Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Six) — Those Rarest of Operatic Birds, Take 2

The Met Opera’s production of Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Opera’s Recurring Themes

Scorching obsessions, mad love interests, infidelity, misplaced feelings, misunderstood motives. These are the kinds of things we’ve been talking about: something to test our ability to listen, judge, learn, and absorb; to push that operatic envelope about as far as it can go — or as far as we allow ourselves to get pushed.

Some works, by their very nature, are impossible to classify, while others stick out by virtue of their originality. Still others may or may not play well on your average stage.

One such novelty would be German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1965 gargantuan Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), an incredibly dense and immensely complex score (and plot) that resembles, in many respects, a nightmarish amplification of Berg’s Wozzeck, right down to its female protagonist, both named Marie. This is what we mean by the term “opera on steroids.” It was staged in New York at the Park Avenue Armory back in 2008.

Requiring multiple stage platforms and simultaneous action, in addition to extra-musical sound effects, we doubt it will ever see the light of day on the Met Opera stage. It’s much too nonconformist. We’ll call this one as we see it: A once-in-a-lifetime experience, but no more.

No, our dose of relevancy and that needed jolt to the system can be found in the modern-esque efforts of a senior citizen of Czech descent and a much lauded British composer.

This Prison Life

From the House of the Dead (2009). I’m a huge admirer of Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s music. In fact, his concert pieces are regularly performed the world over, and with positive results. Listen, for instance, to his exceedingly sonorous orchestral showpiece, the Sinfonietta (1924), and especially to those marvelous opening brass fanfares which periodically return and conclude this lushly scored opus.

Patrice Chereau’s production of Janacek’s final opera, ‘From the House of the Dead’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Or to the jubilant Glagolitic Mass, another striking effort (the tenor solos are exacting, to say the least). This is not at all what can be considered your normal ecclesiastical experience, but an intensely “festive, life-affirming pantheistic” expression of the human spirit, so wrote the composer.

His operas Jenůfa (1904) and Kat’a Kabanová (1921) have been performed in every major house, including at the Met, with the former work returning to the repertoire in 1974 after a 50-year absence. Sung first in English translation, Jenůfa featured Polish soprano Teresa Kubiak, American mezzo Astrid Varnay, Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, and Canadian Jon Vickers, whose crooning of the heroine’s name, “Yen-OO-fa,” threw native speakers of Czech into a fit (the accent is placed on the first syllable, YEN-u-fa).

The latter work, Kat’a Kabanová, went on to premiere, in 1991, in the original Czech language. Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, an acknowledged authority on Janáček’s music, it starred Czech-born soprano Gabriela Beňačková as Kat’a and the legendary Leonie Rysanek as Kabanicha. Talk about authenticity! The same two protagonists, Beňačková and Rysanek, were paired again in a 1992 revival, for the first time in the original Czech language, of Jenůfa, with Madame Rysanek tearing the place apart with a roof-raising performance of the Kostelnička, or the Sexton’s wife.      

Another of the composer’s offbeat stage works, the opera The Makropoulos Case (1926), was based on Karel Čapek’s play, a veritable Victorian-era horror show, with a shadowy lead figure — the cold and beautiful opera star Emilia Marty — depicted as ageless, thanks to a secret life-extending formula. The opera had its Met debut in 1996, with diva Jessye Norman, singing in English, bringing the 337-year-old Ms. Marty to life, as it were. Later revivals included sopranos Catherine Malfitano and the Finnish Karita Mattila.

I’m still waiting for the Met to stage the delightful and stunningly gorgeous The Cunning Little Vixen (1923) or, to use its literal title, Tales of Vixen Sharp-Ears, a wonderful fairy-tale-like parable that takes place in the natural world along with the creatures that inhabit it — in particular, a clever female fox named Vixen, her mate, and, in the final scene, her little brood.

Called the most “cinematic” of all his stage works, the plot of The Cunning Little Vixen is comprised chiefly of episodic scenes in the strictly “symbolic” relationship between the Vixen and the Forester, and the endlessly repetitive cycle of life itself. But make no mistake: This is a most moving and philosophical conception. Many listeners will be hard-pressed to equate the story with Walt Disney’s Bambi, but the comparisons are viable and not far from the mark. As a matter of fact, the original Vixen story appeared as a newspaper tale accompanied by cartoon strips. Imagine that! What next, an opera based on Charles Schultz’ Peanuts gang? Why not! It did well on Broadway, so why not in the opera house?    

Scene from Janacek’s fairy-tale opera, ‘The Cunning Little Vixen,’ or ‘Tales of Vixen Sharp-Ears’

A nationalist down to his bones, Janáček continuously mined his country’s folk music for inspiration as early as the late 1880s. In addition to incorporating a vast amount of material into his creations, the composer went on to develop a signature form of notation, a series of sharp-edged, jagged, staccato-based motifs, injected specifically into his final work for the stage, the three-act From the House of the Dead (1928). We should make note that the composer’s last four operas were written after the age of 65, which place Janáček into that elite category of older masters whose late-blooming opuses have set them apart from their earlier triumphs.

Inspired by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s voluminous writings of prison life (that is, his own) in a Siberian labor camp, there is no set plot, only separate vignettes scored, mostly, for male voices who are part of a collective chorus. The libretto is by the composer himself. From the chorus, individual stories emerge and are intoned as, one by one, each prisoner steps up to give a personal account of their harrowing existence and the brutality encountered in the camp. Originally in three acts, the opera was given straight, without intermission.

Their grueling existence and the pervasive bleakness of the surroundings (termed “grim, dissonant and disconnected” by reviewer Michael Kennedy in Opera on Record 2) are indicated in the opening prelude. Its monotonous repetitiveness and propulsive stridency grind on listeners nerves, almost to the breaking point. In essence, we experience the same kind of nauseatingly pointless routine, in music, as do the prisoners. “Intense,” is how one critic described this searing work. One of the few moments of hope takes place when an eagle lands in the prisoners’ midst, its wings damaged. As the opera ends, the eagle, its wings now healed, is lifted and released into the wild, a symbol of life-affirming continuity in the face of bleakness and despair.  

The connection of From the House of the Dead to filmmaker Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption should not be lost on viewers. Others may find notable similarities present in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and his three-volume non-fiction text, The Gulag Archipelago (1973). 

With a large ensemble cast headed by Peter Mattei, Willard White, Stefan Margita, Heinz Zednik, Peter Straka, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kurt Streit, Jeffrey Wells, Adam Klein, Richard Bernstein, John Cheek, Scott Scully, Peter Hoare, et al., and Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the masterful Met Opera Orchestra, this 2009 production was spearheaded by debuting French director Patrice Chéreau. You will recall that the late Monsieur Chéreau was responsible for the Met’s recent Elektra production and, of course, his epoch-making 1976 Bayreuth Centenary production of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Most audience members as well as viewers were caught off guard by the sheer starkness of the work and, most importantly, by the moving performances, especially those of Mr. Mattei and Mr. White. A triumph in every respect, and ultimately a validation on the struggle of individuals for survival at any cost.

Men at War

Billy Budd (1997). Survival and the enduring humanistic spirit in man are but two of the themes in British composer Benjamin Britten’s seagoing saga, Billy Budd, based on a novella by Herman Melville (Moby-Dick). The libretto was adapted by novelist E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, Howards End, A Passage to India) and librettist Eric Crozier. Originally premiered in 1951 in four acts, Britten heavily revised the work in 1964, partitioning it into two acts, with a Prologue and Epilogue. This version met with success and the opera is now considered one of Britten’s finest large-scale achievements.

Director John Dexter’s classic 1978 Met production, with William Dudley’s cutaway set that rises and lowers, gave audiences the impression they are glimpsing an authentic British man-o-war on the high seas. That this 1997 revival still convinces, after so many decades of use, is a remarkable testament to its durability and utilitarian aspects. Conductor Steuart Bedford, who worked alongside Britten in his last years, especially with the composer’s semi-autobiographical valedictory piece, Death in Venice (1973), presided over the Met Opera Orchestra and all-male Chorus.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars era, there are boundless similarities to Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series of books (1969-1999) and director Peter Weir’s subsequent 2003 film version, with preparations for an actual sea battle about to take place on the stage — a remarkably vivid recreation, enlivened by “real” cannon shots off the starboard bow.  

The central character of Billy Budd is defined as possessing “beauty, handsomeness, and goodness.” Billy’s buoyant nature is preserved in descriptive language throughout and in how he’s regarded by fellow shipmates, much of it streamlined for operatic purposes. The conflicts between the HMS Indomitable’s Captain Vere, moralistic upholder of order and British maritime law; John Claggart, the brutishly depraved master-at-arms, blinded by his “motiveless malignity,” who lusts after Billy but vows to destroy him at all costs; and the too-good-to-be-true Billy Budd, the young and eager foretopman exuding affability, bonhomie, and loved by all (including the aforementioned Captain Vere), are skillfully juxtaposed against one another.   

Exceedingly approachable as well is the music which Britten developed for this nautical tale. With a score based on old English sea chanties and folksong, this is a startlingly accessible work, tuneful and emotionally uplifting as well as vital. In this pre-HD transmission, the camerawork (supervised by veteran director Brian Large) focuses on the protagonists, especially Billy Budd (beautifully sung and acted by baritone Dwayne Croft in a blond wig), with the central theme being conformity to the norms required by the Articles of War.

Billy, an able and eager-to-please seaman, loves his work and takes to the rigors of navy life with ease and abundant good cheer, so much so that he earns the enmity of Claggart. Billy is the outsider, as Peter Grimes was in Britten’s eponymously titled opera written prior to this one. Billy and Grimes are both nonconformists in a society that thrives on conformity, where the letter of the “law” is the rule, not the exception.       

Discipline is adhered to, and most rigorously so. As kind, empathetic, and liberal-minded as Vere purports to be (the men nickname him “Starry Vere”), he is nonetheless bound by tradition — that is, the British Navy’s code of conduct. His nemesis, Claggart (the hulking James Morris, impressive in both height and voice), is the harsh instrument of obedience to that order, the navy’s blunt-edged tool used indiscriminately to beat those codes into the skulls of men pressed forcibly into His Majesty’s service.

Claggart recognizes Billy for what he is: a “subversive,” the one who lives and breathes outside the boundaries of the law (think Cool Hand Luke). Billy can either bend to Claggart’s will (who secretly yearns to have his “way” with him) or be subjugated and cast aside. “I will break you,” Claggart vows, in his bleak Iago-like soliloquy. In the same breath, Claggart can turn friendly and receptive, extolling Billy’s handling of Squeak, one of the master-at-arms’ slimy accomplices (“handsomely done,” Claggart praises).

His face resolute, stern and sad in equal measure, Claggart is Billy’s demon, the evil tempter to his boundless good cheer. Low horns accompany Claggart’s every entrance (at times, stereotypically so), most prominently during his soliloquy. In opposition, Billy Budd is our Christ-like figure. Dansker (the wonderfully characterful Paul Plishka), an old salt himself, warns Billy to stay away from “Jemmy Legs.” “He’s got it in for you,” Dansker admonishes. But Billy pays little heed, citing Claggart’s praise as proof that he’s about to be promoted — er, so say his shipmates. That’s Billy for you, always looking on the bright side.

As it happens, Claggart forces the Novice (tenor Tony Stevenson, excellent by the way) to plant false proof on Billy’s person that he is planning to mutiny the crew against Captain Vere. When the inevitable confrontation takes place in the Captain’s quarters, Billy, who suffers from a stammer when provoked, is unable to verbally defend himself against the charges. Emotionally overcome, he lashes out violently at Claggart, who is instantly killed with one of Billy’s blows.

As the only witness to the event, Vere is torn as to whether or not to protect Billy from the crime of striking a superior officer. Pardoning him is impossible, yet Vere secretly harbors his own unrequited (and unrevealed) passion for the young seaman. Must he be the messenger of death? Vere knows the outcome. He must uphold the king’s law and British sovereignty over the Frenchies and their so-called “Rights o’ Man,” a phrase Billy earlier directed at his former ship before boarding the Indomitable — ultimately and tragically misinterpreted by the ship’s officers.  

Darkness and Light, Good vs. Evil, Beauty vs. Ugliness, Law and Duty. Which will it be? All are intertwined in this battle of wills, of man’s eternal struggle to keep order in a discordant world.

Billy Budd is held prisoner in the ship’s hole. Earlier, he dreamt of drowning before being awakened by the Novice. Britten and his dramatists place Billy’s situation as a reenactment of Christ’s Passion and suffering. Captain Vere has become both Pilate and Herod, passing judgment over Billy’s fate as judge, jury and executioner.

The Christ analogy is taken a step further when Dansker visits Billy in his cell. Billy pleads with his old friend not to touch him, indicative of Jesus’ charging of his disciples to “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” The men are planning to mutiny, Dansker tells him, in order to save Billy from hanging. But Billy will have none of it. They will be hunted down and hanged as well. Thus, Billy urges Dansker to stand down. It shall be done.     

The sentence is carried out. Billy walks the plank (offstage, that is) with a noose tied around his neck. But before he dies, Billy lets out a shout: “Starry Vere, God bless you!” This is Billy’s version of, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Lifted by two able seamen, he is hung for his crime. We, the viewers, are moved by his plight. But the opera is not yet over. Instead of a mutiny, the men, who began the opera with the chorus, “Oh, heave, oh, heave, oh heave,” now imitate Billy’s stammer in protest, humming the same tune but in wordless accompaniment, their mouths closed. The silence is deafening.  

The now old and retired Captain Vere has the last word. In the Epilogue, he realizes his failure to save Billy — and himself. But the boy’s final words to him fill Vere’s soul with renewal and redemption.

The excellent all-male cast includes British tenor Philip Langridge as Captain Vere, baritone Dwayne Croft as Billy Budd, and bass-baritone James Morris as Claggart, with James Courtney as Mr. Flint, Victor Braun as Mr. Redburn, Julien Robbins as Lt. Radcliffe, Tony Stevenson as the Novice, star-in-the-making Nathan Gunn as Novice’s Friend, Bradley Garvin as First Mate, Kevin Short as Second Mate, Sven Leaf as a Sailor, Thomas Hammons as Bosun, Kim Josephson as Donald, John Osborn as Maintop, Bernard Fitch as Squeak, Robert Brubaker as Red Whiskers, and the young Anthony Dean Griffey, an American tenor (and native North Carolinian) who went on to star in the Met’s John Doyle production of Peter Grimes, as Arthur Jones.  

A major highlight is the aborted sea battle with the Frenchies, where the fog overtakes the proceedings, amid the exhilarating chorus, “This is the moment, the moment we’ve been waiting for.” Yes, this is the moment AND the opera we’ve been waiting for. God bless you, Starry Met!

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Five) — Those Rarest of Operatic Birds, Take 1

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at the Met Opera (2007)

What is the current state of opera in the music and theater world? Where has it been and where will it go to attract newer and younger audiences, as well as keep up their interest? I’ve asked these questions before, and about opera’s continuing relevancy for our time. Today and in subsequent posts, we will explore some of the options.

After a year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic and after singers, directors, production personnel, chorus members, musicians, designers, and the like have insulated themselves in semi-seclusion, the opera world, like the 17-year cicada, is itching to bust out from self-imposed hibernation.

Yes, out of the deep, dark gloom and into the … where, pray tell? Hopefully, not the breach! Though opera’s demise has been foretold on more than one occasion, there is still hope for its redemption.  

The Old and the News

The belated announcement of the Met’s having reached an accord with its staff and crew was most welcome indeed. The follow through, however, hasn’t been so pleasant: the Met asked those same folks for a 30 percent pay cut. Can you imagine? With prices soaring on a variety of goods and services (to include — but not limited to — gas, water, rent, electric, and other essentials), the priming of the economic pump doesn’t sound so tempting for us mortals.

As you can see, there are always compromises to be hammered out: some good, some not so good.

But it’s nice to know that we can still drown our sorrows out, but not our hopes, in beautiful sounds. And that’s what this latest essay is about: a brief rundown of Met Opera productions “On Demand” that we’ve missed reporting on and that have come to light by way of constant probing. Our never-ending quest for enlightenment, for something unique to watch and listen to, has elicited some unusual and quite extraordinary candidates for cogitation.

There once was a time when that trusty standby, the New York City Opera, led the way in providing avant-garde entertainment for consumer consumption. Readers may remember that two of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s more dissonant forays, the operas Don Rodrigo and Bomarzo, premiered at NYCO in the 1960s and ‘70s, with Don Rodrigo (1966) having introduced unsuspecting audiences to a strapping, up-and-coming lad named Plácido Domingo.

Placido Domingo (2nd from right) in his New York City Opera debut in Don Rodrigo, with Julius Rudel (to his right, our left) and Spiro Malas (to his left, our right)

Other surprises boasted a new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (with Beverly Sills as the sultry Cleopatra, and Norman Treigle as Caesar), Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (also with Sills), Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (with Treigle’s superb Olin Blitch), Boito’s Mefistofele (Treigle again, in the title role), and many others. NYCO had also placed itself at the forefront of the bel canto revival in restoring Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to its proper place in the repertoire, presenting the opera complete for once; and in championing the same composer’s cause with the long-dormant Tudor trilogy of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux (all starring Ms. Sills).

They weren’t the only ones. Coming a tad late to the party, the Met hopped onboard the bel canto express in the 1970s with a new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s final opera, I Puritani. Was it too little, too late?

I Puritani (2007). This Sandro Sequi production from the bicentennial year 1976, with sets by Ming Cho Lee, certainly made up for lost time (well, sort of). The Met Opera reintroduced I Puritani di Scozia (its full title) into its now-expanding repertoire with a strong cast headed by Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, and James Morris. The conductor was Richard Bonynge, Sutherland’s husband. Not the subtlest of participants, but a most reliable group, nonetheless. With this effort, the Met did its best to welcome bel canto back into the fold, where Bellini’s opus had not been heard from in many a generation.

In this 2007 Live in HD revival, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko took on the part of Elvira (there goes that name again!), with lightweight tenor Eric Cutler given the nearly impossible task of singing Arturo (effortful high Cs and Ds, thank you), along with Italian baritone Franco Vassallo as Riccardo and Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea as Elvira’s uncle Giorgio. Patrick Summers took over the reins as conductor.

Musically and dramatically, there’s a multiplicity of coincidences in both Bellini’s opera and Donizetti’s output, specifically with his Lucia di Lammermoor. No one dies, thank goodness, in Puritani, but there’s a requisite Mad Scene for soprano in both works, as Elvira, in the Bellini opus, goes in-and-out of sanity, at times comically so. There’s also a baritone who’s smitten with the heroine and a rival beau to match (much as in Verdi’s Ernani), in addition to a pair of fatherly figures, one of whom, Giorgio, acts more like her surrogate papa. The minor role of Queen Henrietta (sung by mezzo Maria Zifchak), who plays a key element in the preposterous plot, figures prominently only in Act I.

So where’s the relevance? What’s missing is that essential connection one has to characters and their plight. I’m afraid that here, and in much (but not all) of Bellini’s output, the point remains the singing.  

Vassallo had the right equipment, but missed the bel canto grace this assignment cries out for. Relyea’s imposing height and fullness of voice were right for his part. And to be fair, Vassallo and Relyea gave a rousing rendition of their Act II duet, “Suoni la tromba” (literally, “Sound the trumpets”), even if they made it sound more like Verdi. Cutler, on the other hand, struggled with the tessitura of Act III. Maestro Summers put the singers through their paces and kept a steady hand on the proceedings. Still, there was little he could do to enliven the proceedings, the staging and sets being from another generation’s aesthetic entirely.

Eric Cutler (Arturo), Maria Zifchak (Queen Henrietta) and Franco Vassallo (Riccardo) in I Puritani

Surely the raison d’être for this revival was the presence of Ms. Netrebko. She was the audience’s favorite, hands down, with her every utterance greeted by howls of approval. And without supremely talented colleagues, there is little impetus for playing this piece. The same goes for the tenor. Once such major advocates as Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Javier Camarena arrived on the scene, things took a decisive turn for the better. For the most part, the dreary staging mitigated whatever was going on vocally. Glory and honor are the main points of this piece; factor in a huge suspension of disbelief to accompany Elvira’s on-again, off-again mental state and you have an operatic cliché in the making.

One problem is that many productions of this and other Bellini works fail to take into account the delicacy with which the Sicilian-born composer, who died much too young in life, imbued his subjects. Most interpreters mistake him for his contemporary Donizetti, or the livelier bombast of Verdi. Nothing of the kind! Bellini’s music, like that of his contemporary Chopin, is of a delicate filigree; one that served as an integral link between the classical bel canto world of the early 1800s, with its impressive line and embellished strictures, and the rising tide of nationalistic vigor encompassed by late Rossini and early Verdi. Romanticism, in Bellini’s hands, remained subtle and vibrant.

As for Donizetti, the poor wretch ended up a syphilitic wreck, dying a miserable death in an insane asylum. Bellini, too, passed away much too soon of that least theatrical of illnesses: dysentery and/or gastric enteritis. With Rossini filing for early retirement, that left one man standing: Verdi. We need not tell you how his career turned out.

Meanwhile, Back at the Plaza…

Other pioneering efforts at City Opera showcased such rarities as Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) with Carol Neblett and John Alexander, Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re (“The Love of Three Kings”) with bass Samuel Ramey, and new takes on established classics, i.e., Frank Corsaro’s revelatory staging of Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s La Traviata (both of which I saw), with Treigle, then Ramey as the Devil, and Patricia Brooks and Dominic Cossa as Violetta and the elder Germont, respectively.

Fine, but what about the magnificent Met? Where has that venerable house been while these NYCO productions were upstaging their neighbor across the Plaza? To be honest, the stodgy old Met lagged behind her sister company in many respects, due mostly to its mission of, in the first place, preserving, protecting, and defending the core repertory; and secondly, in catering to deep-pocketed subscribers, many of whom had sustained the company through thick and thin. We know, too, that in times of financial distress those same subscribers lean more toward a “conservative” bent than to so-called vanguard elements. Understandable.

But the time to play it safe was over. Over the years, glimpses of innovation have emerged, both in the recent past and in future presentations. Some of these can be glimpsed through Met Opera on Demand, the company’s streaming service via the Roku app. Infrequently seen oddities such as Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur have proven their worth and been formerly reviewed by yours truly. Seeing them again, with different casts, can provide one with distinctly new and fresher perspectives, along with continuing regard (or not) for the results.

For instance, hearing Renata Scotto’s squally Francesca from 1984, alongside the outpourings of the dashing Domingo as Paolo, made one realize how much better their acting was this time around, as opposed to Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek’s inauthentic 2013 take on the part. In that same 2013 revival, Mark Delavan’s pugnacious Gianciotto and Marcello Giordani’s lover-boy Paolo could actually have passed for battling brothers, whereas Domingo and the mammoth-toned Cornell MacNeil bore no familial resemblance whatsoever. Straining credibility, then, can complicate matters when viewed from too close a perspective — one of the pitfalls of opera in high definition.

Domingo as Paolo, with Renata Scotto as Francesca, in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini

In the Berlioz work, tenor Bryan Hymel’s ringing tone and brilliant top notes as Aeneas (2012) clearly outclassed Domingo’s more modest resources (from 1984). Still, both artists did their best with what they had to work with: in Domingo’s case, a horribly ill-fitting costume stood beside ugly sets and décor. What helped was that his co-stars included two of the classiest singers this side of midtown: mezzo Tatiana Troyanos as Queen Dido, and Earth Mother Jessye Norman as the prophetess Cassandra. Wow! That combination beats Mr. Hymel’s partners, Susan Graham as Dido and Deborah Voigt as Cassandra, by a Gallic nose, but not by much.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot of good and not-so-good in every work. How about the bad? I wouldn’t mention that term. My belief is that there is no “bad” as such in opera. To quote Master Yoda’s paraphrase of Shakespeare, “Do or do not. There is no try.” And try they must, even if the results fail to pan out.

At best, opera is the most arduous, the most taxing, truly the most demanding art form there is. Don’t forget, these artists are emoting at top volume. Take it from me, high and low notes can be effortful in the extreme, especially in a large theater. The work required to do justice to a part, to concentrate on the score, to remember your lines, to convey the text in intelligible fashion, and to know your place in the general scheme of things, while hurling the voice at full tilt into a massive auditorium — all of these take strength, concentration, stamina, and musicianship.

Opera tests a performer like no other form of entertainment. And it’s all done live, folks, and in your face. Or, in the case of online streaming, recorded and preserved live, as it occurs.

Was It Real or Was It Verismo?

So what gives with the staid repertoire, anyway? When will matters improve along that front? Will audiences ever get to experience such rarities as Leoncavallo’s Zazá, a work that once enjoyed currency at the old Met on Broadway and 39th Street? How about Mascagni’s Lodoletta, Guglielmo Ratcliff, or his charming L’Amico Fritz? What of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna and I Quattro Rusteghi? And how meaningful are these works for us today? I’m all for a production of Clièa’s L’Arlesiana, which deserves a fair shake. There are so many worthwhile items to explore from the verismo period alone that room should be given them on the Met’s production calendar.

Take, for instance, Leone’s opera L’Oracolo, a favorite of the great baritone Titta Ruffo. Certainly a revival or two can be called upon, can’t it? That is, if the money and circumstances prove favorable. Wishful thinking on my part? Perhaps. But, hey, what does the company have to lose, except new subscribers?

As a matter of fact, one of those old gems, Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac, was bought to the Met stage in 2005. It starred Roberto Alagna as the titular long-nosed hero (Domingo took up his sword for the 2017 revival). Was the opera an unqualified success? Did it stir the bones in like fashion? Not quite, wrong move. I heard the work on the radio and caught glimpses of it on YouTube. To be perfectly honest, this oddity did not merit the effort that was put into it. There’s little that was memorable. In fact, I held my own nose in order to get through it. Sorry people!

Not since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Broadway tour of 1984 has justice been done to French playwright Edmond Rostand’s poetic farce. The version I happened to catch (faithfully translated by Anthony Burgess) was headed by the estimable Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack. I’ll never forget the balcony scene where Mr. Jacobi as Cyrano, the spotlight focused on his illumined face and protruding proboscis, spoke the name of the woman he loved, “Roxane, Roxane,” over and over again in softly-whispered reverence. You could sense the entire Gershwin theater holding its collective breath as the actor luxuriated in the moment, a romantic respite between swashbuckling flights of fancy. Call it stage magic or what have you, no opera could hope to capture the profoundness of that sequence.     

Actor Derek Jacobi rehearsing Cyrano in Edmond Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac

As for Alfano, his claim to fame was that he was the sole composer willing and able enough to have tackled Puccini’s unfinished score for Turandot. Not even the fiery conductor of the premiere, Arturo Toscanini, was pleased with the results. So what did he do? Well, Toscanini cut and re-scored Alfano’s ending to his satisfaction. I managed to hear the original Alfano orchestration when (you guessed it) the NYCO restaged the Beni Montresor production in the mid-1980’s.

So, what did I think of the refurbished Turandot? Let’s say that it was … uh, different, otherworldly, not quite what one expected, but full-bodied and entertaining (I really dug the extra high notes for tenor). Was I bowled over by it? Not really. I expressed a similar dissatisfaction for Luciano Berio’s tacked-on rewrite, first staged in 2002 at the Vienna State Opera, under Valery Gergiev’s direction. This highly bowdlerized edition was neither Puccini nor Alfano, nor was it very Italianate-sounding. It was patented Berio, whatever that means. Some experiments are just not worth the effort. They hold only modest interest for audiences of today.

So, can another chestnut from the golden age of verismo provide the requisite thrills?

Fedora (1997). Known as Umberto Giordano’s follow-up to his popular Andrea Chénier, the relatively short three-act Fedora, based on another of those Sardou specialty items for actress Sarah Bernhardt (his La Tosca became the source for Puccini’s eponymously titled opera), finally hit the Met stage in a lavish 1997 production by Beppe De Tomasi, with sets by Ferruccio Villagrossi, and costumes by Pier Luigi Cavallotti. The opera was conducted by Roberto Abbado.  

With the likes of veteran soprano Mirella Freni as the titular Russian princess (vocally past her prime, but nicely interpolated), tenor Plácido Domingo as Loris (high-powered and committed), and baritone Dwayne Croft as de Sirieux (suavely sung) in the cast, you would think this old warhorse from the turn of the last century would have paid the dividends in terms of potency and staying power. Not quite. To compare it to the earlier Chénier (which premiered in the same year as Puccini’s La Bohème) does Fedora a disservice. The unusual settings — the story opens in Russia in contemporary times, which then switches to a swanky Parisian soirée and a Swiss mountainside villa for the two outer acts — are about as far from recognizable verismo as one can imagine.

True, red-hot passion, of the kind found in Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, the two most familiar models from the verismo repertoire, is certainly not lacking in Fedora. What’s missing is a believable story line: full of violence and obsessions (oh, gobs of it!), the plot blends sentiment and melodrama with murder, espionage, and secret trysts. For all the personal entanglements, real flesh-and-blood characters and credible responses are absent; the drama remains earthbound, the ending about as abrupt and tacked on as a power outage, though not so sudden as in La Rondine (see below).

Domingo as Loris, singing “Amor ti vieta,” to Mirella Freni as Fedora in Giordano’s opera

Mainly, the action moves by way of letters, memos, and furtive notes, all of them delivered by timely post or last-minute messenger. You got to hand it to the postal service, though: They always deliver the bad news first. Whatever happened to efficient mail service, anyway?  

Despite all this, the main aspect is that this piece, and numerous others that came before and after it, took up the prevailing trend of adapting existing literary works (i.e., period pieces and novels, along with newspaper accounts, personal journals, diaries, exposés, and such) by transforming them into operatic conveyances. One striking moment in Act II of Fedora introduces a concert pianist (real-life artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet) in the non-speaking role of Boleslao Lazinski, who plays a lovely nocturne in the manner of Chopin.

An opera in the grand tradition (scaled down for modern ears), Fedora will strike listeners as bearing a “passing” likeness to Puccini’s later La Rondine, especially in that work’s opening sequence which also features a pianistic platform for the tenor playing the poet Prunier. The soprano’s death by inhaling a poison is plainly reminiscent of Adriana’s passing in Cilèa’s opera, Adriana Lecouvreur.

This is another of those “pseudo-dramatic touches” that mark this and other related works for what they are. With its soaring vocal lines (the famously brief tenor arioso, “Amor ti vieta”), scorching obsessions, exotic locales, the presence of Russian spies, and a tragic suicide at the end — all of these taking place in either a Czarist St. Petersburg or a distinctly Russophile-flavored Gay Paree — Fedora has been better served on discs rather than in the opera house, an ironic fact of theater life.   

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part Four)

Poster art for the Sci-Fi Channels’ 2000 miniseries based on Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’

The Look, the Sound, the Tone

In the commentary section of Artisan’s 3-Disc DVD Special Edition Director’s Cut of Dune, writer-director John Harrison and his crew discuss the various aspects of pre- and post-production. Executive produced by Richard P. Rubinstein and Mitchell Galin, produced by David Kappes, and edited by Harry B. Miller III, the driving force behind this Special Edition was Harrison’s love for author Frank Herbert’s original vision and pervasive worldview.

“But because of different broadcast requirements required around the world,” Harrison wrote in his Director’s Statement, “the definitive version of what we created has never been released until now” (circa the year 2002, that is). In his longer-by-30-minutes letterboxed cut, “scenes are restored and minor structural adjustments have been made which, in my estimation, make it the complete rendering of the story.”

What a refreshing point of view! If only that sound bit of advice had trickled down to the likes of David Lynch and the De Laurentiis production team for their own expanded, mind-numbingly static, three-hour edition. Truth to tell, that elephantine reinvigoration of Dune was fated to bite the proverbial dust from which it came, extended scenes or not.

“Like many of my generation, I read and was strongly influenced by Herbert’s epic novel when I was young. [Here, here!] A serious, often difficult meditation on political, social, and religious ideas, Dune is not simply a book of fantasy and adventure. It’s a book of philosophy. Still, I always believed this story could be accessible to a wide audience. It may be classified [as] sci-fi, but I prefer to think of it as a romantic epic in the classic tradition; a timeless myth-fable, after all.”

There’s an inherent structural sense to Dune, that of a classic Greek tragedy (or, if you prefer, coming-of-age story), in between the lines of social commentary and/or interpretation, of that we can vouch for. And of the Hero of a Thousand Faces, i.e. Joseph Campbell’s path-breaking research into mythology, which heavily influenced a fledgling producer-writer-director named George Lucas for his Star Wars saga.

Harrison continued: “I also believe the themes of Dune are more relevant today than they were when Herbert first wrote the book. The world in which we now live is far closer to the universe he created than the bipolar cold-war world of the fifties and sixties. And I consider it my extreme good fortune and enormous responsibility to have had the chance to adapt the book. Along the way, I gained a deeper and richer appreciation of the world of Dune than I ever had before.”

Lady Jessica (Saskia Reeves) with her son, Paul (Alec Newman), in the 2000 miniseries ‘ Dune’

One couldn’t agree more. Indeed, our world has tipped ever-closer to the chaotic, for-profit business enterprises tied to governmental entities that pervade the Dune ethos than at any time in our history. “But while preparing to direct it, I also realized this Dune needed its own visual signature, its own singular identity. There has been a lot of discussion and speculation about the hyperbolized theatrical, almost operatic style of this version. It was a risky, unusual choice for a sci-fi epic. But without the artistry and the intrepid support of [the entire cast and crew]…, without the wealth of talent in all the roles, large and small, this Dune would have been simply ordinary.”

Far from being “simply ordinary,” as director Harrison phrased it, this version, initially prepared for European TV in a grandly stylized adaptation, fit Herbert’s themes to a comfortable T. In concluding his statement, Harrison expressed his thanks to all those “whose work is all over this production… For their efforts, their friendship and help, I’m extremely grateful, so that we could remain true to the spirit of Herbert’s monumental work at the same time we were fashioning an accessible and entertaining adventure. One that has a lot to tell us about our world, our society, and ourselves.”

The above statement was written and published in 2002, more than two decades after the original production debuted on the eve of the New Millennium. And, as noted above, our world has been tumbling into the chaotic free-for-all we are currently finding ourselves in. A world very much like that depicted in Herbert’s universe: where Spicing Guilds and religious zealots compete with ruthless authoritarian figures and bold individuals for dominance and profits.

As envisioned in Harrison’s concept, there is a boldly stylized look to go with the series. For example, on Kaitan, the Padishah Emperor’s home planet, the take is art nouveau, a touch of sophistication and classical refinement befitting of royalty, with lots of purple hues and swatches of blue. An elegance and refinement, by the way, that is in direct contrast to the plots and evil designs that lay beneath the surface textures. “Plans within plans,” you will recall.

On Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home world, reds predominate as well as solid blacks. Raked camera angles, a more severe look, along with cutting-edge pieces of architecture and décor — all designed to provide the viewer with a sense of unease, an off-balance feeling, of something not quite right, a world askew.   

That red-tinged, raked stage look you get when watching the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

These are contrasted with the warmth of browns, tans, and earth tones on the planet Arrakis. In the capital city of Arakeen itself, this “elegance” theme is extended, offset against the harshness and dust of the ever-present desert, which has stood untouched for centuries, an ancient place with a history and a past. But does it have future? That remains to be seen.

As we transition to the Fremen, their sietches incorporate that “lived-in” look, of people who dwell in caves and rock-like dwellings. There is bas relief along their walls, and familiar images of the Jordan Desert. We get a sense, then, of who these people are and of how much they depend on each other for their survival. Again, sand and earth tones dictate the surroundings. They symbolize the Earth (our Earth, perhaps?) and the destruction that has been perpetrated on this world; the greed and the folly, the taking away of naturally occurring riches (that is, the Earth’s abundance), and replacing them with … well, basically nothing. This theme of depleting a planet’s natural resources is one that Herbert strove to ingrain into his work.

Shifting to choreography, the fight scenes are staged in a more stylized fashion than is usually the norm. Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art, but today practiced as a more-or-less graceful form of exercise where movements are performed in a slow, restricted, and flowing manner, are highlighted throughout. Although less exciting or stimulating than what Western audiences have been used to, they serve the purpose of introducing the viewer to an altogether different aesthetic.         

“Blue, I’m blue…” The Royal Palace setting for planet Kaitan, in the 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

It is here, too, that audiences can begin to appreciate Harrison’s vision for Herbert’s work. As stated in the director’s recorded commentary, the story is about everyday concerns. Harrison has also tried to bring an historical feel to the proceedings. Human politics and the all-too-human search for something better, those are the basic precepts. They involve complexity and the undercurrent of storytelling, the search for meaning in a universe torn apart by strife; a quest for something more than plain old science-fiction, an action-adventure piece that is also a morality tale.

We can look at Dune in two ways: one, as allegory, where the concern is with the exterior; and two, as myth, where the concern is with the individual, or the interior. In Herbert’s conception, exterior forces clash with those of the interior. This clash or conflict leads to chaos or lack of comprehension, along with resistance to change (termed “inertia”) and the resultant imposition of order. A rigorous, physically and mentally abusive order, to say the least, one that prefers the mistreatment of the governed (or those do not bend to their will) as imposed by those who govern (the exterior purveyors of conflict). The breakdown of the social order, in this scenario, will be the inevitable outcome.

And what is the source of that conflict? We know of one (among many): the spice, which must “flow” at all costs. The other, and most crucial where man’s survival is concerned, happens to be water. In Dune, water is not appreciated by all, with the Fremen people being the sole exceptions. Its life-giving, life-affirming properties are misunderstood and, because water is so scarce, one must pay for the privilege of imbibing it. This “water motif,” such as it is, contrasts symbiotically with what we see on Arrakis, what Harrison indicates are those numerous “aquarium shots” of large, inlaid panels where H2O is prominently exhibited as if it were a museum piece.      

One of many “aquarium shots” from the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries ‘Dune’

Interestingly, the water motif, and in contrast to this overall approach, is exemplified in the series’ music score. While the drama is rendered in flamboyantly theatrical fashion, New Zealand-born composer Graeme Revell propels the action along in varying styles. In Revell’s opinion, he did not want to emphasize any particular musical “theme” as such.

For instance, the House Atreides theme goes hand-in-hand with Paul’s journey. The Emperor’s theme takes a kind of warped, bourgeois approach, one out of sync with its surroundings (as the Emperor is out of sync with his people). And for the mysterious Navigator and the ideologically minded Reverend Mother, Revell employed some electronic music, with scoring for female chorus in the background.

A heavy concentration on ethnic music, of Middle Eastern motifs and sounds (the instrumentation is especially noteworthy, with flute and other wind instruments predominating), serve as timeless evocations of God and the deeper thoughts that have engulfed the Fremen and, by implication, the once and future Paul Atreides, henceforth to be known as Muad’Dib.  

“The saga of Dune is far from over….”

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Next Move is Yours: Tragedy Defines Strategy in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (Part One)

Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in Netflex’s Limited Series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (2020)

A ‘Checkered’ Past

Beth Harmon’s life is determined in the first five minutes of Netflix’s 7-episode limited series The Queen’s Gambit. The opening “moves,” by writer-director Scott Frank (Minority Report, Godless) and creator-producer Allan Scott, flesh out the outlines and contours of the plot in sumptuous detail.

From the Oval Office-like interior of a hotel room in Paris, where an older but no wiser Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) awakens to the incessant pounding of her door, to the distinctive arenas where her chess matches are held, the series depicts the fall, the rise, and yet another fall and rise of a young female chess player through her development as a formidable challenger and champion.

Long in the planning, the series was based on novelist and short story writer Walter Tevis’ fourth book of the same name. Published in 1983, The Queen’s Gambit is a fictionalized account of the author’s personal prowess at chess and his own real-life struggles with tranquilizers and alcoholism. In fact, several of Tevis’ semi-autobiographical works have been turned into movies, including The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) starring David Bowie, and The Color of Money (1986) with Newman again and Tom Cruise.  

In the opening “gambit,” Beth is late for her match against Soviet-Russian champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński). From here, viewers are plunged into a fast-paced life driven by the girl’s desire to be the best at chess — a profession normally reserved for men. In the series’ script, chess is transformed into a spectator sport, with each episode strategically labeled as stand-alone elements in a unified whole: “Openings,” “Exchanges,” “Doubled Pawns,” “Middle Game,” “Fork,” “Adjournment,” and “End Game.”   

Chess champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) meets Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy)

Beth, a young and talented woman, emotionally scarred by a horrible tragedy (depicted near the start of the series), attempts to overcome this and other problematic events. All of it done in spite of Beth’s knack for hurling herself headlong into chaos, a whirlwind variation of a life as interpreted by the age-old art of chess. A contest of skill, the equivalent of a medieval clash for survival and wargames in miniature, chess is a battle of wits that becomes, in nine-year-old Beth’s mind, the thing she’s most adept at. She’s also good at math, which gives her an (ahem) “added” advantage.

Life for poor Beth gets off to a rough start. The director of Methuen Home for Girls in Lexington, Kentucky, Mrs. Deardorff (“Dear orphan,” or possibly “The orphan’s dread,” and dryly played by Christiane Seidel), can only preach to her young charges in platitudes, those meaningless formulaic clichés of little substance that forever miss their mark. In consequence, all the alleged adults speak in this highfaluting manner: from the Shakespeare-spouting Mr. Ferguson, the orphanage’s Black orderly, to Mr. Ganz, the glib high school chess club teacher. All of them, that is, except Mr. Shaibel, the chess-obsessed custodian.

Mrs. Deardorff chats matter-of-factly about Beth’s natural mother (Chloe Pirrie) who was killed early on in that terrible accident: a pickup truck stacked on top of a car, her mother’s lifeless body at the bottom, with only her legs protruding. Beth (Isla Johnson) is alone. It seems that life’s troubles have already begun to overtake her, even before she’s had a chance to evolve.

This is how writer-director Frank keys his audience in on what to expect. Why, you just know this child has a huge hurdle to surmount. What’s a little girl to do without her mommy? “She’s in a better place,” spouts the woman driving Beth to the orphanage, as if by repeating this useless piece of advice will make the youngster’s situation any less worrisome.

At the orphanage, Beth is shown what to wear, where to go, and what to do. She’s even given a pageboy haircut, with Mrs. Deardorff’s approval, of course — a control freak par excellence. Not a queen’s coiffure by any means, but that of the lowest subject in the orphanage’s pecking order.

Jolene (Moses Ingram) and young Beth (Isla Johnson) muse on their lives at the orphanage

Beth’s daily routine is a mind-numbingly monotonous compilation of busywork, all designed to keep the orphaned girls’ thoughts occupied with the possibility of adoption, hopefully by a loving and caring family. A possibility that grows more and more distant the older that Beth and her only companion, the foul-mouthed but straight-shooting Jolene (Moses Ingram), seem to get.

‘Name’ Your Game

Elizabeth, the name of a British queen. Two queens, to be precise: Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. In the case of the first Elizabeth, she was known to her subjects as “Good Queen Bess.” In little Beth’s case, however, her surname of “Harmon” gives further clues as to her attributes. First of all, Beth is far from experiencing any kind of “harmony” in her life; in truth, she rebels against it. Second, she discovers a central path, a harmony of sorts (or a middle ground) within herself in the male-dominated world of chess. Beth will only be in harmony with her environment in the very last scene of the series — wherein she becomes, quite literally, the queen of the chess tournament.

Headmistress Deardorff informs Beth about the rules and the dreary “facts” of orphanage life. She’s expected to conform to those rules. Quick though she is at sizing up a situation, Beth instantly grasps the true purpose of the orphanage: to place the most eligible girls with the most respectable families. This leaves Beth virtually out of the running.

Mrs. Deardorff (Christiane Seidel) wastes no time in informing Beth (Isla Johnson) about the rules

Beth is revealed in subsequent situations as a nonconformist. She’s introduced to Jolene, whose strident off-camera voice lets out a few choice expletives. Jolene is Beth’s nonconformist partner-in-crime who grows to be her best pal and fellow conspirator. Also, her amateur shrink and adviser on matters relating to life in general, the worldly-wise companion who’s seen and done it all.

All the girls are kept in line. With that in mind, they are shown all manner of hygiene films, low-budget educational shorts that, if you grew up in the 1950s or 60s, should be all-too familiar with their triteness and stereotypical Wonder-bread sterility. Films depicting the onset of puberty, teenage dating etiquette, and of-the-period religious pictures are mined for their supposed Christian values. Immediately after these strictly anodyne features have ended, Mrs. Deardorff and her staff hold discussion sessions with the girls to talk about what they’ve seen. Dullness piled on top of dullness.

Lest you think otherwise, these early scenes in The Queen’s Gambit do not purport to turn the series into an all-girl version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And Mrs. Deardorff is no Nurse Ratched (she’s not even in the same league), neither are Beth and Jolene juvenile reincarnations of the disruptive R.P. McMurphy. Instead, what they share is a mutual contempt for authority, an absolute aversion to rules and regulations (and order for order’s sake) that govern these institutions. Jolene and Beth much prefer a disorderly world, one of their making that reflects their disoriented lifestyles.

During the course of the series, we see them make up their own rules as well as break quite a few others. But to whose advantage? And to what purpose? The good news is that they are both resilient in the face of onrushing obstacles, a majority of which Beth crashes into before formulating a way forward. Thus, the “crash” motif at the beginning takes on different forms, and with varying characters and circumstances, in a natural progression.

What Doesn’t Kill You….  

Beth subsequently evolves, all right, but in a negative capacity. She develops a dependency on tranquilizers (those magical “little green pills”), and later to alcohol. Tranquilizers were often dispensed to orphanages in the 50s and 60s time period, under the pretext of controlling their charges’ mood swings and so-called behavioral issues.

Young Beth (Isla Johnson) has a difference of opinion about resigning her queen

As far as living conditions are concerned, the girls sleep in an enormous dormitory, with oblong-shaped beds that stand in for the squares of a chessboard. The girls are the pieces, mere pawns in Mrs. Deardorff’s hands, basically to do with as she sees fit. Indeed, all the characters are treated in this belittling manner, with Beth at the center (ultimately, the queen) and those around her as minor annoyances, to be captured and/or checkmated at will.  

With the aid of those trusty tranquilizers, which she hoards near her night table and swallows before bedtime, Beth begins to envision giant images on the ceiling. These are imaginary chess pieces. Flashbacks to earlier episodes in her life are inserted at certain intervals, fleeting pieces of a larger puzzle that have yet to be completed.

Similarly, men are shown, in flashbacks, leaving her mother Alice, a once-brilliant mathematician in deteriorating mental states. There are no strong male figures in her mother’s life. Instead, they all seem to run away from responsibility or from the mistake of hooking up with the “wrong woman.” This will include Beth’s foster mother, Alma Wheatley, a troubled but goodhearted former concert pianist with myriad phobias of her own.

Unfortunately, Beth, too, cannot escape this fate. Her path has been predetermined from the start; and there’s no turning back. In the lexicon of inmates with no hope for parole, they are “lifers,” as Jolene describes herself and Beth, condemned for the crime of being an orphan — a crime they did not commit yet they are punished all the same. The analogy to prisoners in a prison ward is clearly felt.

One day, however, Beth is sent to the basement to clean the class’s erasers. She sees the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (a frumpy Bill Camp), playing a board game. Beth is intrigued. Mr. Shaibel, alone with his chessboard and black-and-white pieces, peaks Beth’s interest and her innate curiosity. She’s headstrong, that much is certain, and driven. She starts to take the tranquilizers before bedtime which brings on visions of the chessboard and the pieces in motion, all taking place in her head.

Little Beth (Isla Johnson) accepts Mr. Shaibel’s (Bill Camp) invitation to a game of chess

Every night, it’s the same: Beth sees the pieces move up and down the ceiling. She’s eager to play and eager to learn. “Girls do not play chess,” Shaibel insists. But she proves him wrong. The more she sees and feels, the more she wants to play. And she remembers how each piece moves on the board. Pleasantly surprised, Shaibel motions for her to take a seat. Later, in her dormitory, Beth recreates, with her hand, the motions that lead to Shaibel’s checkmate.

To escape from choir practice, Beth fakes the urge to urinate but takes a detour instead down to the basement — not the usual equivalent of Hell, mind you, but one of an improvised Heaven, a place of warmth and comfort, if dark and foreboding. In this encounter, Beth, with her main piece threatened, refuses to resign the match. So Shaibel topples her queen. In her anger at the custodian for taking away the only thing she’s able to hold on to — that is, her self-preservation — Beth calls him a “cocksucker,” not knowing exactly what that is. He tells her to get out. Still, she plays every day. After this temporary blowup, Shaibel teaches her strategies, all he knows, until Beth beats him, resoundingly.

“You’re astounding,” he pronounces. The barest hint of a smile appears on Shaibel’s face. Next, he introduces Beth to Mr. Ganz, the head of the high school chess club. Intimidation, that’s a sport for kings. And chess is the ultimate diversion to test that notion. Beth is invited to play at Ganz’s all-boys chess club, to meet her first outside challenge. Yes, intimidation.

As expected, she beats them all, including the chess club’s best player. “I mated him in 15 moves,” she boasts to a bemused Shaibel, while wolfing down snacks. The sexual connotation in the script pushes that aspect forward, i.e. the dominance, the foreplay, and the climax that chess, as a chivalrous rivalry between two gentlemanly players, has deteriorated to. It’s all there, if one cares to look.

….Makes You a Stronger Chess Champion

Flashbacks to before the car accident that killed Beth’s mom re-emerge, in fleeting moments of memory. Beth’s addiction to tranquilizers begin to overwhelm her, but inevitably the drugs are banned. Not surprisingly, Beth grows desperate. She greedily eyes a large bottle of green pills (euphemistically dubbed “vitamins”) in the drug repository. Unfortunately, they’re under lock and key. What to do?  

Beth’s mother, Alice Harmon (Chloe Pirrie), before her fatal car crash

One night, Beth sneaks away. She steals a screwdriver from Shaibel’s basement workshop and pries the lock open to the door that houses the pills. It’s no coincidence that, before she does this, the girls are forced to watch another of those religious pictures, 20th Century-Fox’s widescreen epic The Robe, where Richard Burton is put to death for his belief in Jesus as the Son of God. Beth’s actions in breaking into the dispensary and filling her mouth and pockets with tiny green pills leads to her collapsing onto the floor and spilling the broken jar’s contents before Mrs. Deardorff and the entire assemblage. Symbolically, her life is also in shambles of addiction and withdrawal. “Edgy” is how Jolene explains it. And she’s right.

Still, Beth is young and she’s talented. Unbeknown even to herself, she has an inner beauty that, upon reaching puberty, is expressed in physical attractiveness. But she hides it under layers of floppy clothing. Not realizing the affect she has on men (first young boys, then slightly older varieties), Beth slowly but awkwardly “reveals” more of her inner self — her charm, her personality, her intellect, and her razor-sharp wit — before, during, and after makeshift chess matches.  

One’s belief in oneself is always challenged or, at best, put to the test. In this instance, Beth’s belief that she is above the older boys in that high-school chess club gathering. She holds the view that they are beneath her. In contrast, the chess pieces are placed far above her, there, on the ceiling of her dormitory and out of her grasp. They call to her, nightly, as if charmed by her obsession with them. Needy lovers, so close yet so far.

And later, of course, in that Parisian hotel room, and everywhere she looks. Chess appears to be above all things and all individuals. It’s still that classic game of strategy; of planning, of outwitting, of thinking five, six moves ahead of your opponent. Tactics are deployed in an orderly manner to defeat the enemy; and a battle plan is developed and acted upon, one so intricate that to rage against it will mean oblivion for one or the other combatant.     

This is the outline for the series. Each episode of The Queen’s Gambit consists of a storyline from Beth’s life depicting her continuing struggles toward her goal as a chess master. It also documents how low her life will plummet in her quest for excellence (that is, to be the best of the best) and her eventual redemption as a human being.

But the suffering must come first.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Animated Brazil — Part Four: Two for the Price of One (Conclusion)

Olive tries to drag poor Popeye onto the dance floor, while Bluto looks on in delight

Everyone Does the “Broadway Samba”

Near the conclusion of “Samba Lelê,” Senhorita Olive Oyl blows a good-neighborly kiss to the overly timid Popeye the Sailor, whose heart, perched at the end of a collapsible wood-and-metal extension, beats so loud and so fast that it literally pops out of his chest (better that than his remaining eyeball).

Olive ends her dance (rather stiffly animated) by extending her right leg high above her head in a straight line from the ceiling to the floor. Ouch! Popeye and Bluto, like the female-starved seafarers that they are, carry on like there’s no mañana. They outdo themselves in exaggerated adoration, with Bluto pounding away on Popeye’s bottom(!) and both lads taking their dinner table for a ride around the salon— thus giving new meaning to the term “hobby horse.”

Next, the Bahian-clad Olive resumes her “Samba Lelê” routine for the boys’ personal enjoyment, this time warbling the number in an awkward English-language version known as “Broadway Samba.” She starts the song off with the following lines, but the words become more and more impenetrable in direct proportion to her Spanish accent (note the rolling “r” sounds):

Everyone does the samba, samba, Broadway Samba today

It’s proper to do the samba, in the group on the Gay White Way, oh

If you can do the Broadway Samba, then you really buffet

To get some to be solid, you must shake it the samba way

Samba Lelê, do you dig, dig, dig?

Don’t be an icky, be hip, hip, hip!

Samba Lelê, do you dig, dig, dig?

Get on the beat, be a pip!

Oh it’s Broadway, like the Bijou

All about it, like the Beacon

You’ll feel just like a king

Just when you start to take a spin

Everyone does the samba, samba, Broadway Samba today

It’s proper to do the samba, in the group on the Gay White Way, oh

If you can do the Broadway Samba, then you really buffet

To get some to be solid, you must shake it the samba way

Popeye gets so wrapped up in her performance that he wrings the tablecloth he’s holding into a knot, taking the table along with it. The resultant splinters end up on the dance floor. And so does Popeye’s elbow when he attempts to lean it against the missing piece of furniture.

At the conclusion of “Broadway Samba,” Popeye explodes in a thunderous verbal ovation. It’s a little too thunderous for the disapproving Bluto who, despite his efforts at grooming, grumbles under his breath the line, “I gotta get rid of that uncouth runt” — as if “uncouth” had no bearing on his own less-than-exemplary behavior.   

To get even, Bluto comes up with the idea of pawning Popeye off as the “champeen samba dancer of the USA,” which immediately impresses the lovely senhorita (in a reversal of a similar gag in the previous Kickin’ the Conga Round). As usual, Popeye’s unwillingness to make a fool of himself holds no water with his biggest fan. And true to form, Olive skillfully coaxes the bashful salt onto the spotlight. “The samba!” she exultantly proclaims, which leaves Popeye to his own devices.

The orchestra atop the Cafe in Paramount’s “W’ere On Our Way to Rio”

The orchestra launches into a choro variation of the “W’ere on Our Way to Rio” theme, while Popeye’s two left-feet whirl about him in an animated facsimile of a soft shoe. In the next instant, Popeye vanishes from the scene. As the spotlight searches the nightclub for the missing sailor, it alights on the upper balcony. There, it finds Popeye with his head buried in the woodwork. “What a spot I’m in,” the would-be ostrich mutters to himself. Popeye momentarily resumes the soft shoe, but just as swiftly disappears, exit stage left.

He’s found in the arms of a mermaid. Not a real mermaid, but a statue decorating the water fountain. “Ya got me,” Popeye giggles to himself, in self-deprecating acknowledgment that “the jig is up.” He good-naturedly accepts his predicament, an all-too-common situation for our hearty sailor man. The focus shifts to the orchestra’s trumpet player and bandleader, both dead-ringers for Paramount star Bob Hope (as we revealed earlier).

Popeye seems to be enjoying himself, finally. He picks up his spontaneous dance routine where he left off: at center stage. Once more unto the breach, he goes. And exits, stage right — running smack, dab into the jutting platform where Olive has just performed. The whole place erupts into gales of laughter.

“Oh, senhor, you’re so funny,” she adds. Popeye lifts his weary head to gaze sheepishly at the girl. As for Bluto, he’s gone into virtual hysterics, guffawing in baritone-like belly-laughs that all-but drown out the audience.

On cue, Popeye whips out a freshly-opened can of spinach (with 17 points of muscle-building iron, according to the label). He empties the contents in one gulp, which turn his hands into enormous chocalhos. Popeye’s prepped for action. As a lesson to bullies everywhere (that you can’t shove us Yankees around), he’s ready to teach movie audiences that laughing hyenas such as Bluto need their comeuppance. This sequence highlights an expertly rotoscoped display of superior dance moves, to the flashy orchestral accompaniment of “Samba Lelê.”

Popeye takes the obliging Olive into his arms and, together, they take over the salon. In retaliation, Bluto tosses out one of the pandeiros in an effort to disrupt his pal’s performance. But Popeye recovers nicely by hurling the pandeiro into the air with his feet, head and buttocks. He then flings the pandeiro at Bluto’s noggin, which utterly fails to beat some sense into it.

The couple approaches the dance platform, where behind the curtain Bluto plots his next move: he operates the lever that, once again, juts the platform out at Popeye. Bluto’s hopes for tripping his buddy up flop as Popeye, reminiscent of a similar move he made in Kickin’ the Conga Round, deftly up-ends himself by dancing with his hands while his legs and feet continue the arm movements. Nothing can stop this samba-swaying fiend, that’s for certain.

Our hero drags the reluctant Bluto out of his hiding place. Yanking him by his bristly beard, Popeye coaxes the blubbering Bluto onto the dance floor. Despite his entreaties, big bad Bluto gets pulverized with a punishing right and a kick to the chin. He lands in Popeye’s arms, which spin him around as if he were a human maraca. Bluto finally gets launched head-first into the giant pandeiro.

Popeye spins the spoilsport Bluto around like a human maraca

When the stage platform shoves Popeye into the waiting arms of Senhorita Olive, the two wind up spinning about the nightclub like oversized tops. In the whirlwind-like haze, Popeye manages to swap clothes with Olive. He’s now dressed in her Bahian outfit; she’s wearing his sailor outfit, complete with kerchief and hat. But the last “word” belongs to Olive as she lets out a couple of toots on her newly acquired pipe.

We return to the opening Paramount Pictures logo for the final band flourish. OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah. Ta-DAH!

A Song By Any Other Name  

Whew! There’s so much frenzied action and outcome in this second portion of W’ere on Our Way to Rio that one hardly knows where to begin. We can start by recapping some of the highlights from Kickin’ the Conga Round, which basically (ahem) “kickstarted” the whole Good Neighbor series.

We mentioned before that the unnamed Rio café where Popeye and Bluto visit, and where Senhorita Olive performed her samba routine, is a stand-in for Cassino da Urca. In a comparable manner, the Café La Conga, pictured in Kickin’ the Conga Round, could have been a cartoon replica of the real-life La Conga Club, once situated on Broadway and 51st Street in Manhattan, where such legendary Cuban-jazz musicians as Mario Bauzá and his brother-in-law, Machito (aka Frank Grillo), played and prospered. By 1937, the club became “wildly popular,” to put it mildly.

Such coincidences abound in the 1940s. But in this case, there’s reason to believe that some of those transplanted New York writers and cartoonists, “serving time” in the Fleischer brothers’ Miami headquarters, may have based the animated Café La Conga on their nighttime excursions to the fabled La Conga Club. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, given that their old New York City hangout had once occupied space — first at 129 East 45 Street, and later in the Studebaker Building located at 1600 Broadway — near the Times Square theater district. Take it from this former New Yorker: that’s a stone’s throw away from 51st Street, comparable to a short one-station subway ride.  

Returning to that catchy number that Olive sings and dances to — and the central theme of this last of the Fleischer’s Miami-based cartoon features — we’ll be providing an English-language equivalent which must be prefaced by some explanatory material.

Olive and Popeye swap clothing in true Carnival fashion

First of all, the word Lelê (either upper- or lowercase) is an expression that describes a person who is nuts, crazy, or obsessed about something or with someone (usually, oneself); an individual who thinks he or she is the best at what he or she does, the king of all they survey. There’s an equivalent expression in Portuguese, o rei da cocada preta (“king of the black coconut”), which, if you’re familiar with healthy-looking coconuts, tend to be a solid-brown color on the outside and a milky-white one on the inside. Note that the color “black” is nowhere to be found. In other words, you’re the king of something that doesn’t exist, as in the American expression, “He’s a genius in his own mind.”

So, a person who’s “Samba Lelê” is, in their mind, the best at what they do, and that is singing and dancing the samba. Yet the song itself is a commentary on how one-sided that view tends to be. This is exemplified by the chorus: “Samba Lelê tá (short for está) doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da,” loosely translated as “Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up-up-up,” which is as close to the original meaning as one can get.  

Putting it all together, here’s how this slang-filled ditty sounds in English:

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me, oh

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me

Chorus

Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up-up-up

Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up

I’m the best at samba dancing

I’m not here just for the asking

I’m the king of all that’s crazy

Sound the drumbeat, I’m not lazy

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me, oh

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me

All right, I’ll admit that I’m no Stephen Sondheim. And I know the above lyrics cannot possibly compare to what Messrs. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or George and Ira Gershwin put out in the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley. But I’m sure you’ll agree they provide a much better context for non-Portuguese speakers than the spurious “Broadway Samba” lyrics do.  

Speaking of which, the “Broadway Samba” version of “Samba Lelê” originally appeared in a 1941 Paramount Pictures musical short, entitled Copacabana Revue, directed by Leslie M. Roush (BW, 10 min., released Nov 21, 1941) and which pre-dated both W’ere On Our Way to Rio and the earlier Kickin’ the Conga Round. Apparently, Paramount had the number in mind since they owned the rights to the English version, safely locked away in its vaults.

Here’s another bit of trivia. There’s a plethora of African-based words, phrases, and nonsense syllables in Brazilian Portuguese, many of which pop up in songs of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and throughout the 1960s and well beyond. Idiomatic expressions from those periods are also prevalent, some associated with the genres of choro, samba, samba-canção, bossa nova, Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), and especially Tropicália.

Take, for instance, the word Pelé, which happens to be the nickname for one of Brazil’s most celebrated soccer players, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. In essence, there’s no real meaning attached to this word. It’s basically a nondescript substitute used to differentiate it from pele (without the accent on the final “e”), the Portuguese word for “skin.” So in essence, Lelê is no different than Pelé, except Lelê has more substantive significance.

Incidentally, the Carnival-based “Samba Lelê” was written in 1939 by composer and pianist Paulo Roberto. According to author Ruy Castro, Paulo Roberto “was a famous radio man and songwriter (he was also a respected medical doctor!),” and the “brother of Luiz Barbosa, who introduced the hard straw hat as a rhythmic samba instrument, and of the great comedian Barbosa Junior, who recorded several duets with Carmen Miranda.”

Equally incredible is that “Sambalelê,” formerly an unrelated nursery rhyme, was also a traditional children’s song. The existence of this second “Sambalelê” (as one word) was an extraordinary discovery, in that this simple tune happens to be the predecessor to the one used in the Popeye cartoon. It’s also the one that Paulo Roberto appropriated for his more rhythmic variation.

A combination lullaby and bedtime number, it starts off slowly with the same melody as the section, “Samba Lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da.” Only here, the main verse in Olive’s version differs at the second syllable of “le-LÉ” and the third syllable of “do-en-TE-TE” which, instead of rising to an A flat at the phrase “Samba Le-LÉ ta doenTE-TE” (with “” and “TE-TE”), falls on the lower F sharp in the children’s song. This results in a softer, subtler, less edgy declamation, as it would be, naturally, for a kid’s tune. You can hear this slower version on YouTube, performed by (among others) the Canadian-Armenian singer-lyricist Raffi, who gives it an unnatural Caribbean-calypso beat.

And while we’re at it, let me mention that Castro referred me to the original Victor (Brazil) 78-rpm, 10-inch, double-faced, October 26, 1939 recording, made in Rio (matrix 033245), of “Samba Lelê,” sung to perfection in an exceptionally clear and rhythmically precise interpretation by the Argentine-born, Italian-descended Brazilian singer Carlos Galhardo (real name Catello Carlos Guagliardi).

The handsome, dark-haired Galhardo, who resembled a cross between John Barrymore and Herbert Marshall, was part of a group of talented radio and nightclub performers from the so-called “Golden Age” of Brazilian popular music. Some of Galhardo’s contemporaries included the likes of Chico Alves, Orlando Silva, Silvio Caldas, and Mario Reis, all of them gifted beyond their years.      

Popular radio and nightclub singer Carlos Galhardo

You can savor the tone of Galhardo’s superbly placed tenor voice, as it rises and falls in all the right places. His expert delivery of the text, crisply enunciated and beautifully captured by the elementary technique, is a wonderful testament to his artistry. Make note, too, of his deliciously rounded r’s, so marvelously natural, as well as his infectiously buoyant personality.

On a personal note, Galhardo’s 1941 recording of the Carnival march hit, “Alá-lá-o” (by Haroldo Lobo and Antonio Nássara), was one of my family’s favorites.  

And it’s thus that we end this study of the Fleischer brothers’ South of the Border cartoon outings. It’s fitting, then, that in the finale to W’ere On Our Way to Rio, both Olive Oyl and Popeye exchange their clothes. Why fitting? Because Carnival demanded it!

When, during the prior year, could the average Brazilian, especially in Rio, play the role of a pauper or a king, to become, in make believe, a woman in a US Navy sailor outfit, or a man in a Bahian headdress and skirt? Why, during Carnival, of course! That’s the power of the celebration, of the Carnival spirit taking over your person, the very essence of what it is, of what it once used to be — and how it has been preserved in animated form.  

Credits: Released April 21, 1944, Duration: 7:43 (or 7:51), #125 in the Popeye series. Produced by Famous Studios / Paramount Pictures (by arrangement with King Features Syndicate). This was the last cartoon produced in Miami, Florida. Direction: Isadore “Izzy” Sparber; animators: James “Jim” Tyer, Ben Solomon, William “Bill” Henning; additional animators and in-between artists: Tom Inada, Abner Kneitel, James Tanaka (all uncredited); producers: Dan Gordon, Seymour Kneitel, I. Sparber (all uncredited); associate producer: Sam Buchwald (uncredited); story: Jack Mercer, Jack Ward; voices: Jack Mercer (Popeye), Dave Barry (Bluto), “Olive” (unknown); musical arrangement: Winston Sharples; songs: “W’ere On Our Way to Rio”; “Samba Lelê” – recorded in 1939 by Carlos Galhardo, and “Broadway Samba” in 1941.

Many thanks to author Ruy Castro, to Carla Guagliardi (the daughter of Carlos Galhardo), and to my brother Anibal Lopes for their invaluable assistance in providing additional material for this piece.

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Four) — Opera Out of the Norm

The Grand Ball – Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’ at the Met Opera 2002

After a brief hiatus to finish work on my book about Brazil’s Fat Lady, I’m back in business and more than willing to discuss the slimmed-down Metropolitan Opera radio season. In this post, we’ll look at broadcast and streaming performances of works from the recent past that, to the untrained ear, bear little resemblance to what has normally been categorized as your average “standard repertoire.”

Although one can hardly consider such titles as Giordano’s Fedora or Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta as routine matters, they and other like productions are representative of an operatic mind-set that has taken the term “restoration” to new and impressive heights. Other works, such as Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Puccini’s perennial Tosca, revealed heretofore unexpected nuances for this confirmed opera lover.

But let’s start with the latest bulletin: Namely, the announcement a few weeks ago that Met Opera musicians finally agreed to the company’s terms in receiving their long-delayed paychecks. I, for one, greeted the news with mixed feelings. Several news outlets, including the online New York Times, reported on March 17 that the terms included a return to the bargaining table, “where the company is seeking lasting pay cuts it says are needed to survive the pandemic.”

To this, we say: Caveat emptor! It’s nothing but a Pyrrhic victory — no more, no less. If you’re not up on your ancient history, a “Pyrrhic victory” happens to be one where you win the battle but lose the war. In this instance, the toll is so great that it basically negates any gains achieved in the conflict. I’m afraid that going forward (or backward, if you prefer), this may mean the end of large-scale opera production as we know it. Why, the cost factor alone would seem to preclude many gargantuan works, not to mention star singers and musicians.

But let’s not grumble too much about the cost, lest we troll away this win into virtual nothingness. We begin our survey of the latest noteworthy performances:     

Met Opera on the march: A scene from Part II of Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’

War and Peace (2002) – One such rarely-heard item is Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s homage to wartime heroics and youth-filled fervor. Despite its four+-hours length, for all intents and purposes War and Peace is a bona fide masterwork. The composer’s treatment of Tolstoy’s massive tome, devoted to Napoleon’s invasion of Mother Russia, is nothing less than monumental and more than mere bombast.

True, there are patriotic anthems galore, with the concluding paean the most moving of all, albeit anticlimactic. Its similarity to the main theme from film director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Prokofiev scored and later re-purposed as a cantata, will not escape listeners’ notice. Nor did it escape that of American composer James Horner, who used a portion of that theme in his Oscar-nominated score for Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), a Civil War epic about the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Prokofiev fretted over his magnum opus. A performance of Part I was staged in 1946, however the “nationalistic” second half was aborted during rehearsals, no doubt due to Chairman Josef Stalin’s heavy-handed interference. The post-war purges of “rogue” artists and their work had begun, with fellow composer Dimitri Shostakovich and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold among the prime targets.

Prokofiev, like his friend Shostakovich, managed to avoid being dragged to the dreaded gulag. Instead, he and others like him suffered mental anguish. Considering the circumstances his colleagues found themselves in, psychological suffering may have turned out to be a fate worse than death. Admittedly, there was no pleasing Uncle Joe (the nickname FDR gave the Soviet dictator). Not even after Prokofiev’s claim that Stalin was a stand-in for Marshal Kutuzov, the savior of the Russian homeland (much as Eisenstein had treated the historical Nevsky); juxtaposed against the Hitler-like aggressor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his Grand Army forces (that is, the German war machine).

Marshall Kutuzov (Samuel Ramey) marshalling his Russian forces in Part II

Ironically, both Prokofiev and Stalin passed away on the same day: March 6, 1953. Joined with another musician, the Frenchman Hector Berlioz, whose own efforts in the epic realm, Les Troyens, met a similar fate (and remained unperformed during his lifetime), Prokofiev never witnessed a complete version of his work. With cuts and re-arrangements, the present “complete” edition is the one the Met Opera utilized for its premier outing.

Lacking the essentials of traditional Russian opera in his earlier stage pieces (the absence of lyricism among the most obvious), Prokofiev triumphed nevertheless with a score that captured him at his inspirational best. One can cite three major examples that rise to the heights of what Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky had achieved with Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin, respectively. The ones that come to mind are that lusciously jagged waltz theme (which reappears at Prince Andrei’s death and follows a path Prokofiev first took with his ballet, Romeo and Juliet); the opening arietta for the embittered widower Andrei; followed by Natasha and Cousin Sonia’s harmonious balcony duet (so similar in style and atmosphere to the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé).

We could add a fourth example: the aforementioned death scene, with its repetitive “piti, piti, piti” background vocalism (sung by the chorus), Andrei’s heart-breaking reunion with lost-love Natasha, and his final moments where we sense the prince’s life ebbing away — bit by sorrowful bit. How about that rousing chorus that closes the mammoth epic? As a lead in, Andrei sings the first few bars of this tune just before Natasha’s entrance in Part II. Few numbers in opera, let alone of the Russian variety, can match its fervent emotionality, with echoes of the Russian Orthodox liturgy — an ode to the embattled nation.

The March 2, 2002 performance of War and Peace (the opera premiered on February 14, 2002) was re-broadcast, for the first time in nearly two decades, on Saturday, December 5, 2020 — the opening item of the Met’s 2020-21 radio season now that live performances were banished from the airwaves due to the continuing coronavirus situation. It marked the 89th consecutive season of Saturday afternoon opera, as well as commemorated the on-air debut of Russian lyric Anna Netrebko, a then-fast-rising star in the Met’s operatic firmament, as the petulant Natasha Rostova.

Her counterpart was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky, as handsome a leading man as they come. Among the large and we do mean LARGE cast (68 parts sung by 50 or more artists) were tenor Gegam Grigorian as Pierre Bezukhov, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Sonia, mezzo Elena Obraztsova as Mme. Akhrosimova, contralto Victoria Livengood as Helene Kuragina, tenor Oleg Balashov as Anatole Kuragin, bass Vladimir Ognovenko as Prince Bolkonsky, baritone Vassily Gerello as Napoleon, and bass-baritone Samuel Ramey as Marshall Kutuzov, with baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Dolohov and bass John Cheek as Rostov.

Natasha (Anna Netrebko) waltzes with her partner, the dashing Prince Andrei (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) in Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’

Valery Gergiev, a past exponent of his country’s repertoire, presided over the sturdy Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a production from the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. The whole affair was shaped by some formidable forces, to include those of Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky, set designer George Tsypin, costume designer Tatiana Noginova, lighting designer James Ingalls, and projectionist Elaine McCarthy.

The relative absence of set pieces took a backseat to Kutuzov’s lengthy discourse in Part II, most memorably delivered (in his then-current wobbly state) by the potent Mr. Ramey. Ms. Obraztsova exuded star power in her brief turn as Natasha’s great aunt who berates her niece for betraying Prince Andrei with that no-account womanizer, Anatole Kuragin. Mr. Grigorian proved a stentorian Pierre, searing in his most ardent moments and red-faced with fury at his brother-in-law’s offenses. And, yes, there were layers upon layers of plot. So much so that, much like what Tchaikovsky did with Eugene Onegin, Prokofiev had to keep the sheer volume of episodes down to a minimum. Notably, he sliced several scenes out of the finished product, preserving but the barest outlines of the winding story line.

This places War and Peace (in Russian, Voyna y Mir) in a category by itself. An uniquely individual piece, which should have been labeled “Peace and War,” its brassy sonorities can be tricky to fathom. Those military marches and endless parade sequences may be out of style (truth be told, they were already passé when the visiting Bolshoi Opera premiered it at the Met in the mid-1970s), yet the work is most accessible vocally.

As long as Ms. Netrebko stayed front and center before the microphones, we were guaranteed a first-rate hearing. Her young soprano rang out thrillingly in the house. Even better, she and Dmitri made for a marvelous romantic couple: He, with fire in his eyes and ice in his veins; she, with passionate intensity and tenderness in her tone. The essential allure and strength of both Netrebko and Hvorostovsky’s authentic Russian accents were enough to carry the day. They certainly won all hearts, and that’s what counts.

Prince Andrei (Hvorostovsky) on his death bed, with Natasha (Netrebko) by his side

How much have live audiences and their radio counterparts missed with live opera? Quite a lot, I’m afraid. On a personal note, what have we ALL missed of late? For one, Hvorostovsky’s raw outpourings toward the end of Prince Andrei’s suffering brought to mind his own untimely passing, a little over three years ago, on November 17, 2017.

In one of the Met’s Live in HD presentations, specifically of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, “Dima,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, was presented with bouquets of flowers upon his return from surgery. Among the greeters onstage was Anna Netrebko, his Natasha in that long-ago War and Peace performance of 15 years prior. As Dima took in the ovation, the camera caught Netrebko wiping away tears from her eyes. She knew, instinctively, that her prince’s days were numbered.       

Ariadne auf Naxos (1988) – Not a work that I would have counted as among my favorites, this live transmission of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera-within-an-opera (from March 12, 1988) is one that completely bowled me over. How so? Well, this so-so Bogo Igesz production, with sets by legendary designer Oliver Messel, and conducted by the estimable James Levine, took me down a path with Strauss that I have rarely ventured.

The Prologue to Strauss’ ‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’ at the Metropolitan Opera 1988

Originally intended as a two-part, evening’s-length entertainment, which was to have encompassed a German-language rendering of Molière’s overly talky Le bourgeois gentilhomme or “The Middle-Class Gentleman,” adapted by Hofmannsthal himself (which made for an extremely long evening), the idea of separating the two works into (1) an expository Prologue; and (2) a combination of opera seria with commedia dell’arte antics, proved not only desirable but perfectly suitable for aural consumption.      

In the revised Prologue, the unheralded star of the proceedings was American mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as the Composer. Hers was a deeply committed interpretation, full of youthful vigor and optimism one minute, and downright horrified in the next by what was happening to “his” classical creation. Note that Strauss’ Composer is another of those so-called “trouser” roles, where a female artist takes on the aspects of a daring young man. Much as Strauss and Hofmannsthal had done with the fiery nobleman Octavian (from Der Rosenkavalier), here the nameless Composer is portrayed as a highly charged, emotionally unbending artist of integrity and resolve.

Mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as the volatile Composer in Strauss’ ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’

The conflict, in the main, revolves around a princely aristocrat’s request, no, order (after all, he is the young Composer’s benefactor) to perform his heroic Greek tragedy and the comic interlude to come (a mad Harlequinade, if you’re interested) together as one piece. The reason behind his request: There’s a fireworks display at the end. But the prince is unwilling to wait that long for the fireworks. Egad! What fools these impatient princes be!

The Composer is all for putting the burlesque off as long as possible, while the comedic players, including the flirtatious Zerbinetta, could care less: for them, it’s just another payday. Still, the fired-up Composer longs to have his heroine Ariadne fall into the arms of the god Bacchus (a classic combination of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements in art, placed symbolically into one perfectly acceptable union). He rebels at this mockery of his life’s work, which will resound with audience members who remember Mozart’s escapades at the court of Emperor Joseph II and the battles the composer waged with Salieri, his Italian counterpart, in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.    

Troyanos’ impassioned delivery of her lines (described as her “burning intensity”) and the wearing of her anguished heart on her flowing white sleeve won the plaudits of both critics and fans. This was as authentic a depiction of her artistry as any, a role most congenial to the mezzo’s fiery temperament. At that point in her Met career, Troyanos had Strauss (ahem) firmly under her belt, having appeared innumerable times as Octavian and as the bouncy Cherubino (another of those “pants parts”) in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

It’s by no means unreasonable to assume — and, we daresay, quite logical — that playwright Shaffer may have modeled his Mozart characterization on Strauss’ idealistic musician, who, in Hofmannsthal’s writing, doesn’t even get the benefit of a name. He’s known as the Composer. Thus, he’s stands for all musicians with bruised egos. The petulance, the impatience of youth, the righteous indignation — all of them attributable to “Wolfie.” Those traits come together in Strauss’ opera proper, a veritable free-for-all, where the commedia dell’arte troupe prances about the stage in counterpoint to Zerbinetta’s warbling.

In the meantime, an opera seria straight out of Gluck is taking shape, a snail’s-paced opus that neither resembles his Orfeo ed Euridice nor his Iphigenia operas, both of which thrived on classical structures. This latter portion of Ariadne, i.e., the auf Naxos (“from the Isle of Naxos”) part, pleases me less than the Prologue. Portentous and soporific, the opening numbers are inert, that is until the fun sections take command.

When the god Bacchus arrives to claim Ariadne for his bride, he’s voiced by the estimable James King, a heldentenor of yore in his twilight years. King hurled his high notes to the winds. An effective Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre, he enjoyed a brief run in the Prologue as the befuddled Tenor (also nameless). But here, one half expected King to be in his element. And, indeed, the voice was impressive for a 63 year old (at the time). Its major defect, however, was its lack of suppleness and flexibility, while the tenor’s deportment was stiff and unyielding to match. King creaked along dutifully, though his words had little snap or verve.

The Diva herself: Famed soprano Jessye Norman as Ariadne

On the opposite front, soprano Jessye Norman as the Prima Donna/Ariadne outdid herself. She opened the floodgates with her soaring tones, an ocean of depth and impressive size. Truly, a one-of-a-kind voice that hit the listener between the eyes with the force of a gale wind (she was all of 43). Like her partner King, Ms. Norman showed a lighter side to her talents. She had one of her funniest moments when she went into a swoon in Act I, which drew a hefty guffaw from the audience. Norman landed, full-force, on a conveniently placed armchair. Indeed, she timed it to perfection.

Bass-baritone Franz Ferdinand Nentwig as the Music Master was acceptable, but no more. Hardly memorable as well was Joseph Frank’s Dancing Master, who sounded underpowered. High praise is reserved for commedia dell’arte performers Stephen Dickson (Harlekin), Allan Glassman (Scaramuccio), Artur Korn (Truffaldin), and Anthony Laciura (Brighella). In fact, a more diverting bunch would be hard to find. That old standby, tenor Charles Anthony, had a brief cameo as the Officer, who woos the always accommodating Zerbinetta. He all-but stole the show, the voice remaining firm and forceful throughout his long Met career.

And speaking of Zerbinetta, former Met coloratura Kathleen Battle mopped the floor with the role’s requirements. The aptly-named Battle managed this highwire act with aplomb, and was especially outstanding in the Prologue where she joined Troyanos in quite possibly the loveliest unforced moment on stage, where the two artists merged their separate thoughts into a single duet. We cannot praise Ms. Battle enough for her pert and frothy Zerbinetta in that character’s lengthy scena later on. High notes or low notes, neither held any terror for this artist.

Second in command: Coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle as the flirtatious Zerbinetta in ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’

In retrospect, Zerbinetta is a frivolous individual. However, her obsessive compulsion with the opposite sex (a reversal of the usual girl-crazy youth) grates on the nerves after a while. Does she think of nothing else? We could say that Strauss and his librettist invented a modern-day liberated character, very much ahead of its time. Zerbinetta may be two-dimensional, but those stratospheric notes are to die for.

In our estimation, the one outstanding performer — another in a long-line of Met Opera and NYCO comprimarios — was tenor Nico Castel as the self-important Major Domo. Strictly a non-singing part, the Lisbon-born Castel, whose given name was Naftali Chaim Castel Kalinhoff, brought professional flair to this and many other assignments. His crystal-clear diction and superb enunciation of the text were a constant wonder and source of inspiration. He brought a lifetime of experience as a voice teacher and interpreter, a language expert, a diction coach, and a translator to everything he did. At the Met, he was known as the Professor Henry Higgins of opera. Raised in Venezuela, Castel attained fluency in six languages, the knowledge of which he shared with all his colleagues.  

With such an outstanding array of artists, a perfect sendoff would be to pay homage to all the above participants. In particular, to two of the finest performers that have ever graced the Met stage: the aforementioned Hvorostovsky and Troyanos. Coincidentally or not, both Dima and Tatiana passed away at the same age 55. Ars longa, vita brevis.       

End of Part Four

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Drummer Speaks — Memoirs by William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III

William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (1936-2021)

On Thursday, March 25, I read, with heavy heart, guitarist and bandleader Ken Avis’ sad notice and jazz writer David Adler’s detailed obituary about my close friend, jazz drummer William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III’s passing on March 20, 2021, of complications due to COVID-19.

I knew Buddy well, we talked often on the phone together.

At first, way back in 2004, I wrote a somewhat disparaging piece about him, entitled “Damn the Drummer, Where’s the Composer,” about his claim to have been instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing the classic Jazz Samba album on Verve to light, and (most importantly) the music of Brazilian bossa nova to the U.S.

Later — to be exact, seven years later, in 2011 — after receiving Buddy’s letter, I contacted him via email and landline. We became fast friends. The unusual aspect of all this was that it took him seven years to respond. Imagine, seven years! That’s how patient the man was. I asked him why he took so long to write. His response: “Because I was busy teaching and playing.” It was only after some of his students brought my piece to his attention that, after letting his initial reaction simmer for seven years, he finally decided to write back.

The funny thing was that he understood where I was coming from (and told me so, many times). He even sent me a lengthy printout of his curriculum vitae, but the best thing was that I ultimately came around to take up and champion his cause (well supported by the facts) that he, along with Keter Betts, the bassist, and Charlie Byrd, the great jazz guitarist, were THE key figures in that 1961 U.S. State Department visit to Latin America that brought the Brazilian bossa nova beat to American ears. Much later in our relationship, Buddy sent me his original itinerary for that trip, which I’m glad I made a photocopy of and will treasure as a personal keepsake. Of course, I mailed the original back to Buddy. It meant so much to him. It surprised me, too, that he still kept it, but that was Buddy. His seemingly rough exterior was only a cover for what I ascertained to be a sentimental streak. You loved him more for that.  

I had the utmost pleasure and fun in meeting and interviewing Buddy at the Strathmore Music Festival for the JAZZ SAMBA SYMPOSIUM, held there in June 2014. Afterward, we went to lunch together, where we were joined by famed audio engineer Ed Greene. We remained close friends afterward, and corresponded with each other via snail mail (Buddy hated computers) and frequent telephone calls. And, Ken Avis — by the way, Buddy’s response to Chuck Redd’s question about why jazz musicians were wearing tuxedos was a classic retort. What Buddy actually said was, “Because we were a class act!” That left the audience in attendance laughing their heads off. But, again, that was classic Buddy. He had an answer for every occasion, no matter the subject.

Buddy Deppenschmidt at the JAZZ SAMBA SYMPOSIUM, Strathmore Music Centre, June 2014

He was a REAL gentleman, too. And why was that? Didn’t he hobnob with some rough sorts (and heaven knows, some jazz giants could be really obnoxious)? Not Buddy. He treated everyone he met with the same deference and respect he gave Brazil’s music and musicians. And his love was genuine. I should know. I am Brazilian born. I’ve written about Brazil. I lived and worked in the country. My parents were Brazilian. All my relatives are Brazilian or have Brazilian blood flowing in their veins. I could sense that Buddy was not the type to put on airs. He was curious about Brazil, but most especially about the sensuous and beguiling music that would charm and seduce the world. And he was right.

This is why words cannot express my sense of loss for such an estimable artist and friend as Buddy Deppenschmidt.

In his last years (from about 2017 to 2020), Buddy had come down with a debilitating cough that, no matter how hard he tried, was simply unable to shake. The loss of his home in Bucks County really set the man back, more than most people can imagine. I will not go into the particulars at this stage, mostly out of respect for our friendship. Perhaps one day, I or someone with a knack for putting down Buddy’s eventful life onto paper, will take up the daunting task of documenting his life story. It’s a story worth telling.

Yet, despite his travails, Buddy never lost his sense of humor. He came from a musical family — he even gave me a treasure trove of self-made CDs and much, much music from his dad, Buddy Sr., and fabulous stories about his Danish-born grandmother who loved to listen to opera and famed Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior (also of Danish descent), whom grandma went to see often. Buddy told me a story that, when he was very young, he would sit on the floor in his living room and listen, all afternoon long, to big band music and classical music recordings — but especially jazz.

A few years ago, before Buddy was relocated to a nursing home in Doylestown, PA, he tried, at my urging, to write down his memoirs. You have to understand something about Buddy: He was a simple high school kid. He never attended college or had advanced degrees. What credentials he had were earned on the street. That may sound like a cliché, but it was pure Buddy. That’s who he was, and that’s how he expressed himself: rough, ready, stinging at times, but truthful and to the point. I never let his cantankerous nature get in the way of our relationship. And, boy, could he get cantankerous! And cranky, too. Still, I treated him as if he were a second father: with love, with kindness, with understanding, patience, and with respect.

In closing, here, for the first time, is the sum total of Buddy’s “memoirs,” just as he wrote it. In his voice, in his tone. It’s fitting that he should have the last word. It’s also fitting that he ended his reverie with that long-ago trip to Brazil. And you know something…. although he would never admit it, I think Buddy was a Brazilian at heart.

Rest in peace, old friend….

A younger Buddy Deppenschmidt at his Drum Kit

The Drummer Speaks — Memoirs by William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III

I was born on February 16, 1936, in Philadelphia and lived there until [I was] four years old. At age four my mother and father divorced and she and I moved back to my mother’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia. She had met my father there while he was playing tenor sax with the Johnny Brown Orchestra at Tantilla Gardens, a famous ballroom in Richmond and where I would, many years later, play with the Newton Thomas Trio. Life is so unpredictable!

At any rate, I went to Westhampton Junior High School where at age ten and in the fifth grade I joined the band. They came to my homeroom and asked, “Who would like to get in the band?” I raised my hand! The next question was, “What instrument do you play?” Well, I didn’t play any instrument and I didn’t know what to say. So I turned to the guy sitting next to me, who had said he was in the band and, coincidentally, whose name was also “Buddy” — Buddy Tyler — and said, “What instrument do you play?” He said, “Drums,” so I said “I play drums.” That’s how much serious thought went into that serious career choice (smile).

Anyway, I gave it my all. Buddy Tyler and I used to march around our neighborhood with our parade drums slung on our drum slings playing our marching beats and, believe it or not, no one complained. Guess we were in a very tolerant neighborhood.

I got my first drum set when I was in my second year of high school because I had been offered an opportunity to play in a small Dixieland band called the Sophocats. Their drummer was going off to college and they thought I had talent. Well, we played for school dances and many university fraternity parties, etc., and I learned to play the drum set “on the job.”

I had an endless library of phonograph records at home (classical, big band, Dixie, jazz, ragtime, boogie woogie), you name it, we had it! So I was always listening to music. As soon as I got home from high school I’d lie down on the floor with my head in front of the speaker and listen and analyze the music.

My dad said, “If your mother says you’ve been practicing, I will get you a really good drum set next year.” Well, I didn’t need a calendar! And he kept his promise! He got me a beautiful 1950s Gretsch set and it sounded great!!! That’s the set I took to South America, Central America and Mexico (not to mention all over the United States!) and recorded on it, too. You hear it on The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd and I think it’s the best drum sound I have ever heard and I’ve listened to a lot of records!

I am talking just the drum sound. I am surely not intending to brag about my playing, although I thought it was pretty good for having been with the band only four days! Check it out — on the Riverside label owned by Fantasy in California. They bought all of Riverside’s masters when Riverside went out of business.

Back in Richmond, I was getting quite a lot of work and listening to a local Latin radio station [where] the D.J. spoke in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word but the music was terrific. After countless hours of listening to those Latin rhythms, I started playing all those Latin beats pretty well and as a result I started to get gigs from the Arthur Murray Dance School since I was one of the few drummers in town who could play a good rumba, samba, tango, mambo, etc. It was great experience and a lot better than working in some “fast food joint.”

I continued to stay busy in Richmond. Soon after high school, I went on the road with the Ronnie Bartley Band, a territory band that toured the mid- and Southwest United States. Upon returning to Richmond, I began playing with the Newton Thomas Trio. Newton was an amazing self-taught jazz piano player that played all the tunes in any key even though he couldn’t read a note of music. If we were backing up a vocalist and she said, “That key’s too high for me,” he would take it down a half tone or a whole tone or whatever. I don’t know how he did it! And he was a country music D.J. at one of the local radio stations as a “day gig.” What a guy!

Anyway, we were playing the Virginia Beach Jazz Festival and we surprised everyone, to say the least, even Dave Brubeck and Charlie Byrd, who were also on the bill. No one expected us to bring down the house, but we did! Two nights later, Charlie Byrd, his drummer and his wife, and Charlie’s wife [Ginny] came into the club where Newt and I were working and offered me a job. The rest is history which I will explain later.

Shortly after that I moved to D.C. from Oceanview, VA, and joined Charlie Byrd’s Trio which included bassist Keter Betts and after being with him only four days we had a recording date. Charlie said, “Have you ever recorded?” And I said, “Oh yes, I’ve made tapes.” He said, “I mean a commercial recording.” And I said, “Oh, no.” He said, “Well, we have a recording date on Saturday.” That was just four days away! And it went very well! In fact, Charlie called the record “Charlie’s Choice” because he thought it was his (to date). It later was reissued and the name changed to The Guitar Artistry.

Well, it was about six months later that we got the State Department tour of eighteen South American, Central American countries and Mexico City (three months) in 1961, March to early June. Needless to say, it was an education, a vacation and I also got paid for doing what I loved to do! I guess it doesn’t get better than that!! I felt truly blessed.

We started in Caracas, Venezuela. And after our first concert we were asked to do a command performance at the president’s palace. I was taking my shoes off (as I always did when I played drums) and someone said it was wrong to do so in the president’s palace, and I said to her, “If you played piano, would you do it with gloves on?” I think she got the message! (Smile)

 From Venezuela we went to Brazil, which was my favorite country. We went to all of the major cities except Rio. It was there that I fell in love with the music and the people of Brazil. We were in Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador da Bahia, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba and Porto Alegre. I made several friends in Brazil. 

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Animated Brazil — Part Three: Samba Your Cares Away!

Bluto and Popeye advance toward their “fun” destination: The cartoon Cafe inRio

A Clubbing We Will Go

In the next sequence, Popeye and Bluto stride brazenly towards a nameless establishment — with the word CAFÉ (sans l’accent aigu) blazoned prominently above the marquee. The boys, strolling shoulder to shoulder, give a U.S. Navy salute to the two uniformed doormen standing at attention and stationed on opposite sides of the entrance.

The viewer’s attention is centered on the main stage. A young couple is outlined in silhouette. The gentleman, at left, politely flicks his cigarette lighter open for an elegant young lady seated to our right. The flame partially illuminates her profile, revealing a charming and, one would imagine, thoroughly sophisticated nightclub-goer.

Moving closer to the main stage, the café’s modest orchestra can be spotted atop a balcony. An extremely large, outsized tambourine — in this case, a pandeiro, the Brazilian equivalent — has been placed against the wall and just below the balcony.

The cartoon’s camera angle now focuses attention on the percussionist’s hands as they work the chocalho, an instrument resembling the maracas. Three musicians swing their clarinets in time to a bouncy samba-like theme (but at a slower pace), one reminiscent of chorinho, a popular music genre at the time. Prominent at right are the drummer’s arms beating a trio of tom-toms.          

Suddenly, the focus shifts to the giant pandeiro. Behind it we see the upside-down figure of a lady. The pandeiro flips over to reveal a Carmen Miranda-esque beauty. Why, it’s Olive Oyl, dressed in an exotic baiana (or Bahian) outfit. On her head is a fruit-basket hat, with a necklace of pearls dangling from her neck. She’s wearing a black vest-like blouse with puffy red sleeves; a colorful red, orange and yellow skirt wraps around her torso. Her bare feet are cushioned by sandals, and her toenails are painted red.

With horns blaring, the orchestra blasts out a major-key theme that introduces the sultry singer to our eager swabbies. Not surprisingly, the boys overreact to her physical presence: their eyes automatically widen, while their bodies become rigid with attention.

Bluto sits directly behind Popeye. At Olive’s entrance, Bluto grabs his pal’s neck and covers Popeye’s gaze with his big hands. It doesn’t take a confirmed Freudian to notice that Bluto’s stiffened posture mimics a straight-on erection (that is, in another part of his body) — a natural reaction under the circumstances. Bluto eventually comes down from his “high,” but ends up barking like a trained seal. A passing waiter tosses a fish to the astonished sailor. This scene is almost a direct steal from one in Kickin’ the Conga Round, where the waiter delivers a can of spinach to Popeye’s table.       

Bluto has turned into a human seal in “W’ere on Our Way to Rio”

True to the spirit of the locale, the singer puts her best feet forward. Olive — we assume it’s Olive because of our familiarity with her face and features, even though she’s not identified as such — starts the program off with a Brazilian Portuguese rendition of the song, “Samba Lelê,” the original lyrics of which are given below: 

Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver, o
Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver

Samba lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da
Samba lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada

Eu já sou de fato bamba
Não preciso de muamba
Sou o rei, sou coroado
No batuque sou formado

Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver, o
Entrei na roda do samba, samba, samba, samba lelê
Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver

We’ll get into the specifics, and provide the English translation surrounding this decidedly buoyant and engagingly melodious number, in Part Four of our series. For now, let’s concentrate on the cartoon’s setting and historical background.

The Games People Played

The real-life Cassino da Urca circa the 1940s

Despite the fact that the actual name of the café where the action takes place is never shown or mentioned, audiences can make an intelligent “leap of faith” guess in identifying the nightclub in question: It’s the renowned Cassino da Urca.

Because of the cartoon café’s proximity to Guanabara Bay, it being situated at the foothills of Sugar Loaf Mountain (see Part Two for details: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2021/01/18/animated-brazil-part-two-wont-you-be-my-good-neighbor/) and part of a peninsula that harbors the much smaller Urca Mountain, this would be the place to start.

The classy Cassino da Urca was, at one time, a major showplace for illustrious foreign visitors (for instance, President Roosevelt, Bing Crosby, Josephine Baker, Orson Welles, and the Nicholas Brothers), as well as for locals of financially-elevated means. Too, the Urca was significant as a sought-after leisure spot where, among the multi-talented artists who appeared there, the most conspicuous were Carmen Miranda and her younger sister, Aurora. This makes perfect sense, then, in the cartoon’s depiction of “Olive” as an exotic samba dancer.

Originally a type of beachfront property, the Urca became fashionable as a casino and gambling house during the heyday of such venues as the Copacabana Palace (first established in 1923; closed between 1926 and 1930; reopened in 1932), the Cassino Atlântico (from 1935 on), and ultimately the Cassino da Urca (inaugurated in 1936). At their dizzying heights, author Ruy Castro, in his book A noite do meu bem (“The Night of My Love”), placed the official count at 80 for gambling houses that once flourished throughout the country.   

There was a time in Brazil, and especially in Rio (before, during, and shortly after the Second World War), where betting on cards and roulette were given pride of place for those in the highest echelons of  Brazilian society. Other patrons included performers in the entertainment field, politicians, diplomats, ministers of state, major and minor celebrities, businesspeople, high-class call girls, wealthy Latin Americans (especially Argentines), and vacationing Europeans.

The good times came to an end, however, when Brazil’s long-serving president and dictatorial strongman, Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), finally left office. His successor, General Eurico Gaspar Dutra, implemented a nationwide decree (which began as a widely circulated rumor) closing down all existing casinos that exploited “games of chance in every region of the country.” The decree took effect on April 30, 1946.

As a result, the Cassino da Urca, along with comparable establishments, suffered huge job losses: from cooks, waiters, dishwashers, telephone operators, hat-check girls, busboys, and publicists to musicians, soloists, acrobats, comics, singers, makeup artists, engineers, set and costume designers, tailors, and dressmakers. Many places continued as resort hotels, the Urca and Copacabana Palace among them. Sadly, the vast assemblage of performers and instrumentalists dwindled to a relative handful, but the music continued on, if in more subdued fashion.

Fortunately for movie audiences, by the time W’ere on Our Way to Rio was launched in the U.S. (on April 21, 1944, to be exact), the casinos in general, and the Urca in particular, were still in full and thriving operation — ergo, its presence as an hospitable “welcome port” for homesick seamen.          

Who’s That Girl?

The lovely Senhorita Olive Oyl dances for her sailor beau, Popeye

As hinted at in Part Two, decades have passed in wild speculation as to who might have supplied the samba strutting Olive’s vocals. After spending the better part of two-and-a-half years in research and in tracking this elusive individual down, I have been unsuccessful in discovering the name of the person responsible.

With that admission out of the way, I can state, with complete conviction, that the voice provided is definitely not Carmen Miranda’s nor that of her sister Aurora; nor can it be attributed to anyone with the characteristics of a feminine Brazilian voice.

This would have to mean that either Margie Hines or Mae Questel were the actors responsible for voicing Olive, correct? Um, not so fast. In my research, I was able to unearth an abundance of useful information that quantified the exact dates of their participation as Popeye’s girlfriend. The dates also bolstered my suspicions that Olive was not performed by an American voiceover artist.

To begin with, Margie Hines began her association with the Fleischers in 1931. She shared the role of Betty Boop with the above-named Mae Questel until approximately 1932, when Ms. Questel became the official “Boop voice” provider. It was also in 1932 that Ms. Hines signed with the Van Beuren studios. (On a side note, most online websites reference Bonnie Poe, née Clara Rothbart, as having initially done Betty Boop — alongside Questel — as well as sporadic turns as Olive between 1933 and 1935.)

When Max and Dave Fleischer decided, in 1938, to make the move to Miami, Mae refused to uproot herself. Consequently, Margie accepted their offer to relocate and provide Olive’s voice along with that of baby Swee’ Pea. It should be noted, too, that Margie was married at the time to Jack Mercer (Popeye) — their home life must have been anything but routine, to say the least. The couple divorced in 1950.    

You may recall that Hines did the “Cuban” version of Olive in 1942’s Kickin’ the Conga Round. She continued her voiceover work for the Fleischers in Florida until the end of 1943, when Paramount bought the brothers out and renamed their company Famous Studios. The move back to midtown Manhattan occurred in early 1944. Margie Hines’ last voiceover as Olive, then, took place with the December 31, 1943 release of The Marry-Go-Round, her final cartoon short.

Shortly afterward, Mae Questel returned to the role of Olive Oyl with the fortuitous May 26, 1944 release of The Anvil Chorus Girl, the first of the newly refurbished New York Popeyes. That would make W’ere on Our Way to Rio, issued the month before on April 21st, the last to be produced in Miami. Both Jack Mercer and Dave Barry (as Bluto) recorded their parts in Florida. There is a conspicuous gap of nearly five months (between December 31, 1943 and May 26, 1944) where neither Hines nor Questel were available for voiceovers. Indeed, all evidence points to this fact.

Unfortunately, most online websites, including IMDb, still credit either Hines, Questel, or the pseudonymous “Uncredited” as having been the singing and speaking voice of Olive in W’ere on Our Way to Rio. I have no objection to “Uncredited,” but the others should make the issue plain: Margie Hines and Mae Questel were not responsible for laying down the vocals for the Brazilian samba dancer.

So who voiced Olive? And why couldn’t it have been either Carmen or Aurora Miranda? They certainly seemed like the logical choices. After all, how many Portuguese speakers were employed by Hollywood at the time? Not many.

The basic problem, for one, is that Carmen was under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox. And the head of Fox Studios happened to be Darryl F. Zanuck. According to various sources, including Ruy Castro’s definitive study, Carmen: Uma biografia, Zanuck would never have permitted Carmen, or any of his stable of stars, to play fast-and-loose with their contracts, only to do lowly voicework at some rival studio, especially one whose subsidiary was on the opposite side of the country — in this case, Famous Studios, owned by Paramount Pictures and the entity that bought the Fleischers out.

Carmen and Aurora Miranda – Two sisters, two marvelous talents

Even more obvious, especially to anyone with a decent pair of ears, is for one to make the comparison of Carmen’s singing and speaking voice with the Popeye cartoon version: in truth, they sound nothing alike.

We concede that younger sister Aurora Miranda might have been a workable alternative. But after Aurora’s lengthy outing for Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros (distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, first in Mexico City on December 21, 1944, and subsequent release in the U.S. on February 3, 1945), with a full year of post-production work behind her, the littlest Miranda showed no interest, neither was she approached for the assignment. Besides, Aurora lived in Beverly Hills, along with big sister Carmen.

Aurora participated in few Hollywood films of the period. Compared to Carmen, her total output numbered a mere handful of productions, i.e., Universal’s Phantom Lady (January 28, 1944), Warner Bros.’ The Conspirators (October 24, 1944), and Republic Picture’s Brazil (November 30, 1944) and Tell It to a Star (August 16, 1945).   

All right, but who did Olive? Possibly somebody who knew Brazilian Portuguese and could sing the language relatively well. But the accent is off. It’s definitely not a carioca (a native of Rio de Janeiro), the enunciation of which stresses the soft “shush” sound. Olive’s speaking voice does have a distinctly Latin tinge, the pronunciation most likely of Cuban or Puerto Rican origin, even Colombian, with the emphasis on a hard “r” sound rather than the softer Portuguese style.

However, the game was finally given away: first, at the phrase “Eu sou moleque bamba e agora eu quero ver” (“I’m a crackerjack at this sort of thing, so let’s see what I can do”); and second, with the English verses to “Broadway Samba,” the American version of “Samba Lelê.” At first, I felt that two voices were hired for this assignment: one for Portuguese, and one for English. Realizing that no studio worth its salt would have the resources to afford two actors for one cartoon short, I concluded that a single voiceover was responsible for the singing and dialogue.

Also, in the original Portuguese lyrics, a true carioca would have “swallowed” the moleque portion, to the point that it would come out sounding like “muh-lek” — a short and crisp absorption of the final syllable. These affectations, as well as that characteristic “shush” sound, are closely associated with the citizens of Rio and which were strongly influenced by their Portuguese colonizers (the original settlers). But here, they are nowhere to be found.

There is also little attention paid to rhythmic accentuation, little flowing of the melodic line, weak adherence to meter or tempo, and a passing respect for quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. An unknown, uncredited artist, or a local Miami resident, with a working knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese and a sense of the Brazilian style of vocalizing, would be the prime candidate.

This makes perfect sense. One source I consulted on JSTOR, entitled “The Cuban Experience in the U.S., 1865-1940: Migration, Community and Identity,” by Gerard E. Poyo for Cuban Studies, Vol. 21 (1991), pp. 19-36 (University of Pittsburgh Press), indicated that many Cubans came to the Key West and Tampa areas by virtue of the cigar and tobacco industry during the 1930s. Travel back and forth between Cuba and the Florida mainland was all-too common, in particular after the 1933 military uprising (which brought a young Cuban named Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, aka Desi Arnaz, to our shores) and the later 1940 election of President Fulgencio Batista.

It is conceivable, based on the evidence at hand, that Famous Studios took advantage of the available Latin market in and around Miami in Dade County, to include Tampa and quite possibly Key West. For a definitive take on the matter, I conferred with Ruy Castro, who I had corresponded with earlier in reference to Carmen Miranda, samba, and Brazilian-related cultural matters.

“As for the female singer in the cartoon, you’re right — it definitely isn’t Carmen,” Castro pointed out, “nor even a Brazilian singer. It’s some Spanish-born imitator. There were several of them in the USA at the time.” So there you have it.

Despite Ruy’s candid assessment above, my investigation into who voiced Olive in W’ere on Our Way to Rio will continue, as will my analysis of the song “Samba Lelê” and the unexpected revelation of another “Sambalelê” with almost the same melody and lyrics.

Stay tuned!

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Three) — More, More, More!

The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, New York City

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

It’s been a long time for listeners to go without live opera. And it may get longer still.

Depending on how successful (or not) the United States, the European Union, Latin and South America, and/or Asian nations are in vaccinating their inhabitants — and keeping up with social distancing, mask wearing, and such — we, the fanatical opera buffs of this world, will have to settle for pre-recorded events for the foreseeable future.

Not that pre-recorded events are necessarily a “bad” thing in themselves. As a matter of fact, some are quite extraordinary. And many are downright pleasurable. But what I’ve been reading online, though, does not bode well for the operatic arts in North America.

For example, there are substantial and completely justifiable complaints concerning the Metropolitan Opera not having paid their laid-off musicians during the pandemic hiatus. True, the top talents always seem to get the lion’s share of assignments. Lamentably, those lesser mortals who labor in subordinate positions, or behind the scenes (as artisans, craftspeople, scene painters, costumiers, stage designers, digital technicians, and the like), have been short-changed by the unavailability of work. Work, in this case, should be viewed as a steady stream of employment via frequent performances and long-term engagements.

And while we’re at it, when will opera return to “normalcy,” whatever “normalcy” happens to be in these trying times? Did we say “trying”? Maybe “critical” is a better word for conveying the dysfunction at hand. Surely, there must be some sort of reckoning, either now or in the years to come, involving this unresolved dilemma.

The astronomical cost of producing live opera may have to take a backseat to other lingering and far more pressing concerns, with our lives, health, and well-being top-most among them. Failure to address these concerns will ultimately lead to a perfect storm of problems and, quite possibly, the very extinction of what we hold most dear.

Sooner or later, these very issues (money, relevance, need, etc.) will have to be resolved. And one of them should be how important opera and the performing arts — not to mention orchestral and choral concerts, live theater, Broadway musicals, the ballet, and others — are to our lives and to the national conscience. For the past four years, there has been little regard in this country for the arts in general. By “arts,” we also mean the cinematic and television arts and all that those entail.

In our estimation, they are all linked, in an unbroken chain, to keeping faith with music and art as a viable means of expression, along with sustaining our humanity in the face of negative forces. Luckily, those negative forces, represented in this instance by the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, are slowly but surely being confronted and addressed.

Our hope lies in whether or not we, as a species, can survive in a conscious show of support for one another, and for the arts — the arts that we, ourselves, have created. Then, and only then, will we have conquered the darker forces of our nature. To defeat this foe, this coronavirus, and any other crisis that may arise, will be deemed a victory for humankind.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to watch, read, enjoy, and review what there is of this artistic life (via streaming or other means), as embodied by our collective works. Let us also be reminded of the fact that “opera” is the plural form of the word “opus” or “oeuvre,” both of which mean “work” — a true collective in every sense.  

For those science fiction and Star Trek fans out there, here’s a bone for you: all we ask is that you think of opera as the Borg of the artistic community. Yes, yes, I’m aware they’re supposed to be the bad guys, but please bear with me for a minute. Like the Borg, opera assimilates. It complies to accepted (and unaccepted) norms. It adapts and it survives, for the benefit of the hive. A true collective, in every sense. Know, too, that although it may be a contradiction in terms, there are such things as “good” Borgs and “bad” Borgs.

For me, opera is a “good” Borg. And resistance to it is futile.

How Do You Like It?

Welcome back to the golden days of opera viewing, a time when the old “stand up and sing” methodology persisted in just about every Metropolitan Opera production, all the way up to the 1980s and, sometimes, beyond.

As I indicated in earlier posts, this approach was much favored by the Met Opera management. My own thoughts about this debatable technique go back to the types of productions staged at the time. Many of them featured a series of steps, an ongoing hazard of such presentations as Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (by John Dexter) and the same composer’s Ernani (by Pier Luigi Samaritani).  

For now, it’s on with the show:    

Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price & Met General Manager Rudolf Bing (ca. 1961)

Il Trovatore (1961) – The 2020-2021 radio season peaked early on with a re-broadcast of a classic Saturday afternoon live performance from the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street. That performance took place on February 4, 1961, and documented the dual radio debuts of legendary diva Leontyne Price as Leonora and spinto tenor Franco Corelli as Manrico, her lover. Mario Sereni, a rising Italian baritone at the time, appeared as Count Di Luna, with bass William Wilderman as the family retainer Ferrando, and mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as the crazed Azucena. Fausto Cleva, an old favorite at the old Met, conducted the orchestra and chorus.   

If you’ve been privy to the Marx Brothers’ ribald comedy A Night at the Opera, then you’d have a good idea what Il Trovatore is about. This work, which is filled with side-splitting quirks and last minute rescue attempts, has been parodied and hooted at long before Groucho, Chico, and Harpo put it out of its misery. Even the team of Gilbert and Sullivan took their pointed potshots with The Pirates of Penzance. So who are we to add fuel to this gypsy fire?

Listening to the re-broadcast of Il Trovatore proved enlightening. Maestro Cleva whipped the Met’s forces into submission, pacing the piece as if it were running in the Belmont Stakes. The rapidity with which he moved the work along meant that rush hour came early that day. True, Cleva’s exaggerated tempos took one’s breath away, but left most of the singers in the dust. An example was Leonora’s entrance aria: it was over before it began, with Ms. Price gasping audibly for air, a feat I never thought possible.

Another inexcusable yet common practice at the time were the vicious cuts to repeats and cabalettas. What’s the hurry, anyway? One answer may be that Trovatore, an opera in four acts, demands an intermission between each act. That’s three intermissions, people, each one lasting a half hour or so. This adds to the work’s overall length (about two and half hours’ worth). Indeed, despite the numerous cuts you’re talking about a very long afternoon.

After four hours of dramatic singing, here were my takeaways: the youthful Ms. Price earned and received an enormous ovation for her sublimely sung Leonora, emitting a seamless line of perfectly placed legato in a melting display of prima donna vocalism. Mr. Corelli, a big favorite with the partisan crowd, hit his stride early on with a top D in the Act I trio (marvelous!). Here at last was a truly robust tenor voice! Although Franco took the ringing “Di quella pira” down a tone (pulling off a high B instead of the unwritten C), his virile bearing and long-lined fluidity in his various romanzas brought a tear to the eye.  

But the surprise hit of the afternoon, for yours truly, was Mario Sereni’s heroically forthright Count Di Luna, the supposed “villain” of the piece. Sereni was well on his way toward making a name for himself in several studio recordings (among them, the classic Angel/EMI release of Puccini’s La Bohème with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Gedda, and the RCA Red Seal Ernani by Verdi, with Ms. Price and tenor Carlo Bergonzi). One thing was certain: the clarity of Sereni’s Italian diction and his easy top notes were a breath of fresh air. If you’re in the mood, check out his superbly sung Carlos Gerard in the EMI/Angel recording of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, with fellow label mates Antonietta Stella and Signor Corelli.

Another fascinating discovery was the ease with which William Wilderman, a reliable old standby, interpreted the thankless part of Ferrando. A potent yet flexible basso, Wilderman was much admired in his day for his versatility. The only adverse aspect was that he, and others in the cast, were incapable of producing the requisite trills demanded of their roles. For example, “Abietta zingara,” which opens the piece, went strictly by the boards, especially in Cleva’s rapid-fire reading. And those triplet notes were nowhere in sight. What gives?

Another downside was the execrable Italian enunciation of Irene Dalis as the mad gypsy woman Azucena. Recognized for her wildly wicked Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin and the evil Nurse in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, as well as her sensuously intoned Kundry in Parsifal, Ms. Dalis, a native of San Jose, California, ran aground in Trovatore. Her phrasing of the line, “Sul capo mio le chiome sento drizzarsi ancor” (literally, “It made my hair stand on end”), and the repeated phrase, “drizzarsi ancor,” were marred by an imperfect “r” sound (much too Americanized). Shame, shame. Goodnight, Irene!          

Giuseppe Giacomini as Don Alvaro (left) & Leo Nucci as Don Carlo in Verdi’s ‘La Forza del Destino’

La Forza del Destino (1984) – The refurbished John Dexter production, with sets by the late Eugene Berman (responsible for the Met’s long-lived Don Giovanni, reviewed in Part One) and spanking new costumes and uniforms, was one I saw live in October 1983. In that performance, I was disheartened to learn that the originally scheduled Sherrill Milnes as Don Carlo was indisposed and would be substituted by Italian baritone Silvano Carroll in his Met Opera debut. Carroli proved an acceptable alternative, if without much individuality. He did possess a warm and manly tone, and wore Milnes’ uniform about as well as one could given the last minute notice.

The leading man was the Spaniard José Carreras (he of the Three Tenors). He, too, was announced as being under the weather but acquitted himself well as Don Alvaro, despite a cautious approach to his high notes (this was before he was diagnosed with leukemia). Fluttery veteran soprano Lucine Amara took on the daunting challenge of Leonora (to be frank, she was a major disappointment), and bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi sang the gravely part of Padre Guardiano. Buffo baritone Enrico Fissore was a fussy Melitone, while mezzo Barbara Conrad appeared as the gypsy fortune-teller Preziosilla. James Levine conducted.

In the live telecast in question (from March 24, 1984), things improved markedly with prima donna Price’s star turn as the stratospheric, hard-pressed Leonora (there are multiple Leonoras in opera, not all of them of the Italian variety). At full voice or in those soaring high-lying passages that Verdi allotted the soprano, Ms. Price outdid herself, betraying only a momentary scooping up to high notes. Her potent mid-range was particularly effective, but the hollow sound she emitted at the lower end of the scale was troubling.

Only a year or so later, Price would retire from the Met stage (see Aida below). But her legacy as a model and unrivaled Verdi singer, and especially her acceptance as an African American artist of the absolute front rank, will remain with us for as long as artistry and exquisite singing are in vogue.

This opera, long sliced and diced by the Met (I heard a peculiarly distressing performance on the radio, back in March 1968, which placed the famous Overture between Acts I and II), was presented here, in 1984, as nearly complete. I say “nearly” because, as long-time fans may know, the original 1862 St. Petersburg, Russia production featured an entirely different ending (where Don Alvaro leaps from a parapet to his death) and an additional aria for our leading man. This initial version, put on by the Mariinsky Theater and preserved on CD, was led by Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. It deserves a second hearing.

In 1984, however, listeners were shown as complete a presentation as was possible. The plot, to state the obvious, is preposterous in the extreme. Coincidences and chance encounters abound, some more outrageous than others. But the prevailing theme of “revenge,” that relentless “Force of Destiny” indicated by those triple horn blasts throughout the work, marches inevitably on. Revenge and honor envelope the protagonists in a winding storyline that takes them from a Spanish mansion to the fields of battle, from an inn filled with rowdy patrons to a convent inhabited by pious monks, to a military encampment and army field hospital, and finally to a hermit’s grotto. Whew! Talk about destiny!     

Verdi loved his Spanish sources, and this one — from the play La Fuerza del Sino by the Duke of Rivas — was a real barn-burner. There are dramatic twists of fate from the hand of German playwright Friedrich Schiller, as well as heroic shades of the composer’s earlier triumphs, Il Trovatore and Ernani. Something about the Spanish thirst for vengeance and honor, at all costs, captured Verdi’s imagination. The emotional quandaries found in Luisa Miller may also have been influential.  

The story, in sum, is old-fashioned and far-fetched. Still, I like what author William Berger, in his book Verdi With a Vengeance, had to say about Forza: It’s “not how events unfold in real life but how passion dictates lives.” Ain’t it the truth? And passion is what governs this work, from beginning to tragic ending. There are flaws aplenty, that much is certain. But a great cast can, and will, do wonders. Assembled in this 1984 production were the likes of Ms. Price as Leonora (one of her specialties), mezzo-soprano Isola Jones as Preziosilla, dramatic tenor Giuseppe Giacomini as Don Alvaro, baritone Leo Nucci as Don Carlo, bass Bonaldo Giaiotti as Padre Guardiano, and the aforementioned Enrico Fissore as Melitone. 

Giacomini at the time was a rare find, a heroic-sounding vocal product of solid bearing and purpose. His ringing quality and sonic semblance to Corelli (particularly in lower passages) is noticeable from the outset. However, the higher up the range he goes, the more diffuse the sound. The voice tends to spread and lose focus, while the highest notes squeeze out in sometimes strangulated fashion. Despite all that, Giacomini brought luster to a shrinking vocal category: that of a true Verdian of respectable proportions. His model was Mario Del Monaco, and it clearly showed.

It’s a shame to have to fault his inability to act. Giacomini’s Don Alvaro, of noble Incan ancestry, molded the character through purely vocal means. Visually, he was the romantic hero to a “T,” balanced against the one-track-minded Don Carlo di Vargas of Leo Nucci. Nucci, a shade underpowered in other roles, outdid himself in pure villainy. Though short of stature, with a faintly bawling mannerism, Nucci managed the high-lying tessitura with ease, inserting a few extra high notes when called for (as in his Act II aria, “Son Pereda, son rico d’onore,” and at the fiery climax of the duet, “Invano Alvaro,” in Act IV). Both he and Giacomini earned a massive ovation for their work together, the highlight of the evening.

Bonaldo Giaiotti’s firm-toned Guardiano was fine in its lowest reaches, but wobbled mightily up on top. His “enactment” of this part was limited to raising his arm up or down, as the need arose. Fissore continued to top his previously fussbudget portrayal of a friar at the end of his patience. Mezzo Isola Jones and a stalwart cast of supporting players rounded out the proceedings. A youngish James Levine led a virile reading of this bombastic score, while the Met Orchestra and Chorus continued their stellar work in providing a solid musical accompaniment.    

Luciano Pavarotti as Ernani, with Leona Mitchell as Elvira in the Met Opera production of ‘Ernani’

Ernani (1983) – This Pier Luigi Samaritani production, from December 17, 1983, preserved what was best and what was worst about the Met at that time. In the title role was warm-voiced tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who brought a bel canto refinement to a part previously given to more, shall we say, “robust” instruments. The likes of Giovanni Martinelli, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and the later Marcello Giordani were among the era’s biggest (and loudest) vocal attractions. That Signor Pavarotti deigned to venture into such illustrious company said a lot about the star tenor’s ambitions.

Amazingly, Pavarotti did not come off too badly. In fact, his singing was above reproach, and much less mannered than it became later on in his career. Free-ringing and wide-ranging, Lucky Luciano made it through this grueling assignment, one of the more “dramatic” turns in the standard repertoire. He even got to sing one of those rarely heard extracts that was inserted before the second act finale. Bravo to that! Histrionically, the outcast Ernani (in reality, the royal-blooded Don Juan of Aragon) seeks revenge against the Spanish King Don Carlo, soon to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. You’ll remember him from Verdi’s Don Carlo: he’s the ghostly apparition who appears, as the contrived deus ex machina, toward the end of that work (Oy vey, these names, these names!).

African American soprano Leona Mitchell, once heavily criticized (if you can believe that) for taking on the highborn Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, made an auspicious appearance as (come on, now, you can guess it) Donna Elvira, the object of the tenor’s, and baritone’s, AND the bass’s affections — yes, a veritable ménage à quatre. No, really! In this early work, Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave (a favorite of the Bear of Busseto), surpassed themselves in playing up the honor angle to the hilt. This “honor” business soon becomes a running joke, to put it mildly.

We turn once again to William Berger, who had a tongue-in-cheek knack for encapsulating the least desirable aspects of classic works: “The characters rave at great length about their honor, and generally act without any except when they are grandstanding.” That’s Ernani in a nutshell. Verdi later mocked the notion of honor somewhat, with Falstaff’s Act I “Honor” monologue.

Nevertheless, Ms. Mitchell fulfilled every prerequisite, including the wide-ranging leaps and bounds, so reminiscent of Abigaille in Verdi’s first big hit, Nabucco, but without that hysterical quality. The opera’s hysterics, such as they are, were reserved for the ludicrous (and constant) clash of egos, both in Act I and in the remaining three sections. Regardless, there are more melodies per pound in this work than in any number of similarly themed pieces.    

In support, Sherrill Milnes had a good night as the lustful Don Carlo (boy, talk about a reoccurring motif!), his high notes blasted at full volume. After a while, his basic sound quality began to waver, and during the intervening years between 1984 and 1992, when Milnes reappeared as Sheriff Jack Rance in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, his assignments on the Met stage were few and rife with cancellations. His wan rendition of Rance, more muffled than of yore, bespoke of better days. But his stalwart stage presence, as authentically American as apple pie, reigned supreme. Milnes could have stepped out from a John Wayne movie or a Kevin Costner Western. He looked THAT good.

In any event, Milnes got the most massive reception for an outstanding “O, de’ verd’anni miei” and the follow up, “O sommo Carlo,” which led to one of those impressive ensembles that Verdi was supreme master of, a harbinger of similar ones to be found in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, and, of course, Aida.

Bologna native Ruggero Raimondi’s smoothly-shaded bass-baritone nearly equaled Milnes in volume and output as the dastardly Don Ruy Gomez da Silva (aka Silva), the old fogey who longs for his youth and believes, that by marrying Elvira, he can recapture his glory days. Sorry, Señor Silva! One thing about Raimondi that remains paramount: he possessed powerful high notes and a rock-solid technique. Where he was most wanting was in his all-but nonexistent low tones. They tended to disappear below the staff, as that long-ago Padre Guardiano pointed out and to which I was privy.

We would be remiss in our duty to also point out the obvious: This production was in the old “stand up and sing” tradition from the minute the curtains were parted. This egregious practice continued unabated, with Mitchell staring into space and spreading her arms out in imitation of a doll atop a bedroom vanity. Pavarotti peered out wide-eyed at the conductor, sweating profusely beneath a full-headed wig. Milnes’ generalized raising and lowering of his arm, an affectation he employed in countless stage assignments (for instance, in the January 1979 Luisa Miller broadcast), grew more monotonous with each passing gesture. And Raimondi’s hand on heart (or hand on sword hilt, take your pick) grew tiresome with every succeeding act.   

With those beefs out of the way, it was wonderful to hear veteran Charles Anthony’s solid character tenor in the short but crucial part of Don Riccardo. And James Levine’s bombastic conducting of anything by Verdi was masterful, as always, his love for this opera shining through in every bar and in every musical statement.         

Leontyne Price in her signature role as Aida, her farewell to opera and to the Met

Aida (1985) – Billed as the night Leontyne Price bid farewell to her opera career, this January 3, 1985 performance of Aida, one of the soprano’s most celebrated roles, remains a cornerstone of her artistry. Her “soaring phrases,” the “shimmering top” notes, and that absolutely emotional quality she brought and was known for throughout her career continued to make an impact.

Price had to hold back the floodgate of tears as the audience filled the soundtrack with well-deserved bravos — in fact, it hardly let up at all. Hearing her anew as Leonora in that now-historic 1961 Trovatore, in which Ms. Price was greeted with prolonged cheers throughout and at the end, solidified the irrefutable view that the Mississippi-born singer was and will forever remain an audience favorite.

Beginning with that incredible breath control she displayed in “Ritorna vincitor” from Aida’s Act I aria, and moving on to the most moving of all her Met Opera appearances, that third act “O patria mia,” where an obviously emotional Price refused to break character to acknowledge the endless applause, this Egyptian princess proved her mettle in a way only an artist of her exalted caliber could.

If only the production itself, a barebones affair exemplified by circular platforms, dreary costumes, and outlandish headgear, could match the diva’s stately stage presence. Instead, we had old school bawling from powerhouse Italian mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto as Aida’s jealous rival Amneris. Usually an invaluable artist, on this occasion I felt that Ms. Cossotto overdid the strictly vocal portions. She over-sang to the point that her fourth act Judgment Scene lacked the impact it normally would have, had the sparks not been expended early on. Anyway, that’s my take.

Simon Estes as Aida’s father, Amonasro, certainly looked the part of the King of Ethiopia. But his bark proved worse than his bite, the voice seemingly swallowed up by the vast Met Opera reaches. As it happened, Estes scored an early career triumph with his portrayal of the doomed Vanderdencken in Harry Kupfer’s 1978 Der Fliegende Holländer production at Bayreuth. He also appeared as Porgy in the Met’s 1985 production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and as Wotan in The Ring cycle in 1983, all three roles more congenial to his nature.

In the role of Radames, hefty heldentenor James McCracken appeared over-parted as Radames, his “Celeste Aida” lacking in comfort and the basic long-lined legato called for. In the role’s heavier moments (from Act III on), McCracken’s largish voice and squeezed-out high notes chewed up the scenery. This was not a particularly commendable assumption for the blue-eyed, barrel-chested artist, but he did give the part his considerable all. A famous Otello and Florestan, McCracken had to wrestle with an ill-fitting costume topped with an atrocious headpiece. John Macurdy’s sturdy bass as the High Priest Ramfis anchored the ensembles well enough. And once again, maestro James Levine brought a knowledgeable command of Verdi’s bombastic score.     

Not as festive an occasion as one would have hoped for, still Aida was an acceptable sendoff for one of opera’s most beloved and truly irreplaceable artists, the immortal Ms. Leontyne Price.

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

Family Time — A Change of Scenery

Gordon Scott as “Coriolanus: Hero Without a Country” from 1964

The month was mid-July, the year 1971. I had just turned seventeen, still thirteen months shy of my high school graduation. Unsure of what to do, unclear as to what path I might lead, I struggled with the thought of what the next four years would be like. Fortunately, another trip to Brazil was being planned. That was good. Once again, I would meet up with our relatives and friends, most of whom I had not seen or heard from since 1965.

However, the years had not been kind to our family. Grandpa Chico had passed away in 1967. Other relatives and not-so-near relations had gotten older, much older in fact. Both grandmothers were still around, thank goodness, but some previously married couples had split and gone their separate ways. Others had tied the knot or gotten engaged, but had not chosen their mates wisely. On the brighter side, the next generation had finally begun to mature, giving hope to people that a younger crop of Brazilians — new leaders, new singers, new artists in general — would be capable of filling the weighty shoes left vacant and behind by their antecedents’ demise.

With age, comes maturity. But maturity, as I later learned, is a relative thing. Some people mature early on in life, while others do not. Some never reach that point of adulthood, no matter their physical age. Some refuse to let go of the past, never profiting from their mistakes. The error of their ways, the wrong turns, and the bad company they kept continued to stalk their paths regardless of how much time had elapsed. That is sad.

My father, for one, suffered greatly from the past. Anxiety neurosis, that was his problem, along with perfectionism. In times of stress, dad lashed out at whoever was present. It took an unreasonably long time for him to come down from the “high” his fixations had left him with. In the interim, recipients of his wild mood swings (my mom, myself, my brother, dad’s brothers and sisters, and principally his mother) would either suffer in dumb anguish or lash out in equal measure — not a wise choice, under any circumstances.

Dad was never more volatile than when we vacationed together as a group. I was told, by those who knew him, that when he was a traveling salesman for the Confiança Company he would be unable to sleep the night or two before a trip. Too worried about some misplaced document or leaving behind something important, dad would waste hours of precious time needlessly fussing over the slightest details. He carried this defect over into his personal life, in that he made every plane ride, every bus journey, every family outing a living hell, no matter where we went or who we had gone to visit. We had to watch what we said to him, too, or there would be a tongue-lashing the likes of which would have made a longshoreman blush.

There were times when I wanted to bust out of this mind-numbing confinement. In Brazil, where I was surrounded by others less troubled by dad’s bouts of nerves, I found relief. We could go out on our own, explore the neighborhood, chat with people of our age group. We could forge new relationships, build better associations with some of the younger members of our family. In other words, we could finally enjoy ourselves by, basically, just being ourselves instead of minding our every spoken syllable.

It was during this time that I was introduced to two distant cousins, Ana Maria and Suely, sisters of roughly similar age (perhaps a few years apart and a little older than I was). The daughters of my father’s ex-partner “Noca” and his wife, Lisbete, one of mom’s first cousins, they were openly pleasant to me and my brother. Ana Maria had two girlfriends, Márcia and Edna, who were a foot or more from each other in height. Márcia was the tallest (I nicknamed her girafa) and the most personable — man, what huge blue eyes; Edna was the shortest (we called her formiga, or “ant”) and the more serious of the two. I paired up with Márcia, while my brother took charge of little Edna.

One evening (it might have been either a Friday or a Saturday night), all five of us (with the exception of Suely, who was engaged to a fellow named Flávio) went out to the movies. It was my first double-date; in fact, it was the first double-date I had ever been on with members of the opposite sex. I can’t for the life of me recall if we paid their way or if mom and dad had reimbursed them later for the tickets. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had, since I was completely unaware of the finer points of dating.

The city square known as Largo da Concordia, where movie theaters were situated – Bras, Sao Paulo, circa the 1950s

Nevertheless, there we were, locked arm-in-arm, escorting Ana Maria and her friends to the local fleabag theater. Ana Maria had told our parents that we were going to see a Gordon Scott picture, the title of which was Corionlanus: Hero Without a Country. It was one of those Italian-made sword-and-sandal epics from the mid-sixties. Luckily for me, I was absolutely captivated by these types of films; anything relating to Hercules, Samson, Maciste, and Goliath was right up my alley. Steve Reeves was my favorite strongman, but Scott would do in a pinch.  

After a fifteen- or twenty-minute stroll down endless winding paths, whereby I engaged in flirtatious banter with my date — Márcia was certainly a chatterbox, which helped ease my apprehension somewhat — we arrived at our destination. And there it was, a big color poster of the musclebound Mr. Scott, a former lifeguard and movie Tarzan, as our titular Roman general. Was this really happening? I started to tense up. Being completely naïve about feminine wiles it never occurred to me that muscleman pictures were not the sort of thing that bright-eyed young ladies were into.

Well, well, was I in for a surprise! Instead of leading the charge to screen glory with Coriolanus, Ana Maria stepped up to the ticket-booth and handed over our money to where they were showing something called O quanto amor, o qual amor (“How Much Love, Oh What Love”), the Brazilian equivalent of the Italian sex comedy La Matriarca (translated in the U.S. as The Libertine) from 1969. The film starred French-born Belgian actress Catherine Spaak, who I wrongly assumed to be American (and associated with Star Trek’s resident alien, Mr. Spock), and French leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant. An Italian sex comedy, of all things! Where the characters spoke Italian and French. With Portuguese subtitles. And nudie shots of T and A (“tits and ass,” for the uninitiated).

What was Ana Maria thinking? What fancy ideas had gotten into her head? I couldn’t tell. I was too disheartened (and not very amused) by this last-minute bait-and-switch my cousin had pulled on us. I didn’t hold it against her, though. Really, what choice did I have? Maybe it was Ana Maria’s way of getting her and her friends to see something foreign and unique. Remember, this was years into Brazil’s military dictatorship. Censorship of television and the press was customary and to be expected. The movies, especially foreign-dubbed ones (including those made in the USA), were practically the only means where some kind of freedom of expression was exercised, but to a limited degree. The other reason was more practical: unescorted girls at the movies were easy prey for wolves on the prowl. Although this was undoubtedly a bold move on her part, I couldn’t blame my cousin for doing it. I just didn’t have the heart to reproach her. She was family.

After the film had ended, the girls walked me and my brother back to our Aunt Iracema’s house, where our family had been staying. Boy, what dopes we were back then! Neither of us had the slightest clue about etiquette, never mind the social graces. The truth is, we boys, as the “gentlemen” of the group, were supposed to have escorted the girls to their homes. Then, and only then, could we return to our dwelling. I’m sure the girls didn’t mind returning us to our roost. After all, we were their guests, we did not officially reside in São Paulo, and we were not familiar with the surroundings. Nor could we have found our way back if we wanted to, so many were the twists and turns we confronted that it would have taken half the night to get to where we needed to be. If you ask me, this was a blessing in disguise.

We went on one more date, this time with two of our visiting cousins, Dario and Dan. There might have been one other person involved, but I can’t remember. All I know is that I was pleased to see Márcia again — and I sensed the feeling was mutual. And where did we go? Why, to the movies, of course, to the same fleabag arena that good old Coriolanus had been playing in. Except this time, the main attraction was a recently released first-run feature, Brother John, starring Sidney Poitier, which was more my style (and with the dialogue in easier-to-follow English).

Poster for the movie “Brother John” (1971), starring Sidney Poitier

I felt more at ease this time around. And when it was over, we did the right thing: my cousins and I, along with my brother, escorted the girls to their homes. I have no recollection of how we did it, but we also managed to find our way back to Aunt Iracema’s house. Nothing like prior experience to help pave the way.  

I learned something else about those two date nights: that girls have a mind of their own; that they know what it is they want; and, most startling of all, they know exactly how to go about getting it.   

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes