Orpheus Ascending — A 2010 Revival of ‘Orfeu’ in Rio Sparks Renewed Interest in Vinicius and Jobim’s Work

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Aline Nepomuceno & Erico Bras (Photo: Leonardo Aversa)

Number of performers: 16 actor/singers (all black). Number of stage musicians: seven (on guitar, cello, drums, bass, keyboard, percussion, and woodwind). Additional songs used: “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Este seu olhar” (“That Look of Yours”), “Água de beber” (“Water to Drink”), “A felicidade” (“Happiness”), “Chora coração” (“Cry, Dear Heart”), and “O morro não tem vez” (“The Hills Don’t Have a Chance”), among others.

All told, nearly 40 songs and assorted musical numbers were employed, to include the original Tom Jobim score, for the September 2010 revival of Orfeu da Conceição, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, by Brazilian poet, performer and songwriter Vinicius de Moraes at the Canecão Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. The show played at HSBC Brasil in São Paulo through October 3rd. From there it was scheduled to move to Brasília, the nation’s capital, with further offerings in Goiânia and Porto Alegre.

The original three-act work, which also premiered in the month of September, in 1956 at Rio’s Teatro Municipal (with sets by architect Oscar Niemeyer), had been condensed into two. Paulo Jobim, composer Jobim’s guitarist son, who was scheduled to play alongside cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, left the show before the opening due to previous commitments. His central spot, as the musician who plays Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos, was taken over by Jaime Alem.

Now simply called Orfeu, after the main protagonist (the producers dropped the da Conceição portion from the title), the show succeeded in sparking renewed interest in a neglected masterpiece of Brazilian musical theater. There was renewed interest as well as in its youthful and energetic cast.

Lead actor Érico Bras (Orfeu), a native of Bahia and a member of Oludum’s celebrated drum corps, had much to say about his breakout stage part: “He’s a seducer, a charmer. He strikes a chord on his guitar and the women fall all over him… For a guy like me, who comes from a band like Olodum, it’s an opportunity to experience another line of work.”

Aline Nepomuceno, a fellow Bahian who played the sweet and gentle Euridice, Orfeu’s love interest, described her character as a bit of a “tease, but in an innocent way. She lacks an explicit sensuality. Her relation to Orfeu is light and of a certain purity… It’s a heavy responsibility,” she acknowledged, “and I’m trying to stay focused. It’s a chance to show off my work, that I’m not just another pretty face from TV.”

Indeed, both actors were considered “veteran performers” of the big and small screens, so to speak, having already appeared together in the TV series Ó Paí, Ó, with Bras having survived a brush with cinema stardom, playing a minor role in the movie Quincas Berro d’Água (“Quincas Water-Yell”), based on the novel by Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Tietá de Agreste).

Major Departures

A major departure from the original play, i.e., the character known as The Poet (formerly Coryphaeus or “Leader of the Chorus”), performed by actor/singer Wladimir Pinheiro, a Niteroi native, was viewed as a stand-in for real-life poet Vinicius de Moraes. The chorus had been reduced to five singer/dancers, in wide-brim hats and lime-colored suits, who in this production served as The Poet’s (that is, Vinicius’) friends. Together, they helped to explain some of the stage action in truncated form (thus eliminating a good deal of expository information), in addition to “softening” some of the scene changes.

Aderbal Freire Filho (contigo.abril.com.br)

One of the criticisms leveled at Orfeu is that the action was too brusque for audiences to follow. “The reason for this,” according to director Aderbal Freire Filho, whose modern updates of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth inspired a goodly amount of controversy on their own, “may have been due to the play being written over a 10-year span.” The first act was dashed off, in one night, in February 1942; the second and third acts between the years 1946 and 1948, when Vinicius found himself working in Los Angeles; followed by a rewrite in 1952-53 (he lost the third act in transit to Paris), all of “which could have contributed to the brusqueness of the subsequent passages,” Freire reflected.

Another problem was the style of language used. That may have seemed like a bogus issue, considering that flowery oratory was a fairly common practice at that time (the play was originally written in verse form). Historically, Vinicius spent a large portion of his working life overseas, due to his conflicting career as a diplomat with the Brazilian Foreign Service, Itamaraty. Consequently, he was not as familiar with carioca street lingo as he needed to be in order to bring his literary vision to theater life.

Realizing this, the poet enlisted the aid of others in helping him adapt the play’s lofty language for contemporary audiences to enjoy. This resulted in his justly famous – and famously foresighted – written injunction that, “All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors… The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play… should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.”

Still, according to director Aderbal, it was not always possible to escape the passage of time, or “the reference to the slums that exist today.” The changes he made, then, were not just for show. For example, the director introduced three armed bandits, who hold The Poet up at gunpoint. The bandits are later integrated into the story, taking on new roles in Act II.

“I did not create new characters, dialogues, scenes or conflicts within the text,” Aderbal explained. “I don’t call my work an adaptation; it’s different from what was done in the movies [referring to the two previous screen incarnations: the first, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, from 1959; the second, Orfeu, in 1999, directed by Carlos Diegues]. Originally, the play had a chorus and a leader. Here, the chorus becomes friends of The Poet, and the leader becomes The Poet. I introduced dialogues and scenes for these friends; and a good deal of what The Poet [spoke were] lines that Vinicius had written. I put in place songs and dialogue wherever the play allowed. They are interventions that compliment the original verses, but don’t necessarily modify them.”

What About the Originals?

A third issue concerned the original songs. Except for the pop standard, “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), known in the U.S. as “Someone to Light Up My Life,” recorded by a variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, the other numbers were, in the view of some critics, “minor works in comparison to what came later,” and “are not representative of the best of Vinicius and Tom Jobim.” This is strictly a matter of opinion – and not a universally held one, at that.

Jaime Alem & Jaques Morelenbaum (showbras.com.br)

From the musical side of things, arranger/musician Jaques Morelenbaum, who worked closely with Jobim in his Banda Nova days (from the late eighties to the mid-nineties), commented about the insertion of additional material: “There is nothing preserved in recorded form or on video of the original staging or spoken words; but we imagined that, in a production of at minimum two hours duration, there was bound to be other music used that could have been lost over time. We rescued the numbers ‘Euridice’s Theme,’ an instrumental number that Tom wrote for the show for which no lyrics exist, and ‘Dama Negra’s Theme’ [played, for the first time, since the 1956 premiere], a piece that has never been recorded.”

“Vinicius was looking for a composer to write some songs for his play,” added Aderbal, “so that’s how he got to meet Tom. They could have done the job and never bumped into each other again. Today, we know that from there they went on to form one of the most important partnerships in the history of Brazilian music… Besides the songs ‘Happiness,’ ‘Someone to Light Up My Life,’ and ‘Lamento no morro’ (‘Lament on the Hill’), we included songs that were written afterwards, such as ‘Chora coração,’ which fits especially well into one of the scenes [i.e., after Euridice is killed]. Others seemed as if they were created just for this staging, almost as if they were an extension of the original play.”

Morelenbaum and Alem were clearly alert to the possibilities – and astute enough to look at the original score. After which, they decided to present Jobim’s music exactly as written, albeit for a reduced ensemble of players instead of a 35-piece orchestra. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia associated with the original production: Jaques’ father, instrumentalist Henrique Morelenbaum, played in the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra the night of the Rio premiere.)

Staging the Piece

The sets, by Marcos Flaksman, were arranged in minimalist fashion. Stacks of boxes, resembling the shantytown, or favela, that the story takes place in, were displayed one on top of the other. There were staircases on both sides, symbolic of the steps that lead from one shack to the other and from one mountaintop community to another.

The seven musicians were grouped to the left of the playing area, with the guitar prominent in the middle. Chairs were arranged along the back walls and to the right, in which The Poet, chorus, and other participants sat and waited for their turn to speak (this was somewhat reminiscent of the classic staging for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town).

According to producer Gil Lopes, “I wanted to re-stage Orfeu not only for me, but for newer generations [of Brazilians], so they could get in touch with this national classic of dramaturgy. There was a sense of urgency in bringing Orfeu back, now that Brazil, in these times, is in the midst of consolidation, both socially and economically.”

Lopes went on to note that, “Brazil is passing through a time of affirmation. The premiere of Orfeu comes at just the right moment to stimulate this path… Orfeu is absolutely relevant, not only for telling a story that defines who we are, but also in bringing [to the fore] the songs of Tom Jobim, consecrated the world over, that represent the best of what Brazilian music has produced.”

Aline, Erico & Isabel Fillardis (agenciafm.blogspot.com)

Preparations for this long-awaited revival — the first since Haroldo Costa, the original Orfeu, undertook to bring his version to Rio in 1995-96 — lasted two and a half months, with rehearsals taking up to seven hours a day. Aderbal Freire Filho decided not to interfere, except minimally, with the nucleus of the original plot [the love of Orfeu for his Euridice]: “Everything revolves around the central story,” he insisted, “and along its margins, as a framework for the piece.”

He preserved the natural classicism of Vinicius’ text, while taking the bard’s own reference to his play as “a poem in the form of theater in which the author is profoundly present” quite literally. This is where the idea for The Poet came in: “He is the ideal poet, eternal,” Aderbal claimed, “a name that represents all poets, who represent the art of poetry itself.” Because of this, Aderbal concluded that “The Poet should speak Vinicius’ own [lines of ] poetry, many of which are as well known to Brazilians as his music.”

Orfeu returned to the stage at a time when many of Rio and São Paulo’s theaters were preoccupied with musical productions from Broadway and London’s West End. “Instead of being intimidating,” Gil Lopes claimed, “this reality is a motivating force; it gives more impetus for us to show what is ours. The presence of foreign musicals indicates that the time is ripe to invest in a national production of the same genre. In this instance, there is no more opportune time than to present Orfeu, the greatest of Brazilian musicals, the most illustrious product of our national culture: the encounter of Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim.”

Copyright (c) 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes

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