Month: May 2013

‘The Godfather, Part III’ (1990) — Come Back, Michael Corleone! All is Forgiven!

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Al Pacino as an older Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III
Al Pacino as an older Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III

More rambling than either of its illustrious predecessors, with new characters spilling forth by the minute and an unusual familial “relationship” to ponder over, Part III of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is the last and least admired installment of the hit series. His canny exploration into the inner workings of organized crime in America, with Mafia boss Michael Corleone as the chief suspect and subject, closes the circle he started with the Oscar-winning The Godfather some 16 years prior.

What took Coppola so long to complete it? For one, coming up with a workable story line and script, as well as money and its corrupting influence for another (and more important) reason. One of the main casualties of the prolonged negotiations was Robert Duvall as ex-consigliere Tom Hagen, who priced himself out of contention (he claimed he was underpaid). Surprisingly enough, Coppola was unwilling to revisit these same characters after his highly successful earlier projects, but Paramount Studios and its major stockholder at the time, Gulf+Western, made him (gulp!) an offer he couldn’t refuse. We should be so lucky!

Nevertheless, the saga continued. An older and frailer Michael Corleone (the taciturn Al Pacino, in gray hair and buzz cut) tries to make good on his past pledges to go straight and legitimize his lucrative Mafia dealings. In attempting to extricate himself from the Family “business,” however, Michael unwisely hands over the reins of power to a ruthless street enforcer, an onerous “clotheshorse” named Joey Zasa (oleaginous Joe Mantegna).

When Michael’s trigger-happy nephew Vincent (played by Andy Garcia, in one of his best roles) comes busting in on the action, Don Corleone takes an instant liking to this, his brother Sonny’s bastard son (by way his mistress, Lucy Mancini, from the first flick), but is wary of the youth’s violent temper (so like his father in that respect).

Andy Garcia as nephew Vincent & Al Pacino as Michael in The Godfather Part III
Andy Garcia as nephew Vincent & Al Pacino as Michael in The Godfather Part III

Further complications ensue, such as Michael’s outwardly charitable donations to and involvement with the Catholic Church, which give way to other, let’s say unforeseen repercussions within the hierarchy of that venerable institution — all the way up to the Vatican’s banker, in fact, in a thinly veiled reference to the real-life Michele Sindona affair of the late 1970s, along with a few others.

There are so many red herrings, as well as false leads and dubious plot twists, especially the bogus romance between Vincent’s cousin, and Michael’s daughter, Mary (an amateurish performance by Coppola’s own daughter Sofia, who became a noted filmmaker in her own right); along with son Anthony’s operatic aspirations and eventual debut as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, it all gets to be a bit much after a while.

Still, once all the machinations are finally set in motion, the inevitable grand finale (a truly operatic ending!) materializes. It’s the mother of all tragedies, which may remind some cinefiles of Rod Steiger cri de coeur in Sidney Lumet’s harrowing conclusion to The Pawnbroker.

But that Joey Zasa is a prize characterization, isn’t he, thanks to the chameleon-like Joe Mantegna (Joan of Arcadia, Criminal Minds). In addition to him, we get several new personalities, among them the creepily crooked Don Altobello (“tall and handsome”), played by short and frumpy Eli Wallach, a master of understatement; Franc D’Ambrosio (with a background in musical theater) as Anthony Corleone; the Irish-brogue-spouting Donal Donnelly as Archbishop Gilday, as devious a hoodlum priest as they come; silver-haired George Hamilton as Michael’s immaculately tailored lawyer B.J. Harrison; former middleweight boxing champion Vito Antuofermo (ugly as sin) as Zasa’s bodyguard Anthony “The Ant” Squigliaro (love that moniker!); and veteran thespian Raf Vallone as an exceptionally impressive Cardinal Lamberto, who hears Michael’s guilt-ridden confession, which happens to be the movie’s emotional highpoint.

Ex-boxer Vito Antuofermo as "The Ant" & Joe Mantegna as Joey Zaza
Ex-boxer Vito Antuofermo as “The Ant” & Joe Mantegna as Joey Zasa

Of the numerous returnees, Diane Keaton is her low-key self as Michael’s ex-wife Kay, whom he reconciles with during the course of the drama; sullen Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister) as the widowed Connie, who totes a suspect box of cannoli to the opera; Richard Bright as a much heavier Al Neri; singer Al Martino appears as singer Johnny Fontane; Gabriele Torrei is Enzo the baker (remember him, as the nervous fellow who tried to light his cigarette in the first Godfather); and Jeannie Linero as Lucy Mancini, Vincent’s mother, the young bridesmaid that Sonny Corleone had, uh, up against the door in Part I (so that’s how that happened).

Directed by Coppola in high-flung fashion, with the peerless cinematography of Gordon Willis, production design by Dean Tavoularis, art direction by Alex Tavoularis, and musical direction by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father (let’s keep it all in the family, folks). It may surprise most fans that this picture was mostly filmed in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, also used by Martin Scorsese for his Gangs of New York.

It’s not the masterpiece that everyone wanted or expected from Francis, but a worthy pretender nonetheless. Do yourself a favor and see it, if only to have your curiosity sated as to how this whole Godfather saga “sorta, kinda” gets cleaned up. You’ll be thankful you did.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes        

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‘Die Walküre’ at the Met: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Opera

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Ride of the Valkyries (Ken Howard)
Ride of the Valkyries (Ken Howard)

A Tale of Two Tenors

I did not yet discuss the Ring cycle’s plot or story line – and there’s good reason for that. To put it simply, it’s complicated. Besides, Wagner provided the listener with an ongoing recapitulation of events, which he placed in strategic guises throughout the four operas. These recaps or commentaries can be heard in the characters of the Rhine maidens, the Norns, Erda the Earth Goddess, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, her sister Waltraute, Siegmund, Sieglinde, their son Siegfried, Alberich, Hagen and Wotan, the head god himself, among numerous others.

Most knowledgeable Wagnerians dote on these extra-musical exercises in repetitiveness, while others loathe and despise them as long-drawn-out time wasters. Whichever camp you find yourself in, one has to admit that they do help to fill in the finer points of the drama and, for the serious opera fan, provide needed background about what took place in the past or will happen in the future.

Briefly, then, the dwarf Alberich is spurned by the Rhine maidens, after which he renounces love and steals their gold (nice guy!), from which he forges a Ring of power that will allow the wearer to rule over all things (shades of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings be damned). That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, I’ve oversimplified matters in the extreme, but basically Alberich goes on to lose the Ring, places a mighty curse on the object, and never gets it back.

The elusive Ring, on the other hand, acquires various owners, including Wotan, the giant Fafner (who in order to guard it transforms himself into a dragon), Siegfried, Brünnhilde, and Siegfried again, then Brünnhilde again, and finally back to the Rhine maidens from whence it originated. Oy vey!

The late raconteur Anna Russell gave many a hilarious insight into this subject, which anyone can check out on YouTube to their heart’s content, they are definitely worth the time and trouble. Anyway, on to the next installment: Die Walküre.

The role of Siegmund is not a particularly long or strenuous one, compared to, say, Tristan or Siegfried. It lies comfortably within most dramatic tenors’ range; in fact, it may be too low for some voices. But whatever the case, the Met’s April 13 performance gave us two, count ‘em, two singers for the price of one.

Martina Serafin (Sieglinde) & Simon O'Neill (Siegmund)
Martina Serafin (Sieglinde) & Simon O’Neill (Siegmund)

Blame a severe allergy attack (and the ridiculously high pollen count) for sidelining the scheduled Siegmund, New Zealand-born Simon O’Neill. Curiously, just a few weeks before, at the Saturday La Traviata broadcast, Met General Manager Peter Gelb announced that Placido Domingo had had an allergy attack as well, but that he decided to soldier on regardless. As his name indicated, the unfazed Señor Placido managed to get through the afternoon relatively unscathed. Not so Mr. O’Neill.

Although he appeared to start off well, it soon became apparent that O’Neill was incapable of continuing with the performance. He was replaced, in fairly short order (and in discrete fashion), in mid-act by another New Zealander, the young Andrew Sritheran – for all we knew it might have been Slytherin, which is one of the four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Met and Mr. Gelb could have used some of that old black magic to pull this trick off. Fortunately for them, the Kiwi native proved his mettle by overcoming the Ring’s curse and went on to a respectable if not exactly stellar debut. It may not have been the best sung or richest Siegmund in memory, but Sritheran helped save the day – and the Met’s terribly expensive cycle, at that.

Another radio debutante, soprano Martina Serafin, made a commendable stab at Sieglinde, her third act cry of “O hehrstes Wunder” at the news of her impending pregnancy with Siegmund’s child soaring effortlessly over the vast Met auditorium – a memorable moment. In other areas, Serafin’s soprano sounded warm and inviting, like the hearth in Hunding’s hut. She and Sritheran combined forces to give a rousing rendition of the Act I duet, where they finally discover they are, in fact, brother and sister, in another of those Wagnerian happenstances.

Sieglinde’s husband Hunding was taken by bass Hans-Peter König, who seemed almost too good-natured and benign to be a villain. It was all part of the act, though, and soon his smoothness of tone turned rough around the edges as he eyed the handsome Siegmund (and how much he resembled his wife). Hunding is a short part, but König succeeded in conveying the character’s gruffness. Still, there is decidedly more to the huntsman than Hans-Peter showed. Blame the direction and lack of acting space for that. I can recall the young and brutish Matthias Hölle, in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” Ring production at Bayreuth, and how he sunk his teeth into this role. The looks of disdain he gave both Siegmund and Sieglinde were enough to melt the wooden planks off the walls, whereas König was as placid as an ox.

Close Encounters of the Operatic Kind

Wotan's all-seeing "eye" from Act 2 of Die Walkuere
Wotan’s all-seeing “eye” from Act 2 of Die Walkuere (Ken Howard)

Act II forms the musical crux of the drama, a rather byzantine set of circumstances that the lead characters – principally that of Wotan – have foisted upon themselves. Mark Delavan once again sang the head god, in a continuation from the previous broadcast of Das Rheingold. He has the requisite dark timbre and gravely low notes the part calls for, which is more than I can say for Bryn Terfel, his predecessor in the role when this production was new. Terfel is a fine singer, but his voice is much too bright for Wotan; whereas Delavan has the proper weight and substance, as well as the “chops,” to make an impact in his mid-act monologue, wherein Wotan looks both backward and forward in time, represented downstage by a mirror-like object (supposedly, a substitute for the god’s missing eye).

What with Wotan’s gloomy reflections and thoughts of “Das Ende” (“The end”), punctuated by the lowest instruments in the brass (the so-called Wagner tubas), this is the most gripping portion of the Ring, in my estimation, requiring a singing actor of tremendous range and versatility. Delavan’s German needed to be more pointed, and certainly more alert to the text, than it was here. In later productions, I hope he develops his enunciation skills further, for what Wotan says in this act is of paramount importance and influence in the later Ring operas.

Notwithstanding this criticism (and I’m exceedingly picky when it comes to my Wagner), Delavan is well on his way toward becoming a truly great Wotan and Wanderer. He shook the rafters with his angry outbursts at daughter Brünnhilde’s disobedience of his will (a Schopenhauer influence), and his scornful dismissal of Hunding, with a half-growled, half-garbled, “Geh, geh!” (“Go, go!”), evoked fond memories of Canadian George London in the role. He ended the opera with a long-held note on the last word of the phrase, “Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchet durschreite das Feuer nie” (“He who fears the point of my spear shall not pass through the fire”).

Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde
Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde (Ken Howard)

On the distaff side, soprano Deborah Voigt repeated her womanly Brünnhilde from last season. Her Valkyrie was sympathetically vocalized as well as acted, and she’s improved her interaction with Wotan to a noticeable degree – no doubt her experience in the part, which lies more comfortably in her vocal range than the later Brünnhilde’s do, helped matters significantly.

I still hold the conviction that this role is one Ms. Voigt should avoid in future Met assignments. She’s done everything humanly possible to overcome the fact that she does not really possess a Brünnhilde-type voice. And by that, I mean the clarion high notes, the emotional release necessary to make this character come alive on the stage.

To state my case, the current staging of this production serves as more of a hindrance in that department than any of the singer’s personal attributes or deficiencies. My view, then, will be borne out in the next post concerning Götterdämmerung. Voigt did make a tolerable meal out of her “Hojotoho” war cries at the start of the act (although effortful, the high B’s were all there, intact and ready for action), but beyond that her emotionally wrought exchanges with her father, and in particular the lengthy Todesverkündigung (“Annunciation of Death”) sequence with Siegmund, brought out the character’s warm and fuzzy side — her basic humanity, as it were. It’s still treacherous out there on those planks, as they creaked and groaned to upstage the singers.

Wotan (Mark Delavan) has some explaining to do to Fricka (Blythe)
Wotan (Mark Delavan) has some explaining to do to Fricka (Blythe)

Stephanie Blythe’s formidable Fricka is another known quantity, a powerfully done and implacable moral entity. Blythe could mow any Wotan down with her looks alone; that she has a voice to go with it made her Fricka a force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, outside of this one confrontation, Wagner gave the character too little to sing and not enough scenery to chew on. Any artist undertaking this role needs to make the strongest impression possible within a relatively short time span, much like Hunding and, later on in the cycle, Waltraute, the Woodbird and Alberich.

Maestro Fabio Luisi continued to shine in this, his best conducted Ring performance of the three that I heard. The eight Valkyries, too, performed over and above their brief Valhalla duties in Act III, even earning the audience’s applause for their “hobby-horse” antics atop those 24 movable planks – ah, the terrors of modern, hazardous staging… They were better off than the Rhine maidens, who were forced to dangle some 20-30 feet above the Met stage in the opening scene of Rheingold. No amount of the Nibelung’s horde is worth putting up with that.

There’s more to come with my next post. Stay tuned!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Six: The Nightingale Flies Away

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A Shock to the System

Bidu Sayao (www.lightstalkers.org)
Bidu Sayao (www.lightstalkers.org)

Carmen Miranda’s shocking end and tumultuous Rio de Janeiro funeral produced a staggering outpouring of grief in the country — a vivid example of pent-up guilt feelings for the way the nation had treated the dearly departed movie icon when she was alive.

It also struck a foreboding chord with Bidu Sayão, Brazil’s other international musical exponent, and a fervent follower of the once energetic entertainer. Only a month before Bidu had suffered the loss of her first husband, the late Walter Mocchi, recently interred in a Rio cemetery. And, in a manner of speaking, she had witnessed the slow and steady passing of her own Metropolitan Opera career, what with her having to contend with a regime change at the company she had so long been associated with.

The new administration, put in place in October 1950 and headed up by crusty general manager Rudolf Bing, was peculiarly unreceptive to the popular Brazilian singer’s request to perform in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, one of her Gallic specialties. Bing it seemed had an aversion to the standard French repertoire, but his firm support of Verdi and Puccini, and outright backing of the Mozart canon, gave Bidu renewed hope that she would be given a fair stab at some of the meatier items on the Met’s operatic dinner-plate of works.

Such was not to be. She sang in only four presentations of La Bohème, the last of which, dated February 26, 1952, was her adieu to the old house. It was followed two months later by a final April 23 performance on tour, in Boston, as Manon, the role of her Met debut.

“I was proud,” she would later remark, “and I did not want to wait until I was asked to leave.” It was commented on at the time that Bidu Sayão had left the Metropolitan at the top of her form, and with few regrets.

