A German Triumvirate: ‘The Magic Flute,’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ and ‘Wozzeck’ at the Met

Prince Tamino (David Portillo) plays his flute to ward off the dancing bears in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Operas Old and New

Saturday afternoons can be either marvelous or tedious affairs, depending on the season or the weather. For the past few weekends, however, yours truly has been thrilled to hear some fine performances at the Metropolitan Opera House via their perennial radio broadcasts. This gives me the opportunity to discuss these fine works at length.

The last three transmissions featured a panorama of German masterpieces, all of them classics of the genre: Mozart’s The Magic Flute was heard on December 28,2019, while Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (“The Knight of the Rose”) and Berg’s Wozzeck vied for equal time on January 4 and 11, 2020, respectively.

The Mozart opus, a 2004 production credited to Julie Taymor, was given a truncated English-language adaptation (courtesy of the late J. D. McClatchy). Robert Carsen’s stylish Der Rosenkavalier was a revival of a production from 2017. However, the harrowing Wozzeck, directed by acclaimed visual artist William Kentridge, whose 2010 presentation of Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose marked the company debut of Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, was hailed as a feather in the Met’s Tyrolian cap.

But before we begin, I might as well get this off my chest: Strauss simply adored Mozart. So much so that he modeled two of his grandest operas, Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”) from 1919, after the sublime Austrian master.

We say “Austrian,” which is the somewhat imprecise English translation of Österreich, or “Eastern Empire.” However one interprets it, the citizens of Austria do speak German, which some might call a “dialect.” Indeed, the Austrian dialect resembles a kind of slangy, quirky Dutch. Not to offend anybody, but the sound of native Austrian mimics the slurred speech of someone who’s had too little sleep. You’ll know what I mean whenever you witness a European production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. Ach, du Lieber Gott! It’s similar in some respects to Cockney English, but I do digress.

Nevertheless, American English was the choice for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, why would composer Richard Strauss (no relation to the Johanns, father and son) pattern one of his operas after Mozart’s seriocomic Singspiel? Not only that, but Der Rosenkavalier shares an obvious affinity to The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte, Wolfie’s first and third collaboration with poet and jack-of-all-trades Lorenzo da Ponte.

The Magic of Mozart’s ‘Flute’

Pagageno (Joshua Hopkins) “philosophizes” about life to Pamina (Ying Fang) in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Speaking of which, the Met’s presentation of The Magic Flute was aired in one long, solitary act (to be precise, 100 minutes by the clock). Now, it’s been my experience that if you take young people to the opera, especially kids of a certain age group, they’re bound to get fidgety after a while. Having a break between acts is preferable and downright mandatory. Why the company continues to play this piece straight through is beyond me.

In the first place, it’s long enough at one act and twelve scenes to warrant an intermission. In the second, that’s a hell of a lot to absorb in one sitting. Giving kids and their parents a break, along with sufficient time to exchange ideas and ask questions during the interval, is ideal for enhancing their appreciation for Mozart and his music. For example, they can discuss the staging, the characters, the settings and costumes, the byplay between Papageno and Pamina, or the Three Ladies vs. the Three Spirits (in reality, three boy sopranos). How about asking them what they think will happen next? Make a game out it!

I’m especially dismayed (and have been, for a while now) over the gratuitous cuts to the spoken dialogue and especially to Mozart’s music. (Dude, where’s the overture?) And you thought Strauss was longwinded! Some of this expository discourse can be trimmed to acceptable lengths. What would be deemed acceptable? That all depends on the audience’s age. Add a few words here, cut a few words there — basically, keep things moving and within the limits of normal conversation. At least, make it long enough to get a feel for the plot and short enough for an understanding of the protagonists and their motivations.

About that story line, The Magic Flute was originally divided into two acts. The first act introduces the basic premise: that of a noble prince accompanied by a comical sidekick (the bird-catcher), who are both enlisted by a powerful queen to bring her kidnapped daughter back to her mother’s arms. The second act reveals that those who we thought were on the side of good turn out to be bad; and those who we thought were bad are indeed good.

Papageno is everybody’s favorite, an Everyman for every occasion. His only thoughts are to have a good time and find himself a Papagena to love and hold (“a sweetheart,” in his words). Prince Tamino, the fellow who stumbles onto the scene, is given a magic flute to aid him in his quest. The Queen of the Night, a relatively minor figure, has two fiendishly difficult airs (one slow that ends fast, and one that takes her to stratospheric heights).

Tamino’s counterpart is Pamina, the queen’s daughter. She, too, has some lovely solos and duets, albeit less showy than her mother’s. There’s the villainous Monostatos, who has (ahem) evil designs on the girl, along with those of his minions. On the opposing side, Sarastro the High Priest is an honorable sort, although he’s not painted as such at the outset. His music is of the solemn kind, which tends to ennoble his character. The Speaker is another upstanding citizen of the realm, with fairly judicious turns of his own in his encounter with Tamino.

Sarastro’s Masonic Temple in the finale to Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Have I confused you even more? Fear not! All will be well, thanks to Mozart’s sublime score and those wonderful characterizations that the composer’s old friend — producer, actor, librettist, some-time promoter, and all-around Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder — concocted for less discriminating Viennese audiences. And as if you didn’t know it, the telltale signs of Freemasonry are everywhere in this piece.

Too, the scenic elements in Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s colorful displays are wondrous to behold. Taymor herself, in an interview with soprano Deborah Voigt, pointed out the airiness of the production as a whole. She stressed the kite-like weightlessness of the puppets (i.e., birds, animals, random flying objects, and such). I, myself, have noticed her production’s kinship to Japanese theater — that is, in the inspired Kabuki-esque costume designs and effects, and the intricate, geometrically shaped sets.

With so many positives going for it, why am I disappointed in this Magic Flute? Mostly because of the feeling that audiences are not getting their full money’s worth. Listening to the separate arias, duets, and ensembles; marveling at Mozart’s spare accompaniments, offset by the loveliness of his melodies, I continue to be impressed by the sheer ingenuity he demonstrated in conveying the heightened emotions of his characters — all by the simplest of means.

For the past several seasons, the Met Opera has been giving this work in its present abridged form (at least, as a holiday radio broadcast). My suggestion would be to restore it to full splendor. Once and for all, let’s hear the magic in Mozart’s Flute as Mozart intended.

Cast-wise, all the performers contributed vitally to the proceedings, such as they were. As Tamino, tenor David Portillo (heard previously in supporting roles) did an outstanding job of managing the high tessitura of his part. His partner in “crime,” baritone Joshua Hopkins, was a spry, comically engaging Papageno who relished the bird-catcher’s every syllable. His Papagena was a spunky soprano named Ashley Emerson. The Three Ladies were taken by Gabriella Reyes, Megan Esther Grey and Renée Tatum, and coloratura Kathryn Lewek exuded fire and brimstone as a malevolent Queen of the Night.

The Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) vows vengeance to her daughter, Pamina (Ying Fang) in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

In contrast, soprano Ying Fang was a lyrically affecting, melancholy Pamina. Her chief tormentor, the blackamoor Monostatos, was sung by tenor Rodell Rosell. He was particularly amusing in his snarky asides to various characters. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi sang a characteristically model Speaker, as did bass Solomon Howard whose low tones and sumptuous speaking voice were most impressive. The two priests were Christopher Job and Scott Scully, and the two guards (who get to sing a proto-Bach chorale!) were portrayed by Arseny Yakovlev and Richard Bernstein.

Holding it all together and doing what he could with the leftovers, conductor Lothar Koenigs contributed to this festive occasion, helped immeasurably by the superb Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus. As in years past, this revival was supervised by executive stage director David Kneuss.

The Moment the Heart Speaks

After his two one-act shockers Salome and Elektra had made their ignominious debuts (to highly negative reaction), Strauss turned to the renowned poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and charged him to come up with a lavish, mid-eighteenth century entertainment that incorporated the decadent spirit, if not the letter, of Empress Maria Theresa’s Old World Vienna.

What Hofmannsthal delivered was a sentimental bedroom farce laced with sharp, critical observations of the aristocracy at play — more specifically, in the boorish behavior of the Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau. A randy, lecherous old fogey, Ochs (German for “ox”) plans an arranged marriage to the teenaged Sophie von Faninal, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant.

To seal the deal, he asks his highborn cousin, the middle-aged Marschallin, to appoint someone as his go-between, preferably a young knight who can deliver the traditional silver rose to Ochs’ betrothed as a prenuptial gift. The Marschallin suggests the young Count Octavian Rofrano (a “trouser” role for mezzo-soprano) as the gift bearer.

Baron Ochs (Guenther Groissboeck) flirts with “Mariandel” (Magdalena Kozena) in Act III of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Unbeknownst to the Baron, Octavian happens to be the Marschallin’s lover of the moment, an impetuous youth with a noble bearing and hair-trigger temperament. The Marschallin herself is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, the never seen Field Marshall (a recurring theme in several of Strauss’s work, for instance, in the characters of Agamemnon in Elektra and the Spirit God Keikobad from Die Frau ohne Schatten).

The plot, as the old saying goes, soon thickens with the sumptuous Act II “Presentation of the Rose” sequence. To evocative musical themes of champagne-sparkling delight, Octavian is received with much pomp and circumstance. As you might suspect, the flirtatious Sophie is in awe of the charming young nobleman. Octavian, on his best behavior, engages the girl in polite conversation. Little by little, the two young people fall in love — an awkward state of affairs, considering what comes next.

The lovebirds are interrupted by the arrival of Baron Ochs and Sophie’s father, Herr von Faninal. Ochs looks over the blushing bride as if she were a filly at a horse auction. Sophie is mortified, to say the least. Octavian is deeply angered, but composes himself enough to let this insult pass. Temporarily left on their own, the young couple swear to each other that Sophie will never marry the loutish Ochs.

They are caught in the act by the arrival of two so-called “spies,” the Italian intriguers Annina and Valzacchi — two remnants of commedia dell’arte in disguise. The spies blab what transpired to the Baron, who confronts the couple just as Octavian challenges him to a duel. A coward in real life, Ochs fakes being wounded by Octavian’s sword. His loud and over-exaggerated cries of “Murder!” bring von Faninal and his retainers to the rescue. Told to leave at once, Octavian exits in a huff, followed by the weeping bride-to-be. Despite her entreaties, Sophie’s father refuses to cancel the wedding.

This leaves the aching Baron (his arm wrapped in an improvised sling) to rest his weary frame in a huge armchair. Now comes the part that every Strauss lover longs for, i.e., the scene of an intoxicated Ochs waltzing about the room in time to the composer’s lilting, anachronistic score. Along with the trio and duet that conclude the opera (as well as the Italian Singer’s nonsensical song in Act I, a favorite of tenors from Pavarotti to Polenzani), this catchy theme in three-quarter time has attracted star performers from time immemorial.

The Italian Singer (Matthew Polenzani) looks suspiciously like Enrico Caruso in Act I of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

So what’s the motive behind the Baron’s miraculous recovery? He’s just received a note from the mysterious chamber maid “Mariandel” (in truth, Octavian in womanly disguise) inviting him to a secret rendezvous at an inn. That’s enough to cure any man’s ills! Hopping with joy about the stage, the Baron ends his revelry with a long-held low D (“Keine Nacht dir zu lang”), to much applause from the expectant audience.

In Act III, the characters’ world has turned upside-down. At the inn, Ochs meets the amorous “Mariandel,” who comes on to him just a little too strongly. But after innumerable interruptions and the last-minute appearance of Annina in disguise, accompanied by the Baron’s flock of “illegitimate children” shouting “Papa, Papa!” the situation gets out of control. It seems that Valzacchi and Annina have been working for Octavian on the side (it’s a matter of money, you see — or the lack of it). This, and other impediments, make for a longwinded winding-down of the over-complicated plot.

Once the wild, free-for-all shenanigans are over and done with — many of which will remind listeners of the goings-on in the Almaviva household in The Marriage of Figaro — matters start to settle down by themselves.

The ending, much favored by audiences and critics alike, involves the Marschallin’s acceptance of change in the face of advanced age and decorum. She realizes that her time has come, that she must give way to youth — more for her sake, if not for that of the young people in love. Her noble sacrifice is carried out to music of incredible depth and beauty. The contrast between the amorous Octavian and Sophie, billing and cooing on the sidelines, and the sacrifice of a mature Marschallin, will bring a tear to the eye and a lump to every audience member’s throat.

Cast Your Fate to the Winds

Octavian (Magdalena Kozena) presents the rose to Sophie (Golda Schultz) in Act II of ‘DerRosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Met’s lineup featured artists both new to their roles and those with experienced hands. As the brash knight Octavian, Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená handled the high tessitura handily, although her costume was ill-fitting and unflattering. Her stage deportment was anything but noble-born, however she brought liveliness and spirit to her portrayal, as well as a velvety mid-range and potent top.

As the spunky Sophie, South African soprano Golda Schultz (who’ll partake of the Met’s February 1st broadcast of Porgy and Bess) displayed copious charm and cheery temperament, along with melting pianissimos in Act II. Both Schultz and Kožená made beautiful music together (excuse the cliché!), which is what counts in a post-romantic work of this kind.

As the aging Marschallin, debuting Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund carried herself with dignity throughout (the Marschallin is missing in action during Act II). Her basically lyric tone tended to stridency toward the very top of her range; however, at full voice, she embodied wounded pride and womanly grace in her Act I scena. She easily rode over the heavy orchestration in Act III, bringing the crucial trio to an emotional and fitting climax.

The Marschallin (Camilla Nylund) tries to tell the amorous Octavian (Magdalena Kozena) the “facts” of aristocratic life in Act I of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, German basso Günther Groissböck, who made quite a splash in the company’s Ring cycle revival (as Fasolt and Hunding), repeated his slovenly portrayal of the boorish Baron Ochs. In this production, Ochs is depicted as a younger man, full of cheek and bravado, and full-on male privilege (the opera is set before the First World War). He hit all his marks and remembered every word of his part, a major accomplishment in itself (my goodness, there are SO MANY words…). He did lack power in the lowest notes, but, then again, who today could cope with the Baron’s tessitura?

Tenor Matthew Polenzani took the cameo role of the Italian Singer. Intriguingly, he was made up to resemble the great Enrico Caruso, which fit the time period in question to a “T.” Barring a bit of strain at the top of his range, Polenzani relished this brief but telling assignment.

Another debutant, German baritone Markus Eiche, was a full-toned, vigorously imposing von Faninal. As the Italian spies Valzacchi and Annina, tenor Thomas Ebenstein and mezzo Katherine Goeldner acquitted themselves ably, each establishing an individualized portrait amid the chaos surrounding them. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco excelled in the role of Marianne, Sophie’s duenna, and veteran bass-baritone James Courtney celebrated his 40th anniversary season with the company with his argumentative Notary.

Sir Simon Rattle, an infrequent visitor to the Met (we last heard him in the 2017 revival of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) set the pace. I noted that the playing was considerably looser than it had been under James Levine’s leadership. Rattle, unlike Leonard Bernstein’s mannered way with this score, kept the orchestral line flowing, which was all to the good. In sum, he knows his way around this piece, and the Met players delivered for him in spades.

Strauss was never again to attain such heights as an opera composer. Although, in this author’s view, his other Mozartian homage, the gargantuan Die Frau ohne Schatten, is more befitting of the honor of being his best work, Der Rosenkavalier has never lost its popularity with the public.

My only problem with the opera is its length. As I wrote in prior entries about the composer’s annoying habit of setting every word of Hofmannsthal’s text to music (including, according to operatic lore, the stage directions!), this unwieldy opus is talky, talky, talky. Mind you, there’s a fine line between talky and worthwhile. Even Herr Mozart knew this. Yet, Strauss crosses that line repeatedly and at every opportunity, which bogs this work down when you want it to soar.

Listen to the Noise

The Captain (Gerhard Siegel) berates the solder Wozzeck (Peter Mattei) for his immoral lifestyle in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The highly touted new production of Berg’s Wozzeck was given a first-class reading in the orchestra pit by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. For the history and background of this modern-day opus, see the following links: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met/) and https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met-conclusion/).

South African artist and film director William Kentridge set the story of the feeble-minded soldier Wozzeck in the same World War I period as Robert Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier production. This made for a striking disparity between these two pieces.

The post-romantic Rosenkavalier, which premiered before the outbreak of war, emphasized nostalgia for the past and a yearning for the way things were. In contrast, Wozzeck recounted the tragic outcome of that conflict, which left a war-torn European continent in ruins. The shattered lives it left behind and the psychological damage that war inflicted on its survivors were of prime concern to a weary veteran named Alban Berg. His opera’s 1925 premiere in Berlin took place only six years after the First World War’s end, and 14 years after Der Rosenkavalier’s unveiling.

William Kentridge’s production of ‘Wozzeck’ with Peter Mattei as the title character (Photo: Met Opera)

Before Wozzeck started to wind its way into the standard repertoire, critics and operagoers were aghast at its jangled scoring and unlikable characters. Not that artists such as Igor Stravinsky or Richard Strauss himself hadn’t startled European audiences with their audacious sounds. In Stravinsky’s case, he rattled everyone’ cages with the highly propulsive The Rite of Spring (1913). Seven years earlier, Strauss, too, turned many heads with the boldness of his heretical Salome (1906) — a work the young Berg praised to high heaven.

Today, our more (shall we say) “enlightened” ears, attuned after five or more decades to countless movie and television scores from the likes of Hans Zimmer, Ramin Djawadi, Jóhan Jóhannsson, Mac Quayle, and a host of others, can fully appreciate Berg’s dissonant efforts in ways the Austrian-born composer could never have imagined.

Kentridge’s production, which resembled his previous work for the Met stage (in particular, Dimitri Shostakovich’s The Nose and his 2015 staging of Berg’s last opera Lulu), emphasized clutter over clarity. Pen-and-ink drawings, illustrations, film animation, moving props, staircases and catwalks in odd places, people wearing gas masks, and, the worst offense of all, substituting a bunraku puppet for Marie’s child, did little to clarify the opera’s underlying themes of emotional isolation and dehumanization.

An Expressionistic nightmare, Mr. Kentridge might have sent a more meaningful message if he had placed the story, say, at a military base in Iraq, or dealt with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder run rampant among returning GI’s.

Fortunately, a first-rate cast helped to enliven the drama, which, on the radio, was all that mattered. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei shined as the titular protagonist. His complete disintegration into a ranting, hysterical beast convinced listeners that a human wrecking ball could engage their sympathies. He maintained a smooth vocal line throughout the ordeal.

Mattei was effectively partnered by South African soprano Elza van den Heever as his slatternly spouse Marie. Her tone was less pleasing to the ear than prior singers in this part (there’s a great deal of “song speech” in addition to outright “singing”), but her acting flair dominated the action. Van den Heever’s poignant Bible-reading to her puppet offspring, while tenderly uttered, missed that all-important connection due to the lack of a real-life child to play off of.

Marie (Elza van den Heever) salutes her little child in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’ (Photo: Met Opera)

As the reproachful Captain, veteran tenor Gerhard Siegel was overpowering in voice and presence. His years of warbling Wagner’s Mime in Siegfried helped tremendously in creating a vile yet recognizably human antagonist. The mellow-voiced bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, last year’s Devil in Boito’s Mefistofele, while slightly underpowered compared to his colleague Siegel, held his own as the malevolent Doctor.

British heroic tenor Christopher Ventris proved his worth as Wozzeck’s oppressor, the prancing Drum Major, whose illicit affair with the accommodating Marie leads to Wozzeck’s unraveling. And debuting tenor Andrew Staples drew a supportive portrait of Andres, Wozzeck’s barracks mate.

Others in the cast were mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, bass David Crawford and tenor Myles Mykkanen as Apprentices, Brenton Ryan as a Fool, Daniel Clark Smith as a Soldier, and Gregory Warren as a Townsman.

As indicated above, Maestro Nézet-Séguin was the driving force behind this new production. His virtuosity was unquestioned, and the Met musicians responded in kind. That’s saying a lot for a noisy, purportedly unlistenable work.

It’s taken almost a century for audiences to finally listen to Wozzeck. Better late than never!

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Saw Them Standing There’ — How the Fab Four Pleased, Pleased a Budding Fan Like Me

Paul McCartney (R.) shows his guitar to Ed Sullivan before the Beatles’ live television appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in New York City, Feb. 9, 1964. In the center are, John Lennon (L.) and Ringo Starr, partial view. (Photo: Associated Press)

Storm Clouds a-Comin’

Ah, to be young again and relive those treasured moments from one’s past!

One such moment — indeed, one of the more pleasurable experiences I can recall from my youth growing up in the Soundview section of the Bronx — was the first time I laid eyes on the Beatles, live and in the comfort of our parents’ living room.

That took place, of course, on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show on the CBS Television Network. The performance was broadcast “coast to coast” on February 9, 1964, not three months after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, another of those life-altering events that, frankly speaking, was not so pleasant. When the nation needed a lift, however, the Beatles’ initial U.S. tour did exactly that.

My family and I also bore witness to the Mop Tops’ mammoth Shea Stadium concert, broadcast live as well on August 15, 1965. If the Beatles could impress my Portuguese-speaking, Brazilian-born parents, then their future in our home was secure. No doubt the gathering storm had turned into a veritable tornado.

By that time, the Fab Four’s music and exuberant personalities had exploded across the globe and onto every continent — even in Brazil, the country of my birth, where the group’s recorded output went on to make an immediate and enduring impact. Not only was their sound a fixture in every record shop, but in the way people dressed, in the way they wore their hair, the way they talked, the way they walked, and especially how their music was played.

How could that be? The Beatles didn’t sing their tunes in Brazilian Portuguese but in the Queen’s English. Back in the group’s Hamburg days, when German-language versions of their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were all the rage, the boys used to feature the Mexican pop ballad “Besame Mucho” (“Kiss Me A Lot”) as part of their act. Paul even got to record the number in June 1962 during the band’s ill-fated relationship with Decca records. It also turned up in their later January 1969 “Get Back” sessions (released on Beatles Anthology 1 in 1995) and as part of the Let It Be film.

In spite of this backdrop, many Brazilian and/or Argentine artists, including (but not limited to) Roberto Carlos, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, the Beat Boys, Erasmo Carlos, Milton Nascimento and others, took the Lads from Liverpool as their guiding lights.

A notable example of the above was a young performer named Ronnie Von (born Ronaldo Nogueira), a 23-year-old singer-turned-actor who, in 1966, introduced the Beatle’s Dylanesque “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” on Agnaldo Rayol’s TV show, then a year later sang John Lennon’s “Girl” on the live Sunday afternoon program Jovem Guarda (“The Young Guard”). The song was translated into Portuguese and retitled “Meu Bem” (“My Beloved”) for the Brazilian market.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t Von’s wisp of a singing voice that served as the main attraction, but his oh-so-bashful looks that seemed to “mow the crowd down,” so to speak. The dreamboat Ronnie would shyly croon the number with forelock hanging precariously over one side of his face. He barely managed to get the lyrics out (in truth, he edged ever closer to incoherence), which endeared him even more to the female members of the audience.

The artist known as Ronnie Von (aka Ronaldo Nogueira) ca. the mid-1960s

It was obvious from this milestone performance that Ronnie Von had connected with Brazilian youth by virtue of the Beatle’s music. And it seemed equally evident that the British invasion had hit South American shores about as hard as it did the North American variety.

So when and how did their music and reputation affect me personally?

Public School Daze

I was all of 11 or 12 years of age and living in the Bronx when Beatlemania had been on the scene for several seasons. What I heard on the radio, and from what most of the kids at school had told me, was that the group’s tunes had become the Number One pop hits in the land. Soon afterward, one of those hits had smacked me right between the eyes (and in the pit of my stomach) at, of all places, our public school’s auditorium.

Yes, that’s correct, at Public School 77 in the South Central Bronx, located on East 172 Street between Ward and Manor Avenues. My family had already taken up residence at nearby Stratford Avenue, about a two or three block walk from the school.

As near as I can remember, P.S. 77 had what was known as “assembly day,” which normally occurred every Friday morning (at least, that’s when our school held it). On those days, all the school kids had to be dressed in white shirts or blouses, blue pants and skirts, and red ties or kerchiefs. (Note the colors, symbolic of the American flag). That was a requirement — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you forgot to bring your tie, one of the teachers would pull out a clip-on from his or her desk. If you failed to wear a white shirt or blouse (or blue pants and skirt), you were sent home with a note to your parents which stipulated, in no uncertain terms, that you could not return to class until you were properly dressed. Try doing THAT today!

I was in the sixth grade at that point, so this particular assembly day must have taken place sometime between the months of September 1965 and June 1966. I don’t believe it happened in the fall, but it wasn’t in the winter either (I have no recollection of having to wear a coat to school that day). So I’ll take a wild guess and say the assembly in question must have occurred around the spring of 1966.

In prior assemblies, we students were privileged to have seen a number of programs: from puppet shows (I remember a colorful presentation of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale), a chamber orchestra, magicians, and short educational or animated features (of the “Don’t Do This or You’ll Be Sorry” type) showing the hazards of smoking or playing with matches, along with public service announcements about hurricanes and such — something we hardly ever experienced in the Bronx, at least not at that time.

On that specific assembly day, we were treated to a talent show. Kids from some of the lower and upper grades performed their acts on the school’s stage. My memory is a bit fuzzy as to what the majority of students did that day. However, one group REALLY got my attention, and the attention of everyone present.

Three boys roughly my age, from either the fifth or sixth grade (neither of them were in my class, by the way), took it upon themselves to form a singing group. The tallest of the boys, Ronald Naso (we called him Ronnie), stood in the middle and played an acoustic guitar. The other two boys, Joseph Pavone and David Diaz, flanked Ronnie on either side. After a brief pause, Ronnie looked about and started strumming the guitar as all three boys chimed in at once:

     Last night I said these words to my girl

     I know you never even try girl

     Come on (come on), come on (come on)

     Come on (come on), come on (come on)

     Please, please me, whoa yeah, like I please you

It was the Beatles’ “Please, Please Me,” from the group’s first UK album of the same name (the song was released as a single in both the U.S. and the UK in early 1963). Reliving that moment in my mind’s eye, I am unable to recollect, for the life of me, what exactly went through my head. Surprise, I suppose, or maybe shock. Quite feasibly, I might have been stunned beyond belief. A fleeting lapse of consciousness took hold, and of numbness — about as apt a description as any.

But saying I was oblivious to the event, as it was happening in front of me, isn’t quite accurate, either. All of us, including our teachers, had no idea what to expect. I don’t want to belabor the point and state the obvious; that is, to spew forth tiresome clichés about how the three boys had wowed the student audience (which they did — girls screaming, lots of yelling, vigorous cheers and applause).

I couldn’t begin to capture the exuberance if I tried, or the sense of excitement and discovery we collectively experienced concerning what we had heard. It must have been a magical moment, otherwise I would have wiped it from my memory. After it was over, there was chatter galore from the student audience as to who they liked the most. And, best of all, their names — Ronnie, Joseph and David — started circulating among the crowd. Within a day, the youngsters had turned into celebrities.

As I write this, I’m struggling to decipher what made these boys stand out from the other so-called talents. It might have been the simple fact that each of them bore a passing resemblance to the Fab Four. Yes, that must be it! As a matter of fact, dark-eyed Ronnie was a dead ringer for hazel-eyed Paul (tousled hair over his forehead and all); blue-eyed Joseph actually “looked” like bashful George (except for his short haircut); and hook-nosed David could easily have passed for a hook-nosed John (despite David’s dirty-blond locks).

A group portrait of the Beatles, straightening their ties, backstage at the Odeon Cinema in Luton on Sept. 6th, 1963. (L-R) Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon. (Photo: Tom Hanley/Redferns)

Was it my imagination? Had I subconsciously associated their physical aspects with my burgeoning affection for the Beatles and their tunes? I really couldn’t say. Well, then, how did they sound? Did the tone and timbre of their voices add or detract from the image I had inadvertently formed in my head?

Here’s the answer: Ronnie, Joseph and David excelled in three-part harmony, and, to tell you the truth, all three of them sang in tune. They did take the number a beat or two slower than the original, but considering the ad hoc nature of the circumstances they made “Please, Please Me” succeed in their favor. Like the title of that 1965 Beatles’ hit, they had worked it out.

But hold on a minute! Where was “Ringo”? I couldn’t help noticing that the trio needed a fourth member to complete the picture. If their idea was to mimic the Fab Four, the boys had come up short. I began to imagine that I could be the one to fill the drummer’s shoes (I don’t know WHY I thought that, since I couldn’t play the drum to save my life). All I remember was seeing myself joining the boys on stage and singing along with this terrific trio. By doing so, I could (hopefully) transform this motley crew into that fabulous foursome.

Fat chance of that happening! For one, I was much too shy at the time and much too self-conscious about getting up on a stage and warbling my amateurish way into a song — any song! “Please, Please Me,” my butt! For another, there was no way I would have had the chutzpah to do what those brave public-school lads had done. Kudos to them for trying, though. They had more courage than I could ever muster.

Beatlemania or Bust!

It was shortly after this occurrence that I sent away for a Beatles songbook. I must have torn apart that songbook every which way. Along with the lyrics and sheet music to all their hits (up to and including the year 1965, if I’m not mistaken), the songbook was filled to the brim with photos and mementos of the Mop Tops’ concerts — in other words, a Beatlemaniac’s dream! I even started wearing my hair long in a Beatle-like manner. Well, if you can’t join them, be them!

Between 1965 and 1967, my obsession with the Beatles peaked with the television debut of a syndicated cartoon series on ABC: The Beatles half-hour TV program solidified my love for their music, with each of the two individual segments devoted to one of the group’s songs. I owe my knowledge of their song lyrics to this Saturday morning showcase and to my trusty songbook. But my fandom did not end there.

There was one winter when I begged my mother to buy a purple Navy CPO jacket, just like the one the Beatles used to wear in their Sgt. Pepper period. It was a hideous thing, made of heavy wool with rows of brass buttons and shoulder epaulets. It was hot as hell, too. I wore it once to school and even tried dancing in it, sweating profusely with every arm movement (somehow, I survived the ordeal). Along with the CPO jacket came a matching 1960s long-sleeved blue shirt with super-wide collar and bright-yellow polka dots. Trashy and kitsch, it too was a one-shot deal. Both articles of clothing hung in my closet for years before mom convinced me to toss them out (oh, the pain).

So much for Mod fashions from Carnaby Street!

The Beatles Songbook – circa 1964-1965

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

As these stories tend to go, a short time later Ronnie and Joseph found their way to one of my classes. Coincidentally, we all wound up going to the same junior high school (or middle school, as they’re called in some regions): to be precise, James M. Kieran Junior High School 123.

While at Kieran, I got to know both of them quite well. Ronald Naso lived a few blocks from the school, and we would often get together afterwards to play touch football. We’d chat about the latest James Bond flick and, of course, the Beatles. Instead of practicing how to conjugate the verb “to be” in French class, Ronnie and I would bounce song lyrics off one another, for instance, from John Lennon’s heartfelt “If I Fell in Love With You.”

Joseph Pavone and I went on to attend James Monroe High School (no longer in existence). Joe even went to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I, too, had graduated from. I never did get to know David Diaz, though, since he must have moved out from our old neighborhood some years before.

Needless to say, neither Joseph Pavone nor Ronald Naso (nor I, for that matter) developed into a performing artist of any renown. Years later, I ran into Ronnie at an outdoor basketball court. He had grown bigger, and had also filled out some. I did manage to keep in touch with Joe for a while after graduation from Fordham. Last I heard, he was working for the Metro North rail system. They both must be retired by now, David included.

The Beatles’ Brazilian influence continued, however. In 1969, pop singer Milton Nascimento, along with lyricist and friend Fernando Brant and the brothers Marcio and Lô Borges, wrote an offbeat number dedicated to John and Paul. They called it “Para Lennon e McCartney” (“To Lennon and McCartney”).

The song is in the form of a “challenge” to the British duo, sort of a question and answer session where Milton attempts to “educate” both Lennon and McCartney about what’s going on in the world (a few years before Marvin Gaye’s attempt). That he, Milton, is a native of South America, from the State of Minas Gerais. So why are they not familiar with the problems relating to the West? Why do they feign ignorance of Third World issues, their being from the First World? Their visibility as artists should place them in the unique position of addressing social injustice. Still, they have nothing to fear from him, Milton assures them, for he’s also one of their own.

The high literary quotient and elevated quality of the lyrics make “Para Lennon e McCartney” one of Milton, Brant and Borges’ most memorable song structures.

More recently, in January 2008 (and for several years thereafter) the Rio-based musical theater team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho brought to life a song-filled spectacular in honor of the Fab Four. They called their revue “Beatles in the Sky With Diamonds.” With a cast of 11 singing actors, accompanied by piano, cello and percussion, Charles and Claudio led audiences through a magical mystery tour of the group’s output, to include “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Help!”, “Get Back,” “Because,” and various other novelties.

Ronnie Von today, at age 75, still singing and performing

Which brings me back to present-day matters. Whatever became of the so-called “Brazilian Beatle,” Ronnie Von? He’s still alive and kicking! Currently at age 75, Ronnie Von had been a fixture at São Paulo-based TV Gazeta since 2004 as a singer-host and presenter. Unfortunately, Ronnie was fired last July 2019 by the station due to budget cuts and alleged low ratings, but vowed to come back to live television. Supposedly, within hours of the announcement of his firing, Von received a proposal for a new show to debut in 2020.

In the wise words of the Lads from Liverpool:

     Any time at all

     Any time at all

     Any time at all

     All you gotta do is call

     And I’ll be there!

Beatlemania dies slowly.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’: The ‘Ideal Couple’ and Their Path to Destruction

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) & Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) have done the bloody deed in Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Rise and Rise Again, Then Fall Caesar!

Has there ever been a viler, more compelling, or more self-destructive pair than Lady Macbeth and her warlike mate, Macbeth? Indeed, has there ever been an opera more worthy of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of political intrigue, immorality, and wanton destruction and murder; of the inevitability of fate stretched to the limits of human endurance?

What powerful forces possessed composer Giuseppe Verdi to take on such a distasteful subject? And what poet, in his right mind, would indulge the Bear of Busseto’s thoughts on the matter? Truly, Verdi must have been out of his cotton-picking mind. What was he thinking? No love duet, no romantic tenor lead? No sympathetic soprano heroine or fatherly baritone to soothe the soul? It was downright absurd, but onward he plowed.

Having slaved through the so-called “galley years,” wherein Verdi composed, in rapid succession, one dutiful operatic work after another (e.g., I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco, Alzira, Attila, I Masnadieri, Il Corsaro, La Battaglia di Legnano, Luisa Miller, Stiffelio), all within a span of six years (1844 to 1850), at the exact midpoint the famed Italian master decided on something completely different.

He asked Francesco Maria Piave, his go-to-librettist at the time, to prepare an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (or Macbetto in Italian) for local consumption. That was in 1846. To think that a foreign-born musician could do justice to one of English literature’s most revered poet-playwrights must have seemed an insurmountable task. To do so at this stage in Verdi’s career was doubly challenging. Yet, surprisingly, the opera received a favorable response at its March 14, 1847 premiere in Florence, but quickly faded from view. Too high-minded, too cerebral, no one to root for, and too “out there” for the average opera-lover to grab hold of.

Macbeth (Lucic) tells his Lady (Netrebko) about the witches’ prophecy in Act I of ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Disappointed that his efforts were underappreciated, Verdi held a special place in his heart for the misunderstood Macbeth. So much so that, eighteen years later, he revised the opera for the Théâtre Lyrique of Paris. That was in 1865, the same year that Wagner introduced his unsuccessful reworking of Tannhäuser. Comparably, this later revision of Macbeth has stood the test of time, and is the one we regularly hear in performance — including at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-recorded Saturday afternoon broadcast of December 21, 2019 (the performance itself took place on September 25).

The plot, as any high school student will tell you, is straight out of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you are unconvinced of this claim, take a look at what happens to our anti-hero Macbeth. At the start, he rides in with fellow comrade in arms, Banquo (or Banco). They stop before a group of witches (of the cackling, kettle-stirring variety) who inform him, in a prophecy, that he will inherit the Kingdom of Scotland, after two other titles. Mind you, he’s not the only soldier to be favored with their visions: Banquo will never be king, but he will father many kings. Both men are confounded by the news.

After several of the events come to pass, Macbeth realizes that part of the witches’ prophecies have indeed been fulfilled. But what of Banquo and his path to father a coterie of kings? He sends a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who subsequently beseeches her husband to strike down Duncan, the current King of the Scots, when his Royal Highness pays a visit to their castle. There, the dirty deed is done. Then, acting on impulse and goaded by his ruthless wife, Macbeth has Banquo killed, but the assassins fail to capture his young son.

Banquo (Ildar Abdrazakov) mulls over what the witches have told him (Photo: Met Opera)

As events continue to spiral out of control, Macbeth, at a banquet held in his honor, is nearly frightened to death by the bloody vision of Banquo’s ghost (an incident straight out of Hamlet). Macbeth’s Lady tells her husband to get a grip on himself, but Macbeth can hardly keep it together. In the midst of all the mayhem, listeners can pick out frequent echoes of operatic numbers to come, especially the early hints of Rigoletto in the assassins’ chorus and of Iago’s Brindisi from Otello in Lady Macbeth’s drinking song, along with her aria “La luce langue” (“The light fades”) from the 1865 revision and its similarity to Elisabeth’s sorrowful “Tu che le vanità” from Don Carlos.

Moving on to the witches’ coven, Macbeth demands to know more. They immediately oblige him by conjuring up three apparitions, each one with a hair-raising tale to tell: a helmeted warrior warns him to beware of Macduff; a bloody child insists that no man born of woman can harm him; and a crowned child claims he will be invincible as long as Birnam Wood does not move. “Hah! How can a forest move?” questions Macbeth assuredly.

Feeling better about his chances for long-term survival, Macbeth presses the hags for more answers: What can they tell him about Banquo’s ancestors? One by one, Banquo’s descendants materialize, a long line of them! When Banquo himself rises before him, Macbeth draws his sword, but is unable to dispel the image. The witches tell him that Banquo’s descendants will live a prolonged life, which makes Macbeth fall over in a faint.

His queen now enters. The two conspirators plot to kill anyone who gets in the way of their ambition, especially Banquo’s missing son. In the meantime, Scottish refugees have gathered to mourn the loss of their loved ones. It seems the murderous Macbeth and his army have ravaged the countryside, killing everyone in their path. Macduff enters to convey the tragic loss of his wife and children (in the heartfelt aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”). Malcolm, Duncan’s surviving offspring and heir to the Scottish throne, leads Macduff and their combined forces in a rallying cry against the brutal tyrant.

Just before the end, Lady Macbeth is spotted wandering the night in guilty remorse. She is met by the doctor and a lady-in-waiting. They note that her eyes are wide open, but she cannot perceive their presence. One of Verdi’s most ingenious episodes — a mad scene in all but name only —  the famous “Sleeping Walking” sequence accurately mirrors the line “Out, damned spot,” from the play. Ending on a high D, which plunges down an octave, Lady Macbeth exits the opera. Only minutes later, when Macbeth is informed of her untimely death, he can only mutter to himself about the futility of life, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The famous “Sleep Walking” scene, as Lady Macbeth (Netrebko) is ministered to by the lady-in-waiting (Photo: Met Opera)

Macduff advances with his army. They and Malcolm have deliberately cut the branches off Birnam Wood to hide their mass movements. Macbeth, seeing the moving forest before him (brilliantly captured by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in his classic Throne of Blood), knows his time is up. Meeting Macduff head on, he challenges all comers. But when Macbeth boasts of his invulnerability, he’s in for the shock of his life as Macduff reveals he was not of woman born, but instead was ripped from the womb. With that, Macduff slays the miscreant Macbeth and the opera ends with one of those rip-roaring Verdian choruses.

It’s Good to be the King — Not!

All right. So we’ve proven to readers the Game of Thrones connection. Now what? Well, don’t let that deter you from enjoying this spectacular one-of-a-kind theater piece! The opera Macbeth is quite an extraordinary achievement, full of memorable tunes and forceful scenarios, not to mention two solid starring roles for baritone and soprano. Verdi’s genius for capturing la parola scenica (“the scenic word”) is evident in almost every bar. More importantly, his 1865 revision vastly improved the work’s viability for the operatic stage.

The Met forces revived the Adrian Noble production, first seen in 2007, for Plácido Domingo and Anna Netrebko as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, respectively. Unfortunately, Sr. Domingo was forced to cancel his contract with the company due to mounting accusations of sexual misconduct with women colleagues. His replacement, the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, lived up to expectations. He was favorably partnered by Russian soprano Netrebko. You will note that both artists previously appeared together in October 2014. Curiously, that performance was also a taped re-broadcast, heard on February 7, 2015. Hmm, is the Met trying to tell us something? That tape is better than live? Not sure about that.

I seem to recall a broadcast Macbeth, years ago, where an elderly patron committed suicide by jumping off one of the upper tiers and into the orchestra pit. An odd turn of events, that was. Any reasonably knowledgeable theater-goer will tell you that to speak the name “Macbeth” at a performance — indeed, any performance — is a disaster in the making. Despite that accursed backdrop, “he who shall not be named” has brought much enjoyment to the operatic stage.

Banquo’s Ghost scares the Beejesus out of Macbeth (Lucic) & his Lady (Netrebko) (Photo: Met Opera)

Past exponents of the two lead roles consist of a veritable who’s who of performing artists. Among the talents involved, one may cite Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Maria Guleghina, Ghena Dmitrova, and Andrea Gruber as Lady Macbeth, with Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Cornell MacNeil, Giuseppe Taddei, Sherrill Milnes, Piero Cappuccilli, Leo Nucci, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Renato Bruson as Macbeth.

Great maestros have also been drawn to its musical and dramatic challenges (in all probability, Macbeth can be safely deemed a “conductor’s opera”). From the likes of Karl Böhm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, Lamberto Gardelli, and Claudio Abbado, to Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Fabio Luisi, and many others, Verdi’s music is both satisfying and appropriate to its source. Love it or leave it, Macbeth is a most unconventional adaptation of an existing stage work.

While the strictly minor roles of Macduff and Banquo are limited in scope, each has some poignant moments to share with listeners. Brief turns by tenors Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, Bruno Prevedi, and Joseph Calleja, have brought their talents to bear on Macduff’s powerful air. And the recorded Banquo’s, while not at all legion, have enjoyed voicing the melancholy “Come dal ciel precipita.” Basses Jerome Hines, Ruggero Raimondi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Giorgio Tozzi, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and Samuel Ramey have plotted to spoil our ears with their mellifluous outpourings.

At the December 21 radio broadcast, Marco Armiliato conducted the Met Opera Orchestra, with Donald Palumbo in charge of the Met Chorus. Sets and costume designs were the work of Mark Thompson, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. There’s even a credited fight director, Joe Isenberg, as well as a stage band conductor, Bradley Moore. The Met left nothing to chance.

Lady’s Days and Nights

All eyes and ears were focused on Anna Netrebko’s Lady, all decked out in blonde tresses and silver negligee. You can tell this was going to be another of those “modern day” stagings. Fortunately for us, this aspect happened to work in the opera’s favor. Somehow, the politics of our day crisscrossed perfectly with what transpired on the Met stage.

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) shows off her highs and lows (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth has grown in size since 2014, and her acting has matured to the point where she was able to transform herself into the scheming mistress of the castle. Her potent vocal actions, too, have expanded by leaps and bounds, to fully encompass the wide range of colors and surges that Verdi foisted on this malevolent personality. Along with her richly-hued highs, Netrebko’s low notes were to die for. There may be a second career for the Russian diva as a mighty mezzo. Only time will tell.

That Verdi expended so much time and energy on this character is made clear in his voluminous correspondence with his librettist Piave. Verdi saw, as others had, that Lady Macbeth was the chief motivator of her husband’s actions. Though not the titular attraction of the play or the opera, she was the driving force behind the drama just the same. Verdi became obsessed with her persona and the psychological motivations inherent in her actions — and aren’t we glad he did.

As he had with the earlier Abigaille, the adopted daughter of Nabucco (his first great success), Verdi emphasized the Lady’s wildness and plotting by writing the most exacting music imaginable. He avoided any kind of tenderness between her and her husband Macbeth in exchange for character development. Both protagonists grow as the story unfolds; that their lives are intertwined with the requirements of the plot is high praise indeed. Verdi stayed true to Shakespeare’s original, which is saying a lot for the composer’s theatrical instincts.

As her guilt-ridden mate, Željko Lučić also shone in the verbal tensions he brought to his scenes. His prior experience in the part lent this nearly last-minute assignment legitimacy. Although he has a habit of straying from the pitch and turning most phrases sharp or angular the higher up he went (with a minimum of vibrato), Lučić’s potent vocalism was pleasing, for the most part. He refused to make a meal out of the moody Macbeth’s unraveling, something not all baritones are prone to doing. I’ve heard many a so-called “star” buckle under the demands of this part. Luckily for us, Željko was not one of them.

Matthew Polenzani sang the short but crucial contributions of Macduff, his role debut. He, too, brought his distinctive style to bear on that doleful third act piece. Long-limned phrases and bel canto accents were bountiful and pure. Throughout the years, Polenzani has brought much pleasure to his growing fan base (yours truly included). His lovely turn as Nadir in the Met’s The Pearl Fishers a few years back was a marvel to hear. Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov brought a regal bearing and his singular timbre and enunciation to Banquo. I found him luxuriating in the role’s highest reaches (which sometimes went astray, by the way), while his low notes got lost in the vast Met auditorium (through no fault of his own, we assure you).

Macduff (Matthew Polenzani) bemoans the loss of his family in Act III of ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who I’ve heard on several occasions in the past (as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Ruggiero in Puccini’s La Rondine), seemed luxury casting in the brief exposure that Malcolm has. At times, his singing can be a hit-or-miss affair, but Filianoti stayed within the confines of what little music was allotted him. Of course, the Met Chorus outdid themselves in the opera’s moving Act IV sequence, “Patria oppressa!” (“Oppressed country!”), as sorrowful a choral statement as any that Verdi wrote and comparable, to some extent, to his earlier “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco.

Other contributions were brought to you by Bradley Garvin as a servant, Sarah Cambridge as a lady-in-waiting, Richard Bernstein as an assassin, Christopher Job as a warrior, Meigui Zhang as the bloody child, Karen Chia-Ling Ho as the crowned child, Yohan Yi as the herald, Harold Wilson as the doctor, and actors Raymond Renault and Misha Grossman as Duncan and Fleance, respectively.

The production itself was prevailingly dour and bleak (as befit the plot), with a gray-and-black color scheme and mirrored floors and paneling predominating throughout. What of the conductor? Maestro Marco Armiliato, an experienced hand in this and other Verdi works, kept things moving well enough, although I missed some of the striking brass utterings that the composer sprinkled about as part of the orchestration. The Met seems to do right by Verdi. May it always be so.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Queen of Spades’: Unlucky in Love, Lucky in Cards — Tchaikovsky Returns to the Met

Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the Met Opera (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Dark Times Ahead (and Then Some!)

It’s been nearly a decade since the Metropolitan Opera staged Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera The Queen of Spades (or Pikavaya Dama in Russian, a literal translation from the French Pique Dame). The lavish Elijah Moshinsky production was first unveiled in 1995 and has served as the house debut of Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky along with the return of legendary diva Leonie Rysanek.

A plot straight out of Alexander Pushkin, this bold work, with a libretto by the composer’s brother Modest, proved to be a darker, bleaker story from the Russian poet’s pen, one that Tchaikovsky took to with abandon. His earlier Pushkin effort, Eugene Onegin, was more of a drawing-room drama about a girl’s coming of age. In The Queen of Spades, the crux of the matter involves a young man’s mad gambling habit.

The opera went on to premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 7, 1890 (coincidentally, the main setting for the work). Its initial Moscow performance took place almost a year later at the famed Bolshoi Opera, while New York saw it two decades after.

The Russians have always had a soft spot for somber tales involving characters on the edge of mental breakdowns. Certainly the opera’s chief protagonist, a minor officer named Hermann (sometimes written as Ghermann), is the proverbial odd-man out, an obsessive-compulsive individual whose warped thoughts about improving his lot in life have turned to marriage with the impressionable Lisa, a girl clearly above his social station. To compensate, Hermann tries to learn the secret of a game of chance — a deep, dark mystery that only Lisa’s grandmother, the elderly Countess (the literal “Queen of Spades” of the title), has intimate details of.

Venturing forth at night, his secret visitation to the Countess’ bedchamber leads to the old lady’s death. Later, in a dream sequence in Hermann’s quarters, the Countess’ ghost appears to him and divulges the secret of the “three cards” (or tri cartii): three, seven, ace. Thinking that his luck is about to change, the now-emboldened Hermann sets off to win not only the card game but Lisa’s hand in marriage. But money doesn’t always talk, especially in these circumstances. In fact, little does the crazed officer realize that vengeance awaits him at the gaming table.

The Old Countess (Larissa Diadkova) is startled by an unexpected visitor (Yusif Eyvazov) in Act II of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Complicating Hermann’s plans is the fact that the eligible Prince Yeletsky has asked Lisa to marry him as well. Of course, Lisa has no interest in the handsome prince, even if he would make a fine catch. For her part, Lisa has fallen hopelessly in love with Hermann, much to her later demise. Hermann’s problem is his all-out obsession with winning at cards. At the end of her rope, Lisa throws herself into the Neva River, while Hermann is thwarted in the game by drawing a losing hand: three, seven … and the Queen of Spades!

When the Countess’ ghost reappears to him at the last, he stabs himself in the heart. Asking Prince Yeletsky to forgive his many trespasses, Hermann expires with Lisa’s image on his lips: “My angel, my beauty, my goddess.”

Whew! Did somebody say, “Russian tragedy”? Tchaikovsky’s compatriot, fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev, tackled a similar subject with his four-act opera The Gambler, based on a Dostoyevsky story. In that work, the lead character Alexei is left alone at the end when the love of his life, Polina, tosses his winnings in his face.

Ah, love! So difficult to attain, so easily lost.

Casting from Strength and Language

The December 14, 2019 broadcast, the second in the new Metropolitan Opera radio season, must be deemed a success. With a native cast of Russian language speakers and singers, and a debuting Russian maestro, how could it miss? Conductor Vasily Petrenko led the Met Opera Orchestra in a blazing, white-hot interpretation. The orchestra sounded revivified in this repertoire, as if to the manner born. The horns blared out boldly, along with the surging string section, both bringing out the urgency in Tchaikovsky’s score.

As many readers are aware, I have a fondness for Russian opera and for Russian composers in general. I find their “heart on sleeve” approach to their country’s musical inclinations to be the perfect tonic for a Saturday afternoon round of radio listening.

The big news of the week, and the one most audience members had been anticipating with bated breath, was the broadcast debut of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in the key role of Lisa, Hermann’s tortured love interest. Setting aside her apparent nervousness, the 32-year-old diva acquitted herself well. This may not have been the best of circumstances for a young singer to appear in, but Davidsen left her mark on the performance like a veteran trouper. Her scenes with the neurotic Hermann (Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov) were hair-raising in their dramatic intensity. Her pleas for understanding, while falling on deaf ears, were plaintively etched and came in strong emotional currents. A big brava to her!

Lisa (Lise Davidsen) listens to the declarations of Hermann (Yusif Eyvazov) in ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: The Observer)

The best scene in the opera for soprano is the third act aria and subsequent confrontation with her lover. The cold winter wind whips the pair into a frenzy of anticipation, which Hermann shatters by his compulsive gambling addiction. Having abandoned love for success in cards (so he thinks), Hermann runs off to challenge his opponents, leaving the despairing Lisa behind to face the water’s edge. Both singers were equally matched in depth of passion, with Davidsen holding the advantage in volume and acting ability. Her career bears further watching.

No slouch in the performing department, Eyvazov, a trifle light in timbre for this hefty assignment, nevertheless attacked the part with every fiber of his being. He hit all the high notes squarely, even if he never quite dispelled the notion of being a pushed-up lyric instead of a legitimate spinto tenor. No matter, his darkly tailored outfits (your basic black) and swarthy visage were perfectly in tune with this production’s notion of a wayward “outcast” operating under his own power and on the sidelines of life.

The other male leads — both baritones —played somewhat minor but integral parts in the evolving drama. Russian-born Alexey Markov made for an imposingly mellow and sufficiently motivated Count Tomsky, the fellow who tells his curious friends, Tchekalinsky (tenor Paul Groves) and Surin (bass Raymond Aceto), about the so-called “three cards,” the mysterious motif of which is repeatedly spelled out throughout the opera in a rising and falling triad (“Tri cartii, tri cartii, tri cartii”). Hermann overhears the story and takes its message too much to heart.

Debuting Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko sang the haughty Prince Yeletsky. If he came up a trifle short in the lyrical aspects of this (basically) secondary role, then blame must be placed on the Tchaikovsky brothers’ shoulders: Yeletsky does not appear in Pushkin’s story, but rather is a musical invention for dramatic purposes. Still, let’s face facts: How could anyone challenge the solidity and nobility of the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this part? A fool’s errand, no less.

Prince Yeletsky (Igor Golovatenko) declares his love for Lisa (Lise Davidsen) in Act II of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Billed as the most famous air in the opera, the number “Ya vas lyublyu, lyublyu bezmyerno” (“I love you without measure”) is both a baritone’s dream and his own worst nightmare. Starting on a low B flat and rising up to a high G, it takes an artist of the first rank to pull this one off. The recorded likes of Pavel Lisitsian, Yuri Mazurok, and the aforementioned Hvorostovsky are all models of their kind.

If you want to go further, we can discuss the various recorded merits and/or live interpretations of Hermann: from Alexander Davidov and Dmitri Smirnov to Joseph Rogatchewsky, from Nicolai Gedda and Vladimir Atlantov to Ben Heppner, Placido Domingo, Vladimir Popov and Vladimir Galouzine. But what would be the purpose? Yes, Lise Davidsen fulfilled every expectation (and then some!) as Lisa. And, yes, Yusif Eyvazov made it through the grueling part of Hermann with voice to spare. It should be noted that Latvian tenor Alexandrs Antonenko had originally been tapped for Hermann. However, due to continual vocal problems, Antonenko was replaced by Eyvazov and Lithuanian artist Kristian Benedikt, who shared the role on separate evenings.

As for the numerous mezzos in the radio cast (and in Russian opera in general), we would be doing this contingent a disservice if we failed to mention the lovely work of Elena Maximova as Pauline, Jill Grove as a plummy-toned Governess, and, of course, the veteran Larissa Diadkova as the elderly Countess. Diadkova’s death throttle and her late-in-the-day re-emergence as the spectral Queen of Spades sent shivers down the audience’s spines.

The Countess’ ghost (Larissa Diadkova) pays a little visit to Hermann (Yusif Eyvazov) in his barracks (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Mr. Moshinsky’s production was surrounded by a wonderful picture-book frame, which encased the stage in a memorable Grimm Brothers outline. The period costumes and authentic looking sets were all marvelous and were the work of Mark Thompson. Paul Pyant provided the cogent lighting designs and the choreography was by John Meehan. The Met Chorus, under Donald Palumbo’s direction, outdid themselves (one felt they relished the opportunity of singing those remarkable Russian lines), as did the children’s chorus (in a tribute to Georges Bizet, one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites). The little urchin shouting commands in fairly decent Russian was a singular delight.

To our mind, The Queen of Spades is Tchaikovsky’s boldest theatrical experiment, if not his most lucrative one. Surely, his Eugene Onegin is the more frequently performed piece and, melodically speaking, more accessible to listeners. Still, barring some extraneous musical matters as well as ineffective choral episodes (i.e., the so-called “Pastoral” which, to some critics, serves to dilute the drama instead of adding to the overall texture), the opera has been well served this season at the Met.

Anyone for a game of cards? Three-card monte, maybe…? Not a chance!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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