Month: February 2013

Seth and Oscar — The New Academy-Award Winning Odd Couple

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Seth MacFarlane (Getty Images)
Seth MacFarlane (Getty Images)

Here are some of my candid observations about last Sunday’s Oscar® telecast.

First of all, someone obviously confused “class” with “crass.” To put it bluntly, which is what this entire program was evidently about (being blunt), it was an unmitigated disaster. That 20-minute opening back-and-forth spiel between host Seth MacFarlane and a relatively benign William Shatner (in his Captain Kirk outfit — ill-fitting at that) was, if anything, simply soporific (that means “sleep inducing,” Seth).

The dance number “We Saw Your Boobs” not only wouldn’t pass muster on “Dancing with the Stars,” it wasn’t even funny. In fact, it was downright offensive to the ladies in attendance (and at home, watching this trash). I won’t even comment how offending it must’ve felt to gays. The 50th anniversary compilation of James Bond clips were, well, clipped! How about some live-action footage for a change of pace? For instance, why not get the current 007, steely-eyed Daniel Craig, to jump out of a helicopter or something and parachute onto the stage…? Oh, wait… They tried that already, didn’t they, over in England last year, during the Olympic Games… the opening ceremonies, right? There goes that brilliant idea! That worked like a charm, didn’t it?

Even worse were those so-called “musical” salutes to movie musicals. “All That Jazz” from Chicago, featuring a matronly Catherine Zeta-Jones, was simply dreadful (Bob Fosse, where are when we need you?). The Dream Girls segment with Jennifer Hudson (what was all that yelling about, anyway?) was no better. And what’s with that ersatz, makeshift staging of the Act I finale to Les Miserables? In tuxedos, tiaras and evening gowns??? That made absolutely no sense! Les Miserables translates to “The Downtrodden.” It’s supposed to be ABOUT the downtrodden, not the rich and fatuous! If there was anyone on that stage that was “downtrodden,” it would have to be the producers for perpetrating this mess. This is not the Tony Awards, fellas, but the Oscars! (There IS a difference, you know). In sum, all the production numbers were poorly sung and poorly choreographed (oh, was that what that was?).

Beyond that, Dame Shirley Bassey really belted it out of the ballpark with a super spectacular rendition of the song from Goldfinger (“He only loves gold” — you said it, Shirl!), while Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep positively reeked of class, not to mention the surprise visit (via live hook-up from the White House) of the First Lady herself. Ah, now, that’s what I call class — something that was sorely lacking throughout. You got that, folks? C-L-A-S-S, CLASS! Not crass, Mr. McFarland. Oh, did I spell your name wrong? Maybe I confused MacFarlane with McFarland, as in Spanky McFarland, of the “Little Rascals” and “Our Gang” comedies fame. You know, juvenile humor? Never mind, you’re too young to remember anyway. And, yes, Ted was indeed a mediocre effort, along with 90% of this show. No, let me revise that forecast: 95.99999% bad, 4.99999% mediocre.

“Once I knew a man named Oscar… Oscar, Oscar, Oscar…” So sang the late Tony Randall of TV’s The Odd Couple. But the oddest couple of all on Sunday night was Seth and poor old Oscar. About the only thing missing was the sword — the better for the host to fall on, my dears.

I’m waiting…

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘For All My Days Remaining’ — Sting’s Dark Night of ‘The Soul Cages’ (Continued)

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Pipes and Insights

Sting The Soul Cages (A&M Records)
Sting The Soul Cages (A&M Records)

The Soul Cages is replete with such observances, with the one about finding your own pathway chief among them:  “We come into the world alone and we leave alone,” Sting mused, at the time of the album’s release. “I mean, I’m not anti-religious, but if you believe anything wholesale, you open yourself up to a lot of perversions of the initial content. That’s unhealthy. The core ideas behind ideologies are great, but invariably they get twisted. I’m not an expert. I’m just working on myself. That’s the path to choose.”

Some of those “core ideas” went well beyond this one album. As a matter of fact, they spilled over into his next project, the supremely joyful Ten Summoner’s Tales (A&M) from 1993, whose opening track, “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” feels suspiciously like an extension of his previous ruminations concerning ideology and religion:

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but

If I ever lose my faith in you

There’d be nothing left for me to do

From the outward and external to the personal and introspective, Sting admits that, for him, losing faith in established institutions is pretty much par for the course (today, he considers himself more of an agnostic than a true believer). But God help us if our belief in those we love were ever crushed. “There’d be nothing left” to do, he confides.

"Island of Souls" song sheet
“Island of Souls” song sheet

This leads us back to The Soul Cages, which is all about our inability to prevent the inevitable. Beginning with the spellbinding “Island of Souls,” a brooding paean to Sting’s younger self (as the character “Billy”) and his hardworking father’s daily grind, we hear the unsettling sounds of Northumbrian pipes. A bagpipe-like instrument from the northeast of England, they act as a thematic motif, recurring at strategic points in the number and placed intermittently throughout the rest of the album.

Performed here by Kathryn Tickell (who also plays on the cut “Fields of Gold” from Ten Summoner’s Tales), the pipes are Sting’s way of channeling the inescapable strain of “Amazing Grace,” but without actually quoting that funereal air. They’re backed by Paola Paparelle’s plaintive oboe, followed by a rush of strings (electronically enhanced, I presume) and Dominic Miller’s swirling guitar licks:

 

Billy was born within sight of the shipyard

First son of a riveter’s son

 

Darkness and desolation are everywhere, as conveyed in Sting’s droning delivery and in the song’s achingly expansive melodic line:

 

And Billy was raised as the ship grew a shadow

Her great hull would blot out the light of the sun

 

There’s no hope in this godforsaken abode, no “light of the sun” to lead them out of the “shadow” of this ship’s “great hull,” which casts an enormous pall over their lives:

 

And six days a week he would watch his poor father

A working man live like a slave

He’d drink every night and he’d dream of a future,

Of money he never would save

And Billy would cry when he thought of the future…

 

Later on, he poses a query to himself:

 

What else was there for a riveter’s son?

A new ship to be built, new work to be done

 

Endless drudgery is their lot, not only for his father but also for young Billy. His voice rising in pitch and emotion, escape is only possible, we’re told, if dad and Billy flee this oppressing state. Written as an exercise in stream of consciousness, Sting’s words poured out of him like waves on a beach at high tide.

Toward the middle of the piece, Billy’s father experiences “what they call an industrial accident,” and it’s only after dad’s agonizing death that Billy “dreamed of the ship in the world” that

 

Would carry his father and he

To a place they could never be found

To a place far away from this town,

A Newcastle ship without coals

They would sail to the island of souls.

 

The song ends with a sort of repetitive humming:

 

Oom-lay

Lay-day oom-lay

Oom-lay

Lay-day oom-lay

 

This quasi-Third-World chant is punctuated by loud hammer strokes, signifying the toils of labor and the never-ending demands of work and industry. As expected, those Northumbrian pipes now return, fading in, then out… out into the studio landscape. But the last sounds to be heard are those of a ghostly whine, the breath of life seemingly eking out, the wind blowing softly in the distance – the utter finality of death.

You’re probably saying to yourself, Man, that’s deep shit! And you’d be right. But that’s Sting for you, the thinking man’s rocker. He takes a 180-degree turn with the seriocomic “All This Time” (already commented on above), before getting down to business with the waltz-like “Mad About You,” the third track on the program, which The Baltimore Sun’s J.D. Considine once described as “the album’s only love song” – that is, “romantic passion in terms of desperate insanity.”

Talent and World Beat

The album’s formidable array of talent, which includes power drummer Manu Katché, keyboardists Kenny Kirkland and David Sancious, the aforementioned Dominic Miller on guitar, Branford Marsalis on saxophone, and an all-star lineup of percussionists, commencing with the incomparable Ray Cooper, Vinx, Bill Summers, Munyungo Jackson, Skip Barney and Tony Vacca – let’s not forget the singer-songwriter himself, Mr. Gordon Sumner, on vocals, bass, synclavier and mandolin – finally break out in a sizzling jazz-based jamfest called “Jeremiah Blues (Part 1),” one of those apocalyptic rock bromides so beloved of the nineties.

"Why Should I Cry For You?" (nnm.ru)
“Why Should I Cry For You?” (nnm.ru)

From there, we’re treated to the sonic splendors of the elegant “Why Should I Cry For You?” This is where Sting and I part company, so to speak, but it’s not what you think. Sting has gone on record as, supposedly, having taken out “any Afro-Caribbean or other world influences on the [album]. I enjoy that music, and I like making it, but it didn’t seem to apply. So the bulk of the record is based on Celtic folk melodies.”

Not quite. Listen closely to this cut. It’s a stunner. For one, the poetry and word-painting are of the highest caliber. For another, the sea terms employed are not only accurate but breathtaking in their scope and beauty, while the melodies are overladen with a distinctive gait and rhythmic buoyancy that belong to no other musical genre than world beat. I would venture to guess that the Stinger, whose support of green causes and “Save the Rain Forest” efforts, may even have borrowed a musical phrase or two from Brazil’s own Milton Nascimento, his albums “Sentinela” and “Anima” from the early eighties being major influences on many an artist’s output. Judge for yourself:

 

Under the dog-star sail

Over the reefs of moonshine

Under the skies of fall

North, northwest, the stones of Faroe

Under the Artic fire

Over the seas of silence

Hauling on frozen ropes

For all my days remaining

But would north be true?

 

Additionally, “Why Should I Cry For You?” is also a love song, but one where his father’s features and nostalgic memories of the “old man” from “All This Time” and “Island of Souls,” keep coming back to haunt Sting’s thoughts. It’s impossible for the listener to miss the connotation. The pain, the loss, the overpowering love and affection for the dearly departed are omnipresent and unmistakable in the work’s poignant lyrics:

 

Dark angels follow me

Over a godless sea

Mountains of endless falling,

For all my days remaining,

What would be true?

Sometimes I see your face,

The stars seem to lose their place

Why must I think of you?

Why must I?

Why should I?

Why should I cry for you?

 

Why should he indeed, but he does cry for him – or for her, if you prefer a more starry-eyed viewpoint. The accompanying black-and-white video stresses the more romantic aspects, but that’s the beauty of this theme: it’s open to multiple meanings, irrespective of commercial considerations.

(To Be Continued)

All songs were written and arranged by Sting © 1990 Magnetic Publishing, Ltd./Blue Turtle Music (ASCAP), and © 1993 Blue Turtle Music (ASCAP)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘For All My Days Remaining’ – Sting’s Dark Night of ‘The Soul Cages’

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The Soul Cages -- Album Cover Art
The Soul Cages — Album Cover Art

Songs about death and dying aren’t exactly the norm where pop music is concerned. Nor are they the kinds of uplifting subjects that win the hearts and minds of music fans, either.

Now I know that Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s moving voice and orchestra cycle, Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”), is a classic example of the genre in the post-romantic realm. It’s also true the activities of folk-rock legends Neil Young (“The Needle and the Damage Done”) and James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”) resulted in two such numbers about self-inflicted death from drug abuse and suicide, respectively. Still, an entire album devoted to these concepts is a rare product indeed. Just the thought alone would be mind-blowing to record producers.

In English singer-songwriter Sting’s 1991 album The Soul Cages (A&M Records), for which he won a Grammy Award in 1992 for Best Rock Song, the tracks are fueled not by a violent end to life but by terminal illness – in this instance, his father’s sad demise from cancer (and, by inference, his mother’s earlier passing from the same disease). Critics have described this work as “gloomy,” “moody,” “highly serious,” “pretentious,” “dense,” “overtly literate,” “darkly lit,” and “almost Gothic.” And those were the favorable ones! If it’s happy-hour time you’re after, then you’ve come to the wrong place.

Nevertheless, The Soul Cages is an album I often turn to, whenever I have a moment alone with my thoughts or give in to private reflections about my own parents’ passing. There are nine numbers in toto, including an instrumental passage, “Saint Agnes and the Burning Train,” which comes at the midway point, a lovely lyrical respite from the prevailingly bleak atmosphere.

But hey, it’s not all gloom and doom, I’m here to tell you. This is a concept album that beats most such high-minded efforts by a sea-mile, a soul-searching voyage of discovery into Sting’s “personal heart of darkness” – and a pop-culture classic to set beside his other standards – that merits repeat hearings.

“This latest album has got the best reviews I’ve ever had – and the worst,” he was quoted as stating, back in 1991. “There’s a polarity about them which is quite extraordinary and, I suppose, in a way, confirming.” Yes, indeed. Confirming of life’s own polarities, such as they are; of the irreconcilable differences between what we perceive life to be and the ultimate reality of what our lives – and especially the end of our lives – can promise in return.

Writer’s Block

After …Nothing Like the Sun, his second solo outing, Sting experienced a severe case of writer’s block, a fallow three-year period wherein he “felt emotionally and creatively paralyzed,” as noted in his 2007 book Lyrics, “isolated, and unable to mourn. I just felt numb and empty, as if the joy had been leached out of my life. Eventually I talked myself into going back to work, and this somber collection of songs was the result. I became obsessed with my hometown [of Newcastle] and its history, images of boats and the sea, and my childhood in the shadow of the shipyards.”

Sting (cbsnews.com)
Sting (cbsnews.com)

These images and more are there, in all their heavy profusion and portent, in The Soul Cages. “The theme of the album is essentially about dealing with death,” he went on. “For me, at my age, it’s an important subject,” as I’m sure it is for most of us mortals. “As soon as I remembered the first memory of my life, everything started to flow. The first memory was of a ship… it was a very powerful image of this huge [vessel] towering above the house. Tapping into that was a godsend. I began with that, and the album just flowed,” as did the second cut, “All This Time,” one of the rocker’s all-time bounciest strains:

 

And all this time, the river flowed

Endlessly to the sea

If I had my way I’d take a boat from the river

And I’d bury the old man

I’d bury him at sea

 

It’s a clue as to what Sting would have done to comply with his dad’s dying wish (“And I’d bury the old man, I’d bury him at sea”) – if he had had his way, of course.

Now for the album’s abstruse title: “The title song,” Sting told Billboard Magazine, “is based on a fable about souls trapped under the sea in Davy Jones’ locker and how a sailor wagers the king of the sea to free them…”

Talk about a deal with the devil! That’s a whole lot of heavy lifting for an ace rock-n-roller to commit to, and a whole lot of philosophy for non-sophisticates to absorb and condense in one sitting. The effort will pay huge dividends, however, if one is patient and shrewd enough to listen to what the singer is trying to say. “When you lose both your parents,” he insisted, “you realize you’re an orphan. Sadness is a good thing, too, to feel a loss so deeply. You mustn’t let people insist on cheering you up.”

Far be it for me to step on anyone’s sullen thoughts. But the album is more than that: it’s a way of purging one’s being of the melancholy that persists after a loved one has departed this earth and is no longer around to offer guidance and hope.

“I think a lot of ghosts were exorcised with ‘The Soul Cages’,” he continued. “That album was very personal, confessional, and therapeutic in terms of facing death and loss. But I guess you could say the therapy worked, because now [back in 1993] I have a new sense of freedom, a desire to move on and make songs solely intended as entertainments, designed to amuse.”

Not to contradict a master songsmith, but there’s relatively little of what I would call “entertainment” in The Soul Cages, yet quite a lot that’s amusing – a welcome diversion from the “sting” of death, to put it plainly. For example, Sting pokes fun at the church and organized religion, a subject not so lightly lampooned, especially nowadays. With respect to matters ecclesiastical, there are lyrics in “All This Time” that perfectly capture the sentiments of our era.

The song takes place in Sting’s fictional boyhood home, on the day his father breathed his last. He and dad are about to receive some visitors from the local parish, two well-meaning heralds of their faith:

 

Two priests came round our house tonight

One young, one old, to offer prayers for the dying

To serve the final rite,

One to learn, one to teach,

Which way the cold wind blows

Fussing and flapping in priestly black

Like a murder of crows

 

Such poetic imagery, such verbal dexterity! The lines about “fussing and flapping in priestly black like a murder of crows” are barely disguised barbs at authority figures and how they get away with “murder” by dint of their office, even when they’re about to administer the so-called “final rite,” with the color “black” referring to the Grim Reaper’s guise (albeit in clerical garb). There’s also a brilliant illustration of Sting’s use of the collective, i.e., “a murder of crows,” the kind of mastery of language that today is nowhere in evidence among our major songwriters.

Oh, but there’s more. Sting takes a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount – the Beatitudes, to be precise – and twists it around in the form of a challenge to the two priests, whereby he questions their (and our) belief in suffering as the ultimate validation for our existence:

 

Blessed be the poor, for they shall inherit the earth

Better to be poor than be a fat man in the eye of a needle

And as these words were spoken I swear I hear

The old man laughing,

‘What good is a used up world, and how could it be

Worth having?’

 

Dad gets his chance to voice the last word on the subject, and in a most upbraiding fashion. Sting repeats the main chorus, but concludes it by posing another question to his guests:

 

Father, if Jesus exists,

Then how come he never lived here?

 

Religion was never part of this Newcastle household, he’s saying. What makes these clerics think their coming will change the status quo to any degree? What follows is Sting’s childish taunt, in essence a musical thumbing of his nose, amid the lead guitarist’s strumming and the doubling of Sting’s voice:

 

Hiyeah, hiyeah, yeah

Hiyeah, hiyeah, yeah

 

The final stanza is delivered in a higher key, and it contains one of Sting’s favorite themes depicting a historical fall from grace:

 

The teachers told us, the Romans built this place

They built a wall and a temple, an edge of the empire

Garrison town

They lived and they died, they prayed to their gods

But the stone gods did not make a sound

And their empire crumbled, ‘til all that was left

Were the stones the workmen found

 

After “all this time” and effort spent in building their impenetrable stronghold (see Sting’s earlier tune, “Fortress Around Your Heart,” from his premiere solo offering The Dream of the Blue Turtles, for another of life’s lessons about breaking down barriers); after all their prayers were offered up to false deities, the Roman (read: Catholic) Empire eventually gave way along with their physical surroundings. All was for naught, Sting tells the priests. He has juxtaposed the Romans’ dubious trust in their infallibility with the implausibility of their own creed:

 

Men go crazy in congregations

But they only get better

One by one

One by one…

———————————————————————————————-

(To Be Continued)

All songs were written and arranged by Sting © 1990 Magnetic Publishing, Ltd./Blue Turtle Music (ASCAP)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Carlos Gomes Reborn! A Long-Forgotten Brazilian Composer’s Music Returns to the Fore

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Composer Carlos Gomes
Composer Carlos Gomes

The problem of documenting Brazil’s cultural heritage and, more significantly, the benefits to be reaped by rediscovering her glorious musical past, can be seen in the preservation efforts devoted to a long-forgotten opera composer.

After several generations of derision and neglect, Campinas-born Antonio Carlos Gomes has belatedly bounced back from the edge of operatic oblivion and been thrust, once more, onto the center-stage. For the past fifteen years or so, Gomes’ image as an abject failure and unredeemable mediocrity has been “rescued,” so to speak, by a government entity once adverse to his works.

To what do we owe this renewed popularity and rebirth? Basically, to the groundbreaking efforts of Fundação Nacional de Arte (National Arts Foundation), better known in Brazil as Funarte, a federal non-profit organization entrusted with, among other things, the methodical compiling, researching, cataloguing, and recording of the entire Gomes canon of procurable pieces.

Conductor Luiz Fernando Malheiro, a powerful driving force behind this ambitious endeavor, enthusiastically decreed that, “Gomes is a composer that truly deserves to be revisited. He is very characteristic of the transition in Italian opera that was taking place before the turn of the century.”

“Musically, he is wonderfully majestic and he is important for us,” asserted Flávio Silva, Funarte’s coordinator of music. “He is the first Brazilian composer who really made an international career for himself, and without any special favors.”

This was quite a comeback for a native-born artist previously left out of the musical loop before the Modernist movement’s winds of change, way back in the halcyon days of the 1930s during Brazil’s heady nationalistic period — and by no less a compositional authority than the preeminent Heitor Villa-Lobos, the country’s own resident field expert at the time.

As a practical result of this unprecedented reevaluation, Funarte has been the favored recipient of a generous government grant — totaling roughly $450,000 reais or, at the then-current exchange rate, around US$ 220,000 — to recover and bring to light many of the campineiro’s previously lost compositions or misplaced manuscripts.

The endowment also released a CD-ROM containing the original scores of seven of Gomes’ operas, as well as some of the composer’s lesser known piano works.

Joana de Flandres -- Restored
Joana de Flandres — Restored Edition

Most impressively of all, his four-act 1863 opera, Joana de Flandres, originally thought to have been destroyed in a theater fire in Rio de Janeiro a few years after its premiere, was found in the archives of the city’s Museu Histórico Nacional, or National Historic Museum. The complete version of the opera was included in the CD-ROM package.

Straightaway, the miraculous Carlos Gomes mini-resurgence has been felt across both cultural and geographical borders with the compact-disc debut, in late November 2005 (on the Dynamic record label), of a live July 2004 performance of the complete Salvator Rosa, comprised exclusively of non-Brazilians, and staged in the Italian city of Martina Franco.

Alone among his completed works for the stage, Gomes’ 1874 masterwork, based on the same plot as Daniel Auber’s grand opera Masaniello – better known by its French title La Muette de Portici (“The Mute Girl of Portici”) – is a big favorite with Italian audiences, especially given the popularity of the concert aria, “Di sposo, di padre,” recorded by a variety of lower-voiced specialists, including such well-known adherents as Cesare Siepi, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and our present-day equivalent, the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott.

Starring the renowned Venetian basso, Francesco Ellero d’Artegna — himself a past winner of the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition in Philadelphia — Salvator Rosa featured the combined forces of the Bratislava Chamber Chorus and Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, under the watchful eye of maestro Maurizio Benini, who’s been making quite a splash at the Metropolitan Opera House, conducting the new Bartlett Sher production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.

“This whole Gomes phenomenon is great,” claimed André Heller-Lopes, an opera stage director in Rio and São Paulo and the recipient of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Carlos Gomes Prize, Brazil’s most prestigious award in the field of Opera and Classical Music, “[especially] if it is just a beginning, a turning point, to start looking at other Brazilian composers, too.”

(Note: This post is a compilation of several features, most notably an article by Joshua Dylan Mellars, entitled “One Hundred Years After His Death, Composer Carlos Gomes is Back in Style in His Native Brazil,” for the Website www.andante.com, to which I am indebted.)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Ring-a-Ding-Ding ‘Rigoletto’ – Viva Las Vegas at the Met

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Rigoletto Act 1, circa 1960s Las Vegas (dartmouth.edu)
Rigoletto Act 1, circa 1960s Las Vegas (dartmouth.edu)

Updating the settings of nineteenth century works to modern times is a fairly common practice in many opera houses, particularly in Europe. So it was not at all surprising that the Metropolitan Opera’s February 16 presentation of Verdi’s Rigoletto, an 1851 work I much admire and have mentioned on numerous occasions in other posts, finally got an extreme makeover in debuting director Michael Mayer’s new production.

In this version, the story takes place in Las Vegas around the year 1960, with the action revolving around a glitzy gambling casino, and its principal characters carbon copies of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Here, the Duke of Mantua is Ole Blue Eyes himself, with Rigoletto a cross between the acerbic Don Rickles and the razor-tongued Joey Bishop. The other courtiers – Borsa, Marullo, the Count and Countess Ceprano – are more or less operatic embodiments of Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Shirley MacLaine (or was it Marilyn Monroe?).

Of course, it’s impossible to “see” this latest venture on the radio, but one could “hear” the new story line in the singers’ voices and in their words. I’ll have to wait for the HD telecast in order to express my full opinion as to the visual qualities of this program, but for the most part (sonically speaking) what I heard I liked.

One of the more enjoyable aspects was the manner in which the conductor, a young man named Michele Mariotti, whipped the orchestra into line by coaxing a real performance out of the players. For the first time in my 45 years of listening to this work (live and in recordings), the orchestra was a real character, wholeheartedly taking part in the drama transpiring above. Mariotti made the Met’s musicians snap and crackle at every opportunity, at times speeding along ahead of the plot, at other times slowing down the pace – literally to a standstill.

Another admirable innovation (in this work, at least) was allowing the singers enough room to create an individual personality. Thus the Duke’s swagger was readily apparent, Gilda’s desperation was more prominent, and Rigoletto’s love and concern for his daughter, as well as his fear for her safety, all became part of the framework. My hat’s off to Mariotti for his accomplishment.

This was obviously the director’s plan all along, and it worked like a charm with respect to the players in the pit. However, the stage was another story. Again, judging strictly by what I heard, the singing was a mixed bag – some good, some great, others woefully inadequate. This, too, may have been part of the larger scheme of things: that is, to employ vocalists who could perform their tasks in tune to the new plot.

Zeljko Lucic (ilovfc.com)
Zeljko Lucic (ilovfc.com)

Still, I was disappointed in Željko Lučič’s Rigoletto. To begin with, the Serbian baritone’s voice, reminiscent of Swedish singer Ingvar Wixell in his prime, lacked Italianate warmth. It tended more toward the monotonous. His constant scooping up to notes from underneath was troublesome, while his soft singing became a bit of a chore – he strayed off pitch as often as he was flat. His contemplative approach to the role, one of opera’s greatest singing-acting challenges, while fixed to the director’s vision, did not convince me that his was a true Verdian voice. Just so readers won’t think I’m partial only to Italians, one of my favorite recorded Rigolettos is German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so there! With that said, Željko did fit into the general sonic palette outlined by Mayer. I just wasn’t at all moved by his portrayal.

As for the self-absorbed Duke, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was the very model of a swinging sixties hipster. Strangely, he ran aground in the opera’s most famous moment, the hit tune “La donna é mobile,” running out of breath at the aria’s climax. Despite that minor faux pas, Beczala sang marvelously well throughout, his voice ringing out with abandon, the character firmly in his grip. His Act II duet with German soprano Diana Damrau was a highlight of the show. He even attempted the high D at the end, not easily produced by the way. He also gave us the Duke’s rarely heard cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” although it was shorn of the repeat.

Beczala and Damrau in Rigoletto
Beczala and Damrau in Rigoletto, Act 1, scene ii

Damrau gave a superb rendition of Gilda, with fireworks to spare in her Act II aria, “Caro nome” – you know: the one the late comedian Victor Borge used to make fun of during one of his hilarious concert recitals. Beyond the coloratura, Damrau showed real spunk in a role that’s usually too low-key to be effective. No such difficulty here. Damrau was as determined a Gilda as I’ve ever heard. She paid the ultimate price by being stuffed in the trunk of a car, Mafia-hit style.

Incidentally, this version of Rigoletto was given almost note-complete, minus a few snippets here and there (in Gilda and the Duke’s duet mostly). How much beautifully the opera plays, I thought, when it’s presented uncut as this production was. Verdi’s carefully worked out reiterations are lost when these repeats are not adhered to. They make the drama flow in an orderly and logical progression. Cutting them only draws unneeded attention, a nasty practice in the Met’s heyday but mercifully abandoned today.

Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán was a booming, low-voiced Sparafucile, who earned considerable applause for his limitless low F during the conclusion of his duet with Lučič. Otherwise, his diction was mushy. The same could be said for the Maddalena, sung by mezzo Oksana Volkova, who was fine but no more. It’s not her fault the role is so short. Besides, most Maddalena’s make their greatest impact visually anyway. The other cast members, including the excellent Giovanna of Maria Zifchak (subbing for the indisposed Edyta Kulczak), the ineffectual Monterone of Robert Pomakov (he wasn’t nearly as thunderous as he needed to be; he was more mincing instead – perhaps that was the idea?), Alexander Lewis as a pleasant sounding Borsa, Emalie Savoy as a throwaway Countess Ceprano, and David Crawford as her husband, the Count Ceprano, were supportive in their way.

While this performance had its share of surprises – the most pleasant being the reinvigorated and totally involved orchestra reading – the singers needed more time to make a fuller impact. Perhaps a few cast changes later on in the run, or at its next revival, will make this Rigoletto truly soar. For now, not even Ole Blues Eyes could hit that jackpot – ring-a-ding-ding, indeed.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Five: Carmen Goes Bananas

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Carmen Miranda in Hollywood (dvdtalk.com)
Carmen Miranda in Hollywood (dvdtalk.com)

A Night to Remember

As bad as the experience of being booed in Rio’s Teatro Municipal may have been for Bidu Sayão, it was nothing compared to the cold shoulder offered by her own callous countrymen to Brazil’s cultural ambassador of the war years, the exciting (and excitable) Carmen Miranda.

The flashy entertainer’s runaway success on the New York stage during the 1939-40 Broadway show season had only begun to whet the appetites of post-Depression era audiences starved for more novel and adventuresome theater fare. César Ladeira, one of Rio’s most well-known radio personalities, also found himself in the Big Apple, broadcasting the remarkable news of Carmen’s triumphant debut on the Great White Way to all of Brazil.

Accounts from that period reported that traffic had stalled outside the Broadhurst Theatre where she was appearing. In fact, the streets were virtually clogged with noisy automobiles. Carmen and her band (which included a young musician named Aloysio de Oliveira, who became not only the up-and-coming star’s interpreter and impromptu guide, but her live-in lover as well) were huddled together at an all-night restaurant, waiting for the early edition of The Daily Mirror to arrive.

The first of the headlines pronounced producer Lee Shubert’s The Streets of Paris a dud, but it praised Carmen’s participation to high heaven: “A new and grandiose star is born on Broadway!” wrote the notoriously opinionated Walter Winchell. Next, from the New York Journal-American: “Carmen Miranda stops the show!” And then, from the New York Post: “You could see the whites of her eyes from row 25!” And from theater critic Brooks Atkinson for the New York Times: “The heat that Carmen generated last night may well blow out the city’s air-conditioning system this winter!”

The final banner, however, said it all: it proclaimed Carmen Miranda to be the “Brazilian Bombshell,” the nickname she will be stuck with for the remainder of her American career. Indeed, her initial Broadway outing segued directly into Carmen’s U.S. film debut in the musical comedy Down Argentine Way, which starred Betty Grable and Don Ameche.

Down Argentine Way poster art (impawards.com)
Down Argentine Way poster art (impawards.com)

Released in early 1940, this first of several Twentieth Century-Fox productions featuring the exotic performer was an immediate smash with enchanted movie audiences. Interestingly, because of her contractual commitments (and Shubert’s refusal to let her leave for Hollywood), the studio sent a camera crew to New York in order to capture Carmen and Bando da Lua during a break in the action.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Whether she played Argentines, Cubans, Mexicans or Brazilians, movie fans clamored for more of Carmen; and the Fox Studios wisely obliged, signing the lively songstress to a generous six-figure salary (her clashes with lecherous studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, were a highlight of her years there) that would soon make her the highest paid female entertainer in the United States:

“Hollywood, it has treated me so nicely,” Carmen was quoted as saying, “I am ready to faint. As soon as I see Hollywood, I love it!”

But just before her West Coast film career took off in earnest, Carmen and her Bando da Lua paid a return visit to Brazil – and to the Cassino da Urca, the Rio de Janeiro nightspot that was the site of their earliest stage triumphs. Expecting to be greeted as they had been in the States, i.e., with wide-open warmth and fully appreciative affection, they could not have been more confounded by the chilly atmosphere that waited for them inside.

There have been many theories put forth for Carmen’s overly cool reception at the Urca: from the unusually stuffy society crowd present, which included the wife of conservative strongman Getúlio Vargas (allegedly, one of the singer’s former lovers but long since disproved by journalist Ruy Castro); to the range of material chosen for the affair, an innocuous combination of sambas and Carnival march favorites peppered with Tin Pan Alley pop tunes.*

A perfect example of the type of number that drew such ire from fans can be sampled in a revealing sequence from 1944’s Greenwich Village. In it, the star comes on to deliver a minor Leo Robin-Nacio Herb Brown song, “Give Me a Band and a Bandana.” Abruptly shifting gears, she slips into an ebullient rendition (complete with exaggeratedly rolled r’s) of Dorival Caymmi’s classic, “O que é que a baiana tem?” Then a minute later, she reverts back to bands and bandanas.

The sudden transition from Carmen’s heavily accented English to free-flowing Brazilian Portuguese – and back again – is still quite jarring, even to our modern ears. One can only imagine the shock it must have engendered in Brazilian audiences at the time upon hearing this musical mishmash. In reality, she most probably gave the folks at the Urca Casino a logical representation of the kinds of tunes that bowled hard-to-please New Yorkers over.

There were other motives for her poor showing, one of them being a persistent and troublesome cold that dogged her every time she traveled by boat. Another reason was the casino’s use of an unfamiliar orchestra behind her instead of her usual six-man lineup.

These paltry explanations, however, fail to provide a truly satisfying glimpse into the ambivalent feelings conveyed by that Rio nightclub audience toward the baffled diva. Ostensibly, a common enough fate had befallen Carmen that had also been shared by Bidu Sayão, Carlos Gomes, and several other of their fellow citizens, particularly when confronted with their own notable achievements away from Brazilian soil: that of a tangible and totally unwarranted resentment for having made it big abroad without their country’s approval or consent — as if these were absolutely necessary to affirm one’s position at home, or anywhere else, for that matter.

As sociologist Roberto da Matta once observed about former soccer player Pelé, “To be successful outside of Brazil is considered a personal offense to Brazilians.” This simple yet insightful analysis was never more accurate than when applied to the seesawing musical endeavors of Carmen Miranda.

After that critically panned appearance, the dejected singer and her band withdrew for a two-month rest, a period principally taken up by the group to revamp its basic song structure into something that more closely resembled an overt form of social commentary.

Carmen and Bando da Lua, with Aloysio de Oliveira, bottom right (mec.gov.br)
Carmen and Bando da Lua, with Aloysio de Oliveira, bottom right (mec.gov.br)

With that in mind, Carmen emerged from her isolation brandishing a buoyant new number, “Disseram que eu voltei americanizada” (“They say that I came back Americanized”), in the faces of previously unresponsive patrons. A cracklingly lyrical defense of her supposed conversion to American ways — and mockery of some distinctly Brazilian ones — this cleverly written topical ditty, presented in the form of a samba-canção, was a huge hit in Rio. It accomplished the desired effect by re-catapulting the star to the top of her seaside area stomping-ground:

Disseram que voltei americanizada
Com o burro do dinheiro
Que estou muito rica,
Que não suporto mais o breque do pandeiro

E fico arrepiada ouvindo uma cuíca.
Disseram que com as mãos estou preocupada
E corre por aí, que eu sei, certo zum-zum
Que já não tenho molho, ritmo, nem nada
E dos balangandãs, já existe mais nenhum.
Mas pra cima de mim, pra que tanto veneno?
Eu posso lá ficar americanizada
Eu nasci com o samba e vivo no terreiro
Cantando a noite inteira, a velha batucada.
Nas rodas de malandro, minhas preferidas
Eu digo mesmo ‘eu te amo’ e nunca ‘I love you’
Enquanto houver Brasil, na hora das comidas
Eu sou do camarão ensopadinho com xuxu.

They say that I came back Americanized
Loaded down with money

That I am filthy rich
That I can no longer stand the sound of the pandeiro (“tambourine”)
And I bristle when I hear a cuíca
And they say that I’m always busy with my hands
And there’s a rumor going around
That I have no more spice, no more rhythm, no more anything,
And all the bangles that I used to wear don’t exist anymore, not one
But why are you throwing all this bitterness at me?
How could I come back Americanized?
I was born with the samba and live where it is played
Where it is sung all night long, that old samba beat.
In the street where the hustlers are, they are my favorites,
I still say ‘eu te amo,’ and never ‘I love you.’
As long as there is Brazil, whenever it is mealtime,
I still order shrimp soup laced with cucumbers.

(Luiz Peixoto / Vicente Paiva)

But the damage to her unshakeable self-esteem had been done. Had she really turned her back on her own people? Had she abandoned the poor favelados (“slum dwellers”) she had so sympathetically sung about, for the easy money and get-rich-quick schemes of greedy North American capitalists? Had she sold off her highly prized charms so cheaply to New York audiences for a fleeting grasp at personal gain, as they all claimed she had?

None of these charges were true, of course, but the negative aspersions that continued to be cast at Carmen while she was holed up in Rio would only serve to strengthen her iron-willed resolve to pin her future career hopes on wartime America.

"The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," from The Gang's All Here, 1943 (mec.gov.br)
“The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” from 1943 (mec.gov.br)

Disappointingly, the remainder of her Hollywood-film output would consist of a mixed-bag of garish Technicolor spectacles (That Night in Rio, 1941; Weekend in Havana, 1941; Springtime in the Rockies, 1942; Greenwich Village, 1944), ridiculous tutti-frutti headgear (The Gang’s All Here, 1943), and uninspired comedic romps (Four Jills in a Jeep, 1944; Something for the Boys, 1944; Doll Face and If I’m Lucky, 1946; Copacabana with comedian Groucho Marx, 1947; A Date With Judy and Nancy Goes to Rio, 1948), culminating in an ignoble guest effort in the 1953 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis haunted-house spoof Scared Stiff.

While they proved financially lucrative at the box office, these projects were eminently unworthy of her talents, which extended past her familiar, hip-swinging milieu to fashioning and designing her own elaborate wardrobe, footwear and headgear.

In spite of the risk to her carefully constructed stage image, the mid-career tradeoff of her Latin-based musical livelihood for the uncertainty of Los Angeles’ fickle film community was a chance that Carmen Miranda was only too willing to take, and never given enough credit for having done so.

In giving up her uniquely Brazilian identity for an all-purpose, stereotypical compilation of ersatz Latinate femininity, she acquired a definitive degree of international recognition — along with a hefty amount of notoriety, as that infamous snapshot of Carmen without her underpants would plainly reveal.

Moreover, the drastic modulation of her inbred Brazilianness, mingled with the bland indifference her compatriots had detachedly shown her at Cassino da Urca in Rio, deeply affected Carmen’s inner psyche and helped to erode what little pride she had left in her American accomplishments.

David Sebastian and Carmen, Los Angeles 1955 (Corbis, Vogue)
David Sebastian and Carmen, Los Angeles 1955 (Corbis, Vogue)

These, in turn, would serve as the absorbing subject matter of numerous posthumous books, articles, and publications — in addition to a revelatory cinematic study, Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1994), by Brazilian filmmaker Helena Solberg about the entertainer’s later life struggles. Highlighted by a whirlwind 1947 marriage to minor American movie producer David Sebastian; a longtime dependence on uppers and downers; an abortion and miscarriage; alcohol abuse; depression; hypochondria; electroshock therapy, and more, Carmen’s mounting personal misfortunes would combine to bring about her complete mental and physical breakdown sometime in late 1954.

The prescribed method of treatment involved a four-month period of rest and recuperation in Brazil — her first trip there in fourteen years, spent reacquainting herself with relatives and old friends, and slipping in and out of seclusion at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

She returned soon after to the U.S. to quickly resume her busy nightclub and television schedule — too quickly, some would say later (thanks to her husband David and his persistent transcontinental phone calls urging her to come back), leading to a silent heart attack as she finished taping a strenuous dance sequence for The Jimmy Durante Show on August 4, 1955.*

Later on at her Beverly Hills mansion, in the early morning hours of August 5, her lifeless body was found. She had expired prematurely at 46, the victim of cardiac arrest due to occlusion of the coronary arteries.

(End of Part Five)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* A December 1954 interview for the magazine Manchete had Carmen reporting that her most requested floor numbers were the songs “Mamãe eu quero” (“I Want My Mama”) – parodied in 1941’s Babes on Broadway by none other than a youthfully vigorous Mickey Rooney in drag – “Tico-tico no fubá,” “Delicado,” and “Chiquita banana,” in that order.

* Footage from the TV episode clearly shows Carmen’s knees buckling out from under her, as she impulsively grabs hold of comedian Durante’s hand to steady herself and keep her body from stumbling. It was a jaw-dropping moment, guaranteed to make one blanch at the thought of what would come next.

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Five: Carlos Gomes, All Work and Little to No Play

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All these pressures only served to exacerbate Gomes’ growing despondency over his lot. The one hope he had for resurrecting his career was anchored in the mistaken belief that his past and current associations with greatness would lead to greatness rubbing off.

Poet & librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni (members.xoom.virgilio.it)
Poet & librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni (members.xoom.virgilio.it)

Although some of Verdi’s own librettists — Antonio Ghislanzoni and Arrigo Boito being the most well-known — supplied texts or revisions to several of Gomes’ works, in the long run they did nothing to help earn his operas a permanent place in the standard repertoire. Furthermore, the composer’s work habits were often erratic, as a peremptory burst of enthusiasm for a subject would give way to complete abandonment of the idea soon after.*

Poet and playwright Ghislanzoni, a former neighbor and frequent collaborator, pictured the tormented Brazilian as “full of enthusiasms and disappointments, impulses and uncertainties, noble intentions and unjustified insecurities so typical of the irreconcilable attitude of one who struggles to produce a masterpiece.” This was an exceptionally accurate portrait.

He went on to describe his friend’s compulsive obsession with public opinion, which had an unusually negative effect on his writing, and with what potential reviewers had to say about his works in general.

Gomes had every reason to be concerned. Although they were popular in their day, the quality of the music to be found in many of his scores was inconsistent and derivative, what one modern critic (referring to Guarany) labeled “a clichéd stew of Verdian heroics and Donizettian flightiness,” and another termed “Bellini without tunes, Rossini without wit.”

These may seem like unduly harsh statements, but they are not far from the mark. For, as we have seen, Gomes chose as his musical models the operas of early- and middle-period Verdi; spiced with the unwieldy five-act opuses of Meyerbeer, whose oeuvres were already considered passé just as the composer approached his creative prime; and topped them off with a dash of Wagnerian leitmotif, for which he was severely taken to task by the press — ironic, in that he was often accused of being old-fashioned and out-of-touch with the musical mainstream.

Carlos Gomes (renatacortezsica.com.br)
Carlos Gomes, in his later years (renatacortezsica.com.br)

Gomes was soon eclipsed, if not entirely overshadowed, by the mature Verdi’s late career output, which included the aforementioned Aida and Otello along with the Requiem Mass (1874) and Falstaff (1893). There was also a whole new stylistic form called verismo (“realism”) to contend with and new challengers on the Italian front to defend against, among them Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890), Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892), Alfredo Catalani (La Wally, 1892), and the up-and-coming Puccini, whose Manon Lescaut caused a sensation at its 1893 premiere in Turin, which Gomes attended.

While it may only be partially true that his imagination was set free by specifically Brazilian-related themes and ideas, Gomes did manage to derive a certain status, if one could call it that, as a composer of Italian opera, despite the presence of so many of Europe’s finest talents.

It was not so much feelings of inferiority that finally did Gomes in, so to speak, as that of the quality of the competition. History eventually relegated the campineiro to a position not unlike that of Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri vis-à-vis the extraordinary body of work produced by that sublime musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Overall, his situation proved much closer to Herr Mozart’s than to either Salieri’s or Verdi’s, in that, post-Guarany, he managed to retain a respectable enough portion of his earnings to have led a fairly modest lifestyle, but was unable to resist spending it all on his lavish estate and for mere appearances’ sake.

If only Gomes had learned to master his emotions; if only he had been blessed with a few more years of robust health and creativity; if only he had better managed his affairs, both personal and financial; if only he had been given a lower quotient of inferior libretti to work with; and, most emphatically of all, if only the opera world (and his fellow Brazilians) had insisted on treating him equitably and with a degree of equanimity, then perhaps the performance history of his works might today be different from that which we already know.

Bye-Bye, Belém

Poor timing and equally bad luck would continue to badger the unfortunate composer all the way back to his native land. In fragile health from years of neglect; battered by bouts of depression over the earlier deaths of three of his five children, intermittently relieved by the liberal ingestion of opium and laudanum; and constantly hounded by creditors, the “man who would be Verdi” came back to Brazil one last time, in May of 1896, to assume the directorship of the Belém Conservatory in Pará, at the mouth of the Amazon River, which for him was a personal and artistic nadir compared to his previous triumphs.

“If my ailment means the death of me,” he was quoted as saying just before he abandoned the Continent for good, “then I’d rather my death be in Brazil.”

 *          *          *

Antonio Carlos Gomes got his wish: he passed away of throat cancer on September 16, 1896, only four months after he took up his post and in the same year that opera was about to delight in a decade-long rebirth in the region. He was 60 years old, but his legacy would forever be assured as the first and only internationally recognized composer of Brazilian national opera the country would ever produce; and the first of his musical line to truly make Brazil’s Fat Lady sing.

Writer Rubem Fonseca, author of the fiction novel O Selvagem da Ópera (“The Savage of the Opera”), sagaciously reminds us, in his Sisyphean account of the composer’s turbulent life, that “…the savage Brazilian maestro did not do a savage opera… [F]rom the moment that he writes an opera, a savage artist stops being a savage. Antithetically, Carlos Gomes wants to be recognized as a great musician, in his country and in the ‘civilized world’: so becoming a European artist is the fastest and safest way of achieving what he wishes.”

Gomes as "Ibere" (Veja Magazine)
Gomes as “Ibere” (Veja Magazine)

The November 1889 issue of the publication Veja na História was printed not five days after the Proclamation of the Republic. It featured a period caricature of the composer as Iberê, the hero of Lo Schiavo (“The Slave”). Here, as his contemporaries envisioned him, was the “great musician” in full jungle attire: portrayed as a Tarzan-like creature in flowing dark mustaches, he is dressed in animal skins, with a bow in his right hand and a sword at his side, his thick, matted hair standing straight on end. His feet are bare and his right leg rests atop several large volumes of his vocal scores — Gomes the “slave,” in all his finery, neither completely Brazilian nor fully European.

One thinks of Verdi’s Iago, sarcastically barking the line, “Ecco il Leone!” – “Behold the Lion!” over the prostrate body of the former slave-turned-general Otello. Only here, Gomes is upright, yet his fall from grace is no less pronounced. Despite a lifetime spent in the “civilized world” of the theater, the “Italian” composer from Campinas never ceased being a “savage Brazilian maestro” — even after eight completed operas, two musical revues, and a symphonic poem with chorus, in addition to numerous chamber works, art songs, orchestral music, as well as sacred and salon pieces.

In contrast to how he was depicted in life, a beautiful marble bust of Gomes, sculpted by the Genovese artist Achille Canessa, reposes in the great hall of the Teatro da Paz Opera House, in the northern city of Belém, as a posthumous tribute to the man and his works. It occupies an august spot next to the bust of a relatively unknown fellow composer named Henrique Eulálio Gurjão.

The irony of juxtaposing the perceived greatness of a Carlos Gomes with the almost total obscurity of an Henrique Gurjão cannot be lost on the casual viewer: of course, Gomes towers head and shoulders above his unfamiliar countryman; but he stumbles ever so markedly — and so utterly — before the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and Bellini.

Bust of Gomes (Photo: Andressa Silva, All rights reserved)
Bust of Gomes, left (Photo: Andressa Silva, All rights reserved)

We need only to be reminded of the ephemeral quality of fame and of how truly fleeting the memory of a great artist can be when compared to that of his peers. ☼

(End of Part Five)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Some of the more elaborate titles Gomes was known to have worked on included: Emma di Catania, Oltrada, Palmira, Os Mosqueteiros do Rei (“The King’s Musketeers”), Marinella, Morena, O Cântico dos Cânticos (“The Canticle of Canticles”), Gli Zingari (“The Gypsies”), Eros, Moema, Leona, Ninon de Lenclos, and Kaila. All were left untouched or unfinished at his death.