Bidu in the 1950s (last.fm)
Bidu in the 1950s (last.fm)

Cutting back on her operatic appearances, she limited her future engagements to the concert hall, but wallowed joyfully in her newly acquired freedom away from the lyric stage. In the same year as Carmen Miranda’s wedding in Beverly Hills, Bidu and her husband, Giuseppe Danise, purchased a home in Lincolnville, off the coast of Maine and reminiscent of her family’s littoral abode in Botafogo. They called it Casa Bidu. After her retirement from the Met, she and Danise would spend considerable time there together, interspersed with occasional side visits to New York City.

But more shattering news would arrive in January 1957: Arturo Toscanini — mentor, admirer, advisor, and steadfast supporter — died at his home in Riverdale, New York, at the ripe old age of 89. This was too much for the sensitive soprano to bear, as she now resolved to terminate her singing career before the year was out.

“That decision,” Bidu admitted to Maria Helena Dutra, in a December 1972 interview for Veja magazine, “came about as well because my 90-year-old mother had been extremely ill. And my husband complained constantly of being left alone, because I was leading a gypsy lifestyle. I felt then that my family needed to come first.”

Bidu bid a fond farewell to concertizing, in the same historic location (Carnegie Hall), singing the same lyrical showpiece (La Demoiselle Élue), and with the same orchestral forces (the New York Philharmonic) as those of two decades prior, when she was first introduced to American audiences by the incomparable Italian-born Toscanini; except that on this occasion, the program in question was in the capable hands of a noteworthy Belgian, conductor André Cluytens. He would solemnly assist Bidu in drawing a final curtain on the predominantly classical cycle she had begun for herself back in the spring of 1936.

“It’s hard to quit,” she told The New York Times, “but how much better to do it when the public remembers you well. Now I could smoke, stay up late at parties, and [even] catch a cold.” Reminiscing about those years to Veja, Bidu explained that, for a while, she lived with her “past glories, surrounded by journalists.” When she finally called it quits, “all of a sudden there was this tremendous void” in her life, but the choice was made and she embraced it with open arms.

Within a few years of that defining concert, second husband Giuseppe Danise would join the celestial ranks of the other prominent figures in Bidu’s life: Uncle Alberto Costa, soprano Elena Theodorini, tenor Jean de Reszke, Madame Emma Carelli, impresario Walter Mocchi, maestro Arturo Toscanini, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a lifelong collaborator and close personal acquaintance. All had made incalculable contributions to her profession and art. While each had received their just reward, Bidu would continue to be feted, honored, and fawned over, for years to come, by ardent aficionados both here and in her native land.

Bidu with Villa-Lobos, 1958
Bidu with Villa-Lobos, 1958

With all that she had seen and done in her field of choice, what was there left to say about Brazil’s most exalted opera personality? Taking note of her award-winning 1945 Columbia Records rendition of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and her status as a major interpreter of that composer’s works, along with those of the less familiar-sounding Hernani Braga, Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Reynaldo Hahn, and Francisco Mignone, Bidu’s many stage and recorded milestones went far beyond the norm for a native-born classical performer of her time.

In fact, there was no denying, or even downplaying, her importance as a pivotal player in the development and spread of opera in-and-around the Brazilian landscape. Although some critics would go so far as to admit that her (and Carmen Miranda’s) peak period of activity spanned the length of U.S. involvement in the Second World War — with its emphasis on the Good Neighbor Policy and the resultant rationing of the gene pool of foreign artists; that she had not appeared in her native Brazil between the years 1937 and 1952, it was not supported by the evidence.

“I get offended when people tell me that I’m not patriotic,” she told Veja magazine. “I’ve always represented my country with much dignity. All my Metropolitan Opera colleagues were naturalized citizens. Except me, who has lived in the United States for the last 35 years.”

Life is a Carnival

But what was it that made the little diva so endearing to opera buffs? What carefully guarded secret had she possessed that so inspired the loyalty and admiration of even the most hardened of music critics?

On the whole, it can be added that in almost every respect the lovely lyric singer exuded that rare and indecipherable star quality known as charisma. Added to her matchless stage deportment, it manifested itself in the purity and ease with which she projected her small but penetrating instrument; beautifully self-contained within a miniature yet finely sculpted frame; and perfectly suited for the nobility and majesty of only the most theatrical of dramatic contrivances — chiefly, the opera.

With her usual, self-effacing modesty, Bidu Sayão saliently and quite succinctly summed up her own precious vocal artistry in a 1989 broadcast interview for New York radio station WQXR:

“I had something appealing. I don’t know what: the sincerity of my singing. I give my heart. I give my soul. I give myself.”

She gave of herself one last time, when, in 1995, the Beija-Flor Samba School of Nilópolis invited the elderly but still determined petite dame of grand opera to appear in the annual Rio Carnival parade. Bidu’s life story had been transformed into the school’s theme for that year, and she was more than happy to oblige, as it provided the bona fide Brazilian charmer with a legitimate excuse to visit her Cidade Maravilhosa (“Wonderful City”) once again.

Bidu at Carnaval (Empresa Folha da Manha)
Bidu at Carnaval (Empresa Folha da Manha)

Her attire was that of a typical Northeastern baiana, the only conceivable dress she could have worn under the circumstances — and a most fitting personal tribute to the memory of Carmen Miranda in her prime. With that simple gesture, two hitherto incompatible entertainment forms had, for one brief instant, successfully melded into a singularly grandiose public display.

For what is Carnival and opera, anyway, if not outsized representations of all that we would like for reality to be?

Characteristically, the nonagenarian Bidu stole the show.

 *         *         *

On March 12, 1999 after a brief illness, soprano Bidu Sayão permanently left the world spotlight. She died at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine, two months short of her 97th birthday.

Her death brought to a quiet close a most remarkable chapter in Brazilian music history, one that Bidu had so conspicuously made her own. “[D]uring her career days, she held audiences in the palm of her hand,” remembered Schuyler Chapin, ex-Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in New York City and a former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “Whether on the opera stage, the concert hall, a living room, or just in conversation… she was, hands down, one of the public’s favorites.”

But the length of an individual’s physical life did not necessarily translate into longevity in the public’s mind, especially where it concerned the new and unconventional in music.

Alas, few of the current generation of Brazil’s knowledgeable music lovers have even heard of Bidu Sayão, much less been made aware of her past classical accomplishments. Yet ever more enthusiastic disciples of Música Popular Brasileira have become thrilled all over again by the flashing eyes, the free-flowing arm movements, and the fluttering vocal lines of that too short-lived curio named Carmen Miranda. A major reappraisal of her work appears imminent and overdue, and is sure to follow in the wake of this modern reevaluation.*

In the brief time she spent with us, Carmen’s musical and entertainment legacy had apparently won out over — or even surpassed — Bidu’s now overlooked ones. Indeed, her tragic, unforeseen death and subsequent reacceptance into contemporary Brazilian cultural society can be read, should we choose to, as the final triumphant victory over her earlier career adversity. ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Brazilian-born actress and singer Marília Pêra, herself a native carioca, has put on several one-woman shows depicting the life and times of Carmen Miranda, the first of them in 1972. These were followed by other revivals, including one in 2005 in Rio. On the stage, Pêra has also impersonated paulista power-diva Dalva de Oliveira, as well as Greek-American opera star Maria Callas. Her latest theatrical incarnation was of the legendary French cosmetic queen, Coco Chanel, in Paris.

‘Das Rheingold,’ ‘Die Walküre,’ and ‘Götterdämmerung’ at the Met: Three Quarters of a ‘Ring’ Cycle is Better Than None

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Das Rheingold -- Descent to Nibelheim (nytimes.com)
Das Rheingold — Descent to Nibelheim (nytimes.com)

It took composer Richard Wagner more than a third of his adult life to bring his monumental music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen (known collectively, in English, as The Ring of the Nibelung), to life on the German stage. Not for nothing was he regarded by record producer John Culshaw, and numerous other individuals, as “a man possessed.”

Wagner was possessed, all right: possessed of an assiduous self-confidence, as well as an artistic vision and single-minded purpose few individuals could understand or appreciate at the time. That he was able to see this vision through to the end is quite possibly, to my mind – and to the minds of musicologists and historians before and after him – one of his few redeeming features. That and his disreputable ability to wrangle money out of friends and foe alike, all the way up to the crowned head of Bavaria, the mentally challenged King Ludwig, remain Wagner’s most ignoble feats.

Was the struggle worth it? Looking back on the sheer volume of productions over the past 130 some-odd years since the Ring cycle premiered in Bayreuth, I’d be forced to answer “yes.” In many of the most memorable Ring ventures there can be counted at least one outstanding feature in support of Wagner’s vision: in his grandson Wieland Wagner’s two cycles (one bare-bones, the other drawn from Jungian archetypes) from the 1950s and 60s; in Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 centennial version (indebted to George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite); in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” edition (revived and modified in Barcelona); even the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen retro Ring installment at the Met; they all had something that encapsulated their creators’ themes.

The Metropolitan Opera’s current version, directed by Robert Lepage, with sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St.-Aubain, lighting by Etienne Boucher, and video imaging by Boris Firquet, resorts to a talented team of artists and artisans for the project. However, there is no other readily apparent purpose or vision to this production except to tell the story of the Ring – more on this aspect later on.

There’s Gold in That, There Rhine!

There are few works in the active repertoire that fill me with an overpowering desire to hear them anew, and at any time. I’m glad to report that the Ring is one of those works. Not only did I listen to last season’s cycle complete and on the air, but I also caught the PBS Live in HD re-transmission of the entire Ring, starting with Susan Froemke’s 2012 documentary Wagner’s Dream, about the making of this troubled Lepage/Fillion version.

The current cycle began with the first opera, Das Rheingold, broadcast on April 6, followed by Die Walküre on April 13, Siegfried on April 20 (a performance I happened to have missed, unfortunately), and the final Met broadcast of the season of Götterdämmerung on May 11. Most of the principal cast in Rheingold had previously sung in the September 2010 premiere, with several new members making their role debuts in this latest run.

Hearing the work in this back-to-back manner was most refreshing (it was exactly the way Wagner had planned for his operas to be heard all along). It was particularly revealing, I might add, in that one could more easily associate the composer’s intricate leitmotif system, a piece of music played by the orchestra that accompanies or underscores a particular incident, character, event or action, with what is actually happening (has happened or will happen) onstage. This is “film music” of the highest order before film or cinema had even been developed or invented! It’s what makes Wagner’s vision all the more prophetic.

Mark Delavan (Wotan) & Stephanie Blythe (Fricka)
Mark Delavan (Wotan) & Stephanie Blythe (Fricka)

In Das Rheingold, Mark Delavan, who we previously praised in Francesca da Rimini, was a Wotan with much promise, if not all of them fulfilled. The voice is ample and strong without the solid impact one normally associates with the part. The middle and lower registers gave off a dark, almost dusky timbre. This is undeniably a Wotan voice, of the kind Hans Hotter, George London, and (in our day) James Morris once possessed.

At times, though, Delavan’s top notes strayed from the pitch when pressed, but mercifully did not veer off into sharpness (unlike some singers). He took his time to warm up, with mushy diction at the start, but refined the focus later on, his German becoming more pronounced and the words carrying a dramatic weight to them that were lacking in the early going. His greeting to his new abode, “Abendlich strahlt,” was a bit of a letdown, but Delavan ended up stronger than he began – a welcome sign that bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

Eric Owens, billed as a bass-baritone, was more bass than baritone as the dwarf Alberich, the Nibelung of the title as well as Wotan’s arch nemesis. With his distinctive sound and superb enunciation of the text, Owens deserves the positive notices he’s been receiving in this role, although his topmost notes were still more hinted at than held. His acting was above reproach, however, making this detestable creature all the more sympathetic. That’s a major victory in itself.

Eric Owens as Alberich
Eric Owens as Alberich, with Rhine Gold in hand

Spitting his words out with relish, Alberich’s Curse was overwhelming in its malevolence and bearing, save for the highest note. But even that limitation turned out to work in Owens’ favor: by using this deficiency to his advantage, he succeeded in producing a real flesh-and-blood personage – that’s quite a creation!

Stephanie Blythe’s limited assignment as Fricka was delivered with the expected steadiness and nobility only she could achieve. The role is not the most vocally satisfying of the cycle, and is usually portrayed as a stereotypical nagging Hausfrau in most productions. This was no different, but Blythe practically owns the part at the Met, with the voice projecting tellingly over the orchestra and into the audience. After seeing her a few weeks ago as Nettie Fowler in Carousel, I must say that Blythe is more than capable of “slumming it” on Broadway, and in the opera house, in any capacity she chooses!

Stefan Margita as the crafty Loge (Ken Howard)
Stefan Margita as the crafty Loge (Ken Howard)

Slovakian tenor Stefan Margita’s Loge was a real find. Basically a lyric tenor, Margita too gave much emphasis to the words, painting a marvelous picture of this mischievous character. His “Durch raub” (“By theft”), when asked how the gods could acquire the Ring, was hurled with all the bite and glee the phrase required, with a built-in tongue-in-cheek manner quite appropriate to the god of Fire. I loved his feigned reaction to Alberich’s transformations in Scene iii, giving a sly wink and a nod to Wotan while “trembling” with fear at the dwarf’s monstrous presence. He’d make an excellent Mime, should he venture forth in that direction.

The giants, Fasolt and Fafner, were taken by Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter König, respectively. Selig has a leaner, sweeter tone than König, which aided in differentiating the two brothers’ personalities and separate agendas: Selig, lovelorn and lonely, practically fawning over Freia (a game Wendy Bryn Harmer), the goddess of youth and beauty; and König, sinister and stern, insistent on driving a hard bargain with Wotan and the other gods. About whom, Richard Cox’s Froh and Dwayne Croft’s Donner were pleasantly sung, with neither artist bringing much insight into these deliberately limited roles. Donner’s famous hammer call was given a firm reading, if with slightly underpowered tone. Meredith Arwady as the mysterious Erda, the Earth Goddess, boasted a cello-like instrument in its lowest reaches, but faded into the woodwork stage-wise. One of the best sung performances of the day, however, was the cackling, megalomaniac Mime, Alberich’s brother, voiced by the sturdy tenor of Gerhard Siegel. He was particularly adept at delineating the drawf’s various cries of “Au, au, au,” each one different and unique.

Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal conductor, who led last year’s cycle (for the most part), was once again at the helm. His beat was steady and firm, coaxing wonderful playing from the Met Orchestra, though I felt that he failed to linger over certain musical passages (i.e., the dreamy interlude before the first Valhalla theme; the journey to Nibelheim and back) that would normally be taken at a slower, more leisurely pace.

The gods entering Valhalla (bloomberg.com)
The gods entering Valhalla (bloomberg.com)

About that trip to the land of the dwarfs: there were unseen technical difficulties with the 45-ton contraption known as “The Machine,” those 24 movable planks that bend and fold and creak and squirm into countless configurations on stage. In this production, acrobats take the place of Wotan and Loge as they descend into the lower depths of where the Nibelungs toil. We see their journey from above, however in this instance the planks faltered, which led to a last-minute improvisation by Owens and Siegel (a similar incident occurred when Rheingold premiered back in 2010, as the gods failed to cross the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla. Instead, the singers looked at each other and then simply walked off the stage in a most un-god-like manner).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Hollywood Goes to the Opera – More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure

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Back by Popular Demand

Feodor Chaliapin Jr. in The Name of the Rose
The devilish Feodor Chaliapin Jr., in The Name of the Rose

I received so much positive feedback about a previous piece that was posted last year entitled “Opera Goes to Hollywood” that I decided to write a follow-up sequel.

I call it “Hollywood Goes to the Opera.” It follows the same general pattern and style as the earlier one – that is, it establishes why movie studios should both stay in and out of the operatic arena, while touching upon the various aspects of this most over-looked of movie sub-genres.

These additional episodes never made it to the original piece, either because of time constraints or lack of available space. With that said, I hope to make amends with this latest post. I also hope you enjoy these extra morsels as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.

Biopics Galore

To quote a phrase from Ripley, “believe it or not” there are dozens of screen biographies of struggling composers, classical musicians, artists, producers and famous opera stars out there, along with their tragically (uh, let’s say “operatically”) inclined lives in-and-out of the theater. It’s no wonder, then, that some of these so-called “efforts” have wound up on the cinematic scrap heap as nothing more than expensive soap duds for the screen, i.e., real celluloid “clunkers,” in the jargon of the time.

Kathryn Grayson in So This is Love poster
Kathryn Grayson in So This is Love poster

Some of the most well-known of these losers include the film “biography” (and I use that term loosely) of our old friend, American soprano Grace Moore. The movie, So This is Love (1953), starring Kathryn Grayson (Kiss Me Kate, Toast of New Orleans) and a pre-talk-show Merv Griffin, is a perfect case in point. The sight of a blonde, flapper-era Grayson is too much to take. And in case you were wondering, Merv is absolutely dreadful in it (no wonder he switched careers by venturing forth into TV Land!).

Next up is the sudser to end all sudsers: Interrupted Melody from 1955, about the star-crossed life of Australian dramatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence, who was cut down in the prime of her life by polio, as played by Eleanor Parker, who is about as Australian as Justin Bieber. The film co-stars Canadian Glenn Ford (very good, in fact) as her husband and a pre-007 Roger Moore (duh… not so good). On the soundtrack is the voluminous singing voice of real-life soprano Eileen Farrell, along with a few less familiar names from the period: tenors William Olvis, Rudolf Petrak, and Armand Tokatyan, and diva Marcella Reale. Get out your handkerchiefs for this one, folks. You’re going to need them!

On the male side of the equation, we have the aforementioned The Great Caruso (1951) with Mario Lanza as the Great One; Tonight We Sing (1953), the musical life of famed impresario Sol Hurok starring David Wayne, who looked nothing at all like Hurok, with opera stars Jan Peerce and Roberta Peters, joined by Italian basso Ezio Pinza as Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin(!), in scenes from Act IV of Gounod’s Faust; a monstrously fictionalized account of composer Johann Strauss Jr.’s life, called The Great Waltz (1938), with a sparkling star turn by the dazzling coloratura Miliza Korjus (she’s also quite attractive).

Capucine & Dirk Bogarde in Song Without End
Capucine & Dirk Bogarde in Song Without End

And then we have the execrable Song Without End from 1960, which purports to describe the amorous affairs of composer and concert pianist Franz Liszt. Featuring an uncomfortably bewigged Dirk Bogarde (who was gay), as Liszt, in his U.S. film debut, and French actress Capucine (who was bisexual) in her first-ever screen appearance, as Princess Caroline, his main love interest. About the only thing Liszt had in common with opera was his fiendishly difficult piano transcriptions and heroic championing of the music of Richard Wagner (performed by studio contract player Lyndon Brook), in a scene in which young Liszt is rehearsing the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser. Wagner is given far too short a shrift, and very little screen time, in the troubled and much revised script.

One of the more unusual Italian-made biopics (of which there are legion) is the risible Laugh Pagliacci (1948), starring Alida Valli and Paul Hoerbiger, Carlo Romano as the composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, and baby-faced tenor Beniamino Gigli as the singer Morelli. Gigli doubles as the tragic clown Canio in the presentation of the opera proper. It’s based on the famous story (now discredited by most scholars, I’ll have you know) of how Leoncavallo came to write the opera we know today. Who said biopics have to be based on fact?

Verdi, Vidi, Vinci

House of Ricordi (1955) is another Mediterranean import about the world renowned music-publishing firm, founded by Giulio Ricordi. Signor Ricordi rubbed elbows with some of the era’s greatest artists, including Verdi, Wagner and Puccini, as well as Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes. Directed by Carmine Gallone, a past veteran of many an operatic endeavor, it starred Elisa Cegani as Giuseppina Strepponi (Verdi’s mistress), Andrea Checchi as Ricordi, Gabriele Ferzetti as Giacomo Puccini, Fosco Giachetti as Giuseppe Verdi, Nadia Gray as soprano Giulia Grisi, and Fausto Tozzi as librettist Arrigo Boito. With the peerless voices of Tito Gobbi, Mario Del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, Giulio Neri, and Gianni Poggi, this one is given over to the joys of la bella musica italiana.

Speaking of Verdi, how can we possibly overlook one of the starriest vehicles this side of La Scala: the movie Verdi, the King of Melody, from two years prior (1953), starring Pierre Cressoy (egad, a Frenchman!) as Verdi, and featuring Gaby André (another Frenchie!!), Anna Maria Ferrero, Mario Del Monaco as tenor Francesco Tamagno (creator of the title role in Verdi’s masterpiece, Otello), and Gobbi again, playing French baritone Victor Maurel (as Iago). Oh, well… good help was hard to come by, I guess. The director was Raffaello Matarazzo, if that’s any consolation.

Coincidentally, both Gallone and Giachetti were the director and star of an earlier biographical picture about composer Giuseppe Verdi (1938). On the upside, this version featured our rotund friend Signor Gigli as the creator of the role of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto – you know, the fellow that gets to sing the familiar aria, “La donna é mobile.” On the downside, it was commissioned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, which Gigli had been closely associated with throughout Il Duce’s reign – by all accounts, a rather unholy alliance, and much to the tenor’s detriment.

Not to be left out of the running, sexy screen idol Gina Lollobrigida was a frequent guest artist in a number of opera-related features. One of Lollobrigida’s more, shall we say, “superior” efforts along this line, was her portrayal of the notorious diva Lina Cavalieri, in an Italian production of Beautiful but Dangerous (La Donna Più Bella Del Mondo, 1955). Her leading-men were the hammy Vittorio Gassman and stalwart Robert Alda, with tenor Gino Sinimberghi and the voice of Del Monaco. Helmed by an American, Robert Z. Leonard, it was photographed by Mario Bava, who went on to become the Italian horror-movie king and was credited as both writer and director of such “classic” fright flicks as Black Sabbath (1963), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Baron Blood (1972). So tell me about the opera…

Jose Ferrer in Deep in My Heart
Jose Ferrer in Deep in My Heart

Returning to Stateside, take a gander at Deep in My Heart (1954), the story of operetta composer Sigmund Romberg, with tight-lipped José Ferrer as Herr Romberg, Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, Walter Pidgeon as Broadway theater baron J.J. Shubert, Paul Henreid as the Great Ziegfeld, and Wagnerian dramatic soprano Helen Traubel in the role of Anna Mueller. This one had the makings of an epic, but sadly ‘twas not to be. It was directed by Stanley Donen (why Donen was chosen for this assignment is anybody’s guess). The film’s biggest claim to fame, however, was a rare number, “Dancing Around,” which featured Singin’ in the Rain’s Gene Kelly and his hoofer brother Fred – the only time the two siblings appeared together on film.

For a change of pace, early in his opera career the Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus (by way of the Canary Islands) starred in, and supplied the voice for, the legendary Julian Gayarré, in the eponymously titled Gayarré (1958), with Luz Marquez, Adriano Dominguez, Pastor Serrador, and Antonio Riquelme, directed by Domingo Vilademat. Strangely enough, almost 30 years later another Spaniard, the Barcelona-born José Carreras (Josep in the Catalan spelling) also made a film in which he played the same character, Gayarré. It was titled Romanza Final (The Final Romance, 1985). The less said about that title, the better.

Here’s a film that’s never been theatrically released (not is this country, anyway), about the early career of fiery conductor Arturo Toscanini. Young Toscanini (1988) was directed by Italian auteur Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Endless Love) and included an all-star cast of C. Thomas Howell as the titular maestro, Elizabeth Taylor as soprano Nadia Bulichoff (based on a real character), John Rhys-Davies (of the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Ring series) as an opera director, along with Sophie Ward, Franco Nero as Claudio Toscanini, Jean-Pierre Cassel, tenor Carlo Bergonzi as Bertini, and French actor Philippe Noiret (what, still another Frenchman?) as Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II (oh, that makes sense…). How a Frenchman, speaking Italian and dubbed into English, can play a Brazilian emperor is beyond my comprehension, but that’s filmdom for you.

The highlight of this picture is the 1886 performance of the Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s Aida, a reenactment of Toscanini’s last minute substitution and salvaging of the performance, at the Imperial Theater in Rio de Janeiro. Taylor’s halting of the production midway through the Second Act with a grandstanding speech about the evils of slavery is pure fiction – and not very convincingly done, either. Still, Liz does look every inch the pampered prima donna. Considering Zeffirelli’s international reputation in the realm of opera and film, his incompetence in the direction remains a cause célèbre. It’s a great, big white elephant, a fascinating curiosity piece in the director’s oeuvre.

But the most outlandish example of the genre has to be Ken Russell’s half-baked 1970 realization of the sex life of ballet and opera composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Titled The Music Lovers, and starring the former Dr. Kildare of sixties television fame, a stone-faced Richard Chamberlin, as Tchaikovsky, this purported “biography” is a pitiable mess of a movie. Take, for instance, the extreme close-ups, whereby every bead of sweat and spittle can be spotted and lovingly savored on-screen – how gross.

Richard Chamberlin & Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers
Richard Chamberlin & Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers

The premise behind this work sports the dubious logic that the latent homosexual composer (played by a latent homosexual actor, no doubt!) was driven mad by his inability to truly “satisfy” his long-suffering wife Nina, played to the pathological hilt by the young and lonely Glenda Jackson, who had previously perfected the art of lunacy in Sir Peter Brook’s film adaptation of the play Marat/Sade from 1967.

The ending is a real hoot, in which the forlorn Tchaikovsky commits suicide by drinking a choleric glass of water. He’s then dropped into a tub of boiling bath water in order to “cure” his disease-ridden, sore-covered body. About the only saving grace this pathetic excuse for a motion picture offers is the composer’s sublime music, conducted on the soundtrack by André Previn and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Take a bow, maestro.

Nights at the Opera

A second category of Hollywood movies features an over-abundance of operatic scenes interspersed within a dramatic framework. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Milos Forman’s delightful Amadeus (1984), adapted by Peter Shaffer from his successful stage play, which presents numerous excerpts from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. It gave viewers the erroneous impression that opera was Mozart’s primary focus, which it definitely was not. In point of fact, “Wolfie,” as he’s known in the film, was Europe’s most prolific provider of chamber and concert works, as well as chorales, church music, salon pieces, piano concertos and other solo instrumental music – you name it. But I do agree with director Forman that operas work better on the screen than mere orchestral accompaniment.

Roy Scheider in Marathon Man
Roy Scheider in Marathon Man

Although the plot of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976), which is based on William Goldman’s novel of the same name (Goldman also wrote the screenplay), has nothing whatsoever to do with opera, there is a fascinating episode connected with this film. It’s the scene at the Paris Opera house, where the aria, “Dors, o citê perverse” (“Sleep, oh perverse place”) from Massenet’s Herodiade, is tellingly sung by French-Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau. After this stirring ode is delivered, lanky CIA agent Roy Scheider, who is back in his Paris apartment (and in his underwear, with the Eiffel Tower prominently displayed), is garrotted from behind by an Oriental-looking assassin. That’s one way to get out your operatic frustrations.

There are more examples from among literally hundreds of films that not only use operatic arias and/or ensembles to divert one’s attention away from the stale story line, but also feature dozens of unusual concert venues, including in film noir — see Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, where the famous Brindisi from La Traviata helps to move the plot along — and the ever-popular gangster genre.

One of the best is Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III (1990), which uses Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana as the vehicle for Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony’s operatic debut in Sicily. Played by Al Pacino and Franc d’Ambrosio, respectively, it’s an unsubtle backdrop to the all-too-plentiful vendettas dished out in the film’s finale, where (Spoiler alert: Beware!!!) his younger sister Mary (played by Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who went on to a directing career of her own) is killed in a shootout outside the opera house. No bows there…

Another such act of gratuitous violence is perpetrated in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner and Oscar-winner Sean Connery, which features a scene with the very non-operatic Robert De Niro as notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, weeping uncontrollably at a tenor’s rendition of “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, in the same instant he’s being notified that someone he wanted murdered was given the coup de grace. The voice belongs to that of the young Mario Del Monaco from an early 1950s recording of the complete opera performed by the members of Accademia di Santa Cecilia of Rome, conducted by Alberto Erede. Heck, I should know! I owned that same recording.

Kings of Comedy

Shifting gears and genres for the moment, Norman Jewison’s wonderful comedy Moonstruck (1987) is about the operatic-like life of two families, and the spinster daughter Loretta (played by Cher, of all people) of one of them who happens to fall in love with the younger brother (Ronny, played by Nicolas Cage) of her fiancé (a rather lily livered Danny Aiello as a Mama’s boy, if you can believe that).

Nicolas Cage & Cher at the opera in Moonstruck
Nicolas Cage & Cher at the opera in Moonstruck

The story is told amid the background of an actual performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, which was filmed live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The recording used on the soundtrack is the old London/Decca one, conducted by Tullio Serafin, with Renata Tebaldi as Mimì, Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo, Ettore Bastianini as Marcello, Gianna d’Angelo as Musetta, and Cesare Siepi as Colline. There’s a marvelous scene in which Ronny invites Loretta to his apartment at 3 a.m. in order to keep her from freezing to death, all to the tune of Rodolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina,” (“Your tiny hand so cold”), a very apropos selection. The whole film is of this ilk, and boasts an understated comic performance by none other than Feodor Chaliapin Jr., the great singer’s son.

Signor Chaliapin Jr. also made an eerie guest appearance with Sean Connery and Christian Slater in 1986’s The Name of the Rose, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapted from the book by Umberto Eco. Junior’s well-nigh devilish countenance in that piece conjures up images of one of his father’s most infamous stage roles, that of Satan in Boïto’s opera Mefistofele.

Who could forget another whimsical comedy, the lovable Pretty Woman (1990) with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere as a modern-day Violetta and Alfredo, in which Verdi’s La Traviata figures prominently in the plot; or Meeting Venus (1991), with Glenn Close (voice dubbed by Kiri Te Kanawa) and Niels Arestrup (dubbed by tenor Rene Kollo), about a multinational production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the romantic complications that ensue; or the so-called comedy So Fine (1981) with Ryan O’Neal, Mariangela Melato and former James Bond villain Richard Kiel, in which the main shtick was to trash Verdi’s Otello (no, no, anything but that!).

Speaking of trashing, how about the 1935 classic A Night at the Opera, with its frenzied finale in which the stalwart Allan Jones and the lovely Kitty Carlisle attempt to sing the “Miserere” from Il Trovatore, over the overripe antics of the zany Marx Brothers. Carlisle gets to sing Nedda’s “Ballatella” from Pagliacci early on in the proceedings. Laugh, clown, laugh…

There are many other prime examples of operatic excerpts in the movies, some more extensive than others, i.e., My Geisha (1962), starring Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand with Robert Cummings as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, incorporating whole sections from Madama Butterfly; even the ersatz remake of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), which was updated to nineteenth-century Tuscany, Italy, used extensive vocal and orchestral music from the rich scores of Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi on the soundtrack. Mamma mia, that’s-a spicy meat-a-ball!!!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sadness Has No End’ – Part Eight: The Greatest Carnival Show on Earth!

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 Joaozinho Trinta (correiodeuberlandia.com.br)

Impresario Joaozinho Trinta (correiodeuberlandia.com.br)

Welcome to Munchkin Land

Where the most recent re-working of Orfeu really came into its own — and where the earlier foreign-made film product left much to be desired — was in its authentic depiction of Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time.

In his striving to overcome Black Orpheus’ most glaring cinematic deficiency, i.e., its failure to “communicate the real organizational complexities and extended preparations of a samba school [on the march]… Diegues, aware of the problems with setting in Camus’ original film, made a conscious effort to bring his film production and the participating [Viradouro] samba school together ‘so that everything would happen where the story really exists’” — quite literally, in the teeming byways of Sin City itself.

The color, pageantry, and sweep of the traditional pre-Lenten festivities at their hallucinatory height can be attributed, in large part, to the ingenuity and inventiveness of the intriguingly christened Joãozinho Trinta (“Johnny Thirty”), the remake’s Carnival art director and unofficial traffic manager. In the high-stakes game of Rio Carnival competitions, he can be classified as the show’s program coordinator, or carnavalesco in the country’s native parlance — the most watched person in one of the most hotly contested aspects of Brazilian cultural life.

Despite the increased demands Orfeu placed on his energy and time, the contentious Munchkin-like figure was nonetheless keen to praise the veteran filmmaker for the care and devotion he showed to the cause: “[Diegues] has managed to capture in the Carnaval [sic] parade all the luxury of a samba school, with all of the poetry and poverty of the hills and their characters. It’s a perfect marriage: a parade deserving to score a perfect 10.”

Like Cacá and Caetano before him, João Clemente Jorge Trinta was another of those “unfortunates” from the impoverished Northeast that, through spunk and sheer grit if nothing else, miraculously beat the odds in transitioning to the more economically advantaged Southeast. He set his sights high and, as a result, became a member early on of the Teatro Municipal’s ballet corps, where after years of toiling away in the field he exulted in having learned “everything about staging an opera” that he could, which also happened to include “the scenery, costumes, stage management, lighting and special effects.”

With cheery alacrity, which he enthusiastically brought to such a seemingly elitist endeavor, he was able to put that working knowledge to substantive use throughout his extensive Carnival career. Consequently, Trinta has compared the art and artifice of those lavishly produced, samba-school creations of his to (of all things) the incredibly refulgent realm of grand opera. In an essay entitled “The Magic of Brazilian Carnival,” Joãozinho remarked that his varied background in the performing arts helped broker a novel approach to Rio’s fabled costume display: his then-revolutionary conception of Carnival “as an authentic street opera.”

Joaozinho Trinta with the Brazilian flag
Joaozinho Trinta with the Brazilian flag

As he went on to explain it, “There is the libretto that corresponds to the enredo [or script]… The libretto is set to classical music, while the enredo receives the melody of a samba… Scenery is built in the theater, while in the street enormous carros alegóricos [allegoric floats] are constructed to transport the components that correspond to the corps de ballet and opera chorus… on these carros alegóricos parade the main characters of the enredo, dressed in the story’s most sumptuous and significant costumes. The characters are called Destaques (notables). Then, there is the Bateria (rhythm section), corresponding to the symphony or philharmonic orchestra.”

This is all a bit of a stretch, quite frankly. However, no one can deny that Joãozinho Trinta’s heart wasn’t in the right place. If anything, his refusal to turn his nose up at opera was as much to Carnival’s benefit as it was to his own. Indeed, his well-cogitated views on the status of the celebration’s quo were a lot closer to the meat of the matter than he could possibly have imagined, in arranging this “perfect marriage” of stylistic opposites: opera, Carnival, and film — in this instance, the newest iteration of Orfeu, as conferred by The Cincinnati Enquirer’s resident film critic, Margaret A. McGurk.

“The movie has its good moments and bad,” she related, “a mythic tale, talented cast and vivid look. But all of it — settings, story structure, character development, emotional trajectory — is purely and powerfully operatic.”

Joaozinho Trinta with Teatro Municipal behind him
Joaozinho Trinta with Teatro Municipal

That same observation was shared by Brazilian writer Sérgio Augusto, who first coined the term ópera popular greco-carioca as a way of sizing up Vinicius’ stage play on which Diegues based his re-working. “Only the music,” McGurk stressed, referring back to the 1999 movie version, “a rich mélange of the traditional samba and modern rap-influenced pop, is far removed from what we think about when we think about opera.”

Fair enough, but only a showman of Joãozinho’s reputed ilk and, let’s face it, unquestioned acumen and skill — Carnival’s incorporation of that old American movie icon, Cecil B. DeMille — could have conceived of and executed such a feat of daring do that, year after nerve-wracking year, has succeeded in bringing the whole excessive, four-day affair to brilliant, prize-winning life:

“Add to this melodic beauty and poetic words and our result is a gorgeous samba-enredo, neatly wrapping up this audio-visual spectacle called Rio de Janeiro’s Escola de Samba parade, [which today] is considered the greatest show on Earth.”

Party Hearty Celebration

No doubt Carnival was “king” in Rio, as it has been throughout much of Brazil’s cultural history. And nowhere is it pursued with more intensity than in the remotest regions of the North and Northeast, if in more modified forms than its notorious southern “exposure” would have us believe.

The joke among fellow Brazilians is that celebrants in the northern corridors like to party it up early and often — a full month ahead of time, according to sources — and continue on for another month thereafter; well beyond Ash Wednesday, the traditional close of festivities and the beginning of the solemn period of reflection known as Lent.

That many nordestinos, baianos, and paraibanos (or whatever regional slur tickles your fancy) unapologetically march to the beat of a different samba drum — without regard to what the rest of Brazil thinks, says or does — is basically a done deal. Still, they no more enjoy a night out on the town than people in other parts of the country do, only more so.

Reflecting, if you will, on the relevance of the annual affair in the everyday lives of its citizenry, the extravagant costume pageant has been at the forefront of opinions about Brazil, both good and bad, for as long as it has been practiced there.*

It’s well worth remembering, then, that it was Carnival that drove an American filmmaker named Orson Welles — full of sound and fury, and itching to make cinematic history — to dizzying heights of distraction. At the same time, it provided the impetus for a carioca-born poet, Vinicius de Moraes, to breathe new life into a dusty old fable he found on his uncle’s bookshelf; which, in turn, inspired a minor New-Wave director, Marcel Camus, to devote a major portion of his talents to a modern film adaptation of Vinicius’ classic theater piece.

Not to be left out on a limb, moviemaker Carlos Diegues, along with superstar Caetano Veloso — both native Northeasterners of some renown — went a step further in their mutual respect for the celebration with an updated re-filming of the Orpheus saga at Carnival time. To be certain, it was Diegues’ desire for setting the record straight that led him to retool the story to his personal taste and satisfaction.

Nevertheless, in the chapter “In the Land of Carnival,” author Joseph A. Page, whose work The Brazilians is a fascinating compilation of what it means to be Brazilian, effectively put into words what many of us have long felt about the earlier movie version and its elevation of the festival to near-Elysian status:

Joaozinho in front of one of his floats
Joaozinho in front of one of his floats

“The film Black Orpheus might have done more than anything else to bring the event to the attention of people everywhere and to assure its immortality… Camus demonstrates with powerful sensitivity how the illusion of Carnival takes over the lives of samba-school members.”

But there is more to Rio’s elaborate costume display than meets the foreign eye. According to Professor Steven Wright, “The modern celebration of Carnival certainly has much in common with the ancient festivals of Dionysus in classical times… [or] Bacchus in the Roman period. Even if the lineage is not clear, the motives and outcomes of the festivals are the same: to celebrate life without the trappings of social norms.”

As an adjunct to this theory, he supports the position that Vinicius’ preference for the Greek myth of Orpheus was “well chosen, in that it had symbolic significance in the personification of various aspects of Brazilian culture… such as the emphasis on music, eroticism, public intoxication, and irrational behavior.”

“Those who have experienced Carnival in Brazil,” Wright added, “are very aware of these characteristics as the ancient Greeks would have been as well.”

It makes little difference to us how one personally feels about the supposed “classical implications” of Rio Carnival, but there are times when we’re forced to accept the obvious at face value, this being one of those times.

Considering what it has done overall for the country’s reputation over time, no expense has been spared and no bauble overlooked, on the part of the multiple organizations and individuals involved in its planning, execution, and outcome, to make this yearly round of music and mirth the unforgettable experience it has become for viewers of all ages.

(End of Part Eight)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Although present during colonial times, the celebration of Carnival was only sanctioned as an official event in 1932.

Ray Harryhausen – The Last Voyage of an FX Master

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Ray Harryhausen (right) next to Medusa
Ray Harryhausen (right) next to Medusa

As I usually do before the workday begins, I clicked on one of my preferred Websites to check out the latest happenings. Lo and behold, there flashed a breaking news story: special-effects master Ray Harryhausen passed away yesterday at age 92.

With this sad bit of news to digest, I decided to put myself to the movie “acid” test. I asked myself, “Name a science-fiction or fantasy/adventure film from the 1950s or 60s.”

After precious little thought, I came up with a few examples: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Giant Behemoth, Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island.

“Is that good enough for you?” I said to myself.

“Yeah,” I answered, “that’s fine. Now here comes the fun part: what do all these pictures have in common?”

“Uh, you mean, do they have the same director, cast, or film-score composer?”

“You got the idea.”

I might have stalled my own thought process for days if I hadn’t gotten the idea, but after a split-second of semi-serious cogitation I came up with a proper riposte: “Well, for one, they’re all special effects extravaganzas.”

“You’re on the right track. Keep going.”

Sufficiently encouraged by my own efforts, I ventured forth with another association: “Those same special effects were designed and coordinated by one man: none other than the late Ray Harryhausen.”

“Bingo!!!”

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s or 60s, or watched a goodly amount of television in the 70s, 80s, and 90s (as I surely did), or who surfed the Internet in the year 2000 and beyond, would have come across at least one of Ray Harryhausen’s spectacular sci-fi and/or fantasy epics.

So closely was Harryhausen identified with these flicks that most people today believe he either directed or produced all if not most of them. Not likely, although he did learn about editing, art direction and photography via night classes at University of Southern California (USC), as well as some acting.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, Harryhausen was directly responsible for, or had an active hand in, an enviable number of classic FX features, including Mighty Joe Young (his first solo effort), 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, First Men in the Moon, One Million Years B.C., The Valley of Gwangi, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and Clash of the Titans.

What an incredible list! These are some my all-time favorite movies, the ones I and many of my generation grew up with and watched time after time, ad nauseam!

The Boy and the Hairy Paw

In my younger days, I can remember an annual ritual in our household where the whole family gathered (frequently accompanied by our visiting aunt, uncle and cousins) to watch back-to-back showings of King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young on Thanksgiving Day. I recall being enthralled by the black-and-white images of the enormous Kong, rampaging through 1930s Manhattan in search of screaming Fay Wray; of the giant gorilla Joe Young, dangling precariously from a burning building as he rescued a young child from certain death.

Little did I know that the first of these films, RKO’s magnificently produced King Kong, had captivated another impressionable youth from that same 1930s era: thirteen-year-old Raymond Frederick “Ray” Harryhausen.

“I haven’t been the same since,” Harryhausen commented in a 1999 interview. “I came out of [Grauman’s Chinese] theater stunned and awestruck. It was such a totally different, unusual film. The story line led you from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put on the screen… [And] I wanted to know how it was done.”

He found out, in due course. And thus began one of the most extraordinary movie careers anyone has ever had. Harryhausen would become the envy of our neighborhood. What kid in his right mind wouldn’t dream of a career sculpting apes and dinosaurs, or making his living building miniature dioramas, then filming them in starts and stops, over a six-month or more period?

How many impressionable young minds were frightened out of their wits, or suitably transfixed (take your pick), by Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations; the countless monsters, giants, gods, and dragons, not to mention horrific harpies, flying horses, bronze soldiers, and sword-wielding skeletons?

“Some people think it’s childish to do what I’ve done for a living,” Harryhausen told the Toronto Sun in 2004. “But I think it’s wrong when you grow to be an adult to discard your sense of wonder.” Thank goodness that sense of wonder about the world and its marvels and diversity never left him.

Ray did lament the fact that most of the movies he worked on lacked suitable budgets; neither did they have many stellar attractions or great actors. But who needs great actors, I pondered, when you had superb (for the times) FX to upstage them? Who do you know had the guts, the chutzpah, the cojones to call up his idol, Willis O’Brien, the Hollywood special-effects guru of his day and the man who brought King Kong to roaring life, and ask if he could show O’Brien his collection of model monsters? And who has not been influenced by Harryhausen’s fantastic creatures?

I don’t know about you, but I cherished the few moments I had with Harryhausen’s creations. I lived for Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or after school, when our local TV station would broadcast many of these films, albeit tailored to fit the time slot. I begged my mom to buy me model animal kits, or airplanes, or rocket ships, or little monsters – anything and everything, just so I could make my own army of extras.

Ray Harryhausen with model skeleton
Ray Harryhausen with model skeleton

Heck, I would have given my right arm to know the secret of those fabulous stop-motion tricks; how he animated those makeshift puppets, how he commanded those cadaverous skeletons to do battle, or made that hideous Medusa to crawl on her stomach.  These were the kind of films that would excite us in our youth, make us think back in our middle years, and reflect longingly and nostalgically in our old age.

And as far as we knew, they had everything kids our age required to keep us happy and entertained: handsome leading men (Kerwin Matthews as Gulliver and Sinbad, Todd Armstrong as Jason, Harry Hamlin as Perseus), gorgeous love interests (Kathryn Grant, Joan Greenwood, Judy Bowker, Caroline Munro, Taryn Power), dastardly villains (Torin Thatcher, Tom Baker), exotic locales, and of course those painstakingly handcrafted monsters: the Cyclops from Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the Giant Crab from Mysterious Island, the radioactive beast from The Giant Behemoth.  But the greatest of Harryhausen’s personal collection, I thought, was his Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth. That titanic struggle with the elephant near the Roman Colosseum was, and still is, a tremendous feat of legerdemain which has stood the test of time.

As my mind started to wander, I thought of the ship at the end of director Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, the last in the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films – all of them, super-spectacular special effects extravaganzas of their own; the ship that left Middle Earth and took Frodo, Bilbo and Gandalf to the Undying Lands. How I wished that Ray Harryhausen had been aboard that same vessel.

And why not! If it wasn’t for his passion for filmmaking, his technical acumen and special-effects wizardry, there would be no Lord of the Rings trilogy, let alone any number of sci-fi and fantasy/adventure films we know and love today.

If that were the case, then it would truly be Ray Harryhausen’s last journey. To that I would add, “Bon voyage, Ray! Send us a postcard from… special FX heaven. You’ve earned this one-way trip.”

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes