Month: November 2013

‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ (2002) — Snakes Alive, Harry, It’s the Basilisk!

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Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in the Chamber of Secrets (the guardian.com)
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in the Chamber of Secrets (the guardian.com)

Merrily, We Roll Along

In content and in style, director Chris Columbus’ sophomore installment of the continuing Harry Potter film series of children’s books, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), is basically a rehash of J.K. Rowling’s first novel, which is exactly as its author intended. Critic Leonard Maltin, in his annual Movie Guide review, rather amusingly describes the movie as “Second verse, pretty much the same as the first.” And I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact, this is probably the most dispensable entry in the entire series.

In this second movie adaptation of young Mr. Potter’s magical adventures at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Dickensian flavor and boarding-school ethic are kept virtually intact (a blessing in disguise), as well as the semi-dark tone of the original. The screenplay for this entry was written by Steve Kloves, who with the exception of the fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), went on to author all of the Harry Potter movies — a protean effort no doubt, but one fraught with multiple hurdles.

Though far less suspenseful story-wise — the basic formula of the browbeaten and orphaned Harry Potter being defended by his peers against the derision of a plainly biased, upper-crust wizard society is starting to wear out its welcome — the film is worth watching for the wonderful repartee of new cast members (and seasoned professionals) Kenneth Branagh as the foppishly egotistical and flamboyant Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, and Jason Isaacs as the malevolently unctuous Lucius Malfoy.

Actor-director Sir Kenneth Branagh ably portrays a pompous dunderhead who takes over the duties of imparting empty-headed “knowledge” to the students of his Defense against the Dark Arts class. He’s so smug and self-absorbed (and the actor may have been lampooning his own high-strung persona) that his energetic attempts at ineptitude throw a monkey wrench — and much-needed comic relief — into the faux forebodings of the plot. Notice his floundering attempts at setting things right, for example, when he tries to mend Harry’s broken arm. Anyone for Rubbermaid?

Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart (sharewallpapers.org)
Kenneth Branagh as pompous Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart (sharewallpapers.org)

While Jason Isaacs is hardly in this one at all, he steals every second of screen time: Isaacs brilliantly underplays his part to superb effect, a terrific casting coup. As Draco (Tom Felton) Malfoy’s pompously supercilious dad, Isaacs chills the bones with the dry and forthright delivery of his lines, every word oh-so-care-ful-ly chosen and del-i-ber-ate-ly enunciated. He appears in several of the remaining entries, but is lamentably underutilized throughout, a sad waste of precious talent. Evil like this needs to be exploited to its fullest!

Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy (www.pottermore.com)
Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy (www.pottermore.com)

Daniel Radcliffe, as the titular hero, has noticeably matured since his last outing, as has the aptly named Rupert Grint as best pal Ron; however, both have grown comfortably into their respective roles. We see their relationship mature before our eyes, which is gratifying from a visual standpoint. The sequence early on with the Weasley family’s flying roadster is as good an indication as any as to where this partnership is headed: it leads them on a collision course with Hogwart’s paranormal plant life, the notorious Whomping Willow. Emma Watson as Hermione Granger has far less to do this time around, but makes due of the reduced screen time quite nicely, thank you.

Also providing delicious star turns are the returning Richard Harris (who passed away just before the production’s release) as Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as the sad-eyed Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as the giant groundskeeper Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as the suspicious Professor Severus Snape.

Unfortunately, the actor who plays the villainous Tom Riddle (and who shall remain nameless, forsooth) is ineffectual, but blame the novel for that; his role is grievously underwritten. The voyeuristic Moaning Myrtle, who happens to haunt the second-floor girls’ lavatory, is played by Shirley Henderson in giggly little-girl fashion and is a novel addition to the roster of ghostly apparitions that make the series entertaining for one and all.

Some of the special effects are fine, if far from original, especially Dobby the house-elf, the enchanted flying car, a viciously fought Quidditch match, the fearsome basilisk (sort of a giant pit viper), and the nighttime spider attack (not at all as scary as it ought to be, and much too reminiscent of a far superior segment from Peter Jackson’s final Lord of the Rings: Return of the King feature). Errol, the Weasley’s scatterbrained owl, is definitely a hoot, though.

All in all, a good sophomore effort by director Chris Columbus, but the novelty is clearly wearing off, and it goes on for much too long.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Produced by David Heyman; directed by Chris Columbus; screenplay by Steve Kloves, from the novel by J. K. Rowling; cinematography by Roger Pratt; production design by Stuart Craig; costume design by Linda Hemming; edited by Peter Honess; music by John Williams; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs, Mark Williams, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, and Toby Jones as the voice of Dobby. Color, 160 min. (174 min. in the extended cut). A Heyday Films 1492 Pictures release, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.  

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare’ — ‘If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It’

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He Came, He Saw, He Conquered

Sometimes, we bloggers have to eat our own words. This was the case last Saturday night when, after posting a piece about the Metropolitan Opera’s new 2013-2014 radio season, I mentioned in connection with the proposed revival of a Baroque pastiche entitled The Enchanted Island that I wasn’t exactly “into” Baroque opera.

David Daniels & Natalie Dessay (artsatl.com)
David Daniels & Natalie Dessay in Giulio Cesare (artsatl.com)

Wouldn’t you know it, but that very evening the PBS program Great Performances at the Met featured of all things (bite my tongue) George Frideric Handel’s 1724 masterpiece Giulio Cesare (“Julius Caesar”), one of the vocal and theatrical high points of that self-same Baroque era.

What’s a blogger to do? Well, eat crow for one. For another, get down to business and discuss, digest, research, and review the performance practice of the very thing one fears and dreads. Putting it plainly, in my 45+ years of listening to and enjoying opera and opera singing, I’ve heard just about anything and everything you can imagine that’s related to my favorite music genre. From serialism and minimalism, to modernism, pop-rock, verismo and bel canto, I’ve been in contact with a wide array of stylistic variations I never thought I’d be exposed to. It’s high time I tackled one I wasn’t all that familiar with.

To say I know nothing about Baroque opera is a bit of an overstatement. Back in my university days, I took a course that covered the history and background of opera quite extensively. Our teacher was a part-time vocal coach and pianist (as well as the school’s choir master) who sang and played excerpts of scenes and arias right in our classroom. One of the works he illustrated for us (via LP recording) was the New York City Opera’s 1966 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

Of course, back then performances of Baroque opera were about as rare as thousand-dollar bills. Leave it to NYCO to crack the glass ceiling where that was concerned. They earned kudos from opera lovers for their extraordinary efforts in bringing this neglected masterwork to light. Then again, with a superb cast headed by Beverly Sills as Cleopatra, Norman Treigle as Julius Caesar, and such City Opera stalwarts as Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Michael Devlin, and Spiro Malas, conducted by the company’s long-time director Julius Rudel, how could it be otherwise? I was as impressed by Cleopatra’s vocal charms as Caesar must have been with her radiance.

George Frideric Handel, portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1756
George Frideric Handel, portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1756

It’s been many years since that historic production folded. And much has changed with respect to Baroque performance practice since that time — which is why I was bowled over by the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Giulio Cesare. To begin with, this is a long opera. The first act alone takes over 90 minutes to perform, with the two remaining acts lasting just under an hour each. This would test the patience of most mortals, but I managed to stick with it for the duration. I was not disappointed.

Baroque opera has its particularities, among them something called aria da capo. Literally meaning “from the top,” the aria da capo form was prevalent primarily during the Baroque era. All da capo arias have three distinct sections labeled A-B-A. The opening “A” section sets the mood of the piece and is followed by a shorter, contrasting “B” section, after which the composer (Handel, in this instance) directs the singer to repeat the “A” section da capo, or “from the top.” No further note values or indications are written into the score. Composers assumed the singer knew what to do at this point, which was to embellish the repeat of the “A” section with flowery ornamentation, thus showing off the singer’s abilities not so much by “hogging” the spotlight as to bring out the aria’s emotional content.

This explains why Baroque operas in general take so long to get where they’re going. Every aria is performed in exactly the same manner: A-B-A, with a range of roulades, trills, fioriture, and other spectacular displays inserted to enliven the proceedings. Most of the characters involved in the story have at least one aria to share with audiences, while the main singers may have upwards of two, three, even four arias apiece — that’s quite a burden riding on an artist’s shoulders. The other operatic conventions we’ve come to expect, i.e., duets, trios, quartets, quintets, mighty choruses, and the like, are practically non-existent. Most Baroque operas begin with an overture or orchestral introduction, followed by an opening chorus, but more often than not there’s an introductory aria.

Natalie Dessay & Christophe Dumaux (minnesota.publicradio.org)
Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra) & Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) in Giulio Cesare (minnesota.publicradio.org)

The plot, in most operas of the period, is advanced by interminable, monotonous-sounding recitatives (or “sung speech”) relating the specifics of the story line in excruciating detail. Arias, for the most part, are pauses in the advancement of the plot whereby individual characters get to reflect upon what they have learned from others via recitative.

In many respects, the aria in Baroque opera is comparable in theory to the soliloquy in Shakespeare. These vocal monologues are accompanied in typically banal fashion by hackneyed lyrics (the libretto is attributed to Nicola Francesco Haym), at times expanding upon platitudinous phrases along the lines of “A fool thinks himself wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool” or “In the land of the blind the man with one eye is king.” Numerous examples abound, but suffice it to say that the words of a Baroque aria are less pertinent to the plot than the way in which these outpourings are conveyed in song.

The most astonishing Baroque convention of all is, or rather was, the use of castrati for the principal male leads. As the name implies castrati were male singers who, as young boys, were “neutered,” shall we say, to prevent their voices from becoming lower than normal. This horrific practice, which gave the males much greater lung power and vocal range than their female counterparts, dwindled as the taste for Baroque opera itself diminished; it was finally outlawed in Italy in 1870. However, a major hurdle remained in that these same roles were written specifically with the higher male voice in mind. How to address that deficit?

A practical solution was reached several decades back when Baroque opera began to enjoy a well-deserved lease on life. The “back to Bach” movement and other advances along the early-music front (the annual Mostly Mozart Festival is a prime example) stressed the use of period instruments. Among other innovations, the education and employment of countertenors was of utmost importance. Alfred Deller, an English countertenor from the 1950s and 60s, was influential in popularizing Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Baroque music in their original form. His American counterpart, Russell Oberlin, did the same for us Yanks. Another British artist, James Bowman, created the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the Met will revive in the coming season.

In our day, the rise of the countertenor can be attributed to the presence of one man: American superstar David Daniels. For the past two decades, Daniels has stood apart from his predecessors and contemporaries for the supreme artistry he brings to whatever assignment he takes on. Earlier this year, he was given the Opera News Award for distinguished achievement in his field.

David Daniels (dailyherald.com)
David Daniels as Caesar with Pompey’s head (dailyherald.com)

At the time, Adam Wasserman, the magazine’s online editor, wrote the following in praise of his talent: “Prior to Daniels, the male falsetto seemed a malnourished, sickly-sweet instrument as notable for its musical inflexibility as for its dramatic unsuitability in staged opera. But here was an artist who, instead of resorting to wan vocal compromises in an attempt to imitate the effect of the castratos, seemed to offer a quantum leap forward: not only could the primo uomo [lead male] roles written by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck and Monteverdi be performed beautifully by a man in a colorful, vibrant voice, without transposition, but modern audiences could witness a kind of emotional honesty and presence of which the composers themselves could only have dreamed.”

Daniels brought these qualities and more to his assumption of Giulio Cesare in the rebroadcast of an April 27 HD transmission. Co-starring with him were French soprano Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra, Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as the widow Cornelia, British mezzo Alice Coote in the “trouser” role of her son Sesto, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Cleopatra’s brother Tolomeo, Italian baritone Guido Loconsolo as Egyptian Army Commander Achilla, Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam as the eunuch Nireno, and Iowan baritone John Moore as Roman Tribune Curio. Harry Pickett, a native of Liverpool, England, conducted the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

This new production, which premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2005, is the work of Scottish theater director David McVicar. His version of Handel’s epic made its belated Met debut on April 4, 2013. As comfortable with standard repertory items (Il Trovatore, Salome, Tosca) as he is with more offbeat works (Billy Budd, Sweeney Todd), McVicar tends to dig deeper into his staging than most directors, eschewing the more traditional interpretation for original thought. Ergo, instead of setting the piece in Egypt as most directors would, McVicar places the action of his Giulio Cesare in “Jewel in the Crown” India, of all locations.

Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (Met Opera)
Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (Met Opera)

In fact, his outlandish take on “Bollywood meets latter-day British Raj,” with appropriate arm and head movements by choreographer Andrew George completely enhances the director’s view that Cleopatra and her retinue thoroughly delight in bhangra dancing and henna decorations. It’s fun, it’s lively, and very entertaining, as well as outrageously anachronistic — but damned if the concept works! I was utterly captivated by the sight of a flapper-bedecked Dessay (with arms flailing) kicking up her heals in time to Handel’s music. She even flicked her cigarette holder into the dead Pompey’s urn, a visual pun (“Ashes to ashes,” get it?).

As for the singing, the bonus of having the illustrious combination of Dessay with a red-coated Daniels reaped its own rewards. Both singers, along with the obsessed Sesto of mezzo Coote and his mournful mother Cornelia, elegantly interpreted by Bardon, outdid themselves. One sensed the added value of their lingering over those da capo arias. The audience was transfixed by the intense concentration and expressive commitment they gave to their respective roles.

Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) & Alice Coote (Sesto) wqxr.org
Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) & Alice Coote (Sesto) wqxr.org

After too many years in the operatic wilderness, I could finally understand what Baroque opera fans have long admired about this art form. All the singers, especially Abdeslam as the fleet-footed Nireno and a particularly repugnant pair of plotters in Tolomeo and Achilla, adeptly portrayed by Dumaux and Loconsolo, got their chance to shine. Tolomeo eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of the vengeful Sesto; Cornelia succeeds in preserving her virtue after several attempts to rape her; while Caesar and Cleopatra proclaim their love for each other as he elevates her to the Egyptian throne, a happy ending for once.

All’s well that ends well, in McVicar’s treatment of his subject. It even put the kibosh to the old saying, “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.” To that we add: “Hooray for Bollywood!”

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I See Dead People’ — Whatever Happened to M. Night Shyalaman’s Film Talent?

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From Film School to Film Magic

M. Night Shyamalan (seriable.com)
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (seriable.com)

Indian-born director and screenwriter Manoj Shyamalan, known in the film trade as M. Night Shyamalan, first burst upon the scene a little more than twenty years ago. He grew up in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood. In fact, many of his best films take place in or around his hometown of “Philly.”

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Shyamalan was taken with the film medium from an early age. Much like his hero Steven Spielberg (and another young talent, director J.J. Abrams), Shyamalan was a huge fan of Super-8 filmmaking, with literally dozens of home movies to his credit. He went on to direct two early full-length features: a student film, Praying with Anger (1992), which his family helped to finance, and Wide Awake (1995), released three years later.

Shyamalan wrote or co-wrote various Hollywood screenplays, some of which were turned into actual movies. However, in 1999 he hit pay dirt with the stunning worldwide success of The Sixth Sense. Two consecutive first-run features later (Unbreakable in 2000, and Signs in 2001), Shyamalan came up dry with the risible The Village from 2004.

His next flick, Lady in the Water (2006), was even more disappointing, and his worst-performing film excursion yet. He recovered, somewhat, with the release of The Happening, one of those apocalyptic “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” exercises that were all the rage after the 2008 financial crisis. Although it encapsulated some of the director’s pet themes (i.e., of people coming together in a crisis, even though their personal problems get in the way of overcoming their present difficulties), The Happening happened to sink of its own weight.

A critical bomb but a financial blessing, Shyamalan’s subsequent 2010 production of The Last Airbender (in mind-bending 3D), based on the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender for the Nickelodeon network, proved he still had the Midas touch — internationally at least, if not domestically: the film made back its initial investment (and then some) with a whopping $320 million take.

He subsequently entered into a deal with actor Will Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and their son Jaden, to direct and co-write the screenplay for the sci-fi adventure flick After Earth in 2013, which starred the Smith team (father and son). It received extremely mixed reviews from both audiences and critics and, true to form, bombed big-time at U.S. box offices but earned a whopping $248 million worldwide. Go figure!

Still, the question has to be asked: whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan’s blazing talent behind the lens? Has the fire gone out of his movie-making once and for all? Where is the film-school guru we once knew and where is he headed, now that his early screen successes have all-but dwindled to a mere handful, if that?

It’s hard to tell, really, where the Dark Night of Shyamalan’s soul will eventually end up. There’s only one way to find out, however, and that’s by revisiting the past (another favorite theme of his) and taking a closer look at the director’s previous output and most lucrative film ventures.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Haley Joel Osment & Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense
Haley Joel Osment & Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense

A film that seeps into one’s subconscious at odd hours and times, 1999’s The Sixth Sense is a modern ghost story told in purely existential terms. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by a thoroughly laid-back Bruce Willis) tries desperately to help antisocial patient Cole Sear, a young boy with a most peculiar problem: he sees dead people (no kidding!).

Both Malcolm and Cole learn their proper place in the world through a series of passive-emotional shrink sessions interspersed with ghostly visions. Check out Cole’s last name for a clue to his “unique” abilities.

The film establishes its own ground rules, and wisely keeps to them. One of the few modern productions that’s as much of a joy to watch as to listen to, The Sixth Sense quickly established Mr. Shyamalan as a movie maker on the rise, with many intelligent plot points to ponder. It’s cleverly written (one could say too clever by half). The sound design plays an integral part in the drama, as does the rich color scheme and gorgeous cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs). James Newton Howard wrote the creepy musical score.

Willis is superb as the child psychologist Malcolm, and the young and talented Haley Joel Osment (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) underplays his part as the boy, Cole. As actors, he and Willis have an amiable working relationship that gives their characters needed believability. If understatement were used in most movies of this type, we would be reveling in a mass movement at this point.

The surprise ending, which this film is rightly celebrated for, will both shock and perplex you, thus forcing one to go over the entire movie again from the beginning. This is Shyamalan’s strongest suit, that is, his ability to lead audiences in exactly the direction he wants them to go, by both subtle and surreptitious means, until he hits them over the head with those left-of-left-field revelations. Hitchcock would be pleased.

Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom. Donnie Wahlberg (ex-New Kid on the Block) lost forty pounds to play Willis’ crazed former mental patient, Vincent Grey, in a remarkably concentrated, intense performance that lasts all of a few minutes on the screen. Vincent is the catalyst that drives what happens next. Glenn Fitzgerald is Cole’s teacher nicknamed Stuttering Stanley, and Shyamalan appears in an unbilled role as a doctor (in honor of his parents, who are both physicians).

An excellent effort by all concerned and a big winner at the box office, The Sixth Sense sealed Shyamalan’s fate for all time. See it, if you can, but not with small children: there are a few intense moments scattered throughout.

Unbreakable (2000)

Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable
Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price in Unbreakable

Real-life superheroes and their nemeses don’t really exist, but it sure would be nice if they did — and this film charts the thought-provoking possibilities of such an event actually taking place.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s meticulous follow-up to his surprise hit, The Sixth Sense, is an ode to the world of comic-book lore. He is one of the few filmmakers around who can afford to take his time in telling a good story, while giving us plenty of food for thought along the way.

The low-key approach he brings to the subject of comic books and action heroes is much appreciated and clearly in the style of his earlier success above. The film has its longueurs, but is nonetheless extremely well made. We learn there can be no “good” in this world without the coexistence of “evil”; that what we perceive as the status quo is often not what it seems, as the search for one’s rightful place in it can turn into a lifelong, often-times fruitless endeavor. The confrontation between Elijah and David at the end summarizes their relationship: it’s captured in a whirlwind reenactment of scenes reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

The acting throughout Unbreakable is splendid, especially by Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn, who has never been sick a day in his life; Samuel L. Jackson (whose coiffure was modeled after that of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass) as Elijah Price, the owner of the comic-book store; Charlayne Woodard as his concerned mom; Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator) as Willis’ hero-worshiping son; and Robin Penn Wright as Willis’ stressed out wife. The score is by James Newton Howard, and the muted cinematography is by Eduardo Serra.

The physical look of the production closely resembles the panels of an actual comic book, and offers a unique perspective on comic-book art and its recent manifestations on the big screen. Unbreakable is a captivating, thought-provoking work that certainly predates the current trend in super-hero action spectacles (i.e., X-Men, Spider-Man, Watchmen, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers, and their ilk) by several years, while treating the subject with a childlike innocence and reverence for its existential viewpoint.

A fascinating concept, though not totally convincing, we must give director Shyamalan (who also wrote the screenplay) high marks for trying. He even has a bit part as a suspicious-looking sports fan that Willis stops and questions at the gate (his acting isn’t too bad, either). Highly recommended for sports fans everywhere!

Signs (2002)

Mel Gibson & Joaquin Phoenix in Signs
Mel Gibson & Joaquin Phoenix mull around the table in Signs

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds gets a modern makeover in this deliberately paced but more-than-effective suspense thriller from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. One of its many virtues is the lack of elaborate special effects to distract viewers from the main story line.

The plot, in this instance, involves mysterious crop circles found in Mel Gibson’s cornfield, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The question soon arises: are enemy aliens really about to invade the Earth, or is it all a hoax, an elaborate form of mass hysteria? M. Night Shyamalan certainly knows how to handle numerous tidbits of minutiae, piling on hint after hint in subtle and ingenious ways, until the viewer becomes unaware of the full extent of his manipulation. He also has a cameo in a key role as Ray Reddy, a neighbor with a guilty conscience harboring an uninvited house guest.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a grieving, disillusioned ex-minister who needs a healthy dollop of faith to snap him back to reality after his wife (Patricia Kalember) is killed in a horrific traffic accident. He must learn to cope with the loss without his customary assurance and bravado. Gibson is filled with a coiled tension just seething below the surface that manifests itself at key points in the drama, particularly during his son’s asthmatic attacks and in his family’s flight to the cellar. That he’s finally able to pull it together and keep his family intact is one of many satisfactory outcomes at the end.

Joaquin Phoenix is particularly adept as his sad-sack brother Merrill, a former minor-league baseball player who still knows how to swing a bat. Both actors play off one another beautifully. They have a long, protracted, and vastly pleasurable scene in which the discussion centers on the meaning of “luck and coincidence,” “fear and hope.” It charts the film’s course, much as the Vincent Grey sequence from The Sixth Sense did, only fuller and longer.

Cherry Jones is Police Officer Caroline Paski, whose motherly concern for Gibson’s well-being goes above and beyond the call of duty (but not in a bad way). Gibson’s motherless kids are wonderfully played by Rory Culkin (Macaulay’s little brother) and the adorable Abigail Breslin (she’s so cute you want to squeeze her); the eerily subliminal film-score is by James Newton Howard, done as homage to the late master, Bernard Herrmann: there are noticeable traces of Psycho and Vertigo abounding in it. It even begins with that scratchy violin from Camille Saint-Saëns’ concert piece, Danse Macabre. (Talk about creepy!)

There are also numerous references to The Birds and other Hitchcock thrillers throughout its running time. Shyamalan uses a framing device wherein he positions his actors in or near doorways, porches, archways, and such in order to look into the main characters’ souls. Interestingly, there is more humor in this film than in any other the director has worked on.

Of all Shyamalan’s films, this is a must-see for fans of the extraterrestrial invasion genre, despite a few protracted sequences. Stay with this one all the way, though, as you will be amply rewarded for the effort. It should play better on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. And do take the PG-13 rating seriously.

The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs can be viewed and enjoyed as part of a tripartite whole. I encourage readers to download, rent or buy (if you feel up to it) all three of these terrific films. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

As for M. Night Shyamalan’s remaining oeuvre, I’d give them a wide berth for now. Who knows what his future brings? If the past is any indication, something better this way may come … The “signs” all point to some improvement!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

What Happens in Vegas Stays at the Met — A Rousing ‘Rigoletto’ Kicks Off this Preview of the 2013-2014 Radio and ‘Live in HD’ Season

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“La donna è mobile,” “Caro nome,” “Pari siamo,” “Bella figlia dell’amore,” and other well-known tunes from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto are just one of the many delights to be heard beginning December 7, 2013, as the Metropolitan Opera radio season returns to the airwaves.

Glitzy Rigoletto at the Met (wqxr.org)
Glitzy Rigoletto returns to the Met (wqxr.org)

This will be the Met’s 83rd consecutive season of radio broadcasts and its eighth season of high definition transmissions, a record unbeaten in the communications industry. But before we get all mushy over the statistics — and lest that Thanksgiving turkey takes over our appetites — let’s review the list of tantalizing treats on the operatic menu that awaits us.

As mentioned above, Rigoletto kicks off the broadcast season with a cast headed by silver-haired Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky singing the title role for the first time at the Met. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is the scheduled Gilda, tenor Matthew Polenzani, who scored a resounding triumph last year as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, is the Frank Sinatra-like Duke of Mantua, with Oksana Volkova as the vampish Maddalena and the returning Štefan Kocán as slimy assassin Sparafucile. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado makes his broadcast debut in a revival of the Michael Mayer production. Las Vegas will never be the same.

This is followed on December 14 by a new Robert Carsen production of Verdi’s Falstaff, starring Ambrogio Maestri, who portrayed a robust Dulcamara in the same L’Elisir d’Amore. Angela Meade, who made a terrific splash earlier this season in Bellini’s Norma, will play Alice Ford, followed by Stephanie Blythe’s quicksilver Mistress Quickly, Franco Vassalo’s Master Ford, and Paolo Fanale’s Fenton. James Levine, the Met’s peripatetic musical director, who’s been missing in action for almost two seasons (due to back injuries), will return to the podium — a specially constructed one, at that — in the first new production of Verdi’s final masterpiece in almost 50 years. Can’t wait to hear it! Conversely, we won’t be hearing much of the Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who’ll be taking a bit of a respite after his strenuous conducting assignments of last season.

Next up is a rarity, Benjamin Britten’s operatic take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (December 23). The previous season saw the Met’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ Shakespearean-based The Tempest, which wasn’t my cup of tea to be honest, but hey, maybe things will turn out to be different this time around. James Conlon conducts the returning Tim Albery production, which features Korean coloratura Kathleen Kim as Tytania, Erin Wall as Helena, Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, Iestyn Davies as Oberon, and Joseph Kaiser as Lysander, in a performance previously recorded in the fall.

Giacomo Puccini’s indestructible Tosca is scheduled for December 28, in the horrid Luc Bondy production from a few years back. Diva Sondra Radvanovsky will play, well, diva Floria Tosca (talk about typecasting), for which many listeners will be looking forward to! Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, will be taken by Marcello Giordani (here’s hoping this time he stays on pitch). He’ll be threatened with dire consequences by baritone George Gagnidze, the Baron Scarpia, who plans to intimidate the Sacristan of John Del Carlo beforehand. Marco Armiliato will mount the scaffold, uh, I mean the podium.

Julie Taymor's The Magic Flute (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)
Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)

The New Year brings a bumper crop of diversity in the operatic repertoire, starting with a January 4, 2014 broadcast of the truncated, English-language version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, designed by Julie Taymor, with text and lyrics by J.D. McClatchy. Jane Glover will lead from the pit. She’ll be guiding the likes of Heidi Stober as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alek Shrader (last season’s English-language Almaviva) as Tamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, and Eric Owens as the deep-voiced Sarastro. If this revival is as good as the last one, it should be a stimulating Saturday afternoon indeed.

The week after, on January 11, the champagne continues to flow with another new production that will be making its radio bow: that of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, which is being given an English-language tune-up by the team of Jeremy Sams and Douglas Carter Beane. The cast includes Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde, Christina Schäfer as her servant Adele, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Orlofsky, Christoher Maltman as the cuckolded Einsenstein, rising tenor Michael Fabiano (our Cassio in the Live in HD broadcast of Verdi’s Otello) as Alfred, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, and Patrick Carfizzi as Frank. Adam Fischer conducts the orchestra. Drink up, everybody!

January 18 begins with the broadcast premiere of Deborah Warner’s highly anticipated new production (directed by Fiona Shaw) of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko as Tatiana, Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Piotr Beczala as Lensky, and Alexei Tanovitski as Prince Gremin. Netrebko and Kwiecien have teamed up before, most winningly as Lucia and her brother Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, as Norina and Malatesta in Don Pasquale, and Adina and Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore (a Donizetti triumvirate, if you like). This is their first time working together at the Met in a truly authentic Russian work. The sparks are sure to fly for Onegin, so don’t miss it!

Kwiecien & Netrebko in Eugene Onegin (nypost.com)
Kwiecien & Netrebko in Eugene Onegin (nypost.com)

Two back-to-back favorites from years past highlight the next two weeks’ worth of works. On January 25, we have the aforementioned L’Elisir d’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti, with returning cast members Anna Netrebko as Adina and Erwin Schrott as Dr. Dulcamara. The Russian soprano and the Uruguayan bass-baritone are a real couple in real life, so this should be an entertaining pairing. The lovesick Nemorino will be sung by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, and Nicola Alaimo is Sgt. Belcore. The conductor is Maurizio Benini.

Returning after a hiatus of a few seasons is the acclaimed Anthony Minghella production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on February 1. My only regret is that the Met has never performed the composer’s original two-act version, which would benefit from the dramatic and scenic elements this particular production has to offer. Oh well, the cast is especially enticing and includes soprano Amanda Echalaz (new to me) as Cio-Cio San, Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, Scott Hendricks as Sharpless, and rising young tenor Bryan Hymel, who scored a sensation last season when he single-handedly saved the Met’s revival of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. His was a stunningly delivered portrayal of the near impossible role of Aeneas. I look forward to his warbling as bad-boy Lt. Pinkerton with bated breath.

Antonin Dvořák’s opera Rusalka returns to the repertoire on February 8, in a production previously designed and directed by Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen. They last brought you the old Ring of the Nibelung production at the house, which was replaced by Robert Lepage’s 45-ton monstrosity (Come on, you know. It’s the one with the 24 movable planks). The Met’s young conductor of the hour, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will preside over a cast starring the dependable Renée Fleming as Rusalka, Emily Magee as the Foreign Princess, old reliable Dolora Zajick as Ježibaba, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the Prince, and John Relyea as the Water Sprite. Sounds inviting!

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Ildiko Komlosi (right) in Die Frau ohne Schatten (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Two very different works by Richard Strauss are next on the agenda. Fortunately, they’ll be given on successive weekends, which make perfect sense. The first of these, the mammoth Die Frau ohne Schatten, on February 15, has been termed a modern-day traversal of The Magic Flute. And there’s plenty of truth to that statement. Coincidentally, the following week (February 22) will see one of the Met’s oldest productions, Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s 45-year-old Der Rosenkavalier, which marks its 100th anniversary at the house. It too has been referred to as a modern updating, but of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Pity the Met is only giving The Magic Flute in comparison. It’d be great to have all four operas to contrast with and savor over, but alas it’s not to be!

The cast listing for Die Frau ohne Schatten (in a performance recorded in October 2013) features two sensational sopranos, Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (the lady without a shadow) and Christina Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife. Ildikó Komlósi is the scheming Nurse, Torsten Kerl is the Emperor (the guy who turns into stone), and Johan Reuter is Barak the Dyer (No, not Obama…). The clarion-voiced Richard Paul Fink (Alberich in the broadcast of Götterdämmerung) will interpret the Spirit Messenger. I’ve heard some marvelous things, and read some fabulous reviews, about this performance. Der Rosenkavalier features Martina Serafin (Sieglinde in Die Walküre) as the Marschallin, Alice Coote as Octavian, Eric Cutler as the Italian Singer, and Peter Rose as the boorish Baron Ochs. The previously announced Mojca Erdmann, in the ingénue role of Sophie, is indisposed. Erin Morley will be the substitute. Do I hear a waltz?

We’re at the midway point in the season, but instead of an intermission we shall plow ahead to the next pair of items, both of which are definitely off the beaten path. For the first time in nearly 100 years, the Met will offer Alexander Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor on March 1, in a new production by Dimitri Tcherniakov. Fans of the Forrest-Wright musical Kismet may recognize many of the themes in Borodin’s piece, especially the popular Polovtsian Dances. The all-star Slavic cast includes bass Ildar Abdrazakov as the titular Prince. Ildar comes off a successful run of Boito’s Mefistofele at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Yaroslavna will be sung by Oksana Dyka, Konchakovna by Anita Rachvelishvili (last season’s Carmen), Vladimir Igorevich by Sergey Semishkur, Mikhail Petrenko as Prince Galitsky, and Štefan Kocán will take on the congenial Khan Konchak. Gianandrea Noseda will lead the orchestra. Low notes are optional.

On March 8, the Met will revive what it calls a “fantastical Baroque pastiche,” The Enchanted Island, written and devised by Jeremy Sams in a production supervised by Phelim McDermott. A historically accurate compilation of music from various 18th century composers, including Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and others, it will be conducted by Patrick Summers and feature a plethora of early-music exponents, including Danielle de Niese as Ariel, Andriana Chuchman as Miranda, Susan Graham as Sycorax, famed countertenor David Daniels as Prospero, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Ferdinand, basso Luca Pisaroni as Caliban, and old favorite Placido Domingo as Neptune. As you can tell, this operatic appropriation of the masters of Baroque was “inspired” by Shakespeare (and quite possibly Disney’s The Little Mermaid). I hate to admit it, but I’m not that into Baroque opera as much as I should be. I do love Handel’s Giulio Cesare and, of course, his Messiah and other related works. But this one takes some getting used.

Danielle de Niesse & Placido Domingo in The Enchanted Island (Met Opera)
Danielle de Niese & Placido Domingo in The Enchanted Island (Met Opera)

The one I’m really looking forward to will be the new production by Richard Eyre and Rob Howell (the same people who brought us Bizet’s Franco-era Carmen) of Jules Massenet’s crowning achievement Werther, based on Goethe’s romance novel. That will be on March 15. Making his role debut in the house will be superstar Jonas Kaufmann as the title character. His smoldering dark looks and sterling delivery will, hopefully, deliver the goods as well. Kaufmann’s co-stars include Sophie Koch as Charlotte (Jonas and Sophie have appeared together before in the their respective parts, but not at the Met), Lisette Oropesa (last season’s Magda in La Rondine) will sing Charlotte’s little sister Sophie, David Bižić as Charlotte’s husband Albert, and Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff. Get out your handkerchiefs for this one, folks! The ending’s a killer…

And speaking of killers, Alban Berg’s post-romantic, near-modern shocker Wozzeck returns to the repertoire, on March 22, in Mark Lamos and Robert Israel’s production of the work. This revival is conducted by James Levine. Wozzeck happens to be one of the maestro’s specialties. A truly memorable broadcast is being planned, with the likes of Thomas Hampson as Wozzeck, soprano Deborah Voigt as Marie, Simon O’Neill as the Drum Major, Peter Hoare as the Captain, and Clive Bayley as the Doctor. As the work indicates, attention must be paid to the downtrodden.

For a change of pace, we’ll have Vincenzo Bellini’s delightful bel canto specialty La Sonnambula, broadcast on March 29. Conductor Marco Armiliato will preside over a cast starring Diana Damrau as Amina the sleepwalker, Javier Camarena as Elvino, and Michele Pertusi as Rodolfo. The production is the work of Mary Zimmerman, with sets by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. I can’t hear enough bel canto operas: they’re such delicate, refined creations which must be treated with the greatest of care and respect. But what I read of Zimmerman’s deconstruction of this masterwork, however, left me wondering “What on earth was she thinking?” I’ll have more to say about this production come air time.

Some operas never die. And that goes for Puccini’s perennial La Bohème on April 5, in Franco Zeffirelli’s loving hands, now considered a classic (although Zeffirelli’s La Scala original, available on DVD, is the one to watch). This revival features soprano Anita Hartig as the consumptive Mimi, Susanna Phillips as Musetta, rising star Vittorio Grigolo as the poet Rodolfo, Massimo Cavaletti as Marcello, Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard, and Oren Gradus as Colline, with Donald Maxwell playing the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro. Puccini’s four-act opus has been described as the “perfect opera,” and I’m inclined to agree. The third act is a masterpiece of music drama that hits audiences in the gut with its tragedy and pathos, as well as the beauty of its writing. Credit is due, too, to librettists Illica and Giacosa, who labored over this work under the demanding eye of the composer. The performance will be led by Stefano Ranzani.

Two very different styles will be represented by Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (on April 12), his verismo take on the French Revolution, and Richard Strauss’ bourgeois melodrama Arabella (on April 19). Giordano’s powerhouse opera requires, no, demands stellar voices to put across its emotional impact to audiences. However, I’m not so sure the scheduled cast meets that prerequisite, but we shall see. Listed as vocal principals are Marcelo Álvarez as the poet Chénier, Patricia Racette as the love of his life Maddalena, and Željko Lučić (the lead in that Las Vegas Rigoletto) as former servant Gérard, in Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s bold production, with costumes by the renowned Milena Canonero. Gianandrea Noseda will be the maestro.

Of all Strauss’ mature works, Arabella is the one most aficionados have the hardest time accepting. He may have been trying to recapture the glory days of his one bona fide hit, Der Rosenkavalier, by recycling themes (i.e., young love, an ideal romance, and domestic bliss) previously explored. No matter. The production is in the grand tradition of Old Vienna. Conducted by Philippe Auguin, we’ll hear Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Arabella, Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka, Michael Volle as Arabella’s suitor Mandryka, Roberto Saccà as Matteo, and Martin Winkler as Waldner. Both baritone Volle and tenor Saccà have sung together in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at Salzburg recently, and are acknowledged interpreters of their respective roles. With that said, there’s hope for this old warhorse after all.

Cosi fan tutte cast (nytimes.com)
Cosi fan tutte ensemble cast (nytimes.com)

The last three broadcasts of the radio and HD season are sure to bring smiles to everyone’s faces, for they all feature slightly lighter fare. Mozart’s seriocomic Così fan tutte concludes the month of April (on the 26th, to be exact), with Met maestro James Levine putting a cast of Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi, Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, Matthew Polenzani as Fernando, Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo, Danielle de Niese as Despina, and Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso, through their paces. The production is by Lesley Koenig and Michael Yeargan.

May Day begins (on the 3rd, actually) with the return of Bellini’s final opera I Puritani, which hasn’t been seen in a while. This should be an exciting performance, what with soprano Olga Peretyatko making her debut as Elvira, bel canto specialist Lawrence Brownlee as Arturo (he of the stratospheric high C’s and D’s), along with Mariusz Kwiecien as Riccardo, and Michele Pertusi as Giorgio. Michele Mariotti will conduct. This is a Sandro Sequi production, with sets by Ming Cho Lee, and Peter J. Hall is credited as costume designer.

And finally, the season ends on a high note (or two, or three!) with Gioachino Rossini’s tour de “farce” arrangement of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. The production is the work of Cesare Lievi, with sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò. Helmed by principal conductor Fabio Luisi, it stars Joyce DiDonato in her first appearance at the Met as Angelina, the Cinderella of the title, with high-flying Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Don Ramiro (Prince Charming to you), Pietro Spagnoli as Dandini, Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, and Luca Pisaroni as Alidoro. The “magic” in this opera stays earthbound, and no, there’s no Italian equivalent of the song “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” although Angelina’s concluding aria was “appropriated” (if that’s the correct term) by Rossini and placed in the mouth of The Barber of Seville’s Count Almaviva.

So there you have it: a season to end all seasons — with an opera to suit all tastes. This is as diverse a gathering of styles and works as I’ve heard in a long time. If the Met (and its General Manager Peter Gelb) continues along this route, we’ll have opera to kick around for many years to come. As Mozart’s Don Giovanni would say, “Bravo, bravo, arcibravo!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Soccer Field of Fractured Dreams: Brazil 2006 World Cup Debacle (Part Two) — Portugal to the Rescue!

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Cristiano Ronaldo (Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo on his way to goal No. 2 (Getty Images)

Portugal is in! Portugal is in!

Last Tuesday night (on November 19), the Portuguese national team secured a spot in the upcoming 2014 World Cup by beating Sweden 3-2, thanks to their countryman, superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, and his three-goal hat-trick.

His national team down by two, the Real Madrid striker suddenly erupted at the half with his second and third goals of the evening, thus sending Sweden’s coach to the showers. It was touch and go for a while, with Sweden’s own leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovič battling it out with Ronaldo for the right to send their team to Rio. But Ronaldo’s back to back goal-scoring efforts (at the 77th and 79th minute, respectively) put the Portuguese ahead by one. It was all over at that point.

Enjoying this well-deserved victory, Ronaldo tried to sum it all up by claiming, “You never know who’s going to win and that’s why football is brilliant. Simply, I did my work.”

Simply, he sure did! Indeed, his superb performance this week reminds me of the good old days of World Cup Soccer circa 2006. In August of this year, I re-ran an article I wrote back when both Brazil and Portugal were still top contenders. The intervening years between World Cups, however, have not been kind to either side, to say nothing of the French, English and Dutch players. Nostalgia’s a bitch …

Nevertheless, let’s look back one more time at these national teams’ past performances in this final soccer recap of 2013.

No “Ifs,” “Ands” or Head-Butts, Please

So where did the 2006 World Cup gathering in Germany leave the once-capable soccer capital of Brazil in the overall team standings? Well, as the old Beatles song so fondly recalled for us, “Nowhere Man,” down and out in Frankfurt, and not even qualified for the semifinal round in Munich’s Olympiastadion.

Doubtless, this was not the only time Brazil’s upward surge was halted in midstream by more determined and formidable foes — think of previous unsuccessful efforts covering the years 1974 through 1990 and, of course, the disreputable 1998 disaster in Paris.

In reality, this was a more than usually hot-tempered tournament for all concerned — and I don’t mean the torrid weather conditions. Full of promising start-ups and highly anticipated encounters, there were major upsets galore not only for the embarrassed Brazilian side but for other famed footballers as well.

One of the most glaring omissions was the early ouster of supposed top contender Team USA. To be honest, no one seriously expected the United States of America to get very far along in their Don Quixote-like quest for a first World Cup championship, and certainly not to the actual final round itself — for that, there were other, far hungrier foreign teams out there, prowling about the soccer turf in search of their day in the Teutonic sun.

Brian McBride & Daniele De Rossi (ussoccer.com)
Collision course: Brian McBride & Daniele De Rossi (ussoccer.com)

At any rate, the U.S.’s terrible team showing against such nonentities as Ghana and the Czech Republic, as well as a bitterly fought contest with perennial powerhouse Italy — an all-out brawl that led to three red cards being brandished, including one for Italian player Daniele De Rossi for flagrantly elbowing USA team member Brian McBride in the temple — did not ingratiate the hapless Americans, a one-time host nation in ‘94, to their disgruntled supporters.

Time to tune out, which would not have been bad advice considering what followed next: the Orangemen of Holland, for example, was another of those illustrious Old World names that could traditionally be counted upon to provide a reasonably good showing at the games — but not this time. They merely fired blanks at the much smaller but resolute Portuguese squad, in what could only be referred to as one of the most vicious qualifying matches in memory.

Russian referee Valentin Ivanov lost control of a game that was never much in control to begin with. It tied a World Cup record for most yellow cards issued (16), and went on to break another (four red), for various assorted infractions, faults, and exceedingly non-sportsman-like conduct from both ends of the playing field. Not a banner day for the Dutch or for the Portuguese, who would turn out to be the unlucky recipients of rougher play to come.

Surely, with such an esteemed soccer nation as Argentina being done-in by penalty kicks, and with the German war machine likewise running out of fuel before the discontented hometown crowd, that left the Forza Azzurri of Italy, a three-time winner, and the upstart French, seeking a second title shot, to go at it alone in a frequently seesawing final battle that, true to this quadrennial event’s contemporary form, was low-scoring and dull — and controversial to the last.

It ended up in exactly the same manner as too many World Cup matches have been decided of late: that is, by those irritatingly inconclusive penalty kicks, never a true test of a team’s abilities on or off the field, no matter what FIFA may have to say in their defense.

The biggest shocker of the day, however, came when an egregiously mind-numbing foul was committed by visibly shaken French team captain Zidane, who lost his head, as it were, inside the chest of blue-shirted opposing player Marco Materazzi with only minutes left in second overtime play, after being pilloried with insults by the Italian defender that were reportedly aimed at the veteran midfielder’s closest kin.

Zidane & Materazzi (www2.macleans.ca)
Zidane watches Materazzi go down for the count (www2.macleans.ca)

Earning a red card for his efforts, the dejected Zidane was sent off to sulk, thus depriving Les Bleus of one of their most reliable free-kick shooters — he had earlier been responsible for his country’s lone goal after Materazzi was singled out for allegedly dropping a French attacker in the penalty zone (so much for innocent until proven guilty).

The culprit himself went on to score a fabulous header a bit later in regulation play that subsequently tied the game at 1-1, leading to a scoreless and exhausting double overtime play and the dreaded penalty kick situation in which Italy found itself on top, much to everyone’s surprise.

*            *            *

Zidane’s retaliatory act was only one in a long list of outlandish displays that had so marred this and other World Cup clashes. Through it all, the local police did a splendid job of maintaining order in the stands and on the streets, along with quelling the potential rowdies that have cropped up every so often in past European entanglements.

The same could not be said for the playing field, where most of the shenanigans took place and where the brutality was unavoidably transferred. At times, such actions proved counterproductive to the spirit of the games and, as it turned out, became more the rule than the exception, yet reflective of our violence-prone society as a whole.

Particularly offensive was the impulsive, crotch-stomping incident perpetrated by England’s 22-year-old forward Wayne Rooney, a veritable gorilla of a man, against downed Portuguese defender Ricardo Carvalho. This, too, resulted in another stunning second-half ejection, this time for the rampaging Rooney, whose ruddy-faced complexion took on the fiery aspect of the referee’s flashing red card.

With English team captain David Beckham incapacitated by leg injuries, culminating in his tearful withdrawal from the rest of the match, and a non-scoring exhibition by six-foot-seven-inch substitute striker Peter Crouch (“Hey, do the Crouch, yeah”), these series of unfortunate soccer events took the wind out of the waning British sail, thus setting up the near-miraculous shootout victory for the roughhouse gang from Portugal.

In the end, some sort of commendation (!) was in order for the intrepid display put on by Portuguese goalkeeper Ricardo: his unprecedented three penalty kick saves and superb technical acumen on goal landed the underdog Lusitanian forces a long-awaited semifinal fight (with France) for the first time in 40 years of aborted title attempts.

Thrills, Spills and Brazil’s “Big Phil”

Indeed, not since the great African-born national team player Eusebio’s last World Cup appearance in 1966 (in England, of all places) had such a single-minded group of raucous native combatants been featured in all-important semifinal play. It was as if the entire population of the Dão region was hard at work, laboring valiantly to reclaim on the field what it had so long ago lost on the high seas: their zest for world conquest.

Credit (or blame) for this accomplishment likely went to the source of all the misplaced show of emotion: their constantly gesticulating coach, that showboating, eye-rolling Brazilian-born técnico, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or Felipão (“Big Phil”), as sports columnists so endearingly dubbed the colorful sideline figure.

Felipao coaching Cristiano Ronaldo (esporte.ig.com.br)
Felipao (“Big Phil”) coaching Cristiano Ronaldo (esporte.ig.com.br)

A veteran of several crowning soccer achievements, to include Brazil’s 2002 comeback victories in Korea-Japan, and a berth for Portugal at the finals of the 2004 European Championship game with Greece, not to mention a perfect 12-match World Cup winning streak, the Dr. Phil-like drill instructor was the de facto cabeça (or “mastermind”) behind the overly enthusiastic Portuguese response — indeed he would have to be, now that Brazil was out of the running.

Would Big Phil’s fired-up team members, among them veteran Luis Figo, key offensive playmaker Deco, and 21-year-old star-in-the-making Cristiano Ronaldo, lead their heroic troop past the seemingly unstoppable Frenchmen? Would they be able to accomplish on the playing field what the shame-faced Brazilians had so grievously failed to do with their hugely expensive arsenal? Would Felipão become the first coach in soccer history to win a World Cup title for two different national teams?

Not quite, for try as they might Portugal lost the engagement 1-0, thanks to the unbeatable combination of a taut French defense topped by maître Zidane’s flawlessly executed penalty shot. Giving away a huge height advantage to France’s much taller players, the spirited but punier Portuguese team members always came up “short” on potential goal-scoring opportunities lobbed into the penalty area.

Still, their unheralded field campaign and reckless air of abandon drew raves from new-found fans, particularly the baffled and disheartened Brazilian press corps: with nothing positive to report about their country’s World Cup chances, they proudly proclaimed Portugal’s prowess to one and all.

“I feel satisfied and glad with the way things have turned out overall,” Big Phil was quoted as saying. “At the end, even by ending on a loss, we’re still one of the best four teams in the world. That’s a sort of title for us.”

Which was more than one could say for five-time winner Brazil. Along with Meira, Maniche, Miguel, Postiga, Valente, Costinha, Simão, Nuno Gomes, and the rest, they made a believer out of me and my family — and many others, I’m sure — as we screamed our bloody heads off at their brash, go-for-broke antics. Finally, we cried, there was somebody out there worth rooting for.

Not intimidated in the least by any country’s clout, the Portuguese had nothing to lose by gamely taking on all comers — and truly giving it to the Mexicans, the Dutch, the Brits, the French, and even the Germans — while fouling opposing players like I’ve never seen a team foul before. Inconceivably, they replaced the flat-footed Brazilians in the hearts of disappointed soccer fanatics when they were needed the most.

Despite some of the poorest officiating in the annals of World Cup record-keeping history, and despite the sheer number of cards given out, the questionable calls and randomly made decisions, the obviously fake dives and the horrendous lapses in judgment, it was still quite an exhilarating demonstration staged by the FIFA organizers.

There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that soccer has become — and will continue to remain, for the foreseeable future — a strictly European running game. And with the vast majority of Brazilian players still living and working on the Continent,* they would be well advised to stay right where they are for the duration of Europe’s long, hot summer — or, as my journalistic colleague John Fitzpatrick so cleverly phrased it, Brazil’s “winter of discontent.”

If the name “Ronaldo” can be associated with someone other than a shaven-headed, overweight, over-the-hill Brazilian prima donna, then there’s hope after all for the efficacy of World Cup competition.

“I may not be the Ronaldo you know, who beats three or four players,” boasted Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to the Associated Press, “but I’m fulfilling my role.”

Bye-Bye, Brazil (ofinodabola.net)
Bye-Bye, Brazil (ofinodabola.net)

After that declaration, what is there left to say except to quote from a July 2006 Jornal da Tarde headline, which, I believe, put the finishing touches, and the proper perspective, to how soccer-sensitive Brazilians really feel about their team’s participation in the world’s most popular sporting event: “Thank you, Big Phil. At least one Brazilian fought with courage at this World Cup.” ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

*Besides the exorbitant fees and more favorable working conditions offered by most European clubs, an unhealthy rash of high-profile kidnappings in Brazil, beginning with the mother of one of the country’s brightest stars, Robinho, in November 2004 (which led to the abandonment of his home team Santos for a multimillion-dollar deal with Real Madrid in Spain), had sadly spurred a new mass exodus of many of its top-flight players — including Luis Fabiano and Grafite, both of whose mothers were also held for ransom. According to security experts there, the trend was believed to have started with Brazil’s next-door neighbor, Argentina; then quickly gained favor with São Paulo’s former bank robbers looking for easier prey and more lucrative targets to hit.

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer

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The award-winning actor continues to give generously of himself, and not just to movie fans but to his alma mater as well.

Denzel Washington profesu.com)
Denzel Washington at Fordham (professu.com)

Call me crazy, but I remember Denzel Washington. I seem to recall a shy, unobtrusive African American youth, his six-foot-one-inch frame striding briskly down the corridors of Keating Hall, the main academic building at Rose Hill, the Bronx locality of Fordham University. That would have been in the early 1970s, the year Fordham went co-educational.

It was easy to spot an African American male on campus back then, mainly because there were so few of them around. Still, I don’t believe Denzel and I ever shared any classes together, but I can’t be certain of it. Heck, I’ve been wrong about such things before, so why push my luck.

However, there are two things about us I know I’m certain of. For one, we were both born in the same year. To be exact, I’m a middle-of-July baby, while he came into this world five months later, on December 28. For another, having grown up with an unusual-sounding first name, I’d be able to recollect someone named Denzel. For that reason, that name has stuck with me. And as far as I know, I’m aware of only one Denzel, and that’s Mr. Washington. Have you met anyone else with that moniker? Well, have you? I didn’t think so.

We were freshmen among a sea of freshmen, unacquainted with, and uninitiated in, modern college life. I myself started as a biology major who later took up history, art history, theology, philosophy, accounting, music, you name it. As for Denzel… well, to hear him tell it, he was undecided too. “[I] meandered from pre-med to political science,” he reminisced recently, “before coming downtown from Rose Hill to try [my] hand at acting.” In fact, he dabbled in journalism prior to branching out into drama, a subject he’s grown to master over time. Oh, and I’m told he played a mean game of basketball.

After taking a semester off, more or less, Denzel came back to Fordham — this time, to the school’s Lincoln Center campus where he majored in theater. It seemed that in the interim he’d been bitten by the acting bug. I wouldn’t be surprised if Denzel had bitten that old bug right back! Sink or swim, that’s how it is with actors whose background encompassed the stage.

He graduated from Fordham in 1977 and went on to appear in the TV series St. Elsewhere. Three decades later, in October 2011, he returned to his alma mater to score yet another triumph, this time by endowing the Denzel Washington Chair in Theater with a lavish $2 million donation. In addition, he made an equally generous outlay of $250,000 to establish the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship for up-and-coming undergrads desiring to make theater their life’s vocation. Now that’s what I call a payback!

Denzel at Fordham, Lincoln Center (fordham.edu)
Denzel at Fordham, Lincoln Center (fordham.edu)

“Show me a successful individual, and I’ll show you someone who has had positive influences in his or her life. The late Bob Stone, my mentor, was a former actor and professor at Fordham University. Bob was one of those influences in my life. He believed in me and gave me something to live up to,” Denzel related. “I wanted to create the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship and Chair at Fordham in order to offer the next generation of students [some] positive influences.”

Not only has Denzel demonstrated his gratitude to the school that changed his life’s vocation, he’s positively influenced viewers the world over with his special brand of acting talent, both on the screen and in the theater. On a break last October from promoting his latest film vehicle Flight, Denzel spoke to Fordham theater students, stressing that, “My life is not typical in this profession, but one thing I know I have in common with everybody here is the ability to give back.”

In like manner, I’ve decided to exercise my “ability to give back” by writing this highly-anticipated piece about one of my favorite actors. Not to pay lip service to a fellow alumnus (heaven forbid!), but to tell readers how much Denzel Washington has moved people like me with his performances — how far he’s come as an actor and director, and how the shy, unobtrusive, six-foot-one-inch former freshman became one of Hollywood’s most admired and respected leading men.

It’s my way of thanking him for the years of service he’s devoted to his craft. How’s that for a payback?

From Stage to Screen

Denzel Washington started acting in amateur theater productions long before he ever stepped out onto the Broadway footlights. His opportunities at Fordham, for example, included lead roles in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello. He had this to say about American playwright O’Neill: “I didn’t even know who O’Neill was, but to this day [he] remains one of [my] favorite writers. The pain that he suffered, I just related to it. The tears on the page made sense to me.”

A scholarship to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre eventually led to a part in the 1977 made-for-television movie Wilma Purple. In 1981 he made his official big screen debut in the comedy-drama Carbon Copy, which starred George Segal, Susan Saint James, Jack Warden, Paul Winfield, and comic Dick Martin as a pot-smoking attorney.

Denzel co-stars as the long-lost “teenage” son of Jewish businessman Segal, the result of a long-ago love affair with the son’s African American mother. It’s Will Ferrell’s Elf  without the Christmas cheer or belly-laughs (or Will Ferrell, for that matter), a “riches to rags” story that, were it not for Denzel’s easygoing charm and winning smile, would sink of its own featherweight.

George Segal & Denzel (aamovie.com)
George Segal & Denzel in Carbon Copy (allmovie.com)

The film’s lackluster attempts at humor, as well as its cringe-inducing stabs at social commentary and what passed for 1980s-style “relevance,” are positively uninspiring. A junior varsity player in real-life, Denzel does get to demonstrate his street “creds” in a father-son pickup game with a roly-poly white kid, who manages to sink a 20-foot jump shot at the actor’s expense. “I happen to be the only father of a black kid who can’t play basketball,” whines Segal afterwards. Yes, the comedy is all on that level. Swoosh!

At this formative stage in his career, Carbon Copy stands out from Denzel’s other run-of-the-mill entries as an intro to moviegoers of his future vision for himself, i.e., that of the self-made common man (black or otherwise) able to stand on his own merits and accomplishments; a self-assured advocate for change from the prevailing status quo, and a doggedly determined nonconformist willing to invest his time and effort toward bringing people around to his way of thinking.

Despite his age (he was 26 at the time) Denzel does a relatively credible job of playing a 17-year-old high-school dropout, one with the heart of an urban street hustler, and the wit and wisdom of a born theorist. His feisty comebacks and smart-ass putdowns seem already part of his later cinematic makeup, even in this early outing.

You’re in the Army Now

Although Denzel was hardly noticed for Carbon Copy, his initial movie appearance, theater patrons raved over his off-Broadway performances as Pfc. “Pete” Peterson in Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play, which premiered on November 20, 1981. The play, a loosely-based adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, takes place at a U.S. Army base in Louisiana during the waning years of WWII.

Denzel with Adolph Caesar in A Soldier's Story (backtimetv.blogspot.com)
Denzel confronts Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story (backtimetv.blogspot.com)

The story centers on the murder of a light-skinned, non-commissioned black sergeant named Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), whose deliberately spiteful treatment of the darker-skinned recruits under his command (“He treats us like dogs”) earns the enmity of his outfit. A clear case of reverse discrimination within the ranks, the investigating officer assigned to the murder case, Captain Davenport (Charles Brown), concludes that one of Waters’ own men may have been responsible for his death.

In 1984, the play was transferred to the screen under the title A Soldier’s Story. Directed by Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof), with a screenplay by playwright Fuller, original cast members Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, and Larry B. Riley as Pvt. C.J. Memphis, grace this production as well, along with the young David Alan Grier as Corporal Cobb.

“Hey, what kinda colored man are you?” Peterson inquires of Sgt. Waters. “I’m a soldier, Peterson,” replies Waters, with a contemptuous sneer in his voice. “And the kind of colored man that don’t like lazy shiftless Negroes.” The sergeant is filled with as much rage and self-loathing as he has hatred for his troops.

With that, Waters goads Peterson into a one-sided fight wherein Peterson gets beaten to a pulp. Later, Waters turns in one of the recruits in order to get another stripe on his uniform. “He can’t look good unless he’s standin’ on you! Only reason they let him in the army is because he’ll do anything they tell him to,” complains Peterson. Trained to fight in a segregated unit, for the segregated armed forces of the segregated United States of America — and in the Jim Crow era of the Deep South — Peterson reasons it was bad enough for them to put up with racism from white units. Why should they have to take it from one of their own?

“I seen his kinda fool before,” he grumbles. “Yeah, somebody’s gonna kill him one of these days.” Taking matters into his own hands, Peterson is forced to face the consequences of his actions when he confronts Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) in the film’s climax. All the players are good in this powerful drama, but an indignant, always dignified Denzel — and especially Caesar, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his reenactment of a modern-day Claggart — ran away with the acting honors.

Caesar suffered a fatal heart attack only two short years after the movie’s release. On a side note, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock wrote the period-flavored score. Denzel’s easy bonding with his band of brothers, so to speak, and complete identification as “one of the boys” would serve him well in his next war movie, Glory. Proud and defiant, that’s Denzel.

Doctor in the House

If Caesar’s heart condition had been fictional, he might have called on Dr. Phillip Chandler, from the successful NBC-TV medical drama St. Elsewhere, for immediate assistance… or maybe not.

The show, an MTM Enterprises production very much in the concept and format of its predecessor, the long-running police drama Hill Street Blues (another MTM production), was a so-called “realistic” series with overlapping, continuously running story lines, some of which (you’ll pardon the expression) “bled” into other episodes of the same or later season.

Cast of St. Elsewhere (NBC TV / The Kobal Collection)
Cast of St. Elsewhere (NBC TV / The Kobal Collection)

The title, St. Elsewhere, which referred to the less than first-rate, fictional Boston hospital St. Eligius, aired from 1982 to 1988. It was the winner of numerous Emmy Awards, garnering significant praise from critics and public alike. On the show, Denzel played do-gooder Dr. Chandler for the entirety of its six-year run. That’s stick-to-it-tive-ness! He left both the series and St. Eligius in the next to last episode, wherein he also quit the medical profession for good. If you see D.W.’s 2002 picture John Q, you’ll understand why… (“Do something!”)

Having learned the value of hard work and the benefits of acting with ensemble groups in his early college and summer-stock days, Denzel fit in smoothly with the rest of St. Elsewhere’s large cast, which included such veterans as Ed Flanders, David Birney, Norman Lloyd, William Daniels, France Nuyen, and Ronny Cox, along with (relative) newcomers Ed Begley Jr., Stephen Furst, Bruce Greenwood, Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, David Morse, Alfre Woodard, Cindy Pickett, Christina Pickles, Jennifer Savidge, and Nancy Stafford.

Both Hill Street Blues (Mike Post, Larry Carlton) and Taxi (Bob James) were unique in that both shows used established jazz musicians to write their main themes. St. Elsewhere was no exception: its opening and closing themes were composed by Dave Grusin, who was owner and co-founder, with Larry Rosen, of GRP Records, a strictly smooth-jazz label. Grusin also wrote the scores for The Graduate, On Golden Pond, Tootsie, Tequila Sunrise, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Havana, and The Firm.

Music would continue to play a conspicuous part in many of Denzel’s future film assignments, to include the aforementioned Glory (score by James Horner), Mo’ Better Blues (Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father), his first of four collaborations with director Lee, and director-writer Carl Franklin’s atmospheric Devil in a Blue Dress (music by Elmer Bernstein), which takes place in New Orleans and leans heavily on the blues and jazz influences.

(End of Part One – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches (Part Five) — Villa-Lobos’ ‘Magdalena,’ Broadway Bound

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Here, There and Everywhere: Part Two

Villa-Lobos doodle on Google
Heitor Villa-Lobos – Doodle on Google

A little known aspect of Villa-Lobos’ overseas exploits involved his first tour of the United States, where, in November 1944, he was called upon to conduct a series of concerts of his works (at the invitation of maestro Leopold Stokowski) at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. He quickly followed this assignment up with guest appearances in such places as Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.

He even presided over some of the country’s most esteemed music ensembles, among them the New York Philharmonic (in a performance of his Choros Nos. 8 and 9) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A natty dresser and even livelier conversationalist, Villa most assuredly would have made the rounds of TV talk-shows, had they existed back then. While visiting the Big Apple, Villa did the next best thing: he sat down for an interview with New York Times critic Olin Downes, an admirer of his oeuvre, who asked the Brazilian if he used folk music in his compositions.

“Never,” was the composer’s reply. “I compose in the folk style; I utilize thematic idioms in my own way, and subject to its own development. An artist must do this. To make a potpourri of folk-melody, and to think that in this way music has been created, is hopeless. It is only nature and humanity that can lead an artist to the truth.”

Incredibly, a newly formed American appreciation for the composer’s music eventually cleared the way for the Broadway production of Magdalena, his “musical adventure in two acts.” The background of this work’s evolution is an intriguing yet lighthearted tale of behind-the-scenes bargaining and cajoling, well documented in various writings, among them the essay, “Villa-Lobos on Broadway,” by Brazilian conductor Ricardo Prado, and in particular the program notes for the only existing recording of the piece, written by the show’s lyricists, Robert “Bob” Wright and George “Chet” Forrest.

Chet Forrest & Bob Wright (masterworksbroadway.com)
Chet Forrest & Bob Wright (masterworksbroadway.com)

Conceived by producer Edwin Lester, president of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association, with a book by Homer Curran and Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, and lyrics by the aforementioned team of Wright and Forrest (Song of Norway, 1944; Kismet, 1953), the show has been somewhat inaccurately described as a south of the border rip-off of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow or, to be precise, a Viennese operetta without the schmaltz.

“Set deep in the Colombia jungle on the shores of the Magdalena river,” wrote Thomas G. C. Garcia, a noted teacher and ethnomusicologist at the State University of West Georgia, “the story is replete with pagan Indians, banana republic military figures, a shrine to the Miracle Madonna, marital and political intrigue, death by overeating [Author’s note: It’s not quite so revolting as it’s made to sound], and the triumph of justice at the end; it is not unlike many operas and operettas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Garcia went on.

Donal Henahan, former music critic for the New York Times, summarized the action of the musical in typically dry fashion: “Magdalena is about the contrast between the goodness and religious fervor of exploited Colombian jungle people and the epicurean decadence of civilization, epitomized by Paris.” Voilá!

Continued Professor Garcia: “Although set in Colombia, composed by a Brazilian composer to an English libretto by an American playwright, Magdalena was produced at [a] time in which Latin American music was generally presented as part of one homogenous mass, not as part of distinct cultures.”

Garcia’s argument had merit. Having presented his case, he then went on to recount the “homogenous” nature of Latin culture, as practiced by Hollywood musicals of the war years. “Because of the prejudices and misconceptions regarding Latin American culture and music, critics assumed Magdalena to be based on Colombian ‘jungle music,’ and that Villa-Lobos, because he was Brazilian, had intimate knowledge of the music of South America in general and specifically the music of the Colombian jungle.” Garcia quotes newspaper reviews of the time as proof of his assertions, although it’s conceivable he might have mistaken these glowing reports for “expert testimony,” which they clearly were not. Still, his point was well taken.

Composed between January and March of 1947, Magdalena had its premiere at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles on July 26, 1948; it then ventured north to San Francisco where the show enjoyed a 32-performance run, before making its Broadway bow. But how did Magdalena actually come about? Neither Forrest nor Wright had ever met Villa-Lobos, even though they were aware of his reputation, especially after his Hollywood Bowl excursion; nor did they have the slightest clue as to how to approach him.

According to our lyricist friends, only a title and the names of one or two characters were all that existed of the plot at that point, thanks to some quick thinking by Curran, a “West Coast theater man and one of America’s outstanding showmen.” Forrest and Wright could not have believed their good fortune when their agent, George Wood, of William Morris, relayed the news that he was able to finalize the deal with Villa, and (wonder of wonders) obtain a written contract “within days” of his initial contact with the composer who, as luck would have it, just happened to have been on the agency’s list of clients.

What transpired next is a textbook example of placing the American cart before the Brazilian horse: Forrest and Wright worked out their “dream cast” with Curran, which included some of Broadway’s most illustrious personalities. No sooner had this been settled when publicity for the venture started to mount. To take their dream to the next level, the lyricists made plans to go to Brazil and meet with Villa-Lobos personally. After flight cancellations and several aborted attempts at a takeoff, the frustrated pair got as far as San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they cabled Villa-Lobos to inform him of their inability to secure safe passage to Rio. A short while later, Villa cabled back, indicating that he and his wife Arminda, along with his accompanist-interpreter José Brandão, would be coming to New York instead. Another stroke of luck!

Brandao, Forrest, Arminda, Villa & Wright (museuvillalobos.org.br)
Brandao, Forrest, Arminda, Villa-Lobos & Wright (museuvillalobos.org.br)

After a round of meetings over lunch, Forrest and Wright began to realize that their cigar-chomping, demitasse-drinking companion “was clearly confused as to what was expected of him, and how we planned to use his music.” That was the least of their problems: the men also learned that no one at the agency had bothered to explain to their visitor the “notion of what his, and our, contracts called for,” nor was Villa aware of the songwriters’ connection to Song of Norway, let alone to anything else on Broadway.

The project appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Perhaps out of sympathy for the composer’s situation (and their own eagerness to begin work on the project), Forrest and Wright decided to clear the air regarding their business relationship — a wise move on their part. Consequently, they urged Villa to consult with the home office, to “have them spell out the facts of his contractual commitments, and ours, and then decide what he wanted to do.”

Fearing all was lost, the men were pleasantly surprised when later that evening a practically teary-eyed Villa-Lobos returned to their hotel with “hat in hand,” so to speak. In as contrite a manner as possible, given the language barrier — to be kind, Villa’s grasp of English was at best rudimentary — he agreed to hand over his works to his younger colleagues (Wright and Forrest were 33 and 34, respectively, to Villa’s virile 60).

Overcoming the pair’s willingness to “fiddle around with Villa’s melodies the way they had done with Edward Grieg’s [for Song of Norway], which the composer absolutely could not tolerate,” was another, almost insurmountable hurdle that was deftly handled. “But Grieg is dead,” Villa persisted, “and I live” (translation: he was alive and kicking and available for consultation). What Villa offered instead was a one-on-one collaboration. Even better, they thought. Seven weeks later, their dream of a “musical adventure” became a reality.

Music to Try Men’s Souls

"My Bus and I" from Magdalena (Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo)
“My Bus and I” number, from Magdalena (Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo)

Despite the air of camaraderie present throughout its composition, Magdalena came at an especially trying time for the composer, who was diagnosed shortly thereafter, in Rio, with “inoperable, terminal cancer” of the bladder. Fortunately for all concerned, Villa-Lobos was flown to New York and immediately hospitalized at Memorial Hospital, supposedly on the same night (September 20, 1948) as the Manhattan premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Other sources maintain the operation took place the day before the Los Angeles opening two months earlier. Nevertheless, all were in agreement that a simultaneous musician’s strike was called prior to the New York opening, which crippled plans to broadcast radio excerpts and record the original-cast album, de rigueur for shows back then.

Providentially, both Villa and “Mindinha” attended a performance of their musical adventure just as the show was about to close. According to reports, the couple was thrilled with the results. The wonderful lineup of stars assembled for the run included Metropolitan Opera diva Irra Petina as Teresa, bass Gerhard Pechner as Padre José, singer-actor John Raitt (of Carousel fame) as Pedro, soprano Dorothy Sarnoff as Maria, Czech actor-director Hugo Haas as General Carabaña, John Schickling as Zoggie, and Ferdinand Hilt as Major Blanco. American movie producer Jules Dassin directed the work for the stage, and choreographer Jack Cole handled the dance portions.

Magdalena CD (amazon.com)
Magdalena CD (amazon.com)

Boasting a convoluted plot and exotic South American locale, this lively Latin-American extravaganza basically revamped many of Villa-Lobos’ previous themes (as critic Robert Garland was quick to point out: “Heitor Villa-Lobos isn’t too shy to borrow from himself occasionally”), with the music taken in part from sections of the Bachianas Brasileiras, as well as the folk arrangements to be found in his wide-ranging, eleven-volume Guia Prático (“Practical Guide,” 1932) of over 60 piano pieces, along with his Ciclo brasileiro (1936-37), which was based on rural folk music, and other Brazilian-related styles, including choro, modinha and seresta.

If you listen closely to “Food for Thought,” that deliciously catchy number from the Paris sequence of Act I, you can even hear the rhythmic strains (in a minor key, of course) of the “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen. It’s positively infectious, as witnessed by this live rendition from the Teatro Municipal in Sao Paulo, performed by soprano Luciana Bueno in February 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUmq28ldu1M.

With that said, there is some conjecture as to whether or not Villa-Lobos had conceived his operetta “sight unseen” and without benefit of the printed text. Despite Forrest and Wright’s assurances that “every note of the score is original and exactly as Villa-Lobos wrote it,” musicologists have noted that (quoting Garcia again) “Great differences [exist] between the show’s score and Villa-Lobos’ manuscript [which] indicate that there was indeed some arranging and adapting, principally because Villa-Lobos composed the work without a libretto (he had only a sketch of the story). Even if Villa-Lobos had had a libretto, he spoke and read virtually no English — at any rate, his score has no lyrics whatsoever.”

Garcia concluded that Villa “knew the story and provided his collaborators with a manuscript indicating when and what characters should sing. The biggest difference is that Villa-Lobos’ manuscript contains dozens of pages of orchestral interludes that were omitted from the show’s score. Assuming that Villa-Lobos’ partners did nothing other than adjust the score in order to add lyrics and cut orchestral interludes, they did not arrange Villa-Lobos’ music; Villa-Lobos, however, did.”

Despite favorable reviews for the music (“Dazzling,” “Rich, warm and original,” “bountiful and varied,” “spirited and lovely,” a “gem of a score,” and “the finest, most sophisticated score in a generation”), the musical came and went in less than three months. Surprisingly, Villa-Lobos’ disappointment with the entire Broadway enterprise was voiced through conductor Ralph Gustafson, in his memoir “Villa-Lobos and the Man-Eating Flower”:

“The opening night of Magdalena was both a success and a disaster. The triumph belonged to Villa-Lobos — some of it to the choreography of Jack Cole, and some of it to the color of the sets and the costumes. But the libretto and lyrics were disastrous and the run lasted only eleven weeks…While he was in Rio and while he was in the hospital, [Villa-Lobos] told me, those who should have known better ‘cut and damaged’ his score. The music director was ‘[an] imbecile.’ Then there was the useless extravagance: ‘The flowers in one scene cost $5,000. I would write another operetta for that!’ The whole undertaking was too much. ‘Now I am finished with Magdalena.’”

So, was Villa-Lobos impressed with what Forrest and Wright had done with his music or not? If he hadn’t liked their handiwork, then why didn’t he express his outrage at the time? And if he had liked it, why did he complain about it later on, and to a third party uninvolved in its creation? It may have been partially out of courtesy that the worldly Villa, a man accustomed to the best the musical world had to offer, decided not to offend his colleagues’ sensibilities to their faces — a typically selfless Brazilian gesture, I can assure you. He certainly had the warmest regard for his working partners, deservedly so. Besides, an individual’s views about a work can understandably change over time. But with Villa, they were in a constant state of flux. All we are left with is the finished product, which can speak for itself.

Magdalena has since been produced several times across the U.S., and there exists a hard-to-find Sony® compact disc (re-released by the Archiv label) commemorating a live, 1987 Alice Tully Hall concert performance, starring Judy Kaye, George Rose, Faith Esham, Kevin Gray, Jerry Hadley (who replaced John Raitt at the recording sessions), Keith Curran, Charles Damsel, and Charles Repole, in honor of the centennial of the composer’s birth. The adaptation was credited to conductor Evans Haile.

The verdict rendered by Times critic Donal Henahan (in his November 25, 1987 review), however, dealt a fatal blow to future revivals: “What resulted instead, based on this concert performance, was a work marginally more interesting than most Broadway products of its time but one hard to take seriously today except as a curiosity… On the whole, a valiant effort, but it is likely that Magdalena can safely be returned to its shelf in the old curiosity shop.” Ouch!

It was more than nature and humanity that led this Brazilian artist to the truth; most likely, box-office failure doomed Magdalena to an early demise. For all intents and purposes, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ musical adventure in two acts remains a “curiosity” and comparatively unknown, even in its native Brazil.

(End of Part Five)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes