What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Seven) — Oh Brothers, Where Art Thou?

‘Finding Neverland’ (2004) – Airbrushed movie poster of Johnny Depp & Kate Winslet

The Value of Family

Whether it be a crime family or a makeshift coterie of privateers; whether it involves one spouse married to another, or encompasses a string of failed marriages and divorces; whether it be a foreign-born family or the all-American variety, film fans know that Johnny Depp will be at its center.

Does all the above mean the prolific and versatile actor, producer, and musician has had relatively few anxieties where his own family is concerned? Um … not likely. The famously tightlipped Depp had been in a live-in relationship with singer-actress Vanessa Paradis since 1999. This resulted in the birth of a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody (now an actress), and a son, Jack Jr., two offspring who happen to be born three years apart.

They say that parenthood brings out the crinkly-eyed mellowness in people. And being a father certainly has its positive “up” side, as well as those negative “down” aspects nobody likes to talk about. Like everything else, you never know how married life can turn out until you try it. Likewise, you never know how you will turn out as a parent (a mother, a father, a surrogate, whatever) when it comes to raising your own brood.

During Johnny’s filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, he would often stay in character — so much so that little son Jack once thought “Dad” was a real buccaneer! Too, Depp would throw on the three-cornered hat, fancy boots, and frock coat, along with gold-trimmed teeth and unwashed “dreads,” in his visits to children’s hospitals, orphanages, and cancer wards where the kiddie inhabitants would flock to see him. Charity work, to paraphrase an old expression, begins in one’s home.

On one occasion, Johnny paid a call on a British grade school that resulted in his leading the young charges in a fake mutiny against the faculty — and the students loved every minute of it. This was all staged in response to a cute little girl’s letter to “Mr. Jack Sparrow” about her plans for a “rebellion.” To further embellish the proposal, Depp brought along a few cast members (they were shooting a scene nearby) as backup. The girl’s teacher was “in” on the scheme and conspired with “Jackie” to make it all happen. As for the little girl? She was absolutely thrilled!

Depp in costume as Jack Sparrow at Meridian Primary School in Greenwich

Aw, shucks! Why couldn’t Mr. Depp turn this humorous, true-to-life incident into a lovable onscreen endeavor? Sounds like a fun concept, don’t you think? Something to tell the grandkids about. Well, now, we’re waaaaaay ahead of you! If fantasy can mimic real life, then real life can be turned into fantasy — a childhood fantasy, at that.

Finding Neverland (2004)

On a related theme — one that was miles removed from either Once Upon a Time in Mexico, The Secret Window, or the Pirates of the Caribbean chronicles (well, not SO far away from “pirates”) — director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee’s fanciful Finding Neverland takes a wide-eyed innocent’s view of the world as a place where childhood never ends; where adults in the room are the ones with the hang-ups, while the kids, like birds, are free to let their imaginations run wild.

One adult in particular, a Mr. James Matthew Barrie (the Johnny Depp character) is, in reality, a kid at heart. Based on a true-life episode in Scottish-born novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie’s own life and career, the plot of Finding Neverland focuses on his attempts to write a successful stage play.

Although, in actuality, Barrie was already a celebrated author, the film emphasizes his inability, at first, to attract an audience for his convoluted theater productions — much to his producer’s consternation. That producer, a Mr. Charles Frohman (played by Dustin Hoffman with a not-too-convincing, fading in-and-out British accent), is at his wit’s end, trying to eke out a profit from his protégé’s repeated duds.

But Barrie has other concerns. His stiff-upper-lip society spouse Mary (Rahda Mitchell) is all about keeping up appearances. They sleep in separate bedrooms and lead separate lives. You know, your typical upper-crust British couple, all Victorian reserve and highfaluting airs. “Mustn’t do this, James. Mustn’t do that. What will the neighbors think?” Yadda, yadda, yadda…

Barrie doesn’t bother to attend the premiere of his most recent fiasco. He’s too busy inside his own head to worry about what others think. Into his life comes Mrs. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (a rather subdued Kate Winslet), an attractive widow with four young sons and another of those harpy-like British matriarchs, the over-protective Mrs. Emma du Maurier (the marvelously cutting and still-captivating Julie Christie). A platonic relationship soon develops between Mrs. Llewelyn Davies and Mr. Barrie, with the boys the primary focus of their attention.

Mr. Barrie (Depp) meets Mrs. Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet)

One of the lads, the super-serious Peter (Freddie Highmore, in a masterful performance), misses his late father to distraction. You see, Peter’s the realist, and the most pragmatic of the bunch. As Barrie tries his best to establish himself as someone the boys can rely on (and have fun with), Peter fights his efforts tooth and nail. The older boys take to the whimsical Mr. Barrie from the start — his earnestness can be quite reassuring. But Peter’s growing tendency to throw cold water on their budding acquaintanceship betrays long-buried issues involving repression of hurt feelings and the unresolved loss over a loved one.

In our day, such a man-boy association would be treated with “kid gloves,” in view of the countless scandals (among others) reported about pedophile priests that has rocked the Catholic Church in this country and abroad. In the movie, rumor and innuendo regarding Barrie’s closeness to the Llewelyn Davies children are surreptitiously whispered about town. Those rumors not only trouble Barrie’s snooty wife, but the widowed Sylvia and her mother as well.

Leave it to surrogate daddy Depp to step in and play this one straight. His acting assumption and lightly-accented Scottish “burr” are spot-on ideal and highly infectious to boot (uh, no pun intended). Staying in character throughout and never grandstanding to prove a point, Johnny’s built-in naïveté charms the screen family, to a degree, with his sincerity and childlike wonderment.

As the plot machinations move along, we too are enchanted by Barrie’s visions. Soon, he gets the brilliant idea of creating a character out of his harmless dalliance: Peter Pan, a boy (very much like himself) who never grew up but leads a life of adventure, to encompass fairies, pirates, Indians, mermaids, and pixie dust in a magical place he calls Neverland. This is where the picture ultimately “takes off” on its own coattails — and where the boys, including the skeptical Peter, begin to notice that they’ve become part of Barrie’s latest theatrical experiment.

One of the orphans watches ‘Peter Pan’ in the theater

Trying to convince his producer into financing another flop is only one of Barrie’s hurdles. Another is making sure that society audiences are more receptive to this venture than to his previous doomed efforts. As such, Barrie takes out a little insurance: he sprinkles the first-night audience with ragamuffins from the local orphanage. Enjoying the production to the hilt, the orphans’ spontaneity and mirth at the premiere of Peter Pan are infectious. This results in a triumph from beginning to end. (Art imitating life? You betcha!)

When several audience members at the post-premiere celebration rightly take young Peter as the inspiration for the title character, the boy immediately insists that Barrie, not he, is the real Peter Pan. And he’s right, of course. One problem solved, one more to tackle.

But the big payoff is still to come. The ending (and there are two of them, quite frankly) involves the stricken Sylvia, who is deathly ill and unable to attend the premiere. In a fantasy-inspired sequence, but one that will take your breath away, Barrie has the first-night cast recreate Peter Pan in Sylvia’s home. Suspension of disbelief is called for here, but viewers attuned to the director’s internal logic will succumb to this fabulous sequence. Neverland materializes as a living, breathing place, not only in Barrie’s imagination but in Sylvia’s living quarters. She strolls off in the end with her boys to find peace and solace in this wonderful spot.

Mrs. Du Maurier (Julie Christie) voices her concerns to J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp)

The final minutes take us to Sylvia’s funeral. Mrs. Du Maurier, as stern and businesslike as any bereaved matron would behave in her situation, informs Barrie that her daughter’s last will and testament appoints both her and J.M. as the boys’ guardian. She hasn’t softened her approach (nor changed her opinion about him, either), but is at least willing to give this newly created association a shot.

Returning to the park bench where he first encountered the Llewelyn Davies clan, Barrie sits next to the downcast Peter. Their heartfelt exchange — an honest and open one, for once — will have you blubbering in your seat. It’s one of Johnny and Freddie’s finest cinematic encounters.

Working organically from the script, a straight-faced Depp feeds his lines to little Freddie, who reacts perfectly in time to his character’s story arc. Freddie’s tears flow naturally, as the boy comes to the realization that acceptance of loss is a part of life. We will always remember our loved ones in our mind’s eye. Yet, we must move on from there to make use of what time is given to us.

Barrie (Depp) takes Peter (Highmore) in his arms

With the exception of Edward Scissorhands, where Johnny’s earlier film triumphs may have failed to move viewers emotionally, this one easily passed the acid test. Appearing with like-minded colleagues, Johnny D and company delivered the goods. There was lovely work overall from every cast member, especially from Ms. Winslet and the very talented Mr. Highmore. We’ll give this flick the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for good parenting.

Filmed in England, Finding Neverland was another milestone in Depp’s British period pictures, earning nearly five times the cost of its production. He was even tapped for a Best Actor Oscar, only his second nomination after Pirates of the Caribbean (a surprise move, savvy?). The film also boasted a wonderfully enchanting, Academy Award-winning music score by Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek. The story was later turned into a 2015 Broadway musical, adapted from the same source material as the film.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The cast of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005)

No sooner was Finding Neverland in the can when Depp and Highmore were reunited a year later for the filming of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a re-imagination of the 1971 feature Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The earlier flick was billed as a musical fantasy, with words and music by the British songwriting team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (Stop the World – I Want to Get Off). This updated version would adhere closely to the author’s original theme: that of a whimsical garden of chocolatey delights run by an eccentric entrepreneur.

Both film versions were tied to Roald Dahl’s eponymously titled children’s book. However, Burton’s newest iteration, unlike its predecessor, would take a much darker view of the story. The emphasis, as the title suggests, would be placed on the boy Charlie Bucket (then-twelve-year-old Freddie Highmore) and his impoverished family of Buckets, who occupy a ramshackle, off-kilter Expressionist home flat in the middle of London town.

The Bucket’s rickety house near London

Shot at Pinewood Studios on the far outskirts of the city, with a tuneful score and witty song structures by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (the lyrics were taken directly from Dahl’s writings), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory presented a primarily UK cast headed by Highmore and Irish-born actor David Kelly as Grandpa Joe. Johnny, of course, embodied the top-hatted, pasty-faced Willy and played him as allergic to children and fearful of parenting.

Helena Bonham Carter co-starred as Mrs. Bucket (a test drive for her casting as Mrs. Lovett in 2007’s Sweeney Todd), and Noah Taylor (the teenage David Helfgott in Shine) played Mr. Bucket, with AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) as the ambitious Violet Beauregarde, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as Mrs. Beauregarde, Julia Winter as the snot-nosed Veruca Salt, James Fox as her accommodating “Daddy,” Jordan Fry as video-gamer Mike Teavee, Adam Godley as Mr. Teavee, Philip Wiegratz as the chocolate-loving Augustus Gloop, Franziska Troegner as Mrs. Gloop, Brian Dunlop as young Willy Wonka, hard-working Deep Roy as the Oompa-Loompas (ALL of them!), Christopher Lee as Dr. Wilbur Wonka, and dancer, actor, choreographer, and costume designer Geoffrey Holder providing the lilting Trinidadian-accented narration.

Similarities abound twixt this production and Finding Neverland, to say nothing of overt hints of Edward Scissorhands in the overall concept and design. Whereas the focus of Neverland involved a boy’s difficulty in accepting a substitute parent, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the roles are reversed. Here, Depp, as renowned chocolatier Willy Wonka (a mild reference to the Juliette Binoche character in Chocolat, an earlier Depp vehicle), the self-made businessman and purportedly “mature” adult is the one who experiences post-traumatic issues concerning his dentist father Wilbur; while Charlie, the pre-pubescent schoolboy, is a well-adjusted adolescent much wiser than his years.

He’s the genuine article, all right. In fact, Charlie’s strength is in his goodness and honesty. He loves his down-to-earth working class parents and wholeheartedly worships his elderly grandparents (a feisty and comical foursome who share the same bed!). His generosity and selfless devotion to his family and to what’s right holds him in good stead. One telling aspect to Charlie’s persona is his upstanding moral authority, something that thoroughly puzzles the self-centered Willy to no end.

After he lucks into purchasing the winning Golden Ticket that will enable him to spend a day at Mr. Wonka’s fabled factory, Charlie insists on selling it so he can help his family out. Grandpa George (David Morris), the orneriest and wisest of the group, manages to talk some sense into the boy: “Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money.” With plucky Grandpa Joe along for the ride, Charlie sets off on his factory adventure.

Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) rides with Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) as Willy Wonka (Depp) looks on

With the exception of honest to goodness Charlie, all of the so-called winners are little monsters in disguise. Augustus is a glutton, Violet is an over achiever, Veruca a spoiled brat, and Mike a snotty know-it-all. Their parents, however, are no better. They are either easily manipulated automatons (the snooty Mr. Salt) or type A-personality go-getters (the obsessed-with-her-image Mrs. Beauregarde).

Later on, after the other ticket holders are eliminated one-by-selfish-one, a delighted Willy Wonka congratulates Charlie, the last kid standing. His prize will be to come live and work in the chocolate factory — with the proviso that he leave his family behind. Will Charlie take Willy up on his offer? Not if director Burton has anything to say about it.

Audiences are taken on a trip down memory lane (er, Wonka’s memories, to be precise), where we learn the cause of the chocolatier’s childhood trauma. Afterwards, while shining the magnate’s shoes, Charlie convinces Willy to let bygones be bygones. The scene of Dr. Wonka (“Lollipops. Ought to be called cavities on a stick!”) and his estranged son Willy’s belated reconciliation — where six-foot-five-inch Lee places his long-limbed arms around five-foot-nine-inch Johnny — is almost a carbon copy of Depp (as J.M. Barrie) embracing the bawling Freddie Highmore (as Peter) at the end of Finding Neverland.

Dr. Wonka, DDS, embraces his son, Willy, in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

And talk about controversy, the scuttlebutt that circulated at the time of the picture’s release involved Depp’s mimicking the looks and mannerisms of Michael Jackson (down to the gloved hand), which Depp denied. Instead, Johnny claimed he was channeling the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (he also stated it was an old high school teacher of his, but never mind). Whoever Johnny based his performance on, the resultant box-office payoff assured the film’s success; certainly, no one complained about the profits that poured into Warner Bros.’ coffers (least of all, Burton and Depp).

Director Tim Burton summed up his interest in filming the book with this quote from Mark Salisbury’s Burton on Burton: “I responded to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it respected the fact that children can be adults.”

You’ll get no argument from me on that point.

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ The Original Series (Part Eight): ‘Episode VI, Return of the Jedi’ — Nothing Is as It Was

“Impressive!” Opening sequence to ‘Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’ (Photo: 20th Century-Fox Productions)

Hope Springs Eternal

Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), the third film in the original three-episode series, completes the cycle first started back in 1977. The story has come full circle; in fact, it even repeats the basic premise of the initial feature, Episode IV: A New Hope — in this case, with the rebuilding of a larger, more destructive, and “fully operational” battle station and the Rebel forces bravely allied to combat it.

The opening scroll makes the case clear from the start: Jedi knight Luke Skywalker has gone back to his home planet of Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the evil clutches of Jabba the Hutt. In the meantime, the Galactic Empire has been beefing up its defenses against further attack. Their plan? To counter any future offensives with another “secret” weapon: an impenetrable new Death Star. Big, bad and bold, that’s how the Empire plans to hold out.

On the one hand, the Empire must be stopped at all costs. On the other, the epic confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker must be played out. In their prior encounter (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), Luke lost a limb and almost his life, just as Yoda and Obi-Wan had predicted, to Vader’s lightsaber. But the circle must be closed. The two must meet each other again to finish what had been started.

Before all this can take place, however, Han Solo must be freed from his carbonite confines. And to that end, producer George Lucas decided to divide his picture into three distinct parts, mirroring the three decisive issues at stake: 1) the rescue of Han and his budding relationship with Princess Leia; 2) the Rebel Alliance’s clash with the Galactic Empire (to involve the furry Ewoks); and 3) Luke and Vader’s duel to the death.

Jabba the Hutt’s favorite trophy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite: ‘Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’

If notions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings strike any bells with readers, that’s because the mythological constructs present in the Star Wars trilogy have been etched in higher relief with this, the final installment of Lucas’ space opera.

Originally titled Revenge of the Jedi (until Lucas correctly surmised that Jedi do not seek retribution against their foes), Return of the Jedi starts off with a display of the Empire’s awesome arsenal. The images are large in proportion to their surroundings, and the Battle Cruisers are massive in their scale. Indeed, there are more FX shots throughout this feature than in the other two films combined.

March to the Music

In time to his gravely portentous theme music (i.e., the Imperial March), Lord Vader arrives at the new Death Star’s docking bay to deliver a brief “pep” talk to Commander Tiaan Jerjerrod. The Emperor is displeased with the lack of progress, Vader hints, hence the reason he’s been sent ahead: to (ahem) speed things up. Placing a gloved hand in the commander’s face (gulp!), Vader warns that His Excellency will soon make a personal appearance to inspect the end results. Oh, joy!

Darth Vader “speaks” with Commander Jerjerrod (Michael Pennington) (Photo: 20th Century-Fox Productions)

A quick wipe takes us to Tatooine, where C-3PO and R2-D2 grouse at each other about their latest mission. Grumbling and complaining every step of the way, Threepio knocks timidly at the gate of Jabba the Hutt’s palace. Relieved that no one has answered, he’s about to scurry off in the other direction, when suddenly a mechanical arm pops out to probe the intruders. Threepio states his case: they need to see Jabba. The mechanical arm retracts.

Thinking they won’t be let in, Threepio and Artoo are startled when the huge gate opens to permit their entry. They’re greeted by the red-eyed Bib Fortuna, Jabba’s adviser, and some pig-like Gamorrean guards. Jabbering in makeshift “Huttese” (a composite of Central African and/or Asian Pacific dialects), Threepio claims to have a message for Mr. The Hutt, as well as a gift.

“Gift? What gift?” questions Threepio. Artoo beeps out a response. Threepio does the first of many double takes. No matter, they are escorted directly to Jabba’s notorious throne room.

At the throne room, they (and viewers) are greeted with all manner of intergalactic beings. Among the assorted aliens are smugglers, thieves, scoundrels, and lowlife types, specifically the bounty hunter Boba Fett and a disguised Lando Calrissian (he’s wearing a helmet with four protruding ring tusks emerging from either side). In the revised version of this sequence, new digital creations appear to be milling about, mixed in with old-fashioned puppetry and dozens of rubber-masked extras.

Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Jabba the Hutt’s adviser (Photo: Databank)

Lucas was never pleased with this sequence to begin with. And true to his ever-shifting nature, he couldn’t help fiddling around with it a good 20 or so years after the fact. By that, we mean filling in and touching up the empty spaces and dark corners with computer-generated hookers, dancers and what-have-you. Speaking of which, he replaced Max Rebo’s bouncy mood music with a most unmemorable number, along with deleting puppet pop star Sy Snootles — mostly to the scene’s detriment and the fans’ eternal enmity.

So much of the original’s charm has been lost because of these foolish “makeovers.” Personally, I find Lucas’ so-called enhancements to be unappealing and devoid of inspiration. They’ve been tossed into the salad more to please the producer’s whims. In addition, they detract from the main story line, one of which has to do with Han Solo’s reawakening from his forced “slumber” to his rebirth as a freedom fighter. The other involves Master Luke’s growing maturity in the adult world, where taking responsibility for one’s actions has severe and long-lasting consequences.

The sad part is that Lucas did not stop there. Much to everyone’s dismay, he went on to tinker with practically every special effect sequence he could find, all the way to the end. Although his gratuitous meddling did not affect the other two features to the extent that was perpetrated in Return of the Jedi, the “damage” that was inflicted overall has taken their toll on this production. (Oh, sigh…)

A Fun Time is Had By All

Fortunately, curvaceous Oola and the birdlike Salacious Crumb were spared the iniquity. Crumb’s hideous cackle was, and still is, a highpoint of Jabba’s court. Speaking of which, Threepio and Artoo are brought before the disgusting slug. Artoo plays a recorded message of Luke offering the two droids to Jabba as a goodwill gesture. Threepio is appalled at the prospect. Regardless, he and Artoo are taken to the boiler room where they are inducted into the Hutt’s service.

Exotic dancer Oola (Femi Taylor) in the Rancor’s lair (Photo: iMDB)

Meanwhile, Oola does an enticing dance, but Jabba wants more from her. She hesitates (bad move!). Tugging at Oola’s chain, Jabba throws open a trap door which causes the dancer to fall into a pit — a pit that houses the monstrous Rancor beast. Her terrified screams fill the throne room, while Threepio looks squeamishly away.

Just then, a disturbance is heard as a strange little alien appears with the mighty Chewbacca on a leash. The alien asks for a stratospheric amount as bounty, which throws Jabba into a rage — so much so that he knocks poor Threepio to the floor. The Hutt’s counteroffer is finally accepted as Chewie is led off to prison. Boba Fett, who knows a thing or two about bounties, eyes the little alien with suspicion.

Later that night, while most of Jabba’s cronies are asleep, the tiny alien is spotted making its way toward where the frozen figure of Han Solo hangs. The alien lowers the figure onto the floor with a powerful thud. Adjusting the controls on the carbonite’s outer hull, the structure slowly gives way until the unfrozen form of Solo emerges. Han falls to the floor and is cradled in the alien’s arms. As you may have guessed, the alien is none other than Princess Leia in disguise.

Han is blinded by hibernation sickness, but the alien/Leia assures him it will wear off in time. “Who are you”? he asks. “Someone who loves you,” she replies, to the tune of their love motif. At that point, Jabba’s bawdy chuckle is heard, along with those of the other no-good-nicks. A protesting Han is taken away, but Leia is forced to take Oola’s place by Jabba’s side (yuck). The toad flicks his lustful tongue at her in anticipation. Again, Threepio looks the other way in disgust.

Leia (Carrie Fisher) rescues Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba’s clutches (Photo: hellogiggles.com)

Transitioning to the jail cell where Chewie has been held, the eight-foot-tall walking carpet greets old buddy Han with a warm bear hug of recognition. The disbelieving Han is happy to “see” (more like “feel”) his old companion, but is astonished to learn that Luke is now a Jedi knight and will be arriving soon to free them from their bonds. Yeah, right…

There’s Safety in Numbers

We can assume that some time has elapsed before we’re back at the gate. The heavy steel doors open with a metallic clang (great room-rattling sound effects!) as the Gamorrean guards are mysteriously brushed aside to allow a hooded stranger safe passage. It’s Luke, of course, doing his best Obi-Wan imitation (or is it Lawrence of Arabia?). He easily manipulates the susceptible Bib Fortuna into taking him to Jabba.

Upon entering the throne room, we see that Leia has taken Oola’s place as the trophy dancer alongside Jabba the horny Hutt. How do we know this? Why, she’s dressed (or, rather, UN-dressed) in a skimpy metallic outfit — and she’s wearing Oola’s chain about her neck. Nice touch, that!

Game of Thrones: C-3PO, Leia, Jabba the Hutt, and Bib Fortuna (Photo: pinshape.com)

Threepio is thrilled to see Master Luke, but Jabba is furious with Bib not-so-Fortuna, who gets smacked down in short order. Jabba is unimpressed by Luke’s calm, Jedi-like demeanor. In no time, Luke grabs hold of a weapon, but Jabba beats him to the punch.

Both Luke and a Gamorrean guard drop through the floor (bet you knew THAT was coming!) and into the Rancor’s lair. The court gathers around the opening to watch Luke and the guard struggle to escape the huge Rancor’s grasp — second time’s the charm? Maybe not! The Rancor, an actual Muppet blown up to cinematic proportions, makes short work of the guard. Next, it turns on Luke, who scrambles about the pit looking for any kind of weapon to beat the monster to a pulp.

Their battle has its ups and downs (for the time, it’s actually quite impressive). Using his catlike reflexes, Luke ducks his way into a corner and notices that the Rancor is about to pass under a gate. Thinking quickly, Luke grabs hold of a handy skull and tosses it in the direction of a switch. Crash! The gate comes down on the poor, unsuspecting creature, killing it instantly. The watching throng gasps in disbelief while Jabba throws another shit-fit.

It’s at this point that Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (executed by film director Richard Marquand) add what the late movie critic Roger Ebert termed “a small moment … that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas.” To wit, they have the Rancor’s keeper, a burly, overweight bloke, break down and cry at the sight of the mangled beast. “Everybody loves somebody,” wrote Roger. Ain’t it the truth?

Ah, but the fun’s only getting started! Luke and Han are brought before the enraged Hutt, who has Threepio translate his orders: Our adventure seekers are both to walk the plank and suffer a thousand years of agony as (quote) “they are cast into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlacc.” Oh, my! The prisoners (what, again???) are dragged away. In the meantime, Chewie and Leia (according to the script) “exchange concerned looks.” Concerned did you say? Heaven forbid!

In the Belly of the Beast

The scene now changes to the Tatooine desert (filmed in Yuma, Arizona) where the gruesome Sarlacc resides. There is another of those extraneous bits, this one involving the buffalo-like Banthas (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM). Jabba’s barge hovers close by, along with two nearby skiffs. Luke and Han are aboard one of them. To ease the tension, the duo trades some light-hearted banter. Switching to the barge, Threepio bumps into Artoo who is serving drinks to the invited guests; back at the Sarlacc, everything is made ready for the coming execution.

Threepio delivers a short speech about begging Jabba for mercy. You will notice that Lando has moved into position, while Luke gives him and others a look of recognition. Without warning, Luke does a reasonable imitation of Olympic gold-medalist Greg Louganis as he high dives off the gang plank to turn himself around. Artoo shoots off Master Luke’s lightsaber which signals to everyone to get into fight mode.

Scene of the Grime: The Sarlacc and barges (Photo: iCollector.com)

General mayhem ensues, with guards and other standbys, including possibly Lando and Han, plunging headlong into the Sarlacc’s gaping jaws of death (digitally enhanced, to be precise, to make it look as if Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space” from The Little Shop of Horrors, had rented living space inside). Another needless expansion features an added bit with Boba Fett for no other reason than to capitalize on the subsequent popularity of this minor character. There’s no point to these irrelevant supplements except to drag the action out to interminable lengths.

One “charming” sequence occurs at the barge where Leia, taking advantage of the confusion, wraps her chain around Jabba’s chunky neck and chokes the living daylights out of him. With eyes bulging and slimy tongue protruding, the infamous Hutt meets a fitting end as his thick tail rattles away. His demise should be greeted with thunderous applause, but the danger is not yet over for our heroes.

Han and Lando dangle precariously for dear life (and exchange comedic barbs at one another), while Luke continues to slice and dice his way through, in true  samurai fashion, to eventually reach Leia. A wounded Chewie does his best to keep it together, but is saved from annihilation when Luke overwhelms the gunners. At the same time, Artoo relieves Leia of her bondage; in the next instant, the little droid takes potshots at the mischievous Salacious Crumb, who’s busy picking at one of Threepio’s metallic eyelids. (Ew, don’t you hate it when that happens?)

With Luke and Leia in command of the barge, Artoo and Threepio abandon ship. After they plunge head-first into the hot desert sand, Luke grabs hold of Leia in another of those patented Tarzan swings (one he’s perfected since Episode IV: A New Hope) and kicks the deck gun into high gear. As a result, the barge explodes into a gazillion pieces.

“Swing your partner!” Poster art for ‘Return of the Jedi’

Luke and Leia land safely onto the skiff (whew, what a relief) which, as luck would have it, contains both Chewie and Lando as well as the nearly sightless Solo. Off they go, but not before they pick up Threepio and Artoo. Note: The sight of C-3PO’s spindly metallic legs sticking out from the ground like golden antennae always provokes a gale of laughter.

Did we say “comic relief”?

(End of Part Eight)

To be continued….

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

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘We Talk About Cinema to Talk About Everything Else’: A Look at the Future of Brazilian Cinema

The Brazilian documentary film ‘Indianara’

(Today’s guest contributor is Quebec-born freelance writer Justine Smith. Justine has been writing professionally since 2014 as a film and cultural critic. She has contributed to a wide variety of publications in Canada, the USA and the UK in both English and French. Some of her regular outlets include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, the Roger Ebert website, Cult MTL and Hyperallergic. In 2015, she was selected to be a member of the Locarno Film Festival’s Critic’s Academy. Since 2018, she has collaborated on the Fantasia Talk Show, affiliated with the Fantasia International Film Festival, as a host and correspondent. In early 2019, she began working on the Fantasia programming team, and has also appeared on CBC radio and television as an expert on movies and culture.)

By Justine Smith

October 21, 2019

Indianara, a Brazilian documentary about [a] transgender activist, ends in tears. After tireless work trying to initiate social change and help improve the conditions of LGBTQ+ citizens of Brazil, the country elected a far-right government led by populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Indianara is one of the four Brazilian movies that recently played at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma [FNC] in Montreal.

It is also representative of the kind of film that might be under threat under the new government of Brazil. As the country shifts to the right politically, the film industry finds itself in a vulnerable situation. Films that subvert the regime’s ideology are already running into roadblocks. While the film industry has been thriving internationally, garnering awards and acclaim, its future is uncertain.

Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, but his nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise for years now. With little information available in English language sources, the question of Brazil’s cinematic future is a mystery outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. Yet, the ramifications of Bolsonaro’s actions are of international importance.

A glance at the most critically acclaimed films, playing at the Nouveau Cinéma, reveals a Brazil in upheaval:

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, Brazil’s entry for the Best International Feature Film, is based on a novel that begins in 1950. It’s the lush story of two sisters, separated by their father’s conservative values, who yearn to reconnect but are unable to. With mythic invocations of Euridice and Orpheus, the film is a melancholic examination of the Fourth Brazilian Republic, leading up to the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état. The political situation remains in the background, unveiled through radio programs and insinuated changes, but the values of the society having profound and often disastrous effects on the two sister’s ability to live their lives. Rather than be rich in nostalgia, the film laments the characters’ failed promise as repressive social conditions hamper them.

Scene from ‘The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao’

Divino Amor, set in the not-so-distant future, represents Brazil in a world where Carnival has been replaced by The Festival of Supreme Love. In this dystopian future, the Brazilian government puts on a front of being a secular bureaucratic system, but it just barely conceals its real values and influences, as the country has transformed into a barely-veiled theocracy. It’s hard not to think of Bolsonaro’s political slogan (his version of “Make America Great Again”), “Brazil above everything, God above all.”

Centered on a profoundly religious civil servant, Joana, the film is a desperate and sometimes wickedly funny portrait of divine providence. As the film hits on its surprising climax, [it] takes a shift as Joana becomes increasingly aware that the religiosity of her community is not rooted in strong belief, as much as it has become a way to control and surveil people. While potentially touched by a divine miracle, Joana is ostracized and humiliated, abandoned by the religion she loved so dearly.

The movie ‘Divino Amor’

The critically acclaimed Bacurau is a violent and subversive film about a small village in Northern Brazil that suddenly finds itself wiped off the map. Cut off from the rest of the world; outsiders invade the village; an unpopular campaigning governor, southern tourists and the animal [trophy hunters] after the Greatest Game of all. Of the moment, the film derives tensions between the rural and isolated communities and the outside forces that view them as disposable.

With echoes of Brazil’s violent past, within the film, it becomes clear that the more powerful hierarchical forces have underestimated the revolutionary spirit of their targets. Bacurau is about resistance as much as it is a portrayal of the cyclical intergenerational trauma of Brazil’s violent history. Bacurau feels like a movie on the precipice of gearing up for a new fight, as vulnerable communities find themselves (once again) forced to take up arms to defend their lives and their land.

The critically acclaimed feature ‘Bacurau’

Among the best films of the year, they represent a fraction of the groundbreaking films coming out of the country. Zoé Protat, director of programming at the FNC, said that the programming team was drawn to the strength of the film’s artistry but also their political integrity. They are films that represent [and] that display a love-hate relationship with their country.

These three films are financed by Ancine, the Brazilian agency that funds and promotes the Brazilian film industry. In the lead up to more significant changes, the agency has been publicly attacked by the government. The director and president of the organization, Christian de Castro, was removed by court order in August, part of a more significant trend of changes happening since March. Brazil’s Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra said that the new Ancine director would have a conservative profile, “just like the current government.” As bureaucrats investigate the inner-workings of the agency, the money is frozen, not just for production but travel as well.

At the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, they say they did try to invite guests from Brazil but struggled in their dealings with Ancine. Protat suggested this isn’t a new problem, but an ongoing frustration. Even under former leadership, the inner-workings of Ancine were opaque and complex, she says. But the situation only seems to be getting worse.

In Lisbon, one of the biggest and political documentary festivals starts this week. Since 2002, DocLisboa has been a boundary-pushing festival. Three weeks ago, it received news that the guests they invited from Brazil will no longer be able to attend because of Ancine. Earlier in the year, festivals like Indie Lisboa and Queer Lisboa made a point of featuring and highlighting Brazilian cinema in solidarity, but the situation has escalated. The team from DocLisboa decided, three weeks before the opening of their Festival, to restructure their programming.

“We will never be a neutral film festival,” explained one of the Festival’s programmers, Miguel Ribeiro, over Skype. They could not bring over the filmmakers on such short notice, but the Festival responded on September 23rd, by releasing an official statement about the situation:

“It’s clear that there is an agenda for the elimination of diversity and freedom, aiming at a form of art that is, at its core, popular and democratic: cinema. In Brazil, a dictatorship is being installed — several principals of the rule of law are being explicitly violated. Given this, it’s impossible to remain neutral.”

In program changes, they included a showcase of the films of Eduardo Coutinho, a political documentary filmmaker well-known in Brazil. They will present Chico: Artista Brasileiro, directed by Miguel Faria Jr., a film suppressed in Uruguay, and Portraits of Identification, by Anita Leandro, a portrait of the political prisoners taken during Brazil’s military dictatorship with the testimony of survivors. There are also public debates on topics like “Can one be neutral?” addressing media neutrality. Several other Brazilian films are also featured in the programming, treating a variety of important social questions and movements.

Ribeiro had been following the developing story of Brazil’s cinematic future since the election of Bolsonaro last fall. He helped outline the variety of changes and conditions in Brazil, most of which rarely make it to the English language media. Under the shroud of mere bureaucratic changes and language, it becomes clear that artists are under threat of restriction and silence, while government-sanctioned art will increasingly be in service of propaganda for the current leadership.

Understanding the situation in Brazil is only further complicated by its complex and contradictory media empire. Ribeiro suggests a documentary film by Pablo López Guelli, Our Flag Will Never Be Red [A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Será Vermelha], that is playing at the festival. A harsh indictment of a media controlled by oligarchs, the film makes a passionate case against the dominant fraudulent bent of the mainstream Brazilian media cycle.

‘A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Sera Vemelha’ (‘Our Flag Will Never Be Red’)

Bolsonaro has come out and said that he wants to impose “cultural filters” on film production; in other words, censorship. The choice is absolute; follow newly imposed filters or the government “will privatize or extinguish [Ancine],” he said. Specific films like the 2011 movie about a sex worker, Bruna Surfistinha, were singled out as the types of films that would no longer receive government support. Many of the other targets, in line with Bolsonaro’s political platform, include drug-use, feminism, LGBTQ+ communities and indigenous people.

In late July, The Brazilian Cinematheque, located in São Paulo, was placed under military and political control. Brazil’s audiovisual history is in the hands of bureaucrats who plan to use the archives as a platform to promote Brazilian values. One of the first projects set by the new leadership is a showcase of Brazil’s military achievements. The new direction, however, denies that the institution has taken a more conservative perspective.

One of the films playing at DocLisboa, Chico: Artista Brasileiro, was meant to open a festival in Uruguay. The film, which depicts the life of singer Chico Buarque, who was a revolutionary voice against the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985. The film, initially released in 2015, was pulled from the Festival after pressure from the Brazilian Embassy in Uruguay.

‘Chico: Artista Brasileiro,’ a film about singer, composer, songwriter and author Chico Buarque de Hollanda

Buarque, who is still alive, was also recently awarded the Camões Prize for Literature, the highest award for the written arts in the Portuguese world. Bolsonaro has expressed his displeasure with the choice and refuses to sign the award. While Buarque has received his prize money from Brazil, the symbolic gesture of Bolsonaro’s opposition still resonates. “Bolsonaro refusing to sign is like a second Camões Prize for me,” Buarque responded in O Globo.

Other filmmakers have come forward saying they’ve been facing problems with the new Ancine leadership. Last month, the producers of the film Marighella, directed by Wagner Moura and starring Seu Jorge, announced that the film’s premiere, scheduled for November 20th, had to be cancelled as they were unable to fulfill new demands by Ancine.

The film, which depicts the life of Carlos Marighella, a politician and guerrilla fighter who resisted against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1960s, also faced violence during its production. Some believe that the film is being censored by “obstructionism.”

Seu Jorge in the biographical film, ‘Marighella’

This is just the tip of the iceberg and as these changes are rarely direct, it’s difficult to assume intent. But, taking those incidents in the context of other actions against the arts, it becomes [worrisome]. Step by step, the industry is being dismantled and rebuilt in service of the propagandistic forces of the government. The message, though often weighed down in bureaucratic language, is clear: Ancine needs to bend to the will of the government or be eliminated.

For their September issue, the Cahiers du Cinéma featured Bacurau as their cover story with the headline, “Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” and three articles devoted to the cinema in Brazil. In an interview from Cannes earlier this year, one of Bacurau‘s co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho spoke on the conditions of working in Brazil under Bolsonaro and the importance of using art as a tool of resistance. He said:

“Today, under the extreme right-wing politics of Bolsonaro, the situation has become so absurd that we need to reaffirm things like ‘Education is important,’ and ‘all people need to be treated equally.’ Conversations have become so extreme, absurd and explicit. Cinema, music, literature need to listen to what’s happening, or else it gives the impression that it’s deaf.”

Later in the same issue, in the article “Le cinéma Brésilien à l’ère de Bolsonaro” (“Brazilian Cinema in the Age of Bolsonaro”), the author Ariel Schweitzer discusses with a Brazilian critic the state of cinema. “Is it possible,” writes Schweitzer, “that when a country is suffering, it’s cinema can thrive?” To which Brazilian critic for Folha de S. Paulo, the country’s largest daily newspaper, Inácio Araújo answers, “That’s perhaps true in some cases, but when a country goes bad, its cinema risks [going] very badly as well.”

The article in Cahiers suggests more censorship and budgetary cuts are to come. It’s not just films and filmmakers under threats, but festivals as well: this will only further close off the industry from outside involvement and discussion. While there are privatized industries that can continue to fund films within Brazil, without government support productions will face increased pressures from the point of financing to distribution.

While right now the Brazilian cinema seems to be thriving, that might not be the case for much longer. The situation is changing from one day to the next, and the prognosis looks worse and worse.

Ribeiro notes that the situation in cinema in Brazil is part of a small part of a worrying trend in the country, one that targets vulnerable members of society. “We talk about cinema to talk about everything else,” he says. By limiting the movement of filmmakers, it prevents their ability to criticize conditions and changes within Brazilian society publicly. Restricting films, in most cases, works to restrict speech as well.

When we talk about cinema, we are talking about everything. We are talking about a government that restricts the arts, movement and freedom of expression. As we see, the Brazilian government violently acting against its people, cinema, as a tool for empathy and resistance, is being restricted.

As citizens of the world, we have a responsibility. Bringing awareness, but also understanding that what is happening in Brazil is happening elsewhere. Far-right parties are gaining power across the globe, and film industries dependent on government funding and support are being threatened by campaigns and movements that seek to silence them. These policies that seek to repress the arts are interconnected [within] systems that seek to restrict dissonant voices that are critical of the government’s dangerous and dehumanizing policies.

What is happening in Brazil is not a unique case; in different forms, it can happen anywhere.

(All translations from the French were done by Justine Smith. Special assistance in translating the Portuguese language by Francisco Peres.)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Mixing the Old with the New (and More): The Met Opera’s 2019-2020 Radio Broadcast Season

Embattled former Met Opera artist-conductor, and ex-general director of the Los Angeles Opera, Placido Domingo

I look forward with anticipation to the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide. It can be found online, if you’re interested (here’s the link: https://www.metopera.org/season/radio/saturday-matinee-broadcasts/). I, for one, prefer to wait with bated breath for the physical delivery of this little gem of a booklet.

What I found in it both pleased and irritated me. There were photos of favorite works (for example, Massenet’s Manon and Verdi’s Macbeth), famous and not-so famous artists (Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Sir Bryn Terfel, Peter Mattei, Angel Blue, Eric Owens, Ailyn Pérez, and others), and lavish displays of such productions as Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot and Sir Richard Eyre’s Così fan tutte.

My favorite parts of the guide are the descriptions of each production and the juicy tidbits of background information allotted to each opera. We’ll be getting to the particulars in a moment.

But there was one name, among so many, that stood out from all the rest: that of Plácido Domingo. Apparently, the booklet’s publishers had failed to expunge his moniker from the Met roster in time for the post office to mail off the guide.

From Fame to Shame

Another fall opening, another fall. Yes, readers, it’s been almost two years since former Met maestro and musical director James Levine was removed from his post due to accusations of sexual harassment of men that allegedly took place some twenty to thirty years prior. It was soon after the first broadcast work, Verdi’s Requiem, on December 10, 2017, that news of Levine’s behavior, which had been rumored for some time, finally broke in the print and online media (see the link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/).

The fact that maestro Levine’s longtime colleague and fellow performer, Señor Domingo, had himself been implicated in demanding sexual favors from a bevy of women, all to further their careers (he claimed they were consensual) and to curry favor with respective opera houses (along with appeasing his own carnal desires), was another of those firmly-held “beliefs” that, for better or worse, had been bandied about for longer than anyone can remember.

Domingo’s decline, like that of his predecessor Mr. Levine, makes for fascinating if somewhat lurid reading. As of this writing, neither artist has yet to have his day in court. However, because of the delicate nature of the issues involved, the facts are that Levine had to step down from his position. Domingo, too, was forced to cancel his appearances at the Met (as Macbeth in Verdi’s opera, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), as well as resign the general directorship of the Los Angeles Opera. In addition, he withdrew from all future performances with Los Angeles and other institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera.

This pretty much puts an end to Domingo’s fifty-year career in the U.S. It has also cast a pall over the upcoming season (as it did two seasons ago), which the company intends to dispel at all costs. The tenor-turned-baritone and opera conductor-director will continue to appear in Europe at select venues. While there, Domingo may expect to be hammered by journalists and dogged by accusations from nine women who claim that for nearly three decades he harassed them with “unwanted kisses, groping and sexual advances.”

It’s incredible how a person’s professional life involving opera and the performing arts can turn into an opera all its own. Not a comic opera, mind you, but an exceedingly tragic one. Let the courts decide Plácido’s fate.

The End of All Things

One another sad note, we pay respects to the memories of two fallen Met artists: American diva Jessye Norman at age 74, and Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani at 56.

Soprano, mezzo, contralto. Those terms were interchangeable in the mouth of a true force of nature, the formidable Jessye Mae Norman. At six foot one inch tall, Norman towered over most singers, but not only in height. Norman’s artistry was such that listeners would be hard pressed to place her country of origin. She was an all-American girl, born in Augusta, Georgia, of African American parentage. But you would never know it from her cultivated speaking voice. In fact, most radio listeners would swear she spoke the Queen’s English or, at the very least, favored Western European diction.

With regard to her chosen profession, Norman refused to be pigeon-holed in opera. Her vast repertoire, both on the stage and in the concert hall, was wide and eclectic. She spoke German like a native, and her French was more Gallic than those of many Parisians. She was grandly eloquent in Wagner, and absolutely magisterial in Berlioz. Verdi or Puccini were never her forte, but she could whip up a head of steam over Strauss. Her classic recording of that composer’s Salome revealed the playful teenager in her.

A true artist and an incredibly devoted professional, Norman had the fiery temperament of one who believed whole-heartedly in her talent. Although she could be cutting in her comments to others, or as gentle as a lamb, there was no doubt she was divinely inspired. And who could resist her open-throated assumption of Strauss’s Ariadne, the perfect part for this most perfect of prima donnas? She will be sorely missed.

The late opera diva Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

Marcello Giordani had a most infectious tenor sound. It was a powerful, thrilling instrument, absolutely electric in performance, and instantly recognizable. To reach that elevated status in so short a time is remarkable enough. That Giordani achieved it almost from the start is a testament to his innate ability to be recognized as a singer of worth.

Achieving renown in both his native land and in America during the 1980s, Giordani managed to capture the attention of the New York press with his assumption of such standard parts as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore and Rodolfo in La Bohème, which occurred in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Now, here was a worthy challenger to Luciano Pavarotti’s mantle.

After overcoming vocal difficulties in the mid- to late ‘90s, Giordani began to flourish and shine in some highly unusual repertoire — unusual for the Met Opera, that is. His performances in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 2003 (a Met first), and earlier in Bellini’s Il Pirata (another company first) in 2002, brought needed attention to these operatic rarities.

Marcello also appeared in standard repertoire (Prince Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, Pinkerton in Butterfly, and in Verdi’s Ernani), but his excursions into the French variety were met with less favorable notices, i.e., his short-lived Aeneas in Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens. He abandoned the part soon after.

The late Met Opera tenor Marcello Giordani (1963-2019)

One wonders how many artists at the top of their game would have had the courage and wherewithal to know when they had pushed their voices beyond their natural limitations. Giordani knew. He earned our respect by doing the unthinkable: he canceled his subsequent Met Opera appearances, thus paving the way for another young talent, the New Orleans-born Brian Hymel, to triumph in the role. That’s humility for you! Grace under pressure. Giordani was that type of artist.

I have criticized Signor Giordani’s performances in the past — sometimes harshly, sometimes mercilessly. The only reason I did so was because I wanted to hear Marcello at his absolute best. I knew what he was capable of and urged him to husband his resources for better things. I’m hopeful he took my words to heart.

Marcello’s 2008 performances as Faust in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, in addition to Susan Graham’s lovely Marguerite and John Relyea’s dapper Méphistophélès, proved, without a doubt, what an unqualified tour de force the staged version of this “dramatic legend” became in their hands.

On October 5, 2019, Giordani’s golden throat was silenced. He died of a heart attack at his home in Augusta, Sicily. We wish his family our most heartfelt condolences.

What’s in Store for Radio Listeners

Onward and upward to bigger and better things. The broadcast season kicks off on December 7, 2019, with the Met premiere of minimalist composer Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, the last in a trilogy of works that began in 1975 with his and director Robert Wilson’s elaborately staged Einstein on the Beach, followed in 1980 by Satyagraha based on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This final portion, Akhnaten, about the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and his founding of a monotheistic Sun-worship religion, premiered in 1984.

It will be performed at the Met by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, mezzo J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye, tenor Aaron Blake as the High Priest of Amon, baritone Will Liverman as Horemhab, bass Richard Bernstein as Aye, and actor Zachary Jones as Amenhotep III. The production is by Phelim McDermott, with sets and projection designs by Tom Pye, costume designs by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Bruno Poet, and choreography by Sean Gandini. The Met Orchestra will be led by Karen Kamensek, one of the few female conductors around, who made her English National Opera debut in 2014 leading this same work.

Philip Glass’ ‘Akhnaten’ comes to the Met Opera (any resemblance to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is purely coincidental)

On December 14, we’ll be hearing Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame in French, or Pikavaya Dama in the original Russian), in Elijah Moshinsky’s acclaimed production. Met debutante, Norwegian-born soprano Lise Davidsen, sings the tortured Lisa, in love with the fiery gambler Gherman, voiced by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov (replacing the previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko). Eyvazov is married to Russian diva Anna Netrebko, who will be appearing this season as Lady Macbeth and Tosca.

Others in the cast include Russian mezzo Elena Maximova as Pauline, mezzo Larissa Diadkova as the old Countess (the lady with the secret of the cards), baritone Alexey Markov as Count Tomsky, and baritone Igor Golovatenko as Prince Yeletsky (who asks for Lisa’s hand in marriage). The opera will be conducted by Vasily Petrenko, completing this practically all-native-speaking cast.

And speaking of Macbeth (watch your mouth!), Verdi’s initial attempt at translating Shakespeare to the operatic stage will be broadcast on December 21st in Adrian Noble’s production. Sets and costumes are by Mark Thompson, lighting designs by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. Replacing Mr. Domingo in the titular name part will be Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who will share his nightmare visions with Anna Netrebko’s Lady M. American tenor Matthew Polenzani is Macbeth’s chief antagonist, Macduff, along with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov as Banquo. The orchestra and chorus will be led by Marco Armiliato, whose brother Fabio happens to be a spinto tenor.

Mozart’s delightful The Magic Flute is the next radio offering on December 28. It will be performed, in English, in the famed Julie Taymor/George Tsypin production. Taymor also designed the costumes and puppets (along with Michael Curry). Lighting will be provided by Donald Holder and choreography by Mark Dendy. The colloquial translation is by noted author J.D. McClatchy.

Heading the large cast is soprano Ying Fang as Princess Pamina, tenor David Portillo as Prince Tamino, coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, baritone Joshua Hopkins as the clownish bird catcher Papageno, tenor Rodell Rosel as the evil slave Monostatos, baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Speaker, and bass Solomon Howard (who I personally saw in two North Carolina Opera productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the High Priest Sarastro. Lothar Koenigs will preside at the podium.

Season’s Greetings!

The Met rings in the New Year in style with Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, to be broadcast on January 4, 2020. The opera will be heard in last year’s new production, directed by avant-garde Canadian Robert Carsen. The set designer is Paul Steinberg, with costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, and choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. Sir Simon Rattle will bring his expertise in leading the phenomenal Met Orchestra and Chorus in this most popular piece.

Such a noteworthy production demands singers of the highest caliber. So to that, we tip our hat to stylish Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund as the Marschallin, Moravian mezzo Magdalena Kožená as Octavian, South African soprano Golda Schultz as Sophie, German bass Günther Groissböck as the obnoxious Baron Ochs, tenor Thomas Ebenstein as the scheming Valzacchi, mezzo Katharine Goeldner as his accomplice Anina, baritone Markus Eiche as Herr Von Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer. Will Matthew hit that Act I high note before Orchs cuts him off? Tune in and find out!

Robert Carsen’s staging of Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

The next offering is Berg’s expressionist psychodrama Wozzeck on January 11. With a cast headed by Swedish baritone Peter Mazzei as the oppressed Wozzeck, soprano Elza van den Heever as his live-in lover Marie, mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, British tenor Christopher Ventris as the vicious Drum Major, German tenor Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, tenor Andrew Staples as Wozzeck’s comrade-in-arms Andres, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (in a role more congenial to his talents than that of Boito’s Mefistofele) as the Doctor, sparks are sure to fly!

This is another new production, brought to you by famed visual artist William Kentridge (responsible for the 2010 production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, which starred Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot). Wozzeck will be co-directed by Luc De Wit, with projection designs by Catherine Meyburgh, set designs by Sabine Theunissen, costume designs by Greta Goiris, and lighting by Urs Schonebaum. The Met’s current music director, Canadian Wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will lord it over the orchestra in this highly charged presentation.

Along traditional lines, Verdi’s La Traviata will be the next featured work to be broadcast (January 18). The production is credited to Broadway producer-director Michael Mayer, who did that Las Vegas-style Rigoletto a few years back. The cast includes Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (aka Mrs. Roberto Alagna) as “the wayward one” Violetta, Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov as her lover Alfredo Germont, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey as his father Giorgio Germont. Gibraltar native, maestro Karel Mark Chichon (married to Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča), will conduct. You can feast your eyes (or ears, in this case) on the production’s opulent sets (by Christine Jones) and costumes (by Susan Hilferty). The lighting designs are the work of Kevin Adams, with dance sequences by choreographer Lorin Latarro.

Another popular item, Puccini’s La Bohème in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production, will take center stage on January 25, but only in a recorded broadcast from Fall 2019. Featured in the predominantly youngish cast (and why not — this IS a story about young people, isn’t it?) are Chicago native, soprano Ailyn Pérez (of Mexican descent), as the tubercular Mimì, the peripatetic Matthew Polenzani as the poet Rodolfo, Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska as the fiery Musetta, Serbian baritone David Bižić as the painter Marcello, Moldovian baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky as the musician Schaunard, South Korean basso Jongmin Park as the philosopher Colline, and American bass Arthur Woodley in the dual roles of the landlord Benoit and the cuckolded Alcindoro.

The late Mr. Zeffirelli, an extremely refined and intellectually stimulated individual in his prime, had a boundless thirst for knowledge, music, and the arts. His familiarity with the classics of cinema and theater and his in-depth study of a work’s time period led to many an authentically based production. He dabbled in film and became a successful movie and television producer-director in his own right. Zeffirelli was responsible for two fine Shakespearean screen adaptations, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Romeo and Juliet (1968) with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. A third adaptation, Hamlet (1990) with Mad Max action star Mel Gibson in the lead, proved to be less durable.

We now come to what I feel is the Met Opera’s pièce de résistance: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in a new production by James Robinson, with set designs by Michael Yeargan (a known quantity at the Met for many a season), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (also well known), lighting designs by Donald Holder, projections by Luke Halls, and choreography/dance numbers by Camille A. Brown. This is a co-production that first appeared at the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, and later at English National Opera in October 2018.

The Met Opera’s new production of The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Boasting of a Wagnerian weight as well as length — and not just because of its music and choruses, but of individual performers and astounding production values — the opera Porgy and Bess (make no bones about it, this is an opera) is, first and last, an almost impossible work to pull off.

That it came from the pen of George Gershwin, one of Tin Pan Alley’s most beloved composers of popular songs and Broadway standards, and his lyricist brother Ira continues to astonish and delight. The wealth of melody, the depth of characterizations, and the understanding and love both Gershwin and original authors DuBose Heyward and his wife Dorothy brought to this endeavor take one’s breath away. I fondly remember the 2012 Broadway revival, with a cast starring Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Allen Grier as Sportin’ Life, and Philip Boykin as Crown. It bowled me over!

Following in the footsteps of Leontyne Price, Leona Mitchell, Grace Bumbry, and Clamma Dale will be soprano Angel Blue as Bess. Her Porgy will be sung by bass-baritone Eric Owens (he of the clenched teeth). Owens has his work cut out for him — and some fairly big shoes to fill, what with memories of William Warfield, Robert McFerrin, Simon Estes, and Willard White still lingering in the air. The other cast members (in a VERY large cast) include Golda Schultz as Clara, Latonia Moore as Serena, Denyce Graves as Maria, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life, Alfred Walker (a fine Wotan and Titurel) as Crown, and Donovan Singletary as Jake. David Robertson will conduct the orchestra in what many musicologists refer to as the American Die Meistersinger.

It Always Sounds Better in French

Scene from Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’ (Photo: Met Opera)

I am mildly disappointed that the February 8 broadcast of La Damnation de Faust will be given only in concert format. Although this is how Berlioz originally conceived for his work to be performed, the original 2008 production was a worthy attempt at a modern, technologically advanced concept.

It’s that once-in-a-lifetime digital showpiece, made up of a five-level metal scaffold divided into 24-screen cubicles (shades of that ridiculous Machine for the Met’s bungled Ring cycle). Director Robert Lepage’s MTV-style production values (with projection designs by Nelson Vignola and “Goethe-era” costumes by Karin Erskine) actually works. The online Met Opera guide states the reason for the concert performance as due to “unanticipated technical demands of reviving the Met’s staged production, which proved to be impossible to accommodate within the company’s production schedule.” Oh, well, our loss.

There’s a halfway decent cast, however, ready to do justice to this stirring piece. Mezzo Elīna Garanča has been tapped to sing the role of Marguerite, with high-flying tenor Michael Sypres as Doctor Faust and bass Ildar Abrdrazakov as the sinister Mephisto. Edward Gardner will lead the Met Opera forces from the pit and from the stage. This concert reading should prove interesting.

Jules Massenet’s Manon, based on the same Abbé Prévost source novel as Puccini’s strictly Italianate slant on the story, will be heard on February 15 in another of those prerecorded performances (this one from October 26, 2019). A Laurent Pelly production (he staged the same composer’s Cendrillon, which takes a typically Gallic angle to the Cinderella fairy tale), the sets were designed by Chantal Thomas, costumes by Monsieur Pelly, lighting by Joël Adam, choreography by Lionel Hoche, and associate direction by Christian Räth. Maestro Maurizio Benini will direct from the podium for this one.

A young (perhaps a shade too young) and talented cast will be headed by soprano Lisette Oropesa as Manon, tenor Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux, Italian tenor Carlo Bosi as the old roué Guillot de Morfontaine, Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, Canadian baritone Brett Polegato as De Bretigny, and Korean bass Kwangchul Youn as the Comte des Grieux. Both the Massenet and Puccini versions are episodic in nature. It would be most instructive for listeners to compare their efforts to an earlier one, composed in 1854, by Daniel François Esprit Auber of Fra Diavolo fame (are you listening, Met Opera management?).

Lisette Oropesa (in the purple dress) in Massenet’s ‘Manon’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

No repertory house worthy of the name could ever neglect the next radio entry: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro, in the broadcast of February 22. Based on the second of three plays by the Marquis de Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro (its English title) was the first to be written and staged for the opera. The first play, Le Barbier de Séville, or The Barber of Seville, was set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and subsequently by Gioachino Rossini in 1816.

The third play in the trilogy, La Mère Couple (The Guilty Mother), has a more checkered history. A version by Darius Milhaud premiered in France in 1966. However, American composer John Corigliano, with librettist William Hoffman, were commissioned by the Met to create The Ghosts of Versailles in English. This elaborate two-act piece had its world and Met premiere in 1991. It was partially based in part on The Guilty Mother. Topping that, there even exists a later version of The Marriage of Figaro or The Crazy Day, composed between 1799 and 1800, by the Portuguese musician Marcos Portugal.

To this heady mixture, we add the radio cast: Romanian soprano Anita Hartig sings the Countess, German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is Susanna, French mezzo Marianne Crebassa is Cherubino, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick is Marcellina, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is the Count Almaviva, Czech-born bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is Figaro, and Italian basso buffo Maurizio Muraro is Dr. Bartolo. Cornelius Meister leads the orchestra and chorus.

Leaping Lizards, It’s Leap Year!

George Friedrich Handel’s Agrippina is the next item up on February 29, in a production originally created by the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels and adapted by the Metropolitan Opera. Another Met premiere, it will be headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, joined by soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, mezzo Kate Lindsey as Nerone, English countertenor Iestyn Davies as Ottone, baritone Duncan Rock as Pallante, and British bass Matthew Rose as Claudio. Another Brit, conductor Harry Bicket, will conduct. The production is credited to Sir David McVicar, with sets and costumes designed by John Macfarlane, lighting by Paule Constable, and choreography by Andrew George.

The last of the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”), will be heard on March 7. Harry Bicket leads a cast that includes Australian soprano Nicole Car as Fiordiligi, Italian mezzo Serena Malfi as Dorabella, soprano Heidi Stober as Despina, Kansas-native tenor Ben Bliss as Ferrando, the Venezuelan-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Guglielmo, and Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as Don Alfonso. The opera will be given in Phelim McDermott’s colorful, Coney Island-inspired production, with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, and lighting by Paule Constable.

Phelim McDermott’s production of Mozart’s ‘ Cosi fan tutte’ (Photo: Met Opera)

A welcome and much needed new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (or The Flying Dutchman) will set sail on March 14. Starring robust Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel as the titular brooding Dutchman, this will be another of French director François Girard’s insightful efforts (his brilliantly realized Parsifal from a few years back is considered a milestone in the annals of Met productions). John Macfarlane is once again tapped as set designer, with costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by David Finn, choreography by Carolyn Choa, aided by dramaturg Serge Lamothe.

The supporting cast includes German-Italian soprano Anja Kampe as Senta, Japanese mezzo Mihoko Fujimura as Mary, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik, American-born tenor David Portillo as the Steersman, and German bass Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, Senta’s father. The electric Valery Gergiev will attempt to batten down the Met Opera Orchestra’s hatches for this run.

We move from tragedy to comedy with Rossini’s take on the Cinderella tale, La Cenerentola, which should curry favor with radio listeners on March 21. It will be heard in the Cesare Lievi production that boasts storybook sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò, lighting by Gigi Saccomandi, and choreography by Daniela Schiavone. We’re expecting some dazzling coloratura displays from a cast that spotlights Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Angelina (the Cenerentola of the title), Mexican bel canto specialist Javier Camarena as Prince Ramiro, baritone Davide Luciano as Dandini, bass Maurizio Muraro as Don Magnifico, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Alidoro. The conductor will be James Gaffigan.

It’s so rare to have two Massenet works in the same season. So we’re heartened that Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Werther, based on Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, will take to the airwaves on March 28. The sets and costumes are by Rob Howell, with lighting by Peter Mumford, production design by Wendall K. Harrington, and choreography by Sara Ende.

Two of the company’s biggest box office attractions will be featured: Polish tenor Piotr Beczala takes on the part of melancholy poet Werther, while mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in a change of pace from her usual comedic assignments, portrays his lady love, Charlotte. As her husband Albert, we’ll hear French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, and as the Bailiff, British baritone Alan Opie. Fellow Canadian, maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be in the pit for this not-to-be-missed event.

In a similar tragic vein, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice will be presented on April 4 in another recorded performance, this one from Fall 2019. Mark Wigglesworth will lead the Met Opera forces in director Mark Morris’ modern-esque adaptation of the centuries-old tale of the Greek minstrel Orpheus. Mezzo Jamie Barton will take over for Stephanie Blythe (the original creator of this part) as Orfeu, with Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as Euridice, and South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park as Amore. Allen Moyer designed the sets, noted fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi supplied the costumes, James F. Ingalls the lighting, and Mark Morris will once again provide the choreography.

Production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ (Photo: Met Opera)

More tragedy to come in our next outing. Puccini’s perennial shocker, Tosca, steps up to the broadcast plate on April 11 in still another of Sir David McVicar’s many Met productions. This one has replaced the critically reviled Luc Bondy version. It will star Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the (ahem) parapet leaping Floria Tosca, tenor Brian Jagde as her lover Mario Cavaradossi, German baritone Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia, and baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. French maestro Bertrand de Billy will preside. The sets and costumes were created by the ubiquitous John Macfarlane, lighting by David Finn, and movement director is Leah Hausman.

Verdi gets short shrift this season, with only three of the master’s works on the agenda. Nevertheless, we look forward to the April 18 broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s more somber efforts. Headlining the cast is infrequently heard Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez as the Doge Simon, soprano Ailyn Perez as his long-lost daughter Amelia, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Fiesco, and Azerbaijani baritone Elchin Azizov as the conspirator Paolo. Carlo Rizzi will take hold of the baton in this Giancarlo del Monaco production. Sets and costumes are credited to Michael Scott, with lighting by Wayne Chouinard.

The last gasp of Italian grand opera, Puccini’s fabulous Turandot, takes over the microphones on April 25. Franco Zeffirelli’s tribute to faux chinoiserie will feature Swedish prima donna Nina Stemme as the Icy Princess Turandot, Italian tenor Marco Berti will belt his high notes to the rafters as the Unknown Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava will plead her case as the slave girl Liu, and bass James Morris will lead the final procession as the deposed King Timur. Maestro Carlo Rizzi will be back in the pit. Zeffirelli provided the set designs, with costume designs by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and choreography by Chiang Ching. This is probably the Met’s most extravagant display of sheer gaudy production values.

A rare jewel among jewels is our next-to-last broadcast: Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, sung in the original Czech language. It will be heard on May 2 in director Sir Jonathan Miller’s production, with sets and costumes provided by Robert Israel, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. Lothar Koenigs returns to lead the company in what promises to be a special afternoon of robust singing and emoting. The first-rate cast stars soprano Susanna Phillips in the strenuous title role, with Daniela Mack as Varvara, the great Dolora Zajick as the imperious Kabanicha (Mother-in-Law), Pavel Černoch as Boris, tenor Štefan Margita (heard a few seasons back as a vocally lithe Loge in Das Rheingold) as Tichon, tenor Paul Appleby as Vaňja Kudrjaš, and British bass Sir John Tomlinson (an excellent Wotan and Wanderer in his day) as Dikoj.

Janáček’s music has the jarring abrasiveness of a Prokofiev, the disturbing dissonances of a Shostakovich, along with both their penetrating sonorities — especially in the brass (listen to his remarkable Sinfonietta for a sampling of his accomplishments). I’m still waiting for the Met’s management to put on one of the composer’s most attractive and, in this day and age of concern for our environment and the natural world, most timely works, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

Last but least, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda wraps up the season on May 9. Part of the Tudor Trilogy devoted to British royalty (along with Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux), Maria Stuarda will feature German diva Diana Damrau in the title role, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Queen Elizabeth, tenor Stephen Costello as Leicester, Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk as Cecil, and Italian basso Michele Pertusi as Talbot. Maurizio Benini will conclude his workaholic tenure with this piece. Sir David McVicar is again credited with this production, along with John Macfarlane providing the sets and costumes, Jennifer Tipton in charge of the lighting, and Leah Hausman leading the dancers through their paces.

In all, a diverse and stimulating season, with much that is old and much that is new. It remains to be seen if its promise will be fulfilled.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Six) — British Period Two-Point-O

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003)

Batten Down the Hatches, Boys!

When last we left the eclectic Mr. Depp, he was caught up in cocaine smuggling in the 2001 movie Blow. Sent to Otisville Federal Correctional Institute for a goodly number of years, his character — a potbellied, older-but-wiser George Jung — experiences a vision of his grown up, high-cheek-boned daughter Kristina Sunshine (Jaime King) paying a visit to him in prison.

As the pair hug each other tight, George has a flashback in which police carry his little girl (Emma Roberts) from their home after he’s been busted for possession of illegal drugs. In another, his estranged spouse Mirtha (Penélope Cruz) sits down to speak with George via the prison’s phone system. But she purposely drops the phone’s receiver on him, as does Kristina Sunshine when it’s her turn to talk to daddy.

In the concluding episode, George walks hand-in-hand with Kristina, who fades away to nothingness as the prison guard tells him it’s time to pack it in. Turns out she was nothing but a dream. And the moral of the story? “Ain’t no ‘Sunshine’ when she’s gone” (my apologies to Bill Withers), with or without the darkness.

Close family relationships have been at the center of Depp’s cinematic output from the start. The most prominent of which (Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and The Brave) have emphasized the ties that bind an individual to one’s brood. However difficult it may be to break those ties, the family unit stays intact. It remains the focal point in such crime-based dramas as Donnie Brasco and Nick of Time — even Sleepy Hollow — or the pseudo-sci-fi incongruities of The Astronaut’s Wife.

Family, of an entirely different sort, would take over the main section of Johnny’s next projects. As a matter of fact, the very term “family” and what it meant to be a contributing member of one underwent a drastic re-modification.

Perhaps reflecting the changing attitudes of American society as a whole and the notion of what comprises the so-called “modern family unit,” Depp’s personal relationships with his own children, and to children in general, had a profound influence on how he would approach such box-office bonanzas as Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But before he reached that critically-acclaimed stage, Depp agreed to don dreadlocks and braids, to cap his teeth with fake gold trimming, and to assume the bawdy carriage and boozy aspect of a stoned-out rock ‘n’ roller, in what would become his most lucrative film venture yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is shipwrecked on a deserted Caribbean islet with Elizabeth (Keira Knightley)

The first picture in the (gulp) “ongoing” series, the nautically predisposed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, set the unwavering course, so to speak, for Hollywood’s obsession with franchises. It was followed three years later by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — the best of the bunch — and the subsequent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

As far as we can measure, this money-generating mania (what in motion-picture parlance is referred to as a “cash cow”) began, more or less, with the runaway successes of the Wakowski siblings’ cyberpunk series The Matrix (starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishbourne) and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, trailed quickly by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man action epics (with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), as well as the earlier The Fast and the Furious (the team of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez).

What made the faux saltiness of the Pirates of the Caribbean brand of adventure stories — an essential chapter in Johnny’s British-period outings — so entertaining to both critics and public alike? That’s hard to say.

It had been some time since a pirate picture would translate into profits for penny-pinching movie studios. Their heyday had come and gone in the late 1940s and ‘50s (the best example being Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate), with a fitful smattering of efforts thereafter that dotted the cinematic seascape, to include such titles as Swashbuckler (1976), The Pirate Movie (1982), The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), Brian Henson’s Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney’s animated Treasure Planet (2002).

After having taken a bath at the box office with the gimmicky Treasure Planet, a half-hearted science-fiction take at a swashbuckler resurgence, industry mavens expressed alarm that the Disney Studios, in conjunction with megabuck producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Remember the Titans, Pearl Harbor), would revisit the time-worn story line — in this instance, basing a script (by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) on Disney’s eponymously titled theme-park ride. Tackling another such high-sea saga was a risky venture in their view (with or without an eye patch). Ah, but money speaks louder than words.

Action sequences galore (under the purposeful direction of Gore Verbinski), lush location shooting on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (where else?), along with a full-blown symphonic film score by Hans Zimmer (with borrowings from his previous hit, Gladiator), and a plethora of mindboggling stunts and special FX, dominated this initial entry.

Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, l.) on deck with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, r.)

And the plot? I knew you’d ask me that question! Let’s say the story is so hopelessly complicated, so overblown, and so lumbering and elephantine that it took two subsequent sequels to untangle and resolve — and not to everyone’s gratification.

The principal “character” (and we use that term loosely) is that of Captain Jack Sparrow, a slightly effete, slightly tipsy, and incessantly scheming buccaneer with a penchant for pretentious dialogue and dark eyeliner. He also has a one-track-minded obsession with women and rum. Despite his unsavory nature, Sparrow is a delightfully daffy personification: quick-witted and beguiling, he can outsmart, out-think and out-maneuver any number of His Majesty’s Royal Guardsmen, not to mention the entire British Fleet. What Sparrow has going for him is his ability not to be taken seriously.

As the roguish Jack, Depp drew upon his earlier enactment of Hunter S. Thompson, the whacky gonzo journalist-turned-writer we first encountered in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To that performance, he added the slurred speech patterns of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who makes a cameo appearance as Sparrow’s papa, the Keeper of the Pirate Codex, in 2007’s At World’s End.

Johnny’s part, as originally conceived, was in the upstanding “action hero” mold. Always looking to bring a sense of novelty to whatever he did, Depp decided to embellish the character with his own tongue-in-cheek twist. Michael Eisner, who headed Disney at the time, took one look at the rushes and was not amused. “He’s ruining the film!” Eisner was quoted as saying. Johnny was unperturbed by the comment. His response was reported to be: “You either trust me or give me the boot” (pun intended). Eisner decided that too much had been invested in the production to make any changes at that point.

As one producer once came to a similar conclusion concerning the late actor-producer-financier Robert Evans’ own modest beginnings in movieland: “The kid stays in the picture.”

Instead of walking the plank, Depp took his character’s license to offend by the horns and allowed himself a bit of leeway: He turned the fey Captain Sparrow into a one-man side-show. The main event, then, took shape in the evolving (and evermore contrived) relationships between Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and James Norrington, with Jack occupying the inner-and-outer fringes of comic relief. He would later take up this same methodology for his original, deadpan take as Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

The large supporting cast highlighted the diversity inherent in practically all of Depp’s features, with the Pirates series being no exception. Among the talents deployed were those of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the ghostly Captain Barbosa, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as the highborn Elizabeth Swann, Orlando Bloom (Legolas in The Lord of the Rings) as love-smitten swordsmith Will Turner, Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the snooty Lt. Norrington, Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as Governor Swann, Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Gibbs, Lee Arenberg as the bald-pated Pintel, Mackenzie Crook as loose-eyed Ragetti, and Zoë Saldana (Uhura in the Star Trek reboots) as female pirate Anamaria.

Now, about that winding plot … It has something to do with Captain Jack’s attempts to take possession of his ship, The Black Pearl, from some mutinous rival privateers. Oh, and there’s also a mighty curse that needs to be broken. And a spectral crew to overcome. And a mind-of-its-own compass. And 882 pieces of eight, mate.

As I said: It’s complicated. And I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining to boot (pun VERY intended!).

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Depp up to the bar in ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’

From a side-show attraction, Johnny fixed his ever-watchful gaze on a violent, nausea-inducing contemporary sagebrush saga by Tex-Mex writer, director, producer, cinematographer, musician, and editor Robert Rodriguez.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, an obvious ode to Italian auteur Sergio Leone’s grandiloquent spaghetti Westerns, in particular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), was part of a trilogy of films by the enterprising Mr. Rodriguez that began with the low-budget, self-made El Mariachi (1993) and the ensuing slicker but no less ferocious outlaw epic Desperado (1995), the former starring Carlos Gallardo as the titular gun-toting musician and the latter with Antonio Banderas in the name part.

Banderas returned to the role in this outlandish sequel (Desperado was distributed, in fact, by Columbia Pictures, as was Rodriguez’s earlier creation). In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, El Mariachi is charged by CIA Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands (played with typical self-reliance by Depp) with the killing of one of those corrupt Mexican generals one hears so much about. The general is played by Willem Dafoe. There’s also a revenge-themed angle to this setup that, for all intents and purposes, outdoes anything that came before.

Johnny Depp as CIA Agent Sands

Perhaps that’s the reason why the series faltered after Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once upon a time in Depp’s movie career, he might just as easily have played the lead protagonist as he had the minor CIA sidekick. He could certainly fake a Mexican accent better than many native speakers could pronounce their own surnames (see his Don Juan DeMarco if you have any doubts). Still, Johnny’s fidgety nature preferred to let others have their moment in the hot desert sun, which is all to the good.

Our favorite sequences in this long, drawn-out shoot-em-up (which also stars Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Rubén Blades, and Enrique Iglesias) happen to be: 1) Depp’s “conversation” in a fancy Mexican bar/restaurant with ex-standup comic Cheech Marin as Belini, which ends rather badly for poor old Cheech and the waitress serving them both; and 2) the CIA agent’s violent shootout with hitmen that is so blatantly outrageous and so ridiculously over-the-top that one is forced to laugh the whole sequence off. It’s almost too cartoony to take seriously.

The Secret Window (2004)

Depp as Mort Rainey, with John Turturro as Shooter, in ‘The Secret Window’

Johnny’s subsequent brush with the “law,” The Secret Window from 2004, was a dreary, offbeat affair. Based on a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, it reminded one of a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe psychological horror fantasy (“The Telltale Heart” would be what we had in mind), with some semi-biographical elements thrown in.

The basic premise involves an author, Mort Rainey (a stand-in for King, which is where the semi-biographical aspects come into play), trying to overcome his writer’s block by shacking up, all by his lonesome self, inside a log cabin in the woods (the movie was shot in parts of Quebec, Canada). Mort spends most of his time dressed in a bathrobe and lying around the couch while attempting to snap out of the doldrums.

One day, he’s visited by one of those tall and sullen strangers that seem to inhabit such woodland fright fests as these. The stranger’s name is John Shooter (a grim-faced John Turturro). He wears a big black hat (could he be the bad guy?), and he’s pissed off something fierce. Shooter accuses Mort of plagiarizing his murder-mystery novel. “You stole my story,” he declares, in a slow, portentous drawl meant to make Mort and the audiences’ skin crawl. That starts the plot a-rolling.

From there, we learn a little more about Mort as a person: that he really did “steal someone else’s story” a while back and published it as his own; that he wrote and published his own story two years before Shooter’s tale; that after confronting Shooter, the next night Mort’s dog is stabbed to death with a screwdriver. Yikes! Looks like this guy Shooter is (cough, cough) deadly serious about that plagiarism claim.

What’s an author with writer’s block to do? In Mort’s case, he reports the slaughter of his pet pooch to the local sheriff (Len Cariou). To prove that his story really did come first, Mort goes off to see his estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) to retrieve a copy of the magazine where it was originally published. He also hires a former policeman turned private detective (Charles S. Dutton) to ferret out the situation with the lugubrious Mr. Shooter.

Mort (Johnny Depp) has a bout of cabin fever in ‘The Secret Window’

One thing leads to another and, as in all of King’s stories, the final “reveal” is both thought provoking and preposterous at one and the same time. The best parts of the picture are when Johnny is left alone, talking a blue streak to himself and sorting out in his mind (or what’s left of his sanity) as to what’s been going on. The ending, while not particularly shocking, is somewhat of a letdown but true, overall, to the story arc that’s been laid out beforehand (keep a close eye on the objects around Mr. Depp at the outset — they’ll come in handy towards the finish).

No spoilers here, folks. The best we have to say about this minor effort is the creepy music score by Philip Glass (The Hours) and Geoff Zanelli (which will remind viewers of Depp and Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), the steady directorial hand of veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and the fine location photography by Fred Murphy. All in all, a modest achievement for the always adventurous Johnny D.

(End of Part Six)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Five)

The Three Norns (Elizabeth Bishop, Ronnita Miller, Wendy Bryn Harmer) from the Prologue to Wagner’s ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

From the Cosmic to the Intimate

The fourth and final installment by the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung concluded on April 27, 2019 with Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) and the “resolutions,” so to speak, of the various participants’ dilemmas.

What do we mean by resolutions? Does anything ever get “resolved” in the Ring? Does the world really come to a watery end? Are the characters redeemed by their actions? Is Siegfried the long sought-after hero who finally returns the Ring to its rightful owners? Most of these questions are answered in this concluding segment. But, then again, many are not.

Oh, come on now! Why all the double talk? For goodness’ sake, do we have a satisfying ending or not? These are the continuing problems of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Indeed, one of the countless side aspects of this work is that its so-called “conclusion” is up to individual interpretation. That’s what makes the saga so compelling to singers and irresistible to stage directors. And why us Wagnerites love the drama in the way that we do.

Having listened to many of the complete recordings of all four Ring operas, including some hard-to-find broadcasts (most of which can be seen or heard on YouTube), I’ve come to the realization that there can be no “ending” as such. For instance, in East German director Harry Kupfer’s “Road of History” version at Bayreuth (revived in Barcelona), the cycle concludes in the same way that it began: with richly-dressed theatergoers at a dinner party watching the cataclysm on television. It’s unnerving how Kupfer had the foresight to anticipate, in a manner of speaking, the horrific events of the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Certainly many if not all of the intertwined stories in the Ring can be summed up in one line: things go from bad to worse to not-so-good and not-so-bad. Isn’t that how real life evolves? Well, maybe. The ancient Greeks, bless their souls, had a way of explaining human events by imposing moral truths onto an immoral world. Wagner took that statement to heart and created an ethos all its own. He purposely kept the story line circuitous and, for the most part, analogous to myths and legends.

The hero’s journey was one of his angles, the hero being the unruly Siegfried. In this final work (originally called “Siegfried’s Death,” the text of which was the first to be written, followed by a prelude entitled “The Young Siegfried”), the fall of the gods would come about by their own misdeeds; their redemption would be through human intervention.

The Immolation Scene – Bruennhilde (Deborah Voigt) riding atop Grane (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

We know that Wagner ended his saga with Das Rheingold. However, he began the composition of the music chronologically. By closing the chapter on his characters and setting fire to the Hall of the Gibichungs — the flames of which reached all the way up to Valhalla itself — the world’s sins could be washed clean by the overflowing Rhine River. Redemption, if that’s the term, could be achieved by returning the Ring to its source.

Fate Marches On

As the opera begins, the Three Norns, those enigmatic daughters of Earth Mother Erda, recount the tragic history of the past (the withering away of the World-Ash Tree, the piling up of its logs around Valhalla, Wotan sitting and waiting for the end time) and attempt to prophecy what’s to come. The Norns tug and pull at the Rope of Destiny, hoping to untangle the mess that Dark Alberich’s curse has placed on it and on humanity. Suddenly, the Rope snaps which leaves the Norns mourning the fate of the world. They slink back down to Erda.

Dawn breaks. Brünnhilde now leads Siegfried out from the cave, where their love has been consummated. No one knows how much time has passed. Since “mythological time” is not “real time,” we can presume that events after Siegfried have moved along at a faster than normal clip. The restless hero is eager to partake of further adventures. His bride, now semi-mortal, has enough tricks up her sleeve to cast a protective spell around her man. Only Siegfried’s back is vulnerable, for he would never turn away from a foe. This is key to understanding what takes place in Acts II and III. As the orchestral passage known as “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is played, Brünnhilde is left alone on Valkyrie rock to await the hero’s return.

Bruennhilde (Christine Goerke) bids farewell to her hero, Siegfried (Andreas Schager) in the Prologue (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Moving on to Act I proper, we meet Gunther, heir to the Gibichung throne, his lovely sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, the illegitimate son of Alberich and the Gibichung’s mother Grimhilde (“grim” is right!). Gunther pays heed to Hagen’s advice to take a highborn wife. Gutrune, too, should crave a worthy husband. This would add to their fame and fortune. But who should Gunther wed? There’s a bold maid who sleeps on a fiery rock, Hagen tells him. She would be the perfect mate! And for Gutrune? Why, the hero Siegfried would serve that purpose handily. He could be enticed to marry Gutrune by drinking a powerful potion of forgetfulness.

Lo and behold, who do we hear but Siegfried and his hunting horn. Answering the call, Hagen welcomes the brash youth and his horse, Grane, to the dark, imposing strains of Alberich’s curse (shivers!). After reiterating some basic plot points — mostly to recap for the audience’s benefit about Siegfried’s dragon slaying, the Ring, the gold, and the magical Tarnhelm — their conversation turns to matrimony. Hagen offers the hero a refreshing drink, which not only quenches his thirst but makes him forget the past (to be exact, certain aspects of his past). It also ignites his lust for the charming Gutrune.

Promising to provide Gunther with a bride of his own, Siegfried is tricked into helping to bring the wild woman Brünnhilde down from her perch. Hagen seals the deal by presiding over Siegfried and Gunther’s swearing of blood brotherhood — not realizing that our hero’s death warrant has been sealed with this oath.

Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) heeds the advice of Hagen (Eric Owens) to take a wife (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

In the next scene, Brünnhilde is thrilled to welcome her sister Waltraute to Valkyrie rock. She’s not so thrilled by what Waltraute has to say: that Wotan is beside himself with sorrow. All he and the other gods and warriors do is sit around Valhalla waiting for the place to catch fire. The only way to salvage the situation is for Brünnhilde to throw the Ring into the Rhine. Mirroring what Wotan once told Fricka, her response is “Are you mad? No way!” The Ring is a token of Siegfried’s love. He gave it to her when he moved on to new adventures. See, she wears it proudly! Waltraute is dismayed.

With her sister’s exit, the Valkyrie is heartened once again to see the surrounding flames shoot up and part. Her hero has returned! Siegfried, my love! But wait! It’s not her beloved. It’s Gunther (actually, Siegfried in disguise, by means of the Tarnhelm). Speaking in low, halting tones, the stranger claims Brünnhilde for his own. She shows him the Ring of power in a last ditch effort to frighten the intruder away. A violent struggle ensues with Gunther overpowering the maiden and grabbing the Ring as his prize.

Ordering her to go into the cave and await his presence, Brünnhilde sadly marches to her fate. The next step is for Siegfried to pretend that Gunther has wooed the wild woman, but with the sword Notung placed between the pair as they lie in bed. That way, he can claim that he never violated his blushing “bride to be” (a false claim, to be sure, since the couple has already spent many a blissful night together).

Which Ring is Which?

In Act II, Alberich re-emerges in a dream-like sequence wherein he charges Hagen to brace himself for battle against the bold Siegfried. The Ring is all he cares about and forces Hagen to swear allegiance to him, that he will destroy the youth and recapture the Ring for themselves. Siegfried suddenly materializes (thanks to the power of the Tarnhelm) to proclaim that Gunther is approaching with his new bride in tow. Hagen summons the Vassals with a blast of his horn. The overwhelming power of a full male chorus (all the way up to high B), the first such number in the cycle, dominates the proceedings.

With everyone gathered for a grand old time, what could possibly go wrong? A double wedding, the imbibing of spirits, the slaughter of steers, goats and boars. A merry banquet indeed for our brave lads! Gunther introduces his downcast bride who bristles at the sight of Siegfried arm-in-arm with another woman. What gives? There’s a commotion among the men and women gathered. All of a sudden, the celebration turns into accusations of chicanery. Siegfried wears the Ring. But Gunther wrenched it from her hand. How can that be?

Sensing an opening, Hagen takes Brünnhilde’s side in denouncing the hero as a liar and cheat. Gunther hasn’t a clue as to what everybody is arguing about. Obviously, he wasn’t the one who snatched the Ring from his bride. As noted, it was Siegfried in disguise. To make matters worse, the vengeful Valkyrie proclaims herself to be his lawfully wedded wife. Unwittingly, Siegfried admits that he won her for his blood brother Gunther, but claims that Notung lay between them in the cave as they slept. Ah, clever rascal, that’s true as far as it goes. But that wasn’t so when they first met, back at good old Valkyrie rock. (Why do I hear myself singing, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”?).

Bruennhilde (Goerke) swears an oath on Hagen’s spear (Owens), along with Gunther (Nikitin) in Act II of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Accusations and recriminations bounce back and forth, which lead both Siegfried and Brünnhilde to swear an oath on Hagen’s spear that they are speaking the truth. “May I be struck down dead if I have broken faith,” Siegfried pledges. Act II ends with a rousing trio for Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen as the Valkyrie spews forth the secret of how to vanquish the deceitful Siegfried. It takes all of Hagen’s guile to convince Gunther to agree to the hero’s slaying. It’s the Ring, stupid! That’s all that matters.

The first scene of Act III brings back those flirtatious Rhine Maidens. Curiously, they wonder when Siegfried will come around to visit them. No sooner said than done: the exuberant dragon slayer enters by way of having followed a stray bear. They tease him good-naturedly until one of the maidens notices the Ring. They ask him to hand it over, but he refuses.

Diving back into the water, the maidens splash around playfully until Siegfried decides to offer them the booty. Warning him of its power and the evil curse that’s been placed on it, they chime in unison that today he will meet his doom. Siegfried scoffs at their threats, but the Rhine Maidens insist that before the day is out a wise woman will grant their wish and return the Ring.

The Rhine Maidens (Renee Tatum, Disella Larusdottir, Jennifer Johnson Cano) warn Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) of the Ring’s power in Act III of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party gather for some feasting and drinking. After a long day out in the woods, Hagen asks the hero if he can truly understand birdsong. Siegfried turns to Gunther who has grown serious and taciturn. Gunther knows what’s about to happen, but he can do nothing to prevent it. The cheery Hagen plies Siegfried with ale which gets the hero to relate some of his tall tales: about the mean-spirited dwarf Mime, about his slaying of the dragon, and how he tasted the dragon’s blood which gave him the ability to understand birds. Everyone is entranced by his stories; everyone, that is, except Gunther. Having laced his drink with special herbs and spices, Hagen offers some more refreshment — the ploy being to bring Siegfried’s memory back.

It works! Siegfried tells the story of how he got through the flames that surrounded Valkyrie rock. Once there, he witnessed a wondrous sight: a woman warrior. He awoke the sleeping warrior with a kiss to find Brünnhilde alive and kicking. Gunther is thunderstruck by the news. At that moment, Hagen points to two black ravens hovering above. They are Wotan’s ravens, the god’s only link to the outside world. As they take off, he demands that Siegfried tell him their song. As Siegfried looks up to the sky, Hagen plunges his spear deep into the hero’s back. “Vengeance is what they say!” Hagen shouts at him.

The Vassals are shocked. “What have you done?” they cry in disbelief. Gunther repeats their query. Hagen responds: “Meineid recht Ich!” – “Perjury have I avenged!” Then he slinks off, back to the Gibichung palace. The Vassals hear Siegfried’s dying words. To the same music that his beloved Brünnhilde greeted the rising sun, Siegfried pronounces her name. He greets her in death. The orchestra plays the familiar “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” punctuated by the sledgehammer blows of the tympany. The pounding continues as the hero’s theme is heard in all its glory. The Vassals solemnly place the dead hero’s body on their shields and take him away.

In the last scene, Gutrune is alone. She is frightened and has premonitions of doom and gloom. Hagen calls out to her to light the way, her hero has returned: dead on arrival. Reviving his sister, Gunther is wracked with guilt. She accuses him of murdering her husband, but he points to the real culprit, Hagen. Back and forth they rage, until Hagen finishes Gunther off with a single blow (just as Fafner had done to his brother Fasolt). When Hagen reaches out to take the Ring from Siegfried’s hand, the dead hero’s arm rises in a threatening gesture (an eerie coup de théâtre). All recoil in horror.

At this definitive moment, Brünnhilde strides in, solemnly and deliberately. She demands that they heed her words. Gutrune hurls accusations at her, but the Valkyrie silences her cries. Gutrune was only his lover, but she, Brünnhilde, was his adoring wife. With that, Brünnhilde begins the passage that will lead up to the Immolation Scene. What happens in this scene? Practically everything! Wagner labored long and hard over this sequence, which underwent numerous revisions until he finally settled on the right manner of how to end his saga.

In sum, the Valkyrie orders the populace to prepare for a conflagration. Siegfried’s body will be cremated as befits a hero, along with her own and that of his wonder horse, Grane. The steed is brought in (most productions substitute a fake horse for the real thing — it’s, uh, less “messy” that way). Brünnhilde absolves Siegfried of all blame for the chaos that’s left behind. He was true blue, his only crime being his childlike ignorance of human cunning and deceit.

Bruennhilde (Goerke) bemoans the loss of the hero, Siegfried (Schager) before the Vassals in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

What of Wotan, who is guilty of multiple crimes against his own flesh and blood? She pardons the god as well. Bidding him eternal rest, she takes the Ring from Siegfried’s finger and places it on her own. Hagen greedily eyes her every movement. In some productions, he paces restlessly about the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal the bauble from her person. No way, José!

Brünnhilde now addresses the Rhine Maidens, who are to take the Ring from her ashes after it has been purified by the flames. The waters of the Rhine will wash away the curse. With that, she grabs a torch and charges Wotan’s ravens (which, according to Wagner’s instructions, are supposed to be flapping about the palace) with sending word to the gods that the end is nigh. “Go tell Loge to shoot his flames up to Valhalla!” With her last breath, Brünnhilde speaks directly to Grane (there’s a bit of psychological insight in speaking to her horse). She leaps into the funeral pyre, delighting in death.

So much happens musically in this final episode that it would take a voluminous book to relate all that occurs. Suffice it to say that Valhalla burns (you can hear the characteristic motif in the orchestra), Hagen tries to steal the Ring from the Rhine Maidens, but he’s drowned for his efforts. The Gibichung palace collapses, but the populace is spared (at least, that was the composer’s intention). And the violins intone what most announcers describe as the “Redemption through Love” theme, which in reality belongs to Brünnhilde’s transformation (or “apotheosis”) from warrior maiden and wife to healer and deliverer.

Burning Down the Opera House

American soprano Christine Goerke resumed her strongly realized, granite-like vocalization and emotionally straightforward interpretation of ex-Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Some garbled diction and under-the-pitch top notes aside (which proved less troublesome here than in her broadcast of Siegfried), Goerke closed the saga with that marathon session known as the Immolation Scene. Again, the shading of words and her declamatory statements before the big moments (a wistful “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott” – “Rest now, you god”) were moving in their sincerity of feeling. This was straightforwardness taken to the extreme, especially in Act II when she pulled out all the stops to hurl some mighty imprecations at her clueless “husband,” Siegfried.

The crowd loved her performance, which in person, I am told, was urgently felt and nobly personified throughout. Such dedication to the task at hand deserved a ringing endorsement. But was it the big barnstormer that everyone had expected? The online reviews were all over the map. This was a marathon outing, no doubt about it, so we will reserve judgment and leave the final verdict to others.

Gutrune (Edith Haller) comforts her brother Gunther (Nikitin) as they listen to Bruennhilde’s ravings (Goerke) in Act II (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Tenor Andrea Schager’s more “mature” sounding Siegfried, while unlike in shading and tone from Stefan Vinke’s youthfully exuberant embodiment, convinced listeners that here was a fully-formed personality, as viable in its own way as his predecessor’s. Schager’s death scene was particularly touching, as it should be, with his voice ringing out impressively. And, as was previously mentioned, he hit the high notes squarely and securely, no mean feat in itself. The voice gained strength and firmness the more he sang, a truly noteworthy undertaking.

Eric Owens, a past Alberich and a recent convert to Wotan, took on the villainy of Hagen, the Nibelung’s bastard offspring. Lacking the lowest notes and that high bass thrust that made the likes of Gottlob Frick, Bengt Rundgren, Matti Salminen, and Hans-Peter König so captivating, Owens nevertheless reveled in his character’s treachery. Still, he disappointed by making too many phrases sound “samey-samey,” with little to no differentiation between them. A perfectly distinguished Alberich, his lighter than expected timbre and affable air did have their moments (his second act call to the Vassals, however, was not one of them). Overall, while expectations ran high, most of them went unfulfilled. His lowkey acting, however, was above reproach.

Similarly, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was miscast as the easily manipulated Gunther, the head of the Gibichung clan. Long an able-bodied villain (i.e., the magician Klingsor in Parsifal, and a forceful Alberich in his own right), with the vocal deftness of a snapping turtle, Nikitin represented overkill in this part. Gunther is not a “bad guy.” He’s incapable of making good decisions; when he does make them, they go wrong at every turn. His basic sins are his vanity and gullibility. A singer with a more flexible tone and supple weight (Welsh baritone Iain Patterson was excellent in this part) is needed, not one with Nikitin’s forte-at-full-throttle capabilities.

Soprano Edith Haller’s lighter-voiced Gutrune, Gunther’s shy sister, brought coloratura-like shading to her role. Properly girlish and giddy at the same time, Gutrune is the one who wishes for (and takes) the drugged Siegfried as her husband, not realizing that he’s spoken for. Her scream at the sight of Siegfried’s corpse was hair-raising. Dripping black venom with every syllable, Tomasz Konieczny brought his sonorous inky-toned portrait of Alberich to brief life (is he really there, or a figment of Hagen’s imagination?). Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster contributed a solid, emotionally pleasing assumption of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, who pleads with the ex-Valkyrie to return the accursed Ring to the Rhine Maidens.

The Three Norns, those Nordic-Germanic equivalents of the Greek Fates, were taken by mezzo-sopranos Ronnita Miller (especially memorable) and Elizabeth Bishop, and soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. Returning as the beguiling Rhine Maidens (as boisterous as ever) were soprano Amanda Woodbury and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford.

Swiss-born maestro Philippe Jordan presided over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra throughout the four Ring operas in a “lean, mean fighting machine” manner: competently led, responsive to the work’s lyricism and drama, with smoothly projected “singing” string tones, but poorly executed brass (too many stray or sour notes). Jordan did exceedingly well in painting a sonic picture, certainly better than one could expect from such an empty-headed production as this. His conducting brought unity and strength to the most demanding of moments (the Act II ensemble, for example, was particularly well balanced). It was comparable to, if no less individualistic than, Fabio Luisi’s lighter interpretation from a few seasons back.

Former Met musical director James Levine, in his later years as the company’s orchestral force, favored slower tempos and leaden sonorities, sometimes down to a crawl, by pulling the musical line out of proportion to the whole. On the positive side, Levine made the brass section ring out majestically; the strings vibrated with tactile life and proved most affecting in the melodious postlude that wraps up the saga.

Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director, Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be given the opportunity to add his vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle to the company’s repertoire and turn it into a future conducting triumph. With any luck, in a brand new production that does better justice to the work than this superficial white elephant does.

We’ll be waiting with bated breath.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

Brother Malcolm (Denzel Washington) sings the praises of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (photo in background) in Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?

Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their butts; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.

Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?

For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were an integral part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation with singer-performer Pharrell Williams for the Reserve Channel.

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”

Malcolm (Denzel Washington) preaching in Harlem in ‘Malcolm X’

“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.

“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.

“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.

“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”

And what a time it was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”

‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End

Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.

Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis. Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.

Side-by-side comparison: Malcolm X and Denzel Washington

Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap. Since he neither resembled nor talked anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse, he was at a disadvantage. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from a street hustler, pimp and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.

That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Spike and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in chronological order.

Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. And, more significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.

Malcolm as “Detroit Red” (Denzel Washington) with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) in their zoot suits

Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).

At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended even that milestone effort.

Both he and Lee could have fallen on their butts if they failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.

They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man had changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.

Cinematic Moments to Remember

The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense his passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.

That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly played by a soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-side lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood. The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.

Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) in ‘Malcolm X’

Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.

Police Captain (Peter Boyle) tells Malcolm to disperse the crowd

Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the same faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.

In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.

“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.

“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”

There was nothing “surface” at all about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.

Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”

Those prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes