A Cloak, a Convent, and a Conman: Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ Celebrates 100 Years at the Met

Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ (“The Triptych”), his trio of one-act operas, at the Met Opera revival, Dec 2018: ‘Il Tabarro,’ ‘Suor Angelica,’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

Three for the Price of One

Puccini’s Il Trittico (or “The Triptych”), a dark, somber, and moody work for two-thirds of its running time, is brightened in the final third by Gianni Schicchi, the composer’s only opera in the buffa vein. Given in three acts (each of the mini-pieces runs to about an hour in length), Il Trittico, Puccini’s most sustained and atmospheric theatrical creation, celebrated its one hundredth birthday at the Metropolitan Opera House this past December 8, 2018, in a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. The production was by Jack O’Brien, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, and costumes by Jess Goldstein.

A later transmission, on December 22, showcased the same composer’s La Fanciulla del West, the only bona fide Italian spaghetti Western in the entire standard repertoire. Based on American impresario David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage play The Girl of the Golden West, we’ll soon be reviewing Giancarlo Del Monaco’s production of this “horse” opera in a future post.

So which came first, The Girl or the triptych? In actuality, the 1910 gala premiere of Fanciulla brought the world famous composer, on hand for the opening night performance, heavier than usual press coverage (Puccini’s first visit to America came in 1907 for the New York premieres of Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). A stellar cast, headed by Emmy Destin, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, along with some spectacular production values, wowed the Met’s diamond-horseshoe set.

Conducted by the renowned Tuscan maestro Arturo Toscanini, La Fanciulla, Puccini’s seventh effort for the stage, was the most lavish operatic presentation of its day. Oddly enough, The Girl’s beauty began to fade just as the world sank ever deeper into international conflict. On the other hand, the reputation of Il Trittico, which did not bring Puccini back to the Big Apple (the First World War had only recently ended in November 1918, which meant that floating mines were still a major hazard for trans-Atlantic crossings), suffered as a result.

Despite the presence of several outstanding artists, among them Claudia Muzio, Luigi Montesanto, and Giulio Crimi in Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”), Geraldine Farrar in Suor Angelica, and Giuseppe De Luca, Crimi, and Florence Easton in Gianni Schicchi, the Trittico was far from an immediate hit. Praise for Gianni Schicchi was universal, of course, but critics puzzled over the other two works, most misunderstanding their content and character. The association with Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Schicchi is briefly mentioned, and the notion that individuals must journey through phases of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise for their redemption, are essential to their interpretation. In reference to Il Tabarro, Toscanini himself declared: “I don’t like it at all,” a perceptive observation on his part — in fact, his only complete recording of a Puccini opera would be the composer’s youthful La Bohème with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce in the leads.

The original cast of ‘Il Trittico’ at its Met Opera premiere in Dec 1918

The sordidness of that opening piece or the sentimental quality of the second one, Suor Angelica, may have had something to do with Toscanini’s harsh judgment. Certainly the famed musician could have fallen hard for item number three, Gianni Schicchi — a work of comedic genius in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff. Nothing doing! It was left to opera companies, the changing nature of opera as a whole, and the passage of time to render a more favorable outcome for Puccini’s trio of compact masterworks.

Nevertheless, despite past misgivings I was thrilled to be hearing these three operas again, after their being absent from the Met repertoire for much too long a time. In my view, they are the composer’s most mature and perceptive creations.

Attend the Tale of Il Tabarro

Luigi (Marcelo Alvarez) reminisces with Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) about their youth in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, in ‘Il Tabarro’

The opening piece, Il Tabarro, based on a one-act French play La Houppelande by Didier Gold, is a forerunner to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: it is pure Grand Guignol, and a stark one at that. But don’t be fooled by the comparison! No one gets their throat cut or baked into meat pies. The brutality in Tabarro is swift and resolute in the lead character Michele’s hands and fully warranted, one might add, given his young wife Giorgetta’s secret affair with the hunky Luigi. A second murder by a minor character, the drunkard Tinca, one that takes place offstage in the play, was discarded by the composer for reasons of dramatic unity and coherence. That’s one too many killings for a single act.

The curtain rises in silence. It’s only then that we hear the prelude to Il Tabarro, a masterful depiction of the River Seine flowing languorously through the byways of Paris, here (thanks to an excellent libretto by Giuseppe Adami) given prominence as a major character. The water’s ebb and flow goes in only one direction, stressing the inevitability of fate, and a life of labor and pain. The protagonists get what they can out of this harshness, and Puccini’s music reflects that warped, oppressive environment. You can taste the expressionistic flavor in nearly every bar.

After his whole-tone experiment with La Fanciulla, in Il Tabarro the composer went all-out by not only channeling Debussy, but more prominently the music of the Russian school (Mussorgsky and the young Stravinsky). It’s remarkable how far Puccini had progressed from the banality of La Rondine (1917), that pseudo-Viennese operetta and Traviata wannabe that prefaced Il Trittico, to this.

You could say, too, that the problems of little people in Trittico don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world of the opera. However, the issues that working stiffs had to deal with in Berg’s Wozzeck, which had its world premiere only a few short years after Il Trittico bowed, were fully formed and addressed in Tabarro, and by the briefest of means. Compositionally speaking, there are numerous examples of characters commenting on their situation, sometimes spoken in hushed tones, other times in rising and falling cadences, or just plain monotones.

One of them, the rag picker La Frugola, has an odd little number early on where she shows off what her rummaging through the Paris trash heaps has turned up. It’s basically a stream of consciousness narrative. With metronomic echoes of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, along with similar vignettes scattered throughout the entirety of the triptych, these moments pay considerable reverence to the downtrodden (specifically, those found in Hugo’s Les Misérables, or the works of Émile Zola), in a type of musical shorthand only a composer of Puccini’s innate dramatic sensibility could assemble.

Giorgetta (Amber Wagner, left) tries to follow La Frugola’s (MaryAnn McCormick) thoughts in ‘Il Tabarro’

This musical shorthand went hand-in-hand with the prevailingly bleak atmosphere, one of inescapable despair and drudgery; of common folk grasping at fleeting moments of gratification, be they sexual (i.e., Giorgetta’s wild fling with Luigi) or other forms (Tinca’s alcoholism, La Frugola’s obsessive compulsiveness). Events occur at such a rapid pace that audiences barely have time to catch their collective breath, so well has Puccini understood and developed the art of the short phrase. The handling of key dramatic situations, and the spaces between notes, are flawlessly interpreted all through the opera’s single act, and, indeed, throughout its sister works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Despite the added casting burdens placed on opera houses due to the multiple roles involved (several of which can be doubled or even tripled, I might add), the rewards are great for artists rightly in tune with their requirements.

On that note, the Met’s matinee cast for Tabarro was ready and able to tackle this assignment. It included the amply endowed soprano of Amber Wagner as Giorgetta, tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Luigi, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (in place of the formerly announced Stephanie Blythe) as La Frugola, baritone George Gagnidze as Michele, basso Maurizio Muraro as Talpa, and tenor Tony Stevenson as Tinca. The Parisian-born Bertrand de Billy (an excellent choice) presided over the worthy Met Opera Orchestra. As a matter of fact, Monsieur De Billy was a most indulgent and reliable orchestra leader. His background in French and Italian opera gave him a tremendous advantage in presenting these three works in the best light, especially Tabarro where the setting is not-so-Gay Paree.

Michele the barge owner (George Gagnidze) wonders who his wife’s lover is in the finale to ‘Il Tabarro’

To start things off, Marcelo Álvarez struggled with the high, punishing tessitura of his role as the tortured stevedore Luigi. One of the finest recorded examples is that of Mario Del Monaco on Decca/London, in a virile vocal display that set the standard for subsequent performers. Of course, he had the luxury of having Renata Tebaldi by his side, and both were ably guided by Lamberto Gardelli’s knowledgeable baton beat. Still, Álvarez managed to mold something out of those high notes into an anguished human being. His arioso, “Hai ben ragione,” was flung full force into the audience with more abandon than I’ve heard from him of late. Praise be! He did a better job here than in the previous season’s Turandot broadcast: his Calàf was vocally bland and high-note shy throughout.

Amber Wagner’s weighty Giorgetta had the requisite thrust, including a superbly held, optional high C in her brief, agitated first duet with Álvarez. There’s no aria for the soprano, as such, in these intense exchanges. All the same, the two lovers offered a distinct contrast from the tensions wrought by their illicit assignation to that of the billing and cooing of Lauretta, Schicchi’s twenty-something daughter, and her similarly smitten betrothed, the resourceful Rinuccio.

George Gagnidze’s burly baritone — dark and tightly wound — and hulking menace made for a memorable Michele, the brooding barge owner and Luigi’s boss. The abundance of chromatics in his character’s music lent an air of tension to Michele’s dilemma. That Gagnidze simply could not rival the acting chops of a Tito Gobbi, or the burnished bronze of Ettore Bastianini’s 1953 radio broadcast, or that of Robert Merrill in the same Decca/London outing with Tebaldi and Del Monaco, need not diminish the Georgian baritone’s accomplishments.

Michele (George Gagnidze) attempts to rekindle his relationship with wife Giorgetta (Amber Wagner)

Foghorns, offstage chorus, sound effects, a bugle playing taps — all of them superbly employed as mood music — set up the magnificent closing monologue, “Nulla, silenzio” (“Nothing but silence”), the wary Michele’s fatalistic rumination on who the culprit fooling around with his wife might be. This is one of Puccini’s gloomiest and most forceful depictions. An earlier version of this aria, employing basically the same music, but longer and more lugubrious in nature, was rejected. It was a direct translation from the play, which would have been all wrong for the exigencies of the opera house. Fortunately, the composer insisted on a complete rewrite, which transformed the solo into the much-improved current version.

This was something that had also occurred with the first draft of Cavaradossi’s third-act aria in Tosca, originally a so-called “Farewell to Life and Art,” with text by Luigi Illica and subsequently replaced by the instantly memorable (and dramatically more pertinent) “E lucevan le stelle.”

Luckily for listeners, Gagnidze too was transformed into a singing actor, where word-play became paramount in this multi-layered sequence, and high-powered vocalism a prerequisite. The climax of the opera is one rip-snorting coup de théatre: Michele pounces on the unsuspecting Luigi and throttles him to death. Luigi dies with the words “L’amo” (“I love her”) on his lips, admitting his affair with Michele’s wife. Hiding his lifeless body underneath his long cloak (ergo, the ill-omened title of the piece), the barge owner reveals its grisly contents to his disbelieving, adulterous spouse, as the curtain falls. The original stage directions called for the baritone to shove Giorgetta’s face onto her dead lover’s ashen visage. (Shudders!!!)

The music throbs with expectancy at this violent episode; the basses and cellos pluck away in imitation of Luigi’s heartbeat, fluttering and fading to the last strains of the music. Giorgetta has her last moments of regret for betraying her husband in her choppy dialogue. She wants only to sit next to Michele, as in olden days — before their child had died — to cuddle in his cloak. Be careful what you wish for, girl! As Giorgetta dejectedly declared earlier in the drama, “How difficult it is to be happy.” That’s Hell for you!

