Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Four: The High Price of Fame in Brazil

Blame It on Rio

Bidu Sayao (last.fm)

Bidu Sayao (last.fm)

They booed. The audience had actually booed. It was unheard of – absurd to say the least – yet it was true. But how could it have happened in Rio, and, most disturbingly of all, to Bidu Sayão, the operatic sweetheart of the Southern Hemisphere?

Not five months had passed since the stylish Brazilian singer’s appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House had caused a minor stir, and was labeled the surprise hit of the 1936-1937 seasons. “Miss Sayão triumphed as a Manon should,” wrote New York Times music critic Olin Downes of her mid-winter debut, “by manners, youth and charm, and secondly by the way in which [her] voice became the vehicle of dramatic expression.”

“Any conjecture as to how Sayão’s small but perfectly produced voice would fare in the great spaces of the Metropolitan [was] speedily allayed,” raved Paul Jackson in Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met. “Her affinity for the French style… and a decade’s experience in European houses enabled her to set foot on the Met stage with a portrayal fully formed.”

Bidu had been chosen by the Met to assume the repertory of the recently retired Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori. Within weeks of her initial engagement she was assigned the lead role of Violetta in La Traviata, followed quickly by her first Bohème. “She was an unmatched Norina, Zerlina, and Adina,” continued Jackson. However, “Sayão’s Violetta is a vivid creation and exceedingly well sung throughout… She turns the coloratura of the first act into a dramatic device just as Verdi intended…”

Bidu as Violetta in La Traviata (archives-metoperafamily.org)

Bidu as Violetta in La Traviata (archives-metoperafamily.org)

Now, with many U.S. opera companies on hiatus until the fall, Bidu was free to enjoy the warmer waters of her tropical port city and its own extensive concert and opera-going season. Her ambitions there were modest, in the extreme: to please her many fans and admirers, as she always had, at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal.

She had lately performed in the opera Il Guarany by Gomes, and was scheduled to sing the smaller but no less showier secondary part of Micaela in Carmen, which once starred the celebrated Italian mezzo Gabriella Besanzoni, a past veteran of many a South American production of the work and a mainstay at the Municipal since 1918.

Described as “badly-behaved and impertinent” by the Met’s onetime director Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the high-strung Besanzoni had lucked into a society marriage with Brazilian industrialist Henrique Lage back in 1925. This tended to keep the temperamental diva anchored to the capital, with the Teatro Municipal serving as her homeport.

Upon leaving the stage in 1939, she turned to teaching to take up her spare time. As an instructor, it was widely rumored the Roman native was a superior judge of vocal talent – one of her prize pupils would turn out to be the carioca baritone Paulo Fortes.

There was ample evidence to suggest by all this that the July 1937 performance of Carmen in Rio would be a far from routine affair, if not a fairly exciting one. What actually transpired onstage could not by any means be considered unexpected; but the passage of time, muddled individual motives, and even sketchier personal recollections have a way of blurring the finer details of how and why certain events took shape.

The indisputable facts, though, were these: unable to cope with Bidu’s recent string of successes, the feisty mezzo-soprano organized a demonstration by the members of her claque to boo the little prima donna into submission, and on her home turf. Besanzoni “had been a magnificent singer,” claimed Bidu, in a 1973 interview for Veja magazine, “the best Carmen I’ve ever seen. Although she was no longer performing, she was insanely jealous of anyone who appeared in the piece.”

Besanzoni’s boisterous negative campaign fizzled, however, as the entire theater soon got wind of the plot. After Micaela’s moving third act solo, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (“I say that nothing here frightens me”), the audience erupted into a steady stream of applause that purportedly drowned out the noisy offenders, who proceeded to beat a hasty retreat from the peanut gallery, Madame Besanzoni among them.

Badly shaken by the incident, Bidu was overheard to have declared that she would refuse all future offers to sing in Rio de Janeiro – and, for that matter, in Brazil, too. Despite claims to the contrary, the soprano rethought her earlier position and thankfully returned to her native land on several occasions near the end of the forties, appearing in La Bohème, Roméo et Juliette, Manon, and Pelleas et Mélisande.

“In any case,” Bidu explained years later to Veja, “this was a minor incident, with little importance that I recall without a trace of anger…”

She gave her last complete performance at the Teatro Municipal in 1950, as Mimì in La Bohème; but after that painful Carmen she would most heartily agree to become a full-fledged member of the Metropolitan Opera’s roster of artists, the only one from South America.

Aside from the poor reception in Rio, there were other, more valid justifications for her decision to depart for “friendlier” Northern corridors, one of which was to be closer to Metropolitan Opera baritone Giuseppe Danise, the long-awaited love of her life; but the main reason was the volatile political situation of pre-World War II Europe.

For Bidu, this did not necessarily translate into a moratorium on her stepping onto Brazil’s stages, but it did pose a serious threat to anyone bound for European opera houses, regardless of national origin. As it was, the escalating global conflict had put a severe damper on most foreign classical pursuits, in essence restricting the coloratura and other paid professionals to the safer venues of North America for the duration of the conflict. Still, the sad truth remained that Bidu Sayão was hurt, and it showed in her avoidance of Brazil as a routine layover spot.

Gabriella Besanzoni as Carmen (operasiempre.es)

Gabriella Besanzoni as Carmen (operasiempre.es)

As for Besanzoni, she would stay noticeably closed-mouth on the subject of her actions on that particular evening. We can only speculate, at this point, as to her convoluted reasoning behind them.

They had a lot to do with the perceptive singer’s suspicion of an unofficial snub by the Metropolitan Opera during the 1919-1920 seasons, a period in which she was asked to take on many of the same roles as the house’s resident workhorse, the stalwart Austro-Hungarian artist Margarete Matzenauer.

According to various accounts, Besanzoni became convinced that her Teutonic rival had somehow bribed the claque to despoil her every Met appearance. Curiously, reviews from that time seem to corroborate this notion: there is a marked indication that an organized and clearly exaggerated favoritism for Matzenauer was at the heart of the anti-Besanzoni faction. And, in the Italian’s own blunt assessment of events, “the ‘German’ did everything in her power to prevent me from being hired by the Metropolitan.”

Her past ill treatment in the Manhattan press, plus the unfavorable reaction of Met Opera audiences, might well have gone a long way toward fanning the mezzo’s future flames of envy with regard to Bidu’s growing popularity there.

We may never know for certain, but Besanzoni’s overly paranoid sensibilities do serve to explain some of the later green-eyed behavior attributed to her, and unreasonably extended to the tiny Brazilian warbler.

(End of Part Four)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Met – Beefcake and Brimstone Amid the High C’s

David McVicar's Il Trovatore, Act II (metoperafamily.org)

David McVicar’s Il Trovatore, Act II (metoperafamily.org)

We can thank the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo and Chico – and MGM’s head of production, boy wonder Irving Thalberg, for helping to prepare the way for Il Trovatore’s mass consumption and appeal with their 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera.

With that in mind, the Met revived their successful David McVicar production of the work with an all new radio lineup for the January 12th broadcast. Unlike previous versions of this blood and thunder tale, this was a note-complete performance – well, almost note complete. I’ll explain in a moment.

The second of Verdi’s middle period operas, Il Trovatore derives from one of those revenge-filled Spanish plays the Italian master so loved to transform into superior stage hits. The composer’s earlier Ernani (written by Frenchman Victor Hugo) previously fit that bill nicely, while La Forza del Destino (originally titled Don Alvaro, o la fuerza del sino by the Duke of Rivas) and his later Don Carlos (based on a five-act tragedy by Friedrich Schiller) were also Spanish-themed oeuvres before Verdi and his librettists got their artistic hands on them. We are forever in their debt, mostly because the music for these marvelous works were among Verdi’s finest for the lyric theater.

Trovatore’s score is perhaps the most melodious of the lot (think “The Anvil Chorus”). However, its story line has been the object of much derision for as long as the opera’s been in existence. Regardless of that fact, any Trovatore performance stands or falls by two main factors: one, the old gypsy woman Azucena, a character at once terrifying and pitiable in her lust for all-out vengeance; and two, her son Manrico, the heroic troubadour of the title.

Angela Meade (news.centraliacollege.net)

Angela Meade (news.centraliacollege.net)

Fortunately, the Met had two fairly decent representatives of the above who could hold their own in these roles. But they were not the stars of this broadcast. No, that honor belonged to the soprano, Angela Meade. Replacing an indisposed Patricia Racette, as Leonora – the beautiful Spanish damsel in distress who is simultaneously wooed by both the hero and the villain – Meade, a 2011 Richard Tucker Award recipient, gave what can only be described as a master class in bel canto singing, in her maintaining of a firm line, in her superior diction, and in her perfect pitch and placement. This was Golden Age artistry of the highest order!

She stole the proverbial show with her two big arias, in particular her Act IV scena just prior to and immediately after the famous Miserere number – the one the Marx Brothers almost single handedly brought to ruin. Her cadenzas on “D’amor sull’ali rosee” were absolutely divine, something I’ve not heard in this role for many a decade. Meade’s trills were of the old school – and by that, I mean they fit the substance and mood of the piece, and were brilliantly executed to boot. The applause she generated for this astounding coloratura display was the loudest and longest of the day. Let’s hear more of this magnificent performer, shall we?

Following close behind was a thoroughly satisfying Stephanie Blythe as the crazed Azucena. Although she had a bit of trouble with her highest notes – I can still recall veterans Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto pulling out all the stops and devouring every twist and turn of this juicy part – only American colleague Dolora Zajick has brought any semblance of fireworks to this showiest of Verdi’s mezzo creations. Despite this minor flaw, Blythe chilled the air (and the bones) with her spine-tingling account of “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” where the delirious old hag relives the tragic events of her past life, events that will come together in the opera’s closing moments. Blythe was a standout in her frequent moments with her son, and her final scene was delivered with all the thrust and power the role called for.

Marco Berti as Manrico (bigstory-ap-org)

Marco Berti as Manrico (bigstory-ap-org)

Joining her in their several duets was tenor Marco Berti as Manrico. Berti’s voice is of the zesty-flavored, old-school Italian variety; a beefcake type we’re familiar with from listening to old 78 rpm’s of Aureliano Pertile, Kurt Baum, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and other gramophone greats. I’m not placing Berti in their illustrious company, not by any means. But if matching these tenor stalwarts high-note for high-note were a prerequisite in this part, then Berti would be a major asset.

But first thing’s first: he has no trill to speak of, so his lovely “Ah, si, ben mio,” in Act III went by the wayside. Without those trills, the aria is shorn of its most conspicuous bel canto elements. Still, when he finally got around to the rousing “Di quella pira,” the ne plus ultra of dramatic tenor moments, Berti delivered two solid high C’s that brought down the house, as well as the curtain. Verdi never wrote those notes, but tenors from Caruso to Corelli have long savored this chance to outshine the others — and Berti was no exception.

Since this was a note-complete performance, as indicated above, I was a little perturbed that Signor Berti did not give us the second stanza of his tune. Come on, it’s not all that strenuous, guys! Arnold’s big scene, “Asile héréditaire” and his fiery cabaletta, “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,” from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a true, honest to goodness voice killer – and an absolutely smashing conclusion to the act no tenor can resist. Apparently, Berti did resist. I take it he must’ve been satisfied to have gotten this far, so I guess there was no further need to take any unnecessary risks.

For me, the least impressive cast member was Russian baritone Alexey Markov as a robust sounding Count Di Luna. Now there’s a devil of a part for you! For eons, baritone voices from the dawn of recorded time have serenaded their lady fair with the magisterial “Il balen del suo sorriso” on their lips. From his first appearance in Scene ii, however, Markov appeared to be up to his neck in treacherous high tessitura territory. This role calls for — no, demands — a lyric voice. And certainly the Russian homeland has had its fair share of incredibly adept talents to call upon: Pavel Lisitsian, Yuri Mazurok, Vladimir Chernov, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky were some of the best in their field.

My own feelings about this are that Markov was in over his head. This isn’t Figaro or Rigoletto, roles where the comedy or tragedy can often times carry the day; no, sir, this is straight arrow cantilena singing at its finest. If you can’t make it past “Tace la notte,” the Count’s very first utterance, or “Il balen” and its continuation, “Per me ora fatale,” concluding with Leonora and Di Luna’s spirited Act IV duet (so like a similar one in Donizetti’s La Favorita), then you might as well hand in your sword. Markov made it to the end, all right, and that’s about the best I can say for him.

Greek bass Christopher Stamboglis made his network broadcast debut in the ungrateful part of Ferrando, the old Di Luna family retainer. I hear some interesting things in this young man’s voice, and his future certainly bears watching. The opera was conducted by Daniele Callegari, who brought real fire and brimstone to this darkest of bel canto works.

In the end, Trovatore never fails to please the crowd. Hey, not even the Marx Brothers could destroy its durability! It will surely survive into the next century, especially if Meade, Blythe and Berti are there to lead the way.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Bringing People Together (Part Two): Electronic Voyages to Brazil Continued

 The Fabulous “Feather Game”

Peteca (spurlock.illinois.edu)

Peteca (spurlock.illinois.edu)

Speaking of cultural commentary, I was solicited in June 2006, via e-mail (what else?), by the program events coordinator of Exploris, a local interactive museum devoted to world cultures, to give a lecture on, and show my long-dormant “skills” with (ha!), something called peteca, as part of the museum’s focus on “inspiring interest in our ever-evolving global society and how it touches [our] lives here at home.”

The peteca talk and live demonstration would be concurrent with that of a visiting capoeira troupe, the Abadá Capoeira Raleigh, run by a large, muscularly built fellow called Fabiano Cunha (nicknamed “Mago,” in accordance with capoeira tradition), a native of Paraná State in southern Brazil.

What is peteca? Peteca (pronounced peh-TEH-ka) is a traditional Brazilian game of “hand shuttlecock,” which is probably the best way to describe the activity to someone unfamiliar with its origins or the obscure-looking object of everyone’s desire, the peteca itself.

My brother and I learned to play peteca not on the streets and byways of our native São Paulo, but on the concrete pavement of the South Bronx, where we both grew up. Our citified friends were suitably intrigued by peteca. They used to call it the “feather game,” mostly because of the way it looked. Briefly, the peteca has a flat, rounded, and weighted leather base around three-to-five inches in diameter, depending on the type of peteca used. It’s topped off with a flowing crop of stiff, brightly colored feathers — somewhat like the headdress of a Guarani Indian chieftain (you get the idea).

Whether on a tennis court or a playground, at the beach or in the park, inside the office (don’t let the boss catch you) or outside during break time, peteca can be played practically anywhere and by almost anyone, regardless of age or physical condition.

One strikes the flat part of its base with the palm of one’s hand. No feet are allowed, which in my case, as a former juvenile player of street soccer, was pretty hard to resist. The trick was to steer the peteca towards your partner without ever letting it touch the ground, ergo its similarity to badminton in that respect, but without the net or racket.

There are professional peteca leagues and federations (with standardized rules and regulations) not only all across Brazil, but also in such remote regions as England and France, and as far away as The People’s Republic of China. Perhaps the peteca sprouted invisible wings (to go with the aerodynamic plumage) for it to have reached such great distances on its own.

In any event, the program was set for a Saturday, on the afternoon of November 4, 2006, right after the capoeira exhibition in the Global Village Square, or great hall, of the museum.

Capoeira by Way of Peteca

Arriving early in order to beat the traffic, I left the car in the street with my wife and quickly went inside to ask about parking privileges for the museum’s invited guests.

“Parking privileges…? Oh sorry, we don’t have a specific parking area,” was the attendant’s rapid response to my query. “You’ll have to find one of those two-hour parking spaces outside in the street. Good luck!”

“Thanks a lot!” I grumbled through semi-clenched teeth, hoping the police at least would show this ignorant novice some much-needed sympathy and not tow my precious vehicle away (with my all-too precious spouse still in it). As I was leaving to go tell her the good news, I noticed a bulky, dark-colored van that had previously pulled up to the museum’s curb. On the sidewalk was what appeared to be drums, pandeiros (tambourines), exercise mats, and a foreign-looking contraption I knew to be a berimbau, which is used exclusively to accompany capoeira sessions.

“These must be the guys,” I thought to myself. “Now we’re really in for a good time!” Much relieved at this familiar sight, since I wasn’t all that worked up to begin with about giving a boring lecture to some bratty preteens when a real, interactive demo was clearly within the museum’s reach, I waited for the appointed hour (after having finally stumbled upon a convenient location for my car).

Moving on to Global Village Square, I introduced myself to Fabiano, who was even bigger close up than I expected but exceedingly friendly and approachable nonetheless. He mistook me at first for a publicist he had talked to earlier in the week, but after the ice had thawed between us he spoke animatedly about the abiding Abadá Capoeira culture and philosophy — in 30 words or less:

Capoeira demonstration (elementality)

Capoeira demonstration (elementality)

“Abadá is the oldest capoeira school of its type in Brazil,” he explained in southern-flavored Portuguese (he also conversed in pretty decent English). “There are Abadá Capoeira schools in almost every state in the U.S., and all over the world as well.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that!” I replied in amazement. And to hook up with a paranaense right here in downtown Raleigh was even more of a welcome surprise for me personally.

Soon a modest but well-behaved crowd of middle school children and their parents shuffled their way in, while one of the museum’s assistants — a sprightly lass with the appropriately labeled moniker of Ariel — came by and handed off to me a small, unassuming contraption I correctly deduced to be a fairly worn peteca.

Unfortunately, this pathetic little fellow had seen better playing days, for it was now held together with safety pins instead of the original leather stitching. What was left of the damaged “feathers” wouldn’t withstand a mosquito bite let alone a decent whack on its weightless bottom. So much for my aborted peteca talk!

Oh well, on to capoeira. As my wife and I hugged the sidelines, instantly Fabiano and his group (made up primarily of a few African-Americans and some intermediate non-native practitioners) straddled forth and began their timely display, to the off-key plucking of metal strings on the berimbau, the smacking of pandeiros (“tambourines”), rhythmic hand clapping, and a heavily miked CD of classic capoeira songs.

“Pa-ra-na-weh, Pa-ra-na-weh, Paraná,” they chanted in unison and in typical Northeastern Brazilian communal-singing fashion.

“This is capoeira,” shouted Fabiano to the startled assemblage, as he proceeded to show to the spectators some of the standard moves and fancy footwork common to the sport. “It comes from here,” he cried out, bending down and pointing to a conveniently placed, hand-painted outline of Brazil on the museum floor. “Capoeira is from right here, from Bahia, and is both a martial art and a dance. It’s not from Africa but from Brazil.”

He then called on each of his troupe members to demonstrate their capoeira “chops.” In no time, Fabiano, with his outward-going personality and charm, was able to ignite a high degree of interest among the onlookers, many of whom I am certain have never before seen capoeira in action. He even got some of the shyest ones to come out of their shells and move onto the museum floor to practice the steps involved — no small feat, I don’t mind telling you.

Afterwards, the parents of those same kids were busily engaged in getting directions to Fabiano’s school and arranging with him for some future lessons. So what happened to peteca? Well, as I forlornly told the fleet-footed museum assistant, nothing I could say or do would be able to top the performance we had just witnessed. And that was the end of that.

We’re All Connected

While Fabiano and friends were getting the boys and girls together to join in the capoeira chants and ritual “baptism,” I seemed to recall a recent TV special broadcast in my area not too long before this live exhibition took place. That special, which was shown on the Discovery Channel and transmitted in a wide-screen, high-definition format, was part of the Discovery Atlas series of programs devoted to different countries and their respective cultures.

The show I had in mind, “Brazil Revealed,” was an excellent two-hour excursion into various aspects of the country’s social and professional life, among them an all-girl soccer competition in Manaus, an elaborate Carnival presentation in Rio, one of the few women helicopter pilots in São Paulo, a Brazilian-style Easter parade in the city of Pelourinho, and, of course, a local capoeira school in Salvador da Bahia.

Jackson dos Santos (dsc.discovery.com)

Jackson dos Santos (dsc.discovery.com)

What grabbed me most about the capoeira segment was that it started off telling the story of Jackson dos Santos, a bright but troubled thirteen-year-old who had lost his father in a drug shootout and was himself tempted to deal drugs on his neighborhood’s meaner streets.

At his estranged mom’s insistence, the sullen and directionless boy, who now lives with his grandmother, was taken under the wing of a robust senior citizen named Boa Gente (“Mr. Nice Guy”), a decent and protective soul more interested in the welfare of the wayward youth placed under his care than the ever-present danger of drug lords he, too, once had to fight off.

“I’ve been asked to sell drugs, to use drugs,” Boa Gente confided to the camera, “but I had the chance to take different paths.” These paths, he explained, ultimately led him to capoeira, and to the discipline and stamina required to successfully achieve his goals in life, and in this uniquely Brazilian dance and martial art form.

In no time as well, Jackson’s confidence in his own capoeira abilities were kindled, as we watched him evolve from a dour street-dweller (with the dead-end potential of another Pixote-in-the-making) into a normal, smiling teenager, full of eagerness and hope in a better future for himself and his family, thanks to Boa Gente’s firm-but-gentle guiding hand and his active involvement in the cultural and social life of his community.

Looking at how Boa Gente — on television and in Bahia — and Fabiano Cunha — in the flesh and at a North Carolina museum — were able to so quickly take their charges’ raw energy and organize them into something constructive and sound, while at the same time giving these kids a structure and foundation in an activity as socially distinctive as capoeira, drove the message home that we are indeed living in marvelous times, where people can be truly connected to one another by more than just Ma Bell.

As an end-note to the story, one of the persons involved in the post-production work on “Brazil Revealed” turned out to be former DJ and radio announcer Julinho Mazzei, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo’s brother and the son of the late soccer legend and ex-New York Cosmos coach, Professor Júlio Mazzei.

Talk about a small world, this planet’s shrinking by the message unit. ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches! — Part Three: Heitor Villa-Lobos, the Middle Years

Entr’acte: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

Bidu & Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (classicopiano.com)

Bidu & Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (classicopiano.com)

On the occasions when Heitor Villa-Lobos deigned to write memorable vocal music — his failure to create a clear-cut national opera notwithstanding — he was plainly unsurpassed in inventiveness, originality, and means of expression.

For example, a thorough study of his superb Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945) is an absolute must for any classically trained artist to achieve a deeper understanding of the Brazilian composer’s methodology and mind-set. In these works Villa-Lobos brought “together his native folk-lore elements with the great European musical tradition [of Bach], and,” in the estimation of American conductor Leonard Bernstein, “[unified] them into a single style of his own, as he does in the very title of this piece.”

There were nine Bachianas in all, with the first one, for eight cellos, dedicated to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals; the second, for chamber orchestra, featured the delightful toccata movement O Trenzinho do Caipira, or “The Little Train of the Country Bumpkin”; the third and fourth were for piano and orchestra, respectively; the sixth, for bassoon and flute; the seventh and eighth, for full orchestra; and the ninth, considered one of his most sonorous musical creations, was composed for mixed voices or string ensemble.

The most performed of the Bachianas, of course, is the ever-popular No. 5 for soprano soloist and eight cellos, written in two movements, with the first having its world premiere in 1938, in Rio de Janeiro, and sung by its lyricist, the singer Ruth Valadares Corrêa; and the second, Dança (Martelo), a song with rapid articulation, completed around 1945, with words by Modernist poet Manuel Bandeira.

The cream of operatic vocal talent, including Arleen Auger, Kathleen Battle, Victoria De Los Angeles, Renée Fleming, Maria Lúcia Godoy, Jill Gomez, Barbara Hendricks, Ana Maria Martínez, Eva Marton, Anna Moffo, Bidu Sayão, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Galina Vishnevskaya, has recorded this gorgeous and oft-performed showpiece, focusing primarily on the lyrical Ária (Cantilena) section.

A small portion of the aria has even found its way onto the grooves of the post-pubescent Brazilian singing team of Sandy & Júnior, as a brief solo number for Sandy on her live Mercury album Quatro Estações (“Four Seasons,” 2000), further attesting to the popularity of the tune with teenagers.

Once heard, this hauntingly beautiful melody, augmented by contrapuntal pizzicato effects in the cellos, is not soon forgotten. Many listeners will be reminded of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s earlier Vocalise for soprano and orchestra from 1912, which served as a model for Villa’s later version. Nevertheless, it has remained one of the Brazilian composer’s most recognizable and universally beloved pieces of music from among his over fifteen hundred or more compositions.

There was poetry in the verses as well as in the scoring, which, in sum, read as follows:

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente

Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

Surge no infinito a lua docemente,

Enfeitando a tarde, qual meiga donzela

Que se apresta e a linda sonhadoramente,

Em anseios d’alma para ficar bela

Grita ao céu e a terra toda a Natureza!

Cala a passarada aos seus tristes queixumos

E reflete o mar toda a Sua riqueza…

Suave a luz da lua desperta agora

A cruel saudade que ri e chora!

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente

Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

A rosy, transparent cloud rises slowly

Over the dreamy and beautiful space!

Sweetly the moon appears on the horizon,

Decorating the afternoon like a darting damosel

Who rushes and dreamily adorns herself,

With an anxious soul to become beautiful

Shout to Nature, you sky and Earth!

All the birds become still to the moon’s complaints

And the sea reflects its splendor…

Softly, the shining moon awakens

To the cruel longing that laughs and cries!

A rosy, transparent cloud rises slowly

Over the dreamy and beautiful space!

Inconceivably, the familiar female part was originally intended for the violin. But at the suggestion of soprano Bidu Sayão, the composer was sufficiently convinced to re-score the wordless opening with her voice category in mind, thus equating the worldwide success of this lovely elegiac ode to the diminutive diva’s prescient advice.

All’s Fair in Love and War

“Though distinct from the Choros,” added biographer Simon Wright, “the Bachianas are indeed an extension of the earlier series, and both cycles demonstrate similarities and common features. Like the Choros, the individual Bachianas display a large variety of instrumental media…, [with] the scope [ranging] from the intimate to the gigantic.”

Villa-Lobos conducting (tocadacotia.com)

Villa-Lobos conducting (tocadacotia.com)

This very “gigantism,” as Wright so aptly described it, would manifest itself in unorthodox ways, which Villa-Lobos translated into huge public gatherings of massed choirs, numbering some thirty to forty thousand strong (and sometimes more), voiced by Brazilian school children of all ages, and from all grade levels, in soccer stadiums across the country.

It was all within the context of promoting Getúlio Vargas “as the head of state, of the Estado Novo, and of the regime,” by lifting the level of the country’s art in a newly unified and “independent” Brazil, that the Bachaianas came into being, concurrent as they were with the length and scope of President Vargas’ first administration, which ended in 1945.

For a variety of reasons – some highly controversial, others not so contentious – most authors tackling this subject have, in the past, overlooked the glaring historical record of this fervently nationalistic period in Brazil. With the extraordinary research put forth by Analía Cherñavsky, in her massive 2003 master’s dissertation for the State University of Campinas, Um Maestro no Gabinete: Música e Política no Tempo de Villa-Lobos (“A Maestro in the Cabinet: Music and Politics in the Time of Villa-Lobos”), along with those of José Wisnick, Arnaldo Contier, and others, only lately has Heitor Villa-Lobos’ wholehearted participation re-surfaced – and, most importantly, been acknowledged – in what, in retrospect, might have been regarded at the time as a highly suspect form of latent National Socialism (!).

According to Cherñavsky, “At that moment, marked by international criticism against fascism…, any association with a predominantly fascistic regime simply had to be obscured, especially if that association was considered to have come from the highest national order and whose strategic mission was to help keep the regime in power… Years later, when the process of revisionism that dominated the field of social science was introduced during the seventies and eighties, new research appeared that focused primarily on the educational work done by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the question of a link between music and politics, previously denied by his biographers.”

Her thesis merits closer inspection, mainly because the composer himself had propagated, in the early years of the 1930s, this very link. After the war, and certainly after Vargas’ subsequent resignation from the presidency, Villa-Lobos went about deconstructing (or, in less politically correct terms, “reinventing”) his formerly close connection with the Vargas administration; that is to say, his involvement as the country’s musical director, responsible for elevating the musical and patriotic tastes of Brazil’s younger generation – an exceptionally lucrative civil service position, mind you, with a regular salary, benefits and retirement pension to go with it.

*         *         *

Lucilia, Villa & Marian Anderson (vivavilla.com.br)

“Mindinha,” Villa & contralto Marian Anderson (vivavilla.com.br)

As his artistic career progressed and prospered by leaps and bounds, all was not so quiet along the home front. The joining of two such powerful forces as Heitor Villa-Lobos and his wife Lucília was not one to have withstood a constant clash of ego-driven temperaments, to say nothing of the conflicting demands of joint careers in classical music.

Around 1932, Villa-Lobos met and fell hard for the much younger Arminda Neves de Almeida, nicknamed “Mindinha,” who would become his most trusted aid and companion. Their initial encounters, which slowly blossomed into a full-blown extramarital affair, sparked a midlife crisis that was carried on, for the most part, in relative secrecy.

After years of furtive meetings, however, the time finally arrived for a firm commitment to be made, from one party or the other. From Europe, where he was scheduled to attend the First International Congress of Music Education in May 1936, Villa-Lobos wrote to Lucília requesting an end to their 23-year relationship:

“I am sure that the decisive news that follows will not be a surprise to you. For a long time I have considered this resolution [regarding my personal life]. My reasons are few but just. I cannot live in the company of someone from whom I feel entirely estranged, isolated, constricted, in short, without any affection except for a certain gratitude for your faithfulness during the many years we have been together.

I proclaim our absolute liberty [from one another]. I do so, however, with a clear conscience, in the knowledge that I have done everything to ensure that you lack for nothing…

“I should wish you never to feel resentment towards me or anyone else, but to accept that our situation could not end in any other way…

“I will send a reliable person to fetch my personal belongings, and I will live alone with my mother.

“Wishing you much happiness in your new life.”

Shocked and dismayed by his obvious betrayal, Lucília never formally consented to the separation. Her final letter to him, dated June 19, 1936, was all the more revealing for its unfettered expression of hurt feelings and, independent of their present predicament, her undiminished defense of his art:

“I never imagined that, open and impulsive as you admit you are, and enjoying absolute liberty, you would endeavor to hide the real reason for your conduct, casting around for excuses which are in any case quite unjust and without foundation for a decision as serious as our final separation…

“My attitude has always been one and the same and known to all: to be your sincere companion and collaborator.

“If the many enemies you have have been busy spreading this infamous nonsense, quite certainly your work, your response, your compositions have by themselves crushed any such outrageous allegations…  And despite the humiliations I have suffered, I continue to encourage interest in your work and to make it known in every post I hold, even though you are not there to see it.

“My devotion and sincerity have not grown less. I regard Villa the man and Villa the artist as quite distinct. I think, in any case, despite your insistence on your decision not to return home, that it would be better for us to have, as I already asked, a personal understanding between us…

“However, you should quite clearly understand that I will not relinquish any of my rights as your wedded wife and shall continue to sign myself Lucília Guimarães Villa-Lobos…”

Their exchange fairly crackles with tension and strain, and smacks, too, of the same kind of circuitous logic (from Villa’s part, at least) that Wagner’s head god, Wotan, once tried to pawn off on his harried mate Fricka as justification for his many wanderings and dalliances.

Villa-Lobos & Mindinha (villa-lobos.blogspot.com)

Villa-Lobos & Mindinha (villa-lobos.blogspot.com)

Brazil, being a Catholic country, had no divorce laws as such. Knowing this, Villa-Lobos and Arminda went ahead with their plan to share living quarters as de facto “husband and wife” — a scandalous Picasso-like arrangement to others, but a perfectly acceptable state to the enamored pair — until such time as an official 1973 decree allowed for the surviving Mindinha to legally adopt the composer’s surname.

Even more troubling for scholars, as well as for his many admirers, was the surprising discovery that the composer had instructed Mindinha to basically “rewrite” the entire history, as it were, of his association with his lawful spouse. This involved the virtual elimination of any mention of Lucília as a major factor in the dissemination and perpetuation of his works — certainly a much more “scandalous” revelation than his living in non-wedded bliss entailed, considering the position Villa-Lobos soon held as Brazil’s premier musical attraction.

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Four: Carlos Gomes, a Spent Force

The Man Who Would Be Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi (blogclasico.blogspot.com)

Giuseppe Verdi (blogclasico.blogspot.com)

Despite the comparisons to Giuseppe Verdi and the earlier predictions of his being the great man’s heir apparent, Gomes never attained the success and adulation in his chosen profession that had once been expected of him:

“In the music of Guarany, Verdi recognized much of himself, in so far as the ardor and dash of the Brazilian composer reminded him of the brilliance and excitement of his own youth. And Gomes was very much aware of the great Maestro’s liking for him and faith in him; in his last years when, after [his final opera] Condor, he felt all his bold hopes finally evaporate, he felt infinitely bitter. ‘You see’ – he told me one day in a moment of great dejection – ‘what grieves me most is my failure to live up to his prophetic words and become his successor…’ ”

— Quoted by Marcello Conati in Encounters with Verdi (1984)

“The issue of who would be the Successor to Verdi meant much more than who would write the next popular operas,” wrote author William Berger in Puccini Without Excuses. “It was a search for someone to justify the Italian national identity,” which, in one fell swoop, left anyone not fitting that description (i.e., Gomes) completely out of the running.

Whereas the teenaged Tonico once filled his tender thoughts with the melodic riches of Il Trovatore, the now prematurely gray-haired Carlos Gomes began to give way to despair, especially after the February 1887 unveiling of Otello, Verdi’s penultimate — and no doubt greatest — stage work: “ ‘What genius!’ [Gomes] continued, growing excited – ‘after Otello, I can no longer begin to measure it… It frightens me!’ ” (Quoted by Conati, above)

Two years earlier, Gomes had expressed recurrent yearnings for his own guileless past in a heartfelt tribute to his former hometown: “The Tonico of 1836 has turned into a grouchy old man, but his country-bumpkin heart is young enough to love Campinas and the city of his birth.”

Decimated by Disease

By that time, disease had ravaged the European Continent and taken its toll on several of the composer’s offspring. His two remaining children, five-year-old Ítala Maria and the eldest, Carlos André, were kept informed of their mother Adelina’s steadily declining condition.

Vila Brasilia in Maggianico (gounin.net)

Villa Brasilia in Maggianico (gounin.net)

Her untimely demise of tuberculosis in August 1887, at the age of 45, occurred six months after the Otello premiere, just as Gomes’ financial health took a decisive turn for the worse. The costly upkeep of his impressive Villa Brasília property in Maggianico, near Lecco, had led to his filing for bankruptcy protection and eventual selling off of the estate.

Gomes must have sensed that his afflictions were imposed upon him from above, in much the same manner as those suffered by the tragic figure of Othello, the Moor of Venice, the tortured Shakespearean soul that a “grouchy old man” named Verdi had turned into the greatest operatic creation the Italian stage had ever known. If the bad-humored Bear of Busseto once “recognized much of himself” in the Brazilian composer’s work, then it went without saying that Gomes must have contemplated as much in comparing the Moor’s troubles to his own.

Both Shakespeare and Verdi sympathized with the difficulties of a black man living in an all-white society — again, the analogy of Gomes, a dark-skinned outsider, trying to make a life for himself in the racial uniformity of late novecento Milan. While he was a part of that society, Gomes never learned to love wisely, nor even too well. He carried on several romances at once, which only added to his already suspect reputation as a ladies’ man.

Hariclea Darclee (apropo.ro)

Hariclea Darclee (apropo.ro)

His most tempestuous affair was with the Romanian diva Hariclea Darclée (whom Adelina dubbed her “bad luck charm”), acclaimed a few years later for her portrayal of Puccini’s Tosca, as well as for Odaléa in the Brazilian’s last opera, Condor. Together, the thoroughly besotted composer and his “prima donna” took their amorous liaison as far away as Russia before calling it a night.

(End of Part Four)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: Hector Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ (‘The Trojans’) – A Wooden Horse of a Different Color

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Les Troyens (pt-br,facebridge.net)

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra (or Cassandre in French) in Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ (Photo: pt-br,facebridge.net)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was truly a one-of-a-kind compositional genius. Not for him was the quaintness of Cherubini, Grétry or Méhul. No, his operatic role model was the great reformer Gluck, whose texts were taken from classical antiquity. Berlioz continued the trend by borrowing liberally from such masters as Shakespeare, Virgil, Byron and Goethe. This marked him out as a nineteenth-century rebel with a Romantic cause.

Unappreciated and misunderstood in his lifetime, today the French composer’s music is instantly recognizable – and for a variety of reasons, first for their coloristic elements (i.e., an exceptionally high quotient of woodwind, brass, choral and percussive effects), along with their originality, ingenuity and character. His output of operas and large-scale concert works – from the trailblazing The Damnation of Faust and Benvenuto Cellini, to his choral-symphonic Roméo et Juliette and comedic Beatrice and Benedict, as well as the reverent L’Enfance du Christ (“The Childhood of Christ”) and the massive Requiem – have all enjoyed a modern resurgence, with a handful or so belatedly joining the standard repertory, a most welcome inclusion.

The main difficulty I find with producing many of Berlioz’s stage works is their nonconformity to the accepted norms of the past. For example, the majority of his operas begin with no prelude or introduction to set the stage or mood. His scenes and arias are melodically flavorful and well-thought-out, especially those for mezzo-soprano and tenor. Yet his dramatic sense is unlike that of any composer I’ve encountered, in that his tales simply come to an abrupt halt – no big “ta-da,” no huge orchestral outbursts, no vocal demonstrations or bombastic coups des théâtres in the Wagnerian mode; they just plainly and quite modestly end… period.

This is what makes them so unique, and radio listeners were indeed fortunate to hear the January 5th Metropolitan Opera broadcast of his two-part, five-act Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), based on Virgil’s Aeneid and one of the works that follows the above schematic.

A scene from Berlioz’s ‘ Les Troyens,’ with Deborah Voigt as Cassandre

As one could imagine, Berlioz was most taken with the psychological aspects of the story, in particular the two female leads, the prophetess Cassandra and the Carthaginian Queen Dido, who each face such despair that, in the end, turns into terrible tragedy not just for themselves but for their two countries as well.

Among the myriad challenges in staging a work of this magnitude is to find a company of artists willing and able to do the gargantuan piece justice. Still, all praise and honor should go to the Met Opera chorus, who received the lion’s share of attention for their masterly, inexhaustible contribution to this demanding opus. Also worthy of mention is principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who led an expertly detailed performance – one of his finest to date, I must say. The frequent brass fanfares and orchestral episodes, including a wonderfully descriptive Royal Hunt and Storm, in addition to the numerous dance interludes and offstage sound effects, were all handled with the nuance and skill this miraculous score deserves; with additional kudos to the first clarinetist for his/her mournful solo during the fallen Hector’s funeral procession in Act I.

The big news, prior to show time, was the announcement that Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani had withdrawn from his scheduled appearances as Énée (Aeneas), the Trojan War hero who through various circumstances goes on to found the city of Rome. Giordani subsequently announced that he had permanently dropped the part from his repertoire. Understandably so, since Énée is what we opera buffs like to refer to as a “killer” role. It’s not that it’s a long part. In fact, compared with Wagner’s Tristan or Siegfried, there’s not all that much to sing: a brief solo number in Act I, the scene with Hector’s Ghost in Act II, followed by  Énée’s arrival in Carthage in Act III, the rapturous love duet with Queen Dido in Act IV, and the strenuous farewell in Act V.

The “killer” aspect, however, kicks in with the treacherously stratospheric vocal range. Those high C’s and D’s can drive any singer to drink. Berlioz deliberately designed this aspect to reflect the character’s constantly fluctuating state of mind. In other words, it’s a dramatic device but one achieved through purely musical means. A masterstroke!

No matter how one explains it, though, Énée remains a notoriously trying assignment, and to think that Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and Ben Heppner (among others) once gave it their all speaks volumes for the attraction this role has had for aspirants. We can thank the theater gods for providing the radio audience with a viable, if not well-nigh perfect alternative in New Orleans-born Bryan Hymel (pronounced EE-mel). At the eleventh hour, Mr. Hymel rescued The Trojans from oblivion (both literally and figuratively) in a performance that will go down as one of the greatest tenor triumphs of the past 20 years. His broadcast debut yesterday, which was beamed live to the U.S. and throughout the world via the Met’s Live in HD series, was watched and listened to by millions.

Bryan Hymel as Enee

New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel as Enee

I’m pleased to report that Hymel was an absolute sensation! His voice, a pleasant mixture of both a young Vickers and the mature Domingo, with a touch of Cajun French to his sound, is a thing of rare beauty. Not to belabor the point, but Hymel hit every high note squarely and securely (I hear a Tristan and/or Otello in his future). In addition, he showed an uncanny acting ability (yes, even on the radio, one could tell he was living every moment of the tragic hero’s plight).

For once, here was a tenor who threw caution to the winds to inject some needed excitement into his part. After his Act V lament, “Inutiles regrets” (“Useless regrets”), a last-minute water-torture test for any tenor, the live audience gave him a rousing and well-earned roar of approval that went on for several spine-tingling minutes. At the final curtain, Hymel was greeted with a huge standing ovation — no regrets from his side, I’m sure. (The Met has been lucky with their pinch-hitting tenor contingent: last year, Jay Hunter Morris stepped in at the last minute to salvage the house’s terribly expensive Ring cycle project with a more than credible assumption of Siegfried.)

Baritone Dwayne Croft, who I often find over-parted in some of his Italian roles, here was a model Chorèbe in Part I, while bass Kwangchul Youn as Narbal and the Voice of Mercury lent a sepulchral presence throughout. The minor roles of Iopas and the sailor Hylas, who opens Act V with a nostalgic song about his homeland, were both well sung by Eric Cutler and Paul Appleby, respectively.

The women were on an equal footing with the men, in particular the expansive and gorgeously phrased Queen Dido of Susan Graham. This extraordinary artist has made a career out of put upon female parts. In the past, she excelled as the Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos, Charlotte in Werther, and Marguerite in The Damnation of Faust.

Susan Graham as Dido

Susan Graham as Queen Dido

The French and German roles do appear to be her specialty, and I must say she sang Dido magnificently. I did notice a slight tiring toward the end of this marathon session, an ever-so-slight grating in her throat (possibly a holdover from the cold that had sidelined her earlier in the run), but beyond that she was above reproach. Visually, she must have been stunning to look at (I’ve seen her often on PBS and other telecasts from the Met, and she’s been on the cover of Opera News on several occasions, so I can vouch for her appearance). Graham is also a knowledgeable interview host and a sparkling TV and radio personality.

As for Deborah Voigt, the Met’s dependable Brünnhilde in their new Ring cycle (and a chatty individual in her own right), she played Cassandra, intelligently one should add. During the intermission feature, Voigt mentioned that this was her one and only French role, which I found startling since this part seems to be a natural fit for her voice category. Personally, I’ve always felt she was straining under all those Strauss heroines. Her last outing, in the execrable Die Aegyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen”), was undone by a ludicrous staging. Her Wagner has also seen better days. With her slimming down a few years back she now cuts a trim stage figure, but at the loss of some tonal “body.” This is all a question of placement and thrust, especially in a house as large as the Met. I am sure she’ll overcome these minor hurdles and get back to fighting form soon.

Stylistically, some of Voigt’s Italian roles were, how shall I put this, decidedly un-Italian. She should be wary of such works as Tosca, Andrea Chenier and La Gioconda from now on, and please give good old Minnie in La Fanciulla del West a rest. Let’s face it: Puccini and verismo are clearly not her cup of tea! For the sake of her many fans, we’d like her to stick with the French repertoire, if she can. It’s her safest bet, vocally and linguistically. Speaking of which, Voigt’s French pronunciation, while not exactly that of a native Parisian, was more than respectable.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sadness Has No End’ – Part Four: Truth or Unintended Consequences

Getting on the Wrong Bus

For all the trash talk surrounding reality-TV programming on the tube, Carlos Diegues’ 1999 version of Orfeu produced one of those “unintended consequences” we so often hear about, but rarely have a chance to participate in or live through ourselves.

What Cacá ultimately showed us, via his media-savvy finale to his filmafter their tragic ending, our hero and his girlfriend are miraculously “reunited” on the small screen — reflected the horror that thousands of Rio de Janeiro households were forced to witness, on June 12, 2000, courtesy of TV Globo and the other Brazilian networks. Before dozens of live cameras, the notorious Bus 174 incident played itself out in primetime (“an overpowering, for-profit televised show”) by turning a real-life hostage crisis into a soap opera on-demand, a shattering visual climax to a voyeuristic experience worthy of Sophocles himself, let alone one by a Brazilian-born playwright.

Bus 174 (forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com)

Bus 174 (forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com)

Sandro do Nascimento, the homeless (and hapless) hostage-taker, led a traumatic early childhood at best. As a boy, he witnessed the cold-blooded slaying of his mother by knife-wielding bandits, and was one of the few remaining survivors of the infamous Candelária Church massacre of Rio street-kids back in July 1992.

After a life spent in juvenile detention centers and in filthy, overcrowded prison cells, the glue-sniffing 22-year-old was killed — smothered was more like it — in the back of an unmarked van, along with the female passenger he held at knife point, by the tactical police S.W.A.T. unit charged with “tactfully” keeping the public order.

 *          *          *

There’s no denying the latest chapter in the cinematic life of poet-musician Orpheus (an avatar for poet-musician Vinicius, no doubt) — dusted off anew “whenever the need was seen to reassert high musical ideals against frivolous entertainment values,” in Richard Taruskin’s prophetic distillation of the same — had proven to be a certified box-office smash, as it barnstormed its record-busting way around Brazil.

In the first month alone, over a million-plus viewers had flocked to movie theaters to see the colorful pageant of a dreadlock-sporting composer named Orfeu (Toni Garrido) pound out a ready-made samba on his trusty laptop; indicating that audiences by the boatload identified with the main character’s struggles to make an honest living for himself, amid the chaos and squalor of Rio’s mountaintop villas.

That he also faced down his ex-boyhood chum, the favela’s brutal drug lord Lucinho (Murilo Benício), in grandiose shoot-‘em-up fashion — Orpheus as action-movie hero — never entered their thoughts.

Notwithstanding its director’s adherence to some of the purer aspects of Brazil’s newly revitalized New Wave — wherein Diegues once extolled the virtues of, in his paraphrased reaffirmation of Glauber’s idée fixe (“An idea in your head and a camera in your hand”) that “Brazilian filmmakers [had] taken their cameras and gone out into the streets, the country, and the beaches in search of the Brazilian people, the peasant, the worker, the fisherman, the slum dweller” — Orfeu pried open the bars to a native-grown cinema of brute force.

Toni Garrido & Murilo Benicio (fotosnoticias.bol.uol.com.br)

Toni Garrido & Murilo Benicio (fotosnoticias.bol.uol.com.br)

This became the dominant trait of many of the works featured in the period immediately preceding, and immediately after, the highly-rated Central do Brasil (Central Station) made the rounds of movie palaces, chief among them the self-titled Ónibus 174 (Bus 174) documentary, followed by Madame Satã (“Madame Satan”) and the equally harrowing Cidade de Deus (City of God) and Carandiru.

The return of the native film-school aesthetic — one that had barely existed at all when 1959’s Black Orpheus first paraded into view — was marked by a return to the graphically violent nature of urban street life, first touched upon by director Hector Babenco’s chilling portrayal of it in his Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (Pixote: Survival of the Weakest) from 1981.*

Diegues was next in line to take up the challenge of this modern-day movie trend. With typical Wellesian bravado, his unsentimental re-interpretation of Vinicius’ poetic musical tragedy bore the unmistakable strains of social Darwinism; its own incipient “touch of evil” gone awry, infecting everything and everyone, even those we hold most dear — in this instance, the fair-featured Eurídice (Patricia França), accidentally gunned down by the drug lord’s stray bullet.

This sordid re-working, a literal descent into a nightmarish nether-region disturbingly reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno (whose guide, incidentally, was the classical poet Virgil), is as “dark” as anything modern film noir had to offer. In all honesty, there was very little novo about this sort of gritty, blood-and-guts-style cinema, although the film did provide some spectacular aerial footage of Rio, for what they were worth.

A fundamental point, though, remains unclear: was this really what Vinicius de Moraes had in mind for a screen adaptation of his play? Would he have applauded the Brazilian filmmaker’s “realistic” depiction of his opus? Or, in a more indirect manner, would he have slipped out of the movie theater the way he did back in the waning days of the 1950s? After all, they were fast friends leading up to, and including, the last years of the poet’s life. Before his untimely passing, Diegues had even received the ailing Vinicius’ blessing and consent for a cooperative joint venture that would have displayed his Orfeu da Conceição in the best of all possible lights.

It was only after his sad demise (almost 20 years after, in fact), when legal complications involving the confusing copyright issuance to his songs were formally worked out and laid to rest by Vinicius’ remaining heirs, that Diegues was able to fulfill his life’s ambition and redo the work in the way The Little Poet had intended — or so he would like us to believe.

Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca (robsmovievault.wordpress.com)

Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca (robsmovievault.wordpress.com)

To be honest, there were just as many similarities between the two film versions as there were actual differences. What the rank-and-file Brazilian gobbled up, however, others found wanting. It’s now our turn to paraphrase for a moment or two: using Cacá’s own words against him, perhaps the picture offered too “dystopian” a vision of reality for most overseas audiences to identify with. Perhaps prejudice had something to do with it as well.

Perhaps moviegoers abroad simply couldn’t handle the truth about the clear-and-present dangers of carioca slum life; or perhaps there was something else that was missing from the film project — something that brought little, if any, recognition to one of Carlos Diegues’ darkest directorial efforts to date.

(End of Part Four)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Born in Buenos Aires of Jewish refugees (from Russian and Polish extraction, to be exact), Argentine filmmaker Babenco had also been responsible for the ultra-realistic Carandiru from 2004.

Chico’s Modern Street Opera – Part Three: Brecht, Weill and Buarque, Together At Last!

Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill (aceterrier.com)

Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill (aceterrier.com)

Returning now to Ópera do Malandro and to the two quotations by Kurt Weill that have occupied our thoughts since the outset of this essay — to wit, the difference between “serious” music and “light” music, and the legitimacy of its being filled out with new musical content by the use of popular songs — we should keep the following in mind: to what extent has Chico Buarque’s “trans-cultural reading” of Brecht-Weill’s better known theater-piece proved itself to be a worthy successor to Threepenny Opera’s stated “urgent purpose”?

In the same sense, was the choice by Chico of a pop-driven music-score for this strictly Brazilian by-product the “correct” one for him to have used in expressing, to an equivalent degree, his own deliberately high-minded goals?

This was, in fact, an old argument, which has often been trotted out by purists whenever the built-in dichotomy found in the fecund Brecht-Weill partnership and their brief, albeit liberal, brush with musical theater are inevitably brought up — especially where it concerned their two most substantial stage collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930).

The question has also turned up in the February 2007 issue of the publication Opera News, in which culture critic Philip Kennicott’s highly informative article, “The City of Mahagonny Rises Again,” is given over mainly to pondering the point that, “If Weill’s music is reliant on Brecht’s libretto to communicate its sneer — its contempt for the ugliness of a grasping, cynical world — is it therefore lesser music? Is Weill’s music really nothing more than good show-tunes with bitter lyrics? And if that’s true, are we under any obligation to take his music as seriously as he and Brecht and contemporary social critics in the 1930s took it — as social statement, as consciousness-changing… because it was eminently hummable?”

Similarly, in historian and musicologist Richard Taruskin’s monumental study, The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume Five: The Early Twentieth Century, he offers this cogent analysis of Threepenny Opera’s unconventional theme and tone, what Weill himself referred to as its “service to the general public”; and that is, “public political education or indoctrination as a stimulus to revolutionary political action. To achieve this purpose, music had not only to change its style… but also its function within the drama.”

Both opinions to the contrary, its function within the framework set by Chico was not merely to provide “good show-tunes with bitter lyrics” — one must give the politically astute and fully “indoctrinated” Carioca his due here — but rather to hold a mirror up to Brazilian society of the seventies, as both Brecht and Weill had done before him (with that of pre-Nazified Germany), and show what could happen to that same, disparate society if its myriad social problems were left unattended for long.

In that, Chico was right in “disguising” his intentions from the official censors by utilizing the tried-and-true formula of popular song then available to him and at his ready disposal; all this, despite the rather surprising (for an intellectual) admission early on, made to Brazil’s Veja magazine at the time of the world premiere, concerning Malandro’s previous “incarnations”:

“I wasn’t familiar with John Gay’s piece [The Beggar’s Opera]; in fact, I never knew it existed. What did exist was the idea [with Ruy Guerra, who directed the movie adaptation of Malandro in 1986] for a new version of Threepenny Opera. But when we got our hands on the play that first inspired Brecht, we decided to do a complete review of both works.

Chico Buarque (conexaovivo.com.br)

Chico Buarque (conexaovivo.com.br)

“Besides, there were other things that led me to consider these [two] texts. Brecht himself was often accused of plagiarizing other people’s ideas, but he didn’t seem to care; he just went right on with his own plans. Well, then, if Brecht could do this to others, why couldn’t we use his idea and transport it to Brazil?”

No wonder the government was suspicious! More reason why Buarque placed the action of his musical play in the waning years of the Vargas regime’s Estado Novo (“New State”) — a textbook example, really, of Brecht’s vaunted distancing effect. But with all due respect to Seu Chico, that’s as gutsy a response as any to accusations of the Brazilian songwriter’s feigning ignorance of his European literary sources, to say nothing of the difficulty he encountered in obtaining approval beforehand (from authorities in both Rio and Brasília) for the staging of his novel musical experiment.

What we do have, bottom line, is a third major influence on Chico’s modern street opera, in the subtle but no less tangible model laid out for him by an eighteenth-century English poet’s ever-popular “ballad opera” called, suitably enough in Portuguese, Ópera do Mendigo.

Nevertheless, to clear the air once and for all regarding this matter, and nudge the debate along as to whether or not Brazilian show-tunes could successfully hold their own against the firmly established “classics” — all the while conveying the same seriousness of purpose in supporting an equally serious social agenda — let us look closely at one of the ballads common to both Brecht-Weill and Buarque: the introductory song, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” or, as it is commonly known in the States, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” in the widely circulated version by Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock) for a 1954 off-Broadway revival starring Weill’s widow, the great Lotte Lenya (Cabaret); and in Chico’s own bowdlerized rendition, “O Malandro,” in wonderfully literate Brazilian Portuguese:

 

“Mack the Knife” (Marc Blitzstein, after Brecht-Weill)

Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear

And he shows them pearly white

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear,

And he keeps it out of sight

 

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,

Scarlet billows start to spread,

Fancy gloves though wears Macheath, dear,

So there’s not a trace of red

 

On the sidewalk, Sunday morning,

Lies a body oozing life,

Someone’s sneaking round the corner,

Is the someone Mack the Knife?

 

From a tug boat by the river

A cement bag’s dropping down

The cement’s just for the weight, dear

Bet you Mack is back in town

 

Louie Miller disappeared, dear

After drawing out his cash

And Macheath spends like a sailor

Did our boy do something rash?

 

Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver

Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown

Oh the line forms on the right, dear

Now that Mack is back in town

 

—————————————————–

“O Malandro” (Adapted by Chico Buarque)

O malandro na dureza

senta à mesa do café

bebe um gole de cachaça,

acha graça e dá no pé

 

O garçom no prejuízo

sem sorriso, sem freguês

de passagem pela caixa

dá uma baixa no português

 

O galego acha estranho

que o seu ganho tá um horror

pega o lápis soma os canos

passa os danos pro distribuidor

 

Mas o frete vê que ao todo

há engodo nos papéis

a pra cima do alambique

dá um trambique de cem mil réis

 

O usineiro nessa luta

grita puta que pariu

não é idiota, trunca a nota

lesa o banco do Brasil

 

Nosso banco tá cotado

no mercado exterior

então taxa a cachaça

a um preço assustador

 

Mas os ianques com seus tanques

têm bem mais o que fazer

e proibem os soldados

aliados de beber

 

A cachaça tá parada

rejeitada no barril

o alambique tem chilique

contra o banco do Brasil

 

O usineiro faz barulho

com orgulho de produtor

mas a sua raiva cega

descarrega no carregador

 

Este chega pro galego

nega arreglo cobra mais

a cachaça tá de graça

mas o frete como é que faz?

 

O galego tá apertado

pro seu lado não tá bom

então deixa congelada

a mesada do garçom

 

O garçom vê um malandro

sai gritando, pega ladrão

e o malandro autuado

é julgado e condenando culpado

pela situação

 (Copyright © 1977 Cara Nova Editora Musical Ltda.)

 

First of all, the German word Moritat has an unusually pertinent etymology, in that it denotes a “song about the dirty deeds of criminals.” It was intoned throughout the European Continent as far back as medieval times and was still cranked out by barrel-organ grinders in the Weimar Republic period of the early 1920s. Without missing a beat, composer Weill picked up on and used the genre’s repetitive, drone-like quality as a continuous link between the scenes of Brecht’s wicked wordplay.

The “vastly watered-down” English version of the ballad, soft-peddled to easily-shocked New Yorkers of the mid-1950s, is shorn of two of the original’s patently suggestive stanzas: their graphically explicit content exposes Mackie as more than just a dashing, Victorian-era rogue (“a cute rat-pack gambler,” as author Peter Gutmann alluded to, in his Classical Notes Website), but a vicious and brutal thug, arsonist and rapist — more akin, in type, to the disreputable Jack the Ripper:

And the ghastly fire in Soho,

Seven children at a go —

In the crowd stands Mack the Knife, but

He’s not asked and doesn’t know

 

And the child bride in her nightie,

Whose assailant’s still at large,

Violated in her slumbers —

Mackie, how much did you charge?

 

Threepenny Opera Poster Art

Threepenny Opera Poster Art

The debauched nature of Mackie’s character, along with more of Threepenny’s blowzy, jazz-flavored scoring and racy, gutter dialogue (newly translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett, as evidenced by the above), was hammered home a few years before the introduction of Chico’s Rio-Lapa edition, in the now-fabled New York Shakespeare Festival production of 1976, credited to noted theater producer Joseph Papp, who wrote at the time that Blitzstein, with his highly sanitized translation into the vernacular, had “vitiated the political and sexual thrust” of the work “which [gave it] its relentless power.” He could talk!

With the U.S. having undergone some earth-shattering transformations of its own, due in large part to the profusion of the sexual revolution; resulting in a more permissive entertainment environment; and energized by such explosive events as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Women’s Liberation, and the sixties counterculture — all wholly ingrained into American society by the middle of the 1970s — Brazil, in contrast, had taken a few calculated steps (missteps, actually) backward, away from these allegedly “open” Northern attitudes. They manifested themselves in a more conservative outlook on, of all things, live theater, which was heavily in line with the Brazilian generals’ narrow-minded, tunnel “vision” for the nation as a whole.

This intractable position only reinforced Chico’s resolve to rewrite the verses to several of Malandro’s key signature tunes prior to show time, chief among them the hit, “O Meu Amor,” wherein he removed all reference to a woman’s private parts. Astonishingly, and in light of the headaches these last-minute changes might have entailed for him, the perceptive songwriter much preferred his less provocative, “watered-down” version. For the recent revival of the show in Rio and elsewhere, he even went so far as to insist that the musical’s salty street language be noticeably toned down — go figure!

But his major departure from Gay’s and Brecht’s hallowed texts — and an inspirational stroke of genius it would surely turn out to be — was the totally re-imagined opening number “O Malandro,” composed, eerily enough, to the same monotonous-sounding strain as that of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.”

The gist of it all was this: in Chico’s version, the malandro, or street hustler, gulps down a bottle of cachaça (a type of whiskey fermented from cane sugar) obtained at a local bar. He suddenly runs off, leaving the empty-handed waiter (o garçom) with the unpaid bill. The ramifications of this spontaneous act against the waiter (read: the Establishment) brings about a series of harsh economic “sanctions” any self-respecting citizen of hyper-inflated Cidade Maravilhosa would be all-too familiar with: deprived of his principal means of livelihood, the waiter takes his money from the cash register.

When the bar’s Portuguese owner (o galego) can’t figure out where the day’s profits went to, he passes along his losses to the distributor of the whiskey (distribuidor), who in turn passes along his losses to the operator of the still (alambique), while the operator of the still does the same to the owner of the plant (o usineiro), which promptly has its liquor taxes raised to ridiculous levels by the Bank of Brazil.

In the meantime, the Americans (os ianques) urge their allies to boycott future sales of the drink, thus leading to further financial calamities, including a “drying up” of the excess cachaça reserves. The formal conclusion to this comical mess is that it winds up exactly where it all began, with the helpless malandro caught and captured, as well as being made the official scapegoat for the resultant global imbalance of payments — a “song about dirty deeds,” indeed.

Although the original aesthetic of both ballads are clearly defined and culturally distinctive, in Chico’s masterful hands the essential mood and spirit, if not the letter, of “Mack the Knife” have been faithfully rendered and reproduced, but with an artful wink of the composer’s knowing eye and an ironic touch of the Lapa street smarts.

Of course, if the story had ended there, Ópera do Malandro would still have satisfied most audience members’ craving for some truly topical theater fare. As luck would have it, though, this was only the beginning of its good fortune; for, having made a valid critique of the soon-to-be-outmoded military’s failed domestic policies of the not-so golden seventies — the so-called “Brazilian miracle” years — the play’s audacious 2003 reappearance has helped steer countless new fans of the work toward its uniquely dystopian view of Brazil’s current social condition: that of a singing, stinging portrait of a still-fat disparate society on the eve of its potential destruction.

How worthy a successor to Brecht-Weill is that? ☼

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: ‘The Barber of Seville’ in English – Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

Listening to opera on the radio is a completely different experience from seeing it on the stage. I first noticed this dichotomy when, after years of hearing the regular Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the air, I finally witnessed a live presentation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York State Theater. It was the most thrilling and life-altering experience of my early theater-going career. To hear those fresh young voices rise above the orchestra pit, as Donizetti’s music cut straight to the bone (and to my stomach), was a cherished moment I will long remember.

Later, when videos, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs™ became far more accessible for opera fans to enjoy I realized there was another aspect to live performances: with the addition of subtitles and supertitles, one could more fully understand what all the posing and strutting were about. Up to that point, I had spent a small fortune amassing an enviable collection of open-reel and cassette tapes, as well as LPs geared toward recapturing that initial excitement of live theater in the flesh. Now, I could wallow in this newfound treasure trove of works with renewed enthusiasm and in the comfort of my home. In addition, I came away with a much clearer idea of the difficulties inherent in staging and producing live opera.

I find it funny, then, as well as somewhat ironic, that after so many decades of theater-going and record/video collecting I’m back to where I started every time I hunker down in front of my stereo to tune in to the next in the continuing series of Saturday broadcasts. On the other hand, my ears have grown accustomed to hearing opera on this vastly reduced scale, which helps bring this “unseen” dimension into sharper focus as I assess the caliber of each week’s performance.

This is why reviewing the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012-2013 radio season requires a bit of tempering on my part, with the knowledge that I lack the all-important visual element, eventually filled in of course with Public Television’s delayed high-definition broadcasts. But for now, readers should take note of the above caveat as I make do with the essentially auditory portions of our program.

A Barber for the Masses

Alek Shrader & John Del Carlo (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Alek Shrader & John Del Carlo (minnesota.publicradio.org)

This brings me to my latest review of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. An English-language adaptation of the Pesaro-born composer’s delightful nineteenth-century masterwork, it was broadcast on December 22, in director Bartlett Sher’s crowd-pleasing production. The main problem here wasn’t so much the non-colloquial Italian as it was the unintelligible English.

The new translation by poet and literary critic J.D. McClatchy, whose ground-breaking Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation should be in every opera lover’s library, while solid and workmanlike in print was unworkable in execution. An admirable substitution for Cesare Sterbini’s imaginative Italian original (an acrobatic verbal exercise, if truth be told) this new version was, in a word, a letdown. It just wasn’t funny enough, at least to my mind, which led to my biggest deception with the entire enterprise — and that is, its inability to be understood.

One could overlook this basic point if the opera had been performed to near-perfection (a rare commodity indeed, even in the best of times), but the worst that could possibly be said for McClatchy’s adaptation was that it was frustratingly inappropriate for its target audience, i.e., New York City youngsters and their parents.

This being a children’s matinee performance, the other major complaint, from my part, was the cutting of more than an hour’s worth of music from this superb score. The end result wasn’t anywhere near what Rossini had envisioned. Indeed, this was not The Barber of Seville as we’ve come to know it, but “half scenes” and “bits and pieces” of scenes and arias from one of the standard repertoire’s most astutely-crafted creations.

One might as well call this The Cut-Rate Barber of the Met, for all the good the translation did to untangle the opera’s complicated plot. I should’ve known something was up the minute the overture sounded. Hah, did I say overture? Not even close! What was left of this world famous piece was chopped up and spit out in record time. Things went from bad to worse when the titular barber entered the picture. It’s a shame, really, to have heard Figaro’s tuneful showstopper, “Largo al factotum,” sliced up and shorn of nearly half its delectable vocal patter, while the same character’s effervescent duet with Count Almaviva whizzed by in nothing flat. The result being there was no setup, no substance, just words… and words on top of words. Ugh, a stylistic nightmare! You can sense my frustration with this show.

Isabel Leonard, Shrader, Del Carlo & Rob Besserer (stageandcinema.com)

Isabel Leonard, Shrader, Del Carlo & Rob Besserer (stageandcinema.com)

Among the vocalists, only veteran John Del Carlo’s crotchety old Doctor Bartolo reached the histrionic heights. As far as I could tell, his explosive bass-baritone was the most consistent of the so-called “mini-portrayals.” The other artists – especially the buoyant Moscow-born Figaro of Rodion Pogossov, the featherweight Almaviva of Alek Shrader, and the technically proficient Rosina of New Yorker Isabel Leonard – performed over and above the call of duty, although none of them were particularly adept with the new translation, with Shrader’s uncomfortable-sounding Count leading the way.

In this climate, where every note seemed to count, bass Jordan Bisch’s Don Basilio was reduced to a cipher after his wonderfully campy “La calunnia” was expunged from the overall concept. What was the sense of that? It defeats the entire purpose of the plot to cut this aria out, and leaves innocent audience members in the dark just as they’ve settled back in their seats. I imagine most youngsters would have been startled at this implausible fellow’s later presence, wondering why Don Basilio was making such a belated entrance in Act II. “Buona sera, mio signore” is a comedic tour de force, bar none. But instead of Rossini’s carefully constructed build-up to this scene what we heard was more in line with The Sound of Music’s “Goodbye, farewell, Aufwiedersehen, good night.” And that’s all, folks! In fact, all the arias and ensembles suffered from the same cosmetic surgery: too short, too quick, with not enough development.

A Teaching Moment Lost

Teaching young children about opera and the performing arts is a noble and well-intentioned cause. I should know: as the product of a New York public-school education, I can firmly attest to the fact that the thought-process behind these maneuvers was to expose as many youngsters as possible to the wonders of music, art and theater.

To the best of my recollection, the works I saw as a child were note complete, or as complete as they were allowed to be, given the time constraints placed on our school’s schedule. Still, “dumbing” opera down for modern-day audiences and their offspring is not the way to do it. Okay, I concede that children can turn fidgety to the point of irritation, as boredom quickly sets in. Yet they’re smarter and infinitely more perceptive than adults often take them for. So let’s give our little people a chance, shall we, by playing these exceptional pieces as they were intended – without hacking the very life out of them, if you please!

In Julie Taymor’s Met Opera production of The Magic Flute for kids, the self-same Professor McClatchy kept the richness and substance of Mozart’s score virtually intact. In that successful English-language adaptation what was trimmed away were the Overture and the lengthy dialogue passages, which are generally cut back anyway, even in the original German. But by slimming The Barber of Seville down to Pee Wee Herman’s size, we’re giving Figaro his own haircut – even at discount prices, this is too close a shave for comfort. I couldn’t help feeling that we, the radio audience, were being short-changed along with the paying public. If I were the father of a school-age child, I’d have demanded my money back (or half of it, at any rate).

My only hope is that this purported Barber was presented with clearly legible supertitles – the better to discern the non-discernible plot, my dear. As for the rest of the radio audience, we’re hopelessly lost in translation. Ω

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: Heavenly ‘Aida’? Maybe, Maybe Not

Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

I have previously seen the Metropolitan Opera’s 1988 production of Aida in an earlier incarnation. I kept this fact in mind as I listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of December 15, which was also a Live in HD transmission.

Starring French-born superstar Roberto Alagna as Radames, it included the network debut of Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Amneris, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Aida’s father Amonasro, Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán as the high priest Ramfis, and the Budapest-born Miklós Sebestyén as the King of Egypt. The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi presided over the proceedings and was the only Italian within earshot.

As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Monsieur Alagna, whose distinctive timbre and incisive enunciation of the text have enlivened many a romantic role. The warrior Radames was no exception. Although this is considered a heavier than normal assignment for him, Alagna adopted a “less is more, if not better” approach to the part, which worked wonders in the opera’s opening number, “Celeste Aida.”

Robert Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

Roberto Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

The tenor even took the final pianissimo B-flat as Verdi had intended, repeating the words “Vicino al sol” at a lower octave. Marvelous! When the final scene came around, instead of bellowing out “Si schiude il ciel” to the rafters (as most tenors would do), Alagna floated his top note on a delicate filigree of sound – a most welcome close.

I’ve seen Alagna on other occasions as well, i.e., in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a film version of Tosca, and a Public Television broadcast of Puccini’s La Rondine. Too bad he’s never been as popular at the Met as he’s been with other international venues. He’s a terrific actor who plunges headlong into his parts with passion and assurance (see the Met’s hot-and-heavy version of Bizet’s Carmen with Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča, if you don’t believe me). While his slightly leaner tone is nowhere near the brawny muscularity of a Del Monaco, Tucker or Corelli, his ability to invest these works with his own personal stamp leaves no doubt that Alagna has the Italianate style under his belt and in his blood.

Where the debuting Monastyrska was concerned, I’m not so sure. I had a chance encounter with the Kiev-born native on a recent PBS telecast of the 2012 Richard Tucker Gala, where the soprano was called upon to deliver the goods in the fiendishly difficult “Vieni t’affreta,” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Her physical assumption of Lady Macbeth, along with the accompanying cabaletta, left much to be desired. The slightly off-kilter coloratura was generally acceptable and accurate, but it was her onstage deportment that I objected to. For here was the mustache-twirling villainess of yore, brought to melodramatic life in an unashamedly over-the-top performance. Monastyrska needed a firmer directorial hand in relaying the malevolent nature of Shakespeare’s most fearsome protagonist but without the amateur-night theatrics, thank you.

Liudmila Monasturska (pacslo.org)

Liudmyla Monastyrska (pacslo.org)

As Aida, one of opera’s richest and most rewarding roles (and whose past proponents boasted such talents as Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Aprile Millo) let’s say that Monastyrska’s portrayal crossed the finish line intact, but without having moved this listener. Granted, I was missing her visual contribution; still, from what I heard on the air – in particular, her Act II battle with burnished mezzo (and fellow Slav) Olga Borodina – there was a decided lack of fire in the belly. Neither of these two artists raised the temperature to any noticeable degree, which was surprising in such a such-fire combination.

Madame Borodina did score a triumph in the Act IV Judgment Scene. But then again, most powerhouse mezzos of her variety manage to make a vocal meal out of this sequence. Why it took so long for the sparks to fly remains baffling.

Moving on to the male contingent, Gagnidze’s big and blustery Amonasro was inconsequential. Such has always been the case with this singer, whose brutish Baron Scarpia in the previous season’s new production of Tosca employed more of the same tactics and weight. Not surprisingly, Gagnidze’s a lot more convincing in Russian opera, for instance in the Met’s recent Khovanshchina broadcast which Borodina also co-starred in. However, I find him out of his natural element in the Italian repertoire. Kocán’s High Priest made a pleasant enough noise, as did Sebestyén’s booming King, but with none of the idiomatic flair or requisite authority these roles demanded.

Good, strong voices are fine and dandy for what they are worth, but there’s no excuse for mushy diction, the ultimate bone of contention for this cast. In sum, with Alagna’s lone exception none of the performers sounded remotely Mediterranean, a major deficit in such a familiar work as Aida.

As for Maestro Luisi, there were simply too many shifting tempos within a relatively short time span for him to make any lasting impression. Take the Grand March, which starts off Scene ii of Act II: too fast at one point, then too slow at another; the ballet music flew by in a flash without making any particular dramatic statement, along with other passages that merely slipped by unnoticed.

Some conductors love to linger over this score – the delicate violin figures in “Celeste Aida” can be downright pleasurable, if played with just the right touch of ardor (see Herbert von Karajan’s indispensable Decca/London set from the late 1950s, for an object lesson in how to lead this miraculous piece). But here, they barely registered on the emotional meter – a disappointingly bland showing. And finally, the Met Opera Chorus (so crucial in this work) sailed through their task with flying colors, thanks to chorus master Donald Palumbo.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes