In Brazil, It’s Not Hard to Find Good Talent: The Operatic ‘Gold’ Standard

Pepes do Valle as Alberich in Das Rheingold (

“Ring” in the Works

It must have been hard for the dwarf Alberich to have given up his most prized possession, but at the end of four long nights of titanic music drama even the Nibelung’s potent ring had finally found its fateful way back to the bottom of the Rhine River.

Perhaps, in this instance, the still-flowing Amazon River could serve as a modern Brazilian equivalent to Richard Wagner’s fictional German stream and provide some form of symbolic restitution: for the real “gold” that was missing from the once-decrepit Brazilian national opera may also have been returned to its rightful owners, i.e., those talented and lucky souls hungry enough to have pursued their operatic dreams to their ultimate fulfillment.

And who might these souls be? That’s an excellent question. We might also wish to inquire about another, more fundamental issue at hand: what is the real future of opera in Brazil today? Along with the opera goes the health and well-being of classical music and high culture in general, with (ultimately) the preservation and dissemination of their musical heritage as a possible, and doable, long-term goal.

These are serious matters that have been probed and poked about many times before, but until now no real solution has been forthcoming. We shall, however, deal with the former problem first, namely that of potential rising stars on the Brazilian operatic horizon.

In truth, the floodgates of operatic opportunity have previously been flung wide open to reveal a brand-new generation of Brazilian-born professionals. There now appears to be a modest surplus of superbly skilled stage performers willing and able to heed the call — a minor miracle in itself — with most of them strategically placed to take advantage of their pending international status.

A few are already known quantities to Brazilian opera-goers: conductor Roberto Minczuk; bass Luiz Ottávio Faria; soprano Cláudia Riccitelli; baritone Paulo Szot; bass-baritone Lício Bruno; mezzo-soprano Céline Imbert; and tenor Fernando Portari. Their individual contributions have raised the standard of operatic performing inside and outside their home country.

The Best is Yet to Come

Roberto Minczuk (

A formidable French-horn player since early youth, and a graduate of Manhattan’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, São Paulo-born Roberto Minczuk (of Ukrainian ancestry) learned the orchestral ropes from the bottom up under the tutelage of such experienced musical hands as maestro Eleazar de Carvalho and composer-conductor John Neschling, who, in 2001, wisely tapped his young protégé to act as co-artistic director and principal guest conductor of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (Osesp).

Shuttling back-and-forth from his native Brazil to various North American and European venues, Minczuk was eagerly courted as well by the management of the New York Philharmonic to become its new associate conductor for 2002-2003. His most recent appointment was as music director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, commencing with the 2006-2007-concert season.

Minczuk’s operatic credentials include stints at the houses of Berne, Basle, and Lyon, and both Municipal Theaters of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. An unexpected career highlight for him was a surprise 2004 Latin Grammy Award, in the Best Classical Recording category, for his live rendition (with Osesp) of the symphonic works of Brazilian bossa-nova king, the inimitable Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Having made his operatic debut at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), opposite fabled Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi — talk about starting out at the top — carioca native Luiz Ottávio Faria went on to further grace the world’s stages, from Lisbon, Mexico City, Montreal, and Vienna, to the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, where he co-starred in an acclaimed revival of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town.

Luiz Ottavio Faria as Timur (

His wide-ranging repertoire has covered a whole slew of standard and not-so-standard bass roles: Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco, Marcel in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Alvise in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (at Carnegie Hall), Lycomides in Handel’s Deidamia, and the Innkeeper in Humperdinck’s rarely performed Königskinder (“The King’s Children”).

Faria made room on his crowded 2005 calendar for several key engagements, including those of the Captain of the El Dorado in Daniel Catán’s florid theater-work Florencia en el Amazonas, for Seattle Opera; and three performances each of Nourabad in Opera Carolina’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in Charlotte.

At a mid-April 2002 performance in Rio as the blind king Timur in Puccini’s Turandot, Faria divided the Municipal’s illustrious stage platform with his beautiful Brazilian colleague Cláudia Riccitelli, who played the sympathetic slave-girl Liù.

Claudia Riccitelli (Divulgacao)

A green-eyed, strawberry-blonde from the Southeastern city of São Paulo, Riccitelli has put her stunning good looks and penetrating voice to purposeful use in such pivotal assignments as Pamina in The Magic Flute, Nedda in Pagliacci, Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann, the title role of Gomes’ Fosca, and the priestess Adalgisa in Bellini’s bel-canto masterwork Norma, in the rare, original soprano scoring of the part.

In addition to being a committed recitalist (with Benjamin Britten’s celebrated song-cycle Les Illuminations given prominence), Cláudia has appeared as a soloist in a wide variety of demanding sacred-music parts, among them Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Coronation Mass in D minor, the Magnificat of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which helped launch the newly refurbished Sala São Paulo Concert Hall, in July 1999.

She also participated in composer Carl Orff’s hedonistic choral showpiece Carmina Burana alongside a fellow paulistano, the gifted Paulo Szot.

Tall and lithe, the second-generation Polish descendant Szot has had a distinguished overseas career of his own, after first completing his musical studies in Krakow and Warsaw, where he made his official debut. The baritone went on to gain critical notices abroad with such flamboyant stage personalities as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rossini’s Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Marcello in Puccini’s La Bohème, and Belcore in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.

Szot’s initial interpretations in his home country included the villainous Gonzales in Il Guarany, the gentlemanly protagonist in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the title-character’s mercenary brother Lescaut in Massenet’s Manon (which he also performed at the Met Opera in 2011) and the swaggering toreador Escamillo in Carmen, a character he naturally gravitated to, and triumphantly took to the stage of the New York City Opera in 2003.

Paulo Szot in South Pacific (

In 2008, he captured the plaudits of Big Apple audiences with his heart-on-sleeve portrayal of Emile de Becque in the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, winning a coveted Tony Award for his efforts. Szot made his highly-anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2009-2010 season with a new production of Dimitri Shostakovich’s rarely heard The Nose.

His first foray into heavier Wagner territory led to favorable reviews for his smoothly sung Biterolf in the controversial Werner Herzog staging of the opera Tannhäuser, for Rio de Janeiro, in June 2001.

The principal, lower-voiced lead of Wolfram in that production was undertaken by another Brazilian singer, the carioca-born Lício Bruno, who gained well-merited recognition in 2005 for his glowing portrayals (“noble and warm-voiced”) of Wotan and the Wanderer, in the first-ever Amazonas Opera Festival presentation of the complete Ring cycle by Wagner.

Previously in Rio, Bruno sang the role of the evil knight Telramund in the same composer’s Lohengrin in 2004. Hopefully, he will not be typecast in this more strenuous vocal Fach, for the previous spring he was an absolutely smashing four villains — Lindorf, Coppélius, Dappertutto, and Dr. Miracle — in Jacques Offenbach’s unfinished masterpiece The Tales of Hoffmann.

The part of Wotan’s harried mate, Fricka, in the Amazonas Ring was faithfully re-enacted by mezzo soprano Céline Imbert, another native of São Paulo, and herself a past veteran of several Wagnerian excursions, chief among them the goddess Venus, in Herzog’s re-working of Tannhäuser; and the troubled Valkyrie Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, for Manaus, in both 2004 and 2005.

Celine Imbert as Carmen (ourinhos,

Imbert has achieved noteworthy successes with the likes of Carmen, Delilah, Dido, and Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow, the so-termed “sexy sirens” of the operatic stage, in addition to challenging soprano sojourns (in Madama Butterfly, Andrea Chénier, and Tosca) early on in her vocal career.

She performed the part of the forceful Queen of Samarcanda, Odaléa, in the May 2002 Amazonas Opera Festival revival (note complete, including the Act II ballet) of Gomes’ long-forgotten final opera Condor, directed by maestro Malheiro and starring carioca tenor Fernando Portari.

Another former member of Rio’s star-filled Tannhäuser outing — he sang the secondary role of the minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide — and a stylish interpreter of the Mozart canon as well, Portari is no stranger to off-beat vocal opportunities, as his involvement in the April 2003 premiere of Villa-Lobos’ Magdalena in Manaus, a work never before seen in the composer’s homeland since its brief Broadway run a half century ago, would unquestionably make known.

Portari’s “firm and clear-toned” voice, along with his “roly-poly” form, are the featured attractions in Arthaus Musik’s DVD release of a 2008 Venice production (updated to the 1950s) of Puccini’s Viennese-flavored La Rondine, directed by Graham Vick and co-starring Italian soprano Fiorenza Cedolins.

Equally as impressive was the tenor’s forthright participation (as King Ferdinand of Spain) in an historic preservation project, put out by the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ, or Federal University of Rio), of the massive symphonic oratorio Colombo by Antonio Carlos Gomes — a first-of-its-kind, all-digital stereo release of the full, unexpurgated music score.

To do the work the justice it most assuredly deserved, a number of special effects were employed throughout the recording process, including offstage choruses, real cannon shots, marching bands, and a carillon of clanging church bells.

The deluxe edition of this rarely heard magnum opus even boasted a complete ninety-six-page brochure insert, with libretto in three languages (Portuguese, Italian, and English), in addition to numerous session photographs.

Promises, Promises

But the most promising (and unusual) discovery of them all — a 35-year-old male newcomer with the rather disarming name of Marconi Araújo — is a rare countertenor commodity indeed, a sensational operatic find, who hails from the Northeastern city of Olinda.

Previously trained, at an early age, as a conductor and musical-choral director in his hometown, the University of Wyoming master’s degree candidate was a surprise first-place finisher in the prestigious Sixth Annual Bidu Sayão International Vocal Competition, held at the famed Teatro da Paz Opera House in Belém do Pará, in the spring of 2005.

Marconi Araujo (

It was the first time a native singer of his extraordinary vocal abilities had ever been awarded such a fabulous prize inside Brazil — and in a voice category not especially well regarded there to boot.

Not only was the reward recognition long overdue, but was an exceptionally hard-fought battle for the talented young artist, every step of the way. “In Brazil, there is a negative preconception of countertenors,” Marconi explained. “Many people believe it is not a real voice and it’s difficult to find a teacher who will accept you. More than anything, I would like to change the operatic environment in my home country so other countertenors can have careers there.”

The very genuine, and unstated, difficulty present — insomuch as it might pain some heterosexual alpha males out there to hear it — could be the rather lame and reprehensible notion in the country that real men should not be singing in such a “high-lying” vocal manner. This is contrary to the musical evidence put forth by such long-established stage-pros as Ney Matogrosso, Cazuza, and Milton Nascimento, to whom falsetto and head-tone were a matter of course.

Still, a universally respected (and acceptable) operatic role model, along the dignified lines of the celebrated David Daniels-variety, may do much to alter this prejudicial perception. Marconi seems to feel it would.

“I am hoping that this will help other countertenors succeed in Brazil,” he confided. “This victory is changing the lyrical environment of our country. Maybe it will open the door to a new revolution.”

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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