A Lot of Nun-Sense

Kristine Opolais as Sister Angelica in Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’

For a change of pace, Suor Angelica is a delicate filigree of a work (Giovacchino Forzano provided the libretto, along with that of Gianni Schicchi; both were original ideas). Modal Gregorian chanting pre-dominates in the opening sequence. Note to readers: Puccini’s real-life sibling Iginia was first a nun and then a Mother Superior to a small convent in Italy. She “inspired,” shall we say, the title character as well as the ambient church melodies to be found in Suor Angelica (and in Tosca, too, if memory serves). Puccini learned much from tapping into his sister’s experiences of daily convent life, in addition to that of a priest he befriended, although the composer himself remained a lapsed Catholic to the end.

Consequently, the music in this act is entirely dissimilar from that of Il Tabarro, setting a tone of reverence and mysticism implicit in the story: those short phrases, little musical episodes endemic to verismo as a whole — something that Puccini continued to master over the course of the many decades he spent perfecting his art — govern this work, as well as Tabarro and Schicchi.

The tragedy of Sister Angelica, then, is that of a young noblewoman who bore a child out of wedlock, now cloistered away from society in a convent. She’s visited by her stern aunt, the family matriarch. Angelica asks for word of her son, only to be told in the harshest of terms that the child passed away after a brief illness. Devastated at the news, the little sister prepares a poisonous mixture from the herbs she has planted in the garden.

Drinking the fatal concoction, she realizes, to her horror, she has committed a mortal sin by attempting suicide. As she dies, Angelica (an appropriate name, to be sure) has a miraculous vision of her little boy with the Virgin Mary (in many productions, this celestial visitation is only hinted at, as it was in the Met’s previous Fabrizio Melano production). It’s a heartbreaking moment, guaranteed to leave audiences in tears. Only the most exceptional of artists — I’m thinking of the splendid Renata Scotto, and the equally-gifted Teresa Stratas and Gilda Cruz-Romo — can hold themselves together to pull this scene off. It takes a performer of the absolute first rank to survive such an emotional and vocal ordeal.

Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, a welcome and frequent figure at the Met, has appeared in many a Puccini part, i.e., Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, and Magda in La Rondine. She sang the titular Angelica with poignancy and nuance. In her broadcast performance, Opolais opened the floodgates to summon the ghosts (and artistry) of verismo singers past: Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, Victoria De Los Angeles, Tebaldi, and the aforementioned Ms. Scotto — all of whom excelled in this repertoire.

Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) goes into a tailspin at the thought of her mortal sin

Since the opera is short, Ms. Opolais felt no compulsion to hold back for fear of running out of voice. Outside of some mild shrillness on top, she conveyed the character’s strength in adversity, maintaining her composure throughout her ordeal with the formidable Zia Principessa (“Princess Aunt”), sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. It’s here that Angelica matures from a young novice into an adult woman of substance. Others in the all-female cast included MaryAnn McCormick as the Monitor, Rosalie Sullivan as Sister Osmina, Maureen McKay as Sister Genovieffa, and Lindsay Ammann as the Abbess.

As mentioned above, the opera starts quietly, with hints of melodies to come. For roughly half its playing time we are presented with little character portraits from the large ensemble; each one voicing pointed commentaries or whispered asides around the routine of their convent, or the comings and goings of visitors, especially the wealthy aunt. Individual moments emerge, similar to but quite apart from those in Il Tabarro. We are not at the Seine, but in a religious community: there are no saints here either, only sinners. Leave it to Puccini who, along with Verdi, Boito, and others, had little use for organized religion EXCEPT as inspiration for their music.

The Musical Nature of Characters

Opolais’ middle voice had a beauty and vibrancy that signaled a close identification with this part. Short phrases both underscored and moved the action along in snippets — that is, until the music grew deadly serious upon the arrival of Angelica’s aunt, the nameless Zia Principessa. A character that Puccini etched from real life (quite possibly from his wife, Elvira), she is the arbiter of righteous indignation: proud, imperious, unyielding, and bereft of the most basic of human emotions toward her niece — that is, a monumental lack of compassion.

The implacable Zia Principessa (Stephanie Blythe, l.) confronts her niece, Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) at the convent

Ms. Blythe took the attitude of a performer trying to bring some level of humanity to a complicated part. In her intermission interview, Blythe expressed the view that to make the Aunt an all-out villain does the character an injustice. One has to imagine her as a flesh-and-blood individual, not a cardboard caricature, in order for audiences to relate to the tensions at hand. She’s a woman tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the family structure (and, let’s face it, the family fortune) in the face of a difficult situation. The Aunt is there to force Angelica to sign over her share of the family inheritance to her little sister, who is about to be married (a fascinating correlation to the goings-on in Gianni Schicchi).

While it’s hard for audiences to feel much sympathy for this creature, Blythe brought a heavy world-weariness to the part, along with rock-solid vocal technique and potent chest voice (never overused, mind you, but unleashed in the service to the plot). Puccini’s previous writing for mezzo or contralto is sparse (for example, the maid Suzuki in Butterfly has few opportunities to shine), but in Il Trittico there are three prominent roles that the same singer can take on and add luster to.

Puccini engaged in various modernesque techniques in his never-ending quest for how to tell his story by way of his music. An example of this is Sister Genovieffa’s brief arioso about her bleating lamb, vividly illustrated by thumps in the double basses and high strings. Again, a trick of the operatic trade that the composer marshaled forth to foster color and musical interest, from the chirping of the birds (flutes and woodwinds) to the tingling of the bells (both real and simulated).

Themes to be heard later in the opera, and more forcefully at that point, intrude on the nun’s chatter; the future telescoped portentously into the present — another way of foreshadowing events via purely musical terms. How carefully has the composer crafted his work: Puccini knew instinctively where to go with his score, as well as how to mold the text to fit this basic scheme. Too, there’s much to marvel in the novelty of his orchestration. His understanding of human nature, both here and in the two outer works, was built from the ground up in a lifetime spent in sorrow and disappointment. All his biographers have dwelled on the inescapable fact that Puccini’s own nature was one of perpetual melancholy.

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

The music turns solemn as we hear the Princess Aunt’s sinuous, stern lines (like a serpent ready to strike) along the lower wind instruments and strings (cellos, violas) and the ubiquitous ostinato passages in the basses (see La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly for comparison). She’s not a villain in the Scarpia mold; nor, for that matter, was Michele. Here, Blythe remained unemotional in her banter with Angelica, sporting a monochromatic delivery — the Princess Aunt on her high horse. Angelica’s more humane interactions contrast sharply with the Aunt’s self-righteous discourse. She speaks only of “justice” and “expiation” for her niece’s sin. Angelica, for her part, only wants to know about her child, repeating the words “Mio figlio, figlio mio” over and over again — another ostinato figure that is reiterated in the orchestra multiple times.

From this exchange, the haughty Aunt hits her anxious niece between the eyes with a thunderbolt: “It’s been two years since he passed. We did all we could.” Angelica lets out a hurtful wail that goes to the heart of the issue. She has nothing to live for, and therefore signs away her inheritance. The Aunt departs, accompanied by her winding theme in the lower strings (again, monotonous ad absurdum).

In Angelica’s gorgeous aria, “Senza mamma,” she voices her thoughts about her son, how he died without ever having known his mother’s love. When can she see him again? According to William Berger’s description of this episode, “The vocal line soars in G minor, but the muted orchestra recalls the Zia Principessa’s prayer in the previous scene” (Berger, Puccini without Excuses, p. 254). Indeed, her aria begins with the same three notes that accompanied the Aunt out the door, hinting that Angelica can never fully escape her relative’s long shadow. The intermezzo that follows is justly renowned as a passage of supreme repose.

Opolais returned to deliver the final scene in tightly controlled, but emotionally gripping fashion, the sorrow in her voice taking on Tebaldi’s velvet blanket in a most soothing and respectful mode. Needless to say, the soprano broke all hearts with her portrayal and was feted with a long ovation at the end. Puccini then concludes the opera in the same way that it began: with the nuns’ voices (representing the angels of heaven) heard from above, and the musical forces of two pianos, organ, glockenspiel, celesta, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, etc., in the background — a psychological if not a religious manifestation of a miracle, or “the poignancy of the human need for salvation,” as Berger put it.

It’s a more “restrained” approach to the subject than audiences might have anticipated, and will rekindle fond memories of Cio-Cio-San’s ritual suicide in Madama Butterfly, a coincidence this opera happens to share. The whole of the instrumentation dies out quietly with the subdued voices of the nuns, a hushed ending to accompany Angelica’s death and the wonder of salvation through grace. Purgatory was never so sublime.

‘Rich Relations May Give You Crust of Bread and Such’     

Placido Domingo (in hat and scarf) as Gianni Schicchi, surrounded by the Donati family

For Gianni Schicchi, Puccini treats audiences to a story of greedy relatives out to fleece the recently deceased Buoso Donati, a rich family member, out of his estate. They only need to find his last will and testament, that’s all. But where the heck did Buoso hide it? When they eventually locate the document (thanks to the young Rinuccio), they discover that he’s left his entire fortune to the church (gasp!). Undeterred by this unfortunate setback, they ponder how to rectify the situation.

[Author’s Note: In our estimation — and one that has been overlooked by many writers — the plot of Gianni Schicchi is a continuation of where the Zia Principessa left off with her niece Angelica. Puccini’s little in-joke, then, takes the story of the Aunt, now reshaped into that of Zita, the senior female member of the Donati clan (note that “Zita, i.e., zitta, or “shut up” in English, is close to the Italian word “Zia,” or “Aunt”), and follows it to its natural conclusion: i.e., what happens to the family fortune that Angelica signed away to her little sister, Anna Viola, so that she could marry her unnamed suitor. The raucous consequences, as put forth in the farcical routines of Schicchi, are funny and startling.]

Rinuccio suggests they summon Gianni Schicchi, a so-called “new monied man” whose cleverness and quick wit can help to recover their inheritance. Of course, Rinuccio has an ulterior motive behind this suggestion: he plans to wed Schicchi’s beautiful young daughter, Lauretta, with the inheritance serving as a tidy little wedding present. The relatives balk at the mere mention of this upstart. When Schicchi enters, he hits upon a plan to impersonate the dead Buoso and take his place in bed. His idea is to trick the Lawyer and his Notary into rewriting the will in the relatives’ favor (ahem, but taking the bulk of the riches for himself, lest he accuse the relatives of conspiring to cheat the state).

After the Lawyer and Notary have left, the relatives grab whatever articles aren’t nailed down and exit the house with Schicchi in hot pursuit, leaving the two lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio, alone to blissfully make their wedding plans. True to form, Schicchi has the last word on the subject: “I trust you audience members have enjoyed this little plot. If what you’ve seen today pleases you, then join in unison and declare me ‘not guilty’.” Paradise was never so good!

In the finale to ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ the lovers Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) and Rinuccio (Atalla Ayan) fall into each others’ arms

There are some tricky time signatures and rhythm changes throughout this wonderfully paced score. Puccini’s penchant for stating a theme he has every intention of re-using down the road continues in the same vein as in the other two works of Il Trittico.

One obvious illustration is found in the ubiquitous aria, “O mio babbino caro,” which translates to “Oh my beloved father” (or “daddy,” a more accurate rendition), the thrice-familiar theme of which is first heard in Rinuccio’s “Firenze è com’un albero fiorito” (“Florence is like a flowering tree”). Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan, as Lauretta in the Met broadcast, sang the aria brusquely, as it was originally intended, with no undue schmaltz attached or prolonged delays.

The piece comes and goes in a flash and should be delivered that way, not drawn out ad infinitum as heard in countless on-air ads and TV commercials, and especially its egregious misuse in the Merchant-Ivory production of A Room with a View (1986). Taken out of context, the air collapses of its own weight and winds up being a trial to the ears as well as a test of listeners’ patience. In its proper place, and as a spontaneous plea for a father’s aid, Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” is a pleasant enough diversion (a “breather,” in modern day parlance) from the actions of those money-grubbing relations.

As Rinuccio, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan (Christian in the Met revival of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac) was primed for this high-lying lyric role. He even sounded like a younger version of Plácido Domingo, who took on the sly Signor Schicchi in this performance, and will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut at the Met this season. Stephanie Blythe repeated her imposing Zita, with Maurizio Muraro as Simone, Lindsay Ammann as Ciesca, Jeff Mattsey as Marco, Gabriella Reyes as Nella, Tony Stevenson as Gherardo, Patrick Carfizzi as Betto, and the other artists, all contributing to a unified ensemble. And that’s what counts in any Schicchi performance.

Zita (Stephanie Blythe), Nella (Gabriella Reyes), and Ciesca (Lindsay Ammann) sweet talk Schicchi (Placido Domingo)

As the star of the afternoon, Mr. Domingo proved once again that at 78 he can still deliver the goods, but barely. He sounded like his old self — that is, a tenor posing as a baritone trying to sing in the lower register. I’ve been critical about this for the last decade or so. I know it’s one way for him to prolong his singing career, and I know he thoroughly enjoys performing on the stage. But no matter how hard he tries or how much work he puts into it, Domingo simply does not sound like a baritone. This creates an imbalance in pieces that demand a firm and rich sound, something that, at THIS stage in his vocation, the artist does not command. With a 50-year career behind him, it is long past the time for Sr. Domingo to step off the stage and allow the next generation of talents to assume their rightful position.

He came off well enough on Saturday’s broadcast, though, injecting humor and humanity into this lustrous part. But again, I must stress that his voice was but a shadow of what it once was. Oh, well, I’ve groused about this matter long enough, so I’ll let bygones be bygones. Everyone had the time of their lives, so who am I to quibble? In fact, where most baritones run aground, in the arioso “Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino” (“Goodbye, Florence, goodbye divine sky”), Domingo excelled. Bravo to that!

There’s one thing I am pleased to confirm: never again will these wondrous works be separated from one another, as they once were in the years after the premiere. Paired with a plethora of other operas (including Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle), Il Trittico can be enjoyed in its entirety as three parts of a unified whole. Father Dante would be well pleased!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”

In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.

In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part One)

Bidu Sayao (c.), with conductor Jean Morel to her left, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos at far right, 1946

“I Got the Music in Me”

When I began the writing of my book Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, my enthusiasm for opera and, if I may be all inclusive, for soccer, cinema, bossa nova, pop music, musical theater, and most matters related to Brazil was at its unassailable peak. With the passage of time (by my count, almost a decade and a half), the glow of that enthusiasm has dimmed in proportion to events as they continue to spiral out of control — both in Brazil and elsewhere.

If that is the case, well, then, so be it. To the extent these subjects have revealed themselves to be somewhat flawed, I remain convinced of their efficacy. I am not so naïve as to believe the institutions that have existed in Brazil, or that have endured throughout the world, have continued to function at top speed and full tilt. That these institutions have been influential in bolstering the production of opera and film, in maintaining the support of men’s and women’s soccer, in driving the investment in and promotion of new musical-theater material, and in contributing to the vitality of the popular song format cannot be denied.

On the other hand, there is no question that music, not soccer, is Brazil’s lifeblood. Yes, you read that right. Author, musicologist, and accomplished vocalist Vasco Mariz, in the Introduction to his book História da Música no Brasil (“The History of Music in Brazil”), made note of the fact that “the Brazilian people have always been musically inclined.” I have yet to encounter anyone who disputes that claim. Considered a participatory event, music is an expression of the public’s taste (or mood) at any given moment. It can manifest itself in any number of ways, most commonly in communal gatherings, rock concerts, soccer stadiums, church functions, birthday parties, after-school programs, wedding celebrations, and fêtes in the park; in street demonstrations and political rallies, in local and national news coverage, indeed wherever music may be found and heard.

Vasco Mariz, ‘Historia da Musica no Brasil” (“The History of Music in Brazil”)

Along similar lines, the genealogy of Brazil’s musical styles can serve as a blueprint for the country’s vaunted diversity: In the beginning, there was choro, and choro begat samba, which begat samba-canção; the combination of samba and samba-canção with cool-jazz begat bossa nova; and bossa nova begat Música Popular Brasileira (MPB). With Música Popular Brasileira and the influx of British Merseybeat, as well as American rock-n-roll, one can chart the next stage of development in the shorter-lived Tropicália movement — itself a compendium of the musical, artistic, literary, and audiovisual ideas re-imagined as a form of protest.

While bossa nova hit the world’s shores with the force of a typhoon, by comparison Tropicália was a mild ripple — except in its place of origin. But which genre has proven to be more resilient, both musically and artistically, or more challenging and inventive? For the Young Guard and the older generation of that era, Tropicália was everything and it was nothing; it came from everywhere and nowhere at once; it created and destroyed, constructed and deconstructed the country’s musical foundations. Transformative is another term used in connection to the genre’s impact.

In the same instant that Tropicália was commenting on the present, it paid homage to the past while hurtling toward an uncertain future. A typical aesthetic of Tropicália was its drawing from a rich variety of sources. Another was its use of “opposites” to disguise one’s true feelings from authorities who were forever policing what performers could or could not say or do in public.

To illustrate this point, when the tropicalistas sang “Alô, alô,” what they meant was “Goodbye, goodbye,” one of several methods employed for avoiding confrontation with the censors. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work to their advantage. For their efforts, they, along with like-minded individuals, were treated with either suppression, imprisonment, torture or exile — and often all four, even to their death.

Tropicalistas (Top row – from left to right: Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Gal Costa; bottom row – Os Mutantes Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias Baptista)

All told, the most significant and intellectually stimulating of Brazil’s musical-poetic creations registered as a giant blip on the country’s radar, so radically disturbing it proved to the status quo.

Others have tried to define this typically Brazilian methodology of taking from multiple references to suit their artistic purposes. For instance, British rocker and former Police front-man, Sting, once proposed that “pop music should be a great mongrel,” wherein the ability to glean “from any source” and from any country’s musical traditions would result in a cornucopia of stylistic forms and elements — all of them perfectly suitable for public consumption.

This same thought process originated in Brazil decades before with Modernist poet, polemicist, playwright, and novelist José Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto,” where the term antropofagia, or anthropophagy (known by the more familiar expression “cannibalism”) was initially coined. Oswald de Andrade was speaking figuratively, of course, about the phenomenon of ingesting foreign cultures through their music, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and so forth. What came out in the end evolved into something fresh and exhilarating, as well as distinctly and, to his eyes, unapologetically Brazilian.

Jose Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), author of the “Cannibalist Manifesto”

There are multiple examples of cultural cannibalism throughout Brazil’s history, about which I have touched upon in my work. There is the case of Carlos Gomes, a Brazilian opera composer who (first) went about in search of a theme, and (second) in search of an individual style to fit that theme. Another artist who flourished in the wake of Oswald de Andrade’s cannibalist theory was Carmen Miranda. What Carmen was forced to accept — or, rather, what Hollywood imposed upon her to admit — was what today is called “cultural appropriation,” defined as “the inappropriate use by a dominant culture of borrowing,” as it were, “from a subordinate culture.”

Significantly, for the first decade of her career — that is, prior to her coming to North America — Carmen achieved recognition in her field for performing sambas, marchas, marchinhas, samba-choro, samba-batuque, and similar styles. As in Sting’s example above, Carmen drew from a variety of sources to expand the range and content of her repertoire. She did not write her own songs, but rather had songwriters compose them for her. In Brazil, these songwriters offered their services willingly, knowing that Carmen would interpret their work to the best of her ability and talent.

Carmen Miranda in ‘The Gang’s All Here’ (1943)

By comparison, Carmen’s compatriot, soprano Bidu Sayão, took the opposite position in that she exuded a typically Westernized approach to such operatic staples as Manon, Susanna, Zerlina, Violetta, Mimì, Mélisande, Micaëla, and others, as befit the requirements of the time. As always, Bidu’s innate Brazilianness shone through in the way she carried herself on and off the stage, and the manner in which she led her later life away from it.

Separately from Carmen but contemporaneous with her and Bidu’s chief period of activity, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos thrived for a time as Brazil’s most voracious musical artist and nationalist educator, a “cannibal” in all but name only. His insatiable appetite for folk, street-wise, native Brazilian and non-native sources, in addition to the variety of styles he applied those sources to, was unequaled among his peers.

After Carmen, Villa, and Bidu, cultural cannibalism continued unabated and, we make note, unabashedly Brazilian, which supports Oswald de Andrade’s theory in action as well as in fact. It was carried over into the classic song output of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, which came about through the power of classical and jazz compositions, Greek mythology, Brazilian folklore, and various other sources, expanded upon at length in the preceding pages of my book.

And let’s not discount the contributions of Brazil’s musical and/or dramatic theater to the country’s artistic diversity. It has impressed me, to no end, how rich and fertile this overlooked facet of Brazilian culture has been; one that has witnessed a substantial growth pattern over the past five or more decades, thanks to the creativity and vision of Villa-Lobos, Chico Buarque, Paulo Pontes, Augusto Bial, Carlos Lyra, Gerald Thomas, Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, and that ageless national treasure Bibi Ferreira.*

  • Just as this portion of the text was completed, the disheartening news was received that Bibi had passed away at age 96 on February 13, 2019, after suffering cardiac arrest. Much of her obituary in the Brazilian media was taken up with her 77 years as a performer, singer, actress, writer, director, and producer. One article described her having sat on Carmen Miranda’s knee, which must have taken place sometime in the 1930s. She also studied theater in London (thankfully, not during one of those infamous blitzkrieg bombings) during the early 1940s.

(End of Part One)

To be continued …..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Eight) — Conclusion: Living the Reality-TV Life

Painting of ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Jacob Peter Gowy

One-Way Flight

Daedalus hit upon a bold scheme. While Icarus lounged lazily about the prison, Daedalus put himself to work on threading bird feathers together and binding them with wax. His plan was to fashion two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son, and escape through their prison’s window. From there, they would launch themselves from the island’s highest peak and fly away to freedom — a novel idea, but one that required patience and resolve.

When the wax had finally hardened, Daedalus explained to Icarus that they could wear their wings to freedom, but they had to steer clear of Apollo’s rays. “Follow me and do as I do. Do not go too near the sun or too close to the sea. Steer a middle course and our freedom will be assured.”

Icarus promised to obey. He followed his father’s advice to the letter, to a point. When the day finally came for them to flee, at dawn they jumped out of the window (there was no need for bars or guards, for there was no-where to run). Climbing the highest peak, Daedalus and Icarus took off and soared effortlessly above the island. They flew for many miles, staying as close to each other as possible.

Soon, the clouds began to part and a magnificently golden sphere appeared in the sky above. Icarus forgot everything his father had taught him and, feeling stronger than ever and free as an eagle after years of confinement, soared ever closer to disaster. On and on Icarus flew, paying little regard to his wings, whose wax binding began to melt away like lard from pig fat.

Distracted by the sights and sounds of gulls and terns, Daedalus looked to see if Icarus was beside him. Not seeing the boy, Daedalus cried out in alarm: “Icarus! Icarus! Where are you?” In desperation, he flew back to where his son had been, whereupon he spotted some loose feathers bobbing in the water. It was all that remained of the impetuous Icarus. Unaware of his surroundings, and caring not a whit for what his father had warned him about, young Icarus had plunged into the sea and perished.

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

When the fatuousness of reality-TV life begins to dictate the course of one’s real-life experiences, you know you’re in big trouble. And, boy, did Ryan Lochte find himself in a heap of difficulties — up to his swimmer’s ears in them — when the truth of what occurred at that Rio de Janeiro filling station ultimately unfolded.

It did not trickle out in digestible dribs and drabs but rather gushed forth in continuous waves, a torrent of negative publicity and nonstop coverage that nearly drowned the eleven-time Olympic medal winner in a sea of recriminations.

“People wanted a reason to hate me,” Ryan griped to Allison Glock, a senior writer for ESPN Magazine, nearly a year from the time when the incident took place. “After Rio, I was probably the most hated person in the world. There were a couple of points where I was crying, thinking, ‘If I go to bed and never wake up, fine.’ I was about to hang up my entire life.” (You will excuse me for having to point out the obvious, but in this context Ryan’s poor choice of the words “hang up” may not have been ideal.)

Nevertheless, according to that same ESPN Magazine article (“Do You Really Still Hate Ryan Lochte?”), surveillance video from the scene in question revealed a different take on the matter as originally reported. The story went that Lochte and his swimming pals had asked the taxi driver to pull into the nearest filling station so they could make use of the station’s facilities. One report emphasized that there was no access to the men’s room; as an alternative, the drunken foursome urinated on the gas station’s walls, or, in ESPN’s account, they went about “[relieving] themselves in a filling station hedge.” In addition to which, his teammates later claimed to police that Lochte “also pulled a framed advertisement to the ground” and vandalized it.

To hear Lochte tell it, the filling station’s security guards arrived on the scene with guns drawn. The video, alluded to in Ms. Glock’s piece, “showed security guards demanding money in payment for the damage [the swimmers had caused] before letting them depart in their cab. The men paid [the money] and returned to the Olympic Village, where the incident would have been quickly forgotten had Lochte not exaggerated the retelling to his mom, who in turn shared with the media that her superstar son had been robbed at gunpoint.” Ryan repeated the allegations to the Today Show’s Billy Bush.

NBC’s Billy Bush (left) hearing Ryan Lochte’s description of the alleged ‘mugging’ in Rio

Incidentally, it was determined that the swimmers had paid $100 Brazilian reais (or approximately US $30) in damages and offered an additional US $20 to each of the security guards.

By Wednesday, August 17, when doubts began to surface over the initial robbery claims (which included an undisclosed altercation with one of the guards), the story started to unravel. By that time, Lochte had departed for the U.S., leaving his swimming buddies behind to wade, up to their necks, in the fallout.

Incensed by the objectionable nature of the allegations, the Brazilian police sought answers to their queries. They pulled Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger from their flight to face interrogation. Their passports were confiscated as well. The swimmers talked to police on Thursday, August 18, and, satisfied with what they had to say, were subsequently “whisked through airport security and [put] on a plane that night,” as reported by the Associated Press and corresponding news outlets. The fourth swimmer, Jimmy Feigen, followed them on Friday night, “but only after reaching a deal with a judge to make a US $10,800 payment,” a symbolic gesture intended as a charitable contribution.

“I definitely had too much to drink that night,” Ryan fessed up in a televised interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer that aired the following Saturday night, “and I was very intoxicated.” He admitted that paying for the damage was a way of “striking a deal” to avoid embarrassment over his “dumb behavior.” “We just wanted to get out of there,” Lochte persisted. “That’s why I’m taking full responsibility for it, because I over-exaggerated the story. If I had never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

His late-in-the-game admission carried little weight with Rio’s humorless police officials, who charged the swimmer in late August 2016 with filing a false robbery report (punishable under Brazilian law by a maximum penalty of up to eighteen months in prison).

Action and Reaction

Brazilians’ reaction to the veracity (or not) of Ryan’s cause célèbre reflected a long-standing view that white-collar (or upper-class) crimes — the sort that involve public officials, TV and sports personalities, and/or the super-rich — are treated differently by the media than are blue-collar (or lower-class) crimes. Some Brazilians took the rolling disclosures in stride; many expressed dismay that four American athletes had been “mugged” on the mean streets of Rio, only to have lied about it in retrospect; while others sneered indignantly at the incident as typical of the favorable treatment accorded foreigners, as opposed to what their fellow citizens go through on a daily basis.

Brian Winter, Latin American expert at the Council of the Americas research center in Washington, D.C., in an interview with BBC Brazil, raised the issue that “in serious countries, you can’t lie to the police and get away with it.” Alternatively, columnist Nancy Armor of USA Today, while at first insisting that the “truthfulness of Lochte’s story was ‘irrelevant,’ ” took the Rio police to task “even after the swimmers [admitted] that they [had] lied and apologized … [The] Brazilian police missed the boat by treating the false report as a ‘capital offense.’ If only the police had cared as much about the evil done every day against their own citizens …” If only!

BBC News columnist Tim Vickery argued, too, that “real criminality” in Rio should be kept front and center. “It’s for this reason that exaggerated coverage of this subject is preferable to one that tends to minimize the dangers. The main victims of violence in Rio are its citizens. The rich are more likely to protect themselves in their closed condominiums and private living quarters. Those who suffer the most are everyday folks.”

“Here Come da Judge!”

A fascinating sidebar to the gas station goings-on came from the presiding magistrate involved in the proceedings, Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop, of the Juizado Especial do Torcedor e Grandes Eventos (Special Court of Fan Support and Major Events). Interviewed by Gerardo Lissardy for BBC World in Rio, Judge Keyla sensed that Lochte and his team members’ account of the “crime” did not hold up to scrutiny or to the logic of the situation.

Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop

“I started reading about the case out of curiosity,” Judge Keyla posited. “The way Lochte described the mugger caught my eye. Because it seemed very similar to what American screenwriters think of South American thugs: a tall, strongly built, bearded man, hair cut in the military style. And I thought, ‘This is a long way from our street robber, who often has other physical characteristics.

“The (supposed) robberies also caught my attention because in Rio, if you are mugged, the first thing the bad guys want is your cell phone. And I figured, ‘American swimmers have nothing less than state-of-the-art iPhones. Why would the burglars take only the money?’ It’s not real; no one would ever take the money and leave the cell phone, the watch, expensive clothes.

“Comparing Lochte and the (swimmer) James Feigen’s statements, I realized there were other contradictions: one said that there was only one bandit, another that there were several bandits and only one carried a weapon. I called the prosecutor, we examined the case, and he said, ‘I agree with you, there’s something fishy here.’

“Another thing that caught my attention was the fact that three of [the swimmers] had been lying on the ground but that Lochte had refused [to do so] and the thug put a gun to his head. In Rio, if a bandit tells you to lie down, you lie down, because if you don’t obey, he’ll open fire. It’s no joke. So I said, ‘It’s not possible, no one refuses to comply with an order [to lie down] with a gun pointed at your head.”

Judge Keyla continued to poke holes in Lochte and his teammates’ arguments. “When I saw the images from the Olympic Village, I noticed that one of [the swimmers] was wearing white pants, which had no dirt stains. Anyone who lies down on the asphalt with white pants will leave a mark.” Apropos of these findings, Her Honor ordered that the two swimmers, Conger and Bentz, be detained and their passports confiscated until the matter was cleared up. “There was never a question of demanding their arrest, just the withholding of their passports to prevent them from leaving the country. Considering the level of the athletes in question, it was advisable to alert the Federal Police who have jurisdiction over foreigners departing for the airport.”

At that, the magistrate grew reflective. “Well, then, the government has invested heavily in the Olympics, in the areas near the Olympic parks, but the reality that is Rio de Janeiro is not unknown, and the violence is grave and serious. Do not kid yourself. That’s why [their description] sounded to me like a script out of a Hollywood movie.”

Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop summarized her case in the methodical and measured tone to be expected from a magistrate responsible for maintaining order in the midst of constant chaos. “Brazilian justice is firm, solid, serious, one of the pillars of the nation,” she insisted unequivocally, “and it’s for treating everyone equally that all this has taken place.” (Within the context of this account, this last assertion is surely debatable.)

“Seizing Olympic medalists’ passports is no easy matter,” Keyla concluded. “These are heroes, but an athlete who comes to another country to participate in the Olympics serves as an example to the world and cannot play around that way. They’re not in their home. They must be subject to the rules. I think [the swimmers] thought they were in a country where they could do anything they want, and that’s not so. They thought they could play around with our institutions, with the police. If it’s not so in the United States, why would it be like that here? Now people are going to think seriously before they come here and do something wrong.”

Let’s Face Facts         

When faced with having done something wrong, what would Ryan Lochte do? He would lie, of course, which initiated a brief period of “fake news” before the term had come into regular use. Instead of accepting the consequences of his or his teammates’ actions, Lochte weaseled out of the situation by concocting a fanciful yarn about a robbery that never took place.

Some say it was to protect one of their own from staying out past their curfew. Perhaps Ryan lacked the courage to tell his mom what a naughty boy he had been. Perhaps he found it impossible to distinguish fact from fantasy (or farce, in this case). Or perhaps his mind was clogged with too much to drink, as he later disclosed. Whatever his reasons were, Lochte got caught with his swimming trunks down. He had flown too close to the carioca sun and crashed into Guanabara Bay. He climbed the highest peak in Rio, only to fall flat on his face on one of those mosaic-laden streets.

Within days of his arrival in the U.S., Ryan had lost most of his sponsors (to include Speedo USA and Ralph Lauren cosmetics). He was suspended for ten months following the incident and had to forfeit US $100,000 in Olympic bonus money; as further punishment, he was banned from participation in the 2017 national and world championships.

Ban or no ban, on August 21 the Rio 2016 closing ceremony went on as scheduled without Lochte, or any of the other participants involved in the incident, in attendance. Acting as if one were still on a reality-TV show is no way for a talented athlete to go through life, particularly the sporting life. In that June 2017 ESPN Magazine article, sports writer Glock learned that Ryan wasn’t exactly enamored of the reality show experience (now she tells us!). “They had me drinking nonstop. Eight in the morning, a drink in my hand. I’m like, my liver is about to fail. And anything I said, [the producers would] say, ‘All right, let’s do this scene over, and Ryan, say it like this.’ ” Say it ain’t so!

On July 14, 2017, a Brazilian Appellate Court dismissed the criminal case against him, concluding that Lochte had not broken the law in exaggerating the details of the filling station incident. The Appeals Court had reversed the original decision on a technicality, ruling that the law was not broken because the police in Rio had initiated the investigation, not Lochte. Since he wasn’t the one who reported the alleged crime, no harm had been done (except to someone’s self-worth). Whatever Lochte had said in those NBC interviews with Billy Bush and Matt Lauer did not constitute, in their eyes, a false report. Additionally, USA Today insisted they found no evidence of vandalism, as suspected by the police, with the exception of the poster being thrown to the ground.

“You learn from your mistakes,” Ryan Lochte divulged to Allison Glock. “Am I going to be perfect? No.”

Perfection, like nirvana, is an ideal, not a fact. To work toward perfection, to strive for it, to achieve it, is the goal of every Olympic athlete, be they American, Brazilian, or what have you. However you may look at it, Lochte’s so-called “crime” was committed not to the Brazilian people but to himself.

To compensate for the offense and his admittedly “dumb behavior,” on August 20, 2016, the day before the closing ceremony, Lochte taped (in Manhattan) a rambling and mildly impecunious interview with TV-Globo’s New York correspondent Felipe Santana. It was part of a purported “apology tour” and broadcast simultaneously in Brazil, on the nightly news program Jornal Nacional, and, in a separate interview, in the U.S. with Matt Lauer on NBC.

Matt Lauer (L.) interviewing Ryan Lochte on NBC-TV

“That was my fault. Brazil doesn’t deserve that. You guys put on [an] amazing Olympics. Everyone in Brazil, the people, the fans, everyone that put on the Brazil Olympics, it was amazing and you guys didn’t deserve that kind of publicity. And it was my immaturity that caused that. And that’s why I’m saying, that’s why I’m really sorry about that. It was my fault and I take full responsibility for it. I just want the people of Brazil to know how truly sorry I am, because I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed for myself, for my family, for my country. It was … I was highly intoxicated[1] … I’m human, I made a mistake, and one thing I did learn from it, that this will never happen again.”

Apology accepted.

Dance to the Music

On September 13, 2016, not a month after Rio 2016 had wrapped up and the Olympic flame had been doused, Ryan Lochte found himself mired in another controversy as a contestant on the popular ABC-TV program Dancing With the Stars, the hallowed platform for has-beens and makeover artists.

Seeking to repair his tarnished Olympian image, Ryan and his dance partner, Cheryl Burke, started the competition off with a foxtrot. Just as the pair was receiving talent judge Carrie Ann Inaba’s verdict, two intruders rushed up to the stage in protest over Lochte’s appearance. They each wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red circle and a slash across the swimmer’s name. One of the protesters shouted out that Ryan was “a liar.”

Host Tom Bergeron, Ryan Lochte and his partner, Cheryl Burke, on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

None of the ensuing brouhaha was broadcast to viewers, since the TV station had gone to a commercial break. However, cameras captured the incident whereby one of the protesters was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by security. When the show returned from the break, Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron addressed the incident indirectly. He thanked the security team for their quick action and asked Lochte how he was feeling.

“I’m a little hurt,” Ryan responded. “You know, at that moment, I was really heartbroken. My heart just sunk. It felt like somebody just ripped it apart. I had to brush it off … I came out here in front of millions. I did something that I did not know how to do — I don’t know how to dance. And I gave it my all and I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I’m here.”

Instead of a foxtrot, it would have been instructive for audiences to learn if Lochte could master the samba as well as he handled the freestyle.

In our opinion, the opportunity of a lifetime had been squandered. What BBC Worldwide Productions, the company that produced Dancing With the Stars, could have done instead was to pair Ryan Lochte off with another Olympic disrupter, the defrocked Irish priest Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the man who threw Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima off his course in Athens 2004. Together, Horan and Lochte could have wowed North American TV viewers with an Irish jig or two. What a striking couple they would have made.

Normally, the moral to this drawn-out Olympic story would be: “Honesty is the best policy.” As for myself, I’d prefer a more aptly worded one: “Birds of a feather flock and dance together.”

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

[1] A year and three months later, Lochte announced that he was seeking treatment for a “destructive pattern” of alcohol abuse, something that had been going on for years, in accordance with his attorney, Jeff Ostrow’s October 8, 2018 press release.

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Seven): Ryan Lochte Fakes a Dive

Sink or Swim

Banner for the E! Network reality show, ‘What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’

Most Olympic stories begin at the bottom and end at the top. As trite as that may sound, the vast majority of sports columnists love to record the exploits of individuals from humble beginnings whose struggles to reach the peak of their profession have inspired a nation. And sports fans — equally obsessed with star power and starved for a good story — love to read about them.

However, there are some stories that are beyond the pale. In effect, they go in the opposite direction, namely by starting at the top and working their way down. Defying logic, this specific Olympic story keeps to that premise: How an American gold-medalist, when confronted with a situation of his own doing, dealt with the consequences of his actions; how the host nation reacted to this alternate version of events; and how the whole dirty business got twisted out of proportion until what was heard no longer resembled the original event.

The Greeks cloaked their stories in life-lessons known as myths. For our purpose, then, let us recount the myth of Icarus. Vain from birth and pampered by wealth and privilege, young Icarus was uninterested in bettering himself. He could be found lounging about his quarters, endlessly admiring his looks and build. On the opposing side, his cousin Talos (called Perdix in some versions) believed in the value of hard work. Industrious to a fault, Talos was quick-witted and eager to learn, whereas Icarus was lazy and indolent.

It happened that Talos’ uncle Daedalus, the father of Icarus, was an extremely clever man. He was so intelligent that the citizens of Athens considered him to be the cleverest craftsman in all of Greece. Because of his nephew’s unique abilities, Daedalus was forced to take Talos on as an apprentice. Before long, word got out that Talos was a genius whose talent outshone that of his uncle: he was credited with the invention of the first saw, along with the first potter’s wheel and the first pair of compasses. Soon, Daedalus’ customers began to take their problems to Talos. Jealousy and spite eventually got the better of our master craftsman, who lured his unsuspecting nephew to the top of Athena’s temple and pushed him over the edge to his demise.

As punishment for his crime, Daedalus and Icarus were banished from Athens under penalty of death. The two fled to the island of Crete, where Daedalus’ engineering skills were employed by King Minos in constructing a labyrinth to house a monstrous beast known as the Minotaur. Unfortunately for Daedalus, an incredibly shrewd young man by the name of Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur and escaping the purportedly escape-proof maze.

Greek vase depicting Theseus and the Minotaur

The angry Minos took revenge on Daedalus and his son by throwing them into prison (in some accounts, they took the Minotaur’s place and were forced to wander aimlessly in the lair). Faced with certain death, Daedalus struggled to find a way off the island. What scheme could he possibly come up with that would lead him and young Icarus to freedom?

Ryan’s Story

Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte at Rio 2016 Olympics

When sports-minded Ryan Steven Lochte was a boy, he did not take seriously to swimming. Born in Rochester, New York, on August 3, 1984, Ryan took his first dive long before he entered nursery school. Shortly after the family relocated to Gainesville, Florida, Ryan’s father Steve (as well as his mother Ileana) decided on coaching as a full-time profession. Local and/or family lore had it that Ryan enjoyed goofing off (and giving lip service to others) more than perfecting his backstroke.

“Ryan was all about racing,” his father admitted to ESPN Magazine. “He hated practice, but when I said ‘OK, we’re going to do a time trial,’ he’d be the first one on the starting blocks.”

In order to channel his son’s excess energy, as he called it, into more constructive pursuits, Steve would make a contest out of everyday activities such as who could swallow their milk the fastest or who could beat the other in fetching the mail or the newspaper. It wasn’t until Ryan reached high school that swimming became an obsession.

Finally getting his act together (for the moment, at least), Ryan was accepted into the exclusive University of Florida swimming program. Under head coach Gregg Troy’s tutelage from 2002 to 2013 (to include the three years he trained for his post-graduate work), Lochte was twice named NCAA swimmer of the year, which was quite a turnaround from his former lack of interest. He went on to qualify for his first Olympics in 2004 at the age of nineteen. It was at the Athens Olympics that he raced against his soon-to-be rival, Michael Phelps — a rivalry that challenged both athletes to perform at their best.

“I think it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sport, me and him, just for what we’ve both done in the sport of swimming,” Ryan argued. “He’s the toughest competitor out there.”

Michael Phelps, Townley Haas, RyanLochte, and Conor Dwyer – Gold Medal winners in the 4×200 meter relay

Phelps pled guilty to that claim. “Him and I together have had a pretty decent rivalry back and forth. We’ve been able to really push each other … During the big meets, we have great races. We’re right there with each other, in the middle of the pool, probably a couple of tenths [of a second] apart.” It was also at Athens 2004 that Lochte met and would become friends with another future Olympic champion, the eighteen-year-old Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira.

Ryan became the second most decorated male Olympian (after Phelps) in London 2012, where he picked up two gold medals and two silvers. Pereira fared well there, too, taking on both Phelps and Lochte in the 400 meter medley for a second-place finish. Despite Coach Troy’s displeasure at Ryan’s “lack of focus” before, during, and after the games, the talented Lochte outdid himself. He may not have slain the mighty Minotaur, but he was on his way to besting him.

With his newfound celebrity status assured, Ryan took a break from competition. He signed to star in a reality TV show for the E! Network, with the throwaway header of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? The show, which premiered on April 21, 2013, exploited his unfortunate reputation as an intellectual lightweight, a partygoer, and an eligible bachelor.

Ryan Lochte filming scenes for his reality TV show ‘What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’ in Miami Beach, Florida on March 18, 2013 (FameFlynet, Inc)

What the E! Network may have been hoping for was a combination of Jessica Simpson’s clueless naiveté with Big Brother voyeurism; what it got was frat-boy foolishness. For instance, the episodes boasted such empty-headed titles as “What Would Ryan Lochte Do With a TV Show,” or “If He Got Plastered?” or “On Spring Break?” Seeing as the general level of the series matched the suspected vapidity of its star, the answer to these queries was, “Who cares?” Not surprisingly, the show sunk in the ratings and was canceled after eight episodes.

A lengthy period of injuries and minor inconveniences followed, along with on-again, off-again, now on-again training and competing — pencil in a stab at creating his own clothing line (“Ralph Lauren, but with a little edge to it,” Lochte was fond of saying). While living and training in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ryan finally secured a spot with Team USA for his fourth Olympic Games in Rio 2016. He did it by inching ever closer to Michael Phelps.

If there was anyone on Team USA who could force Ryan Lochte to swim against the tide, that person would be Phelps. According to the online SwimSwam Website, this was the third Olympic trials in a row where Ryan wound up in second place behind Phelps. It would also be the fourth time that the 200 meter individual medley would be decided in favor of Phelps over Lochte.

In a self-deprecating mood, Ryan half-jokingly insisted, “I guess you would say I’d be like the Michael Phelps of swimming if he wasn’t there.” In that same 200 meter medley, local favorite Thiago Pereira was in the lead through the butterfly and backstroke, as reported in The Guardian, “but Phelps, as inexorable as the incoming tide, pulled so far ahead on the breaststroke that no one got close during the final freestyle.” Thiago finished seventh, with Lochte in fifth place.

On Tuesday, August 9, Ryan had won his first gold medal in Rio in the men’s 4×200 relay with the help of teammates Phelps, Townley Haas, and Conor Dwyer. With competition over for the men’s swimming team on Saturday, August 13, it was time for a little merrymaking.

Early Sunday morning, Ryan Lochte and three other members of Team USA, swimmers Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen, left a party at Club France, the hospitality house for the French Olympic and Sports Committee in Rio, a gathering that Thiago Pereira and his wife, Gabriela Pauletti, had also attended. It was a birthday party for a mutual friend, so claimed Thiago’s spokesperson Flavio Perez, who spoke to the Washington Post.

Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira (Photo: Julio Cesar Guimaraes / UOL)

“Lochte was also in the same place, commemorating the same birthday. Ryan and Thiago are friends. Thiago and his wife left earlier, they left alone, the two of them. Thiago and his wife went back to their hotel.”

After leaving the party, Ryan and the above-named team members took a taxi back to their rooms in the Olympic Village. Along the way, the taxi stopped at a filling station. What happened next became a matter of conjecture.

“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge,” Lochte told NBC-TV Today Show commentator, Billy Bush, later that same day. “They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused and I was like we didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not getting down on the ground. And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up, I was like ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet, he left my cell phone, he left my credentials.”

The story began to flood the airwaves. Oh, it was believable enough as told. Anyone who has lived in or spent time in both Rio and São Paulo, or any large city in Brazil, has experienced some form of assault or robbery with or without a weapon, even kidnapping. There was nothing odd or improper about it, just another night out on the town, with the expected results.

When Lochte unveiled his story on Sunday, he was still in Brazil. Almost immediately, the civil police opened an investigation into the incident. Surely, any kind of reporting that seemed to bash host city Rio or spread so-called “bad press” about mounting crime in the country was grist for the news mill. Those wanting some form of validation that Brazil was incapable of governing itself, let alone controlling the rampant lawlessness of drug gangs and wrongdoers (“even with eighty-five thousand soldiers and police officers deployed throughout the city,” according to New Yorker columnist Alex Cuadros), had a field day.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially denied the report as “false.” They quickly reversed course and tacitly confirmed the incident — based on word of mouth, one had to assume, especially when independent corroboration came from Lochte’s mother. “I think they’re all shaken up,” she told USA Today upon speaking with her son. “There were a few of them. They just took their wallets and basically that was it.”

Naturally, this wasn’t the only crime to have been committed at Rio 2016. There were several high-profile robberies, thefts, and abduction cases reported in the weeks and months leading up to the games, many involving an Australian para-Olympics participant, three Spanish Olympic sailors, a shooting competitor, a judo wrestler, and a New Zealand jiu-jitsu martial arts expert. Who wouldn’t believe such incidents had taken place?  

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Hail, Lord of Heaven’: The Met Opera 2018-2019 Broadcast Season Opens with Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’

The Epilogue to Boito’s ‘Mefistofele,’ with Christian Van Horn (l.) as Mefistofele & Michael Fabiano (r.) as Faust

Second Tier Siepi

That was my main take-away from the Metropolitan Opera’s first Saturday radio broadcast of the season, on December 1, 2018, of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. The cast included bass-baritone Christian Van Horn in the title role, tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust, soprano Angela Meade as Margherita, soprano Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, mezzo Theodora Hanslowe as Marta, and tenor Raul Melo as Wagner. The work was conducted by Joseph Colaneri. The production was the handiwork of Robert Carsen, and the revival staged by Paula Suozzi, with sets and costumes by Michael Levine, lighting by Duane Schuler, and choreography by Alphonse Poulin.

Calling someone, anyone, “second tier” may or may not be considered an insult in some quarters. I certainly do not mean it as an insult, but as a half-hearted compliment. The reason I included the late, great Italian basso Cesare Siepi’s name in the subtitle to this review is my way of paying homage to an incredible artist, one whose longevity as a vocalist and star performer will forever be remembered by records buffs and fans of beautiful singing. He was often associated with this opera, and with good reason.

Siepi had a long and storied career at the Met, starting with his surprise debut in 1950, as King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the inaugural Rudolf Bing season. Just to show you how stellar that occasion happened to be, Siepi was surrounded by such renowned artists as Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, American baritone Robert Merrill, debuting Argentine soprano Delia Rigal, and Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. The original Philip was to have been Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, no slouch as far as dramatic performances were concerned. But due to visa problems with the U.S. State Department (this was at the height of the Cold War), Christoff was unable to obtain entry. Hands down, his loss was Siepi’s gain!

Former Met Opera great, Italian basso Cesare Siepi (1923-2010)

From there, Siepi took up the mantle of lead singer (he was still in his 20s), singing in a variety of roles from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, to, in his later career, Gurnemanz in Wagner’s Parsifal — quite an array of characterizations for a citizen of Milan. Siepi also appeared on Broadway in two unsuccessful musicals, Bravo Giovanni in 1962 and Carmelina in 1979. Siepi would never become the idol of millions in the manner of fellow Italian Ezio Pinza. But one could always depend on him to give 100 percent of himself each and every time he took the stage.

One of Siepi’s best known stage assumptions, one he lamentably never got to perform in his nearly 25 seasons with the Met, was as the titular Devil in Mefistofele. He did make quite a splash in Faust, the Gounod version of the story, as a mellifluously toned, French-speaking Méphistophélès — more gentleman and cavalier than leering demon.

Ah, but the true test of a basso cantante is his ability to adapt the voice to the demands of the part. In this Siepi was supreme. He excelled in the acting department as well. One can imagine his prancing about half-naked on the stage, roaring up a storm and gesticulating wildly in the Prologue and Epilogue to Boito’s fantastic epic (see any of my previous posts, “Ecco il Mondo” — The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, concerning the genesis of Mefistofele). His Decca/London complete recording of the piece, under the baton of veteran conductor Tullio Serafin, with fellow Met colleagues Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, is a must-have classic, despite the boxy sound.

Siepi would be a hard act to follow even in the best of circumstances. That the 40-year-old American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, a Long Island native and 2018 recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, was engaged to recreate the role of Mefistofele in a revival of the campy Robert Carsen production (originally staged at San Francisco and revived there in 2013 with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov, along with tenor Ramón Vargas and soprano Patricia Racette), spoke volumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s trust in his abilities.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn

I’m not convinced that their faith was completely misplaced, mind you, but it does take a special kind of artist to pull off a flashy part such as this, especially one in which Old Scratch is adorned in flame-red coattails and slicked-back red hair and matching beard. From the publicity and stage photographs, however, Van Horn possesses the beefy build of a body-builder, with biceps to die for. That’s great if he were playing, say, Hercules or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Mefistofele? I look at it as casting overkill. Surely, Satan can get by without perfectly-formed pectorals. Still, I’m willing to give any singer their due, as long as they deliver the goods.

In that respect, Van Horn’s sound is more lyrical than cavernous. And, yes, he, too, is of the “basso cantante school” of singing, with a voice reminiscent of maestro Siepi’s. While Siepi was the most musical of creatures, but still capable (when called upon) of transmitting that sense of evil incarnate through purely vocal means, Van Horn hardly suggested the innate power and sweep implicit in Boito’s score. For instance, the Prologue went by with no mishaps, yet that flash of inspiration — the feeling that Mefistofele is the combative protagonist in this episodic retelling of the Faust legend — was missing from Van Horn’s portrayal.

The introductory air, “Ave, Signor!” (“Hail, Lord of Heaven”), was fine but no more, a perfunctory reading at best. And his later “Son lo Spirito che nega” (“I am the Spirit that denies”) went by the boards; it was over in a flash to little effect. Where were those bone-chilling “No’s” that frighten the very bejesus out of us? Those piercing whistle blasts (called for in the scoring and in the stage directions), so integral to the part, were weak and short-lasting as well. Too, Van Horn lacked the inky blackness, the plumbing of the bottomless depths that only the best bassos (among them Tancredi Pasero, Nazzareno de Angelis, Giulio Neri, as well as the aforementioned Pinza, Siepi, and Christoff; and, in our own time, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, and Ferruccio Furlanetto) could bring to His Satanic Majesty. I wonder what the Met’s own Štefan Kocán, who has sung Mefistofele elsewhere in Europe, could have done with this part….

The Witches’ Sabbath scene, with Mefistofele (Van Horn) enticing Faust (Michael Fabiano) to devilish delights

Audiences want to be scared out of their wits. That’s what devils do. We know they won’t win in the end, but it’s fun to think that they can. Mr. Christian went on to spew forth more bile and relish for one of the sulfur and brimstone sections of the opera, i.e. the Witches’ Sabbath in scene ii of Act II. Such displays gave him the heft and weight (and the benefit of the doubt) he had so far lacked. Most importantly, they may have placed Van Horn on the map as a singer on the rise. There’s still time, of course, for that to happen; and given more experience and (ahem) exposure in this role and others, Van Horn should continue to develop his skills even further. He’ll make one hell of a devil, that’s for sure.

“Come to Me, Faust!”

After 20 years of not hearing this opera on the Met Opera broadcasts (I was still living and working in Brazil at the time), it was great to hear this splendid score once more. Without top-of-the-line, first-rate singers, however, reviving Mefistofele can be a chore to plow through. We were lucky in that department.

Tenor Michael Fabiano’s vocal impersonation of the late Franco Corelli showed continued improvement as Faust. Fabiano phrases impeccably and demonstrates more care for note values (and noticeably less slurring of words) than Corelli did in his prime. Yet, the voice is still young (Michael is only 34), and the spinto mannerisms (he strained a bit at key moments) are still in their formative stage. To his credit, he forsakes the lachrymose quality that some tenors in this repertoire (I’m thinking of Beniamino Gigli here) have been all-too-prone to display in the past. More softness would have been welcome, especially as the older Faust. But his was as generously proportioned a portrayal as we are likely to get.

Mefistofele (Christian Van Horn) goes over contractual matters with Faust (Michael Fabiano) (Photo: Met Opera)

I’ve mentioned before in these pages how Aureliano Pertile, an outstanding Italian tenor from a bygone era and one of Toscanini’s favorites, would “age” his voice perceptibly on record to give the impression of infirmity and decrepitude vis-à-vis the bass’s more agile accomplishments. Michael could take a lesson or two from Pertile’s way with the part. And speaking of the Devil, Van Horn made little of the Act II Garden Scene opposite Theodora Hanslowe’s droll Marta, which in the hands of a Treigle or a Ramey would have brought much-needed levity to a work that can seem ponderous to listeners.

As the opera progressed, Fabiano gained confidence and flexibility in the latter parts of the performance. He did not take the optional high C in his lively Act I duet with Satan (“Fin da stanotte nell’orgie ghiotte” – “From this night on in the orgies to come”). Nevertheless, things started to come together at this point, with both Michael and Van Horn giving it their all in the Brocken Scene, and Van Horn’s blasting of the airwaves with his powerful rendition of “Ecco il Mondo” (“Behold the World”). The only disappointment was in his handling of the all-purpose globe in the Devil’s hands: in this production, it’s a big balloon. The directions call for a glass or some sort of breakable object to splinter into a million pieces upon his throwing it to the ground. Here, there was no such smashing sound, which deprived the music of its climax.

As Margherita, the opera’s put upon heroine, Angela Meade displayed a purity of voice and acting means in the more emotional aspects of this role that is hard to find today. Both Acts II and III were made more pleasurable by her presence. It did wonders for Fabiano, too, who sounded more comfortable as the young and overwrought gentleman Faust (in his guise as Enrico, a young student) than as the elderly philosopher.

Margherita (Angela Meade) hears the amorous outpourings of Enrico, or Faust in disguise (Michael Fabiano) in Act II of  ‘Mefistofele’

Meade, too, laid bare her character’s soul in Margherita’s pathetic opening aria, “L’altra notte in fondo all’ mare” (“Last night, at the bottom of the sea”), in the Prison Scene, the equivalent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Gretchen-Faust section from the German author’s epic poem. This is the most heart-wrenching music that Boito ever composed, with its baleful woodwind and string introduction. Meade delivered the aria with indescribable pathos and control. The concluding section, “Spunta l’aurora” (“Dawn is rising”), is a paean to the coming verismo movement; it was written more than 20 years before Mascagni or Leoncavallo would bring that short-lived genre to musical life.

Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy (Elena in the opera) was fully up to the dramatic challenges of her recitation concerning the fall of that ancient city. Helen is a small role, but when done well can send sparks throughout the opera house. When the work was new, the same soprano who took on Margherita would also sing Helen. Nowadays, two different singers are employed, and understandably so, since Helen is a somewhat “heavier” role dramatically. One always gets the feeling, upon hearing this portion of the opera, that Boito cut too many corners in order to keep things moving, thus leaving this sequence with an air of incompleteness and haste.

Faust (Michael Fabiano) pitches some woo at Helen of Troy (Jennifer Check) in Act IV of ‘Mefistofele’

Not for nothing is Mefistofele known as a choral opera, and memorably so. In fact, in nearly every scene the chorus’ presence is felt as well as seen and heard (even offstage). Ira Siff, the Met’s Saturday radio commentator, alongside broadcast host Mary Jo Heath, agreed that the Met Opera Chorus puts in a “virtuosic” performance in this piece. He’s right on the money! The hellish Witches’ Sabbath sequence, as noted above, is a terrific illustration of this conception of the opera as kaleidoscopic in scope.

Along those same lines, there are few world-class orchestras capable of delivering the solidity and nuance required of this and other repertory items as only the Met Opera Orchestra can bring. Maestro Joseph Colaneri held things together quite well, refusing to let the sometimes raucous portions of Boito’s score (“Tiddy-fol-lol,” as Bernard Shaw would describe it) get out of hand; or to let Robert Carsen’s circus-like ambience dominate the proceedings.

The Epilogue is supposed to crown the whole affair off. Well…. About that….. Something was definitely lacking, possibly that vital spark, that flicker of light that gives life to a worthy subject. What’s with that tinny trumpet sound instead of the usual fanfare? There’s supposed to be a brass ensemble present to announce the coming of the Heavenly Host. Whatever! Although there was much applause at the opera’s conclusion, as a veteran of many — and I do mean MANY — productions of Mefistofele (including live recordings and YouTube extracts), I’ve had a much better sense of this work’s magnitude back at the good ole New York City Opera in its historic heyday than at the Met.

Back then, the reigning Devil was Ramey. He lit up the stage as few Lucifers could. Christian Van Horn has a long operatic trek ahead of him if he is to reach that place where no bass has gone before. A good effort, I might add, but not the roof-raising one we have longed for. I’m sure there will be other times when Boito’s Devil comes a-calling. And when he does, you can be sure I’ll be there listening.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Seven): ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ Episode V — Parents and Their Children

Heads in the Clouds

Threepio, Artoo, Luke & Leia contemplate their fate at the conclusion of ‘Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

The Millennium Falcon follows the trash dump to freedom (along with the unseen bounty hunter, Boba Fett, hot on its intergalactic trail). Meanwhile, Luke is doing much better in the control department by staying calm and collected. But in the midst of his Jedi training with Master Yoda, which involves levitating rocks and such, he has an eerie vision of a city in the clouds, with Han and Leia in trouble. He can see into their future, and it’s not a pretty one.

To save his friends from further suffering, Luke decides to leave Yoda’s training camp. Yoda counsels against interrupting his lessons, but Luke is determined. As he makes this decision, the Millennium Falcon approaches the Cloud City. Han Solo expects a safe port of call and some kind of warm welcome from his old gambling partner, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). There are extra added FX inserted here, which are good for what they are: extra added effects.

The slick and debonair Lando (“old Smoothie” as Han describes him) indeed welcomes Han and his friends to his turf. He extends his hand to Leia and offers to help them and their ship (which used to be HIS ship, by the way). Assured of his cooperation, the band enters the premises under Lando’s protection.

Threepio lands himself in hot water almost immediately by meddling where he shouldn’t. His usual habit of poking his nose where it doesn’t need to go gets the better of him, however, as C-3PO has his head and arm blown off in the bargain (he “thought” he had heard an R2 unit in there….).

Back on Dagobah, Luke is preparing to depart on his X-wing fighter with Artoo. A vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him, warning Luke of the Dark Side’s power. Despite Old Ben and Yoda’s admonitions and predictions of disaster (“This is a dangerous time for you” and “if you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil”), the headstrong youngster takes off after his friends.

Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) exchanges thoughts with Master Yoda (voiced by puppeteer Frank Oz)

“That boy is our last hope,” sighs Obi-Wan forlornly, as his form slowly fades away in the background.

“No, there is another…” This phrase is cryptically intoned by Master Yoda, a foretaste of what is to come. (In the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater where I first saw the picture, this casual aside left most viewers baffled. Others with more insight speculated among themselves as to what Yoda meant. As for myself, I had trouble just understanding what the hell the little toad had muttered to himself.)

Back at Cloud City (amidst another round of superfluous FX), Princess Leia is pacing back and forth in her quarters. She voices concern about the missing C-3PO to Han. Chewie, for his part, has gone in search of the unruly robotic butler. He finds the overly curious droid in a junk room, spread out in pieces as the furry star pilot attempts to put him back together.

In the ensuing scene, Lando invites the trio to dine with him, sans the physically discombobulated Threepio of course. Unfortunately, “old smoothie” leads our hearty adventurers straight into the gloved hands of Lord Vader himself, thanks to Boba Fett’s relentless tracking of their whereabouts.

Luke and Artoo are on their way at last! But as Chewbacca wails and carries on in the cell, Han is painfully tortured (vide the unearthly electronic sounds that fill the room). To occupy himself, Chewie tries to rebuild Threepio. He can’t make heads or tails out of the mess, a veritable Leggo set of spare parts.

And what about poor Han? Forever suffering the torments of hell, that’s what! Everything hurts, which will also be a running gag with actor Harrison Ford in the upcoming Indiana Jones series (produced by George Lucas and directed by StevenSpielberg). In just about every subsequent feature after Empire, Harrison will be battered about, poked, punched, pulverized and beaten to the ground. It’s a miracle the actor survives these ordeals. Perhaps being frozen in carbonite isn’t such a bad idea after all! At least he’ll be protected from the elements (and from physical abuse).

Han (Harrison Ford) feels awful after being tortured; Chewie (Peter Mayhew) gives him a helping hand

Luke’s X-wing fighter ship now approaches. There’s a quick wipe to Lord Vader outside the holding chamber. Vader orders that Leia and the Wookiee remain in Cloud City, to which Lando objects. Vader cuts him off with a curt “Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly.” Agreeing to Vader’s terms (!), Lando mutters under his breath that the deal he’s made with the Empire gets worse as time goes by. Oh, yeah!

Han is returned to the holding chamber in worse shape than when he left it. While Leia soothes his aching head, Lando returns to his “friends” and informs them that Han is to be turned over to the bounty hunter for delivery to the loathsome bandit, Jabba the Hutt. Jabba wants his prize trophy (Han had squelched on their deal, too, no doubt). Ticked off at his seeming betrayal, Han gathers up what strength he has left to take a poke at Lando’s chin. Before things get out of hand, Lando halts the brawl. He is powerless to prevent what will occur.

Frozen in Time (And in Carbonite)

The freezing facility is made ready for the inevitable. Certainly, the excellent sound effects in this sequence (the work of sound designer Ben Burtt), and in the ensuing lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, are to be commended. But before Luke’s entry into the fray, Han Solo will be the test subject. The rising smoke and gases from the freezing chamber, along with the red glow, evoke shades of a fiery hell. In fact, the heat from the blast-furnace sets made Peter Mayhew’s Chewie costume stink to high heaven.

The prevailing darkness and flame-red colors fall on the actors’ faces, which give them a hellish glow. Chewie throws a Wookiee fit in order to save his friend Han, but Han looks up at the eight-foot-tall, walking fuzz-ball and tries to soothe his jangled nerves. He charges Chewie with taking care of the Princess. Leia then turns to Han as they kiss goodbye. Their love theme resounds on the soundtrack. Han is taken to the freezing platform to meet his maker.

When Han is being lowered into the pit, Leia cries out, “I love you.” Now, one would half expect a repeat of that hackneyed “I love you, too” phrase, but director Irvin Kershner wasn’t satisfied. Repeating take after take after take, and rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, “Kersh,” as he was fondly called, wasn’t convinced that another “I love you” would do the trick. Finally, in a last-ditch move, Kershner had Harrison do a final take where the ad-libbed line “I know” came out of the actor’s mouth. No one believed the scene was over when Kersh yelled “Cut!” but the line stuck. Not only did it stick, it went on to become a classic. And Harrison’s “Clark Gable meets John Wayne” acting impression became legend as well.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) faces the freezing chamber

And, as “frozen in carbonite” Han Solo is taken on his journey back to Jabba, so will Luke be taken to the Emperor as a prize gift from Lord Vader — or so Vader thinks.

In the meantime, Threepio has been jabbering on about Chewie’s lame efforts at putting him back together à la Humpty-Dumpty (it’s a clumsy attempt at channeling the classic nursery rhyme, one might suppose, but so be it). He doesn’t realize that Chewie is more concerned about sparing the life of his buddy Han, who had previously asked him to save his rage for other times. Threepio must have witnessed Han’s stealing a parting kiss from Leia who, in the film’s most passionate exchange, FINALLY declares her ardor for the half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

And what does Han Solo remark in return? “I know.” To echo the words of the late Governor Tarkin: “Charming to the last.” In these so-called final moments, Han has gained a measure of nobility that, up until now, his character has rarely if reluctantly displayed. His stature with Leia has risen ten-fold by his noble self-sacrifice. Furthermore, it’s a credit to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, and also to Kasdan, Lucas, and Kershner’s keen sense of where the Leia-Han romance needed to go: it had to take center stage. At this juncture, you could say it’s the big setup for what will be the ultimate reveal at the end. But that is yet to come, dear fans! “Patience, young padawans! Patience!”

While audiences are still fawning over this sequence, i.e., where Han’s body is frozen stiff in the coal-gray-black carbonite — his expression is a mixture of pain and horror, as well as fierce resolve — we are being distracted from the real crisis. That is, how will Luke Skywalker be able to overcome and resist the Dark Side when faced with such unrelenting power, the power of the Dark Side, which he knows very little of?

As indicated above, John Williams’ love theme rises tellingly in the orchestra as the rectangular carbonite container (reminiscent of the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only sideways) hits the ground with a resounding thud.

May the Military Force Be With You!

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) eyes the bounty hunter Boba Fett

Vader hands Solo over to the bounty hunter and demands that Calrissian escort Leia and the Wookiee to his ship, the aptly-named Star Destroyer Avenger. When Lando balks at this change in their plans, Vader cuts him off with a terse, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Lando shoots a knowing look at the cool bald guy with the radio-transmitting headset (known as Lobot), who silently acknowledges the message: they are planning a little getaway of their own.

With blaster in hand, Luke cautiously wanders the Cloud City’s halls. He catches sight of Han’s frozen-in-carbonite form and the armed escort that accompanies it. Without prior warning, bounty hunter Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison) shoots his formidable weapon at him while Leia shouts of an impending trap. In true “hero’s journey” fashion, young Luke is heedless of her admonition. Artoo has the door close on him (redolent of a monstrous mouth with teeth) as Luke enters the freezing chamber for the final confrontation with Fate and the dreaded Dark Lord.

Luke surveys the layout of the freezing chamber before he is abruptly greeted by a thrice-familiar voice. “The Force is with you, young Skywalker,” Vader croons in sepulchral tones. “But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Now begins another of those Captain BloodRobin HoodSea Hawk sequences whereby Vader and Luke cross lightsabers in what seems like every nook and cranny in the Cloud City complex. Luke’s blue-shaded lightsaber mixes with Vader’s red-toned one — Akira Kurawawa’s samurai influence runs deep in this and subsequent scenes.

Luke (Mark Hamill) challenges Lord Vader (body by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) to a lightsaber duel

In the meantime, Lando is able to free Leia and Chewie from their bonds, only to have Chewie almost choke the life out of him for his seeming betrayal of old buddy Han. He’s saved from his fate, however, by choking out a few breathless phrases that there is still time to save his friend. Oh, good to hear! They make haste for the east platform. Meanwhile, R2-D2 and C-3PO are reunited at last, even if Threepio is a bit worse for wear (and as cranky and complaining as ever).

Vader and Luke continue to battle it out in Edo-era fashion. Vader also exudes over-confidence, as to be expected, but Luke surprises him with some deft maneuvering in and out of the freezing chamber.

“Impressive,” observes Vader, “most impressive.” He takes a few swipes at young Skywalker. “Only your hatred can destroy me,” he bellows, but is that really part of Vader’s plan?

Vader calls on Luke to release the full brunt of his anger. It is the only way the Dark Lord can be vanquished. But Luke manages to fight his way out of a conflict. Losing his balance, Vader plunges into the outer rim of the pipes surrounding the freezing chamber. There is a brief pause in the action, enough for Luke and the audience to catch their breath.

Luke jumps in after Vader. He snoops around the reactor room — again, the superb sound effects in this next sequence are tops in their field. From nowhere, Vader re-emerges. Undeterred, the Dark Lord throws everything at Skywalker that isn’t nailed down (and then some!). Luke impotently swats at the oncoming objects, one of which breaks open a window. He is then sucked out of the room and thrown onto a platform in another of those omnipresent Forbidden Planet moments, with Luke holding on for dear life — literally on the edge! The look is all there, down to the triangular shaped doors, in another of George Lucas’ nods to his sci-fi past.

Back to Lando and company: he cautions everyone to leave Cloud City at once before the Empire takes over operations. Panic ensues, of course (in one more of those “expanded” scenes — completely uncalled for, in my opinion). Artoo is able to open the hanger door where the Millennium Falcon is housed. While Threepio hurls a series of comical one-liners at his mechanical playmate (having mostly to do with the inoperative hyperdrive), Lando and Leia manage to board the Millennium Falcon in time to make their escape.

Trust Your Feelings!

In the same instant, Luke and Vader are back at it. The Dark Lord duels it out with the novice Jedi Luke to the edge of the platform, where Luke nicks Vader’s right arm with his lightsaber, a nice move. It looks like he made a dent in the bout, until that fateful moment when Vader slices Luke Skywalker’s right hand off with his lightsaber.

Vader makes an offer that Luke must refuse

Luke will remember this encounter for the rest of the series (and what remains of his screen life). Indeed, this is the pivotal episode in the hero’s journey where the confrontation with one’s parent reaches mythical proportions. In both Classical and Norse mythology, we have copious parallels to consider: in Siegfried’s chance encounter with the Wanderer (or Wotan) in Wagner’s Ring cycle; in Oedipus’ slaying of his father Laius from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles; and in Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her killing of his father Agamemnon.

Luke’s conflict with himself has also reached a climax, in typical Greek fashion, with the discovery of his true origins. Left with no defenses and suffering an open wound on his hand (emblematic as well of Amfortas’ unhealed wound via the lance held by the magician Klingsor), Luke holds on for dear life with his left arm. Vader, sensing his quarry is trapped (and knowing of his true origins), plays psychological mind games on him. In fact, messing with another’s mind is part of the routine (i.e., that “old Jedi mind trick” gimmick).

Conveniently, Vader suggests a way out of Luke’s predicament by offering to complete his training. In getting Luke to trust his intentions by making them sound reasonable and acceptable, Vader uses reverse logic to validate his offer. In other words, the ends justify the means; it all sounds so logical and doable, but it really isn’t.

So what does Vader offer? In essence, Vader reveals his plan to usurp the Evil Emperor by bringing Luke to his side — to the power of the Dark Side, that is. First, he claims that with their combined forces, both he and Luke can end “this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” I’ll bet! But Vader’s plans go much deeper than that.

Lord Vader emphasizes the “power of the dark side” to Luke Skywalker

Fortunately for film fans, Luke imagines himself capable enough to reason this out. “I’ll never join you!” he blurts out. Atta boy, Luke!

Now comes the big reveal! Realizing that he must level with the young man, Vader tells Luke the thing he longs to hear but wishes he never heard. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

“He told me enough,” Luke counters roughly. “He told me you killed him!”

“No. I am your father.”

Luke cannot accept this knowledge (or rather, he refuses to swallow the bait). Knowing who the messenger is, he cannot possibly be receptive to the message. Can you blame him?

In response, Luke hurls a mighty and repeated “No!” to Vader’s metallic visage. But Vader presses the matter further by proposing a father-son union. By joining with him, they can depose the Emperor. It is Luke’s destiny. Together, they can “rule the galaxy as Father and Son.” This does not sit well with Luke’s plans. In defiance of his parent, Luke releases his grip on the platform — and on life as he’s come to know it — and floats down the long garbage chute (similar to the one where he, Leia and Han had fallen into in Episode IV: A New Hope).

Consequently, Vader is left empty handed. What must he have felt at that moment? Did he expect this kind of reception from his young recruit? Did he search his feelings, as the Evil Emperor had earlier advised him, or did he not heed his master’s word? To be exact, Vader poses the same message to Luke: “Search your feelings; you know this to be true!” One wonders, too, if Luke bothered to heed his advice.

There are many avenues to explore in not only Luke and Vader’s troubled and unrealized relationship, but also in Vader and the Emperor’s long association as slave and master, and as pupil and mentor. In reality, if Vader was “happy” with his current situation, why would he want to destroy it by killing the hand that feeds it, i.e., the Emperor (and with Luke’s help no less)? Was it ruthless ambition, lust for power, or unnatural selection? Or was it a case of “destroy or be destroyed”? By firing the first shot, he may have tried to avoid a problem before there was a problem to resolve.

Luke hangs on to what he can, which amounts to a few metal rods of support in open airspace. He keeps asking himself why Old Ben (Obi-Wan) never told him about his father. Calling out telepathically to Leia, the Princess forces Lando to turn the Millennium Falcon around so they can rescue Luke. Hesitating at first, Lando is convinced to help Luke out after Chewie bares his teeth in his direction. Upon arriving at Cloud City’s base, Lando goes through the top hatch and drags poor Luke to the safety of the cargo hold.

TIE fighters are in hot pursuit as they try to dodge their attack. Too, Vader is back on his flagship Star Destroyer to view the chase from his vantage point. In like manner, Vader calls out telepathically to Luke, who is in sickbay convalescing.

“Luke, it is your destiny….”

“Ben, why didn’t you tell me?”

The Millennium Falcon is being tracked by the Star Destroyer, and Lando and Chewie are STILL trying to jump into hyperspace (deactivated beforehand by the Imperial crew at Cloud City). Providentially and despite Threepio’s claims of “delusions of grandeur,” Artoo is able to reactivate the hyperdrive which blasts the fast-moving Millennium Falcon beyond Vader’s reach.

R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) tries to put C-3PO back together again

In an instant, the ship has disappeared from view. Vader is left on the deck of the Star Destroyer to brood and pace back to his quarters. This brings relief to the furrowed brow of Admiral Piett, who believed that he would be the next victim of Vader’s unappeasable frustration with how badly things have turned out.

Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Leia takes Luke to his bunk and plants a kiss on his lips for encouragement. The ending is a cliffhanger encased in true cliffhanger fashion. Rebel spaceships abound throughout. Lando vows to regroup on the planet Tatooine to find and bring back Han. In sickbay, Luke is being fitted with his new bionic hand. With feeling restored to his pulse, he approaches and embraces Leia. The two look out into the endless reaches of outer space as the Millennium Falcon takes off on its mission to rescue Solo.

Juxtaposed against the original New Hope ending, where, facing the viewing audience, the entire crew is rewarded for their bravery, the same cast members (minus Chewie and Han) are seen from the rear, their backsides turned to those same viewers in contemplation of their future. What does that future hold for our intrepid companions?

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes