Month: December 2012
It’s time to cozy up to that Lay-Z-Boy of yours, folks, and turn up the volume on your favorite listening device. All right, now, settle in… Put your arm around your honey and take a sip of some of that holiday cheer… Oh, yeah… Are you comfy yet..? Good! Why, you can hear the fireplace crackling, while the music sweeps over you in a wave of luscious sound – the sound of Christmas.
Oh, I know you’re going to love this part! It’s one you and I have been looking forward to all year long: the annual playlist of holiday Christmas songs and carols by your favorite artists and instrumentalists. And there are hundreds, nay, thousands of these recorded selections. The trick is to narrow the choices down to a precious few.
I’ve taken the drudgery out of this assignment by doing the heavy lifting for you. In other words, I’ve separated the musical wheat from the proverbial chaff. How’s that for an early Christmas present? Well, then, what are you waiting for? Go on and put those feet up. While you’re at it, throw another yule log onto that fire. Because ready or not, here we go!
1. “The Christmas Song” (Nat “King” Cole)
The first track on our imaginary download of seasonal classics is quite possibly the most recognizable piece of holiday music around: the wonderfully nostalgic “The Christmas Song” – universally known by its first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – performed by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole as only he could perform it. Other singers have covered this mirthful tune from time immemorial, but only Cole could do it justice. Such a feel for the words (by fellow musician and singer Mel Tormé), such elegance, such class, such style… Ah, I could go on and on about this magical cut. Cole must’ve had the most soothing baritone voice in pop-music history. No other singer, male or female, has affected me in the way he does with this number, which I’m certain you’ll agree with for yourself. Nat was equally venerated in Brazil and Latin America as well. He left us much too early in life, but what a treasured legacy he left behind, this being the finest example of his art. I can think of no better way to begin this survey than with him. To paraphrase a quote from Yogi Berra, “It ain’t Christmas till Nat ‘King’ Cole sings.” Ain’t it the truth?
2. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Andy Williams)
This sweetly sentimental number was first published back in 1865. It, too, has been recorded by just about everyone who is anyone in the music business, but my favorite version was done in the early 1960s by the late, great Andy Williams. Years ago in primetime TV Land, Christmas just wouldn’t have been Christmas without an appearance from this laid-back vocalist. Williams has often been inaccurately pegged as a baritone, but he’s nothing of the kind. Robert Goulet and Gordon MacRae were baritones, while Andy was more of a robust type of tenor with a tranquil, mellifluous tone, an extended and easy top range, and a smooth-as-silk delivery. He personified sincerity in my mind, which was why he proved so popular with young and old alike. Williams’ sensitive take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” hits just the right note of tenderness and awe. His “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is another popular tune from one of America’s premier singing stars, one we will sorely miss in this milieu.
3. “Silent Night” (Barbra Streisand)
Another popular favorite is the perennial “Silent Night,” or “Stille Nacht” in the original German. Yes, this song originated in Austria and was composed in the early years of the 1800s. Lately, it’s had a tremendous resurgence as the song that brought two opposing armies together for a few nights of peaceful calm and camaraderie (rightly so) back in the war-torn Western front of the First World War. There must be umpteen recordings of this one number alone, but the all-time best seller has got to be Barbra Streisand’s stunning edition from her 1967 A Christmas Album. Barbra’s remarkable singing voice was captured in its glorious prime. That unbelievable pianissimo high note she hits at the words “Sleep in heavenly peace” literally takes one’s breath away. The other tracks are on a par with this one (“I Wonder as I Wander” proved especially affecting), but never has “Silent Night” been so beautifully handled by any singer before or after Barbra’s take on the matter. You’ll want to replay this one over and over again, I assure you.
4. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (John Denver and The Muppets)
Now here’s a novelty item for you: bespectacled folksinger and popular soft-rock artist John Denver singing the lengthy “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol with the inimitable Muppet bunch. Included in this illustrious assortment of furry television friends are the always-dependable Kermit the Frog, the pitch-shy Miss Piggy, forgetful Fozzie Bear (who continuously flubs his lines), the Great Gonzo, piano accompanist Rowlf the Dog, Kermit’s nephew Robin, and those grumpy old geezers Statler and Waldorf. The Muppets prove their acting chops (and their “singing” ones as well) in this all-together rollicking addition to our musical foray. It’s cute and lovable; a charming bit of fun and frolic from the above named team of characters, voiced by Muppet creator Jim Henson and master puppeteer-turned-movie director Frank Oz. The top-hatted Mr. Denver takes it all in stride in typically winsome fashion. Miss Piggy’s hilarious interpolations of “Five gold rings” are the highlight.
5. “Jingle Bells” (Frank Sinatra)
How can you resist an opening line that starts off with the swingin’, big-band sound of “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells – BONG!” Man, does that bring back faded memories of the 1950s, when Ole Blue Eyes ruled the pop-music charts. Backed by the Ralph Brewster Singers, this bouncy holiday treat, arranged by Gordon Jenkins (one of Sinatra’s best, the two others being Nelson Riddle and Billy May), is an undisputed classic. It’s part of the album A Jolly Christmas, which includes such terrific seasonal fare as “Mistletoe and Holly,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As was the case with Nat “King” Cole, there’s no one around these days (with the exception of Tony Bennett, still going strong at 86 – see the recent review of his trip to Rio: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/he-left-his-heart-in-rio-de-janeiro-tony-bennett-in-brazil-an-appreciation-of-his-artistry-by-guest-contributor-claudio-botelho/) who can even approach the matchless singing style embodied by the Chairman of the Board. He was especially adept at creating a mood, which he succeeds in capturing with the lively “Jingle Bells.” Ring-a-ding-ding!
6. “White Christmas” (Bing Crosby)
And speaking of moods, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when this holiday record was played, particularly during the bleakest (and snowiest) days of World War II. No soldier or G.I. serving overseas would ever forget the melancholy feelings of longing and pride in his country with this supremely nostalgic rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” as sung by Der Bingle and Company. The original 78-rpm record was cut in mid-1942 or so, and went on to top the “Your Hit Parade” charts for the remainder of that year and beyond. It’s undoubtedly the biggest selling Christmas record ever made. The version that’s played today, so I’m told, is a 1947 re-recording, but with the same session artists (the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and Ken Darby Singers) as the original. Bing Crosby was a model singer, a radio crooner who developed a devoted following and influenced an entire generation of vocalists, including a talented young artist named Farnésio Dutra e Silva – better known to his fellow Brazilians by his American-sounding moniker, Dick Farney.
7. “O Holy Night” (Perry Como)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Pennsylvania-born Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, who began his career as a barber in his hometown of Canonsburg, was another of those easygoing song stylists to have emerged from America’s grueling Depression and war years. A product of the big band era, Como performed in just about every medium, including the infant television industry almost from its birth. He had a long-running hit TV show while also hosting a variety of programs throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s; he also had a fairly successful recording career with RCA Victor. Como’s later clean-cut, sweater-spouting visage was honed during this period. Audiences the world over would continue to enjoy his countless Christmas and Easter specials, which aired from the early 1960s well into the mid-1980s. Perry would often conclude his Easter programs with Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” but for his annual Christmas show the climax would be “O Holy Night,” accompanied by a heavenly boys’ choir and delivered in the subtlest of even-tempered tones imaginable. Como belonged to the same category of singers that begat the likes of Vic Damone, Al Martino and Jerry Vale, to name a few.
8. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” (Burl Ives)
Jewish songwriter Johnny Marks, who gave the world such Yuletide wonders as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” did it again with this jaunty little title. And itinerant ballad singer, author, raconteur, and television, theater and movie personality Burl Ives (“Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and an Oscar-winner for his role as Rufus in The Big Country) recorded it in 1965. Ives was affectionately known as the Wayfaring Stranger, becoming active in the folk field for a number of years thereafter – even teaming up with fellow artists Pete Seeger, Will Geer and Woody Guthrie. He was blacklisted for a time, due to his admitted involvement in several Communist Party gatherings. He appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which sullied his reputation somewhat. Later, his smiling bearded image became synonymous with the Snowman who narrates the Rankin-Bass stop-motion feature Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives’ claim to fame was a pleasingly mellow, reedy tenor voice of near-operatic proportions, along with a massive, hulking form which made him a formidable figure both on and off the screen.
9. “Adeste Fideles” (Luciano Pavarotti)
We go from the near-operatic to the tenorial splendors of the sensational Luciano Pavarotti, recorded live, in 1978, at Montréal’s Notre Dame Cathedral. The Fat Man outdid himself, if I do say so myself, in this magnificent concert of Christmas classics, given in one of the Canadian city’s most beautiful churches (I will personally vouch for that statement, having once visited the very same church). The program consists of such standards as “O Holy Night,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” “Agnus Dei,” “Silent Night,” and César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.” Luciano is joined by a symphony orchestra, led by Paul-Franz Decker, the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal Boys Choir, and the Disciples de Massenet Mixed Chorus, for a solid hour of old favorites. While Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah concludes the program, the high point comes early on with Signor Pavarotti’s delightful rendering of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” sung in Latin and known the world over as “Adeste Fideles.” The tenor succeeds in demonstrating why he was one of the most charismatic and capable crossover artists around – his aborted movie career notwithstanding.
10. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” (Gloria Estefan)
For a welcome change of pace, lend an ear – and give a close listen – to this hearty blend of salsa meets jazzy big band, in Cuban-American sensation Gloria Estefan’s rousing version of Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” You can’t help but join in with the Miami Sound Machine crowd, as Gloria and her band-mates take off in this strictly Latin flavored outing, produced by the legendary Phil Ramone. The cut is from Estefan’s 1993 album, Christmas Through Your Eyes, which features the usual holiday suspects (“Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”), along with the title track (an original composition by Gloria herself, with Diane Warren) and a few unexpected surprises, including Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and José Barros “Arbolito de Navidad” (“Little Christmas Tree”). But the real toe-tapper is definitely “Let It Snow,” which lets out all the stops, and then some – check out that syncopated horn riff — a must-have for any record fan’s collection.
11. “The Christmas Waltz” (Karen Carpenter)
While you’re at it, add this one to our growing list of tried-and-true Christmas classics. Another Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne specialty number – this time, written for Frank Sinatra – the song’s been chronicled by a multitude of performers (starting with Ole Blue Eyes), all of whom laid down fairly respectable, if not exactly notable, accounts. But it took the warm, chestnut roasted alto voice of Karen Carpenter (whose recording of “Merry Christmas, Darling” is another worthy candidate to search for) and her piano-playing brother Richard to bring this catchy air to vibrato-less life. The line, “And this song of mine, in three-quarter time, wishes you and yours the same thing too,” perfectly encapsulates the sentiments of the holiday season; and let’s listeners know the reason Karen was so beloved by so many. She epitomized this brand of earthy, get-to-the-heart-of-the-matter vocalizing without blasting one’s eardrums. Certainly, singing of this low-key nature is very much out of style. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying her crowd-pleasing work on this cut.
12. “Sleigh Ride” (Johnny Mathis)
Much like the artists cited above, it seems that Johnny Mathis has forever skirted the upper limits of popularity with the paying public. However, whenever pop music is mentioned around the water cooler, before you know it his name invariably comes up as the one and only exponent of the lost art of singing Christmas songs. How right they are! Along with Tony Bennett, there’s no one today who has done more to ensure the durability of the popular song canon than the ageless Mr. Mathis. Amazingly, after a 60+-year career Johnny continues to pack them in wherever he goes. His mercurial tenor voice, though hardly the same now as it was in his sterling youth, is still at it, with frequent show-stopping tours all over the globe. A sure sign of his relevancy is Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which started out as a light classical piece with sound effects popularized by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. The tongue-twisting lyrics were added later, and voila: an instant Christmas classic took form. What Mathis brought to his version is an infectious brio, a lighthearted sense of fun, and a sheer, unabashed enjoyment of the times. Not only that, but his phrasing was well-nigh perfect. Johnny’s stretching out of the line, “We’re riding in a wonderland of snow,” is so full of warmth and good cheer you can’t help but smile along with him. So this is Christmas!
13. “Christmastime is Here” (Vince Guaraldi Trio) and “Pachelbel’s Canon” (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)
The last two items are basically instrumentals (with some added vocal lines, of course), and they’re both viable as annual holiday favorites. First up is West Coast cool-jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s lovely number “Christmastime is Here” – first heard on the CBS-TV network in the primetime Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, in December 1965. The first of many such programs, this one holds a special place in people’s hearts as a scrupulously honest representation of how kids feel about the commercialization of the season (see my list of holiday movies for more on this subject: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/deck-the-hawrs-with-bars-of-hawry-fara-rara-ra-rara-ra-ra-the-all-time-best-selling-christmas-movies-ever/). Guaraldi composed the minimalist score (very much in the Bill Evans mode). The original soundtrack album that resulted from his efforts is still a sought-after collector’s item. And finally, there’s the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s stadium-filling, children’s-choir accompanied arrangement of Johann Pachelbel’s ubiquitous “Canon,” which is guaranteed to end any Christmas Vigil on a high note. In case you were wondering, none of the orchestra members are from Siberia. Try hearing this one on a first-rate surround-sound system (the low bass is ground-shaking, to say the least).
That’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this song-filled excursion of holiday classics. All that’s left to say is… HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
By Ubiratan Brasil – O Estado de S. Paulo Newspaper – August 20, 2012
Directed by Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the show is scheduled to premiere in London in 2014
When American producer Stephen Byrd first saw the movie Black Orpheus [known in Brazil as Orpheus of the Carnival], he was touched – the marvelous score by Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, allied to the story fashioned by Vinicius de Moraes, made Frenchman Marcel Camus’ feature truly irresistible, despite the fact that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival offered a more exotic view of carioca slum life.
“I immediately perceived a tremendous potential for a totally fabulous musical, the idea of which fermented in my mind for a number of years,” Byrd told this reporter. Our meeting occurred in the restaurant of a luxury carioca hotel, where Byrd, now president of Front Row Productions, was firming up plans to turn his dream into a reality. To make them workable, he is counting on two native specialists: the Brazilian team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.
The duo deemed responsible for the success of musical theater in Brazil will be taking an important step in their already successful career with the premiere, at the end of next year, of an English version of Orfeu da Conceição [“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”], an opera-samba written by Vinicius, which debuted in 1956 and was the inspiration for Camus’ film. The staging, to be produced by Byrd, will begin its run in London and, in 2014, will then reach Broadway. The producer’s intention is for a bilingual cast of Brazilian actors.
“Our coming together was a curious one,” relates Botelho, who will be providing a first draft of the musical in English. “For four years Stephen Byrd had been trying to contact Vinicius’ family members, at the same time he was looking for an American director. Julie Taymor, who directed The Lion King on Broadway, was on the short list, but Stephen discovered our work and became interested in working with us.”
Their encounter was facilitated by Möeller-Botelho’s recent appointment as creative directors for GEO Eventos. The company, affiliated with the American firm Base Entertainment, has invested massively in the production of musicals in Brazil. “We’ll be working as co-producers on the project,” explained Leonardo Ganem, general director of GEO, for whom Orpheus of the Carnival is a chance to rescue the musical from oblivion. “Bossa nova is no longer the deserved headliner in Brazil it once was due to the public’s fascination with a song’s melody rather than its lyrics.”
Indeed, Vinicius de Moraes’ ace in the hole was his idea for a musical, an idea that came to him on the eve of the Carnival celebration of 1942, when the sounds of distant samba reached his ears just as he was reading a book about the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician who played his lyre with such perfection that he convinced the gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, to return his dead lover, Eurydice, to life. The combination of samba and myth seduced the poet.
The musical premiered in September 1956, at the Municipal Theater in Rio, with songs by Tom Jobim, sets by Oscar Niemeyer, costumes by Lila Bôscoli [Vinicius’ wife at the time], the live solo guitar of Luiz Bonfá, and poster art by Djanira. In the cast: Haroldo Costa, Daisy Paiva, Abdias do Nascimento, and Léa Garcia, the first time an all-black cast of actors mounted the stage of the carioca Municipal Theater.
This back story also bewitched Byrd, responsible for such Broadway showcases as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also with all-black casts. “With Orpheus, we intend to do something along the lines of the recent revival of West Side Story, which featured a combination of dialects, mixing English with Spanish,” observed producer Alia Jones-Harvey, who is also visiting Rio and, alongside Byrd, became enchanted with Möeller and Botelho’s style upon seeing their revue, Milton Nascimento – Nada Será Como Antes (“Nothing Is As It Was”), which premiered the previous week.
(English translation by Josmar F. Lopes, Copyright © 2012)
The significance of Bertolt Brecht’s groundbreaking theories from the twenties and thirties on the burgeoning Brazilian theater of the mid-fifties to late sixties cannot be overstated. Indeed, his works have had a lengthy history and influence in the land of samba long before Chico ever wrote a note of the song form.
As well, his dynamic views on the art and substance of the theater have spread across most fields of human endeavor, beginning of course with the European stage. As one of the acknowledged architects of “epic theater,” Brecht’s revolutionary ideas about his craft — put into worldwide practice upon his early death in 1956 — revolved around, among other things, the complete destruction of all pretense and illusion.
For starters, both actors and stagehands, along with members of the orchestra, played his pieces in full view of the audience; no curtain was discernible as such; the houselights were invariably kept on, not dimmed; the proscenium arch no longer provided an imaginary divide between artist and public; signs and placards were displayed to announce the beginning and ending of scenes; exhortation was encouraged outright for those sitting in attendance; and there were other innovations at play as well, many of which we take for granted today.
Suffice it to say, then, that what Herr Brecht hoped to achieve by this more didactic approach to theater was a certain distancing (or “alienation,” if you will) of the spectators by those directly involved with the play’s production.
Theoretically, this distancing effect would prevent viewers from becoming overly bound-up in the drama they were witnessing. Moreover, by precluding any real attachment to the onstage action, the main message of the piece would reveal itself with facility and ease, thus the end result would be a play that could be judged “objectively and with intelligence,” and on its own terms, independent of the performance in question.
In sum, reason, not the emotions, would be properly engaged, and (again, in theory) understanding would ultimately prevail.
But the real thrust behind Brecht’s formal arguments was a call for social justice and change through heightened political awareness. (Not for nothing was he known as a lifelong follower of Karl Marx.) Although some of the more conservative elements in Germany thought he had gone well beyond the normal conventions of the times, Brecht nonetheless held fast to his belief that a better-informed lower class could conceivably expect — no, demand — some improvement (or “transformation”) in their lives by the complacent upper crust.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it was because the German playwright’s practical dialectic found equal favor with, and rang remarkably true for, most socially conscious dramatists of the day, particularly the downtrodden masses of Brazilian artists longing to break free of the military’s suffocating grasp.
Among the early proponents of Brecht’s far-reaching techniques were some of the country’s most progressive stage figures, including Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, with Centro Popular de Cultura and Grupo Opinião; José Celso (“Zé Celso”) Martinez Corrêa, and the Teatro Oficina; Millôr Fernandes and Flávio Rangel, and their play Liberdade, liberdade (“Freedom, freedom”); the writings of Dias Gomes (O berço do heroi – “The Hero’s Cradle”); and the still relevant work of the late Augusto Boal, with the Arena Theater and, most radical of all, his Teatro do Oprimido (“Theater of the Oppressed”) and the huge debt it owed to Brecht — the direct benefit of which was Boal’s own studies into empowerment of the people by means of finding and expressing their individual voices through carefully worked-out activities and routines (“forum theater,” “cop-in-the-head,” “rainbow of desire,” et al.).
To this list must also be added Brecht’s unofficial “offspring,” those contemporary, cutting-edge directors — Antunes Filho, Ulisses Cruz, Moacir Góes and Gerald Thomas — who have contributed mightily to the exploration of what is feasible on the Brazilian stage, and succeeded (for the most part) in reshaping the building blocks of postmodern theater into new and untried forms.
But it did not stop there, as the approaching “new wave” of the Cinema Novo movement (“a cinema of the humble and the offended”) — another of the popular Brazilian art forms to have profited from the Brechtian ideal — seemed to have projected.
Such award-winning filmmakers as Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Rio zona norte, 1957; Vidas secas – “Barren Lives,” 1963), Ruy Guerra (Os fuzis – “The Guns,” 1964), and Glauber Rocha (Barravento, 1962; Deus e o diabo na terra do sol – “Black God, White Devil,” 1964; Terra em transe – “Land in Anguish,” 1967; Antonio das Mortes, 1969), along with Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Carlos “Cacá” Diegues and Roberto Santos, were just a few of the domestic auteurs active during this period, the most politicized of which was the Bahian-born Glauber, whose classic 1965 essay, “An Aesthetic of Hunger” — a Marxist manifesto (“Violence is normal behavior for the starving”) if ever there was one — is required reading for any lover of neo-realist cinema.
Not to be discounted, of course, was the somewhat spotty revival in Brazil of the rich Brecht-Weill repertory of cabaret standards, first undertaken by Grupo Orintorrinco, and featuring Maria Alice Vergueiro (who sang in the 1978 premiere of Ópera do Malandro) as soloist; then with the 1988 release of Cida Moreira’s album (in Portuguese) of Cida Moreira Interpreta Brecht; followed a decade later by the CD Concerto Cabaré with nightclub staple Suzana Salles, a native paulistana perfectly at home not only with the Teutonic language and style (“Her interpretations transcend the Brazilian milieu,” raved music critic Daniella Thompson), but in Brecht’s home city of Berlin, where she had studied during the 1980s.
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Last Saturday, December 8, was the first broadcast of the new Metropolitan Opera radio season. It was of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) in a new production directed by David Alden. It was good to have the Met Opera back on the air I have to say, after a long, hot summer and a tediously unproductive fall.
I’ve been listening to the Met broadcasts since (yikes!) 1965-66, and regularly after the 1967-68 season. The first opera I heard was Aida, also by Verdi and scheduled for airing this coming Saturday, December 15. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the names of the individual cast members, which included American soprano Leontyne Price as Aida, tenor James McCracken as Radames, and baritone Robert (“Oh, say, can you see”) Merrill as Amonasro. I can’t tell you any more about the performance without consulting the Met Opera’s archives, but I do recall taping most of Act II for later playback, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.
But this post is more about the current scene, so let’s get back to Ballo, one of the Italian master’s finest and most intricately detailed works. Composed between 1857 and 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera is a transitional piece that came just after his so-called middle period (1851-1853), a time that produced three of his most popular operas, i.e., Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. It shares similar thematic material with Rigoletto, in the basic plot of an assassination attempt on its tenor lead; and looks forward to the Judgment Scene in Aida (1871), particularly the heavy use of brass, which adds considerable weight to the conflicts that take place between the main characters. There are nods to the future Otello (1887), too, in the Third Act drawing of names sequence with its sonic echoes of Otello’s farewell to arms speech (“Ora e per sempre addio”) and the Vengeance Duet that closes Act II of that work.
Verdi wrote Ballo on commission for the theater in Naples. He chose as his subject the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which took place there in 1792. However, due to the sensitive nature of the story, highlighted by the actual onstage murder of a royal figure, the Neapolitan censors refused to stage it unless drastic changes were made. An old hand at dealing with bureaucratic stonewalling (especially after the modifications to Rigoletto’s plot and characters), Verdi directed his first-time librettist, Antonio Somma, to comply with the censors’ demands. Somma did as he was told and the original title of Gustavo III was changed to Una Vendetta in Domino (“A Revenge in Costume”).
Still not satisfied with the results, the censors called for even more cuts and alterations, no doubt spurred by a terrorist’s bomb hurled at French emperor Napoleon III’s carriage. Both Verdi and Somma were thoroughly dismayed by the actions demanded of them and subsequently withdrew the work. A short while later, after further adjustments to the story, which transformed King Gustav into the fictitious Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and placed the opera in pre-Revolutionary War times (!), they offered the re-worked and re-titled Un Ballo in Maschera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where it met with sizable success.
There were other incongruities involved in this new context as well, the most noteworthy being the character of King Gustav (now Riccardo) himself. An extravagant individual and patron of the arts, the historical Swedish king was an admitted Freemason as well as rumored to be of a homosexual bent, although this has never been proven. That did not stop Verdi from giving him a love interest, Amelia, the wife of his would-be assassin Count Anckarström. In the Boston scenario, Amelia remained Amelia, but the Count had his name changed to Renato, the conspirators Horn and Ribbing were now called (don’t laugh) Sam and Tom, Oscar the page stayed Oscar the page, and Ulrica the mysterious medium became Ulrica the witch (or a soothsayer or prophetess, either one was acceptable). The work has since been performed in both its Swedish and American locales, while the Met uses the original Swedish one for its current production.
In the opera proper (and in the history books), the murder of the king occurs at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where the titular masked ball takes place. It’s this scene – the final one in the opera – that most resembles its predecessor Rigoletto, although everything about Ballo has an orderly flow and logical connection to the earlier work. The music here is bouncy and bright, full of ironic contrasts and startling juxtapositions, and done by the simplest of means: a minuet serves as the musical backdrop to the king’s murder, thus increasing the tension almost to the breaking point. Compare it to Rigoletto’s opening scene in Act I, which is equally light and airy, but with nary a hint of the darkness to come.
Enter Oscar, the king’s lighthearted page, voiced by a coloratura in boy’s clothing, what is often termed as a “trouser” role. Verdi fashioned this character after the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, but he clearly took after the adolescent Cherubino of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Needless to say, Oscar’s music is the main attraction in Ballo, and the most titillating Verdi ever wrote: at once charming and carefree, full of youthful vigor and warmth, the master would not compose themes of this flavor and wit until his very last work, the comic Falstaff, some 44 years later.
The story, in brief, involves King Gustav’s affair with the married wife of his chief counselor and friend, Anckarström, who hatches a plot to kill the king after he catches his spouse in an illicit encounter with the monarch. The role of both King Gustav and his friend are plum parts for tenor and baritone, as are Amelia, Oscar and Ulrica.
Now on to the review: Marcelo Alvarez did well as Gustavo. The Argentine tenor has a real feel for the words, and his lyric singing – the opening “La rivedra nell’ estasi,” for example – was exceptionally heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. However, he does not like to linger on high notes (unlike the late Luciano Pavarotti, who relished every aspect of this part). Elsewhere, Alvarez refused to dawdle. The attitude was, let’s get this show on the road, which was fine by me (and no doubt the conductor’s choice).
Unfortunately, he ducked the high C in the great second-act duet with Amelia, sung by the excellent Sondra Radvanovsky – what’s with that? Pavarotti was known to have thrust his face (and prickly beard) into the back of his female lead’s hair at this point, but he still managed to get that C-note out. In conductor Georg Solti’s Decca/London recording of the work, Carlo Bergonzi was all-but overwhelmed by the Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, but he still made it to C (or tried to, albeit in drowned-out form). As I recall, Marcelo (as Cavaradossi) sang the note in Tosca’s Act III duet with Karita Mattila, so I was a little taken aback by the omission. He did deliver a ravishing last act lament, though, so reminiscent of Otello’s death scene, with the final word cut off just as Gustavo expires – a nice touch, that.
How like the Duke of Mantua the king is, but without that character’s insouciance and self-centered egotism. A truly rewarding role for any tenor to tackle, which Alvarez could have made more of than he likely did. His “È scherzo od è follia,” Gustavo’s mocking reaction to Ulrica’s prophecy that the next person to shake the king’s hand would be his assassin, lacked the customary “laughs” and “giggles,” a practice started by Alessandro Bonci, and later taken up by Beniamino Gigli. Perhaps Alvarez was going for a more straightforward approach. Not that the scene was badly sung, it just missed that final spark of “fun” that would have truly ignited his performance.
Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia was sublime, the only word that comes to mind when talking about this marvelous artist. Sondra has done magnificent work in Verdi and Puccini before, but in Ballo she really outdid herself. All the emotional impact and dramatic thrust this role can have on an audience were there in spades. Mind you, Amelia is not the most gratifying of soprano roles – she makes a brief appearance in Act I, in a remarkable trio with Ulrica and the disguised king. But she really comes into her own in Act II, where she is onstage throughout. Act III starts off with her pathetic farewell to her son, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which earned Sondra a huge round of applause at its close. Brava!
The Anckarström was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in good, solid voice but in my opinion he took an inordinately long time to warm up. He may have been under the weather, but Dmitri picked up steam in Act III during “Eri tu?” This aria stands as a carbon copy of Rigoletto’s great scena, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Act II of that opera, they’re so strikingly similar (in musical terms, that is, not textually), especially in the way both pieces start off fast and furious, but end up slow and calm. A prolonged and well-deserved ovation was in order! Stephanie Blythe was Ulrica, and a good one, to boot! I love her low notes. It’s one of the few true contralto roles that Verdi wrote, one to be savored no matter how brief it is. And no contralto worth her salt can hope to make it in the opera world without making one’s hairs stand on end in this part. Blythe met the challenge head on.
On the high-end of the scale, Kathleen Kim was delightfully chirpy as Oscar. I remember her as Madame Mao in Nixon in China – a killer role, to be sure, but she pulled both of them off with aplomb. Basses Keith Miller and David Crawford chuckled convincingly as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, respectively, without actually delineating their personalities to any audible degree (at least not over the airwaves).
Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted. He, too, refused to dawdle, although I like this opera to be more expansive in spots. Luisi sped things along á la Toscanini, much unlike James Levine, who used to find great drama in this piece. Less tautness and more deliberation next time, maestro, please. The Met’s chorus was in tiptop shape, a tribute to its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, who in the last six years has done yeoman work in making this aspect of the performance stand out from the rest. A job well done! Let’s see what awaits us with Aida. The season is young and there’s more to come… Stay tuned!
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
He Left His Heart in Rio de Janeiro: Tony Bennett in Brazil — An Appreciation of His Artistry by Guest Contributor Claudio Botelho
Folha de São Paulo Newspaper, December 1, 2012
TONY BENNETT is the last remnant of that so-called “great generation of interpreters” of American music still active today. That statement may do a bit of injustice to Johnny Mathis, who’s still performing and at the top of his game; but the fact remains that after Frank Sinatra’s death, the baton automatically passed to Bennett. Why is that?
Well, that’s because Sinatra had once proclaimed Tony Bennett as “the best singer in America.” But this rite of passage was, for certain, much more than a symbolic exchange of pleasantries or a figurative passing of the baton: it makes perfect sense. This style of singing is ending – no, will end – when Tony himself ceases to exist.
But from what was seen in Rio de Janeiro the night before last, we’ll have Tony Bennett around for quite some time yet.
Nobody sings like this anymore. And nobody sings those great songs in exactly the way that he does, either. For almost 90 minutes, Tony brought to the stage what we’ve come to expect from him: the best of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Michel Legrand, in addition to his signature tunes “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Smile” and “The Shadow Of Your Smile.”
The fact is, even at 86, Tony can still deliver the goods, almost as if these songs were being presented for the first time. Even for those, such as myself, who’ve been coming to his shows for all of fifteen years, the feeling is always of embarking on a maiden voyage.
And it’s not just Tony’s voice. A pop singer with a strong jazzistic vein, he values a song’s lyrics by vesting them with his undivided attention. Each word is put across as if to convey every pain of love, every pang of joy, every amorous encounter, every parting of the ways, which form the basis for what is called a “standard” American song of quality.
Nothing sounds tired or routine, everything sounds fresh and new, seemingly born in the moment – the moment when Tony pauses, lifts his eyes skyward and sings the rarely recorded introduction to a frequently heard number: “Fly me to the moon / And let me play among the stars.” It’s more than just music, it’s theater. And this goes on throughout the entire program: he’s there, on stage, for the sole purpose of relating a story firsthand – original, complete; he’s obligated to tell us, the audience, the meaning of every one of those songs we’ve heard a dozen times over. And that’s exactly what he does with, for example, “For Once In My Life”, a song covered by half of humanity, but with Bennett it acquires a sentiment so unique that the audience’s stillness as they weep is simply unavoidable.
There are those who say the voice is gone, that it’s not the same voice he had in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or even the ‘70s. Well, then, if he’d have kept the same voice for the 60 years he’s been performing, he’d be a lot more than a phenomenon: he’d be ET. Of course the voice has changed, but who cares? The great interpreter still remains, and everything he does convinces you he’s doing it on the spot.
Accompanied by a jazz quartet of the first order, the show features the discreet presence of his daughter Antonia in a duet with dear old dad, along with the unnecessary participation of Ana Carolina, who practically ruined “The Very Thought Of You” with a horrendous Portuguese translation and a singing style that’s the exact opposite of Bennett’s: no emotion, no truth, all phoniness and false sentimentality. No matter.
What does matter is that Tony Bennett – the greatest singer in the world, with a repertoire of popular songs as classic as anything in the canon – is in Brazil. If you love those songs, drop everything and go see him, now. For when the songs come to an end, so will that singing style.
(English translation by Josmar F. Lopes, Copyright © 2012)
Claudio Botelho is one of Rio’s best known musical directors, as well as a performer, composer, translator, adapter, and lyricist. Most, if not all, of the Broadway and West End musicals that have appeared in Brazil over the past 20 years have used his translations and/or adaptations, including The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Company, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Hair, Spring Awakening, Fiddler on the Roof, The Addams Family, Gypsy, The Witches of Eastwick, and most recently The Wizard of Oz. He and his partner, Charles Möeller, are known throughout the country as the “Kings of Brazilian Musicals.” They are also my friends.
When Forms Cease to Follow Function: The Passing of a Brazilian Legend — Architect Oscar Niemeyer, Dead at 104
On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, the world mourned the passing of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer at age 104. The way that Niemeyer seemed to talk about himself and his achievements, one would think that he planned to live forever – and in a way, he will. Let me explain.
An architect is, generally speaking, not the sort of individual that inspires people to great passions. No, they tend to be plain old, “down to earth” folk, although in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, her lead character Howard Roark (an architect) is anything but down to earth. As interpreted by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version, Roark works up a steamy head of lather and a fair amount of sweat, and not just over some old buildings (I believe his co-star, the lovely Patricia Neal, had something to do with that).
Nevertheless, Niemeyer’s place in forging a modern Brazilian nation is firmly secured, what with his imaginative contributions to the country’s futuristic capital city of Brasília. He also designed her Our Lady of Aparecida Cathedral, which resembles an upside-down crown of thorns – unusual, in that Niemeyer was an avowed atheist as well as a die-hard communist sympathizer. No matter. The old saying, “Do as I do, not as I say,” comes to mind here in properly assessing his life and work.
Niemeyer did bring life back to staid forms. You can say that he saw the benefit that curves possessed over straight lines; in addition, he gave form to what was arguably the tired and the formless — see his Rio Sambadrome if you have any doubts of his abilities. Indeed, he took a well-worn architectural turn of phrase, “form follows function,” and twisted it around to read “form follows feminine,” which tells you more about Niemeyer the man than you may have wanted to know.
He lived so long that he buried both his first wife and his one and only daughter. You can read about his range of accomplishments in any of this past week’s obituaries. Still, I would like to draw your attention to the superb one written by one of my favorite print journalists and television commentators, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-oscar-niemeyer-soared-as-an-architect).
What went unstated in all these glowing postmortems, however – and what most of the architect’s many admirers may not even have known about him – is Niemeyer’s impact on Brazilian theater, vis-à-vis his revolutionary set designs for the musical play, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), written by two of Brazil’s leading artists, poet Vinicius de Moraes and composer-musician Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim.
The work premiered on September 25, 1956, at Rio’s Teatro Municipal. Here is what I had to say about Niemeyer’s participation in the venture:
“Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes and her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic new capital city — by filling its ‘vast empty space’ with ‘sensuous white curves in glass and concrete’ — were the visible manifestations of what Tom and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.”
Now here is what Niemeyer himself said about his involvement:
“Invited by Vinicius to design the sets for Orfeu da Conceição, my first reaction was to decline, for I had never worked for the theater before and the subject seemed rather complicated to me. But my friend insisted, so I accepted the challenge which, fortunately for me, became more of a pleasure.
“When I began the design of the sets…, I decided not to make any preconceived notions, considering instead the blocking of each scene and the poetic gist of the text. Hence the absence of realistic elements and the sketchiness of the scenery, the idea being to preserve the climate of lyricism and drama, at once so fantastic, that Vinicius created and that leaves the characters hovering in space, entirely at the mercy of their passions.” (From the Songbook Vinicius de Moraes: Orfeu, published by Jobim Music, 2003)
The play inspired the passions of French filmmaker Marcel Camus, who went to Brazil to direct the Academy-Award winning Black Orpheus, his own cinematic paean to the beauty of Rio de Janeiro. Most of the music for the film was provided by Jobim (along with Luiz Bonfá). What fans of Vinicius and Jobim’s song output may not have realized is that Jobim first took up architecture as a profession, only to drop it in favor of music. He toured the site for the proposed Brasília project with his songwriting partner Vinicius and Niemeyer in tow. This later bore fruit in a major new composition, the Sinfonia da Alvorada, from 1961.
Barely a year later, as poet and musician were comfortably ensconced outside the Veloso Bar in Rio, a teenager by the name of Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (later Pinheiro) crossed their path. She became the inspiration for the entranced pair to write their most wittily sensuous and widely recorded song hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.”
If “form follows feminine,” as Oscar Niemeyer so claimed, then let the above incidents serve as “concrete” proof of that sentiment. And as far as inspiring passion goes, Niemeyer had plenty of it to spare. May he be granted eternal rest from his labors… †
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
“Damozel” in Distress
That most formidable of early twentieth-century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, would once again influence the course and direction of Brazilian opera by his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu Sayão.
There exist several versions of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer’s sensitive portrayal of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata, given in the mid-1930s at Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served as musical director.
At a formal reception given for the diva in early 1936, at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself to Bidu, and, while reminiscing about her La Scala appearances, he immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La Demoiselle Élue (“The Blessed Damozel”), originally written for mezzo-soprano, a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to singing in.
Undaunted by the challenges inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach la piccola brasiliana in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative higher key for her comfort, for which he likewise supplied a revised vocal score:
“I am sending you the high notes that I think ought to be suitable. They aren’t difficult because they more or less follow the orchestra’s melodic line. You are a good enough musician to adapt immediately to these few changes. With my most cordial greetings, Arturo Toscanini, 14 April 1936”
Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the notorious Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait. With the experienced hand of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and New York Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press:
“Sayão captures the plaintive, mysterious atmosphere of LA DAMOISELLE ÉLUE. Conveying the purity of the vocal line, the innocence of the character, and the tenderness of Debussy’s setting of Rossetti’s poem, Sayão is an ideal interpreter of this music. Toscanini referred to her singing as ‘just like a dream, an angel, from the sky’.”
Broadcast Debut in Manon
Taking advantage of the increased exposure these Manhattan concerts had provided her, Bidu spent the next several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil and her soon-to-be-adopted North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents, but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing in as many as 200 different locations spanning the entire length and breadth of the country.
Upon her return to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini’s insistence) tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with South American artists: that of Jules Massenet’s wholly and beguilingly Gallic young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.
Although he himself no longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless proved relentless in persuading the Met’s stodgy management to take on the Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignment — this despite the fact that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks Bidu was then capable of producing, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.
Fortunately for the Met, the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the more lyrical aspects of such roles as Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, even before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise.
It was to Danise’s credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his young protégée further along this productive path and stretch her usual list of soubrette parts by including more “dramatic” vocal opportunities. This admittedly opened up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Rosina, and Susanna over the entire course of her career — even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.
With her authentic French diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly complex characters, Bidu was ideally poised to conquer the environs of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America some ten years earlier.
Finally, on February 13, 1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon (a national radio broadcast), the captivating 34-year-old Brazilian stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premier performance in Massenet’s opera Manon.
She delivered what many of her staunchest supporters would come to regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately heartfelt portrait to date. In addition to the chilly weather, there was a last-minute cast change in one of the leads, that of the Chevalier des Grieux:
“It was supposed to have been [Belgian tenor] René Maison,” Bidu recalled some years later for the New York Times, but it turned out not to be case. “He was sick, but they didn’t tell me, because they didn’t want to make me nervous. So I stood looking and looking, and I was getting nervous because I didn’t see him. Then a strange man greeted me! I almost fell down! When there was a moment, he said, ‘Hello, I’m Sidney Rayner.’ I said, ‘I’m Bidu Sayão,’ even though I think he already knew that, and we went on from there.”
Despite the impromptu nature of the proceedings, the broadcast came off as scheduled. Manon would go on to become her third most requested role (22 appearances in all) during her extensive Met Opera tenure, lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta (with 23), in number of times sung.
It is noteworthy to point out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so – and a full three years prior to Carmen’s own footprints were to be permanently enshrined on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame. ☼
(End of Part Three)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes