Live From Lincoln Center: ‘Carousel’ – How We Love This Musical, and Why

Cast of Carousel at Lincoln Center

Cast of Carousel at Lincoln Center

According to Kander and Ebb, life is a cabaret. But with Rodgers and Hammerstein, it’s a lot closer to a carousel: life goes round and round and round, but where it stops… nobody truly knows. We do know one thing, though: musical theater hasn’t been the same since.

Their classic Carousel was the closest Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II ever came to an actual opera. Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, with book and lyrics by a young Hammerstein, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s initial collaboration, the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, were its models and predecessors, but Carousel was the show that paved the way toward a fuller, more complete unification of words, music, dance, scenic and story elements.

In all three of these works there is constant orchestral underscoring, as well as singing in a most lyrical vein. With Carousel, however, we are witnesses to that point of departure where musical “comedy” ends and musical “theater” – our modern-day musical theater – takes off and begins to make huge strides in a way not seen in 1945, the year of the show’s debut.

The Live from Lincoln Center presentation of Carousel, broadcast by PBS on Friday, April 26, 2013, brought these undercurrents to the fore. This was a fully realized concert performance of the work, with the famed New York Philharmonic on stage throughout in superb fashion. There is nothing like hearing a full symphony orchestra at work in this gorgeous, melodious, and supremely sophisticated score. As such, Carousel is no ordinary musical, nor does it have an ordinary plot line, either. There are real world concerns at play: wife beating, domestic violence, unemployment, premeditated murder, robbery, attempted rape, even prostitution and promiscuity, not frivolous operetta subjects such as merry widows or eccentric counts. This is what might be called “serious” musical theater, and the production and acting reflected it.

Based on Ferenc Molnár’s 1908 play Liliom, this revival featured a powerhouse cast headed by Nathan Gunn as carnival barker Billy Bigelow, Kelli O’Hara as mill worker Julie Jordan, Jessie Mueller as Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge, Jason Daniely as her ambitious fiancé and fisherman Enoch Snow, Stephanie Blythe as Julie’s loving cousin Nettie, Shuler Hensley as the slimy Jigger Craigpin (what a name for a bad guy!), and stage veteran John Collum in the dual role of The Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon. The New York Philharmonic was led by Rob Fisher, whose previous credits include a semi-staged concert version of Sweeney Todd. The Act II ballet sequence was performed by dancer Tilar Peck, as Billy’s daughter Louise, and Robert Fairchild, both of the New York City Ballet.

Carousel’s overture starts off with some mournful low notes in the brass, which quickly give way to the buoyant carousel theme. The prominence of strings, wind instruments and tuba give this jarring piece the feeling of spinning around in circles, of a rollicking good time before the fun ends (and reality sets in). A short while later, the beautiful “If I Loved You” is heard. This number, a masterpiece of musical subtlety, helps to introduce the main characters. The duet, or should I say a compilation of various solo pieces, is so well integrated into Rodgers’ musical fabric that these individual airs blend seamlessly into one another, while the main “If I Loved You” theme acts as a recurring motif for the remainder of the show.

Billy (Nathan Gunn) & Julie (Kelli O'Hara)

Billy (Nathan Gunn) & Julie (Kelli O’Hara)

Here’s where the likable Miss Julie Jordan meets the shady Mr. Billy Bigelow, two of the most beloved characters in musical theater history. They recount their separate stories to each other, or as much of their stories as they wish to impart at that moment. The possibility of a future life together are divulged not only for the audience’s benefit but for theirs as well, each conveying to the other how much they love, may love, don’t love, but could love the other (their snappy repartee would give most shrinks the willies). Rodgers and Hammerstein achieved an unprecedented fusion of dialogue with brief extracts of musical notations in this, their most understated work. Billy and Julie trade “punches,” musically speaking, to be replaced with physical punches of abuse later on (this is no ordinary 1940s couple, that’s for certain).  Their reverie concludes with a passionate kiss and marriage – not one made in heaven mind you, as we shall see.

Waltz tunes appear throughout, and derive from Viennese operetta (the second-act opener “A Real Nice Clambake” is a perfect example), surely an Oscar Hammerstein holdover from Show Boat — the very model of a turn-of-the-century American musical. Other numbers skillfully juxtapose about-to-be-wedded bliss (the courtship of Julie’s friend, Carrie, and the pompous Mr. Snow), with the unpleasantness of Billy and Julie’s subsequent married life: trust, faith and interdependency are replaced by anger, disillusion and disappointment. As American a theater piece as Our Town or Porgy and Bess, Carousel invokes an ennobling sense of community, of belonging to a wider and deeper whole; of being alive and being active, of participating in life’s labors, of living, loving, marrying, giving birth, and dying – the cycle repeating itself in diverse ways, in particular with Billy returning to earth to see and touch and speak to his estranged daughter Louise, who never got to know her father while he was alive.

A Worthy Revival

I found this Lincoln Center revival of Carousel to be an extraordinary musical experience, with so many wonderful numbers flowing one after another: “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “What’s the Use of Wondr’in,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and, of course, “Soliloquy” – the most famous and, it turns out, most witty, most elaborate, and most technically advanced showstopper ever written for the musical stage; that is, before the advent of Stephen Sondheim and his psychologically penetrating oeuvre.

To me, John Raitt, the original Billy Bigelow, and (in film and recordings) the irreplaceable Gordon MacRae, are the perfect embodiment of this problematic, difficult to admire character. The scene of Billy’s suicide still brings a lump to one’s throat and is the emotional highpoint of the drama, even 60 years after the show’s premiere. How could its creators have killed off their lead character? Well, they did, and the show has gone on to triumph, night after night, ever since. Baritone Nathan Gunn as Billy came close to achieving perfection in this scene, and in this part, although the role’s tessitura is a shade high for him. Most lyric singers can manage it, however, and Gunn earned kudos for having given it his all. Frank Sinatra, who was slated to star in Twentieth Century-Fox’s film adaptation with Shirley Jones, never could master the role’s complexity or find the crux of the character’s soul. He was replaced, thank heaven, by Mr. MacRae. Here, Gunn was especially moving, showing off Billy’s carnival-barker swagger to good effect, in addition to his not-so-well disguised vulnerability, a tough feat to accomplish.

Kelli O’Hara as the sweetly unassuming Julie Jordan was so pleasant, so charming, and so thoroughly captivating (but not in a mawkish way), what man in his right mind could resist marrying such a girl? It helped that her singing was of the highest order, which gave her numbers added sparkle and warmth – a heartfelt, lovely performance.

Netti (Stephanie Blythe)

Nettie (Stephanie Blythe)

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Nettie dominated with her every appearance, with that tremendous vocal apparatus and skillful stage deportment of hers. Who said size doesn’t matter? And she employed that sizable contralto wisely in the potently hymn-like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” as powerful a tune as Rodgers and Hammerstein could conjure up. It’s resemblance to “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music, and the fact that another contralto role, that of the Mother Superior, was entrusted to deliver it, makes me want to wait for Blythe’s next musical assignment with baited breath!

Jessie Mueller’s Carrie and Jason Daniely’s Mr. Snow complemented each other beautifully: she, simple, plain-spoken, and down-to-earth; he, whiny, self-centered, and full of money-making schemes. John Collum nearly stole the show with his brief albeit crusty incarnations. Shuler Hensley as Jigger used his height and bulk to advantage in creating a contrasting foil for Billy. How this villainous character reminds me of Judd Fry, minus that fellow’s less frequently performed “Lonely Room.” In fact, all of Carrie and Snow’s numbers are so like Laurey and Curly’s duets from Oklahoma! It’s as if Rodgers and Hammerstein were giving all the best songs to the secondary couple (not so, of course, but that’s the impression – more examples of the growing importance of secondary characters to a musical’s plot).

With that, Carousel can be called one hundred percent musical theater, the kind that leaves most of what we know as musical theater far, far behind. The enthusiastic reception it received at Avery Fisher Hall was ample evidence of how this show still has an effect on people: its truths about the human experience, the elevation of the working stiff (a.k.a. the common man) to the status of saints, mark this work as from another period entirely – i.e., the proletarian dramas of the Depression Era 1930s. The Protestant work ethic is made evident, along with sympathy for the downtrodden among us, for those unsung heroes of labor, the fishermen, the dock workers, the servants, the working-class citizen and his ilk, no doubt an Oscar Hammerstein concern, which first appeared in his book for Show Boat, based on a novel by Edna Ferber.

These same social concerns showed up in Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and Flower Drum Song, and continued on in the stellar work of Frank Loesser with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the ultimate lazy man’s guide to making it in the corporate workplace; with Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady; with Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy; with Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ Sweet Charity; and with Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ The Pajama Game. They even turned up (to a point) in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, with working class anxieties spilling over into an industrialized England (“But there’s no place like London”), where a warped sense of honor and revenge give way to murderous intent and the obsessively pathological.

Still, a good musical will always outshine the competition. It will always be a good musical, whether it’s revived or not. But a truly great musical, with classic show tunes, is not only revived; it can beget other great musicals. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s case, Oklahoma! begat Carousel, their greatest musical achievement ever, which begat the above named stream of shows – which then became a roaring river of hits. What better proof is there of the genre’s continuing relevance and influence than this latest revival?

The secret to Carousel’s success, and its enduring popularity among musical theater connoisseurs, is its fondness for simple truths. So continue to hold your chin up high, Carousel. And don’t be afraid of the dark. Walk on, with hope in your heart. For as a musical, you’ll never walk alone.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes 

‘Sadness Has No End’ – Part Seven: A Mythical Man for All Seasons

Toni Garrido as Orfeu (

Toni Garrido as Orfeu (

All This, and Rio Too!

All the dramatic weight of Cacá Diegues’ Orfeu production fell onto the shoulders of one Antonio Bento da Silva Filho, known widely to world-music fans by his stage name, Toni Garrido, the charismatic young star of the samba-reggae group Cidade Negra, or “Black City” — a multi-talented composer and performer from the Baixada Fluminense suburb of Rio de Janeiro, who lent the arduous assignment an unaccustomed air of authenticity.

“I didn’t need a laboratory to learn about the reality this film portrays,” Garrido offered to reviewers. “I’m a black guy who was born in a favela… I understand the favela’s code of honor and… what it means to be a poor dude who lives for his art and sees it as a springboard to better things. I was able to draw on a life experience that is essential to the poetic sensibility of the film.” Well put!

Indeed, Garrido’s focus on the artistic soul of the divine Thracian minstrel fell directly into line with what Dr. Lúcia Nagib, an Associate Professor of Film History and Theory, in Campinas, had later underscored in her book The New Brazilian Cinema: Orfeu’s one chance for “redemption and his [only] way out of misery,” she tells us, “[is] through art, through myth and/or through the media.”

“Orfeu is a poet,” Garrido let on, “a person who wants… better things for the shantytown, through culture, art, etc. He is passionate and happy with his life. I have the [goal] of making this Orfeu more beautiful because I know how important he was to Vinicius.” The Little Poet would have been pleased.

About the challenges facing the novice movie actor, director Diegues, with an almost fatherly concern for his choice, had this to add: “He was the one who had all the elements to be the Orfeu that we imagined. Toni doesn’t have to interpret the role of Orfeu. He is Orfeu, and the fact that he is a musician means that he can project onto the screen all the nobility and poetry of Brazilian popular music.”

Maybe so, but if that was his sole argument for casting a non-professional as the lead in his new picture, not every critic bought into it, finding the swarthy pop singer an impressive but emotionally bland figure throughout and, therefore, rather lacking in the depth of expression the pivotal part required, especially in his key scenes with the smoldering Murilo Benício as the drug lord.

Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca (

Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca (

The fate of Toni’s one and only star turn (to date) was no different from that of former futebol player-turned-aspiring film idol Breno Mello, whose athletically refined features embodied Black Orpheus to perfection in Marcel Camus’ idealized visualization of this “mythical national character,” as Nagib refers to him in her book. He went on to appear in very little else, I’m sorry to say, this being the first of a relatively minor handful of screen sojourns for Breno.*

One must admit that, while these two exceptionally fine specimens were physically too marvelous for words, they were both as stiff as boards, with the added distraction of Mello’s voice and guitar playing having been all-too obviously dubbed by others — not a problem for Garrido, who brought his own singing and strumming skills to the role.

(End of Part Seven)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

* Mello made five more flicks — all of them flops! — before returning to his preferred sport. His excuse was that “the Brazilian film industry was not rich enough to support [me].” He was married twice and left five children at his death on July 14, 2008 at age seventy-six, in his hometown of Porto Alegre. His co-star, Marpessa Dawn (born Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor, near Pittsburgh) followed him a little more than a month later, on August 25, at her home in Paris. She was seventy-four. A dancer, bit player, one-time governess, and sporadic nightclub entertainer, Dawn was also twice married — her first, to the director of the film that brought her instant fame, Marcel Camus — with five children of her own, in addition to four surviving grandchildren.

Behind the Curtains – Tina Salles, Artistic Coordinator for Möeller & Botelho’s Shows

Obsessed with schedules and organization, the artistic coordinator of Rio’s major musicals became an expert in creating order out of chaos

By Rafael Teixeira for Veja Rio: April 13, 2013

Tina Salles (Veja Rio)

Tina Salles (Veja Rio)

With 32 shows to their credit, the team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho has become the biggest reference point for musical theater in Brazil. Currently, they have no fewer than three simultaneous shows in production, each of them playing to packed houses: The Wizard of Oz and Milton Nascimento – Nothing Will Be as Before, in São Paulo, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in Rio.

One of the most important ingredients in their recipe for success (but practically invisible to the public eye) goes by the name of Anna Christina Salles Coelho de Araujo Pinto, or simply Tininha [“Little Tina”]. The use of that diminutive nickname is befitting of her 5-foot, 3-inch stature, yet inversely proportional to the size of her responsibility. As artistic coordinator for the duo’s many shows, this 45-year-old single woman from Rio – “I’m married to my work,” she admits –, concerns herself with every aspect of production. “She’s my boss,” concedes Möeller, with his colleague, Botelho, nodding in agreement.

To produce a show with dozens of actor-singers on stage, with live music, elaborate scenery and a battalion of employees backstage and in the wings, is an extremely complex task. In the case of directors Möeller and Botelho’s musicals, there’s ample evidence of Tininha’s fingerprints on just about every aspect of the process — from the germ of an idea to the finished product. From the outset, one part of her job is in the choice of a team, from technicians and musicians to the individual cast members. For example, it was through her intervention that six years ago the directors got to know actress Tatih Köhler, currently playing in Milton Nascimento — Nothing Will Be as Before. The two were so impressed they created the character [of Clara] in 7 – The Musical, a show they staged in 2007, especially for her.

Tininha is also responsible for overseeing the work of those areas involved in putting together the orchestra, choreography, costumes and set designs, among many others, serving as a link between them all. From an ill-fitting wig to an out-of-tune musician, she’s there to resolve it. “Tininha’s what I’d call the conductor of the conductor,” claims Gregorio Duvivier, who portrays the protagonist J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business.

Of her many talents, however, none is more recognized than her schedule planning. On the first day of rehearsals, Tininha has already organized everyone’s calendars right up to the premiere. Unlike what takes place in most theatrical productions, the regimen she employs is British-style punctuality. “Everything has a starting and closing time. That way, everybody feels their work is being respected,” explains Tininha, who’s known for managing a thousand and one problems without ever raising her voice. In this quiet, unassuming manner, she handles more specific issues, such as how to combine rehearsals for dancing and singing, so as not to force the cast’s muscles or throats, but still keeping in mind actors with special needs, such as those who have outside commitments while participating in rehearsals. Such competence has even led to a joke among insiders. “When actors who’ve previously worked with us are involved in less organized shows, they say that Tininha is what’s missing,” Botelho recalls.

Claudio Botelho, Tina Salles & Charles Moeller (Photo: Leo Ladeira)

Claudio Botelho, Tina Salles & Charles Moeller (Photo: Leo Ladeira)

The relationship of Tininha to the duo began thirteen years ago by chance. The daughter of a lawyer and a housewife, she graduated with a degree in systems engineering and a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. Passionate about movies and theater, she began working in production alongside filmmaker Walter Lima Jr., with whom she had taken a course. She migrated to the theater at the hands of author and director Karen Acioly. It was at a children’s musical [written] by Karen that she met singer and actress Gottsha, who was a cast member of Cole Porter — He Never Said He Loved Me, staged by Möeller and Botelho in 2000. “I went crazy when I saw the show and asked Gottsha for Charles’ phone number. I called, offered my services to the team, and was accepted,” she relates. Their professional relationship coexists with a deep, abiding friendship — she is a constant presence at the partners’ dinner engagements and on their trips to New York and London, where they’ve presented dozens of shows. Loyal to the sturdy rod that won her renown, both partners recognize that their lives can make do without most things, except Tininha.

(English translation by Josmar Lopes. For access to the original article in Portuguese, please click on the following link:ás-das-cortinas-tina-salles-a-coordenadora-artística-dos-musicais-de-möeller-botelho)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil Goes Broadway Yet Keeps Its Own Beat – A Timely Reprint of a Timely Article

Andrew Lloyd Webber is hot there, Stephen Sondheim too. An impresario pair fans the craze with some Buarque here, some Bacharach there.

July 31, 2005|Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Rio de Janeiro — Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatics in Brazil might seem as strange a subculture as samba enthusiasts in Anchorage. But don’t tell that to Claudio Botelho.

Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (

Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (

An actor, translator and bilingual bon vivant, Botelho, 40, is a confessed Broadway addict. So is his showbiz partner Charles Möeller. Both are self-made musical-theater authors and impresarios with a string of hit shows that have played on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s like a virus,” Botelho says of his infatuation with the Great White Way, which began when as a child he saw the Oscar-winning movie version of “Oliver!”

In fact, many Brazilians have had a long-running affair with the Broadway-style musical, that most red-white-and-blue of theatrical genres. Perhaps in a country where irresistible rhythms are always pulsing somewhere and the interplay of tanned bodies along Copacabana beach can seem as carefully choreographed as a Jerome Robbins ballet, the notion of people breaking into spontaneous song and dance doesn’t appear all that far-fetched.

Two distinct but interrelated types of musical theater have won a following here over the decades: traditional imported Broadway musicals and home-grown, often quirky Brazilian musical shows that draw on a variety of sources but add distinctly local twists.

The preeminent work in this latter category is undoubtedly “Opera do Malandro,” which features a memorable samba- and jazz-tinged score by the sublime Brazilian tunesmith Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda (Botelho calls him “the Brazilian Sondheim”). Recently given a hit revival by Botelho and Möeller, the musical is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera.”

Cast of Opera do Malandro (

Cast of Opera do Malandro (

Audiences for Broadway imports and Brazilian musicals tend to overlap here, and there’s a fair amount of creative interbreeding among directors, producers and performers. Reflecting their hybrid ethnic-cultural heritage, Brazilians tend to care more about the quality of the finished product than the “purity” of its pedigree.

As it has throughout much of the Western world, Broadway has exerted a profound, if sometimes subtle, influence on Brazilian music and popular entertainment. The classic songbooks of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and other composers have swayed generations of Brazilian singer-songwriters, of many different stripes. Consider that on his 2004 disc of cover tunes, “A Foreign Sound,” the great Brazilian tropicalia artist Caetano Veloso included “So in Love” from Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, musical comedy revues, much like the follies shows on Broadway, thrived in Rio. During the 1960s and early ’70s, middle-class audiences flocked to “My Fair Lady,” “Hello, Dolly!” “Hair” and “Pippin.” But in more recent times, Broadway’s popularity here has ebbed and flowed with Brazil’s shifting political currents. During the country’s 20-year military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, many Brazilian theater artists turned toward a more political brand of stagecraft. Some felt the need to distance themselves from American culture because of the United States’ role in propping up the military regime, Botelho says.

But as Brazil has re-embraced democracy, the idea of entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake has staged a comeback. A Portuguese-language version of Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” with a Brazilian cast, has been playing at a 2,000-seat São Paulo theater to sold-out houses, despite a top ticket price of $85, a small fortune for the average Brazilian. Brazilian productions of “Les Miserables” and “Beauty and the Beast” also have been hits in recent years. Like “Phantom,” those shows were brought here by La Corporacion Interamericana de Entretenimiento, which produces musical theater in the major Latin American capitals.

“The market is growing now,” says Botelho, who helped make his reputation in musical theater by translating the Brazilian productions of “Phantom,” “Les Miz,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Cole and ‘Company’

For many Brazilian Broadway buffs, these shows are simply part of a pop-music and entertainment continuum that knows few boundaries.

In addition to blockbuster imports, Brazilians are being drawn to lesser-known Broadway classics and a few ambitious home-grown stage musicals. The Botelho-Möeller partnership is behind several of these shows, including one about the life and work of Cole Porter that ran for three years in Rio, São Paulo and Lisbon. They reprised that success with a big production of “Company” and received the composer’s blessing. “He came down to see it, [Stephen] Sondheim, himself,” Botelho says. “He came and he was very enthusiastic about it. We were so happy that he came.”

Cristal Bacharach (

Cristal Bacharach (

This summer, Botelho and Möeller are rolling merrily along with “Cristal Bacharach,” a compendium of 20 Burt Bacharach-Hal David tunes wrapped around a featherweight romantic plot about a glamorous matriarch and her five sons. The score dips into “Promises, Promises,” the 1968 Broadway hit that Bacharach and David penned with Neil Simon, and includes the pop standard “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and the goofy Act 1-closer, “Turkey Lurkey Time.”

As usual, Botelho did the translations and even stepped into a supporting role for some performances. Möeller, who has acted in everything from avant-garde theater to soap operas, directed the 13-member cast and created the groovy circa-1970 sets and costumes.

The show played for seven months at a 350-seat theater in a downtown Rio hotel and then, in May, reopened at an 800-seat theater in an upscale shopping mall on the outskirts of Rio. The theater’s owners also operate the Plataforma 1 cabaret, which hosts one of Rio’s few remaining Vegas-style costumed samba shows — another flavor of musical theater, albeit one now mainly staged for tourists eager to shed their inhibitions and traveler’s checks.

That a Broadway-style show packed with easy-listening pop tunes could play big in Brazil says much about the country’s wide-open cultural tastes. Brazilians tend to have a love-hate relationship with the United States as a world power (lately, more of the latter sentiment than the former), but they’re generally wild for American pop culture. During the 1960s and ’70s in Brazil, Bacharach was part of an eclectic sonic landscape that included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and tropicalia legends such as Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

“It’s part of our life, the soundtrack,” says soap opera star Totia Meireles, who took time off from shooting the popular Brazilian telenovela “America,” about Brazilian immigrants in the United States, to play the lead role in “Cristal Bacharach.”

Other “Cristal Bacharach” cast members include Marya Bravo, who got hooked on musical theater while studying at the Julia Richman Talent Unlimited High School for Performing Arts in New York and now plays in a psychedelic rock band, and Tobias Volkmann, an opera singer and conductor who moonlights in musicals when he’s not singing Verdi or Mozart. “The musical theater in Brazil sort of grew up,” Volkmann says. “Since four years [ago], I think it’s getting to a higher level and [there’s] more work.”

Looking to Home Talent Too

THEATER critics in the U.S. have been writing Broadway’s obit for decades or desperately searching for “the next Sondheim” to anoint as the musical theater’s savior.

But in Brazil, musical theater writers and producers, though admittedly small in number, seem too busy putting on shows to worry about the form’s long-range future. Though the budgets for most of these productions would barely cover the ad campaign for a 42nd Street blockbuster, their variety and ambition are impressive.

One of the biggest hits so far, Miguel Falabella’s “South American Way,” was an homage to Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian chanteuse and actor who rose to Hollywood celebrity more than a half-century ago. Another was the Botelho-Moeller production of Buarque’s “Opera do Malandro,” which the cast also recorded as a CD.

Bibi Ferreira in Gota a'Agua

Bibi Ferreira in Gota d’Agua

Buarque’s musical work “Gota d’Água” (variously translated as “Drop of Water” or “Last Straw”), a 1975 adaptation of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy “Medea,” was staged earlier this summer by students at Rio’s Casa das Artes das Laranjeiras, an arts college. In Buarque’s version, co-created with Paulo Pontes and originally starring Pontes’ wife, Bibi Ferreira, the action is updated to modern Brazil. Creon the king is transformed into a vicious loan shark; Medea’s husband Jason is a songwriter; and Medea (rechristened Joana) is a practitioner of the Afro-Caribbean religion called Macumba, similar to Santeria, which substitutes for the classical Greek cosmology.

The resurgent interest in Buarque’s work is significant both for artistic and political reasons. A steadfast critic of the military regime, Buarque constantly ran afoul of government censors who detected subversive meanings in some of his best-known songs.

Antonio de Bonis, who directed the production of “Gota d’Água,” says that he has been greatly influenced by Broadway musicals. “I love the American musical,” he says. “I have all the [recordings]: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly. All.”

But he has chosen to devote his career to creating and staging musicals that recover the work of neglected Brazilian composers such as Buarque and Lamartine Babo. He says he avoids the Broadway and West End imports that come to São Paulo. “If I can pay the price for seeing one of these musicals in Brazil, I’d rather pay for a plane ticket and go see it in Broadway.”

Because work in musical theater is still relatively scarce in Brazil, the professional actors and students performing it usually hang on tightly to their day jobs. But training has improved. In the past, Bonis says, performing arts schools gave minimal, if any, instruction in musical theater, and Brazilian actors had to “learn by doing.” “Now there’s a larger concern for them to prepare specifically for the musical theater,” he says.

Bonis and others still struggle to obtain corporate underwriting for their shows, which are notoriously expensive to produce. But a handful of companies have stepped forward, such as Brasil Telecom, which co-sponsored “Cristal Bacharach.” So have Rio’s municipal authorities, who oversee 27 public theaters and other small performance spaces, and are actively promoting musical shows, Botelho and Bonis say.

Meanwhile, the Broadway show must go on, so Botelho and Möeller are planning to do “Side by Side by Sondheim” in September. Though Botelho admits that the composer is extremely tough to translate, let alone perform, he seems eager for the challenge. So does Möeller, who once leaned more toward fluffier musicals such as “Fame” and “Grease.”

“I think he knows more Sondheim, actually, than me now,” says Botelho, smiling at the thought.

(This is a reprint of a Los Angeles Times article that originally appeared in July 2005)

Salad Bowl Concludes With Spicy Italian Window Dressing: The Met Revives Zandonai’s ‘Francesca da Rimini’

Mark Delavan, Robert Brubaker, Marcello Giordani in Act II of Francesca da Rimini (

Mark Delavan, Robert Brubaker, Marcello Giordani in Act II of Francesca da Rimini (

What a strange and fascinating work Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is! It’s neither postmodern nor late-romantic in style or content; it’s not even what most scholars would label verismo, although there are plenty of hints in that direction.

So what is it? Well, it could be a melodrama disguised as grand opera, the kind that Tito Ricordi, son of Giulio Ricordi (one of the founders of the great publishing firm that bears his family’s name), begged, cajoled and pleaded with Giacomo Puccini to put on the Italian stage. Puccini would have none of it, whereby Tito turned to the up-and-coming Zandonai to do the dirty work. Together, they adapted playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio’s convoluted drama of the same name as the basis for this four-act opera.

Truth be told, it’s not Verdi — nor even warmed over Puccini — yet there’s enough leftover strands of Wagner throughout to make one sit up and take notice, with a smidgen or two of Strauss added in, a bit of Debussy, and maybe – just maybe – a slight dose of Mascagni for seasoning, along with the darkest portions of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci tossed into the fray. All in all, this is an exotic Caesar salad bowl flavored with spicy Italian window dressing. But is it original? Yes and no. It does have its own peculiar sound-scape, but is that reason enough to produce it? Good question!

It fluctuates wildly in terms of both music and drama, with Acts I and III sounding like carbon copies of each other, and Act II the most action-packed of the four. Act IV is divided into two scenes, the most gripping of which, Scene i, a veritable chamber of horrors that features blood-curdling screams (hats off to tenor Dustin Lucas as the Prisoner in the dungeon), torture, duplicity, decapitation and general mayhem. Scene ii reverts to the love-making formula of the first and third acts, and so on. A most curious piece, I must say, but in the right hands it can raise the temperature level of any opera house.

The work premiered in Turin in 1914, while the Met took the opera up in 1916 and gave it a total of eleven performances. Since then, Francesca lay dormant for 68 seasons before awakening (like Sleeping Beauty?) to the Met’s lavish 1984 Piero Faggioni production under maestro James Levine, with Renata Scotto as Francesca, Placido Domingo as Paolo il Bello (“The Handsome One”), veteran Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotto (“The Lame One”), and William Lewis as Malatestino (“The One-Eyed”). Itself based on a section of Dante’s Inferno, the opera can be summed up as too much, and not enough, of a good thing.

Domingo had his first encounter with the handsome Paolo in a concert performance back in the early seventies, preserved on a “private label” recording from 1973 with the Opera Orchestra of New York under the baton of Eve Queler, and featuring Bulgarian soprano Raina Kabaivanska as Francesca and Matteo Manuguerra as Gianciotto. There’s also a Decca/London highlights disc from 1969 of Great Scenes from Francesca da Rimini, which paired legendary diva Magda Olivero (a true verismo specialist) with an over-the-hill Mario Del Monaco as the two lovers. In the Met’s most recent revival, which aired on March 16, the title role was taken by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, Marcello Giordani as Paolo, Mark Delavan as Gianciotto, and Robert Brubaker the Malatestino. The opera was conducted by Marco Armiliato.

To begin with, the Met should never have considered reviving this period piece without a stellar female vocalist to lead the way. Trying to follow in Madame Scotto’s footsteps – or, for that matter, Olivero’s and Kabaivanska’s before her – is a gesture in futility at best. Unless, of course, you happen to be the best that money can buy. In which case, I would think that a revival would be in order. Not here, I dare say.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca (

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca (

Ms. Westbroek is best known for her Anna Nicole Smith in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s pop opera Anna Nicole of a few years back, to be given next season at New York City Opera. Come to think of it, there’s not that much difference between the two characters of Francesca and Anna Nicole. Both take on lovers (numerous ones, in Anna Nicole’s case), and both die tragically at the end, although Anna Nicole perished at her own hands, while Francesca was slain by her jealous husband Gianciotto for fiddling around with the best looking of the three brothers, Paolo. Anna Nicole, as the opera and the E! Hollywood Network would have us believe, was the victim of her own excesses. Westbroek certainly brought that out in her Francesca. She talked a good game about the role as well, in her on-air interview and in the print media, but the execution left much to be desired. Without that flash of prima donna fireworks spewing forth, this adulteress was dull, dull, dull…

Westbroek did far better as Sieglinde in last year’s Die Walküre– but then again, her partner in crime was the tenor of the moment, Jonas Kaufmann, whose matinée idol looks and golden throatiness could melt the heart of Pharaoh. Not so with current co-star Marcello Giordani, who (I’m told) looked decades older than his leading lady, which put the lid on credibility for the duration of the work. A mismatched pair of doomed lovers does not an expensive revival make. Let that be a lesson, Met management. Next time, make the casting for this (or any other work from this period) a number one priority.

Getting back to Giordani, the tenor was up to his old tricks of straying off pitch, singing as sharp as ever. To be fair, he did manage to express a sufficient amount of passion when called for. My gut feeling, though, was that Marcello was ten years too late in performing this part. I missed Domingo’s ardent vocals and caressing line, that ability of his to toss off searing emotional outbursts with burnished tone and rock-steady musicianship. This is why I criticized Domingo’s assumption of the baritone repertory so harshly. His natural Fach has been, and will always be, as a tenor. Why blow it now?

Emerging unscathed from the torpor was the dynamic duo of baritone Mark Delavan and tenor Robert Brubaker as the evil brothers, Gianciotto and Malatestino. This was Delavan’s initial take on the brutal warlord with the monstrously jealous nature, while Brubaker (a notable Met Mime in Siegfried) shined as the pathologically disturbed third sibling, who’s called “The One-Eyed One” (and for good reason: he loses his eye in battle during the Act II melee).

Battering ram scene from Act II of Francesca da Rimini (

Battering ram scene from Act II of Francesca da Rimini (

Whenever these two artists were on stage together, the place lit up like a Christmas tree with their ranting and raving. Neither singer could eclipse memories of the mighty warrior envisioned by the late Cornell MacNeil, a true devil-incarnate Gianciotto, back in 1984. MacNeil’s grand Act II entrance was the highlight of the evening: as he popped his head out of the trapdoor he gave off one of his signature high notes that literally filled the vast Met auditorium. Delavan may not have approached the “Big Mac” in the goose-bump department, but he gave it all he got. Too bad his upper tones wavered somewhat, and he strayed perilously off pitch at key moments. I thought Brubaker was a shade better than William Lewis, who enacted his role better than he sang it. Not so with Brubaker, who chilled the bone marrow in his two scenes.

Maybe it was the distasteful subject matter or maybe it was the lack of truly great voices in the grand opera manner – make that, Grand Guignol manner instead. For really, that’s what Francesca da Rimini turned out to be: a Sweeney Todd-style programmer without the barber’s chair. All that’s left was the blood, with plenty of guts and precious little else to show for it. Not even maestro Armiliato could help matters any, but he did try his best with what he had. Still, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Mark Delavan as Gianciotto (

Mark Delavan as Gianciotto (

It’s debatable what constitutes “greatness” in this day and age. Of the above cast members, surely Delavan has the makings of true greatness, a potential heavyweight in the bass-baritone division. The Italian roles he’s taken on so far (i.e., Gérard in Andrea Chénier, Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino, Scarpia in Tosca) need work, but he’s got the basic goods in his blood. The voice is a combination of George London’s ample fullness with Leonard Warren’s steel and solidity. A leonine talent whose volume is not as large as his predecessors, Delavan will soon be heard to better advantage in the German repertoire, particularly with his forthcoming assignment as Wotan in Wagner’s Ring-cycle operas. I look forward to reviewing him in my next two posts. Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Salad Bowl Italian-Opera Style Continues with ‘La Traviata’

Domingo Takes the Lead from Damrau

Placido Domingo as Germont (AP Photo/Ken Howard, Met Opera)

Placido Domingo as Germont (AP Photo/Ken Howard, Met Opera)

Continuing with my review of the Verdi bicentennial celebration at the Metropolitan Opera, the next broadcast work to be heard was La Traviata on March 30, in Willy Decker’s Salzburg-borrowed production from last year, which premiered at the Met with Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta Valery. For this revival, the German Diana Damrau took on the challenge of Violetta’s formidable vocal range, with Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo Germont, and the famed Spanish tenor (now baritone) Placido Domingo as the elder Giorgio Germont.

For an opera based on Alexandre Dumas Fils’ play and novel, La Dame aux Camélias (“The Lady of the Camellias”) – one that’s primarily focused on the female lead and her transition from worldly courtesan to noble, self-sacrificing heroine – it’s a rare occurrence indeed to have that focus shift away from the soprano protagonist to the tenor, or is it the baritone?

Superstar overachiever Placido Domingo first sang the tenor part of Alfredo as far back as 1961 in Monterrey, Mexico, and most memorably at New York City Opera in Frank Corsaro’s landmark 1966 production with Patricia Brooks and Dominic Cossa. Domingo later took on the role at the Met and other international opera houses. But the part of Giorgio Germont has traditionally remained the property of the baritone.

A high-lying, lyrically expansive role, in the frame of Verdi’s other middle-period creations such as Rigoletto and the Count Di Luna from Il Trovatore, Germont has been coveted by singers for over a century and a half. Some of the finest interpreters in the business have undertaken this short but dramatically/vocally appealing character: from the Italians Mattia Battistini, Giuseppe De Luca, Riccardo Stracciari, Ettore Bastianini, Tito Gobbi, Rolando Panerai, Renato Bruson and Leo Nucci, to the Americans John Charles Thomas, Robert Weede, Richard Bonelli, Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, Cornell MacNeil and Thomas Hampson; along with the Germans Heinrich Schlusnuss, Josef Metternich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Frenchmen Michel Dens, Robert Massard, Ernest Blanc and Ludovic Tézier, Russians Pavel Lisitsian, Vladimir Chernov and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Brazilians Paulo Fortes and Lourival Braga, among many, many others.

I never expected to experience an artist from another vocal category to tackle this part, although I am familiar with the career paths taken by both Renato Zanelli and Ramón Vinay, two versatile Chilean singers who switched from baritone to tenor (and, in Vinay’s case, back to baritone again). However, since 2009 Señor Domingo, whose full name translates to “Placid Sunday” (and who began his professional career as a baritone in the late 1950s) and nearing the twilight of his performing days, has expanded into lower-voiced territory with his assumption of the title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, followed subsequently by the same composer’s Rigoletto in 2010 and 2011, Nabucco in 2012, and now Germont in 2013.

I can’t speak for Nabucco, which I have not heard, but of his Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra there is much to admire in the earnestness of his endeavors. However, after listening closely to these varied assignments, I find the timbre of Domingo’s voice to be absolutely wrong for both these parts. Boccanegra especially demands an individual of weight and stature, with a sizable voice to match. Ditto for Germont, who represents the authority as well as the key morality figure in Traviata.

Damrau & Domingo in La Traviata (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Damrau & Domingo in La Traviata (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As a tenor, Domingo had authority to spare in such traversals as Otello, Manrico, Siegmund, even Parsifal. I’m afraid that, as a late-in-the-day baritone Germont, he is nowhere near what Verdi had imagined. Oh, yes, the tenderness and sensitivity are there, as is the all-important empathy for Violetta’s plight – a plight of Germont’s making, I should add. But the heft and strength, along with the “sound” and substance of a full-fledged lower-voiced singer were simply nowhere to be found. The mere fact that Placido easily reached and attained the role’s highest notes, including some of the unwritten ones, was insufficient for me to justify the Met’s indulgence of this prized artist’s whims. Where’s the challenge in that, where’s the excitement of anticipation? There was none to be had, sad to say.

Please do not misunderstand my intentions, which are not to disparage a beloved singer, one whose career and artistry I have been fond of following with some interest since his 1966 appearance in Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo at NYCO. He has brought much joy and comfort to these ears, as my previous post regarding his Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino clearly noted.

But, as a Latin artist, one who has made his fellow Latinos justifiably proud of his many career accomplishments over the years, I can’t help feeling that Placido is coasting down an artistically barren path unworthy of our time and his efforts. I trust he will take this advice to heart: You are a fine musician and opera-house administrator, Placido, with survival in the opera world and longevity and good health on your side. Please give this foolishness up now, while your public is still behind you.

Diana Damrau as Violetta (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Diana Damrau as Violetta (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As for the other singers on the broadcast, soprano Damrau gave one of the best portrayals of Violetta I have heard in a long, long time. Her sprightly vocal personality reminds me of the late Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar, whose classic rendition of the part has been preserved for posterity on the Decca/London label. I was particularly taken with Damrau’s discretely timed pauses in between the repeated phrase of “Gioir!” during the first act “Sempre libera” (“Always free”), where she adroitly negotiated the rapid-fire coloratura with surprising ease and, most impressively, with a spectacular high note at the end. Her superb pairing with both Mr. Domingo and tenor Pirgu earned much praise from a very appreciative audience.

Her Alfredo, Mr. Pirgu, with a smallish though pleasant-sounding voice, still managed to convey the character’s youthful ardor and lovestruck nature to good effect (Domingo should be proud, I think, of this young artist), as well as his quicksilver temper. The voice hardened noticeably above the staff, though, but at least he gave the high C at the end of his cabaletta, “O mio rimorso,” the old college try – even though the result wasn’t exactly applause inducing.

This production, originally conceived to take place in one, long continuous act without interruption or intermission, was divided into two at the Met. By doing this, the momentum and build-up to Violetta’s tragic death are lost, as the Salzburg DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of the opera so movingly proved. Decker’s single-set concept, with an ominous giant clock ticking away what little time Violetta has left to enjoy life, is concentrated around the soprano and tenor – a most innovative plot device, as is the use of two Dr. Grenvil’s, one of who doubles as the personification of death. Chilling!

Montreal-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin held it all together in a most convincing manner, with a performance of subtlety, grace and overwhelming compassion. One thing I admired: he did not race through the proceedings at breakneck speed, as he had done a few years back with Bizet’s Carmen. No, this time out the maestro took his time to make his points count, and complemented the soloists throughout without the drive and thunder of a Toscanini. Instead, I sensed the inner workings of a young Carlo Maria Giulini at play in Yannick’s choice of tempos. As I said, a rare occurrence, indeed!

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Salad Bowl Italian-Opera Style, from Verdi to Zandonai: ‘Otello,’ ‘Forza,’ ‘Traviata’ and… ‘Francesca da Rimini’?

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, the reigning king of Italian opera and the acknowledged grand master of the genre no opera house can do without.

With that in mind, the Metropolitan Opera has been celebrating the occasion with a festival of his most cherished works, along with performances by other operatic notables such as Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini, and… Riccardo Zandonai? Now where the heck did he come from? Oh, well, you’ll read more about him a little later, but first let’s move on to the main attractions.

Otello Live in HD: “I Like Not That”

Johan Botha & Renee Fleming in Otello (Met Opera)

Johan Botha & Renee Fleming in Otello (Met Opera)

The other day I was talking to a producer friend of mine from New York City, who was telling me about the possibility of bringing Shakespeare’s Othello back to Broadway. “It hasn’t been seen there in over 30 years,” he told me. “Yes, indeed,” was my response, “and I remember the last time it was done. It was at the Winter Garden Theater in the early 1980s.”

Next, I proceeded to remind my friend that the cast back then included the likes of James Earl Jones as Othello, Dianne Wiest as Desdemona, and Christopher Plummer as Iago. “Jones was good,” I recalled, “with that imposing voice and daunting frame, but Plummer ran rings around him in the acting department.”

When, in October 2012, the Metropolitan Opera revived the Elijah Moshinsky production of Verdi’s next to last work Otello, in homage to one of the greatest opera composers who ever lived, wouldn’t you know the exact same thing happened: the Iago ran rings around the Otello, which I myself haven’t seen in over 30 years of opera viewing as well.

I got to see the Live in HD re-transmission of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece on the same day (March 2, 2013) as the impressive live broadcast of Wagner’s Parsifal was aired. How I wish I could say that Otello was equally as impressive (and how I love this work!), but unfortunately I can’t. It wasn’t a total disaster, mind you, what with Renée Fleming’s regal bearing as Desdemona and Michael Fabiano’s passionately felt Cassio. Semyon Bychkov was the so-so conductor, and South African tenor, Johan Botha, whose own massively rotund form could give Jones a run for his money, was the Moorish general Otello.

But the real “hero” of the proceedings was unquestionably German baritone Falk Struckmann as Iago. A veteran of past Wagnerian ventures (he had previously sung Wotan in Harry Kupfer’s revised Ring of the Nibelung cycle in Barcelona, as well as Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met), Struckmann’s voice and figure so dominated the Met Opera stage, and the other participants, that Verdi’s original intention of naming this masterwork after the villainous ensign began to take hold.

Falk Struckmann as Iago (Met Opera)

Falk Struckmann as Iago (Met Opera)

The insinuatingly vicious nature of this fearsome beast was brought out in remarkably subtle ways, with his revealing (and not so revealing) facial expressions among them. Struckmann’s masterful “Credo,” with his long-held high note and disdainful delivery of the line “E vecchia folla il ciel” (“And heaven is an old wive’s tale”), was greeted with huge shouts of approval, something I haven’t heard in this scene in many a year.

It was a pleasure to see and hear a real baritone for a change in this part, so often taken in the past by pushed-up basses, many of who either dodged or gave short shrift to these high-lying passages. Earlier in Act I, Struckmann savored those same high notes with a deliciously swaggering account of the “Brindisi,” helped along by the newly re-worked choreography for this revival, which added much dramatic flair to what can be a rather static episode.

Botha’s lumbering, pop-eyed Otello, already a known quantity from previous seasons, was passively sung and indifferently interpreted. There wasn’t much outpouring of grief in his traversal of one of opera’s most tragic creations, or much excitement either. Botha has been better in Wagner, of all things, and his wonderfully communicative Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger is a good example of a role fitting the confines and limitations of the singer. Here, one realized that Otello simply does not suit this tenor’s temperament. The same problem existed with Canadian Ben Heppner, an otherwise excellent artist in Tristan und Isolde, but totally at sea when it comes to such roles as Giordano’s Andrea Chénier or Puccini’s Prince Calàf in Turandot. The same arguments I made over Deborah Voigt’s assumption of Italian roles hold doubly true for both Botha and Heppner: avoid them at all costs and proceed with a good degree of caution.

Fleming was her old reliable self as Desdemona, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, I find her take on this and other Italian soprano parts a bit too tepid for my taste. Not that she ever sings badly – she doesn’t; it’s just that there’s no warmth there. She reminds me of the overly cautious Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, whose last-minute substitution as Desdemona back in the 1970s I was privileged to hear on the radio, opposite the emotionally thrilling Otello of Jon Vickers, another Canadian artist. Whatever happened to Te Kanawa’s promise? I couldn’t tell you. The same issues hound Fleming, in my view: a perfectly solid voice, with a velvety tone and lovely stage deportment, especially in Strauss – but as cold as a three-day old mackerel in comparison to the blood-and-guts Iago, or the lively Cassio of the young Fabiano. There’s something about Fleming’s cool air of detachment, of being above it all, that continues to nag at me.

The rest of the ensemble performed dutifully but without much vigor, and the conducting left little doubt that this revival was as misbegotten and ill-timed an affair as they come. Considering that Botha was coming off a recent bout of the flu, which affected numerous cast members of other works at the Met this winter, I for one was perfectly willing to see a cancellation rather than go through this lame excuse for a performance. Maybe I’m being a might harsh, but at these prices I think Met audiences are entitled to one hundred percent (if not more) of an artist’s efforts.

La Forza del Destino: A Real Golden Age Rabble-Rouser

Leontyne Price as Leonora (

Leontyne Price as Leonora (

All the snap, crackle and pop missing from Bychkov’s flaccid reading of Otello was more than present in the young James Levine’s handling of the score for Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”), a re-broadcast from the Met Opera archives, heard on March 23.

Originally aired in 1977, the opera starred the legendary Leontyne Price as Leonora, tenor Placido Domingo as Don Alvaro, Cornell MacNeil as Don Carlo, Rosalind Elias as Preziosilla, Martti Talvela as Padre Guardiano, and Renato Capecchi as Fra Melitone. Riveting from start to finish, maestro Levine certainly whipped the Met Orchestra into splendid shape for the overture and the rest of the performance, keeping tautness and tension, as well as a fine line throughout this rambling work.

Price’s peerless high notes and that marvelous long soprano line served her well as Leonora. The emotional content of the role was paramount; the clarity of her tone, along with the beauty of her lyrical singing, was there as I remembered it. Outside of some hollowness in her lowest notes and in her scene with Talvela’s grandly eloquent Guardiano, this was Golden Age singing at its finest. Interesting how Price’s character disappears from the story for long stretches at a time, only to reemerge in Act IV to give an incredibly spacious and penetrating account of “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” to a rousing welcome.

Placido Domingo as Don Alvaro (Louis Melancon)

Placido Domingo as Don Alvaro (Louis Melancon)

The young Placido Domingo showed his youthful form in a vigorous traversal of Don Alvaro. He was eloquent, ardent, and thoughtful to his leading lady, the honeyed sweetness of his voice coming through loud and clear. Placido could give a vocal lesson or two to Botha or many other tenors around today. He almost came to grief, however, near the end of Alvaro’s strenuous Act III solo, “O tu che in senno agli angeli,” by choking a bit on the treacherous tessitura. Few tenors can manage this tricky passage comfortably, although I always marveled at the way the late Richard Tucker handled it, with his full-throated outpourings and catch-in-the-throat vocalism. Domingo recovered in time to finish the piece and went on to a fine conclusion.

His baritone counterpart, Cornell MacNeil, was nearing the last decade of an illustrious Met career. Here, he gave Don Carlo a solid, characterful villainy, with clear, always intelligible Italian diction and blazing high notes when called for. I did notice, though, that MacNeil sounded tired toward the end, until the roof-raising last duet with Domingo, the famous “Invano, Alvaro,” which never fails to raise the rafters and get an audience on their feet. MacNeil continued to sing until the late 1980s, as we shall read further on when we get to Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.

On the lower end of the scale, Martti Talvela lent a solid air of authority as Padre Guardiano, with firmness of line and low notes to match. There’s a close kinship in this role with Verdi’s later High Priest Ramfis in Aida, most notably in that opera’s Judgment Scene. What did Verdi know of Egyptian high priests? Practically nothing, but he knew a great deal about Italian ones, having written for the church in his early youth. This was reflected in the lovely hymn-like theme he adopted for “La Vergine degli Angeli,” which so closely resembles Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Renato Capecchi’s cacophonous Fra Melitone was a joy to listen to, his Italian nimble and pointed as only a native-born artist can produce. He appeared in many comic parts throughout his life, including Dulcamara and Dr. Bartolo, and had sung the serious baritone repertory early in his career as well. As Melitone, Capecchi proved that one can’t take this boisterous fellow too seriously. It was Verdi’s dry run for his later Falstaff.

Other Met comprimario stalwarts, such as Rosalind Elias, Andrea Velis, Carlotta Ordassy, Andrij Dobriansky, Malcolm Smith and the ever dependable Robert Goodloe, were all there, just as memorable as I recalled them. It was a most nostalgic re-broadcast of a time when the Met was on the cusp of becoming a major international theater again after too many years in limbo. At least Forza gave radio listeners and the paying public something to cheer about, which is more than one could say about the lackluster Otello above.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Thumbs Way Up for Movie Critic Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013)

The late movie critic Roger Ebert (Photo: Eileen Ryan)

“I read the news today, oh boy” is the first line of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” one of many classic songs from their 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In April of that year, a young and portly journalist named Roger Joseph Ebert was asked by the Chicago Sun-Times to serve as the newspaper’s film critic. He occupied that slot for the next 46 years.

“And though the news was rather sad,” goes the next line of the song. Yes, the news was sad indeed, for today, April 4, 2013, marked the passing of legendary film critic Roger Ebert at age 70. Just another day in the life of a movie reviewer? Not likely, not with ole Rodge in the critic’s chair.

For over 30 years, Ebert was a constant presence in people’s humdrum lives, including my own. Not a week went by — or a single day, for that matter — when I didn’t check his online Website for the latest reviews, or the latest happenings in the world of cinema.

Roger Ebert influenced the way I looked at movies from early youth. My fondest memory of him was when he co-hosted the PBS network’s Sneak Previews program (later changed to At the Movies, and still later to Siskel & Ebert and the Movies) from 1978 until 2006, or thereabouts. His partner for those first 21 years was fellow film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who died in 1999. After that, Ebert went on with the show but with a variety of co-hosts, the most familiar being his Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper. But the two whose opinions I cared the most about were Siskel and Ebert. Their views were the ones I waited for every Friday evening.

Ebert could concisely explain a movie’s plot or story line in as easy and understandable a way as few critics could. Oh, I still enjoy and follow A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, as well as other movie critics, but Ebert was a special case. He really came alive when he joined Siskel in a one-on-one, no holds barred verbal sparring match over the pros and cons of the latest movie releases. Roger knew a thing or two about film history, but so did Gene. Roger loved the art of making motion pictures, but so did Gene. In that, they were equally matched — and superbly gifted, too, especially in front of the TV cameras.

I can count on the fingers of one hand how many of Roger’s reviews I disagreed with. One of these was his positively glowing recommendation of My Dinner with Andre, the 1981 film directed by Louis Malle, and co-starring theater personalities Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. I’ll never forget Gene Siskel’s undisguised enthusiasm in discussing the scene where Shawn is walking down a Manhattan street, grumbling every step of the way about having to meet up with his eccentric friend, Andre.

“He’s just standing in a subway car, and yet we’re fascinated by that,” Gene gushed.

“I’d like to see the movie again,” Roger interjected.

“Well, you want to meet this guy,” countered Gene. Both critics fell over themselves with admiration for the flick. So much so that they convinced me to go see it.

Wallace Shawn & Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre

Wallace Shawn & Andre Gregory in ‘My Dinner with Andre’ (1981)

It happened that My Dinner with Andre was playing at Lincoln Center that weekend. Armed with Siskel and Ebert’s two thumbs up, off I went to catch this four-star feature. A silver-haired old usher in a red velvet jacket handed me my ticket, as I shuffled inside to find my seat. After the movie started, I noticed that the waiter in the movie, serving both Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory at the titular dinner table, was the self-same silver-haired usher who I had just thanked for the ticket. What a start to the show, I thought!

Hunkering down in the dark, I began to watch the film. And as I watched, I sat with arms folded, waiting for that streak of enlightenment, that bolt out of the blue, that shining light of awe and inspiration that Roger and Gene had insisted was just around the cinematic corner. It never came. I was so bored and frustrated that I left the theater more downcast than when I went in. What happened? What went wrong? How could my two favorite movie critics have let me down and gotten this half-baked excuse for a motion picture so wrong?

It’s taken me 30 years to finally understand what Roger Ebert and his late friend and partner, Gene Siskel, were so enthusiastic about, why each of them had so lavishly praised this so-so film so highly. The reason? They fully identified with the main protagonists. Wallace Shawn was short, stocky, round-faced and down to earth — just as Roger Ebert was. Andre Gregory was tall, slim, eloquent and erudite — much like Gene Siskel was. But I failed to notice it at the time. How could I have missed it? Wasn’t it obvious? Not to me, it wasn’t. I didn’t “look” at the picture in the way these two experts had. How could I have? All I saw were two boring guys, two lumbering men of the theater, talking on and on about their respective lives from two absolutely opposite viewpoints. Yet, their common thread was the theater.

Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert (Photo: Disney-ABC Domestic Television)

But didn’t Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert do exactly the same thing? Every week, four times a month, for well-nigh 20 seasons, didn’t they talk about the movies, argue over the movies, discuss, dissect, evaluate, and examine the movies in as analytical a detail, and in as entertaining a fashion, as Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn had? You bet they did! And where was I that I never noticed it — until now?

Since then, I’ve noticed a lot about Roger Ebert. In fact, I must have read hundreds, no, maybe thousands of his reviews. I’ve read his Great Movies series (twice), and his hilariously informative tomes Your Movie Sucks and I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie — two guides to the worst possible films you’ll never want to see. I can’t say that I hated, hated, hated My Dinner with Andre. I just didn’t see what my favorite critics saw in it. Poor me!

I don’t feel so sad anymore. Quite the contrary, I’m happy to have seen and heard and read Roger’s work as much as I have. Last month, I attempted to comment, on his Facebook page, a posting that Roger had made. He complained, just as little Wallace Shawn had, about having to post the same piece twice or more times in order for it to appear — something to do with a quirk in the Facebook algorithm. I wrote back, saying that he, Roger Ebert, movie critic par excellence, could post his pieces as many times as he wanted, that no matter how many times he posted them we’d be happy to read them.

I never got a reply, although I’d like to think that, somehow, Roger saw my comment. Maybe he even “liked” it. I’ll never know for sure. But that’s all right. I can live with the knowledge that I wrote to my favorite movie critic, reply or no reply.

The last line of “A Day in the Life” happens to be: “I’d love to turn you on.” That’s what Ebert did. He turned me, and many of my generation (and beyond), “on” to the power and wonder of the movies.  Wherever he is, wherever his buddy Gene is, they’ll get two thumbs way up from me, just for being Siskel and Ebert.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes    

Opera Personalities in Brazil (Part Two) – Politics, the Kiss of Death: A Rio-Life Study

Luiz Fernando Malheiro (

Maestro Luiz Fernando Malheiro (

With major international revivals by a once-neglected Brazilian master, and numerous contemporary offerings of his most outstanding creative works — along with an enthusiastic assemblage of young, native-born artists eager to sing, play, and breathe new life into those same works — can the Brazilian national opera take a firm enough stand in the performing-arts world by overcoming its previous cultural impasse? Not if we know anything about her past political maneuverings, it can’t.

As a twice-wounded, twice-shy victim of Rio and São Paulo’s Machiavellian posturing, the once-embattled Brazilian maestro, John Neschling, went on the record, in a 2001 newspaper interview, to indicate, in appropriately blunt terms, that, “The entity that needs to provide the culture so sorely lacking [in Rio de Janeiro] has to be the state. Similarly, Rio will only have a truly great orchestra when her state and local governments convince themselves that a symphony is absolutely necessary for tourism, and for a city of the First World” — a vastly debatable concept at best.

But the ever-present, double-edged sword that the ruthless game of politics has turned into has had an astonishingly negative impact on even the most respectable of arts institutions, in spite of maestro Neschling’s utopian ideals. Let us briefly consider the following case study, then, of the recent disharmony prevalent at the regally elegant edifice known as the Teatro Municipal of Rio.

São Paulo-born conductor Luiz Fernando Malheiro, who (as of this writing) still runs the Teatro Amazonas Opera Festival, had a brief but tension-filled tenure as music director of the city’s famed Beaux-Arts opera house, where, as it turned out, he ran into a veritable stonewall of nonconformity, due to a change in the theater’s administration, sometime around April 2002.

That change swept into office both a leftist state governor, Workers’ Party candidate Benedita da Silva, and a new boss of the opera board, Antonio Carlos Grassi — strictly a political appointment, according to Amy Radil, a radio and print journalist based in Brazil.

With these shifts in artistic focus came the usual rounds of charges and countercharges, entailing (but not limited to) tortuous budget cuts, eleventh-hour cast substitutions, and spurious threats of season cancellations, as well as endless and protracted grumblings about performers’ exorbitant fees. “We’ll never get beyond artistic mediocrity in our theaters,” a frustrated Malheiro protested to Jornal do Brasil, “as long as they’re subject to these [kinds of] abrupt changes.”

Antonio Carlos Grassi (

Antonio Carlos Grassi (

Responding to the conductor’s accusation, board president Grassi, who also happened to be the state culture secretary (and a former television, stage, and screen star to boot), defiantly declared that the “debate is political and ideological. I think the theater has to exist within the cultural context of the state,” inadvertently stealing the now-portentous Neschling’s thunder. Besides which, in Grassi’s opinion, “The last government left an enormous debt. There was no money for the original program, which was ambitious, but very expensive.”

“We live in a country in which crisis returns from time to time,” a member of the opera’s orchestra was heard to complain, “and the arts are always the first ones to feel it.” “It’s ridiculous to make these changes for six months,” griped another. “Then we have to wait for the elections and see who wins… to find out who the new masters of the theater will be.”

These overly-dramatic developments in Rio had all the customary signs of one of those sordid television soap operas Brazilians are so obviously addicted to — in retrospect, it was quite a remarkable show all-around. Upset at the way all parties mishandled this rather unseemly situation, particularly in the local press, Malheiro resolutely upped and quit his post — so much for freedom of artistic expression.

The sudden showdown between the city’s foremost political and theatrical heavyweights had thrown Neschling’s wishful cultural commentary into temporary disrepute. Who, then, should be the ultimate purveyor of high culture in Brazil: the city, the state, or the local opera board? Given the conflicting viewpoints this extremely volatile subject seems to inspire, there has yet to be offered a single set of workable proposals, or a reasonably attractive solution to this chaotic mess, going forward.

Back at the opera, Malheiro’s brave new successor, conductor Silvio Barbato,[1] summed up his own feelings regarding the distasteful situation there, dismissing the misunderstandings as “merely a clash of egos.” Moreover, maestro Barbato went out of his way to praise the “socially conscious imperatives of the current government,” overlooking the glaring fact that it’s the state that “still pays the lion’s share of the [Municipal’s] budget,” to which his own future employment remained indebted and beholden to.

With state and local governments providing the bulk of the funds to ensure their very survival, both the Teatro Municipal and Teatro Amazonas could breathe a collective sigh of relief, as they continue to be allowed to “prosper,” both artistically and culturally, in the modern musical realm — with prosperity the relative term here, denoting a form of financial “stability” most foreign companies would be grateful to receive, as long as these self-same governments kept their own highly-suspect fiscal houses in order (by any means, a tall order, as originally conceived).

Bailing out Brazilian opera houses, however, is not the only answer. But like everything else in the country even remotely related to culture — soccer, Carnival, samba, and the cinema — just keeping the political ship afloat is often all that’s required… for now, at least.

As a final addendum to this convoluted story line, about a year later, in early 2003, the Federal Ministry of Culture, headed-up by the recently appointed pop-star Gilberto Gil,[2] chose Antonio Carlos Grassi to become the next president of Fundação Nacional de Arte.

According to Funarte’s farsighted mission statement, it was charged with the lofty task of “promoting, stimulating, and supporting, throughout all the nation and abroad, the practice of developing and disseminating artistic and cultural activities, in the [primary] areas of theater, dance, opera, the plastic and graphic arts, photography, and popular and classical music,” in addition to “documenting and informing, as well as providing the research into, these same areas… with a view towards the preservation of the country’s cultural memory.”

With respect to the organization’s actual operating budget, “the financial resources for Funarte will originate with the National Treasury, and are approved by the [Brazilian] Congress; [funds] are also provided for by the official government entities, to include foreign or private investments…”

This should be most reassuring to Mr. Grassi, after what he and maestro Malheiro went through at the Municipal. Perhaps one day Grassi can meet up with the fiercely demanding conductor and share a hearty laugh or two about it all over strong cups of black coffee. Together, they can even try to patch up their past differences and let bygones be truly bygones — unless, of course, the maestro’s “cultural memory” has itself been all-too-well preserved.

It Ain’t Over till “You-Know-Who” Sings

It was just as arduous and nerve-wracking, too, in the rough-and-tumble world of big business and high finance, with layoffs, quarterly slashing of earnings, and/or company operating budgets the now-accepted norm. There’s no getting around the unpredictable nature of the Brazilian and American economies either (being what they invariably are). People in the arts professions have had to make do with what little they have, or face obliteration.

Still, as the old saying goes, “When one door closes, another one opens.” In October 2004, the ever-resilient Metropolitan Opera of New York, facing the potential loss of corporate sponsorship of their regular Saturday-afternoon radio programs,[3] went forward with the surprise announcement that Margaret Juntwait, a classical-music host in the city since 1991, had been picked to become only the third announcer (after Milton Cross and Peter Allen) and, remarkably, the first woman, to host the weekly live-opera features.

Margaret Juntwait (Richard Binkhoff)

Margaret Juntwait (Richard Binkhoff)

Her official on-air debut occurred on December 11, 2004, with the broadcast of Verdi’s French-style, five-act opus I Vespri Siciliani (“The Sicilian Vespers”), and continued straight on through to the season’s final transmission of La Clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on May 7, 2005 — the same day, it turned out, that a new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold was set to jump-start the complete Ring cycle at the Amazonas Opera Festival, in the northern city of Manaus.

And just as the saga of the Brazilian Fat Lady had so innocently begun, can we expect it to continue to survive into the new millennium? With tentative assurances (for the time being) of even greater performances to come, what we have learned so far is that not only can the leaner-looking, but still gorgeously tanned, Amazonian beauty sing, she can sing quite well, thank you, missing only an occasional beat or two.

At the risk of changing her “tune” from time to time — that is, from opera to pop music, and from pop music to cinema, then back again, with a little bit of street Carnival thrown in for good measure — she might even be able to quit her day job at some future date.

But in the ever-vacillating economic, political, and sociological atmosphere that traditionally equates itself with the contemporary, still-developing third-world nation of Brazil, however, that date seems far off indeed. ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

[1] Tragically, maestro Barbato’s conducting career came to an abrupt end in 2009 when it was learned he was among the casualties of the June 1st crash of an Air France Airbus 330 plane, Flight 447, off the northern coast of Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha Islands. The conductor perished, along with all two hundred and sixteen of his fellow passengers and fourteen crew members.

[2] Gil stepped down from his post in August 2008. His parting shots were telling, to say the least: “I hope that these four years were important ones for Brazil and for the world, because many people viewed them with prejudice for their having had a musician for a minister.”

[3] Salvaged, incidentally, a year later by Toll Brothers & Company, “America’s Luxury Home Builder,” and the Vincent J. Stabile and Annenberg Foundations.