‘Let It All Go to Hell’: The Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Three)

Time to Name That Tune!

Elis Regina (Photo: last.fm)

 

There are billions of stars in the evening sky

But only one can be viewed with the naked eye

— The Author

The month was mid-July, the year 1971. I had just turned seventeen, but was still thirteen months away from 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. 

Over on the distaff side, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, at age twenty-six, was already Brazil’s most popular recording and concert artist. She was born on March 17, 1945, in the southern city of Porto Alegre, State of Rio Grande do Sul. Yet, wherever I traveled around the vicinity of São Paulo, and whoever I met or discoursed with — especially in the households of cousins, friends, and family members my age or older — the topic would unavoidably come around to the singer’s powerful vocals.

That’s where I stumbled: “Elis … Elis … What’s her name again?” I would inquire.

“Elis Regina,” came the response. “Why do you ask? Don’t you like her?”

I must confess that, at the time, I felt embarrassed, confused, and completely out of my element at being placed in the delicate position of having to defend my ignorance.

My excuse for being in such a tortured, tongue-tied state was that I had no idea who Elis Regina (her stage name) was or what she had sung that made her so well known. Although I kept hearing one of her songs on countless occasions, once our Brazil trip was over and we returned to New York City, for the life of me I could not recall the title of that piece, nor could I tuck away the melody into any conceivable corner of my memory for future reference. I knew the number to be extremely catchy, though, and oh-so-heavily pop driven. But beyond that, I was left adrift.

Psychologically, I must have blocked the song from my subconscious. Indeed, there could be no other explanation for my apparent brain freeze. Not that I disliked the number — to be honest, I reveled in its light and airy feel, coupled with the loose approach that Elis took in the Philips album that introduced it. It reminded me of something Sinatra might have taken a “nice and easy” approach to in his day.

But no matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many Google searches I launched throughout the coming years (and then some!), in a last-ditch effort at naming this enigmatic tune, I was unable to pin the title down.   

And then, out of nowhere, the mystery was resolved.

One weekend in mid-August 2020, I happened to have been on the cellphone with my brother Anibal, explaining to him that I had just about finished the Fat Lady’s story; that the last thing I needed to get straight was this missing chapter about the pop star, Elis Regina. Our discussion then turned to that unnamed song and my lingering frustration with it.

“Oh, yeah, I know it,” he stated calmly.

“What? You know it? After all this time?”

“Sure,” he confirmed. Instantly, my brother began to hum the mysterious tune, the one that had been wracking my middle-aged intellect for so long.

“My God, you remembered! That’s it!” I shouted. “That’s the song!”

Exhilarated at the prospect of having finally unraveled this decades-long conundrum, I rushed to the living room and handed the cellphone to my wife, Maria Regina, our resident expert on Brazilian pop and — another stroke of luck — the one person who considered her namesake to be among her favorites.

“Dear, quick! What’s the name of this tune? My brother’s going to hum it for you.”

Thank goodness my wife remembered the song, but, like me, the title had completely escaped her. My hopes seemed to have been dashed in the moment of claiming victory. Still, both she and my brother continued to hum the number together. Well, if they didn’t know the title, at least they were familiar with the melody (she even mouthed some of the words). There was hope after all!

After a quick look-up on YouTube, it finally came to her: the title, that seemingly unattainable object of my desire; the one that had so eluded detection for nearly half a century.

“Here it is,” she announced triumphantly. “ ‘Vou deitar e rolar.’ ”

Ah, so that’s it! “Vou deitar e rolar” (loosely translated as “I’ll make my bed and lie in it”), written in 1970 for the album … Em Pleno Verão (“… At the Peak of Summer”). The authors were songwriter-guitarist Baden Powell and poet-composer Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, both natives of Rio de Janeiro and known quantities in the pop-music world. Produced by the ubiquitous Nelson Motta, with arrangements by Erlon Chaves, Elis Regina’s bandmates included José Roberto Beltrami on piano, Luiz Claudio Ramos on guitar, Luizão Maia on bass, Wilson das Neves on drums, and Hermes Contesini on percussion.

As bouncy as a Copacabana beach ball, as refreshing as the carioca dew at sunrise, this irresistible number was delivered by a performer at the absolute peak of her profession. The song makes reference to a girl who, aware of having been two-timed by her lover, shoves the betrayal to his face by vowing to “do her own thing” no matter what. He’s shown the door with a hearty “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” a sendoff that indicates to her former paramour that “She who laughs last, laughs best.”

The song illustrated both the highs and the lows of a remarkable singing career that began at age fifteen and ended prematurely at thirty-six.

Young Elis Regina in the 1960s

 A Flickering Light that Burned Too Bright

Audacious, extroverted, and charismatic on the stage and on live television, the highly-charged personality known as Elis Regina was capable of turning shy in private, even reserved to the point of inhibition. Decidedly pugnacious when the mood suited her, she was also fearless and confrontational. At times, Elis experienced a devastating stage fright before a performance — astonishing for one with such a natural-born propensity for picking the right style for every occasion.

For example, in 1965 she debuted on national television, in the First Festival of Popular Music, with “Arrastão” (“Fish Net”), a song about a poor Northeastern fisherman written by singer-composer Edu Lobo and the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Sporting a beehive hairdo (which made her look like one of The B-52’s) and extending her arms high above her head, Elis swung her limbs in a backwards swimming motion. To most viewers, she appeared to mimic the rotating blades of an airplane, movements that baptized her with the first of several nicknames: “Hélice” Regina, or “Propellor” Regina. It also won her nationwide recognition.  

At other times, Elis would turn destructive — what today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, earning her the sobriquet pimentinha (“little pepper,” which also described Dennis the Menace). She took no prisoners by wrecking not only her associations with men and women, but damaging their personal property as well: The well-worn story of her flinging ex-husband Ronaldo Bôscoli’s entire Sinatra collection into the sea is, unfortunately, true (the discs were last “spotted” somewhere off the coast of West Africa).

I can hear it now: “Let it all go to hell!”

That sounds like something Furacão (“Hurricane”) Elis would have said. With few exceptions, her choice of repertoire was frequently eclectic as well. Despite kicking off her recording career with the 1961 album, Viva a Brotolândia (“Long Live Teenybopperdom”), devoted to adolescent drivel, Elis displayed a seasoned professional’s knack for capturing exactly the sound the pubic was yearning for.

Elis Regina – Mosaic

And contrary to what most pop-music mavens might have believed, she did not possess a natural “voice” for bossa nova but rather developed her skills through trial and error. Elis eventually came to grasp what the bossa nova idiom had begun to imply: that is, as a window into other Brazilian song forms and influences. In her mind, samba and pop blazed a much wider (and richer) trail, and were a lot more diverse and meaningful, than bossa nova’s basic “love, flower, ocean” theme would have you believe. In that, she shared the sentiments (on and off the spotlight) of her nearest rival, Nara Leão. 

Yet, of all the aspiring female talents at or below her level of excellence (and there was quite a hefty assortment to choose from), Elis Regina is the only one, in my mind, to have been considered worthy of comparison to her illustrious predecessor, the equally volatile Carmen Miranda.

It came as no surprise that both Carmen and Elis were of Portuguese descent, as were a sizeable proportion of Brazilians. Both artists were short of stature (five-feet-two-inches tall), both came from poor working-class backgrounds, and both had extraordinarily productive careers inside and outside Brazil, despite negative reaction from the public and press. With respect to their financial compensation, they were the highest paid female entertainers of their generation. Accordingly, both died from substance abuse: in Carmen’s case, from alcohol mixed with barbiturates and amphetamines; in Elis Regina’s, from cocaine and Campari.

What surprised me the most, in researching this topic, was that few if any authors have pointed the above coincidences out to readers. One can only conclude that Carmen and Elis had artificially extended their lives beyond all reasonable limitations because of their early demise. As iconic symbols of their respective fields, they had outlived the normal passage of time.

At first, Elis, to her good fortune, managed to survive the so-called “curse of twenty-seven,” the age at which many of her contemporaries (Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison) succumbed to personal demons with their premature passing. That Elis’ cocaine use came near the end of her short life is doubly unfortunate.

Still, in spite of their professional accomplishments, Carmen and Elis’ private lives were anything but tranquil. Carmen’s sole marriage to a non-Brazilian was loveless and abusive, while Elis’ two marital relationships ended in separation and divorce. The difference between them was that Elis left three young children for posterity (a boy, João Marcelo, from Bôscoli; and a boy and a girl, Pedro and Maria Rita, from second husband, pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano), whereas Carmen left no progeny behind.

 That ‘Sinatra’ Moment

Frank Sinatra (L.) with Tom Jobim on guitar

If the Brazilian Bombshell’s latter-day notoriety as an emblem of gay culture has brought renewed interest in her artistry, then Elis Regina’s elevated status as Brazil’s most complete singer-performer can be reasonably assured.

And as far as her fans and audiences were concerned, her time had finally come. Between February 22 and March 9, 1974, at MGM Studios in Los Angeles, the recording of the album Elis & Tom took place. An acknowledged “greatest hits” package of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s most accessible song works, involving three of his favorite songwriting partners (Vinicius, Chico Buarque, Aloysio de Oliveira), a number of items on Elis & Tom were arranged by the singer’s soon-to-be-husband Cesar Camargo Mariano.   

Listening to the album after so many years, the first thing one notices is that Elis had modulated her famously potent delivery to this more-intimate lounge setting. Compare her rendition of “Corcovado” (sung in Portuguese) with Frank Sinatra’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (translated by Gene Lees) from Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim on Reprise (1967). Seven years — a lifetime in the recording industry — separate these two accounts; yet, how strikingly similar they sound: mellow, low-key, and softly executed, with a lighter than average orchestration (flute, clarinet, piano, violins, guitar, drums, percussion) on Elis’ version, and a jazzy interval taking up the middle portion, ending with Jobim’s participation (on voice and piano) at the fadeout.      

Oddly enough, “Corcovado” and “Triste” are the only two numbers found on Elis and Frankie’s respective forays (originally, “Triste” was not a part of either Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos or on Sinatra & Company, his 1969 follow up). Still, one can draw some basic conclusions, and a viable contrast, regarding these two settings, as performed by two incredibly gifted artists: first, to Sinatra and Jobim on “How Insensitive” (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/brazils-musical-polyglots-part-two-the-american-side/); and, second, to Elis Regina on Tom and Vinicius’ sorrowful “Modinha.” Her voice, curt and trembling with barely restrained emotion, sets the norm for expressivity in this thoroughly committed interpretation. 

The common denominator on both albums, of course, is Jobim. You would be shocked to learn that Jobim was hardly, if at all, impressed with Elis upon their initial encounter back in Rio in 1964. “Who’s this hick from the sticks?” he wondered upon catching sight of her at a recording studio. “She still reeks of burned charcoal,” hinting at her “down home” roots and lack of refinement.

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, who’s laughing now?

The composer was forced to eat his words (mercifully, Elis never caught on) when the two of them appeared together to record, at that later session, what became the standard of all standards, the song “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”). After years of subpar translations, Jobim decided to convert the Portuguese lyrics himself into plausible English: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road / It’s the rest of a stump, it’s a little alone.” Sung, here, in the original Portuguese, Tom and Elis play off one another beautifully in a joyful give-and-take, an “I say this, you say that” battle of words, each egging the other on for as long as possible. You can almost see them in your mind’s eye, smiling and giggling at the end result.       

One can also take the Sinatra connection a step further in that, during the latter part of the sixties and mid-seventies, Elis Regina sported a stylish Mia Farrow-like haircut (courtesy of Rosemary’s Baby). Farrow, you may recall, was at one time briefly married to Sinatra. If one were to exercise some amateur analysis, I’d say the Brazilian singer conveyed a strong stylistic and unconventionally intimate connection to Ole Blue Eyes that went beyond international boundaries.

Tom Jobim meets Elis Regina, object: Sublime Music

Another, more moving performance, considered by many to be one of her finest, is Elis’ superb interpretation (on several YouTube videos) of the 1973 Chico Buarque-Francis Hime number, “Atrás da porta” (“Behind the Door”). The poetic lyrics by Chico, heavily laden with dramatic irony, sadness and pathos, and Hime’s simple, minimalistic theme express all the hurt, hate, love, and longing of a submissive woman left to beg and claw her way back from humiliation by a man who treats her no better than his faithful dog.

Incredibly, a devastated Elis, sobbing real tears, allows us a glimpse into the immense tragedy that has engulfed this scorned lover. If you want to call it “operatic,” then who am I to argue. In my view, there’s a close affinity (and unstated pertinence) to Judy Garland and her sad ending, as envisioned in Peter Quilter’s hit Broadway play, End of the Rainbow. As with most artists of this caliber (Sinatra being at the very top), Elis Regina’s ability to turn a heartbreaking experience into a transcendent personal statement eclipses all other contemporary efforts.

Besides the obvious sincerity she brought to everything she did, our only concern is this: Were her reactions based on real-life circumstances or were they carefully rehearsed performance art? Certainly, no singer of her generation has had as much awareness of and insight into the human condition as expressed in popular song; and no subsequent artist has had as better a claim to the title of Brazil’s greatest interpreter of her music as Elis had.

Now, after all these years, I can finally respond to the question that was posed at the beginning of this essay: “Do I like Elis Regina? Yes, I do. I like her very much.” And there you have it: that guy Jairzinho, O Rei Roberto, the clown Chacrinha, and the pop star Elis Regina. Three singers, one host, all Brazilian. This began as a story of my youth. It ends with a plea for absolution. “Let it all go to hell?” I don’t think so. Better to preserve whatever memories we can, the raison d’être for any discussion around Brazil’s Fat Lady. They may be all she has left.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Two)

The clownish TV host, Chacrinha (Abelardo Barbosa)

Days of ‘Whine’ and Roses

The interval between our first visit to Brazil and the one our family made in July 1971 was, indeed, an historically turbulent one. Censorship, in the form of suppression of the news and print media, had expanded to alarming proportions; and the free-flow of ideas and exchange of divergent opinions — and with them, the freedom to express those ideas and opinions — were vastly curtailed.

The critical year of 1968, for example, was one marked by violent demonstrations and brutal crackdowns throughout Continental Europe and the United States. Brazil was no different.

But how much could a seventeen-year-old youth from the South Bronx have known of these circumstances? Having lived and grown up in a New York City Public Housing Project, could he have been cognizant of the harsh realities facing the country of his birth? Was he attuned to the problems encountered by native-born artists, singers, songwriters, journalists, politicians, and the like, or did he remain blissfully unaware; just going about his business with nary a care in the world for what others thought or what they were going through?

“Let it all go to hell!” he would say.

No, that couldn’t have been the attitude. That’s not how Brazilians, especially the ones I got to know and love and respect, reacted to the troubles afflicting their beleaguered homeland. A large portion of the population, including most of my family members, were working-class stiffs who took what was transpiring with their country in measured strides, not in resignation. If they also took their solace in song and other forms of mass entertainment, where expressions of hurt, loss, and frustration could be collectively shared via these means, who could blame them.

Chacrinha with songbird Robert Carlos

The Popular Song Festivals continued to be nationally televised, of course, but their glory days were over and coming to a swift and ignoble end. Tropicália had already been banned if not prohibited outright from public performance. It happened that the music and stagecraft that helped shape the tropicalismo movement were branded as subversive and beyond the mainstream for the ruling classes to stomach. It would be many years before I, too, discovered how forward-thinking and “out there” this specific music genre had been.

As for the others, the “Jairzinhos” of their time had also come and gone; they had rightfully served their purpose and were now being escorted off the stage. No longer did the former main attraction, Brazil’s Jair Rodrigues, who continued to hold sway as a human prancing pony, mow his audiences down with silly grins and pointless hand gestures from “Deixe isso pra lá” (“Leave that alone”). True to his tranquil nature, “that guy Jairzinho” continued on his merry way while remaining oblivious to the situation at hand.

An Uncommon Man

Most, if not all, of the TV programs in São Paulo that I witnessed back in 1971 were preceded by the distinctive Censura Livre (“Cleared by the Censors”) logo before they began. And that included the ever-popular, late Saturday-afternoon show A Buzina do Chacrinha (“Chacrinha’s Horn”) on TV Globo. The clownish emcee Chacrinha, portrayed by comedian and Pernambuco-born actor José Abelardo Barbosa de Medeiros (1917-1988), was an eccentric and jovial radio and TV host from popular culture who personified (in attitude, not in looks) not only the carefree and quick-witted prankster and folkloric disrupter of legend Macunaíma, but more appropriately the Common Brazilian Man.

Chacrinha wearing an outrageous “horn hat”

Resembling a potbellied, bespectacled, and top-hatted Harpo Marx, especially with that noisy contraption he carried by his side, the mildly pompous Chacrinha was the hardworking maidservant’s dream, a domestic’s ticket to possible fame and good fortune; and the one person in all of Brazil who could command the respect of the masses in a program tailored to their tastes.

Amateur contestants, rookie aspirants, and veteran competitors alike were corralled into shockingly simplistic (and occasionally embarrassing) skits, games, talent contests, and anarchic diversions (for example, the host’s tossing of live codfish to audience members), backed by an ever-present dancing line of leggy showgirls. All were at the mercy of Chacrinha’s noisy hooter and his fawning fan base, which consisted of everyday citizens: young and old, male and female.

Chacrinha, who never took himself too seriously, had about him an air of nonconformity. “I’m here to confuse you, not to explain things” was one of countless aphorisms designed to both distract and bemuse the wary visitor into submission. Faced with an avalanche of contradictory statements, it became increasingly difficult for anyone to pin Chacrinha down about anything. You might refer to him as a resurrected anarchist, a person of his time but born at the brink of Modernism. The best one could say about this peculiar fellow was that he looked and acted outside the box.

Although I hadn’t known about it at the time, Chacrinha had been responsible for furnishing Caetano Veloso with the unambiguous title to one of the singer-songwriter’s most requested numbers, the song “Alegria, alegria!” According to Caetano’s account in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Chacrinha had appropriated the lyrics from a similarly-titled song by samba artist Wilson Simonal.

It didn’t take long for Caetano to do likewise, thus a classic was born out of the chaos.

Chacrinha (top) with the young Caetano Veloso, circa 1971

Another expression he employed with abandon, and that I recollect with mild amusement, was the recurrent phrase, “É hora! É hora!” (“It’s time! It’s time!”). Time? Time for what, I wondered. With finger raised and placed in the space between his nose and upper lip, the host would shout to the crowd: “É hora da Buzina! É hora da Buzina do Chacrinha!” I took this to mean, “It’s time for Chacrinha’s horn to blow!” And with the antics of funnyman Jack Benny’s The Horn Blows at Midnight reverberating in my head, the blast from the pernambucano‘s honker signaled the end of a contestant’s “dream” before it had begun.

From the above descriptions, one might have inferred that Chacrinha was a most congenial and approachable individual. Quite the opposite, his guile-driven nature was coarse and aggressive and anything but warm and fuzzy. You might also have picked up familiar elements from American TV-game shows such as Let’s Make a Deal, Truth or Consequences, and The Price is Right. And you’d be right on the money! Commercialism and marketing had begun to pervade the average Brazilian household as much as it had the American variety.

Seu Abelardo, as he was familiarly termed, knew his public well. For unlike many others, Chacrinha had kept in touch with Brazilian reality by dexterously placing his pudgy hand on the nation’s pulse. In relation to Brazil’s economy and politics, the garrulous presenter sensed how the situation in the country had deteriorated over time, and which had negatively affected his lower-class adherents. His outlandish mode of dress and outspoken demeanor were but covers for what lay beneath: an instinct for survival, shrewdly applied and utilized not to make fun of his guests but to throw the censors off his trail.

As a form of social criticism and a message to those who took undue advantage of their constituents, that wise-old clown Chacrinha and his popular television program represented a method of masking the people’s contempt for their government in ways they would better understand and appreciate.

What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

(End of Part Part)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilians Who Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part One)

The ‘Jovem Guarda’ crowd: Erasmo Carlos (l.), Wanderlea, Roberto Carlos

Remembrances of Memories Past

This is a story of my youth. More precisely, a story about what I remember of my youth from the limited times I visited Brazil — and how a song (no, several songs) transformed my opinions about the family and country I left behind.

My earliest recollections are, by curiosity and contradiction, both clear and vague: of seeing myself as a toddler, running wildly about our home in São Paulo; of bumping my eyebrow onto the sharp edge of a dining-room table and going to the doctor immediately afterwards to get my supercilium stitched up; of badly scraping my knee and wrist outside a street in the South Bronx, along with comparable mishaps. Depending on who was recounting the story, the accidents were either my fault entirely or the fault of someone else. Blame for their occurrences, I soon surmised, was swiftly assigned but not always fairly distributed.

Some of these memories get tangled up with the rare times my parents, my brother, and I returned to São Paulo and its surroundings. Over the years, it has become practically impossible for me to differentiate between one event I experienced at age five and similar incidents that took place a few years later. Anyone forced to recall their youthful wanderings, either in the writing of one’s memoirs or through therapy and analysis, will have faced a comparable predicament: invariably, specific episodes and personalities are remembered with clarity and intent; while others (dates, times, and places), not so much, and vice versa.

With the above caveats in mind, my first exposure to Brazilian popular culture occurred on or about the year 1965, a pivotal point for music in Brazil and for my growing awareness of a Brazilian identity inside this ten-year-old brain. It was the same year that bossa nova became a worldwide sensation. But in the country itself, a onda (that is, “the wave”) had receded. You could say it was paying a firm “adeus” to all that had come before. Yet, I remained oblivious.

By the time that our family had set foot again in “Sampa” (in the winter of 1965), the heat that bossa nova had produced around the pop-music world had substantially abated. New styles began to emerge by dint of the latest advances. The prevalence of television and, along with it, the phenomenon of mass viewership took hold of Brazilian audiences like nothing else before it. Not inconsequentially, the military had staged a government takeover the year before, in April 1964, which forever altered Brazil’s musical landscape — for better or for worse.

Tanks invade the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the military takeover of April 1964 (Photo: Agencia O Globo)

Strangely enough, bossa nova had completely bypassed my Brazilian-born parents, who, by their having moved to the South Central Bronx, remained remarkably uninformed as to the artistry and output that had circumnavigated the globe. In the interval between the year they left their homeland (1959) and the time that we, as a family of four, made our first return trip to the big city (1965), bossa nova had been replaced by popular song contests, possibly as a distraction from the bitter reality of military rule.

To get right down to it, bossa nova espoused a greater degree of sophistication, subtlety, and nuance than what had come before (i.e., choro, samba, and samba-canção). The artists who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, and then performed those same numbers, which abounded in poetic imagery and reflective ruminations, came out of an entirely separate reality, distinct and apart from that of the majority of Brazilians. The sparseness of the orchestration (for guitar, voice, drums, and percussion) belied the complexity of its arrangements. Too, the imaginative use of language and instrumentation raised the intellectual level of both performers and listeners to undreamed-of heights.

Despite some awareness on my part, my limited knowledge of Portuguese prevented me from fully absorbing and appreciating the genre. Naturally, I was much too young, therefore deficient in the cognitive skills necessary to wrap my arms around bossa nova’s form. Despite this disparity and my lack of cultural refinement, a treasure trove of memorabilia laid before me: everything from MPB, bubble-gum music, iê-iê-iê, and Brazilian rock-‘n’-roll to classically derived constructs. These were much easier to absorb, due to their utter simplicity and absence of erudition. But bossa nova? Not a chance, at least not yet. Creatively speaking, the country had taken two steps forward, one step back.

One couldn’t fault my parents for not having “kept up” with the latest trends. They had more pressing matters to concern themselves with — namely, making a life for us in New York City, and raising and caring for two small boys in a strange, bewildering land with its own distinct and immensely diversified culture.

As I mentioned, we immigrated to the U.S. in September 1959. Although my mother and her boys remained at home in the Bronx, my father had gone back to Brazil every other year up through 1965, and then some. Those excursions had something to do with his attending the annual Carnival pageant (in Portuguese, pular Carnaval). At the time, I had no comprehension of what that actually meant or entailed. Despite his weeks-long absences, dad always managed to bring back plenty of trinkets, souvenirs, and assorted keepsakes, provided, for the most part, by his and my mother’s respective families.

Family. A word, a term, a concept this soon-to-be-eleven year old was but vaguely familiar with. The only “family” I knew, to be exact, was my younger brother Anibal, my father Annibal Sr., my mother Lourdes, her younger sister Aunt Deolinda, her husband Uncle Daniel, and my two older cousins Dario and Daniel Jr. A year or more before we made our trip, another of my mom’s charming sisters, Aunt Iracema, had spent a year in the Bronx living with us. In fact, she had immigrated to the U.S. in 1963, but returned to São Paulo in order to care for her father Francisco, or “Grampa Chico” as we called him. He had been struck at age sixty-five with throat cancer.

Gather ‘Round the Television Set, Boys

“Quero Que Va Tudo Pro Inferno” – Original Single by Roberto & Erasmo Carlos (Discos CBS)

Much of the bounty dad had brought back from his trips was comprised of phonograph records, usually of the compacto duplo type. These handy little items, known in the U.S. as EP’s (or “Extended Play”), had the capacity for two songs per side, for a total of four numbers in all. A healthy smattering of long-playing records, Brazilian magazines (Manchete, Veja, Marie Claire, etc.), O Guia da Televisão (“TV Guide”), tasty and highly edible sweets, and a half-dozen or so children’s books comprised what remained of the lucre.

To me, the unfamiliar names of these Brazilian artists and entertainers, to be found among this random assortment of knick-knacks, were foreign-sounding and nearly unpronounceable. These were difficult enough for adults, but you can imagine how challenging they were for us kids. To compensate, I used what nascent abilities I possessed of the Portuguese language to try my hand at reading the Brazilian versions of Walt Disney comics: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Scrooge McDuck, anything I could get my little hands on.

To pass the time, I took it upon myself to draw these and other cartoon characters (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones) on makeshift writing pads; when those were unavailable, my mother would tear open brown-paper shopping bags for me to scribble on. I even tried jotting down my impressions of these characters in feeble-sounding Portuguese. Little did I know that my childish efforts at words and images would come in handy decades after the fact. On the days when I didn’t feel like drawing, I would listen attentively to the music.

One good thing did come out from all of these activities: the more songs I heard, the more I liked and learned from them. It never occurred to me that Brazil harbored such a wealth of music programs to accompany what I encountered in our makeshift record collection. Since I had grown up outside the country, I wasn’t privy to what the native population had been exposed to on an ongoing basis. To have noticed these melodies at the time this form of music was becoming more widely accepted and circulated proved a timely fluke.

One program that I heard mentioned was the weekly Festival de Música Popular. My boyish earbuds were thus primed for absorbing these fantastic new sounds. Hearing the likes of Jair Rodrigues, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Erasmo Carlos, Wanderléa, Agnaldo Rayol, Dalva de Oliveira, Nana Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Agnaldo Timóteo, Elis Regina, and so many others shaped my appreciation for Brazilian music and song. The weird thing about all this was that I had never seen this music program while I visited Brazil, nor had I seen these artists perform in any capacity, that is to say, until much later in life. I only learned about them from hearing my relatives discuss the merits of this or that singer who appeared on this or that showcase.

Speaking of which, the show Jovem Guarda on the newly christened TV Record had one of the highest national ratings (known as IBOPE) of any of these programs. Another was O Fino da Bossa! (“The Best of Bossa!”) and on the same network. Not knowing anything about ratings or programming, I became frustrated with my relatives’ efforts to initiate me into the electronic medium. For instance, I heard so much talk about a fellow named Jair Rodrigues and his smash hit, the nonsense number “Deixe isso pra lá” (Alberto Paz/Edson Menezes), that in my infantile mind I honestly believed that I had seen Jairzinho on Brazilian television.

‘O Fino da Bossa!” with Elis Regina & Jair Rodrigues

What typically transpired was that every time I found myself in someone else’s house or apartment, I would question the occupants about “that guy Jairzinho.” Their response would be, “Oh, you should’ve been here last night when he was on TV,” or “Come by our house next weekend, you are sure to see him then.” Seeing my disappointment, they would compensate by describing, in minute detail, Jairizinho’s over-and-under handsaw movements, which became his signature gesture; topped off with that broad, toothy grin, a smile that all-but enveloped the beaming crowd but that, to me, seemed to emulate a dark-skinned version of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Despite their kind offers to come over (usually, on the weekends), our time with the relatives was limited. Alas, I never got to see Jairzinho perform, no matter how many people I talked to or visited.

That same, frustrating response followed another popular singer of the period, the song idol Roberto Carlos Braga. Although he hadn’t yet become brega, a variant on his official surname (and what, in Portuguese, meant “tacky”), Roberto Carlos was the nearest thing to a world-renowned celebrity that Brazil had at its disposal, outside of soccer star Pelé. Still, there was one song of Roberto’s that, for me, stuck out from the rest of the mawkish crowd of ballads and teenybopper tunes. And that was the song, “Quero que vá tudo pro inferno” (“Let It All Go to Hell”).

I first heard this number in New York, possibly a year or so after we returned from our trip. Oddly (well, maybe not so oddly), I became fixated on the title — especially the “hell” part, which, if you were fortunate enough to have grown up in polite society, or in a somewhat religious environment, was strictly verboten (you would REALLY burn in hell if you dared to speak the “F ”bomb in public!). Mesmerized by that word inferno — especially the way Roberto lingered over the “r” (“in-ferrrrr-huhno”) in his capixaba accent — I listened carefully to the lyrics over and over again, not understanding the words or the sentiments being expressed, yet all the while wondering to myself how the hell Roberto got away with saying this forbidden term:

De que vale o céu azul e o sol sempre a brilhar
Se você não vem e eu estou a lhe esperar
Só tenho você, no meu pensamento
E a sua ausência, é todo meu tormento
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

De que vale a minha boa vida de playboy
Se entro no meu carro e a solidão me dói
Onde quer que eu ande, tudo é tão triste
Não me interessa, o que de mais existe
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

Não suporto mais, você longe de mim
Quero até morrer, do que viver assim
Só quero que você me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Roberto Carlos “Compacto Duplo” from CBS Records

What is the blue sky worth or the ever-shining sun

If I’m left pining for you to be here by my side?

All I have is you, you are always in my thoughts

But your absence is a constant torment

All I want is you, to warm me through this winter

And that it all goes to hell

What good is this playboy life of mine

If I get in my car and this loneliness persists

Wherever I go, this sadness always follows

I don’t care about anything, and what’s more

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

I can’t take it anymore, you away from me

All I want is to die, than to go on like this

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

(English translation by the author)

Now, really, what did I expect, something insightful along the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? Witty poeticisms analogous to Baudelaire? This was nothing more than easy-listening music, a love poem pure and simple. Years later, I read that Roberto had written these verses to Magda Fonseca, his girlfriend at the time, who had gone abroad to the U.S. to study English. His songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (né Erasmo Esteves), helped him to hammer out the lyrics. The orchestration was of its time and included a bombastic Hammond organ solo spiked with a “Roy Orbison meets the Beach Boys” surf-rock beat. The end result: Twenty-four-year-old Roberto’s honest expression of longing (caused by Magda’s absence) and his frustration with conditions in military-run Brazil spilled over into youthful rebelliousness.

Hell, I was all of eleven years old. What did I know of youthful rebelliousness? I knew nothing of the military’s overthrow of the Brazilian government, or that the CIA had been behind the power grab, or that barely three years later (in 1968) the suppression of dissidents would only add to the country’s problems by making things worse for the populace, leading to the expulsion of songwriters and others associated with the genre of Tropicália and such. Roberto Carlos’ “pure and simple” love poem, a monster triumph upon its release, signaled both the beginning of public outcry and the end of rebellion.

What I, myself, took away from our visit was not rebellion but a sense of togetherness. For the first time in my young life, I experienced a closeness to my Brazilian family members I never knew existed: from aunts and uncles I had not grown up with, from grandparents and cousins I had hardly known, and from newfound friends and acquaintances I had never met. I came away with the impression that they all enjoyed each other’s company; that they exuded a spirit of fun just by being together and, you’ll pardon the platitude, “in the moment.” Their openness to me and to my brother was warmly received and, to be honest, completely unanticipated.

Having spent several extremely cold winters and blisteringly hot summers in the Big Apple, and having my first and last names constantly misspelled and mispronounced by people unfamiliar with our language, the balmy sun-filled skies of São Paulo seemed to reflect back at me in the sunniness of the dispositions I encountered during our month-long stay. I felt accepted, understood, loved, and listened to, for once, by those inside and outside the family circle — feelings that were roughly alien to me for the first six years of our residence in the Bronx.

Another six years would pass before I was able to recapture those feelings.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part One)

Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere,’ Act II: Magic Fire Music, with Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Photo: Yves Renaud/Metropolitan Opera)

There’s still no live opera to speak of, anywhere or anyplace. Of course, the primary cause for this deficiency can be traced to the coronavirus outbreak. Regardless, you can obtain your daily dosage of the operatic art via Met Opera on Demand, the company’s streaming app, if you are so inclined.

Well, this fan happens to be so inclined. Available for download (including from the Roku streamer), Met Opera on Demand can provide the starving opera lover with whatever jolt to the system one needs. The only limitation, if you would like to hear about it, is that all performances come from previously available material: Live in HD, Live from Lincoln Center, and/or Great Performances at the Met. Most are courtesy of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) archives and go as far back as the mid-1970s, the dawn of live televised opera.

Having watched many (but not all) of these productions when they were first broadcast, I noticed a number of changes that have taken place in the four or more decades since they made their initial appearance. The main differences between Met Opera productions from the seventies and eighties and those that materialized in the 1990s through 2010 and so forth were not only in the physical aspect of the sets and costumes, but in the looks and actions of the principal players.

The ones from earlier years featured large structures with little in the way of flow and movement. Modern lighting techniques and elaborate choreography, as viewers have come to understand and appreciate them, were limited and crudely handled. Simply stated, productions revolved around major stars (i.e., Millo, Scotto, Price, Sutherland, Horne, Verrett, Bumbry, Pavarotti, Domingo, Milnes, MacNeil, and many others) who planted their feet firmly on the Met’s stage and basically confined themselves to a given space. Stand and deliver, that was the maxim. You entered, you sang, you exited. You bowed to the audience and called it a night.

By my count, the notion of European Regietheater did not take hold until the 2006 arrival of General Manager Peter Gelb. Prior to Gelb, Joseph Volpe controlled when and what got produced, and with whom. Before Volpe, the Schuyler Chapin era flourished, despite money being especially tight. There was also a traditionalist fervor prevalent in those long-ago Volpe years, in that an opera’s looks and time period were set in the traditional manner, with little to no variance from the norm.

On occasion, a more provocative experiment would spring up from the doldrums that had inevitably set in (for example, the sparseness of John Dexter’s work). This was due mostly to the scarcity of financial resources. With Gelb’s rise came productions with a modernistic bent (with sets and costumes to match) that challenged how audiences experienced opera in ways not formerly seen.

Hand in hand with these came a strong impact from the nearby Broadway stage. Although many joint productions from Europe and major North American theaters began to take hold, overall these proved less expensive and, therefore, more practical to put on in comparison to something developed from scratch. This smacked of the old “out of town tryouts” long favored by Broadway producers. Well, if it worked for the Great White Way, why not give opera a shot.

Since those earlier times, today’s audiences have been privy to a younger crop of singers who have demonstrated an increasing mastery of the art form. Additionally, this newer generation can boast of superior vocal talent and acting abilities where the stand-and-sing methodology of yore has grown stale with the years. But for every gain there is some loss. A star one moment can become a has-been the next — and in far less time. In truth, a forty-or-more-year career span is becoming increasingly rare these days.

What drove this obsession with appearance and relevance is a simple fact of theatrical life: audiences want to be moved. As a result, the public must believe in the protagonists’ struggles on stage, or at least suspend their disbelief for the duration. Those trials and tribulations called for in the music and text must be convincing (that is, to a reasonable extent). Along with this, singers must strive to “look” their parts. That’s a tall order if you happen to be six-foot-two and weigh 300 pounds, or five-feet-nothing. “No problem,” you say. “They can play character roles.” Well, maybe. That’s if they want to play them.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about when dealing with modern-day opera productions. Still, those Golden Age throats were golden for a reason: the Pavarottis, the Prices, the Domingos, the Hornes, the Sutherlands, and the MacNeils of the opera world could SING and sing WELL, with personalities that spilled over the footlights and into the audiences’ laps.

With all that said, let me take you through a partial romp of Met Opera on Demand performances from the past:

Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna (l.) with James Morris as Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni (1978) – Eugene Berman’s original 1957 ink and watercolor sets for Mozart’s most controversial work is a certified design classic. In this broadcast, a young James Morris appeared in his first starring role as the titular libertine. Channeling Howard Keel in MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate, the Cole Porter musical about temperamental theater people, Morris steals the thunder (and the spotlight) from veterans many years his senior. Only 31 at the time, the novice bass upstaged everyone with his mellifluous tones, slim build and carefree stage deportment. It was obvious to anyone watching that here was a star in the making. His only problem, as far as I could discern, was getting through the high tessitura of Giovanni’s Act II serenade. This impediment, however, became mute when the budding bass-baritone took on Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle (see below).

Sad to say, Morris did not have a Kathryn Grayson to play off, nor were the tap-dancing skills of Ann Miller around for added comfort. Instead, we had Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna and Julia Varady as Donna Elvira — both artists equally adept at Mozart’s fast runs and intricate passage work but lacking in genuine vivacity. An atrociously made-up Huguette Tourangeau as Zerlina did little to convince me of her feminine charms. I am aware this was an early TV transmission, but the closeups did this fine artist no favors. She failed to make viewers believe that the dapper Don would want to make a play for this 40-something peasant. In this and in other respects, the camera does not hide but reveals.

Giovanni’s comic foil, Leporello, was taken by the stylish French baritone Gabriel Bacquier. From a previous generation of classically trained singers, Monsieur Bacquier played the servant with a mixture of deference and defiance. His crisply enunciated patter and elegantly executed exchanges were the work of a refined artist. At all times, one had no trouble mistaking who was the master and who was the servant. Bacquier was that rarest of birds, one I had the immense pleasure of seeing live at the Met as Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

John Brecknock’s Don Ottavio was pleasurable as well, if without much dash. Unlike most tenors, he observed the composer’s markings which included the usually omitted appoggiaturas, those added grace notes that come before the written score. Bass John Macurdy’s Commendatore was a refreshing bit of booming bass bluster, albeit short-lived. And baritone Alan Monk’s overly ripe Masetto, while firmly sung, seemed out of sorts. He reminded me of comedian Red Skelton in his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. But Morris was the main draw, a winning television debut which I can recommend without reservation.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Don Giovanni (2013) – Completely apart from the old Berman set, this Michael Grandage production is another in a long line of what some critics like to call the Laugh-In look. That is to say, it will rekindle older viewers’ memories of the 1960s NBC-TV comedy show (hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin) where cast members and invited guests popped in and out of windows to make dumb remarks about the latest goings-on.

In the title role, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien dominated with his virile if smallish stature and cutting tone. But compared to that old pro Morris, Kwiecien’s Don was a bush leaguer. He did make for an unctuously sensual Don, and his interactions with Luca Pisaroni’s bumptious Leporello were amusingly varied. Pisaroni was a tad short at the top and bottom of his range, but he shone in the comedic portions that were allotted to him.

The women’s roles were well acted and sung, starting with Marina Rebeka’s Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli’s Donna Elvira, and Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina, all convincingly youthful and vividly voiced. They were smartly dressed, too, their costumes and headwear being of the period in question. Ramón Vargas’ Don Ottavio felt more comfortable in the ensemble passages (he was wonderful in the Trio of the Masks) than in his two solos. And Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán was an appropriately other-worldly Commendatore, his voice soaring mysteriously over the loudspeakers.

Hildegard Behrens as Brunnhilde, listening attentively to James Morris’ Wotan, in Act II of ‘Diw Walkuere’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Die Walküre (1989) – Eleven years after his ground-breaking Don Giovanni, James Morris went on to appear in the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Wagner’s Ring. In the second opera of the cycle, Die Walküre, Morris is the god personified, his formidable six-foot-four-inch frame easily filling the bill. Even more significant, his impressive bass-baritone had matured to the point where Morris’ interpretation set standards (he had studied the role with the great Hans Hotter, the previous generation’s leading exponent). He went on to become the Wotan of his generation. And why not? Few singers could master the Act II dialogue in such a biting manner as he could. Yet, he managed to portray an awesome fury as the angry god struck Hunding dead with a look and a wave of his hand.

For me, Morris’ poignant and dramatically forthright musings in the long Act II scene with daughter Brünnhilde, sung and acted to perfection by soprano Hildegard Behrens, were this performance’s high points. Even better was Wotan’s Farewell, with both artists’ emotional commitment to the drama (and their moving glances to one another) captured for all time by the superb camera work. Unfortunately, the image has become blurred and faded with time (remember, this broadcast took place in the days before high definition), but the impact these sequences held for viewers are worth putting up with such minor inconveniences.

As added bonuses, Jessye Norman’s womanly Sieglinde was seconded by Gary Lakes’ fervent Siegmund. Kurt Moll, growly voiced and threatening, made for a low-bottomed Hunding. Christa Ludwig, a stylish singer in Strauss and Mozart, proved a good choice for Wotan’s put-upon spouse Fricka. But at this stage in her long career, Ludwig’s high notes were wanting. Still, she gave her all to the part. James Levine’s conducting, as good as it would get in this early going, managed to whip up a thick head of steam for the Act I duet with Lakes and Norman. The Magic Fire music toward the end put the finishing touches to a classic performance (in the old stand-up-and-sing style!), one not to be forgotten.

Brunnhilde (Deborah Voigt) hears the origin of the magical Ring from her father, Wotan (Bryn Terfel) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Die Walküre (2011) – There is little to recommend in director Robert Lepage’s “Barnum & Bailey meet Cirque du Soleil” version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Contrasted with the Met’s stodgy old Otto Schenk standby, this so-called “novel take” on the composer’s second installment, Die Walküre, points out the major flaws in placing too much faith in modern technology. Those 24-noisy planks and the noticeably restricted playing area that resulted left most viewers and critics with a bad taste in their mouths. Only in Siegfried did the stage machinery appear to work in the way the production team had planned. Otherwise, give me the tried and the true, please.

If only the singing were up to the task! And in this, for Act I anyway, we had Eva-Maria Westbroek in her company debut as a womanly/girlish Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as a heroic and iron-lunged Siegmund (for once, they actually looked like twins), and Hans-Peter König’s menacing Hunding (as gentle as an ox otherwise). The pair’s rousing duet closed out to raucous shouts of approbation. James Levine was back in the pit (he did not take up the baton for Das Rheingold due to a back injury) and was greeted with a thunderous roar.

For Act II, the heart of the drama, Bryn Terfel’s blustery, bright-voiced Wotan left this viewer wanting: more bite, and less fuming and fussing. His frequent eye-popping at the slightest provocation was distracting to the point of our nominating him to the Ralph Kramden Appreciation Society. Soprano Deborah Voigt’s trim figure and spunky attitude were ideal for Act II, but they came at a loss of full-bodied warbling. Her voice grew thin on top, and those high C’s called for in her war whoops were indistinguishable from one another.

Despite the two decades that separated them, neither artist were a match for the bond and chemistry that generated between James Morris and Hildegard Behrens. A real singing lesson was delivered by the great Stephanie Blythe as a thunderously imposing Fricka. Her acting with the eyes alone was enough to make any god whither before this harridan.

Eva Marton as Elsa of Brabant, with Peter Hofmann as her knight Lohengrin (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Lohengrin (1986) – An August Everding barebones production, with the sets held together by Lincoln Logs. In Act II, it’s all ceremonial pomp and circumstance for 40 minutes where the action comes to a halt. Peter Hofmann, the titular knight in shining white armor, looked every inch the part. His voice, however, lacked power in the ensembles. The ring of a Jonas Kaufmann or a Piotr Beczala was not Hofmann’s to command, despite his golden-haired looks and gentlemanly manner. He did deliver a congenial tone, and his soft utterances to his bride-to-be were not to be missed. Still, he lacked that spark of inspiration, the near-Christlike aura that must surround the otherworldly Lohengrin, a Knight of the Holy Grail. It’s what artists such as Jess Thomas, who had that ethereal quality in spades, exuded and conveyed, as did Sandor Konya, a notable knight in his own right. Hofmann got by on looks alone, the rest we must take for granted.

Two major female stars gave polar opposite performances: soprano Eva Marton as Elsa of Brabant, the damsel in distress, and legendary diva Leonie Rysanek as the witch Ortrud. Marton’s Madonna-esque Elsa mesmerized Met audiences with her teary-eyed, emotionally laden assumption, one of the best we’ve ever witnessed. At nearly every juncture, Marton poured out sumptuous tones of warmth and humility. She meant every word of her tale of woe. Who, one need ask, would doubt such a winning persona?

Marton moved mountains, and proved immensely effective against the vicious tirades and calculating villainy of Ortrud, played by veteran scene-stealer Leonie Rysanek. This was old-fashioned acting at its finest, compared to Marton’s measured approach. Wild-eyed and untamable, Ryansek’s voice tended to spread on top. But the scale of her instrument was larger than life. Indeed, this was a stage performance aimed at the farthest reaches of the Met balcony. Exaggerated? Yes, and way over the top. Yet, Rysanek earned the lion’s share of the applause — not unmerited, mind you, but not one to be repeated. Again, think theatrics: How captivating she must have been live, but not in HD!

As the witch’s husband Telramund, baritone Leif Roar was a cipher, a dull and routine “villain,” weak-minded and too easily manipulated. Telramund must be the most ungrateful part Wagner ever wrote. No wonder few star singers take it on. It’s punishing to the voice, the tessitura merciless and unyielding. He’s plainly a Mama’s boy, one who deserves his pitiless end. John Macurdy’s sturdy-voiced King Henry brought welcome power and thrust. Upon learning of his death at age 90, one felt the sad passing of an era, and a major American artist in one of his signature roles. Macurdy was one of those old Met Opera stalwarts who seemed ageless. He was a dependable mainstay, and will be sorely missed by those who knew his work.

Diana Damrau as Juliet and Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo breathe their last in Gounod’s ‘Romeo wt Juliette’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Roméo et Juliette (2017) – This operatic version of Shakespeare’s tragedy all but confirmed tenor Vittorio Grigolo’s standing as one of the Met’s most valuable go-to-players for French repertoire. Not only was his finesse with the French language close to that of a native, his natural acting ability and complete immersion in whatever role he’d been assigned to brought a whiff of spring air to what could have been a stuffy drawing-room drama. To date, Grigolo has taken on Gounod’s Faust, Massenet’s Werther, and Offenbach’s Hoffmann. Visibly dashing and handsome as all hell, the Tuscan tenor would win any woman’s heart with this portrayal — especially with his bold ascending of the balcony and his athletic displays of swordsmanship.

It’s a shame, then, that in late 2019 he was summarily dismissed from both the Met and London’s Covent Garden for “inappropriate and aggressive behavior” with a chorus member and (allegedly) others. Since then, Grigolo has been sidelined in this country, but was received with a standing ovation at La Scala. Go figure.

His partner on this occasion, soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette, outdid herself in presenting a strong-willed and forceful heroine, one eager to match her Shakespearean wit against any and all comers. Their many love duets (and their marvelous death scene) left no dry eyes in the house. At the curtain, Vittorio literally swept Damrau, and the audience, off their feet! Thanks to this production, this old warhorse from the pen of Charles Gounod surpassed the boundaries of this dainty Victorian-flavored score to become a box office favorite.

Erin Morley as the mechanical doll Olympia, being wooed by the poet Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo) in ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (2015) – In an interesting twist, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja had earlier premiered as Hoffmann when this 2009 Bartlett Sher production was new. While he has a pleasant enough timbre and displayed fine musicianship, Calleja’s carefully calculated portrait of the poet was no match for the sheer gut-wrenching thrills that Vittorio Grigolo was capable of bringing to this long and terribly difficult assignment. What set Grigolo apart from his colleague was that fiery temperament, that sense that he’s willing at all times to throw caution to the winds and go for broke: those endless, prolonged high notes, those pauses between breaks, that impending sense of disaster. These take an artist of the first rank to bring off. Not that Calleja is an unqualified performer, but his basically refined sound — cautious, cool, deliberate — doesn’t quite tingle the nerve endings the way that Grigolo seems adept at pulling out of a hat (or from his vocal bag of tricks).

As Hoffmann, Grigolo was the best of the modern breed of spinto tenor. Perhaps his only rival in this category is the Polish Piotr Beczala, who has lately moved on to heavier repertoire, i.e., in Wagner’s Lohengrin. Suffice it say that this production is a mash-up of many shock elements (lots of semi-nude vistas and provocative poses), mostly from the decadent 1920s. Stylistically, it was all over the European map: part Kafkaesque delusion, part vaudeville spectacular. Some settings were downright ugly, others littered with Hoffmann’s writings spilled out and about the Met stage. Most impressive of all was Kate Lindsey’s dual role as the poet’s Muse and his constant companion Nicklausse. Lindsey was seen as well as heard in practically every scene, which begs the question of whether to retitle the opera The Tales of Nicklausse and Hoffmann. This was a major undertaking that merited the rousing ovation given to her at the end.

My earlier criticism of Thomas Hampson’s assumption of the four villains (Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, in that order), was reinforced by this HD transmission: His voice got lost in the proceedings, and his solo pieces went by with no force or thunder to speak of (Dappertutto’s bogus “Diamond Aria” was taken a half tone lower). If this character isn’t allowed to roar and bellow as the evil Dr. Miracle (or is it the miraculous Dr. Evil?), then the Antonia act falls apart. He looked smart in his top hat and tails, though, his height and bearing that of an aristocrat. As for his singing, much was wanting at this stage.

All the ladies were committed to their parts, especially Erin Morley’s stratospheric, scale-ascending windup doll Olympia (just try to pick her out from the lineup of mechanical automatons onstage). Both sopranos Hibla Gerzmava as the consumptive Antonia and Christine Rice as the courtesan Giulietta did well enough. The men were a hair better at discerning individual characterizations. We must make note of Tony Stevenson’s multiple portrayals (my favorite was his Gene Wilder-inspired Young Frankenstein takeoff as Spalanzani’s goofy lab assistant, Cochénille), Dennis Peterson as the oleaginous Spalanzani, and baritone David Pittsinger’s full-throated Luther and Crespel.

This new production of Hoffmann incorporated not only the bogus and ersatz “standard” version, with those Ernest Guiraud recitatives and that spurious Septet in the Venice act, but numerous material that was unearthed over 40 years ago and only recently has become part of the company’s practice. These “newly discovered”(!) pieces include two arias for the Muse/Nicklausse, and a completely new number for Coppelius, along with a different ending for the chorus in the Epilogue. Hoffmann’s chair and writing desk predominate throughout — giving notice to everyone, as if they were in doubt, that the poet’s lot is to create no matter what. To hell with his love life!

We may never know what composer Jacques Offenbach ultimately had in mind for his masterpiece, since he died without having finished work on this major opus. What we do have is a theatrical assemblage, a hodgepodge if you prefer, that contains a fair amount of memorable, oftentimes jumbled yet supremely hummable music.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather’ Parts I and II — “Of Mike and Men”

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ logo (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, fanzine publisher, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay below is an analysis of director-producer Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather epic, specifically the fraught relationship between Vito Corleone and his youngest son, Michael.

Michael’s Failure to Be Like His Father

Both different and alike, Michael and Vito Corleone’s relationship is an unique one. All of his life Don Vito has tried to set a different path for his youngest son than the one he himself had chosen as a child. But when Michael is faced with his family threatened, he takes on the role of the don, or “Godfather,” and tries his best to fill his father’s shoes. However, as time passes, both his friends and his enemies realize that he could never be like his father, that this was not the path he wanted for himself. And it is not until the end of Part II that Michael realizes that perhaps everyone was right all along. Unfortunately, the lesson is hard learned.

Throughout both Godfather movies, Vito is portrayed as a respectable and admired don to the Corleone family. He listens to all who come to him and can “take care” of anyone’s troubles simply by “making them an offer they can’t refuse.” When we, the audience, are first introduced to Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone, who has just returned from serving in the army during World War II, we note that he seems a bit different from his other siblings, in that he doesn’t want to get involved in the same “business” as his father, that is, the Mafia. Instead, he has a desire to create his own path. We can see that in the mere fact of his dating Kay, an American woman who is outside of the family loop and tradition — and who does not understand the ways of Michael’s family.

Young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at his sister Connie’s wedding

We can see a prime example of his dislike for the Mafia when he and Kay are at his sister Connie’s wedding. Michael tells her that his father kills for a living and threatens people’s lives to avenge his family and friends. He distinctly claims that it’s his dad’s business, yet he wants no part in it. From that moment forward, the audience feels a great sympathy for him, in that we want him to succeed in creating his own path.

With all of that in mind, however, Michael takes an unexpected turn that manifests itself in Part I, where, with his father’s life at stake, he takes extreme measures to seek vengeance for the family. When in the hospital, at his father’s bedside, he tells him “I’m with you, Pop,” this means that he has finally crossed over to the other side and decided to be part of the Mafia after all. While we see his father in tears as he hears his son say this, it is a very ominous scene, mostly because the audience cannot tell whether or not Vito’s tears are of joy or of sorrow.

This is because later we find out that Vito did not want Michael to take on the family business. This is made much more prominent in Part II, where we see the young Vito’s efforts to shield his son away from doing so.  As much as he voices his dislike for his father’s business, toward the last half of Part I Michael decides to take action and to “be a man” in order to protect his family. In the famous scene where the camera closes in on Michael sitting among his brothers, he speaks of killing Sollozzo, the individual behind the attempt on his father Vito’s life, and the corrupt police captain, McCluskey. Nobody takes him seriously when he says this, because his brothers know him as the baby brother who didn’t want to get involved in the family “business”. Yet he insists that he will kill them both, so they let him do it just to see what he’s really made of.

Michael (Al Pacino) hears his father, Don Vito (Marlon Brando), confess his true feelings regarding his son’s career move

As it turns out, he succeeds in killing both Sollozzo and McCluskey, yet he does not follow directions on how to do it. While the specific details are not necessary to point out in this scene, it shows how Michael was, despite his strong words, afraid of killing them, something that Vito would not hesitate to do to his enemies — especially those who had threatened his family at an early age.

However, once Vito decides to make Michael the new don, he shares a moment with him outside of his house in which he explains to Michael that “I didn’t want this for you.” He would much rather have his youngest son be known as “Senator Corleone,” “Governor Corleone,” or someone of political power. And with the mood of the scene, it feels as though Vito has been waiting his whole life to say that to Michael directly.

Throughout the two films, we see Vito’s efforts in keeping Michael away from following the Godfather’s path. While in the past he killed the two heads of the Mafia in Sicily and in Nevada (and, we might add, he killed them both brilliantly and brutally), he did it to protect his family. We can see that after he has killed Don Fanucci, Vito walks over to his family and holds Michael in his arms, telling him, “Your father loves you very much, very very much.” The interesting part about this scene is that he tells this specifically to Michael. Upon his saying that line, Vito has set him apart from the rest of his sons, in hopes that Michael would not have to go to such extreme lengths to protect his family.

Sadly, despite all of Vito’s best efforts, Michael becomes the don and takes over officially after his father’s death. The fascinating part is that Vito placed his full trust in him, so that when some of his own men hesitate to obey Michael’s orders, Vito tells them, “If you trust me, then listen to my son.”

While he seems as if he is meeting his father’s expectations, later on Michael becomes a far more aggressive killer, and at times the exact opposite of his father. He starts ordering people to kill left and right, for example, the heads of the five families, Connie’s abusive husband Carlo, and even his own brother, something he later bitterly regrets. He also does not care to hear people’s objections, and fails to satisfactorily take care of those who come to him for advice. Tom Hagen, his adopted brother, comes to him toward the end of Part II to ask, “Are you going to kill everybody?” To which Michael casually replies, “Only my enemies,” which goes to show just how many of them he supposedly had.

Alone, Michael Corleone (Pacino) ponders his disturbing path to “success”

Toward the end, people lose trust and confidence in him, and begin to question his methods, especially after killing his own brother, an act that contradicted the theme of family togetherness the entire Godfather series has emphasized. And the saddest part of it all is that it is only at the very last scene that we realize how much the decision to become the don has taken its toll on him.

He is left alone contemplating, the camera slowly closing in on his face, which is worn and tired. For the first time since Part I, the audience has regained its sympathy for him. As much as he tried his hardest to make his own destiny, Michael was not really meant to fill his father’s shoes. Only at that moment does he realize this.

Copyright © 2007 by Natalia C. Lopes

The Defiant and the Profane — Getting a Grip on Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ at the Met

David McVicar’s staging for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marry Sohl / Met Opera)

If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t’ Fix It: Part Two

Baroque opera has little appeal for me. I know, I know. I need to get with the times. And, yes, I am fully aware that those longwinded works from the early 18th century have been back in vogue for nearly half a century. But I can’t help it. I find their laborious plots and over-complicated story lines a chore, the set pieces painful to listen to (well, not all of them), and especially the samey-samey quality of the music and solo numbers (called aria da capo). And those annoyingly drawn-out recitatives are especially egregious.

Yet, I keep saying to myself, Get a grip on it already! Give yourself a break. Now, with all the above said and done (and off my chest), I would much rather watch a live or pre-recorded performance of a Baroque piece than listen to one on the radio or compact disk.

Speaking of which, the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Handel’s 1709 Agrippina was touted as the oldest work in the company’s active repertoire. That claim may very well hold up for the opera house itself at Lincoln Center. However, I seem to recall some mid-1970 performances at the mini-Met of Sir Henry Purcell’s one-act Dido and Aeneas from 1689, which would place that opus a good two decades ahead of Agrippina.

Historically, George Frideric Handel’s first opera seria for Italy was Rodrigo, written for a Florentine academy sometime around 1707. Agrippina appeared two years later, for Venice, and became his first big stage success. It certainly proved its worth at the Met this past season, having received a rousing reception at its debut. I heard and saw Agrippina this weekend as part of the Live in HD transmission, available for free on the Met Opera on Demand online streaming service. The original broadcast date was February 29, 2020.

Sir David McVicar’s production set the work in modern times. In actuality, this was a 20-year-old production, created by the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, and adapted for the stage by the Metropolitan. John Macfarlane was credited with the set and costume designs, Paule Constable with the lighting, Gareth Morrell, harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, and Dimitri Dover with musical preparation, and Hemdi Kfir with the Italian diction.

Handel’s opera concerns the machinations of the wickedly Machiavellian Empress Agrippina, married to Roman Emperor Claudius (called Claudio in the opera). It’s historically inaccurate, irreverent and funny, but the guffaws and chuckles begin to stick in one’s throat when we relate the characters’ machinations to actual real-life events. Politics, so the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows, as they most assuredly do here.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) greets her husband, Emperor Claudius (Matthew Rose)

And as he did with the earlier Giulio Cesare from 2013, Sir David, by way of composer Handel and his librettist Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, has brought poet Tacitus to life (in fact, one of the minor characters, Lesbo, appears early on holding a copy of the Roman historian’s book). Given these sets of parameters, modern-day audiences will have no trouble following the meandering plotline.

Into the Roman Woods

In this all-but contemporary staging, evil runs rampant and corruption is a way of life. As with most such Baroque products, the plot moves slowly and fitfully through prolonged dry recitatives (or recitativo secco), while highly embellished da capo arias tend to express, by turns, lofty sentiments or banal syllogisms (more like clichés, if you get my drift). These are repeated in A-B-A sequence, which in practice are a perfect forum for displaying an individual artist’s technical and vocal abilities by means of fast runs, roulades, fioriture, cadenzas, and so forth — a veritable feast for the ears if not the eyes.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) has a one-on-one with her son Nerone (Kate Lindsey)

To director McVicar’s credit, he kept things moving. The action never stops for a second, which wins praise from yours truly for sheer inventiveness. And a most feisty and accommodating cast brought the onstage shenanigans smoothly and seamlessly to fruition, if not always coherently. Each individual character was allotted sufficient time and space to establish his or her presence and, most importantly, a certifiable personality type (uh, “dysfunctional” would be a better term).

In the title role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato was in her element, relishing the opportunity to play as devious and twisted a figure as she possibly could. This Agrippina would make even Lady Macbeth blush. Her sly, crooked smile, copious winks and double-entendres were priceless. Vocally, DiDonato was above reproach, although her coloratura was a shade off its usual mark. She compensated by using her innate language skills in enunciating the Italian text with bite, rrrrolling her r’s trippingly off her tongue till there was nothing left to roll. This verbal affectation, to my mind, was indicative of a disturbed, one-track mind.

Along those same lines, mezzo Kate Lindsey took the acting laurels, as it were, for her bravura take on the man-child Nero, or Nerone as he’s known. Lindsey played the emperor-to-be as a butch version of rapper Eminem, with tattoos across her arms and chest, and on the back of her neck, crossed with Jared Kushner in a slim suit and narrow tie. A punkish hairdo and saucy snarl on her lips, along with a take-no-crap-attitude completed the picture.

Nerone (Kate Lindsey) hands out alms for the poor in ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

One clever sequence involved Nerone’s handing out of Care packages to the vagrants assembled at the palace gate. That look of utter disdain on Ms. Lindsey’s face said it all. Slippery as an eel and twice as unstable, this Nero had his hands full with both wooing the lovely Poppaea (debuting soprano Brenda Rae) and keeping her suitor Ottone (countertenor Iestyn Davies) at bay.

Together, Agrippina and Nerone shared what might have been an incestuous relationship. This falls neatly into line with the basic premise for this work, in which Agrippina schemes to bring her debauched, mentally challenged offspring to the throne as Rome’s next emperor. Complications temporarily disrupt her little plans when, after having planted the false rumor of Emperor Claudius’ death (via poisoned pen letter), Claudius reappears to assert his position.

Sung and acted by British bass Matthew Rose, his amusing personification of Claudio reminded one of England’s Edward VII (“Bertie” to his friends), all hot and bothered and itching to get into his lover Poppaea’s pantyhose. With his large frame and booming voice, Rose hit the right note in depicting the emperor as a libidinous lout, full of macho posturing and empty-headed pronouncements. His scales needed a bit of work, though, and his low notes lacked a solid bottom.

The throne room set for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

He did, however, display a flare for comedy, as did Brenda Rae, in a penetrating characterization of the sexpot Poppaea. Their relationship was played strictly for laughs — and, indeed, it should be. Both Rose and Rae had a field day, with the bass practicing his golf swing and Rae fighting off the emperor’s (and practically everyone else’s) advances.

In fact, this entire enterprise smacked of a vaudeville free-for-all. For example, the angst-ridden Nero, acting like a freaked-out cocaine addict, indulged himself to the fullest by, literally, sprinkling his desk with happy dust and dropping his face into the white powder. This aspect of the show played like an episode of House of Cards or a Saturday Night Live parody of The West Wing. Uncanny!

Into this rather bizarre company strode countertenor Iestyn Davies’ more subdued bearing as Navy Admiral Ottone, a welcome respite from the lunacy. Baritone Duncan Rock’s solidly vocalized Pallante, in military uniform throughout, vied with countertenor Nicholas Tamagna’s nerdy Narciso in his makeshift combover for most obnoxious cohort. Both singers embodied groveling toadies, obsequious pawns in the manipulative Agrippina’s hands. Bass Christian Zaremba played the emperor’s press agent Lesbo. And high fives all around for the supernumeraries who did double duty throughout the program, especially the two security guards dressed up as Men in Black at the hotel’s bar.

Across the board, fast and slow runs, going up and down the scale, were flawlessly executed and accompanied, on the harpsicord and in the pit, by conductor Harry Bicket, a Baroque opera specialist leading the superb Met Opera Orchestra.

Poppaea (Brenda Rae) meets Ottone (Iestyn Davies) in the hotel’s bar

You could say that everybody and their mother — in this case, Agrippina— kept themselves busy with illicit affairs and off-the-record trysts in hotel lobbies, bars and apartments. Some silliness was bound to spill over, as in Agrippina giving a hand job to Narciso, an action straight out of Peter Sellars’ staging for John Adams’ Nixon in China. Good artists copy, great artists steal? Maybe. Others were routine or vulgar, yet stayed within the PG-parameters. The sole exceptions were the many hand gestures and raised middle fingers, which drew hearty laughter from an appreciative audience.

Anachronistic dance movements only added to the entertainment value. These were provided by choreographer Andrew George, with much of the routines seemingly tied to the plot or otherwise just plain outlandish. History meets theater, competing for viewer attention. It can often lead to absorbing material, or not. As for myself, I delight in such treatments as Verdi’s Don Carlo and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, operas based more or less on the historical record, with a preponderance of invention.

In Handel’s Giulio Cesare, which relayed the tempestuous affair between the noblest Roman of them all, Julius Cesar, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, David McVicar placed the setting in India during the British Raj (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/handels-giulio-cesare-if-it-aint-baroque-dont-fix-it/). As for this musty old warhorse Agrippina, from another time and another place entirely, I am pleased to have given ample time to this piece so as to allow it to make its point.

The opera begins and ends in a mausoleum, with the principle participants perched atop their tombs. Although it’s our understanding the Met’s version had suffered some doctoring from its earlier Brussels incarnation, the nearly three hour and thirty minute running time flew by in a flash. From beginning to end, Agrippina remained a bawdy and sexy showpiece, as well as plainly over-the-top. If that’s what Baroque opera takes to draw attention to itself, then let’s have more of it. Those badass Romans can teach us all a valuable lesson about drama and art imitating life.

In sum, this was as happily realized an undertaking as they come, a welcome novelty that should help in expanding the boundaries of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire, one most audiences are unfamiliar with. Now, let me get back to reading a good book. I have it: Sir Robert Graves’ I, Claudius….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) — Last Bastion of Civility

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ — A Film by Wes Anderson

A Tragicomedy of Errors

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s were benchmarks for generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Such laudable efforts as those of Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be), Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace) exerted a strong influence on many of the era’s directors — and on those yet to come.

As a rule, comedy films are governed by a given set of parameters, many of them holdovers from the silent movie era. The standard formula for these pictures, then, combined aspects of a wacky plot, zany antics, an ensemble cast, the requisite chase scene, oh, and the occasional pratfall or two. With the injection of cynicism into the picture, epitomized by the classic films of Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), and the incongruous romances and knuckle-headed folly found in Woody Allen’s work (Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the world of madcap comedy took on a decidedly modern turn.

Be that as it may, the above properties began to rub off on a young and up-and-coming Texan named Wes Anderson. An independent writer-director, who followed in the footsteps of another well-known advocate for autonomy, the equally gifted Jim Jarmusch (whose Only Lovers Left Alive was reviewed by yours truly: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-lovers-left-alive-2013-a-parable-of-class-consciousness/), Anderson adopted many of the attributes normally associated with screwball comedies and turned them into quirky character studies.

Among his contributions are Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). As for myself, I am embarrassed to admit that, for a variety of reasons, I remained ignorant of Anderson’s previous output — that is, until I was introduced to the absurdly audacious but adorable The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I am happy to note that it was this feature that led me to explore all of Anderson’s work in reverse order, from the newest to the oldest.

But let’s call The Grand Budapest Hotel what it is: i.e., the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll in which layer after layer of stories within stories are peeled back to reveal, well, more layers of stories. The “truth,” if indeed such a concept exists, is eventually exposed, and the contents of what lies therein are spilled out for all to see and admire (or not).

Indeed, Mr. Anderson, along with veteran cinematographer Robert Yeoman, set designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Milena Canonero, editor Barney Pilling, and composer Alexandre Desplat, have concocted an utterly enticing comedic showcase in the form of an “Encyclopedia Europa.” The experience of sifting through this filmic compilation, while scanning its horizons for deeper meaning (whether or not it relates to the basic premise), is left up to the viewer.

“An impossible assignment,” you say. Not really. How Anderson and his dedicated crew of technicians succeeded in dissecting this amalgamation of material is part of the fun of watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even after multiple viewings, we can still find something new and fresh to sink our teeth into. For instance, the whizz-bang, fast-paced aspect of the story; the constant back-and-forth of characters entering and exiting; those head-on camera angles and revelatory tracking shots. Why, there’s no end to the innovations that Anderson employs in telling his faux-Continental fairy tale.

The way that he achieves his objectives is by an extension and reduction of the film frame in conformance to the story’s intent. It begins in the present time, with a little girl walking through a cemetery on a bleak winter’s day. She stops at the gravesite of a famous writer, modeled after the Viennese author Stefan Zweig. The girl carries a storybook in her hand, bearing the inscription The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly, viewers are transported back in time, to the year 1985, with the old Author (Tom Wilkinson) sitting front and center, reading from a prepared text. He is interrupted by his little grandson (Marcel Mazur), who shoots a pellet at him from a toy pistol — a juvenile act that, in the course of the story, will come to symbolize the loss of innocence cloaked in deadly seriousness.

The old Author (Tom Wilkinson) and his grandson (Marcel Mazur)

Next, the old Author whisks the viewer off to 1968 and the ramshackle rudiments of the Grand Budapest Hotel, tucked away in the fictional Zubrowka hills. The film frame, which began with the Standard aspect ratio of 1.85:1, expands to the full 2.40:1 ratio of CinemaScope, the apogee of widescreen movie-making. Here, we are introduced to the Author as a young man (shades of Ernest Hemingway), played by an actor (Jude Law) of suitable age and vigor, in yet another manifestation of Herr Zweig. Young Author now takes over the narration.

In this section, though, the young Author is drawn to an elderly gentleman who sits motionless in the hotel’s lobby in contemplation of who knows what. Both men have a variant of the “meet cute” in the vast and empty bathhouse. Despite their unfamiliarity with each other, the elderly gentleman (F. Murray Abraham) invites the young Author to dine with him that evening. After the older gentleman has ordered his meal, he begins to open up about his life to the intensely receptive Author.

As it turns out, the older gentleman is Zero Moustafa, the former lobby boy and current owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. His lined face and heavily-lidded features betray an individual who has spent a lifetime harboring sadness and loss. When Zero begins his sorrowful saga, we are once more treated to a further reduction of the frame, this time to the Academy ratio of 1.37:1. This steady narrowing of the movie’s viewing space is a deliberate choice by the director, in that we begin our journey down old Author’s memory lane with a wide-angle shot — indicative of a broader grasp of the world at large.

The elder Zero (F. Murray Abraham) with the young Author (Jude Law)

As the frame tightens around a cluster of separate settings and images, the focus has correspondingly shifted along with it. With the frame having reached the aforementioned Academy ratio, the viewer can finally sit back and savor the nest of colorful characters and their individual dilemmas — a cinematic narrowing of the eyes, as it were, on exactly where Anderson wants his audiences to focus: mainly, on the year 1932.

This technique parallels Zweig’s own writing style. In other words: the more open the presentation, the less focused the story; the less open the presentation, the more focused the story. To be precise, Anderson has settled on a visual form of storytelling — the equivalent of picking up a favorite book and leafing through its pages, while stopping at key moments in the narrative so as to place one’s concentration on what’s written on the printed page. That it works as well as it does in this motion-picture format is a tribute to the director’s ingenuity and persistence in bringing his story to light.

When we are long past the movie’s three-quarter mark, the aspect ratios reverse course and return to their original proportions. We end up, surely enough, exactly where we began: with the little girl furtively closing the pages of her storybook.

Smash and Grab World

‘Boy with Apple’ by Johannes van Hoytl the Younger

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a slapstick, knockabout comedy of the most absurd, revolves around a murder mystery tied to the theft of a dubious masterwork of Northern Renaissance art by fictitious painter Johannes van Hoytl the Younger. (Note to readers: Spoilers ahead!) To complicate matters further, audiences should be alert to the existence of a half-dozen or so side plots. Bear in mind, too, that one can hardly scratch the surface of these myriad plots in this review.

The painting, Boy with Apple, is an abominably crude, amateurish recreation modeled after Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of European nobility. It also bears a striking similarity to a High Renaissance portrait of The Magdalene by one Bernardino Luini (1525) that hangs in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Any relation to religiosity or the church, however, is purely incidental.

‘The Magdalene’ by Bernardino Luini (Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In actuality, the Boy’s features have an uncanny resemblance to that of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel and (as described below) one of many principal protagonists. For those art history buffs out there, the apple the Boy holds in his hand is synonymous with the forbidden fruit which Gustave has not only tasted but indulged in to the fullest.

This garish artwork also happens to be Wes Anderson’s version of Hitchcock’s infamous MacGuffin, or that thing which the characters, both the good and the bad, are desperately searching for. The good guys, in this case, are M. Gustave and the young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, in a literal pencil-thin mustache), his lobby boy in training. For the most part, the bad guys are comprised of the malevolent Dmitri (a more naturally-mustachioed Adrien Brody) and his sharp-toothed henchman Jopling (brass-knuckle-wielding Willem Dafoe).

Zero (Tony Revolori) is rescued by his lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan)

Stuck in the middle somewhere (among other places) are the wealthy widow Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), apprentice baker and Zero’s intrepid lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), executor of Madame D.’s estate Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), Serge the nervous butler (Mathieu Amalric), the intimidating prisoner Ludwig (bald-pated Harvey Keitel), and the inquisitive Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), the officer in charge of finding the murderer. There are also a number of cohorts and accessories after the fact, to include members of the secret Society of the Crossed Keys(!).

Almost laughably, the stolen Boy with Apple is replaced with the all-too revealing Two Ladies Masturbating, their wide-open “charms” leaving nothing to the imagination. The irony lies in the fact that this prurient painting happens to be a true work of art, whereas the simplistic Boy with Apple is a travesty of portraiture. That its monetary value happens to drive the lunatic plot along is, in itself, farcical and hard to fathom. Seemingly, everyone runs around town after an object of questionable worth, which is as it should be in a screwball comedy. Lessons are learned, some for better and some for worse.

Upon seeing Two Ladies Masturbating instead of Boy with Apple, the easily angered Dmitri reacts in horror: “Holy fuck! What’s the meaning of this shit?” And immediately smashes the Two Ladies against a piece of sculpture. “Thus, always, to filthy artists!” he seems to be saying with this gesture. There will be more such moments to come.

Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Serge (Mathieu Amalric) & Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) have a “difference” of opinion

Proof of Boy with Apple’s worthlessness can be seen in the episode that takes place in 1968 involving the nearly dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, where the painting hangs ignominiously above the bored desk clerk’s post. Similarly, it is pictured on the back of the hotel’s dinner menu (but you’ll have to look closely to find it). In this risible aside, Anderson mocks what the art world of the time considered “treasurable.” This revives the age-old argument over what one society reveres as “art” as opposed to what another deems as “obscene.” The film’s theme, in retrospect, becomes the story of an openly permissive society about to face artistic and socio-political repression.

Introducing Monsieur Gustave: From Hero to Zero

There are several star attractions in this convoluted comedy of errors, chief among them the ubiquitous Monsieur Gustave H., the Old World ambassador of a now-forgotten past. Handsome, debonair, charming, smooth-talking, sophisticated, and resolute — there are not enough adjectives to describe this fellow’s magnificence. A bon vivant par excellence, M. Gustave is discretion personified. His movements are planned to split-second perfection. His speech and rapid-fire delivery are executed with Swiss-watch precision. Indeed, timing is everything to this professional busybody. He’s not only a master of all he surveys, but is immaculate in his appearance  and dress (as to be expected).

Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) admires Madame D.’s makeup

Additionally, Gustave H. is blessed with a sharp wit, whose mind races constantly at breakneck speed, a thoroughbred among also-rans. For a concierge, he is quite the man-about-town. Ah, but Gustave does have his faults. For one, he never thinks of himself as simply a concierge. He’s the prime cut to everyone else’s roast beef, the filet mignon to their rib steak. And, as a matter of course, his supreme belief in himself and his abilities confirm what he sees in his mind’s eye: that he’s up to the challenge of any given situation, give or take a few exceptions.

As the film progresses, the viewer experiences a subtle pulling back of the bedsheets — more like a peeling away of the layers of a pungent-smelling onion (whew…). We learn, among other things, that Gustave is prone to exaggeration (that’s putting it mildly). He also possesses a terribly short fuse, especially when matters get out of hand. There are points in this tragicomedy where, down for the count and seemingly out, M. Gustave manages to wrangle his way back from a tricky situation. Where most people would give in to despair (for example, the brief time he spends in prison), Gustave seeks out opportunities to be of service. Each time, he rises above the tumult, only to find that by movie’s end his luck has run out.

He is especially favored by the doddering dowager, Madame D. Sporting a Marie Antoinette hairdo by way of Antoine of Paris, Madame D. is enamored of the man. Early on, she confesses to him that she fears for her life. “She was shaking like a shitting dog,” Gustave mutters in an aside. Incredibly, the concierge is not repulsed by the woman’s advance age, nor by the dozens of elderly widows he surrounds himself with. On the contrary, he finds them much to his liking. “She was dynamite in the sack, by the way,” he observes. “She was 84,” queries Zero. “Mmm, I’ve had older,” Gustave adds. He cultivates the illusion of subservience and refinement, but they’re all for show and (obviously) for later telling.

Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dines with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)

Our lobby boy in training, the young Zero, is a cipher by comparison, a real “nothing” as his name implies. Conveniently, he becomes Gustave’s protégé, someone the seasoned concierge can take under his wing. No doubt, M. Gustave sees much of his younger self in Zero. A youth barely out of his teens yet burdened with a lifetime of heartache over the loss of his family, at best Zero is a survivor. He tells us so at key moments in the story, as when Gustave, desperate to get his cooperation on learning the police want to question him about Madame D.’s passing, lets it slip that his family had been tortured and killed.

Still, Zero knows how to keep silent. “Zip it,” M. Gustave curtly orders. To his credit, Zero is a fast learner and always willing to pitch in. But as quick a study as he is, Zero cannot possibly touch Gustave H. in the (how shall we put it) gratification department. Gustave aims to please, which takes on many forms. With a wealth of rich old spinsters at his feet, Gustave is much in demand for his, uh, services. No wonder he’s so beloved by Zubrowka society! Who could resist such a treasure? The ladies find him eminently desirable, a reminder of their own youthful dalliances. Likewise, Gustave plays on the ladies’ vanity, until he is no longer able to.

Note the quick flashback to Gustave’s servicing of the old biddies. These “quickies” fulfill the dual purpose of solidifying Gustave’s patronage of and acquiescence to the “old ways” of doing things. Whether those old ways actually worked in his favor, no one can tell for certain. If anything, Gustave H. is the hotel’s last bastion of civility, the final redoubt of a way of life that will shortly cease to exist; an Old World society on the brink of all-out conflict and, as author Zweig termed it, “the end of all we know.”

Regardless of the consequences, both Gustave and Zero’s positions are a calculated means toward a desired end, designed to give themselves enough leeway — call it a “pause for effect” — where personal service, of a kind no longer in existence, takes absolute precedence.

As the top dog of (at one time) a luxury establishment, Gustave’s responsibility is to see to the comfort of his guests. As he’s putting young Zero through his paces (a terribly funny sequence punctuated by nonstop banter), Gustave explains that a lobby boy must anticipate his guests’ needs without their knowing what those needs are — a veritable feat of mind over matters of fact. This motto has served Gustave well, to a point. It will also serve our survivor, Zero, well into his old age.

Lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) shares a drink with M. Gustave (Fiennes)

For chaotic chase scenes and preposterous situations that defy the laws of gravity, nothing in recent years has topped the remarkable skiing sequence where Zero and Gustave are hot on the trail (on a cold, snow-covered slope) of the nasty little assassin Jopling, who experiences a nasty little comeuppance. There are mad dashes across the frozen tundra and others too implausible to give credence to. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the climax and dénouement of The Grand Budapest Hotel are nothing if not bittersweet. You’ll be forced to wipe away a tear or two, as you smile broadly at the outcome.

Stefan Zweig wrote, in his autobiographical The World of Yesterday, that “our world of security was a castle in the air.” In Wes Anderson’s film, that bygone period is embodied by the once-elegant Grand Budapest Hotel (Zweig’s “castle in the air”), whose lobby boy and head concierge are past emissaries of that last gasp of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. M. Gustave had both feet planted in each of these worlds, although anachronistically speaking he was out of step with the times. His genteel manners and general air of bonhomie were woefully inadequate to thwart the coming menace, especially when confronted by brutish military guards. And with most of the deaths occurring offscreen, it’s left it to our imagination to fill in the gruesome details.

Writer-director Wes Anderson, along with his collaborator Hugo Guinness, have given audiences not just a tale as tall as Zubrowka’s hills but one involving a world that once prided itself on knowledge and culture, on nourishing the intellect and satiating the senses. However, towards the end that same world, corrupted by forces from within, rebelled against common decency. It turned away from knowledge and understanding to perpetuate false notions of superiority; to raising borders against those who were different, and allowing their basest, most bellicose instincts to take over.

In that, and in most other respects, The Grand Budapest Hotel has much in common with Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, a dark, portentous comedy premiering in March of 1942 (and set ten years after Anderson’s film) that poked fun, if we can call it that, at Hitler, the Nazis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the German occupation of Warsaw, and the Second World War. The alarm was already sounding when United Artists released this classic picture.

A month earlier, in February 1942, in the resort city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together. Despondent over the state of their beloved Vienna and the chaos unleashed upon the world, Zweig and his spouse resolved to put an end their suffering.

Civilizations, take note: The warning signs are as viable today as they were so many decades ago. We must not let the world of yesterday become the world of tomorrow. Zweig’s message was clear. And Anderson’s film has underscored it.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Three): ‘At-Home Gala’ and the New Normal

Screen capture of a performance of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” chorus during the Met Opera’s At-Home Gala on April 25, 2020

Sing For Your Supper

When last we left the Metropolitan Opera, America’s premier repertory company had cancelled the remainder of its 2019-2020 season. As time went on and the circumstances under which the company thrived became ever grimmer, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb was forced to reconsider the first half of their planned 2020-2021 season. Sadly, it too was withdrawn.

Having closed its doors in mid-March, due of course to the coronavirus outbreak, the Met Opera, along with its famed orchestra and chorus — and millions upon millions of radio listeners and live-streaming viewers the world over — were faced with the prospect of no opera performances at all and no work for all. This created a bind for singers, artists, stagehands, craftspeople, and anyone associated with the mechanics of bringing live opera to devotees of the form.

Similar to those in the movie and television industries, not to mention those in the dance and theater business, the bulk of opera’s participants are freelancers who depend on performing in order to meet their needs and obligations. Unlike essential workers, opera singers and chorus and orchestra members are considered non-essential personnel; consequently, they are at the mercy of theater companies for gainful employment. This situation has had a negative impact on performances worldwide.

General Manager Peter Gelb with Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Similarly, the sports community has also been stymied by the recurring presence of COVID-19. One possible solution, which has been tried in Europe and elsewhere, is to hold soccer matches in empty stadiums with prerecorded crowd noises and assorted cheers and shouts piped in. Another proposal involved placing dummy cutout figures around the field’s perimeter. This was done to give the “appearance” of a live audience in attendance. Can you imagine imposing such a solution to opera houses? The whole purpose of the art form is the immediacy of it. I can’t see this move as resolving anything. It fools no one and, ultimately, only calls attention to itself.

But the real questions on everybody’s minds are these: When will isolation be over? And when will things get back to normal? For most people, the issues are personal — and ergo more problematic. This holds true for HBO programs, and for Netflix, CBS-All Access, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and any number of channels and streaming services. How about sports and leisure-time activities: baseball, football, basketball, tennis, hockey, track and field, swimming, and others? When will their stadiums and arenas be filled to capacity again? That’s an unanswerable query at this point.

Granted, this is all wishful thinking on our part. We know that the problems of the world cannot be solved simply by holding the aforementioned activities. Too many people are suffering and dying at the moment for that to safely occur, what with the alarming upsurge in COVID-19 cases, both in the U.S. and in Latin and South America, having reached dire proportions.

More importantly, though, is the question of the continued viability for ALL the arts and the organizations that support them — from museums, art galleries, institutions of higher learning, Broadway, dance, and musical theater, to outdoor rock and pop concerts, poetry readings, lecture halls, indoor gatherings, and everything under the intellectual sun.

For those interested in any of the above pursuits, everyday life and the pleasures derived from them have ground to a halt. So speculating as to when and how these activities can safely resume is beyond the realm of possibility — at least, for the foreseeable future. Protecting ourselves and our loved ones should be, and is, the immediate concern. Driving the numbers down is of prime importance. Once control of the situation is achieved, then all these matters can be addressed.

Some issues will require immediate attention. Others will have to wait. However — and this is key — we must not allow complacency to govern our lives. People’s health and welfare are at stake. We must be as vigilant as ever in warding off this threat. We must all become displaced “artists” in our way, and in the time allotted to us.

If this is to be the new normal, then let it be so. To “sing for your supper” is to stand in someone else’s shoes. Only then will we be able to feel the pain and suffering that others have gone through. Only then will we be able to empathize with one another’s plight.

This is what it takes. The times demand it. Because this is what makes us whole and human.

From Live-Stream to At-Home With the Stars

Renee Fleming sings Verdi’s “Ave Maria” from ‘Otello’ from her home

The Met’s proposed solution to the dearth of opera performances was certainly the most unique endeavor the company has ever attempted. The “At-Home Gala,” as it was dubbed, took place live (for the most part) on Saturday, April 25 at 1 PM Eastern Standard Time. Forty or more individual artists partook of what can only be described as an unprecedented, globe-trotting live-stream event of immense value and import.

Not counting the many accompanists, technical crew, camera people, and sound engineers who participated, as well as the full Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus, there were live and prerecorded performances, across ten time zones(!), by the likes of Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, Roberto Alagna, Joyce DiDonato, Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann, Sonya Yoncheva, and many, many others. Fans got to see and hear their favorite artist in intimate surroundings. The immediacy of opera, downsized for home consumption, came through loud and clear.

One subject of note that should be mentioned: Each of the participants donated freely of their time and energy toward this event. All of the extracts reflected, in some way or another, an artist’s individual choice of a specific feeling, tone or mood. In addition, if listeners had any inkling of the historical significance of each piece, they would be able to identify what that particular artist’s personal statement was meant to convey, given the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Indeed, a collective sense of suffering and loss, sadness, joy, and exhilaration could be felt throughout the proceedings. The give-and-take that typically occurs in a stage production, or in a Live in HD broadcast, was magnified tenfold by the closeness of the live-stream process. Obviously, emotions ran high. Some artists were more subdued than others, given the wide range of nationalities presented. Some were introverts, possibly due to language barriers or inherent shyness; others displayed more outgoing behavior. Still others “let it all hang out,” as we Americans say, overflowing with sentiment or sorrow over whatever sensations they experienced through song.

Overall, each artist had something to say, whether implied or explicit. It is for us, the listener and viewer, to supply the missing ingredient — that is, of what lay behind and beyond the words and tunes. And for that, a knowledge of the pieces in question is paramount to understanding the underlying subtext. I’ll leave it to the individual viewer to do his or her homework on the matter.

Stepping up to the plate (you will forgive the sports analogy), Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, one of the tallest talents around, started things off with a delicately modulated depiction of Don Giovanni’s Serenade, “Deh, vieni alla finestra” (“Do come to the window”), accompanied by an accordion. Next, boundless energy took hold of tenor Roberto Alagna and his wife, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, in an extended excerpt from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.

Aleksandra Kurzak looks on disapprovingly, as Roberto Alagna serenades her

The scene took place in Alagna’s living room, with a pianist providing the lively accompaniment. Alagna was in a boisterous mood, mugging and acting up a storm as the inebriated Nemorino. Running and jumping about like a grasshopper, he and Aleksandra chewed the scenery at every opportunity. It was both delightful and exhausting. As Peter Gelb told New York Times reporter Joshua Barone, “There’s no substitute for performing.” And that’s what we got: a live, in-your-face, and on-your-laptop opera experience.

In contrast, Georgian mezzo Anita Rashvelishvili’s lush version of “Mon coeur souvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”) from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila lowered the room temperature by a few degrees. Following her, Michael Fabiano provided a subdued interpretation of Lensky’s melancholy air, “Kuda, kuda,” translated as “Where have you gone, those golden days of my spring?” The poet Lensky reflects on his life as he faces a duel to the death over a misunderstood slight. Still vocally impressive, retired Met diva Renée Fleming faithfully intoned Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” she cried, as tears streamed down her cheeks.

After five live transmissions in a row, it was time for several prerecorded features, the first one being the achingly throbbing Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, conducted by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra. Subsequently, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s majestically poised and perfectly articulated “L’ombra mai fù” from Handel’s Serse, popularly known as the “Largo” and made famous by Enrico Caruso, made literal time stop. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Met violist Vincent Lionti, who had passed away of the coronavirus.

Joyce DiDonato, surrounded by strings, performing “L’Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s ‘Serse’

It was back to live action with tenor Jonas Kaufmann in an heroic account of Eléazar’s “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from Halévy’s La Juive. This gave way to Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri’s powerful “Nemico della patria” (“Enemy of the state”) from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Playing the piano was fellow paisan, conductor Marco Armiliato. By the way, chirpy coloratura Erin Morley accompanied herself in “Chacun le sait” (“Each one shall know”) from La Fille du Régiment by Donizetti. We were amazed at the number of talented instrumentalists among these superb voices. This showed that their careers could have gone in any number of directions. And Morley was no exception.

German baritone Michael Volle’s bronze-colored delivery of Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star” brought us closer to Paradise in one of dozens of vocal highlights. Elza van den Heever regaled listeners with a nostalgic Dutch folk song, “Heimwee” or “Homesick.” Another memorable moment was presented by tenor Matthew Polenzani, who also accompanied himself on the piano in “Londonderry Air,” also known as “Oh, Danny Boy.” Wistful and poignant, this deeply touching piece conveyed that unmistakable vibe of Irish sentimentality. His family members greeted him with vociferous applause. Concluding the segment, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča gave listeners a taste of her lusty Met Opera Carmen in the thrice familiar “Habañera.”

The second prerecorded performance of the day was of the Act III prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, led by Maestro Nézet-Séguin. After which, Welsh-born bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (a fine Wotan and Wanderer) and his harpist wife, Hannah Stone, gave an upbeat rendition of a favorite Welsh tune, made popular by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, of “If I Can Help Somebody,” as appropriate-sounding a number as any.

Two back-to-back Verdi showstoppers, both from the Master’s Don Carlo, were rendered by powerhouse mezzo Jamie Barton (“O don fatale,” or “Oh fatal gift of my beauty”), who exhibited an infectiously bubbly personality, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey (“Per me giunto,” or “For me, the supreme day is here”), in seamless fashion.

Mezzo Jamie Barton belts out Eboli’s aria “O don fatale”

This was followed by soprano Angel Blue, who made quite a splash this season in the new production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. She lived up to her name, revealing an absolutely gorgeous voice and poise in “Depuis le jour” (“After the day”) from Charpentier’s Louise, a once popular verismo potboiler not heard at the Met in many a season. German bass René Pape’s sepulchral tones and reverent approach to “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (“In these hallowed halls”) from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, familiarly known as “The Magic Flute,” proved potent and closed this section.

Another prerecorded interlude featured Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the piano and Met concertmaster David Chan on solo violin, in the schmaltzy “Méditation” from Massenet’s exotic Thaïs. There followed notable contributions from Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov in a lively Rachmaninoff song, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in a full-throated “Ah, lève-toi, soleil” (“Arise, thou loveliest sun”) from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, South African soprano Golda Schultz’s evocative delivery of Magda’s “Il bel sogno di Doretta” (“Doretta’s beautiful dream”) from Puccini’s La Rondine, North Carolina-born countertenor Anthony Roth Costanza’s mesmerizing “Pena tiranna” from Handel’s rarely heard Amadigi di Gaula, and stunning Bulgarian diva Sonya Yoncheva in the transcendent “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka.

The concert’s musical peak and emotional highpoint, however, was reached with the stirring “Va, pensiero, sul ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on wings of gold”), or the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” from Verdi’s first great success Nabucco, sung to grandiloquent excellence by the Met Opera Chorus in a prerecorded segment that turned out to be a labor of love for all concerned. It is hard to capture in words the mixed feelings this piece engendered in the listener. One could only hum along with the composer’s sweeping three-quarter tempo. At the line, “O mia patria, si bella e perduta” – “Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost,” one couldn’t help turning our thoughts to those who have suffered at the devastation this plague has inflicted on humanity. The individual faces of the chorus and orchestra, conveying the sorrow of the lost children of Israel and their Babylonian captivity, were in truth revealing our own sorrow — no acting or role playing was required.

From top left: Angel Blue, Erin Morley, and Anita Rachvelishvili; and from bottom left:  Javier Camarena, Jonas Kaufmann, Ailyn Perez and Solomon Howard

Next, listeners were treated to soprano Nadine Sierra in the perennial “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La Bohème; Polish wonder boy, tenor Piotr Beczala, provided an enthusiastic “Recondita armonia” from the same composer’s Tosca; a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni with soprano Diana Damrau and her husband Nicolas Testé (the ubiquitous “Là ci darem la mano”); high-flying sparks issued forth from Lawrence Brownlee’s throat (“A te, o cara,” from Bellini’s I Puritani); deep low-bass rumblings from Günther Groissböck (“Wie Schön” from Richard Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau) — a nice contrast here; and a prerecorded solo effort by Yusuf Eyvazov of Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina,” also from La Bohème.

The last installment began with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s heartfelt and timely “Somewhere” (aka “There’s a Place for Us”) from Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins’ West Side Story. The New York City native was nearly overcome with emotion, so pertinent were the song’s lyrics (“We’ll find a new way of living / We’ll find a way of forgiving”) to our own time and place.

Soprano Ailyn Perez and bass Solomon Howard, as Luisa and Wurm, provided a scorching duet from Verdi’s Luisa Miller; Lisette Oropesa wiped the coloratura slate clean with a remarkably apt “En vain, j’espère” (“In vain, I hope”), from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable; Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis performed “Baigne deux,” again from Thaïs; Stephen Costello and his wife, violinist Yoon Kwon Costello, gave us “Salut demeure” from Gounod’s Faust; and an incredible display of agility and breath control came from Mexican tenor Javier Camarena in a bravura aria and cabaletta from Bellini’s Il Pirata, a taste of what’s waiting in the wings for 2021.

Soprano Anna Netrebko performing a Rachmaninoff song

And finally, an established individual who merits a paragraph of her own: Russian prima donna Anna Netrebko, in a standout, viscerally charged sequence recorded in Vienna of the Rachmaninoff song, “Oh, never sing to me again!”

We pray that sentiment may never come to pass.

In sum, this marvelous concert stood as a metaphor for our collective suffering and unity of purpose. Yes, we are separated from our friends, family, and loved ones. Yes, the world is spinning out of our control. But together, we commiserate; together we struggle; together we overcome. And together, we contribute. Even if we are physically apart, even if we are separated by great distances, we will stand as one. Our voices will not be silenced. We will be heard, either alone or as a unit. Let them ring out loudly and for all.

This is the message of the Met’s virtual “At-Home Gala.”

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013) — A Parable of Class Consciousness

They are the beautiful people: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) with Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Fangs for the Memories

They are highly-educated, obviously literate, poetry-spouting, music-loving British subjects (well, at least we think they’re British), and they have the accents to prove it. They seem to suck the very life out of others, but who are they, really? They are the indolent rich, the upper-class city dwellers who snobbishly look down on everyone else, the essence of entitlement. Oh, and one more thing: They are vampires.

Independent writer, director, producer, and part-time musician Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from 2013 is a knowing stab at vampire legends old and new. More succinctly, the film is a repository of modern-day notions about vampirism and their relationship to the dominant ruling class.

For what they are worth, vampires are elegant creatures, slim and handsome, the so-named “beautiful people.” To behold them is to be in thrall to them. Their manners are cultivated and urbane, their command of language and customs without question. Yet they scrupulously avoid encounters with the locals, the oblivious riff-raff they often disparage as “zombies” or the walking dead, the ones who lack the soul and wit of their fellow man (how ironic).

Cruising around the neighborhood in a vintage automobile, our vampire popstars radiate a wealthy person’s curiosity (more like disdain) for how the “other half” lives. In this case, the neighborhood they drive through happens to be a hollowed-out Detroit, the very symbol of a once thriving metropolis whose innards have been gutted bare by riots and mayhem.

Author and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, described Jarmusch’s films as “gentle, offbeat, and poignant,” and as having “a rare feeling for urban desolation, for loneliness, and the sweet, whimsical overlap of chance and companionship” (p. 439). This latest offering is no exception and a complete fulfillment of his assessment.

Frustrated with their mortal counterparts and saddened by what humans have done to the environment and to their beloved Motor City — a metaphor for the hollowness of human existence and the emptiness of their lives — the vampire lovers travel the world on red-eye specials, first-class all the way. Where they get their financial windfall is anybody’s guess.

As is their nature, vampires have the power to take a life or preserve it indefinitely. When they use the expression “to turn,” they mean to transform someone into one of their own. Yet they do so cautiously, never in haste and never indiscriminately. They are intimately aware of their surroundings, an inborn sixth sense guides their thoughts. Indeed, they are forever mindful of whatever environment they happen to inhabit.

Basically, Only Lovers Left Alive is concerned with four British vampires (Mia Wasikowska, the actress who plays Ava, is Australian by birth and of Polish descent; the others are UK natives). They speak from a multiplicity of opposing viewpoints. By the way, they are older (oh, so much older!) than their looks betray. One of them, the brooding Adam (Tom Hiddleston), is the rock-star recluse, a world-weary guitar freak who adores his original instrument collection. He’s also a songwriter and trained musician, someone who has invested his time and energy (in the manner of a Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the ne plus ultra of pathological purgatory) in strictly artistic pursuits.

(Author’s Note: Spoilers ahead!) The doctor at the hospital where Adam obtains his regular supply of O negative blood, whose name tag reads “Dr. Watson” (played by a glum and solemn Jeffrey Wright), is overly inquisitive about his motives. Coincidentally, the vampire has a name tag of his own: “Dr. Faust” (later, “Dr. Caligari”), a tribute to Adam’s closeness to poet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), the (ahem) true author of Hamlet and other Shakespearean delights (we kid you not), or so the movie believes. Adam also sports an out-of-date stethoscope, which almost gives him away.

Adam (disguised as “Dr. Faust”) meets up with the inquisitive Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital

His opposite number, Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam’s soul-mate and steadfast supporter, never goes anywhere without her precious book collection. Her suitcases are packed with literary classics of international repute (Beckett, Cervantes, Kafka, Mishima, Verne, et al.), no doubt to remind her of a passion deeper than any living creature can provide. Personality-wise, she exudes curiosity and appears receptive to new ideas and experiences.

Her little sister Ava (definitely not your “Gardner” variety sibling) is a nonstop party hound, the epitome of teenage impulsiveness, a grasping, needy twenty-something or other (but who can really tell). She is cold and calculating, feigning admiration for but demanding constant attention from everyone she meets. Ava invents every excuse in the book for overindulgence. Unnerving yet unrelenting, she is heedless of the advice given to her: to tone down her act lest she betray their presence among the living.

Although Adam, Eve, and Ava come across as languid, even lethargic, they are far from either. We soon learn that vampires can turn in a flash with lightning-quick velocity: a thrust of a hand in the blink of an eye. Ava, the petulant third wheel, is a constant sore in Adam’s side. She’s high maintenance and quite the cross to bear. On a double date with both Adam and Eve, Ava makes a play for the gullible Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is either too dumb to notice the threat to his person or too eager to hit it off with this brattish woman-child.

Ava (Mia Wasikowska) on a double-date with the clueless Ian (Anton Yelchin)

Taking delight in his receptiveness, she draws undue attention to herself which, as we have stated, goes against the grain of a vampire’s basic instinct to be inconspicuous. Later, Adam displays a controlled rage when he and Eve discover Ava has trashed his prized LP collection. Worse, she has (oh dear!) sucked the life out of poor Ian, Adam’s human go-between, a scrounger to end all scroungers, a fellow dedicated to serving the would-be rocker. (Note how Adam greases Ian’s palm with a thick wad of bills whenever he needs a “favor.”) Every vampire has his Renfield, that Guy Friday between the daylight hours, to run errands the night creatures are incapable of performing, given their susceptibility to the sun’s rays.

Ian so wants to be like his benefactor, but fails miserably in his futile attempts at rapprochement. Contrast his behavior, which can be deceptive and secretive, to that of the submissive yet amiable Moroccan manservant Bilal (Slimane Dazi), who caters to Eve and Marlowe’s every whim. In the end, Bilal is rewarded for his loyalty and stewardship, especially where the elderly and infirm Marlowe’s health is concerned. Subservience, it seems, all-but confirms the leisure-class notion of blind loyalty and obeisance. Ian, on the other hand, is held in suspicion (and rightly so) for his underhanded bootlegging of Adam’s music without his knowledge or consent.

Another point of contention is Adam’s shunning of the rock-star limelight, which Ian cannot comprehend. Adam’s music is absolutely fabulous, so Ian claims, openly broadcasting his naiveté regarding his mentor’s vulnerabilities. But Adam does not buy it. Having personally befriended many of the world’s most stimulating minds (his wall is covered with their portraits, among them Johann Sebastian Bach, Henry Purcell, Gustav Mahler, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and Nicola Tesla), the ageless Adam remains what he is: an enlightened yet elusive recluse. Ian fails to recognize, too, that Adam seeks not fame and fortune but personal satisfaction (a young Bob Dylan or Neil Young would be the ideal model) — a highly unusual aim for such a talented individual, but understandable under the circumstances.

Adam (left) admires a vintage guitar, while Ian (right) queries him about it

The illogical nature of British intellectualism, then, and the feeling of superiority they engender over lesser mortals, are but a few of the themes offered up and developed in Jarmusch’s picture. But don’t be fooled by the shiny exterior or highfaluting veneer. Jarmusch’s little in-joke is that we are ALL British subjects, in one way or another, under the skin. And we are all hungry vampires to some extent — but in our own way, of course; that over-exposure — those fleeting fifteen minutes of fame that pop artist Andy Warhol once warned about — will, in the end, no doubt do us all in. In other words, enjoy your life while it lasts. It may soon be taken from you.

Regardless of the foregoing, we are in the presence of vampire royalty. The décor, the furniture, indeed the basic layout itself tend to (you’ll pardon the expression) “reflect” (snicker, snicker) a self-absorbed lifestyle tailored to exalted pursuits. In reality, Adam’s unkempt abode is that of someone who has spent too many late nights pondering the meaning of it all, which has left his residence in near ruin. The plumbing doesn’t work, the toilet doesn’t flush — but what do vampires need a functioning toilet for, anyway? They don’t eat or defecate, not as we know it. What they drink only goes in and never comes out, unless someone pierces their sides with a wooden stake, or a wooden bullet through the heart.

Speaking of which, early on a despondent Adam contemplates suicide in exactly that manner. Why not end it all, he muses fitfully? This maddening nighttime existence can be soooo trying at times! Fortunately for viewers, he thinks the better of it, thanks to Eve’s timely intervention. Best to stimulate the senses with a shot of iron-rich blood, or slurping a frozen-blood popsicle. Is that what vampires call “living”?

The sight of a 45-rpm single spinning round and round propels the story into motion. One reviewer employed the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” to define the vampires’ sickly skin tones. How utterly apropos! Let us consider the fact that sixties progressive-rock band Procol Harum once re-appropriated Bach’s “Air for the G String” (from his Orchestral Suite No. 3), to the same “A Whiter Shade of Pale” title, in an effort to evoke the song’s classical construct. The organ riff at the start and throughout that number completes the sonic picture of classicism in a contemporary pop setting — another metaphor for Adam’s lifestyle.

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ — This is Vinyl Tap and the 45-rpm record spinning

Which also describes Jarmusch’s film, his first in the digital realm: It’s a bit of classical pop, with a cinematic twist of lemon on the side. Music plays an integral part in numerous sequences, as do the soundtrack’s ambient night noises (furtive howls, barks, screeches, that sort of thing). What sweet sounds they make, yes? The late David Bowie and former singer-actress Marianne Faithfull have also been cited in several reviews as major influences, associated mostly with Tilda Swinton’s looks, voice, and attitude, albeit with stringy coiffure. Adam’s equally wiry bird’s nest of a mane reminds one of a wigged-out Tiny Tim (the quivery-pitched ukulele player, not the Charles Dickens character). But the Swinton/Bowie connection is the most promising, androgyny and gender-based polemics to the side.

Those Enlightening Times

The Age of Enlightenment and how individuals of learning — people such as Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Newton, Darwin, and others — dealt with the nature of things, as well as the importance of science, politics, education, and the observation of the natural world around them, serve as the backdrop to higher thought that is prominent throughout Only Lovers Left Alive.

As an example, vampirism was taken up and discussed by the most illustrious heads, even discoursed and commented upon at length, but in the context of the times. In the book Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection from Count Dracula to Vampirella, author, biographer, and cultural historian Christopher Frayling quotes a passage from the philosopher Voltaire referring to the idea that vampires “exist” in fact:

“What! Vampires in our Eighteenth Century? Yes … in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia … in London, even in Paris. I admit that in these two cities there were speculators, tax officials and businessmen who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight, but they were not dead (although they were corrupted enough). These true bloodsuckers did not live in cemeteries: they preferred beautiful places … Kings are not, properly speaking, vampires. The true vampires are the churchmen who eat at the expense of both the king and the people” (p. 56).

Portrait of French philosopher Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet dit, 1694-1778) by painter Jacques-Augustin-Catherine Pajou (1766-1828), (Photo: Paris, Comedie Francaise)

And there you have it, friends: The real bloodsuckers are those in positions of power who abuse their office by depriving others of their means and livelihood.

When one is afflicted with the disease of vampirism (either a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view), it is our reaction to the affliction that predetermines our path. Some, such as the ennobled Eve, look at it as an advantage, an opportunity to better oneself, to perfect one’s understanding of language, art, music, and the like; and of what can be consumed over the course of many centuries. Others, such as Adam, fret over the unnatural extension of their lives and such trivial matters as the true purpose of life versus the bleakness of death.

Knowing they can never age, all vampires must deal with the fact that boredom will inevitably set in. This situation tends to deprive them of motivation and ambition. To strive for personal betterment is a good thing, true enough, but to what purpose? If longevity is the vampire’s lot, how are they to be judged by its length? And how does one retain that spark of inspiration over the course of those hundreds of years of living? Sooner or later, an existential crisis will occur.

Still others, such as Ava, use their time carelessly and in pursuit of carnal desires, of lust and indolent behavior, yet again to what end? Towards enlightenment (small “e”) or plain old self-satisfaction? In Marlowe’s situation, weathered and relegated to hobbling about on crutches, what does permanence mean? Is he to accept the hand that fate has dealt him? That Marlowe “accidentally” swallowed a glass of bad blood? Or, like Hamlet, did he reach a point in life when instead of suffering those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he decided to oppose them by ending his sea of troubles in blissful repose? That, indeed, is the question!

Ah, but there’s the rub! For it is Adam, not Marlowe, who in life continues to play the part of Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane. You will note that, earlier, Adam had contemplated just such an end to his existence. It was Eve who, upon sensing that her mate was about to terminate his life (and upon his asking), took it upon herself to rescue him from oblivion. Such is the vampire’s lot in a prolonged lifetime of suffering. This noble act comes naturally to Eve, a most sympathetic and loving one, to be clear. It accomplished the intended result: to gain the audience’s sympathy for the vampire’s lot. After an absence of many years, Eve has reasserted herself into Adam’s life by giving him a reason for living; what’s more, her presence has forced him to reinvest himself with renewed vigor toward a life of purpose and meaning.

As David Thomson has recounted above (in this, the director-screenwriter’s so-called “mission accomplished” moment), Jarmusch, a self-described “night owl,” has put into cinematic terms the essence of his core beliefs, along with his own peculiar tastes and suitably eclectic personality.

Director, producer, screenwriter, and musician Jim Jarmusch

What a Drag It is Getting Old

Having drained Ian’s essence, Ava gets sick to her stomach (again, the disease of bad blood that infects the vampire’s system, as much as it destroys their helpless victims). Consequently, she is banished from the household. How dare she defile the roost with this manifestly selfish act? But what to do with the body? We have no compulsion to reveal to readers what becomes of Ian’s corpse. Only, that evidence of Adam and Eve’s disposal of it will inevitably bring about the local authorities to snoop at the pair’s expense. Already, Adam has had to put up with curious onlookers, convinced he’s some famous-name rock-n-roller in disguise.

When, concurrently, the couple’s blood supply has dwindled to a few precious gulps, they flee to Tangier in Morocco with whatever is left of their resources — to a foreign, less developed region (a Middle-Eastern Detroit, if you will) where they can feel right at home and their hold on the populace is secure and readily accepted. (This, too, is mildly reminiscent of the former British Raj in India.) Sticking out as if they were sore thumbs, Adam and Eve are the essence of cool in a world too dour to accept them as they are — and too undeserving of their gifts.

Their reunion with the sickly Kit Marlowe (the result, as indicated above, of his accidently imbibing some bad blood) is cut short by the ancient playwright’s unfortunate demise. His death sends the pair into a funk. Let’s end it all now, they consider, one last hurrah before the fall. Lucifer and his bride will take that final leap into the abyss. Once more into the breach, my friends! Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. What the heck, the world is doomed anyway. Go ahead, give it a shot!

An elderly Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt) on crutches

But before they can breathe their last, Adam and Eve are drawn to a fabulous Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, and her band performing at a local café establishment. Adam hopes like hell that Yasmine does not become famous. She’s “too good” for that, he muses — and he should know. “Fame,” he gives notice, should not be what artists of talent should strive for.

For a fitting conclusion, Eve spends the remainder of their fortune on an ancient oud, a lute-like instrument that becomes a parting gift from her to Adam. It’s at this point that they spot a young couple smooching together on a bench. They suddenly decide to turn the lovers into one of their own, a sensible solution to their predicament and similar, in its way, to what the detestable Lestat did to Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (much to the unfortunate Louis’s regret).

To preserve what is left of their dying universe, Adam and Eve will give birth to a new generation of “upper-class” vamps who will lord it over the rest (the “new” Adam and Eve, their Biblical namesakes). Make the world English, ay wot? Since vampires are incapable of reproducing in the, er, usual manner, their decision to turn the native couple is clearly the logical one.

Alluding to the film’s title, if and when Eve and Adam eventually “die” of whatever causes overcome them, only the Moroccan lovers will be left alive.

“The better to eat you with, my dears!” Eve and Adam take a bite out of life

As far as we know, the cinema world’s last romantic couple, Gomez and Morticia Addams, from the tongue-in-cheek pen of American cartoonist Charles Addams, was made manifest and turned, in 1993, into an adorably macabre, dark-humored film feature (with American actors Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston playing the leads) by director and ex-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.

In Jarmusch’s picture, however, the couple in question happens to be Brits — hundreds-of-years-old Brits at that, with several lifetimes of baggage to their sum and credit. Sophistication with pointy teeth. And how they love to talk, one of the few film couples in recent years who actually enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company. Their highly elevated conversation encompasses just about everything under the sun (or moon, as the case may be), the hope of a civilization bled dry of life-affirming culture.

As they say in Merry Olde England, may their suns never set on the empire of their making. And may they never experience a cinematic death. We’ll “stake” our life on that. (Ouch!)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

[Trivia Note: Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston were reunited two years later in Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015), a mildly curious ode to those gory Hammer Horror flicks of the late 1950s to 1960s. Alas, Crimson Peak is more moody than shocking, and ergo less impressive than the British studio’s classic output. Interesting, too, in that Del Toro’s film re-purposes Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in surprisingly obvious ways.]

 

Somethin’s Happenin’ Here — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Three): ‘I Protest!’

Buffalo Springfield (1966-1968) with Neil Young at center and Stephen Stills at far right

Work-Life Imbalance

We tend to think of life in the 1960s in terms of happier, carefree days. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they were extraordinarily turbulent times, as the title of this series suggests.

Major occurrences, both good and bad, ruled the day: the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the Beatles, the Great Society, Vietnam, the anti-war marches and anti-establishment protests, economic uncertainty, police brutality, the Kent State shootings, and so on.

“Burn, baby, burn!” was the inartful catchphrase, coined at the time by Los Angeles DJ Nathaniel “The Magnificent” Montague in response to the anarchic situation in the LA-neighborhood of Watts and other urban centers. There was a growing sense of despair, that many Americans’ chances for betterment and upward mobility were moving farther and farther out of reach.

Does this sound eerily familiar? Déjà vu all over again?

In the midst of our current troubles, the working world of the 1960s had itself undergone a dramatic shift from where it had been. The prosperity and relative peace of the 1950s began to give way to darker elements within our society.

Because of Vietnam and the changes taking place in many corners of the U.S., more women than ever before were entering the workforce. We can thank the award-winning AMC series Mad Men (2007 to 2017) for enlightening viewers as to the true nature of the times in which we lived.

Many old timers have expressed nostalgia for a non-existent “pristine past.” But make no mistake: the times were changing — and fast. As an illustration, the Women’s Lib Movement had come into bloom and began to control the conversation around the company water cooler. This development took place both from a fundamental need to rectify longstanding inequities in hiring practices and the lack of promotional opportunities for women in general. Moreover, the word “feminism,” which originated in Europe in the late 19th century, reemerged on our shores as an offshoot of that era.

Increasingly, the pressures of establishing a viable work-life balance — the pull and tug of career obligations vying with the constant needs of family — began to show not only among working women, but in their male counterparts as well. As Mad Men accurately portrayed, the competition for jobs in the high-pressure, cut-throat advertising industry was one of countless migraine-inducing professions that appeared beyond the reach of most individuals — particularly for women.

Whether male or female, young or middle-aged, your average working stiffs labored long and hard to put food on the table and money in their account. If “stability” and “complacency” can be applied to define the 1950s, then “insecurity” and “uneasiness” would become the terms of art in explaining the middle- to late 1960s.

Except for a privileged few, the median salary for working-class Americans remained stubbornly low or, at best, modest with respect to actual buying power. To put it bluntly, Americans continued to struggle to keep up with the Joneses.

When people weren’t commuting from home to work and back again, they spent their nights and weekends in leisure-time activities. For the most part, these were relegated to sports watching, conventional TV viewing, going to the park, reading the daily newspaper, listening to the radio, and/or Sunday afternoon outings.

In big cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., where masses of individuals congregated in public housing projects, the mood was generally sullen. Winters were harsh and summers were scalding, especially with no air-conditioning available.

What most urban dwellers relied upon to “lighten the mood,” so to speak, were movies and music, usually of the pop-rock variety.

The Vogues — “Five O’Clock World” (1965)

Pennsylvania vocal group the Vogues in 1965

Before you get the wrong idea, not everything was coming up roses (as Mama Rose voiced in the musical Gypsy). The sounds that emanated from the pop-rock world of our youth were, by all accounts, emblematic of this new reality. Indeed, “peace, love and dope” were not the only concerns uppermost in the minds of young people.

One of these songs, the bouncy “Five O’Clock World” by the all-male vocal group the Vogues, epitomized the daily grind that most Americans were subjected to. The number, written by Allen Reynolds, a Country & Western producer and songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee, was released in October 1965 on the Ce & Co label.

Original Vogue members Bill Burkette, Don Miller, Hugh Geyer, and Chuck Blasko were residents of Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh. After stints in the Army or at college, the young men re-grouped to record a cover version of British pop darling Petula Clark’s “You’re the One.” It scored a hit with record buyers, which led to their signing a deal with producer Nick Cenci to record “Five O’Clock World.”

The most captivating twist behind this recording, however, was that the instrumental tracks were all performed by veteran Nashville players. For instance, that same arrangement was produced and supervised by Nashville musician Tony Moon; and the 12-string acoustic guitar that starts things off was played by Chip Young who once worked with Elvis Pressley and Dolly Parton, among others — an odd assemblage, considering that, stylistically, the song itself was pure pop puree. Another addition was the prominent horn section, which captured the future Memphis-based Stax sound of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, the descriptive lyrics and the sprightly, upbeat mood (sustained throughout by the boisterous backing vocals and some periodic yodeling) were what struck a chord with radio listeners. The narrator accurately depicts what it’s like to go to work and battle the rush-hour crowd:

Up every mornin’ just to keep a job
I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob
Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain
While another day goes down the drain (Yeah, yeah)

But it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there’s a five o’clock me inside my clothes
Thinkin’ that the world looks fine, yeah
Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

Tradin’ my time for the pay I get
Livin’ on money that I ain’t made yet
I’ve been tryin’ to make my way
While I live for the end of the day (Yeah, yeah)

 

On a personal note, I absolutely HATE, HATE, HATE this much overused and hackneyed phrase “at the end of the day.” In any event, after straining to get through the tasks at hand, a little lightness and joy appear headed his way:

 

Cuz it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there’s a long-haired girl who waits, I know
To ease my troubled mind, yeah
Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

 

In the shelter of her arms everything’s OK
When she talks then the world goes slippin’ away
And I know the reason I can still go on
When every other reason is gone, (Yeah, yeah)

 

In my five o’clock world she waits for me
Nothing else matters at all
Cuz every time my baby smiles at me
I know that it’s all worthwhile, yeah

Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

 

With relief at hand in the loving embrace of the narrator’s main squeeze, what better solution is there to top off one’s labors? I can’t think of any!

The Lovin’ Spoonful — “Summer in the City” (1966)

The Lovin’ Spoonful, with John Sebastian at far right

On a totally different note, sweltering summers were no stranger to strap-hanging New Yorkers, or to most urbanites for that matter. Released on a sweaty Fourth of July weekend in 1966 (not nine months after “Five O’Clock World”), one of the best remembered tunes from that period was the self-explanatory “Summer in the City” by the folk-rock group the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Written by founder and lead singer John Sebastian, this talented musician was an authentic Greenwich Village creation. With a background in blues and roots music, Sebastian dabbled in songwriting and performing on the side. Teaming up with like-minded guitarist Zal Yanovsky and two others, Sebastian (together with brother Mark and bandmate Steve Boone) placed his finger on the Big Apple’s pulse with “Summer in the City,” the only Number 1 hit of the group’s career.

According to writer Mary Catherine Reynolds (in a May 2014 post titled “Mark Sebastian Tells the Real Story”), young Mark wrote the song in three-quarter time. Big brother John liked what he heard, so he went about rewriting the verses, including some musical interludes that Steve had concocted.

Along with the addition of appropriate sound effects (i.e., jackhammers pummeling away on a city sidewalk, cars honking their horns), a masterwork of stridency and dissonance was born, wrapped in the group’s signature airy effervescence:

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity

Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

 


Ah, but in comparison to the Vogues’ late-1950s-era buoyancy (more of a throwback to doo-wop and boy groups, in general), the end result is strikingly similar — that is, you need a little lovin’ (whether by the “spoonful” or not) to get through the workday:

 

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on, come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright

 

And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressing so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city
Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop

 

This was about as “streetwise” and “relevant” to the times as John Sebastian (who became a solo artist after 1968) and the Lovin’ Spoonful ever got. Indeed, the bulk of their recorded output was devoted to feel-good love songs such as “Do You Believe in Magic?” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” pretty but inoffensive paeans to “flower power” and the hippie sensibility.

The Rolling Stones — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)

The British rock group the Rolling Stones circa 1965

Frustration with the way things were, tempered with hefty drops of self-indulgence and dissipation, were better left to the “experts.” And by that, we mean the Rolling Stones. Along with free sex and the easy availability of drugs and alcohol, no band at the time expressed the ups-and-downs of life on the road (and the rock-n-roll lifestyle in all its offensiveness) as these native Londoners.

Far be it for grade-school classmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to mock their own inadequacies. But if EVER there was a rock-star anthem to strike one’s fancy, then the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” can be billed as the all-time champion. And no other song of the 1960s has encapsulated the counterculture attitude of rebellion and in-your-face sexuality as this one.

Alan Clayson, author of The Best of Rock: The Essential CD Guide, described “Richards’ use of the foot-operated [Gibson Maestro FZ-1] fuzz-box” for the opening guitar riff as “the Beethoven’s Fifth of rock” (p. 110). The song (now considered a classic) was released as a single, half a century ago, on June 5, 1965. Instantly recognizable, its relentless sameness drove home the message that “We’re not gonna take it anymore,” long before Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame came to the same conclusion.

The growing displeasure that young people showed with the status quo, and the annoyance expressed at the way the bureaucrats and politicians were running things (called the “generation gap”), was a favorite theme of the 1970s British and American punk rock movement. The Rolling Stones happened to be precursors to all that.

In addition to the pounding rhythm and Charlie Watts’ explosive drum kit, there were Mick’s critique of unbridled commercialism (“And the man comes on the radio” and “While I’m watchin’ my TV”), and the exasperation of having sex with a girl but being hung out to dry at the last minute:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And the man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to drive my imagination

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

When I’m watchin’ my TV
and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

When I’m ridin’ round the world
And I’m doin’ this and I’m signing that
And I’m tryin’ to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back, maybe next week
‘Cause you see I’m on a losing streak

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

I can’t get no, I can’t get no
I can’t get no satisfaction, no satisfaction
No satisfaction, no satisfaction
I can’t get no

 

Talk about rebellion, this was a literal rallying cry for disaffected youth.

Buffalo Springfield — “For What It’s Worth” (1966)

Protests and demonstrations. These were all bound up in the same package with civil rights, voting rights, the right to free speech, and the right to be heard above the din of dissent. And there were others, among which are the right to petition one’s government and the right not to be judged by the color of one’s skin or the origin of one’s race.

When those rights have been trampled upon, our laws provide for some form of redress.

Pandora’s Box Protests – November 1966 (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

On November 12, 1966, a popular Sunset Strip coffeehouse with the prophetic name of Pandora’s Box became the scene of a mass protest. Because of recently enacted curfew laws preventing young people from gathering there (illicit drug use and underage drinking had allegedly taken place), the surrounding businesses and residents filed a complaint to close the establishment.

The brunt of their ire was directed at crowds of young people who were blamed for the increase in traffic congestion along the busy Los Angeles thoroughfare. Riots and crackdowns resulted, with many participants being whisked off to jail and the inevitable closing and demolition of Pandora’s Box — conspicuously, after the community’s ills had already been poured out.

This was the background to lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” a protest song written in reaction to the situation and recorded by his group, Buffalo Springfield, on December 5, 1966. Later, many had mistakenly thought the song had to do with the May 1970 Kent State shootings — and, to be honest, the context fits many similar situations, both in the past and in the present.

In addition to Stills, the individual band members featured Dewey Martin on drums, Bruce Palmer on bass, Richie Furay on guitar and vocals, and 21-year-old Toronto-born singer, songwriter, guitarist (and future “Godfather of Grunge”) Neil Young. It was Young’s employment of a tremolo (what he labeled “guitar harmonics”) that lent the number its characteristic reverb and soundscape.

Unfortunately, the group was short-lived, barely lasting a two-year period. Stills went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash (with David Crosby, formerly of the Byrds, and Graham Nash, a vocalist and guitarist with the Hollies). Young briefly joined the trio, until he too left to pursue his own creative endeavors. The road he took has yet to end, but it was a most winding one to be sure.

Today, we are privileged to have their work preserved for us in pristine condition. Check out the videos available on YouTube and you’ll see these fine young artists in an entirely different light. As to the lyrics of “For What It’s Worth,” their significance for today’s reality needs no elaboration:

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
A tellin’ me, I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speakin’ their minds
A gettin’ so much resistance from behind

Time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and they carryin’ signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
We better stop, now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

 

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes