The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Two: Our Man in Milan

Oh, Guarani!

Placido Domingo in Il Guarany CD cover

Placido Domingo in Il Guarany CD cover

There was nothing more thrilling for an untested composer from the Brazilian countryside than to be thrust into the musical heartland of Milan, the veritable eye of the operatic hurricane.

Italy after unification had been bracing for massive upheavals to its cultural plane for quite some time. No one knew exactly what to expect, Carlos Gomes least of all. One thing was certain: Verdi was still the unquestioned main attraction. On the other hand, fully half of the master’s last six works — the revenge-themed La Forza del Destino, along with the gigantically scaled Les Vêpres Siciliennes (“The Sicilian Vespers”) and Don Carlos — all had world premieres in theaters outside their home country and to decidedly mixed reviews.

But as far as prospects for the Italian stage were concerned, it would seem the Milanese were as adept at recognizing nascent musical talent as the perceptive Dom Pedro was, for while Gomes was in the city he became the talk of the industrial town — and not just for his music. Some of his greatest lyric accomplishments received their maiden appearances at Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala, including his most celebrated stage piece Il Guarany, which premiered there on March 19, 1870.

Il Guarany front cover of the score (

Based on the 1857 novel O Guarani by Brazilian writer José Martiniano de Alencar, with a libretto by Italian poet Antonio Scalvini* and additional contributions from playwright Carlo d’Ormeville, this sprawling four-act opus told of the interracial love between Cecília, the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, and Peri, a chief of the Guarani Indian tribe, in sixteenth-century Rio. Its exotic backdrop and contrived romantic relationships, involving a cultural clash similar to the ones depicted in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s posthumously produced L’Africaine (“The African,” 1865) and Verdi’s soon-to-be-premiered Egyptian spectacular Aida (1871), literally brought down the house and gave the unfamiliar new name of Carlos Gomes a high recognition factor both in Europe and in his native Brazil.

A major force behind Guarany’s success was the high-lying role of Peri. Equal parts jungle warrior and noble savage, in the literary tradition previously expanded upon by José Bonifácio, Antonio Gonçalves Dias, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, and other so-called “Indianist” authors, Peri was primarily a figment of Alencar’s imagination, who it can be noted absolutely abhorred the composer’s operatic treatment of his work.

Regardless of how Alencar may have personally felt, the part was a rewarding one vocally and has attracted star performers from the early gramophone period on. The great Enrico Caruso left several recorded extracts, as did Giovanni Zenatello, Beniamino Gigli, and others — a remarkable demonstration of the opera’s durability over the years. French dramatic tenor Georges Thill sang the role in Rio, with Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão, at the 1936 centennial celebration of the composer’s birth, while the Spanish-born Plácido Domingo made much of the character’s feathered headdress and skirted costume for Bonn, Germany, and for Washington, D.C.’s National Opera during the mid-1990s.

Of particular interest to us is the Guarani’s courting of the beautiful donzella in distress — a highly doubtful encounter, to say the least; and Peri’s climactic spur-of-the-moment baptism into the Catholic faith by the girl’s reluctant father — reluctant, that is, to have the chieftain as his future son-in-law. (This latter aspect, or something close to it, would ring remarkably true for the composer’s stormy personal life.)

In addition to the above episodes, there were powerful choral numbers, a romantic love triangle, stirring oaths, last-minute rescue attempts, and, of course, the obligatory ballet sequence — all the grand-opera accoutrements then currently in vogue that could bring an expectant audience to its feet.

In the heat of Guarany’s between-act ovations, Gomes committed the first of his many ill-advised lapses in judgment: he sold the performance rights (an action he would come to regret) exclusively to the publishing firm of Giovannina Lucca, a distrusted rival of the established Casa Ricordi, thus denying whatever benefits the opera’s box-office receipts would have allowed him to reap. He later had a change of heart and eventually signed with Ricordi for future rights to option his works for the stage.

Nevertheless, as recounted in The Viking Opera Guide, “the opera is only as Brazilian as Verdi’s Aida is Egyptian,” with music of a thoroughly conventional nature. Begging the guide’s pardon, but this opinion was not universally shared among those in the know. “The treatment might be said to belong to the Italian school,” Revs. Fletcher and Kidder acknowledged, “but there was something so new, so fresh, so breezy, so odorous with the breath of tropical forests and tropical passion, that it at once exacted the highest praises from composers like Verdi, and from the first musical cities of Italy.”

That verbiage about “something so new” and “so fresh” may have stemmed from Gomes’ inclusion of modinhas, a type of sentimental art song of Portuguese origin, and other stylistic elements, into his opera’s framework. In the analysis of musicologist Marcus Góes, these innovations “were typical of the kinds of rhythms being done in Brazil” at the time. Unknown to most residents of the northern climates, they were interspersed liberally throughout the score “in a constant search” by the composer “for tonal variety,” as well as local color and effect.

The opera’s greatest strength, however, lay in the part that music scholars and literary historians later ascribed to it in perpetuating the national foundation myth, a modern “Dido and Aeneas” story for the ages, convincingly developed and discussed in Maria Alice Volpe’s penetrating study for Latin American Music Review:

“The myth of national origin was created out of the experience of discovery and conquest, and involved the union of the Portuguese and the Indian as a necessary condition for the birth of the Brazilian nation… Carlos Gomes’ Il Guarany corroborated Second Empire official ideology of national identity by reproducing, however oversimplified, the myth of national foundation conveyed by Alencar’s novel. The nationalization of Brazilian music offered by Indianismo during the Romantic period must be seen in the light of its ideological implications. Its use of literary subjects associated with the Indian, whether the idealized noble savage or the mythified “primitive,” did not imply the use of authentic Indian music, but the participation of Indian characters as archetypal figures in mythical narratives of national foundation and identity.”

Rumored to have been of Guarani-Indian descent on his mother’s side and of mixed Portuguese-and-mulatto blood on his father’s, Gomes was no “idealized noble savage” or “archetypal figure” come-to-life. Rather, he must be deemed fortunate that his operatic adaptation of Alencar’s “mythical narrative” came about when it did, where the expectation for something so new would conveniently come together for him — as it had for his hero Verdi’s Nabucco, introduced in the same musical city of Milan more than a generation before:

“Il Guarany caused great astonishment. The intellectuals and all the musicians wanted something new, and here, suddenly, a foreigner comes on the stage with a work that had, albeit in rudimentary form, everything that everybody wanted: more dramatic cohesion, continuity of the musical discourse, music in line with the scene, new rhythms and bold harmony.”

Drawing of Carlos Gomes (

As a separate point of departure, the wild-eyed and unpredictable composer — a stereotypical foreign visitor in a foreign land, with a hefty lion-sized mane and dark, swarthy visage — was already being derided in the Italian press as a “misanthrope” and “a primitive,” as well as “sinister” in his outward aspect. He quickly became the brunt of put-downs and snide remarks and, through his unusual appearance and actions, closely linked in the popular mind to the opera’s main protagonist.

“When something displeases him,” the supposedly reputable Gazzeta Musicale informed its readership about one of his rehearsals, “he leaps from the chair, puts his hands on his vast hair and starts to run around the stage as if possessed, screaming like a savage in alarm very similar to the Guaranis…”

This kind of scurrilous reporting did not exactly endear him to his newly formed fans. The fact that a year following Guarany’s overwhelmingly positive response in Milan, Gomes had come back from its equally triumphant booking in his home country and taken an Italian bride named Adelina — with the surname of “Peri” — to the altar only added to the speculation.

Likewise, the signal he may have been trying to send out with this fabulous New World showpiece was that Brazil, that strange and untamed backwater, could in fact be taken seriously as a place where quality art had thrived. As well, the country’s classical composers were strange and untamed men of excellence, whose work needed to be taken just as seriously. Either way, it was a most advantageous position for this strange and untamed New World artist to be in, one that encouraged him to think seriously about himself as more urban-European than rural-Brazilian.

“To my second homeland,” Gomes proudly declared, while raising his glass at an 1877 luncheon held in his honor, “the homeland of my children, to the nation that rules the world of musical art, to Italy!”

Trouble in Paradise

After Guarany, Gomes was eager to advance beyond strictly Brazilian-based story lines. He would concentrate his energies on the latest developments then taking place in his “second homeland.” As a matter of personal pride, he needed to prove to his hosts what he was capable of accomplishing on their terms. It took a great deal of conviction indeed, on the part of the self-professed “country bumpkin,” to set aside his Brazilian roots and immerse himself in the musical trends of the day — this from a man who barely spoke Italian, yet who managed to pick up both the language and the subtleties of opera in fairly short order.

Significantly, Gomes’ subsequent Italian product — Fosca (1873), his most advanced effort to date, with a plot and Venetian setting that predated his neighbor Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda by a good three years; Salvator Rosa (1874), a quasi-Verdian homage to the older composer’s grandest of grand operas, Don Carlos; and especially Maria Tudor (1879), a subject adapted from one of French novelist Victor Hugo’s least admired stage plays — all left something to be desired. They were either semi-favorably received or rejected outright by critics and public alike, and were nothing like the reception Gomes first enjoyed with Il Guarany.

The closest he came to approaching his personal best was with the popular Salvator Rosa, the most frequently performed, and most flavorful in terms of Italianate tone and content, of any of his previous attempts there. To be fair, though, his Fosca, an early experiment in operatic “realism” before the term was even in use, had been inexplicably ignored in favor of Ponchielli’s more melodious offering. Gomes labored over this work, endlessly revising it but never completely satisfied with the results. Even the participation, at the first performance of Maria Tudor, of tenor Francesco Tamagno, creator of the title role in Verdi’s Otello, and Polish bass Edouard de Reszke, whose brother, Jean, would play a crucial role in the career of the budding Bidu Sayão, were not enough to turn the tide.

Most modern researchers, such as Marcus Góes, Marcello Conati, and Lenita W. M. Nogueira, curator of the Carlos Gomes Museum in Campinas, all point to a rising nationalist sentiment in Italy during the years of Gomes’ residency there. In her essay, “O Progesso e a produção musical de Carlos Gomes entre 1879 e 1885” (“Progress and Carlos Gomes’ musical production between 1879 and 1885”), Nogueira reveals that the irascible Brazilian, now looked upon by rivals as “a kind of usurper,” had been singled out as “occupying the space [of honor] reserved for such composers as Alberto Giovannini, Cesare Dominicetti, and Franco Faccio (today practically unknown), who were,” according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, more “deserving to be represented on the stage of the [La Scala] theater.”

Considering that, after Verdi, the composer whose works were the most performed at the same La Scala theater was Gomes himself, this was an especially backhanded rejection (but a rejection nonetheless) of the foreigner’s continued presence in the northern Italian capital. In line with this narrow-minded view, the growing question of his finances, or the lack thereof, suddenly came into play; they would continue to weigh heavily on the composer’s mental and physical faculties throughout what remained of his career.

Adelina Peri at her piano (

Hints of marital strife only added to his worries. Even before the announcement of his engagement to the younger Adelina de Conte Peri, her parents had strenuously objected to the “bronze-colored savage” as a potential life partner, especially upon hearing that their daughter was pregnant with his child.

The rocky start to their union did not bode well for any long-term commitment from either party. No assault or battery charges were ever recorded; however, there was enough unpleasantness exchanged in the Gomes household to have made their home life anything but stable. “It was [as if] a lamb had been placed next to a lion,” observed former military engineer and abolitionist André Rebouças, one of the composer’s closest companions, of their uneasy relationship.

The couple filed for separation in June 1879 after eight years of marriage, with Adelina retaining custody of their five children. Infidelity was cited as the cause for the breakup, even though “irreconcilable differences” would have been more indicative of a deeper divide that existed not only between Gomes and his estranged wife, but also in the nation that ruled the world of musical art.

Sad to say, there would be no happy outcome to either story from this point on.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

* Scalvini had previously supplied the rapidly maturing composer with the text, in Milanese dialect, for a musical revue called Se Sà Minga (“One Can Never Know”) from 1867. It became a modest hit and spurred Gomes on to write another one, Nella Luna, in 1868. These early stage works served the strategic purpose of keeping the composer’s name and music alive, and on everyone’s mind, until his official operatic debut a few short years later.

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