Orpheus in the Underworld
In 1959, almost two years after she had officially left the concert platform, Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão returned from her self-imposed retirement to participate in the recording of a new work entitled A Floresta do Amazonas (“Forest of the Amazon”), written by her close friend and fellow compatriot, the staggeringly prolific Heitor Villa-Lobos.
It was a vigorous, soul-stirring piece cobbled together from the scattered remnants of his stillborn Hollywood film score for the movie Green Mansions.
But despite the presence of Brazil’s greatest living classical composer and his favorite native songbird, the album failed to catch fire with fans and quickly went out of print. Villa-Lobos himself was to pass away on November 17, a few short months after the recording was completed.
For her part, Bidu would never again step into a gramophone studio, nor would she perform before a live paying audience for the remainder of her life.
In that same year, the revitalized Brazilian motion picture industry — soon to be known as the Cinema Novo (“New Wave”) movement — would test its fledgling wings by becoming the proud beneficiary of a more exceptional multi-cultural event: the worldwide release of French director Marcel Camus’ production of Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, as contemporary English-speaking audiences would come to know it, a movie based on the musical play Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”) penned by carioca poet Vinicius de Moraes.
A multi-award winner and surprise international hit, the film’s extraordinarily influential soundtrack, co-written by musicians Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim, with an able assist from lyricist Moraes, would help launch the coming bossa nova invasion of the early to middle sixties.
The sultry new sounds that this style of world music actively came to encompass would give an entirely fresh and original slant to the much-maligned term “modern classical music,” literally transforming guitarist Bonfá, the shy piano-playing Jobim, and his hard-living partner, Vinicius, into latter-day Franz Schuberts for their unique songwriting skills.
Their historic collaboration would sweep Música Popular Brasileira, or MPB for short, into a whole other musical realm, permanently changing the face and focus of jazz and other forms of popular entertainment for years to come.
While this was all well and good for the pop and tourist trades, where did it leave the opera? What would happen to the four-hundred-year-old art form in Brazil, now that its feasibility had been suddenly called into question?
In an earlier posting (“Sadness Has No End” — A Testament to Black Orpheus and the Partnership That Started It All), we found that in 1960 the country’s capital underwent a dramatic changeover from the old Portuguese-dominated cultural center of Rio de Janeiro to the modern, Oscar Niemeyer-designed city of Brasília.
As an unfortunate consequence of this radical move, Brazil’s major theaters and government-sponsored opera houses were relegated to a perpetual state of penury, if not outright impoverishment.
Opera, as it had been presented and performed in the land of Carnival and samba, was in danger of going the way of the dinosaur. It was gradually being pushed aside to make way for the seductive young charms of the sensuous new kid on the block, the statuesque “Girl from Ipanema.”
Going on the Record
With extinction unavoidably looming, there simply had to exist a more practical method for preserving the rich cultural heritage (or what little of it there was) of the Brazilian national opera — not to mention the outstanding creative contributions of so many of its finest proponents — before this cataclysmic event would come to pass.
The only way this could be done was through the medium of recordings — ironically, the self-same technology that was threatening to displace opera’s intellectual prominence in the first place.
Why threatening? Had not Bidu Sayão, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri, Francisco Mignone, and dozens of other classical artists before them, committed their best-known interpretations to long-playing disc? Had not the prized theatrical works of Carlos Gomes, Alberto Nepomuceno, and Henrique Oswald been given the deluxe three-record treatment by the major international record labels?
Hardly, is the brutally honest response to those queries. While even at the zenith of her European and American operatic career, Bidu Sayão had left only a comparable handful of recorded extracts from her most popular stage parts, with very little in the way of complete works preserved on LP.
Her only commercially available full-length opera recording, made in 1947, was a version on Columbia of Puccini’s La Bohème, with colleagues Richard Tucker, Frank Valentino, Mimi Benzell, Salvatore Baccaloni, and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Giuseppe Antonicelli. The album was re-released a few years ago on compact disc by Sony Masterworks. It was a fine, even nostalgic production, but paled in comparison to the classic renditions presided over by Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Beecham, and Tullio Serafin.
Another of Bidu’s signature roles, that of Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, was launched into the market only via a private, off-the-air transcription from 1940, and featured Baccaloni, Valentino, and tenor Nino Martini in the leads, with Gennaro Papi as the conductor.
Much later, the Met itself would issue two wonderful live-broadcast performances from the forties as lavish gift sets for its contributors: the first, from the 1940 revival of The Marriage of Figaro, starred the ever-bewitching Bidu as Susanna, with Italian matinee idol Ezio Pinza as her Figaro; the second, from a 1947 production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, had Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling’s impassioned Roméo serenading the sparkling soprano’s Juliette.
Bjoerling, who appeared as the lecherous Duke of Mantua, shared the spotlight with Bidu’s “innocent, sheltered girl” depiction of Gilda, in a belated Naxos release of Verdi’s Rigoletto, another Met Opera radio broadcast from December 1945 that also boasted the powerhouse baritone of Leonard Warren. The soprano was appropriately lauded for her application of “small touches” to this part “that made for unforgettable portrayals” overall.
But as far as satisfying consumers with her thoroughly rounded and much-admired assumptions of Violetta, Gilda, Lucia, Manon, Mélisande, Micaela, or even Rosina, record companies looked to other, more “familiar” voices to fill the Brazilian singer’s shoes — Licia Albanese, Erna Berger, Lily Pons, Victoria de Los Angeles, and Lucine Amara — familiar, that is, to New York record-buying audiences.
In truth, the rationale for this decision was quite logical: as regrettable as it may have been for her legion of loyal followers, the closing portion of Bidu’s career with the Met and other leading opera houses had coincided with the advent of 33 1/3 long-playing records, occurring sometime around the years 1948-49.
By the same token, the initial releases of an exciting newcomer named Maria Callas — first on Italian Fonit-Cetra, then at England’s Columbia-EMI/Angel Records — had spurred renewed interest in the once neglected bel canto repertoire, as did the recitals of early-period Verdi, on Decca/London, by the superb lirico spinto Renata Tebaldi, her main rival in the opera house.
Commencing in the 1950s, these two aspiring performers began to record the standard soprano parts (Tosca, Mimì, Violetta, the two Leonoras, Aida, Butterfly, Gioconda, et al.) over an impressive ten-year span. In doing so, they joined with another dominant vocal personality of the time, the Czech diva Zinka Milanov, who had previously signed with RCA Victor, in the hopes of giving the paying public a solid run for their operatic money.
Callas, Tebaldi, and Milanov. This phenomenal recording triumvirate — accompanied by their usual stage-partners Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, and Jussi Bjoerling — proved to be a potent combination for millions of record buyers in North America and elsewhere. Their standing in the classical-music world, however, would make it extremely difficult for past operatic luminaries, such as the diminutive Bidu Sayão, to successfully compete with on any conceivable basis.
Shunned in the early fifties by an intransigent Met Opera management, poor under-represented Bidu was left holding the empty album cover, as it were, by this intolerable state of recorded affairs — a disappointing casualty in the complete opera-album wars.
Luckily for collectors, her varied interpretations of Brazilian folk tunes; art songs from France, Portugal, and Spain; arias from Italian, French, and Brazilian opera; and lyrical Brazilian and French showpieces, written or arranged for her by Villa-Lobos, Hernani Braga, Barroso Neto, Reynaldo Hahn, and others, have been meticulously restored by Sony, with all of the selections having undergone miraculous sonic transformations; enhancements that have contributed enormously to their shelf-life as well as to their future enjoyment.
Girl of the Golden West and Other Oddities
The not-so subtle shifting of musical tastes in the 1960s from the classical to the pop arena — with pop steadily encroaching upon opera and, irrevocably, gaining the upper hand — was uppermost in the minds of record owners and producers, and clearly reflected in the preferences of the album-buying public of that period, both in Brazil and in the United States.
The times were indeed a-changing, as evidenced by the increased attention being paid to native performers Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Astrud Gilberto, Baden Powell, Sérgio Mendes, Oscar Castro-Neves, Bola Sete, and their work, by a plethora of entranced American players, among them guitarist Charlie Byrd, saxophonists Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, flutist Herbie Mann, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Vince Guaraldi.
Pointing the way toward this newly expansive musical plain, bossa nova, samba, and, to a lesser extent, other varieties of MPB experienced a near-cosmic explosion on North American airwaves and in record shops not seen since the days of Carmen Miranda, almost to the point of over-saturating the imported music mart all too quickly, and too soon, according to some critical ears.
Nevertheless, once firmly committed to this unalterable path, Brazil’s homegrown talent (and, more importantly, her audiences) would never again go back to the way things were — the notoriously volatile Brazilian economy would surely see to that, never allowing for the majority of its citizens the experience of such First-World amenities as regular concert-going, the purchasing of vast quantities of classical music albums, the attending of live opera performances, or the listening of long-playing records made famous by native-born classical artists.
In fairness, though, it must also be added that the U.S. record industry was experiencing many of the same trials and tribulations with respect to the marketing and selling of the classical-music repertoire as Brazil had, only on a more calculated scale.
Once most of the standard works were more than adequately represented on vinyl, record companies had nowhere else to go except to engage in a treasure hunt for rare and undiscovered “jewels” that might still have gone unnoticed in some obscure corner of the unrecorded repertory.
A perfect illustration of this was the concurrent 1958 release of two competing versions of composer Giacomo Puccini’s Italian-American “spaghetti Western,” the opera La Fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the Golden West”), based on playwright David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage spectacular.
At the time, this infrequently performed work — more a provocative, whole-tone experiment by the renowned Tuscan melodist than a true successor to his previous Belasco influence, Madama Butterfly — had been given an inferior rendering on Cetra of a 1950 radio broadcast from Italy’s Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) network, with an even more ineffectual roster of unknowns doing it a disservice.
It cried out for a modern, technologically advanced production, with a cast of equally distinguished stature to promote it; but instead of one new stereophonic recording, EMI and Decca treated a reticent buying public to two.
The full story behind these differing releases need not be retold here, but let it suffice that EMI’s project was originally to have featured an exceptional all-star lineup to include the divine Maria Callas, leading man Franco Corelli (three years before his Met debut), and the veteran Tito Gobbi, with the full forces of Teatro alla Scala of Milan, under the firm direction of Lovro von Matačič.
What finally emerged from these sessions was a disquieting blend of substitute singers: alongside famed Swedish-born Wagnerian, Birgit Nilsson — herself a last-minute replacement for the departed Callas — EMI enlisted the aid of the all but unheard-of João Gibin, a barrel-chested Brazilian tenor who later changed his name to the more Italianate-sounding “Giovanni,” in place of the formerly announced Corelli; while second-stringer Andrea Mongelli subbed for Gobbi, another ideal cast member to have been dropped from the proceedings.
In volume three of the book Opera On Record, reviewer Edward Greenfield went on to blithely praise Gibin’s “beautiful shading of tone and dynamic” and his “very distinctive timbre,” which were welcome but decidedly unexpected compliments, given the tidal wave of sound registered by that titan of the turntable, tenor Mario Del Monaco, on the rival Decca set.
In spite of this lone favorable assessment, negative criticism of the whole misguided EMI venture doomed the album to back-order oblivion. It was sadly prophetic, too, of the complicated course Brazilian opera singers would inevitably take with regard to their own future lack of stability in the post-bossa nova period.
Incidentally, nothing further in the way of commercial recordings was ever forthcoming from Gibin, only a few sporadic appearances in the States, including a debut at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in the middle-sixties, followed a few years later (on June 20, 1972) by a solitary Metropolitan Opera assignment as Radamès in Aida.
Apart from Bidu, the only other Brazilian-born, classical vocal artists to be captured by the microphones with any degree of consistency over the years have been, coincidentally enough, three lyric baritones.
An exceptionally versatile artist, with a “pure, limpid tone and a gorgeously pliant natural instrument,” the darkly handsome Paulo Fortes made his operatic debut, in 1945, as Germont in La Traviata, at the Teatro Municipal in his native Rio de Janeiro.
For the next half-century, Fortes would enjoy an immensely diversified entertainment career, appearing with many of the major stars of the day (Callas, Tebaldi, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Del Monaco, Gigli, and so forth), as well as performing on radio, in television, and in the movies.
He sang throughout most of Latin America, even traveling abroad to Italy and Portugal, but preferred to stay close to his home base in Rio. In fact, prior to his death, at age 69, on January 10, 1997, Fortes held the house record for making the most appearances at the Municipal of any artist that had ever sung there. He created the leads in Villa-Lobos’ opera Izaht, as well as in two late works by Francisco Mignone: as Francisco Gomes da Silva in O Chalaça (1972), and Vidigal in O Sargento de Milícias (1978).
His sole complete opera recording, however, was a live September 1977 “private” version of Gomes’ Salvator Rosa that came late in his career. It was released on the Brazilian Master Class label. He also recorded a number of vocal recitals, none of which are currently available. What remains are some absolutely delightful excerpts of his marvelous Gianni Schicchi on YouTube, in a 1976 performance of Puccini’s one-act comedy staged at Rio’s Teatro São Caetano. Fortes’ ringing voice and superb Italian diction are reminiscent of a young Giuseppe Taddei, while his thespian mannerisms mimic that of the late Tito Gobbi, a leading exponent of the role.
A close contemporary of his was Lourival Braga, who proved as equally adept at portraying scoundrels on the stage as Fortes had been, in particular such colorful baritone rogues as Amonasro, Barnaba, Count di Luna, Scarpia, Tonio, and Don Carlo, among others.
Although there is scant biographical information about him — he was born in 1921, made his debut as the elder Germont in 1949, and died in 1978 — Braga left behind several distinguished examples of his work, including a classic Il Guarany, which this author owned at one time, performed in the original Italian, with tenor Manrico Patassini as Peri and soprano Niza de Castro Tank as Cecília, along with the same composer’s Lo Schiavo; both were from 1959 and made in Brazil by Chantecler.
A live 1970 performance of Guarany at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, conducted by Santiago Guerra and starring tenor Assis Pacheco, with Braga again as the villain Gonzalez, was recently reissued in CD format by Master Class. Heavily cut and in mono, it is primarily of historical interest to fans.
A trio of thrice-familiar Puccini operas, made in Bulgaria, of all places, for the budget company Frequenz — one of Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska, tenor Nazzareno Antinori, and conductor Gabriele Bellini; another of Madama Butterfly, again with Kabaivanska, Antinori, and Bellini; and a third of Manon Lescaut with the same team — co-starred Brazilian baritone Nelson Portella, a favorite with European audiences of the seventies and eighties.
The possessor of a warm and mellifluous singing voice, Portella’s parts in these frequently performed soprano showcases, while still fairly involving dramatically, could hardly be termed as true operatic tours de force. Opposite the splendid recorded competition (and there were many to contend with and choose from, to be certain), the vocally lightweight Portella came off as a dependable but dull routiner, an also-ran before he ever left the starting gate.
Plenty of Pop Stars
So where had Brazil’s myriad opera talents migrated to all these years? Why were there so few classically trained performers around to fill the empty stage left vacant by the departure of that prima donna par excellence and quintessential role model, Bidu Sayão, from the international opera scene?
One possible explanation may lie within the pop field itself. As irreconcilable as it might seem to us today, Brazilian power vocalists of the 1940s to the 1960s typically personified the penchant for over-the-top delivery that was so strongly in vogue at the time: they were considered the ne plus ultra of the Latinate style of pop singing much favored in South America’s largest country — at least, until the arrival of bossa nova and MPB.
Among female interpreters of this type were the legendary Dalva de Oliveira, the creamy-voiced Ângela Maria, and the earth-toned Eliseth Cardoso, three individual stylists who could be construed as direct descendants of the vocal tradition previously set down for them by French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and American jazz-pop specialists Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan. Impressively moving artists in their own right, they epitomized the raw brand of this emotional, all-or-nothing approach to popular song that had so imbued Brazil’s version of the hit parade.
On the distaff side, there was (from an earlier generation) the lyrically trained Vicente Celestino, followed, in my own time, by Agnaldo Rayol and Agnaldo Timóteo, three charismatic male performers who possessed powerful tenor-like voices, with all the requisite richness and passion necessary for full-throated vocalizing of the operatic kind.
One of them, Agnaldo Timóteo, was widely acclaimed for two solid hits from the sixties, the romantic “Meu grito” (“My Cry,” R. Carlos-E. Carlos) and the tender “Mamãe” (Gall-Aznavour), a sweetly sentimental paean to Brazilian mothers everywhere. The other, Agnaldo Rayol, with his fluffy, pompadour hairstyle and choirboy good looks, physically resembled the once fashionable African American pop crooner Johnny Mathis.
Mathis, it should be noted, had once taken up serious vocal studies near the start of his career, but abandoned his operatic pursuits in the mid-fifties in favor of the more lucrative song sphere. His smooth-as-silk ballad style became instantly recognizable through the liberal use of head tone and falsetto; whereas Rayol’s more robust sound can best be defined as having a cutting edge to it, what in Italian is often referred to as squillo (pronounced SKWEE-lo, and not to be confused with esquilo, the Portuguese word for “squirrel”).
Squillo is a term used to identify the visceral, penetrating ring in the upper-middle to top-third of the male tenor voice, a somewhat indefinable trait not all members of that voice category can lay claim to. Ideally, Rayol had this quality in spades. Why he chose the popular song route over a possible career on the operatic stage, after having been blessed with such a remarkable, God-given endowment, is not immediately clear. That he had the right equipment in his larynx, however, is absolutely without argument.
Like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett before him, two immortal American artists who went through numerous ups-and-downs in their long musical pathways, Agnaldo Rayol had a late-blooming vocal resurgence, characterized by his warbling of the trenchant main theme to the hugely successful soap opera Terra Nostra, “Tormento d’amore” (Viana), sung as a duet with Welsh singing star Charlotte Church.
Their 1998 Italian-language recording of the number was an unparalleled cultural phenomenon in Brazil, and became, undeniably, Rayol’s most financially prosperous pop foray in years, resurrecting his sagging singing career at a relatively late stage in his professional life.
It also sounded in eerie imitation of an earlier 1996 Euro-pop confection, “Con te partirò/Time to Say Goodbye” (Quarantotto-Sartori), recorded jointly by tenor Andrea Bocelli and soprano Sarah Brightman. That trite tune spirited the blind Bocelli to the top of the crossover charts, where he has encountered substantial media coverage ever since, however debatable (or unmerited) that may be.
This was not the first time that an Italian popular song had heightened Brazilian awareness of this crowd-pleasing musical sub-genre.
A major event of 30 years prior, one that did much to signal the final transition over into the pop-music world — and nearly single-handedly derailed the classical “gravy train” in the country, once and for all — was the participation, in the 1968 San Remo Song Festival, by Jovem Guarda (“The Young Guard”) emblem and Brazilian pop sensation, singer and songwriter-turned-TV host Roberto Carlos Braga.
A former radio balladeer, who rose to fame with such ersatz song titles as “É proibido fumar” (“Smoking Not Allowed”), “Quero que vá pro inferno” (“Let it All to Go to Hell”), “Mexerico da Candinha,” and others, Roberto, along with his sound-alike co-host and songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (no relation), were inspired, as many of their generation had been, by the sixties pop sounds of The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and other British Invasion groups (known as iê-iê-iê, or “yeah-yeah-yeah” music, in Brazil).
Roberto’s winning entry, “Canzone per te” (“A Song for You”), a sappily written love ballad by Italian composer-performer Sergio Endrigo, was a Neapolitan-inspired romanza aimed squarely at Brazilian youths’ recurring obsession with italianità and the obviously partisan Mediterranean judges of the contest.
At that fortuitous moment, O Rei Roberto proved that he could deliver the finished goods as well as, if not better than, most of the mediocre talents that had comprised that year’s list of song candidates, thus securing for himself (in Brazil, anyway) the perennial and undisputed title of “The King” of pop music — Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson aside.
The Brazilian Ratings Battle
As it eventually played out, the real struggle for audience attention had already begun to be waged on Brazilian television during the mid-1960s in the form of live televised song festivals, but with a slightly different twist: it was not to be a battle against opera or classical music at all, but between the burgeoning Brazilian rock and MPB factions.
This openly competitive situation,* brought about by the rivalry of these two popular entertainment forms, quickly led to their becoming a regular weekly feature on TV Excelsior and TV Record, the two major networks of the time.
Strangely enough, this same type of domestic programming has even permeated the popular culture of American television of late, what with the recent rebirth of song “contests” recycled as reality shows (with the prime-time mega-hits American Idol, The X Factor, America’s Got Talent and The Voice leading the way) ruling much of the TV-ratings game.
In Caetano Veloso’s candid look at the era, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, the all-consuming, all-pervasive influence that was exerted on promoters, performers, and viewing public alike by this new and highly attractive musical format was convincingly depicted by the Bahian singer-songwriter in surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion:
“After this  festival, producers at the other broadcasting company were also more receptive, and initiated a kind of programming that would transform television as much as music. The idea of song competitions had been borrowed from the San Remo Festival in Italy, but in Brazil, after the success of the first one, it was to acquire different characteristics and carry a different sort of weight. Elis Regina’s performance [of the song ‘Arrastão’] had shown the owners of TV Record how broadly appealing MPB could be with the Brazilian public, the scope of its potential audience as well as prestige… MPB started to be taken seriously in Brazil, in every sense: from the specifically musical aspects to the literary and the political, there was an aura of mission connected to the songs.”
As a result of this sudden flush with success, fast-rising pop-rock artists of every stripe and persuasion, including the aforementioned Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, Wanderley Cardoso, Wilson Simonal, Elis Regina, Jair Rodrigues, Wanderléa, Chico Buarque, Jerry Adriani, Renato e Seus Blue-Caps, The Fevers, Os Incríveis (“The Incredibles”), and Ronnie Von; to be followed later by Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee and Os Mutantes, Edu Lobo, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé; in addition to Italian pop favorites Rita Pavone, Gigliola Cinquetti, Gianni Morandi, Massimo Ranieri, and others, would reign supreme (for a time) as the “New Young Guards” of the living room.
In the same, inexplicable manner that Carnival and samba had meshed into a feverish, tropical goulash of colorful rhythmic delights, Brazilian rock and popular song had somehow come to terms, and agreed to peacefully “coexist,” in that genuinely affecting way the Brazilian people seem to have of ingesting non-native musical forms. And, most intriguingly, of turning out lush, finger-snapping works of deceptively simple structure, despite the presence of so much political and economic turmoil, particularly during the military years of the mid-sixties to early eighties.
Although opera (and by that, we mean Italian, French, and German opera) had thrived in a few isolated corners of the country — invariably contracted out to visiting artists, foreign conductors, and outside production interests — it would continue to be systematically clobbered into the back-pages of the obituary section by the envious demigods of Brazilian popular music, once they grabbed hold of the entertainment headlines.
And they still refuse to let go, as witnessed by the disastrous decline in new and complete opera recordings and by the rapid slimming down of the classical-recorded repertoire by the prime international record companies.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Nelson Motta, who was one of dozens of qualified participants, described it as “a veritable musical war. Debated passionately on street corners and in bars, in drug stores and in funeral parlors, Brazilian music, young guard or not, was the topic of the moment at the beginning of 1966.”