended. “[Brazil] found itself mired in an identity crisis,” he fathomed, “a situation true dynasties rarely find themselves in.” His conclusion, vis-à-vis the country’s future World Cup aspirations, was that “Brazil will come again; always a contender, always compelling. But if it wants to find success, it needs to find itself.”

It did find itself, but on a different playing field. During the gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympics Arena, Brazil made history by having two of its native sons, thirty-year-old Diego Hypólito and twenty-two-year-old Arthur Nory Mariano (a Japanese descendant), finish two and three in the floor exercise, winning both the silver and the bronze — a first for Team Brazil. A boisterous partisan crowd lifted the two gymnasts to a level unattained by the host nation in previous contests.

Britain’s Max Whitlock took the gold, while Japan’s all-around champion Kohei Uchimura faltered as he stepped outside the line of demarcation, costing him a medal.

Criticism and condemnation of the obviously pro-Brazilian crowd was widespread — curious in a sport where civility and respect for one’s rivals tend to follow the expected norms. However, compensation for the spectators’ unsportsmanlike conduct could be drawn from the tears of joy Diego displayed after his routine had ended.

Diego Hypolito (l.) & Arthur Nory Mariano flashing their silver and bronze medals at Rio 2016

“I started crying because I had worked for twelve years for this moment,” Hypolito declared for reporters. “I tried to be calm and just do what I did in training. I fell in two Olympic Games. I was able to overcome that and that is a great result for me. I believed in myself and my coach believed in me. Today, my soul was cleansed.”

His teammate, Arthur, also showed unbridled pleasure at having achieved a win. In fact, he had jumped at the news that he had earned the bronze. “It was unthinkable to have two Brazilians on the podium but finally our day came,” the equally unrestrained Arthur smiled after his winning performance.

(To be continued….)

Copyright© 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Children of the Night’ — Celluloid Creatures and Other Movie Monsters (Part Two): Dark and Stormy Nights

Period poster art for “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

A Gathering of Giants

From that notorious June 1816 gathering at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati off Lake Geneva came one of the most elaborate, incontrovertibly ground-breaking horror stories ever written, one that has stood the test of time.

A young and highly-educated girl named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the lover and future second wife of British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, channeled a lively imagination (and her own tragic childbirth experiences of loss and suffering) into the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published anonymously in 1818.

Just to be clear, the name Prometheus, in Greek mythology, refers to one of the Titans — that is, the children of Uranus, god of the heavens, and Gaia, goddess of the earth. Prometheus was also the only Titan to have fought on Zeus’ side in the ten-year battle against the gods and other Titans.

His name means “forethought” and, of all the Titans, Prometheus was by far the cleverest. So much so that he is credited with favoring man with thought and crafts and, most significantly, with stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. In many accounts, Prometheus is also ascribed with having created man out of clay, thus his significance in Mary Shelley’s story of Victor Frankenstein and his obsession with creating life.

Prometheus steals fire from the gods

For stealing fire and allowing man to master its use, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock (with a spear through his chest — ouch!), while each day an eagle would feast on his liver. But every night, the liver would grow back, only to have it eaten away again the next day. Eternal suffering and punishment for his “crime” was Prometheseus’ fate. In Frankenstein, God punished Victor Frankenstein for having taken lightning from the sky to give life to an artificial being by turning his creation against him and those he loved.

Besides the silver-tongued George Gordon Lord Byron, accompanying Mary Godwin and poet Shelley on their summer outing were Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s former lover and friend, Dr. John William Polidori (dubbed “Polly” by the bard). What with the dreadful rainy weather (due, we are told, to an overactive volcano that previous winter), the couples kept themselves entertained by engaging in the usual leisure-class pursuits: card playing, parlor games, and the reading of books and poetry were the order of the day. These were some of their activities, along with the imbibing of spirits and (ahem) related carryings on.

They were leading a typical self-indulgent lifestyle, as many in their station were wont to participate in. And to pass the time, the young people turned to telling one another ghost stories. Ah, but what stories!

So much has been written about this remarkable literary and historical encounter that, surely, someone somewhere would have attempted to make a film about it. And indeed someone did: two full-length features, at that. However, the earliest cinematic representations of Byron with Shelley and wife Mary can be traced to Universal Studio’s The Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale’s masterful 1935 sequel to his original Frankenstein (1931).

In the witty prologue to the picture, which features a delightful opening minuet scored by composer Franz Waxman (and which, in many film historians’ opinions, takes place after that infamous Lake Geneva get-together), a powerful storm rages on. Trivia note: The servant girl leading the Russian wolf hounds off-camera is played by Una O’Connor, who appears in the movie proper as the strident-toned Minnie.

Inside a castle eerily similar to the one where Baron Henry von Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fashioned his creation from old dead bodies, a flowery Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), whose ornate upper-class accent flows trippingly off his tongue, faces Mary (the enchanting Elsa Lanchester), busy at her needlework, and introduces himself as England’s greatest sinner. He praises Shelley as England’s greatest poet, to which Shelley inquires, “What of my Mary?” To which Byron replies: “She is an angel.”

“You think so?” is Mary Shelley’s sly retort.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elsa Lanchester) at Villa Diodati, from director James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein”

Byron invites her to watch the storm, but she declines, claiming that lightning alarms her. “Astonishing creature,” he admonishes.

“I, Lord Byron?”

“Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark,” declares Byron. Nevertheless, he expresses admiration for the story, as well as astonishment that she, Mary, a charming and frail young woman, could have fashioned such a frightful tale, one to chill the bones. He admits that Murray, her publisher, would have a dreadful time releasing this fantastic novel to the public.

In defense of her work, Mary reminds Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), that her publishers did not see that the purpose of her story was to convey a “moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” Against Mary’s wishes, Byron eagerly recaps for his friends, and for the viewing audience’s benefit, the most harrowing sequences from Frankenstein: how the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein created his hapless monster, who itself was “killed” for having murdered and terrorized a village — altogether forgetting that Universal had anachronistically updated the story for modern times. (And, in fact, the studio had plans to resurrect the monster, so it behooved Universal to come up with a viable angle.)

In the instant that Byron approaches Mary to take into his hand the “fragile white fingers that penned the nightmare,” she accidentally pricks her finger with a darning needle. As Mary rises to her feet to show Shelley the blood, the friends form a triad, with Mary in the middle — the image of which will be repeated near the end of the picture, as the eccentric Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), with exaggerated pomposity and rolling his “r’s,” introduces Henry Frankenstein to their new creation, the nameless hissing Bride (Ms. Lanchester again, only not so enchanting as before).

Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Mary (Elsa Lanchester), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon)

Taking her delicate hand in his, Shelley declares it a shame that Mary should have ended her story quite so abruptly. “That wasn’t the end at all,” she insists. Mary then goes on to further embellish the tale, picking up the thread where the earlier film had left off, i.e., at the burning mill tower.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) & Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in “The Bride of Frankenstein”

The Literary Life, Literally

Author Jill Lepore, whose The New Yorker magazine article, “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’” (originally published under the title “It’s Still Alive!”), is a brilliant synthesis and summation of Mary Shelley’s life and work, refers to the novel as “no minor piece of genre fiction but a literary work of striking originality,” one that helped to establish “the origins of science fiction by way of the ‘female gothic.’”

The term “gothic” and its loose connection to the above-named Romantic-era writers and poets also happens to be the title of a film by that most daring and baroque of British “out-there” filmmakers, the flamboyant movie and television director Ken Russell. His 1986 Gothic, released by Vestron Pictures and produced by Al Clark and Robert Devereux (with a soundtrack by New Wave musician and performer Thomas Dolby), is a fictionalized and (let’s say it and be done with it) over-the-top recreation of that Villa Diodati gathering of imaginative minds.

Russell’s previous screen work, among them the critically-acclaimed Women in Love (1969), based on D.H. Lawrence’s ribald novel of the same name; The Music Lovers (1970), about the ill-fated life of Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky; The Devils (1971), adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, which concerned the sexual shenanigans of 17th-century nuns at a convent in France; Mahler (1974), probably Russell’s most sedate composer picture from this period; the rock-opera Tommy and another composer “biopic,” Lizstomania (both 1975), both starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey; the mind-bending science-fiction feature Altered States (1980), from the novel by playwright Paddy Chayefsky; and the sexually-themed thriller Crimes of Passion (1984), with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, are worth noting for their offbeat nature and subject matter, as well as their uninhibited (and self-destructive) attitudes toward sex, free love, and religion.

All of these films served as mere lead-ups to Gothic, his most outlandish visual production on the timeless story of Mary Shelley (a sensational motion-picture debut by the fresh-faced Natasha Richardson) and her soon-to-be-betrothed Percy Shelley (Julian Sands, typecast as the troubled poet), traveling to Lake Geneva in order to spend time with the ravenous, neck-biting Lord Byron, marvelously portrayed in hangdog, rock-star-like fashion by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. Byrne and Byron must have shared one of those out-of-time Vulcan mind melds: the two figures, actor and poet, complement each other’s ravings like a hand in a custom-made glove.

Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, l.) greets Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) in Ken Russell’s “Gothic” (1986)

Canadian-born actress Myriam Cyr is well cast as Claire Clairmont, who is much too obsessed with Lord Byron; and character player Timothy Spall portrays a fey Dr. John Polidori — he, too, is obsessed with Byron, but in all the wrong ways. Still, history records that Polidori went on to write the first documented vampire story, entitled (quite naturally) The Vampyre, wherein he modeled his lead character, Lord Ruthven, after Byron himself. (See the following link to my previous entry: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/children-of-the-night-celluloid-creatures-and-other-movie-monsters/).

Needless to say, there are shocking images of spooks, skulls, and witches’ Sabbaths; devil worship, blood-letting, and after-births; leeches and body horror; nasty trolls and hallucinatory visions; naked heathens and heaving bosoms — anything and everything the viewer (or the director, for that matter) would likely associate with the gothic style and aesthetic. However, the actual encounter among these so-called literary types is treated as the result of drug-induced mind trips. Nothing in the near-contemporary output of the Brontë Sisters (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre), or that of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), can equate to the perversity of Gothic’s “shock ending.”

After the evening’s horrors are over and done with, a semblance of normalcy returns to Villa Diodati, along with pleasant weather. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin serenely descends the long staircase, her face frozen in a steady gaze. But her mind has been set ablaze with inspiration from what she has learned and experienced.

She joins Lord Byron and Polidori at a picnic on the Villa’s grounds. Polidori offers her some tea. Byron, puffing on a cigar, reassures her, “There are no ghosts in daylight. You’ll get used to our nights in Diodati. A little indulgence to heighten our existence on this miserable earth. Nights of the mind, the imagination. Nothing more.”

“What about your ghost story, Mary?” Polidori cheerfully quizzes.

“My story … my story is a story of creation,” she calmly muses, “of a creature who’s wracked with pain and sorrow and hunger for revenge, who haunts his mad creator, and his family and his friends … to the grave.”

Shelley (Julian Sands), with his betrothed Mary (Natasha Richardson) & Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall), in “Gothic”

Suddenly, we are transported to the present day. A guide, discoursing though a loudspeaker on board an offshore vessel, takes the viewer on a tour through Lake Geneva and the Diodati estate. As he speaks, the guide announces that eight years after their time at the Villa only Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont remained alive. Byron died of a fever in the Greek war, Shelley drowned in a boating accident, and Polidori, Byron’s biographer, took his own life in London.

“But something created that night, 170 years ago, lives on, still haunting us to this day: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

The camera turns away from the vessel and pulls back down to reveal an object in the water, which comes floating up to the surface. It is the naked body of a stillborn creature — a horrid, ugly, misshapen creature. A creature wracked with pain and sorrow. An ungodly child!

Less is More, More or Less

Two years after Gothic bowed in movie theaters (or bowed out, as the case may be) the same theme was taken up again and filmed as Haunted Summer (1988). Directed by Czech movie-maker and screenwriter Ivan Passer (a longtime U.S. resident), and scripted by noted director Lewis John Carlino, Haunted Summer presented a more sedate (and, ergo, less memorable) reading of the story behind the mixed couples’ mid-June foray.

Unlike the tempestuous Russell, Messrs. Passer and Carlino wanted nothing better than to present the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori as, yes, hot-blooded Brits, but also as young people in their passionate “summer of love.” Where both Russell and Passer emphasized their connection to 1970s flower children, screenwriter Carlino dwelled on the Shelley’s concern for the poor and downtrodden (they were also die-hard abolitionists, as were Mary’s parents) — historically accurate, if truth be told, but hardly digestible screen fare.

Still, the cast was promising: Eric Stoltz (Mask, Lionheart) as Percy Shelley, Philip Anglim (The Elephant Man on Broadway, The Thorn Birds on television) as Lord Byron, Alice Krige (Chariots of Fire, Ghost Story) as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) as Claire Clairmont, and Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) as John Polidori. Good actors all, with plenty of stage and film experience between them.

Byron (Philip Anglim), Claire Clairmont (Laura Dern), Mary Godwin (Alice Krige) & Shelley (Eric Stoltz) at Villa Diodati, in “Haunted Summer” (1988)

Where the story lets them down and unfortunately veers off course is in its emphasis on the men — Byron, Shelley, and “Polly” — instead of on the women. It is Mary Godwin’s association with Shelley and the pleasure-seeking Lord Byron, along with the classic output they produced as a result, that fascinates us, not the foreplay and sex drives of Claire for Byron (and Shelley, if we may be so bold), or Shelley for both Mary and Claire.

In our opinion, Anglim’s stiffly-acted Byron lacks presence and charm, if not sheer sexiness. He’s not nearly as threatening (or as positively dashing) in these departments as what Gabriel Byrne brought to the part. As for Eric Stoltz, his Shelley speaks in a high-pitched squeal, which grows more and more irritating as the story (and his temper) progresses. On another trivia note, both Byrne and Stoltz were reunited earlier for the low-budget epic Lionheart (1987). In that vehicle, Byrne played a malevolent character known as the Black Prince (perfect typecasting, to say the least).

While we’re on the subject of biopics, I have two other features in mind to share with readers: the recent Mary Shelley (2018) with Elle Fanning in the title part and first-time screenwriter Emma Jensen, directed by Saudi-Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour (so far unseen by yours truly); and an earlier one, Gods and Monsters, released in 1998 by director-screenwriter Bill Condon, about the last days of James Whale, the openly gay British auteur of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man (1933), and other movie classics. Whale was wonderfully portrayed by Ian McKellen, himself a gay actor. He is best known to today’s audiences as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbitt film series, and as Magneto in The X-Men flicks.

That intriguing title, Gods and Monsters, derives from a scene in The Bride of Frankenstein, whereby the pseudo-scientist and mad necromancer, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, an old theater colleague of Whale’s), proposes that he and Baron Frankenstein drink a toast to their new-found partnership.

The mad Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in a toast to “gods and monsters,” from “The Bride of Frankenstein”

“To a new world of gods and monsters!” Pretorius chuckles, as he downs a glass of gin, his only weakness. “The creation of life is enthralling,” he boasts afterwards, “distinctly enthralling, is it not?”

Indeed, it is — especially when it leads to the creation of memorable horror stories such as these.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Caetano Veloso: Dark Times Are Coming for My Country

Brazil’s presidential runoff election is being held on Sunday, October 28. As a consequence of this historic event, today’s guest contributor, composer, singer, writer and political activist Caetano Veloso, published an article for THE NEW YORK TIMES Op-Ed page on October 24. In it, the singer-songwriter talks about the dark times ahead in Brazil if Jair Bolsonaro becomes president of the Republic. Below is a re-print of the article.

Singer, songwriter, author and political activist Caetano Veloso (Photo: newv2)

RIO DE JANEIRO — “Brazil is not for beginners,” Antonio Carlos Jobim used to say. Mr. Jobim, who wrote “The Girl from Ipanema,” was one of Brazil’s most important musicians, one [who] we can thank for the fact that music lovers everywhere have to think twice before pigeonholing Brazilian pop as “world music.”

When I told an American friend about the maestro’s line, he retorted, “No country is.” My American friend had a point. In some ways, perhaps Brazil isn’t so special.

Right now, my country is proving it’s a nation among others. Like other countries around the world, Brazil is facing a threat from the far right, a storm of populist conservatism. Our new political phenomenon, Jair Bolsonaro, who is expected to win the presidential election on Sunday, is a former army captain who admires Donald Trump but seems more like Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ strongman. Mr. Bolsonaro champions the unrestricted sale of firearms, proposes a presumption of self-defense if a policeman kills a “suspect” and declares that a dead son is preferable to a gay one.

If Mr. Bolsonaro wins the election, Brazilians can expect a wave of fear and hatred. Indeed, we’ve already seen blood. On Oct. 7, a Bolsonaro supporter stabbed my friend Moa do Katendê, a musician and capoeira master, over a political disagreement in the state of Bahia. His death left the city of Salvador in mourning and indignation.

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about the 1980s. I was making records and playing to sold-out crowds, but I knew what needed to change in my country. Back then, we Brazilians were fighting for free elections after some 20 years of military dictatorship. If someone had told me then that someday we would elect to the presidency people like Fernando Henrique Cardoso and then Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, it would have sounded like wishful thinking. Then it happened. Mr. Cardoso’s election in 1994 and then Mr. da Silva’s in 2002 carried huge symbolic weight. They showed that we were a democracy, and they changed the shape of our society by helping millions escape poverty. Brazilian society gained more self-respect.

Caetano at a concert on Copacabana Beach

But despite all the progress and the country’s apparent maturity, Brazil, the fourth-largest democracy in the world, is far from solid. Dark forces, from within and from without, now seem to be forcing us backward and down.

Political life here has been in decline for a while — starting with an economic slump, then a series of protests in 2013, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and a huge corruption scandal that put many politicians, including Mr. da Silva, in jail. Mr. Cardoso’s and Mr. da Silva’s parties were seriously wounded, and the far right found an opportunity.

Many artists, musicians, filmmakers and thinkers saw themselves in an environment where reactionary ideologues, who — through books, websites and news articles — have been denigrating any attempt to overcome inequality by linking socially progressive policies to a Venezuelan-type of nightmare, generating fear that minorities’ rights will erode religious and moral principles, or simply by indoctrinating people in brutality through the systematic use of derogatory language. The rise of Mr. Bolsonaro as a mythical figure fulfills the expectations created by that kind of intellectual attack. It’s not an exchange of arguments: Those who don’t believe in democracy work in insidious ways.

The major news outlets have tended to minimize the dangers, working in fact for Mr. Bolsonaro by describing the situation as a confrontation between two extremes: the Workers’ Party potentially leading us to a Communist authoritarian regime, while Mr. Bolsonaro would fight corruption and make the economy market friendly. Many in the mainstream press willfully ignore the fact that Mr. da Silva respected the democratic rules and that Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly defended the military dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, in August 2016, while casting his vote to impeach Ms. Rousseff, Mr. Bolsonaro made a public show of dedicating his action to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who ran a torture center in the 1970s.

As a public figure in Brazil, I have a duty to try to clarify these facts. I am an old man now, but I was young in the ’60s and ’70s, and I remember. So I have to speak out.

Gilberto Gil (l.) and Caetano in exile in London in the late 1960s

In the late ’60s, the military junta imprisoned and arrested many artists and intellectuals for their political beliefs. I was one of them, along with my friend and colleague Gilberto Gil.

Gilberto and I spent a week each in a dirty cell. Then, with no explanation, we were transferred to another military prison for two months. After that, four months of house arrest until, finally, exile, where we stayed for two and a half years. Other students, writers and journalists were imprisoned in the cells where we were, but none was tortured. During the night, though, we could hear people’s screams. They were either political prisoners who the military thought were linked to armed resistance groups or poor youngsters who were caught in thefts or drug selling. Those sounds have never left my mind.

Some say that Mr. Bolsonaro’s most brutal statements are just posturing. Indeed, he sounds very much like many ordinary Brazilians; he is openly demonstrating the superficial brutality many men think they have to hide. The number of women who vote for him is, in every poll, far smaller than the number of men. To govern Brazil, he will have to face the Congress, the Supreme Court and the fact that polls show that a greater majority than ever of Brazilians say democracy is the best political system of all.

I quoted Mr. Jobim’s line — “Brazil is not for beginners” — to bring a touch of funny color to my view of our hard times. The great composer was being ironic, but he spoke to a truth and underlined the peculiarities of our country, a gigantic country in the Southern Hemisphere, racially mixed, the only country with Portuguese as its official language in the Americas. I love Brazil and believe it can bring new colors to civilization; I believe most Brazilians love it, too.

Many people here say they are planning to live abroad if the captain wins. I never wanted to live in any country other than Brazil. And I don’t want to now. I was forced into exile once. It won’t happen again. I want my music, my presence, to be a permanent resistance to whatever anti-democratic feature may come out of a probable Bolsonaro government.

Copyright © 2018 by The New York Times

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, Act IV and Epilogue (Part Eight – Conclusion)

‘Mefistofele,’ Act IV: The Vale of Tempe Scene (in Las Vegas kitsch-style), from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo (2008)

Night of the Classical Sabbath

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—

[Faust kisses her] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!—

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

The above lines were taken from English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Oft quoted by aspiring thespians and used as a running gag in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Shakespeare in Love, the lines are spoken by the philosopher Faust upon meeting the fabled Helen of Troy from Antiquity.

The legend of Faust and his bargain with the Devil (actually, a wager between Lucifer and the Lord) have inspired many an artist throughout the centuries, most noteworthy among them the German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust, his own two-part study in verse, was the inspiration as well for a number of like-minded composers.

Gounod’s five-act Faust, the most memorable of the works transformed into operas based on Goethe’s poem, eliminated all mention of Helen of Troy; it concentrated instead on the love affair between the maiden Marguerite (called Gretchen in Goethe’s original) and the dashing young cavalier Faust. Berlioz, too, maintained a reasonable focus on the Faust-Marguerite love story in La Damnation de Faust, a symphonic poem for orchestra, soloists and chorus that is frequently staged as an opera.

Even earlier than either the Gounod or the Berlioz work is Robert Schumann’s oratorio-like Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a three-part choral and orchestral piece for eight solo voices. Later, Busoni, in a more eclectic, intellectually conceived design, gave the operatic world his version of Doktor Faust, which eliminated Marguerite entirely (the character is hinted at via the presence of her brother) in favor of metaphysics. Helen, too, is scarcely perceptible as a phantasmagoric vision.

Stage production from the Teatro Regio, Parma, of Robert Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’ (2008)

It was left, then, to the Italian Arrigo Boito to conjure up the voluptuous image of the Greek beauty Helen, stolen by Paris from her husband, the warlike Menelaus, which led to the decade-long siege of Troy (or Ilium, as it was also called) and to the city’s eventual fall and destruction. Although Boito’s Mefistofele, a cosmic interpretation of Goethe’s epic work and originally presented in two parts, was considered an abject failure at its 1868 La Scala premiere, it was later re-worked, re-written, and re-thought and given a triumphant remounting in 1875. Further revisions shaped it into the bombastic piece we know today.

What remained of the so-termed “Night of the Classical Sabbath” is a truncated, hardly awe-inspiring fourth act to follow the emotionally charged third. Tacked on to Mefistofele as more of an after-thought than a carefully constructed bridge between acts, it contrasts the romantic liaison of Faust and Margherita (who, you will recall, met her untimely demise in Act III) and the make-believe one of Faust and the regal Helen, who holds court by the River Pineios (or Peneus), named after the river god of ancient Thessaly. This act is also known as the Vale of Tempe sequence.

In the volume Opera on Record 3 (edited by Alan Blyth), music critic and contributor John Higgins proposed that “the music of the fourth act [of Mefistofele] is never included in selections of highlights from the opera, and it could possibly be considered optional in a stage performance, in much the same way as the Walpurgisnacht Ballet in Gounod’s Faust” (coincidentally, as part of a very long Act IV of that work). Well, we needn’t go that far. While it’s true that audiences are eager to get on to the rousing conclusion, I am of the opinion that Boito’s Act IV makes for a palatable lead-in to what comes after.

However, Higgins went on to claim that “the Vale of Tempe Act also poses the problem of whether to cast a second soprano as Elena (Helen) or whether to treat her as another facet of Margherita.” Surely, there was a financial consideration involved in this suggestion. In most live productions of Mefistofele, the part of Elena is normally taken by a second artist (as in San Francisco Opera’s 2013 revival with soprano Marina Harris). It makes perfect sense, too, to cast the same singer as both Elena and Margherita, provided she has the goods to mold separate and distinct characterizations. Elena’s tessitura is not as vocally demanding or as emotionally taxing (or rewarding) as that of Margherita’s. Still, either way will work given that both roles are clearly differentiated on stage.

As the act opens, the audience hears a barcarolle-like musical theme amid harp-plucked textures that call to mind (and that listeners may rightly compare to) the more famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s unfinished The Tales of Hoffmann. Elena and the mezzo-soprano portraying Pantalis blend their voices together in an ethereal number, “La luna immobile innonda l’etere …. Canta” (“The motionless moon bathes the still ether … Sing on”). The two women give pause from their moonlight boat ride as Faust, from a distance, calls out Helen of Troy’s name repeatedly, each time in varying octaves (“Elena, Elena, Elena, Elena”) — the last of which rises in anticipation of his meeting with the legendary figure.

Faust (Ramon Vargas) greets Helen of Troy (Marina Harris) in San Francisco’s 2013 production of ‘Mefistofele’

This number is similar in execution to the opening of the third act Witches’ Sabbath scene at the hellish Brocken Mountain (“Folletto, folletto, velloce, leggier”). Here, though, familiarity breeds contempt. Surely, Boito could have found a more trenchant musical representation, though in truth the calmness and serenity of this sequence (including a delightful minuet in the Boccherini mode) boosts the languid nature of the plot. Furthermore, the change in tone and mood is palpable, and clashes markedly with the rest of the opera. Listeners should take this episode for what it is: a pleasant diversion, even a brief respite, before the big finale.

Mefistofele has brought Faust to this ancient locale so the philosopher can forget his remorse at how the pitiable Margherita met her tragic fate. Faust will taste of mythical love, but the overly-respectable ambience and decorum leave Mefistofele cold and bored: He much prefers the harsh scents of the Brocken (the Hell he does!). With the entrance of dancing nymphs and such, Mefistofele momentarily takes his leave.

Helen enters and, in an intensely dramatic delivery (“Notte cupa, truce, senza fine, funebre!” – “Oh night, dark and grim, endless, funereal!”), she recalls the terrible time that Troy was sacked. The very air reverberated with the echoes of clashing shields, thundering chariots, and whining catapults; the very ground turned red with blood. The gods, enraged, rained down fire and fury upon the city. The gigantic shadows of the invading Greeks were cast against the flaming walls of Troy, until a deathly silence was all that was left. One of Boito’s many additions to the score, it’s a shame this declamatory piece has never been recorded on anyone’s recital disc. It can be quite effective in performance.

Helen of Troy (Angel Joy Blue) relives the terrible night of the sacking of Troy

Just then, Helen’s nymphs turn to see a stranger slowly approaching. Who is this splendid hero? Why, it’s the gallant Faust, decked out in all his finery (he’s dressed, according to the libretto, as a fifteenth-century knight). He prostrates himself before Helen and declares his undying love. Various assorted sirens and fauns, along with Pantalis, Nereus, and the curiously aroused Mefistofele accompany Faust as he pitches his woo at the receptive queen (“Forma ideal purissima” – “Purest and ideal form of beauty”).

Tormented at first by her recollection of that horrible night, Helen opens her heart to this handsome fellow. The two join their voices in a rapturous ensemble, beginning with their mutual declaration of love (“T’amo, t’amo, t’amo, t’amo”) to the same tune as Faust’s earlier repeated entreaties of her name. Together, the couple and the assembled participants engage in a powerful concertato (“Ah! Amore! Misterio, celeste, profondo!” – “Ah, Love, mysterious, heavenly, profound!”), the main melody of which will recur near the end of the Epilogue where Mefistofele urges the dying Faust to once again listen to the song of love (“Odi il canto d’amor!”).

This ensemble, as previously mentioned in Part Six of this series (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera-part-six-second-intermission/), shares many similarities with a comparable one in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The lovers’ voices rise higher and higher, until at the ensemble’s climax the gathering begins to disperse. Helen tells Faust that Arcadia lies just beyond a peaceful valley. And that is where they will live forever, declares the ardent knight. They continue to exchange terms of endearment as the curtain slowly falls to a tremulous theme in the strings, the same one that opened the act.

“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful”: The Death of Faust

A long and languorous postlude sets the scene for the celebrated Epilogue. It is here that librettist and musician Boito finally attained the Olympian heights he had so long desired. As one writer derisively put it, “Attempting too much, he accomplished too little.” That may be a fair analysis of the Mefistofele project as a whole. But whether you agree with this assessment or not, certainly the Epilogue brings the heady drama to a stirring close in a most satisfactory way. Boito has taken the listener on Faust’s journey of enlightenment. “From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven,” wrote Goethe. Did Boito achieve his purpose? We think so.

We are back in Faust’s laboratory, where the philosopher and the Devil first struck their fiendish bargain. Faust is old now, having lived his life twice over. He’s tasted both the passion (and the despair) of mortal love, as well as experienced an amorous fling with a legendary figure. Faust sold his soul for an extended period of physical pleasure, yet even in advanced age he has yet to see that vision of loveliness where he must pose that fateful declaration.

And true to form, the observant Mefistofele reminds him of this. “You have lusted,” Satan bellows, “indulged yourself and lusted anew, but still you have not bid the fleeting moment to ‘Stay, thou art so fair!’ ” Faust concurs with this evaluation. Indeed, he’s known the real and the ideal, the love of a fair maiden and the heart of a goddess, but what of them? The real (“il Real fu dolore”) only brought him suffering, and the ideal was but a dream (“e l’Ideal fu sogno”).

‘Mefistofele’ – Baden-Baden 2016 – The Epilogue with Charles Castronovo (Faust)

At this point, Faust launches into one of the most beautiful and dreamlike tenor arias in the entire Italian repertoire: “Giunto sul passo estremo, della più estrema età” (“Having reached the final step of extreme old age”). He awakens from his trance to find a peaceful world, one of an immense expanse; one where life has a purpose, and one where he can give life to a fruitful people. Mefistofele, in an aside, is concerned that his prize is slipping from his grasp. The Devil means to seek out his heart’s desire — a desperation move at best.

The philosopher continues to apostrophize despite the dire situation: his one desire is that his people and their flocks, their houses, fields and cities, will rise up by the thousands to live under a cogent set of laws. Dream on, Herr Faust, dream on! A wary Lucifer urges himself to be on the alert. Seeing that his victim has become obsessed, at this late stage, with doing good works, Mefistofele primes himself for battle with the Heavenly Host.

Unlike the Vale of Tempe section, there are multiple recorded extracts of both “Dai campi,” the first-act tenor aria, and the elegiac “Giunto sul passo.” According to Opera on Record 3, the best of the early acoustic and/or electric batches were those by the Italians Giuseppe Anselmi, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Aureliano Pertile, and Giovanni Zenatello. For those wanting a more modern-sounding style, Luciano Pavarotti’s recitals can’t be beat. And from the complete albums, Plácido Domingo’s two sets (recorded in 1974 for EMI/Angel and 1989 for Sony Classical, respectively) are excellent mementos of the Spanish tenor’s art.

As Faust concludes his reverie, suddenly a radiant glow appears in the distance. Faust hears a heavenly hymn and rejoices in the “august rays of such a dawn.” But the Devil sees through the light. “Good now reveals itself to him!” he spouts. “Tempter, beware! Tempter, beware!”

The “End of Life” sequence from Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ (Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 2008)

Trumpets sound from every corner of the theater. Their fanfare hails the arrival of the Heavenly Host. Spreading his cloak on the ground, Mefistofele orders Faust to fly through the air with him one last time. Perhaps he can entice the good doctor away for further madcap adventures. But as the trumpets grow louder, the Celestial Choir, the harbinger of the coming Heavenly Host, rises above the din. It too grows louder and louder, repeating a wordless “Ah!”

Now in extreme distress, Mefistofele calls out the doctor’s name in vain: “Faust! Faust! Faust!” Each time he does, it is more desperate and anxious than the previous cry. And the music has taken us back to the start of the opera: “Ave Signor, degli angeli, dei santi, delle sfere…” – “Hail, Lord of the Angels, and All of the Saints, and All of the Spheres ….” It’s a remarkable moment, certainly one of the most invigorating climaxes in all opera. The voices grow noisier and more clamorous, until they drop to barely a whisper for the “Ave Signor.”

In a final outburst of insolence, Mefistofele cries out to Faust: “Hear the song of love! Come drink the blood from the sirens’ breast!” It’s the theme of Faust and Helen of Troy’s amorous declaration. In some productions, signs of a homoerotic relationship between the Tempter and the tempted are openly implied. At New York City Opera’s famed Tito Capobiano production, Mefistofele all-but embraced the hallucinating Faust to prevent him from fleeing his clutches. Topping that, both bass-baritone Norman Treigle and basso Samuel Ramey, his successor in the part, would writhe on the floor in agony over Faust’s impending salvation.

At last, Faust utters the dreaded words: “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (“Arrestati, sei bello!”). “Look away!” Mefistofele roars in disapproval. “Look away!” – “Torci il guardo, torci il guardo!” But it is too late. Clasping the Bible to his bosom, Faust cries out to God and Satan that “The Gospel is my bulwark!” He reaches up to high C. (Note to audience members: Say a silent prayer that the tenor doesn’t crack on that pivotal note!) The cherubim chime in, accompanied by the Celestial Choir. Falling to his knees, Faust, much like the condemned Margherita, prays for his deliverance from this mocking demon. “Lead me not into temptation!”

Repeating his entreaties to “Stay, grant me eternity,” and in the ensuing ruckus of the competing choirs of angels, cherubim, and seraphim, Faust gives up his soul and expires. At the same time, Mefistofele is pelted (according to the original stage instructions) with a shower of roses, which also descend over Faust’s lifeless body. Most productions ignore this directive, but one can imagine the effect it would have if some director had the courage to try it. What we usually get is a patented light show, or, in some productions, a freeze-frame of the action.

Nevertheless, the Celestial Choir hails the Lord’s victory over evil (and Faust’s personal victory over adversity) with a long-sustained final note. The impressive trumpet fanfares, heard at the beginning of the opera, conclude the Epilogue with a stunningly climactic explosion of sound.

The last solo voice to be heard, however, is that of Mefistofele himself. Thrusting an angry fist into the air, the Devil tosses his wrath to the four winds. “The Lord triumphs, but the reprobate whistles! Eh! Eh!” It sounds even stronger in Italian: “Trionfa il Signor, ma il reprobo fischia! Eh! Eh!” Putting his fingers to his lips, Satan blows those ear-piercing screeches at God, but to no avail.

Open to Interpretation

‘Mefistofele’ from Baden-Baden 2016: Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) tears out the pages of the Holy Bible in the rousing finale

In the Epilogue to the Met Opera’s revival of Mefistofele, Satan is literally carried away on the shoulders of masked choristers. He thrashes and shouts over the cries of the chorus. For a different take, two variants on the standard ending are available online. They can be viewed and enjoyed on YouTube: one, from the 2008 Teatro Massimo of Palermo production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (tenor Mario del Monaco’s son), features Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role, with Giuseppe Filianoti as Faust; the other, a 2016 Philipp Himmelmann production for Munich’s Baden-Baden theater, stars an electric combination of Erwin Schrott as Mefisto and Charles Castronovo as the youngish Faust.

The Teatro Massimo presentation concludes as it began, with an end of life vision of a long, concentric-circled tunnel that leads to a bluish light at its center. In the Prologue, Mefistofele slowly crawls out from this wormhole-like aperture as if it were a birth canal. When he reaches center stage, the Devil picks up an armchair and threatens the light with it. This motion is carried over into the Epilogue, but in reverse order. After Faust’s “Giunto sul passo” air, the doctor retrieves the torn pages of his Bible and clasps them to his chest. This is his salvation. In a last-ditch effort to change Faust’s mind, Mefistofele hungrily embraces the old man but is driven away by the voices of the unseen chorus. As the music reaches its apex, he picks up that same armchair (on which an elderly Faust has sat) and, for the last time, threatens the choir with it in the same manner as before.

Incidentally, Filianoti is especially poignant in his rendering of Faust’s one chance at recovery. The voice, cracking with emotion, mimics that of an aged philosopher, not that of youthful tenor in his prime. How the listener may take this approach, which I find much truer to the drama, is a matter of taste. I, for one, liked it. Not to be outdone, Furlanetto pulls out all the stops. His deep, resonant bass rings out firmly in this scene. Plush is the term I would use to describe his vocal apparatus, if only slightly past its prime. His acting is even better; one can sense the desperation as Mefisto struggles to stay ahead of the game, despite his realization that all is lost.

In the presentation from Baden-Baden, Erwin Schrott’s sturdy bass-baritone, while resounding strongly  on the soundtrack, is not nearly as plush as his colleague’s. His is a leaner, less full-toned instrument than Furlanetto’s true bass grounding. While it fails to plumb the depths of the part, Schrott’s acting is in a different league entirely. This is based on director Himmelmann’s conception of the Devil as a hipster, and on Schrott’s own view of the character as a sexy beast in a butch haircut. The swagger, the self-confidence, and the total identification with the master manipulator fit Schrott’s physical and vocal attributes well.

Contrasting this production’s Epilogue with that of the Teatro Massimo, in Baden-Baden the Devil is the one who tears out the pages of the Holy Bible, not Faust. He ends up ripping the book in two and throwing it to the ground. Faust, sung ever-so-delicately by Castronovo, barely takes notice. Instead, he gives the audience its money’s worth with a gorgeously timed, gently laced rumination on “Giunto sul passo.” He strains at the highest notes, however, which slightly mars and disrupts the vocal line. All in all, his is much tamer and less compelling version of Faust’s vision than Filianoti’s more verismo-based account.

As to the powerful conclusion, I much prefer Furlanetto’s handling of the close. In Schrott’s interpretation, the Devil loses himself in a string of chintzy tinsel strips suspended from the stage’s ceiling. Swishing his arms back and forth along the strips, Schrott appears to be lost backstage while swirling in and out of view. Meanwhile, Castronovo stands front and center as the curtains slowly close in on him. I, too, was lost as to the meaning of all this, but no matter.

Erwin Schrott (as Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (as Faust): The Devil gets lost in Tinsel Town

Both performances are available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. If you’re looking for a change of pace while waiting for the Met Opera’s December revival of Mefistofele; if you’re curious to learn how our mania for old warhorses can be tailored to fit freshly-minted Las Vegas kitsch, either the stylistically challenging Palermo production or the later Baden-Baden version should fill that bill quite nicely. Fortunately, the singing in both productions is top-notch. They can be safely recommended with only minor reservations.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘They’re BAAAACK!’ — The Return of the Met Opera Saturday Broadcasts

Boito’s “Mefistofele” starts the radio season off on December 1

It’s the 2018-2019 Radio Season

Yes, they’re back. And it’s about time, too! So what does the Met Opera radio and/or Live in HD series have in store for us fans? Anything in the way of bold innovations, newly commissioned works, or plain old favorites?

Looking over the recently received The Metropolitan Opera 2018-2019 Live in HD and Radio Program Guide, I found a lot to admire, but also much to be desired. That’s about par for the course. Since last season’s broadcasts got off to a scandalous start with the revelations concerning former Met Opera music director James Levine, this season the company decided to put a new spin on the series — or, rather, in the orchestra pit.

Taking the podium (and some of the luster) away from maestro Levine will be Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Canadian-born conductor will be presiding over three broadcast works: a new Michael Mayer production of Verdi’s La Traviata on December 15, with Diana Damrau as Violetta, Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo, and Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont; a revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande a month later, on January 19, 2019, with Isabel Leonard and Paul Appleby in the title roles, along with Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Arkel; and the final radio broadcast of the season (on May 11) of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in the classic John Dexter production from the 1970s, also starring Isabel Leonard as Blanche, Adrianne Pieczonka as Mme. Lidoine, Erin Morley as Constance, Karen Cargill as Mère Marie, and Karita Mattila as Mme. De Croissy.

Although there’s nothing really earth-shaking to this lineup, I am curious to hear Mayer’s take on Traviata. He made quit a splash a few years ago with that glitzy Las Vegas-style Rat Pack Rigoletto. We may get a surprise or two out of this next Verdi work yet! Pelléas is another tantalizing offering. Despite its strictly Symbolist roots, the only completed opera by Claude Debussy is an orchestral tour de force. I am especially eager to hear Signor Furlanetto’s sepulchral tones as old King Arkel, a surprising character role for the celebrated Italian basso. The work of another Frenchman, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues had a brief resurgence a few years back in a lone run that many listeners (and live audiences) protested was NOT shown in theaters — a bad mark against the Met’s mismanagement of its schedule.

With that out of the way, the actual broadcast season officially kicks off on December 1st with a revival of Robert Carsen’s “out there” production of Boito’s Mefistofele. Frequent readers of my blog know that I am quite fond of this pre-verismo work and have written about it extensively. The opera is one I’ve heard on countless complete recordings as well as seen in a plethora of live and/or YouTube performances featuring Samuel Ramey, Justino Diaz, Ildar Abdrazakov, Giulio Neri, Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Erwin Schrott, and others. Angela Meade is scheduled to sing Margherita, with Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, Michael Fabiano as Faust, and relative newcomer Christian Van Horn (now THERE’S a Devil of a name for you) in the title role. Joseph Colaneri conducts.

“Suor Angelica,” the second panel from Puccini’s “Il Trittico”

December 8 promises the long-awaited revival of Puccini’s Il Trittico. This triptych panel of one-act operas, each lasting about an hour in length, remains (for me) the Italian master’s unquestioned masterwork. Chromatics and late-verismo fireworks abound. The three pieces in question are Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy. There are humorous asides and sly takes on greedy family members in Schicchi which have made it the odds-on favorite. However, in my view both Tabarro and Angelica take top honors as perceptive studies into the human condition. A mixed cast features the well-proportioned Amber Wagner and Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Álvarez, and George Gagnidze in Tabarro; the stunning Kristine Opolais, Maureen McKay, and Ms. Blythe in Suor Angelica; and veteran tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Gianni Schicchi, with Blythe again, and newcomers Kristina Mkhitaryan and Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the lovers. The conductor is Bertrand de Billy and the production is by Jack O’Brien.

Puccini’s ersatz spaghetti Western, La Fanciulla de West, is on tap for December 22 in Giancarlo Del Monaco’s lavish production. If the name Del Monaco is a familiar one to readers, well, that’s because Giancarlo is the dramatic tenor’s son. This revival boasts a powerhouse cast of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the return of Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez the Mexican bandit, and the versatile Željko Lučić as Sherriff Rance. Marco Armiliato conducts.

This Tosca retread has never been as popular as Puccini’s earlier trio of works, to wit La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and the aforementioned Tosca. Jointly with Il Trittico, Fanciulla is Puccini’s most ambitious theatrical realization, an Italian variation on an American theme based on David Belasco’s barnstormer of a play, The Girl of the Golden West. Puccini previously used Belasco and John Luther Long’s one-act Madam Butterfly as the basis for his popular opera of the same name. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice with The Girl.

Step up to the bar for “La Fanciulla del West”

An abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in J.D. McClatchy’s English adaptation, is the featured work on December 29. The by-now overplayed Julie Taymor production stars Erin Morley as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Ben Bliss as Tamino, Nathan Gunn (an audience favorite) as Papageno, Alfred Walker (who I remember as Wotan in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the Speaker, and Morris Robinson as Sarastro. Harry Bicket leads the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

There are two more Mozart works on the agenda: Don Giovanni on February 16, starring Luca Pisaroni as the Don, Ildar Abdrazakov as Leporello (I believe they might even be alternating their respective parts during the opera’s run), Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Federica Lombardi as Donna Elvira, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, and Štefan Kocán as the Commendatore, with Cornelius Meister conducting; and La Clemenza di Tito on April 20, with Ying Fang as Servilia, Matthew Polenzani as Tito, Elza van den Heever as Vitellia, Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, and Christian Van Horn as Publio, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s elaborate production. Maestro Lothar Koenigs is in charge of the orchestra.

The New Year brings forth a revival of Bartlett Sher’s production of Verdi’s Otello (Hint: It’s done with lots and lots of mirrors!). Verdi poured every ounce of skill and passion into this penultimate piece, lauded by critics and musicologists as the epitome of Italian operatic art. Taking over as the Moor will be tenor Stuart Skelton, who made a sensational showing two seasons ago in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Desdemona will be taken by Sonya Yoncheva, the only bright spot in this tenor-baritone showcase, along with Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Željko Lučić as the oleaginous Iago, and James Morris as Lodovico. Gustavo Dudamel will make his Met Opera podium bow leading the combined forces of chorus and orchestra.

Bartlett Sher’s production of “Otello”

Listeners on January 12 will be treated to a rarely performed verismo warhorse in Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Not as popular as it once was, the starring role has attracted high-voltage prima donnas from the moment of its 1898 debut — a partial listing of which must include Lina Cavalieri, Claudia Muzio, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer, Renata Tebaldi, Raina Kabaivanska, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, and Angela Gheorghiu. But it’s not just a soprano outing! There are juicy morsels for mezzo, tenor and baritone as well. Sparks will surely fly when the scheduled Adriana of Anna Netrebko meets up with Anita Rachvelishvili as the jealous Princess de Bouillon, both of whom are romanced by Piotr Beczala as Count Maurizio, alongside the smitten Michonnet of Ambrogio Maestri. It takes an Italian conductor to pull this piece off to even a modicum of satisfaction. And waiting in the wings is Gianandrea Noseda.

A most offbeat work pops up next on the Met Opera parade of hits, and that work is the January 26 radio premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, based on the Winston Graham novel that also attracted filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Marnie was not Hitch’s most-watched film venture, not even with Piper Laurie and Sean Connery as the leads.

I’m not much into our modern-day penchant for bringing motion pictures to the operatic stage. Usually, it’s the other way around, with the order being from stage to film. Film to stage rarely works, but who can tell? Considering how shabbily Mulhy’s previous Met Opera effort, the controversial Two Boys, was treated by the company there might be some hope that Marnie will come off better this time around. Certainly the cast is promising enough, with the ubiquitous Isabel Leonard as Marnie, the dashing Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, Denyce Graves as Marnie’s Mother, and Iestyn Davies as Terry Rutland, with Robert Spano presiding. This is another Michael Mayer production, which might give the opera that all-important lift it surely needs to succeed.

Parlez-vous français? Oui, oui, Monsieur!

Bizet’s “Carmen” being wooed by the toreador Escamillo

We then hear Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen on February 2. Starring Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, Roberto Alagna as Don José, Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna) as Micaela, and Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production will be conducted by Louis Langrée. With so many French-speaking natives in key roles, one would think the Met management capable of presenting the original opéra-comique production of the work instead of the bowdlerized version (the one with those excruciatingly inappropriate Ernest Guiraud recitatives) currently in use at the house. Not a chance! Not only did Bizet not write this music, but Guiraud eliminated the spoken dialogue after the composer’s untimely death, supplanting them with his own “score.” Guiraud also assisted with the completion of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. It’s an intriguing premise: which version to present? Perhaps it’s time for the Met to get back to basics and bring about a change in their perspective.

A double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle appears on February 9. This hit production, directed by the Polish-born Marius Treliński, is thought-provoking and challenging. It paid off handsomely at the box office, mostly due to the pairing of the Russian Anna Netrebko with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (see Adriana Lecouvreur above). This revival will see the Met’s newest diva, the Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, as the blind Princess Iolanta, to include Matthew Polenzani in the high-lying part of Vaudémont, Alexey Markov as Robert, and Vitalij Kowaljow as King René. In place of the star-power that Russian maestro Valery Gergiev generated when he last performed the piece in 2015, we have the less flamboyant but equally capable Henrik Nánási in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra, which in the brooding Bartók work acts as a principal character in conveying the drama inherent in this intensely probing score.

We’ve already mentioned Mr. Mayer’s production of Rigoletto. And on February 23, it will be heard live, with the stratospheric Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Roberto Frontali as Rigoletto, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke of Mantua, Ramona Zaharia as Maddalena, and Štefan Kocán as the assassin Sparafucile (the one with the bottomless low E). Nicola Luisotti is the conductor. On the heels of Verdi’s middle-period gloom we plunge into the comedic world of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment on March 2. This Laurent Pelly production (he also designed last season’s delightful rendering of Massenet’s Cendrillon) will feature Pretty Yende as Marie, Stephanie Blythe as the Marquise of Berkenfield, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as Tonio (the fellow with the nine, count ‘em, nine high Cs!), and Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice.

Javier Camarena belts those high C’s to the rafters in “La Fille du Regiment”

Two weeks later, more comedy pours forth in the revival of Robert Carsen’s English countryside production of Falstaff, Verdi’s final comment on the state of Italian opera, and on comic opera in general. The all-star lineup includes the gigantic-framed Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Ailyn Pérez as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Golda Schultz as Nannetta, Juan Jesus Rodriguez (who subbed for the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore) as Master Ford, and Francesco Demuro as Fenton. Trying to keep the orchestral forces in check will be Richard Farnes.

It took Falstaff an inordinate amount of time to be considered an integral part of the standard repertoire. For a late period work from the pen of an acknowledged master such as Verdi, that’s a huge surprise. Such was not the case with Puccini’s Tosca, to be heard on April 6. From the moment of its debut, this once-maligned work has gained in number and variety of performances throughout the years, especially at the Met. This revival, then, of last season’s new David McVicar production stars the up-and-coming Jennifer Rowley as Tosca, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, German baritone Wolfgang Koch as Scarpia (an odd choice for this part), and Philip Cokorinos as the Sacristan. Carlo Rizzi will be on the podium. Rowley, you may recall, subbed for an indisposed Patricia Racette in the broadcast of Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac. She also sang (again, as a last-minute choice) the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore. This promotion to Floria Tosca is a major career step for the budding prima donna. Let’s hope she takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Saint-Saëns’ biblical French pageant Samson et Dalila will debut in a new production by Darko Tresnjak. This version brings back mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila seducing the muscular strongman Samson, sung by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. Laurent Naori, so effective last season as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, interprets the High Priest of Dagon, with Tomasz Konieczny as Abimelech (well, it looks and “sounds” like Alberich), and another Wagnerian, Günther Groissböck, portraying the Old Hebrew. Sir Mark Elder presides. Can you say kitsch?

The Met’s flashy new production of “Samson et Dalila”

At the tail end of the season, on May 4, the Met revives the highly successful Penny Woodcock production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (or The Pearl Fishers) by Bizet. The rematch between Pretty Yende as Leila and Javier Camarena as Nadir is guaranteed to win audiences over to their high-wire act above the staff. They’ll be joined by the retuning Marius Kwiecien as Zurga, the third wheel of the plot. Nicolas Testé also puts in a return appearance as Nourabad. Emmanuel Villaume mounts the podium for this one. While not as well known or as perennially popular as Carmen, The Pearl Fishers draws audiences into its exotic world of tropical palm trees with its captivating vocal airs and that famous duet for tenor and baritone.

Of course, I’ve left the best for last: a compete run, on alternate Saturday afternoons, of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is only the second re-mounting of Robert Lepage’s critically bashed all-digital, all-mechanical Ring. My biggest complaint with the production is the reduced playing area, which also reduced the span and scope of Wagner’s epic drama of greed and lust for power. The tetralogy, as it is known to fans, begins on March 9 with Das Rheingold, with an impressive roster boasting the powerful bass-baritone of Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Jamie Barton as a womanly Fricka, Norbert Ernst as Loge, Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, Gerhard Siegel as the sniveling Mime, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt, and Dmitry Belosselsky as Fafner. Two weeks later, on March 30, we’ll hear the most popular portion of the Ring dramas, Die Walküre, starring Christine Goerke in her Met role debut as Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jamie Barton reprising her Fricka, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund (a nice segue from Otello), Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Günther Groissböck as Hunding.

April 13th brings the third work in the cycle, Siegfried, starring Stefan Vinke as the titular man-child, Christine Goerke returning as the sleeping Brünnhilde, Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Michael Volle taking over for Greer Grimsley as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise), Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, and Dmitry Belosselsky bellowing smoke and fire as Fafner. The Wood Bird will be taken by coloratura Erin Morley. And ending on a high note, Götterdämmerung brings the cycle to a close on April 27. Christine Goerke gets to sing one of the greatest soprano sequences ever composed, the Immolation Scene. Others in the cast include Andreas Schager as Siegfried, Edith Haller as Gutrune, Michaela Schuster as Waltraute, and Evgeny Nikitin as Gunther. A former Alberich, bass-baritone Eric Owens has been promoted to Hagen, while Tomasz Konieczny wraps things up as Alberich. Keeping it all together will be conductor Philippe Jordan.

The “Ring” cycle returns in Robert Lepage’s hi-tech outing

And now, a final word about the passing of a legend: the one and only Montserrat Caballé. I first heard that unmistakable, meltingly beautiful voice in the late 1960s, with the first complete stereo recording of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Madame Caballé could be politely termed a “full-figure” girl; in fact, her huge frame was a hindrance to swift movements on the stage. She may have been criticized for being too static in her parts, but once she started to sing that golden throat could move mountains.

In her prime, she was at the very pinnacle of coloratura singing. Not only was she a charming presence, she was most generous to her fans and to her colleagues. She sang all the major soprano parts, including Aida, Tosca, Mimi (a memorable Met radio performance with superstar Franco Corelli as Rodolfo), Liu, Luisa Miller, and Marguerite in Faust (her Met debut in 1965, along with that of baritone Sherrill Milnes as Valentin). Later in life, she experienced poor health and had several life-threatening crises during her career. Many fans will remember her duets with rock star Freddy Mercury of Queen — himself, a former student of opera (vide Bohemian Rhapsody). May this real-life “Fat Lady” rest in peace.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Street Life: The Politically Incorrect World of Animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoonist, artist, writer and animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoon Caricatures

For those who grew up in the inner cities — and by that, I mean the worst parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, to encompass the streets of Philadelphia, the segregated neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and the over-crowded tenements of Boston, Chicago, and East Los Angeles — the pervasive violence, the lack of upward mobility, the profanity and discrimination, the sexist treatment of women, the drugs, prostitution, and out-and-out squalor and despair were an inescapable way of life. (If you don’t believe me, check out the HBO series The Deuce.)

Add to these an irreverent outlook, a comically skewed yet perceptive observation of humanity with all its failings and faults; of basic “survival mode” amid the stench of decay and neglect, and you begin to understand what drove the art of a young Jewish immigrant growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the 1940s and 50s.

For artist and animator Ralph Bakshi, irreverence toward the status quo (with his middle finger prominently raised in direct response to it) was a natural form of self-expression, a method for combating the boredom and loneliness of line-drawing or cell-painting — and of perfecting his own off-kilter attitude to what nowadays is known as the politically incorrect.

The young Ralph Bakshi, drawing away in his studio

Nothing in Bakshi’s background, which manifested itself in his copious artwork, was commonplace or mundane. Quite the opposite: whether his characters were anthropomorphized animal figures or highly-caricatured examples of the human kind, for better or worse they lived and breathed the urban street life, something the young Bakshi was intimately acquainted with. They throbbed with vibrancy and authenticity — even if that so-termed authenticity verged on the exaggerated or the extreme.

In today’s contentious political atmosphere, an artist of Bakshi’s ilk, and intensely polemical output and worldview, would be hailed as a visionary. His work would be broadcast on primetime cable (or pay-per-view) with the same loyalty and dedication that have made such programs as the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, HBO’s Westworld, or the award-winning Netflix series The Handmaid’s Tale the critical bonanzas they’ve become.

But back in the 1970s and 80s, when Bakshi first gained notoriety by depicting outright lust, loose morals, avarice, corruption, intolerance, violence, and racial bigotry in full-length cartoon fashion (Fritz the Cat, 1972; Heavy Traffic, 1973), he was looked upon with disdain if not outright revulsion as the architect of animated subversion. By capturing the stereotypical behavior of the racially mixed minorities he had grown up with, and by imposing his own personal (some would say “offensive”) stamp and pulp style to animation, Bakshi revealed the true “colors,” such as they were, of big-city life and the people who populate it.

“Fritz the Cat” (1972), based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic

Rotoscopy, or the process of tracing live-action models and settings from real-life individuals or photographs, became a workable (albeit crudely stylized) means of translating Bakshi’s vision into actuality. The later introduction of computer graphics and CGI-animated features, however, only emphasized the fact that what Bakshi was doing at the time clearly pointed in that direction. He once complained, in an online interview, that he was heavily criticized for having used the rotoscopy method once employed by such animation pioneers as Max and Dave Fleischer and Walt Disney, which modern computer animation has taken full advantage of. His reaction: he expressed excitement at the knowledge that he, a simple cartoonist and writer, was the path-breaker.

In the early days of his career, Bakshi toiled at Terrytoons and Hanna-Barbera, while later branching out with his own makeshift studio. He worked, when work was indeed available, for such big-name outfits as Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century-Fox, but never with lavish budgets and always on the brink of ruination. If the results remained stillborn or obviously rushed, their very crudity and inconclusiveness lent his features a degree of quaintness and immediacy — that is to say, of living in the moment.

Not a Second to Spare

The sultry Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) from the live action-animated feature “Cool World” (1992)

This feeling of living in the moment was unlike anything one got from earlier animated productions. The influence of New Hollywood, and the newfound freedom of expression and permissiveness that came with it (“sex, love and dope” were some of the themes), served as both a godsend and a curse to Sixties and Seventies filmmakers such as Bakshi.

Along with the animator, a new generation of cinematic entrepreneurs (i.e., Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, John Cassavetes, John Carpenter, Paul Schrader, and others) had come of age in the wake of this new open-mindedness. As a group, they succeeded in tearing open the motion-picture envelope of what could be seen and heard on the big screen.

Bakshi, as the only animator, was a key contributor to this idea of a more open cinematic experience, the literal exposure of urban myths regarding our beloved American society — a cruel, dishonest, and demeaning one, from the point of view of the oppressed, which included such insalubrious characterizations as street hustlers, hookers, bums, vagrants, drug dealers, low-life types, pot-smokers, police officials, innocent bystanders, the mob, high school dropouts and college kids, and so on (see Fritz the Cat; Hey Good Lookin’, 1982).

“Hey Good Lookin” (1982), Bakshi’s semi-autobiographical feature

Ralph Bakshi’s so-called genius, then, was in taking the side of the not-so-casual observer. His “camera lens” focused primarily on subject matter and theme, along with their accompanying surroundings — aspects that, in today’s mixed-up crazy world, have endeared him to a whole new generation of film fans.

His overall film work (yes, even the less characteristic sci-fi/fantasy features) are a symbiotic blend of actual street sounds and competing voices, mixed together with whatever-was-available background footage, still images, and period music. The stunning visuals, many if not all of them individually and painstakingly traced from life, attest to the director, screenwriter, and animator’s innate ability to make use of existing material.

He is not to be confused with the likes of an Ed Wood, who despite whatever outward enthusiasm he might have demonstrated in his amateurish film productions, could never be considered an artist. Bakshi was, and remains, an artist through and through.

The interracial relationship depicted in “Heavy Traffic” (1973), with its mixture of live-action (background) with animated foreground figures

Not that his on-the-fly working methods would be mistaken for professionally-finished “quality” product. In stretching the limits between the real and the imaginary, Bakshi frequently struggled with budgets and lack of funding. More often than not, he failed, to a large extent, to bring his vision to completion. Although less polished than the majority of his contemporaries’ work, to this writer the less polished and “finished” Bakshi’s animated product seemed the more revelatory and genuine they turned out to be. Indeed, their very imperfections proved more artful, more thrilling, and, yes, more true to life, for lack of a better word, than anything introduced by the Disney Studios.

Certainly the textures were all there: the sense of an incomplete masterpiece-in-the-making; of further insights to come (then again, maybe not); the inescapable feeling of imbalance, of rawness and raunchiness, of disproportion and sketchiness, of living on the edge, or whatever else tickled his fancy.

The copious bloodletting and perpetuation of ethnic and cultural stereotypes were there in spades (no pun intended). Add to them the clash of varying styles and formats within the same picture frame, and the incompatible combination of realistic drawings with cartoony creations — again, the intervention of real life into that of the make-believe film world.

This clash of styles would continue to be a hallmark of many of his productions, in particular that of Coonskin (1975) and the later Cool World (1992). Adult-oriented plots, defiantly for (and about) mature audiences, and the all-too-serious situations that abound in his films, along with their ribald humor — these were the qualities that set Bakshi apart from every other animator of his period.

The controversial and racially charged “Coonskin” (1975)

We need only mention the extraordinary use of Nazi propaganda footage from pre-World War II Germany to entice rebellion (Wizards, 1977); the medieval storming of a rotoscoped castle, taken wholly from MGM’s Ivanhoe (The Lord of the Rings, 1978); and entire scenes lifted from director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (Wizards again), or the tracing of Saruman from Charlton Heston’s Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (The Lord of the Rings). Were these blatant infringements of copyrighted material, or were they Bakshi’s homage to classic films and the filmmakers who made them?

Pot smoking, sexual promiscuity, philandering, fornication, drug addiction, hustling: indeed, all levels of documented human behavior were explored and exploited, as unsavory and disrespectful as they appeared to some. All of these facets simply emboldened Bakshi, who conveyed the deeply flawed personalities of his creations as they were. But the empathy he displayed for them nonetheless shines through the muck. No one is perfect, in his assessment, and no one is less flawed than anyone else. We are all human, or inhuman if you prefer. That is the lesson one learns when watching one of his pictures.

A true original and an independent hero to writers and art directors alike, Bakshi’s films are fascinating from the point of view of their uniqueness. His characters float in a surrealistic environment of their own formation, a hallucinatory topsy-turvy world as unseemly and disjointed as an LSD trip. Yet, there is something poetic to his work, the dialogue (as coarse and vulgar as it often gets) is no more shocking than, say, the harshest of David Mamet or the gutter language employed on cable network shows.

His influences extend from the cartoonist brothers Max and Dave Fleischer to Walt Disney, from Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett, and Ollie Johnston to Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Paul Terry, and the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, among others.

Robert Crumb (self-portrait), underground comic book artist, writer, musician, and creator of “Fritz the Cat”

Bakshi’s films remain as relevant in today’s society as they ever were. For reasons already noted, we continue to face the same age-old problems of race, sexism, drug addiction, corruption, organized crime, gun violence, inequality, and such as many of his characters have experienced — with an ever-increasing lack of faith in our institutions to control or combat them.

His films have proven especially popular with young adults, now coming of age at a perilous point in our history (and who, ironically, happen to see themselves depicted on the screen); teenagers in love, interracial relationships, kids in trouble leading aimless lives, bigoted mind-sets, and families squabbling and arguing over who-knows-what.

Bakshi once stated that he came to the animation business at a time when animation was in its death throes. The art was dying, he claimed, and he was right. He may also have been the catalyst who led the charge in reviving it in the modern era.

Always a voracious reader, Bakshi wrote about the people he knew: the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, the Jews, and the other ethnicities in his vicinity. He had a fondness for their culture, and how different or alike they were from one another. Above all, he reveled in their individuality and distinctiveness, their abundant love of life, and most characteristically their music. He felt a responsibility to discuss these folks in his work, to talk about their lives, to capture their complexities in timeless of-the-era fashion that still resonates with fans to this day.

In future installments of this series, we will be looking at each of his films individually, and discuss their merits and deficits, as well as their continued significance in and application for our troubled times.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Two)

“Lust for Life,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Kirk Douglas as van Gogh

The troubled artist and the work he or she produces, or attempts to produce, are favorite themes of motion pictures devoted to their lives and loves, and to the sacrifices they’ve made for their art.

Those who are not blessed with the God-given talent for creating art are frequently puzzled as to what drives these artists to dig so deep down into their souls that they damage their physical health — or what little of it they had to begin with. Hand in hand with these ailments, their mental faculties are oftentimes disturbed, much to their detriment and to irreversible effect.

When these ailments are transferred to the silver screen, viewers can’t help but feel as though they are voyeurs partaking of these cinematic re-enactments. This brings us to the next batch of features about the artistic life and its consequences.

Lust for Life (1956)

One of the prime examples of the artist who suffered, deliberately and repeatedly, in order to produce great art (or any art, for that matter) involves the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (pronounced “Hawh” in the original Dutch, with an emphasis on the guttural, hard “H” sound).

We are all familiar with van Gogh and the stories of his obsessive-compulsive behavior and explosive temper. The well-told tale of how, unable to sell his work or make a living from his paintings, the harried Vincent ended up committing suicide after countless bouts of depression, psychosis, lead poisoning, alcohol, and such. How he sliced off an earlobe after arguing with the equally intractable Paul Gauguin. And how, after his death, his works were eventually “discovered” and made famous the world over.

From such a story, more stories arose and took hold of the reader-listener. One of them, writer Irving Stone’s 1934 biographic book Lust for Life, formed the basis for a motion picture of the same name. MGM’s widescreen Metrocolor® production of Lust for Life (1956) featured a talented lineup headed by the scorching Kirk Douglas as van Gogh, Anthony Quinn as fellow firebrand Paul Gauguin, James Donald as Vincent’s art dealer brother Theo, Henry Daniell as their rigid father Theodorus van Gogh, Everett Sloane as Dr. Gachet, Noel Purcell as Anton Mauve, and Pamela Brown as Christine, with Niall MacGinnis, Madge Kennedy, Jill Bennett, Lionel Jeffries, and Laurence Naismith in other roles.

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) paints furiously while Gauguin (Anthony Quinn), standing over him, fumes at his efforts

Stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, with a jarringly powerful film score by Miklós Rózsa, the movie follows a familiar trajectory of events leading up to Vincent’s premature passing. (Stone also authored the 1961 historical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the High-Renaissance sculptor and artist Michelangelo’s struggles with Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the subject of our previous post.) The outstanding cinematography was provided by Russell Harlan and Freddie Young, with superb recreations of many of van Gogh’s magnificent portraits, still-lives, and landscapes.

The screenplay, by former radio broadcaster and writer Norman Corwin, emphasized van Gogh’s growing mental instability and mounting frustrations with his lot in life, sometimes in straight dramatic displays, other times coupled with over-the-top histrionics. Take, for instance, the notorious “hand-over-the-lit-candle” incident, a legendary trope among movie buffs that has been savagely mocked ever since its initial introduction (especially by impressionist Frank Gorshin, who perfected Douglas’ clenched-jaw, gritting-of-teeth acting style).

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) with Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) in Arles, France

Starting out as an itinerant minister, the film portrays van Gogh as an abject “failure” in this regard, but as an individual with a social conscience and an immense capacity for work and personal sacrifice. He was also an extremely lonely, boorish human being. Rejected outright by one of his female cousins, van Gogh runs off to Gay Paree (at his brother Theo’s suggestion) where he takes up painting. By the way, his art-dealer sibling, as compassionate and accommodating a soul as one would ever hope for, provides Vincent with monetary assistance whenever possible.

Unfortunately, van Gogh is rejected as well by the academic art world for his undisciplined working methods, primitive painting skills, and skewed proportions (ironically, the very things he would be most known for). Vincent’s dependency on his brother only aggravates an already explosive situation.

Consequently, both Vincent and his newfound friend, the self-absorbed, bullying painter Gauguin, retreat to Arles in the south of France (again, the idea was Theo’s) where, for a time, they bolster each other’s work (and ego). Soon, Gauguin realizes that Vincent is unstable, while the impatient, restless van Gogh — as much of a control freak as he is an obsessive-compulsive — nags Gauguin to drink. The two men argue incessantly, which ends badly for van Gogh. The scene of the slicing off of Vincent’s ear, shot off-camera but within an excruciatingly descriptive sound design (bolstered by Rózsa’s sharp-edged music), is memorable more for the self-loathing it suggests rather than what is actually shown of the self-mutilation.

The performances throughout are commendable, however, with Kirk taking the acting (or, rather, OVER-acting) honors, although Quinn as Gauguin copped a Best Supporting Actor Award at the Oscars. Still, this is Douglas’ show all the way. The fact that he spoke fluent French (the film was shot on location, as depicted in the copious exteriors) and bore an impressive likeness to the real van Gogh (with red beard and straw hat intact) only added to its so-called “authenticity.” Douglas played on the audience’s sympathy, which works for a time but can get downright cloying when he (in character) constantly grasps his head and runs his hands through his cropped hair for the hundredth time. Sadly, this is what 1950s Hollywood took for its depiction of mental illness.

Publicity shot for “Lust for Life” of Vincent van Gogh and Kirk Douglas, side by side

Not quite as authentic as well was Scotsman James Donald as Theo. Donald is a tad too rigid and refined, with a typical Anglican reserve to his bearing that was not out of place in such later military fare as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). But here, one longed for him to open up the floodgates, to show some fire and spirit. Historically, under the upstanding, above-board exterior Theo was just as volatile and driven as his older brother. This is hardly explored at all; what we get instead is sympathy, sympathy, and, oh, yes, more sympathy.

Vincent’s controversial suicide and bedside death are also shown, albeit to suit the dramatic purposes of the story. (And there is no mention of Theo’s own passing six months later from dementia and paralysis, an inexcusable oversight.) Modern research has shown, however, that Vincent may not have taken his own life after all, as previously thought, but could have been shot quite by accident by some mischievous teenagers in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise where he lived and worked.

Besides the aforementioned gorgeous photography, the best thing about Lust for Life is Douglas’ uncanny, spot-on portrait of the artist, the quintessential case study of bipolar affliction.

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

Herbert Marshall (l.) speaking with George Sanders as Charles Strickland, a stand-in for Gauguin, in “The Moon and Sixpence”

We move on from Vincent’s emotional foibles to a movie about Paul — Paul Gauguin, that is, the Parisian-born Post-Impressionist and purveyor of primitivism. Did you know that Gauguin’s life was dramatized long before van Gogh’s (in a highly romanticized manner, of course) and by another actor? Yes, the Russian-born British citizen George Sanders portrayed Monsieur Gauguin — or rather, an artificial version of the same.

The film was entitled The Moon and Sixpence (1946). Released independently by United Artists and directed by Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the movie was based on a novel by William Somerset Maugham, first published in 1919.  Both the novel and the movie are fictionalized accounts of the author’s friendship and acquaintance with the reclusive, egomaniacal yet world-renowned artist, painter, and sculptor Gauguin.

In this black-and-white feature (the restored print has some amber-tinted Tahitian scenes, along with a brilliantly lit Technicolor finale), Gauguin is renamed Charles Strickland, a bored London stockbroker who longs to leave the dull confines of British domesticity and bourgeois respectability in order to paint his innermost desires. Sanders gave the artist in question a cautiously hulking, brooding quality. He also dies of leprosy, another fictional slant to the story (by way of punishment for his sins?). The real Gauguin was suspected of having (and spreading) syphilis. As Strickland nears his own end, he orders the natives to burn his final masterpiece, so that little to nothing of his life’s work is left behind. What was all that about suffering for one’s art?

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

The real-life Gauguin was a staid, middle-class financier (if at a lower hierarchic level) who, when the bottom fell out of the market of his life, turned to painting as a full-time livelihood. He left his solidly middle-class wife and family to eventually make his way to Paris, then to Martinique and eventually to faraway French Polynesia, where he doted on the local flora and fauna, to include the lovely young Tahitian lasses who figured so prominently in his work.

In the movie, the author Somerset Maugham is called Geoffrey Wolfe and was portrayed by London native Herbert Marshall, who appeared in the same role, and in the same year (but under the author’s real name), in a Tyrone Power-Anne Baxter vehicle for Twentieth Century-Fox called The Razor’s Edge — a later Somerset Maugham narrative about a soul- searching angry young man looking for meaning in his life, and in the lives of his filthy rich society friends.

Vincent & Theo (1990)

Tim Roth as van Gogh in Robert Altman’s more faithful “Vincent & Theo”

Directed by the independent-minded auteur Robert Altman (M*A*S*H*, Nashville, The Player), this two-hour feature starred the versatile Tim Roth as van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother Theo.

It’s basically a Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau re-evaluation of Vincent and Theo’s perpetually intertwined relationship to each other, documented (or not) in those hundreds upon hundreds of letters they wrote. Many, if not most, of Theo’s correspondence to Vincent were destroyed by Vincent himself. Although art historians and the public in general have access only to Vincent’s side of the exchange, one can still get a more than complete picture of their association via the circumstances in which the brothers addressed their thoughts and related to one another.

In a word, they were inseparable. Director Altman, in a making-of mini-documentary, mentions that they were very much like the Corsican Brothers, i.e. if one got sick, the other threw up. When Vincent died, Theo died, too. They shared a commonality of interest in art, due to two uncles who worked in the art field. Consequently, Theo became an art dealer and, as noted in many accounts, introduced his brother to the leading art figures of the day, among them Cézanne, Rousseau, Pissaro, Seurat, and, of course, Gauguin.

Equal time is given to both brothers’ predicaments and to the respective, symbiotic parts they played in one another’s lives. The closeness, fierceness, mutual admiration, rivalry, and out-and-out disgust they displayed are more fully explored in Altman’s film than in Minnelli’s standard Hollywood biopic.

Vincent’s coarseness and slovenliness are emphasized as well, sometimes for contrast against the clean-shaven and dignified Theo’s appearance, but more often to place the artist within the context of his art (which, we are told pictorially, served as a projection of his inner torment). Vincent lived as he wanted, and his dirty, disheveled, dissipated lifestyle, stained clothing and teeth, abrasive behavior, and poverty-stricken habitation became the manifestation of what viewers generally suspected an unappreciated artist’s life to be.

Theo (Paul Rhys) is approached by brother Vincent (Tim Roth) in “Vincent & Theo”

Credit for this outstanding personification goes to Tim Roth, who literally becomes the suffering artist Vincent. There’s nothing likable about this individual at all. We see Roth eat his paints; he even drinks the turpentine he uses to thin out those paints — heck, right out of the canister, mind you! If obsession is the key to this character’s turmoil, then Roth has earned his keep. This is as close to the way the real van Gogh may have behaved as one is likely to get — maybe too close for the audience’s comfort.

In contrast, Paul Rhys as Theo is the exact opposite of his brother. Tall, slim, and oh-so-proper and prim, Rhys wears his respectability on his sleeve. He also loves his older brother to death with an unending verve and passion, and will do anything to help him. Theo tries, mostly in vain, to find a buyer for Vincent’s work, yet Vincent accuses him (rather unfairly) of not doing enough to aid him in that respect. Is Theo his brother’s keeper? No matter how much Theo tries to prop his brother up and get him to stand on his own two feet, Vincent plops back down to wallow in self-pity and self-hate.

Neither brother comes off well in this showcase. After two hours of this (the feature was originally intended as a four-hour-long miniseries for television), viewers are ready to throw up their hands and yell, “Enough, already! We get it, we get it! Artists suffer for their art!”

Theo (second from right) gazes at an art work, while Gauguin (second from left) watches at back

In sharp contrast to the above, the mincing portrait we get of Gauguin (French-Bulgarian actor Wladimir Yordanoff) is an unfortunate misstep. Unlike the lustful, violent, boastful, larger-than-life Anthony Quinn figure, here, Gauguin is played as more of a wimp, as personality-less putty in Vincent’s manipulative hands and utterly lacking in energy and vibrancy. No “lust for life” in this guy? Hmm…. I guess not.

The score by Gabriel Yared is another huge letdown. While it’s true that Rózsa’s very film-noir influenced themes tend to spotlight the painter’s intensity a bit too obviously, they do serve the underlying emotional purposes quite appropriately. Yared’s music, however, goes nowhere. It fails to do what film scores were intended to do: which is, to sonically add to the general understanding of a picture’s aims. Something by Erik Satie, or Claude Debussy, would have been a better way to capture the moodiness and melancholy of the era, as well as the essence of van Gogh’s fabulous output.

In general, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is a warts-and-all (and then some) study of two brothers — a much closer real-life assessment of their star-crossed lives — while Minnelli’s Lust for Life is your standard Fifties grin-and-bear-it struggle for fame and fortune, a one-sided essay on one artist’s failure to make good.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes