‘And Before Him All Rome Trembled?’ — Where the Villain Outshines the Hero: Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ on the Radio

“Oh, Scarpia, We Meet Before God!”

Sondra Radvanovsky in Act II of Tosca (Ken Howard)

Sondra Radvanovsky in Act II of Tosca (Ken Howard)

Never let it be said that Giacomo Puccini was a mere ladies’ man. Oh, he was that, all right — and more! But one should also regard him as strictly a man’s man. In fact, he loved boating and fishing, hunting and hiking, as well as fast cars and all things mechanical. And let’s not forget those fast women, people. We could say that Puccini lived in the fast lane before speed became a fact of modern life. He’d even be a regular fixture on the E! Network, were he alive today.

In his opera Tosca, broadcast live by the Met on Saturday, December 28, speed is of the essence. The drama flows continuously, from one scene to the other, in riveting spurts. All three of his leading characters, the opera singer Floria Tosca, the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, and the dreaded chief of police Baron Scarpia, show facets of the composer’s love/hate relationship with both sexes: Tosca, by turns flirtatious and loving, jealous and pious; Cavaradossi, daring and reckless, irreverent and passionate; Scarpia, bigoted and repulsive, lustful and duplicitous.

By now, everyone knows the story of how Puccini, who had a high degree of difficulty finding (then settling on) a proper subject for his operas, had wrangled away the rights from a rival composer, one Alberto Franchetti, to French playwright Victorien Sardou’s blood and thunder stage-work La Tosca.

The play was originally conceived as a vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt, who made quite a show of it in her day. Puccini saw the play while working on Manon Lescaut. He was suitably impressed by it, understood nothing of the text, but felt the action a ripe prospect for operatic treatment. He then promptly forgot all about it, until, shortly after La Bohème’s premiere, Puccini had read in the local papers about Franchetti’s involvement in the project. At that point, the composer swore he had to have it!

In that respect, Puccini had the full support of his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, the head of Casa Ricordi, who conspired with his protégé to “trick” Franchetti into giving up the rights. In the general scheme of things, it was providential that Franchetti eventually saw the light, for a Tosca by any other composer, even the elderly Verdi, would not have sounded quite the same.

For one, Puccini was as an absolute master of the short signature phrases the verismo style called for. Those wonderful hit tunes the Tuscan-born Puccini became famous for were made up of fragments of melodies that, strung together and shaped into the main story line, blended aria and recitative into a seamless whole. Few Italian composers of the era were as adept as Puccini in conveying the rhythms of everyday speech into his work. Also, the secret of his success was the constant and relentless badgering he subjected his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to. From the ruins of this torturous relationship, a workable text was fashioned that would somehow placate the unsatisfied composer.

As a result, the title and supporting roles in Tosca have been much coveted by singers the world over for more than a century. Many of our modern-day Toscas, in this country at least, were the cream of the operatic crop, beginning with the incomparable sopranos Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Dorothy Kirsten, Antonietta Stella, Montserrat Caballé, Raina Kabaivanska, and Galina Vishnevskaya. Her tenor lover Mario has been taken by the likes of Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.

As for the part of Scarpia, such stalwarts as Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, George London, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, and Ruggero Raimondi have provided the requisite thrills in the baritone department. Needless to say, the above-named vocal categories are all tailor-made for showing off an artist’s capabilities. If a singer fails to impress in Tosca, it’s probably due to miscasting.

Sondra Radvanovsky (silive.com)

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca (silive.com)

If there was any fine singing to be had on Saturday afternoon, it certainly came from the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca, who gave the part luster. While I felt she was too subdued throughout her lengthy Act I scena with the scheduled Cavaradossi (tenor Marcello Giordani), Sondra soon came into her own in her brief sequence with Scarpia, just before the Te Deum. Gorgeous tone and a silky-smooth delivery were the hallmarks of Radvanovsky’s performance thereafter. Her prolonged Act II encounter with the wily baron was a battle of two strong wills, a classic match-up and one that Puccini and his librettists took great care to preserve from the play.

A Callas and a Gobbi, or a Tebaldi and a London, could chew up the scenery, yet still give off sufficient allure or an equivalent amount of regal splendor to their respective roles to believe in their plight. One had a reasonable sense of the diva’s situation, as it began to unfold and spin out of her control.

“Vissi d’arte,” Tosca’s “I live for art” moment, was, as expected, the highpoint of Radvanovsky’s art as well. A long, sumptuous line, the tone beautifully flowing, an authentic enunciation of the text, along with a dark and lustrous vibrancy to her voice, lent an air of distinction to the diva’s suffering at the hands of the ruthless bad guy.

Her highest note, sung near the end of the phrase “Perchè, Signor?” (“Why, O Lord?”), a veritable cry of despair, was trailed off by the softest of sounds. She was greeted with an explosion of applause that held up the action for several minutes, a well-earned ovation. Sondra also excelled in her Act III narrative describing Scarpia’s murder at her hands. Speaking of which, her half-growled, half-sung tossing of the line, “È morto… or gli perdono” (“He’s dead… now I forgive him”) sent a collective chill down the audience’s spine. We must also mention her long-held final note, whereby just before leaping to her death she hurls out the line, “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio” – “Oh, Scarpia, we meet before God.”

Marcello Giordani (Dario Acosta)

Marcello Giordani (Dario Acosta)

Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani as her partner Mario simply was not up to the task of this most dashing of lovers. In addition to my previous commentary about this once illustrious artist’s annoying habit of singing sharp can be added a noticeable and quite disturbing wobble, one that detracted from this listener’s enjoyment of the part. His cries of “Vittoria, vittoria!” were forceful enough; they were just not very pleasant to the ears. He went hoarse at one point in Act III, during his final rapturous duet with Sondra, which is inexcusable.

Giordani must have been having a bad day. In Act III, he tried mightily to sing softly, but the strain of doing so was more than evident. His attempts at pianissimo were raw and beat driven, as well as not very ingratiating. The applause for his otherwise handsomely delivered “E lucevan le stelle,” which tenors from Di Stefano, Del Monaco and Corelli to Domingo, Carreras and Kaufmann, not to mention Pavarotti, made especially memorable, was more polite than vociferous. His was a disappointing assumption of this can’t-miss role. And Giordani missed it by a theatrical mile. Here was a case where the snarly villain clearly outshone the wimpy hero.

And speak of the devil, George Gagnidze, from the former Soviet Union’s Georgia of all places, was an old-fashioned, snarly-toned Baron Scarpia. A real mustache twirler (to be perfectly blunt about it), with a beefy essence and imposing physique (I saw Gagnidze in the HD telecast a few years back when this production was new), frankly there was nothing subtle or mellifluous about his conception of the part. He was all brute force, with little of the aristocratic bearing that marks Puccini’s most dastardly creation to be such a formidable foe. His Italian enunciation was slightly accented, but not in a distracting way. In truth, it made his Scarpia novel but not entirely out of place as Rome’s guardian of the peace. Note: The historical Scarpia was a Sicilian by birth, so the accent can be defended on those grounds alone.

George Gagnidze as Scarpia (Ken Howard)

George Gagnidze as Scarpia (Ken Howard)

Indeed, Scarpia should be “different” from the other characters. In the hands of a superb singing-actor such as Gobbi, my generation’s model baron, or the leonine Mr. Taddei — even the distinguished and smooth-voiced bass Raimondi, who’s recorded the part in almost every medium, including several outstanding film forays — the dubious nature of this vicious bully shines through, but with the proverbial “iron fist in the velvet glove.” Vocally, Gagnidze bludgeoned the role to death, long before he got hold of his “nemesis,” Mario. And Tosca without a credible villain is one-half of a great opera.

On the plus side, Met maestro Marco Armiliato knows his way around this score as well as anyone. He helped move matters along smoothly, and kept the various bits of stage business in check, especially during the crowded Te Deum that concludes Act I. The music’s ebb and flow, which this opera is justly famous for, were expertly handled. Puccini is in this conductor’s blood, no doubt about it, and Armiliato proved it time and again with an atmospheric reading of the lovely third act introduction, an evocation of Rome at dawn. In the best productions, the city itself is a major contributor to the drama.

Sadly, this lame excuse of a programmer lacked the usual finesse. The décor was, shall we say, appallingly bad and of the bargain-basement variety. The stage action was even worse, which featured (at the time of its premiere) Scarpia kissing the statue of the Madonna, while caressing her bosom as the Te Deum peeled forth. If this is what is meant by Regietheater, I’ll take the tried-and-true formulas anytime.

It’s my understanding this notorious bit of hokum has been thankfully removed (or maybe not). Good heavens! It never made much sense to begin with. We know that Scarpia is a sexual deviant, but as an aristocrat and holder of high office he would never — and I mean never! — have exposed his inner self in such an obviously obtuse manner.

French director Luc Bondy, whose previous work with Verdi’s Don Carlos I very much admire, went way over the top, not just here but in Act II as well, where Scarpia has not one but three prostitutes hanging around to service him. How about showing those “ladies” the door, Luc?

John Del Carlo was the burly, bustling Sacristan, but nothing too original or enlightening. It smacked too much of Paul Plishka’s old interpretation, seen as well as heard for many seasons at the Met. Del Carlo added little to Plishka’s legacy. He sounded dry-toned and overly fussy. Perhaps that’s how director Bondy saw the character. I, myself, didn’t see it that way.

On the other hand, Eduardo Valdes’ Spoletta was too restrained to comment positively on. I found him too vague and tonally adrift to be effective. It’s a small role, granted, but character players from Alessio de Paolis, Andrea Velis, Paul Franke, Charles Anthony, Anthony Laciura, and the unforgettable Piero de Palma, made much of this distasteful individual. Where’s the fun in just singing the notes?

David Crawford, substituting for an indisposed Richard Bernstein, as Angelotti (the first voice heard after the thundering opening introduction) had trouble rolling his “r’s” in a most un-Italianate fashion. He could have sounded more out of breath, too; after all, his character has just escaped from prison. He’s fleeing for his life, whereas Crawford sounded as fresh as a daisy — not convincing, fellas. Jeffrey Wells was a wooly sounding, hollow voiced Sciarrone.

In sum, not the best served Tosca in memory, but not the worst either. At least we had Sondra Radvanovsky to salvage the day. And a Tosca without a Tosca is simply not worth staging — period. As one of my favorite Puccini works (I’m biased, I know, since I love all of the master’s output), it should be treated with care and respect, and a modicum of fidelity. I’m all for avant-garde productions and I’m certainly no prude, but to have mediocre singers and pointless directorial touches does nothing to preserve the quality. Why make compromises where none are called for? Such is opera life!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova (Part One)

An Introduction to My “Personal and Cultural History of Opera, Popular Music, Soccer, Musical Theater and the Cinema in the Land of Carnival and Samba”

Brazil's Fat Lady Sings! (clatl.com)

“Ho-yo-to-ho!” Brazil’s Fat Lady Sings (clatl.com)

A Preface to Life

Life is simply not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it. My stories were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in my former home country.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome, but as a series of challenges (to myself, mostly) in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet Website.

Why challenging? Because, as it quickly became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would have to be spent on the tedious task of researching, studying, analyzing, and dissecting the subject beforehand. That’s fair enough. But while this is a regular, everyday part of most professional and amateur writing, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding a few tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema.

But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas possibly have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America (at any rate) movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — and never the in-betweens shall meet. This has been the time-tested pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a mere smidgeon of curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern about these self-same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — in the back of my mind never did I feel that these interdependent activities should be completely divorced from one another, not by any means. Which all leads directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnection and identification of individuals with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had an enormous and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these vast topics, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own personal life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are all dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” is to be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their very nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of their class, color or economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was, at one point in its history, often referred to as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious perceptions off the map of our subconscious.

Remember the Titans

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

– listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, always joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso pra lá” (“Leave that over there”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music, no less;

– remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, quite innocently asked one of his students (i.e., me) how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded); he then went on to mention a top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by a young musician called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the virtues of the Academy Award-winning film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus could be;

– seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known in the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

– getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was there, for that matter), at my very first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculous, lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

– hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será,” from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, reached the top of the worldwide charts; along with my initial exposure to the martial art/dance form known as capoeira;

– experiencing my very first — and quite possibly last — Carnival dance party inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, in February 1979, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I’ve ever had the misfortune to receive after four (or was it five?) non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

– finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the city back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, warbling away in what I thought was fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about the album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about; 

– catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), the actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon trip; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished epic, It’s All True;

– having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population 15 million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the initial part of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

– making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

– placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his partnership with Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count of the number of individuals I’ve come in close contact with throughout the years as a result of my pieces. But these and other noteworthy ventures aside, I sincerely feel that this literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture.

Antonio Carlos Gomes (www.classicalm.com)

Composer Carlos Gomes (www.classicalm.com)

Bound for Glory

 Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout: from native-born artists studying opera abroad (Carlos Gomes), to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores (John Neschling); from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces (Gerald Thomas), to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters (Michael Franks); from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors (Breno Mello, Toni Garrido), to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants (Bidu Sayão); and many, many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multifaceted and multiracial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately all about and what I aspired to recreate with my writing.

As a consequence of these facts, I have scrupulously tried to recapture the flavor of these various events. As any author can tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not there to experience it, is a supreme challenge to one’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to vivid life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multiculturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous assignment? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous import to me in augmenting my own, sometimes myopic view of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that have piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, films, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office (HBO) Network of Brazil; my 40+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, and/or cinematic endeavors at the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Town Hall, the City Center, Loew’s Astor Plaza, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Felt Forum, the Village Vanguard, the Ziegfeld Theatre, Giants Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, et al. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in these texts.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile writing project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer tournament,* along with the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, the first time any South American country has been accorded that prestigious honor. A look into this wide swath of Brazilian culture, I thought, would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be.

Finally, the Fat Lady’s story could never have been told, let alone finished, printed, and published in any form whatsoever, without one indispensable ingredient: passion. I once told an artist friend of mine, when asked, “What is it that’s missing from my work?” Without pause I answered: “Passion.” If an artist’s work lacks passion, then it is worthless, empty, like blank spaces on a slate. Without passion for what one does, there can be no “life” as we know it.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

*The last time the World Cup took place there, at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro back in 1950, the Brazilian national team suffered a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final matchup.

Learning to Speak Brazinglish

"Which way to the World Cup?" (Joao Fazenda)

“Which way to the World Cup?” (Art work: Joao Fazenda)


November 8, 2013

Our guest columnist for the month is São Paulo-born Vanessa Barbara. A novelist, translator and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Vanessa edits the literary website A Hortaliça (www.hortifruti.org). Her article, “Learning to Speak Brazinglish,” is a masterful semi-serious, tongue-in-cheek tome in which she discusses Brazil’s precarious preparations for the upcoming 2014 World Cup.

Brazilians are trying hard to get ready to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Despite having a big territory rich with natural scenery, Brazil is not accustomed to many international visitors. The World Tourism Organization, which ranks tourist spending in different countries, puts it 39th on the list, behind much smaller countries like Lebanon, Croatia and Malaysia. Next year, the government expects tourism spending in Brazil to grow by 55 percent, thanks largely to the World Cup.

But as that time draws near, the general feeling among my compatriots is one of disbelief, as if somebody was expecting to see a turtle fly or explain the Schrödinger equation. The prevailing feeling is captured by the expression “Imagina na Copa …” — Imagine during the Cup — spoken every time we see a 112-mile-long traffic jam, an overcrowded airport or the rising prices of hotels and flights. If things are already bad, imagine what they’ll be like during the World Cup.

Such pre-tournament pessimism is common. Last year the British were skeptical about the Olympics, which turned out to be O.K. So were the South Africans, who, after the last World Cup, celebrated the fact that “Armageddon did not happen,” in the words of the Africa correspondent for The Guardian, David Smith: “No one died. No one was stabbed, no one was kidnapped and no one took a wrong turn into the clutches of a gang of garrotters.”

But Brazilians are especially apocalyptic in our expectations. We belong to a country where corruption costs $28.7 billion to $47.7 billion a year, according to an estimate from the Industrial Federation of São Paulo State; that’s between 1.4 percent and 2.3 percent of the gross domestic product in 2010. We have poor infrastructure and serious social inequity. We worry about violence from drug trafficking and organized crime — last month, one gang from São Paulo threatened to unleash “a World Cup of terror” if the government didn’t agree to its demands.

And yet Brazilians are doing what we can to welcome tourists.
There’s a school teaching English on almost every corner, seeming as common as bakeries, hair salons and evangelical churches. The Brazilian Association of Franchising estimates that there are a total of 6,088 franchises of 77 language schools with names like Wizard, Yes! and Wise Up. Some schools guarantee that a student will learn English in 18 months, six months, eight weeks and, yes, 24 hours. The Ministry of Tourism has created a program to increase access to English classes called Hello, Tourist!

Nevertheless, the Education First English Proficiency Index places Brazil at No. 46 of 54 countries. Even some of the official efforts to further English translations of public signs are clumsy; six months ago, a giant football stadium in Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, opened with exit gates marked “Entrace” — both mislabeled and misspelled. On the streets of the capital, Brasília, a sign pointing to “Setor Hoteleiro Norte” (Northern Hotel Sector) had the translation, “Southern Hotel Sector.”

In the great tradition of Brazilians making fun of ourselves, this set off a fad of nonsensical English translations of Brazilian locations on social networks. One of my favorite translations: “Santos Dumont the True Airplane Inventor and Not The Wright Brothers Avenue” (for Avenida Santos Dumont). More than an effort to communicate, these inside jokes are a way of strengthening our bonds against outsiders.

Shortly before the 2008 Olympic Games, in Beijing, the world was presented with a new language: Chinglish. A blend of Chinese and English, the term was commonly applied to ungrammatical or nonsensical English in local contexts.

One particularity of Chinglish is its straightforwardness, as in examples like: “Deformed man toilet” and “Keep it carefully to avoid gangster.” It’s a way to ignore Western euphemisms when talking about sensitive topics. As Oliver Lutz Radtke, the author of “Chinglish: Found in Translation,” puts it, “Chinglish is right in your face.”

Brazinglish, on the other hand, is very casual and reckless, and often chooses to go literal just to avoid making the effort to explain better. The results are word-by-word translations with an unintelligible (or quite strange) content, sometimes nothing more than playing with sounds. Imagine, for instance, translating “Manhattan” (Man-hat-tan) to “Guy with an embrowning cap, as by exposure to the rays of the sun.”

Some great examples can be seen in restaurant menus. To Americanize some foods, we could write “Barbie Kill Sauce” instead of “Barbecue Sauce.” Trying to explain some typical food to foreigners, we often create nonsensical expression such as: “Meat of the Sun with Friend Potato” (Carne de Sol com Batatas Fritas), “Crazy Meat” (Carne Louca), “Sleeve Juice” (Suco de Manga), “Chicken to the Bird” (Frango à Passarinho) and “Against the Brazilian Steak” (Contra-filé à Brasileira).

Brazilians have also adopted plenty of English words, though we often change the meaning in the process. We have begun using “outdoor” to designate a billboard, and “folder” instead of brochure. Claire Rigby, the editor of Time Out São Paulo, has written about these curious words. “We speak roughly half English and half Portuguese in the office — and then descend into a world of hybrid language,” she writes.

Brazinglish can be poetic, but it’s not nearly so lyrical as Chinglish. Some of the best known phrases in Chinglish are substitutes for a well-known sign in parks: “Little grass has life, please watch your step,” “Show your tender heart by leaving the green leaves untouched” and “Show mercy to the slender grass.”

Brazilians are so nervous about what will happen when tourists descend for the World Cup, we’re practically wishing we could call it all off. Perhaps we can plant a new sign at our stadiums. It would be a perfect translation, and it would be placed in the middle of the soccer field: “Keep off the grass.”


‘Noël, Noël, Noël’ — It’s the Christmas Opera, Charlie Brown!

Kevin Puts & Mark Campbell's Silent Night

Kevin Puts & Mark Campbell’s Silent Night

Ho, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Cheer and Fun!

Season’s Greetings! As the song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And what better way to celebrate the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season than with music and song. Last Christmas, to borrow a line from pop singer George Michael, I gave you some song-filled chestnuts to roast on your terribly expensive MP3 player (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/chestnuts-roasting-on-your-mp3-player-the-best-loved-christmas-songs-and-carols-collection/). This year, “to save me from tears,” our unwrapped gift to readers will be a list of the top Christmas-themed and/or New Year’s Eve-related operas.

This list, out of necessity, must include a few out-of-the-way works, since for many years religious displays or Biblical representations were oftentimes banned from the operatic stage. But in the end you will agree: It’s the thought that matters.

And now, on with the show:

L'Enfance du Christ (www.osm.ca)

L’Enfance du Christ (www.osm.ca)

1. L’Enfance du Christ (“The Infancy of Christ”) – Hector Berlioz (music and text). First performed in Paris, on December 10, 1854. Though not strictly an opera, this is the earliest composition on our program, one that perfectly summarizes the spirit of the season. Berlioz was one of those exceedingly driven individuals whose musical ambitions and “penchant for the monumental,” shall we say, habitually outweighed his capacity to control them. Nevertheless, this wonderfully unpretentious piece (Berlioz refused to label it an oratorio or even a cantata), which is divided into three parts or episodes — much like the panels of a Renaissance triptych — is one of the French composer’s least bombastic, yet most beguiling works. Not known as a religious man per se, Berlioz loosely derived his respectful text from the New Testament story of Jesus’ birth, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. He employs a tenor narrator to set the mood, but the real winner is in his choice of orchestral coloration: a sense of comfort and joy, as well as peace and serenity, are maintained throughout by his arrangement of harps, strings and woodwinds, with the muted choir mystically intoning the sublimely moving “Amen” at the conclusion, a lovely touch indeed. This is a marvelously low-key way to begin our holiday outing. Of course, I could have also included Handel’s omnipresent Messiah, but that would mean inserting Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and other sacred works into the fray, which would tend to make this list unwieldy. The difference here is that L’Enfance du Christ can withstand the royal stage treatment, whereas the other works mentioned would suffer by it. Trust me on this!

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Yann Beuron (Narrator), Karen Cargill (Mary), William Dazeley (Joseph), Matthew Rose (Herod) – London Symphony Orchestra, Tenebrae Choir, Colin Davis (conductor). LSO Live 2-CDs


Die Fledermaus sheet music

Die Fledermaus sheet music

2. Die Fledermaus (or “The Bat”) – Johann Strauss Jr. (music), first performed on April 5, 1874, at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, Austria. Original libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée based on a French vaudeville, Le Réveillon (“New Year’s Eve”) by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. An exceedingly spritely showpiece, the operetta known as Die Fledermaus has been presented almost annually in Vienna since its first appearance there. Strauss the Younger (as well as dear old papa, Johann Sr.) was dubbed the city’s “Waltz King,” which inevitably led to Old Vienna earning the title of “Waltz Capital” of Europe. The opera’s complicated story line involves a certain Dr. Falke seeking revenge on his old pal and drinking buddy, Gabriel von Eisenstein, for a prank he played on him the previous year. Couples are cuckolded, identities are mistaken, brotherhood is saluted, men find themselves in jail, and the whole cast comes together in praise of wine, women and song in the unparalleled comradeship of Act II, which climaxes in a New Year’s Eve celebration to end all celebrations. At this point, most productions insist on presenting their panoply of star performers in favorite party encores, a scintillating hodgepodge of extra-musical hors d’oeuvres and delightful bonbons as depicted in the now famous Decca/London “Gala Sequence” recording from 1960 (highly recommended). There are enough madcap comings and goings in Die Fledermaus to fill three banquets, let alone one. A lavish new Met production, in English, is due to arrive on… you guessed it: New Year’s Eve 2013. Stay tuned for that one! If you want a sampler of Strauss’ melodious and sparkling score, give a listen to the overture. The champagne has never flowed more smoothly. “Trinke, Liebschen, trinke schnell!”

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Hilde Gueden (Rosalinde), Regina Resnik (Orlofsky), Erika Köth (Adele), Waldemar Kmentt (Eisenstein), Eberhard Wächter (Falke), Giuseppe Zampieri (Alfred), Walter Berry (Frank) – Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (conductor). Decca/London 2-CDs
  • Pamela Coburn (Rosalinde), Brigitte Fassbänder (Orlofsky), Janet Perry (Adele), Eberhard Wächter (Eisenstein), Wolfgang Brendel (Falke), Josef Kopferweiser (Alfred), Benno Kusche (Frank) – Bavarian State Opera, Carlos Kleiber (conductor), Otto Schenk (director). Deutsche Grammophon 1-DVD


Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) & Charlotte (Sophie Koch) www.imz.at

Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) & Charlotte (Sophie Koch) http://www.imz.at

3. Werther – Jules Massenet (music). Although completed in 1887, Werther did not receive a complete performance until February 16, 1892, in a German translation no less, not the expected French, at a theater in Vienna. With text by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the book was a sensation in its day, mostly due to the forlorn and lovesick nature of its title character. That’s all fine and well, but where’s the connection to Christmas? Ah, that comes both at the beginning and ending of Massenet’s lush romantic work. In the first scene, which opens in the heat of a midsummer’s day, an old widower, the Bailiff, who is also father to Charlotte, is teaching his younger children a Christmas carol. A poet named Werther happens along. He is madly in love with Charlotte (Lotte in the novel), but is unable to express his passion for her due to her forthcoming arranged marriage to Albert, a much older man. In the opera’s third act, which takes place at Christmastime, Werther has written Charlotte a farewell note, along with a separate request to her husband for his hunting pistols. Sensing trouble afoot, Charlotte rushes to Werther’s side in the dead of winter (depicted in an atmospheric orchestral interlude), only to find him near death, the result of a fatal gunshot wound. Overcome by the situation, Charlotte confesses her deep and abiding love for the poet as Werther expires peacefully in her arms. Whew! Outside, the children are singing the same Christmas carol we heard in the opening scene. Talk about Lifetime Movies, this one’s a three-handkerchief special. There’s a new production planned by the Met Opera for 2014, to star the smoldering tenor Jonas Kaufmann. I wouldn’t miss it, but in the meantime a healthy and hearty “Noël, Noël, Noël” to one and all.

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Roberto Alagna (Werther), Angela Georghiu (Charlotte), Patricia Petibon (Sophie), Thomas Hampson (Albert) – London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano (conductor). Warner Classics 2-CDs
  • Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Anne-Catherine Gillet (Sophie), Ludovic Tézier (Albert) – Opéra National de Paris, Michel Plasson (conductor), Benoit Jacquot (director). Decca (Universal Music Group) 1-DVD


Hansel (Alice Coote) & Christine Schafer (Gretel) Met Opera

Hansel (Alice Coote) & Christine Schafer (Gretel) Met Opera

4. Hänsel und Gretel – Engelbert Humperdinck (music), libretto by the composer’s sister, Adelheid Wette, who based this “fairy tale opera” on the Brothers Grimm story. The first performance was given on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany. Here’s another example of a work not necessarily related to the Christmas season. In fact, the opera’s association with the Judeo-Christian holiday comes from its having been the first complete radio broadcast of a lyric work by the Metropolitan Opera Company, on December 25, 1931. Other than that, it’s pure child’s play, as it were, with the outlines of the plot faithfully, if rather operatically, rendered. All the principal characters are here: Hansel, Gretel, the Wicked Witch, the Father, the Mother, the Dew Fairy, the Sand Man, even the Gingerbread House, with the auxiliary bonus of a Wagnerian-sized orchestral force to command the ear, and a children’s chamber choir to add to the luxuriance of the soundscape. In the past, most productions adhered to a mezzo-soprano Witch (with the appropriate broomstick and pointy nose and hat, quite naturally), but most modern interpretations employ the services of a character tenor in the part — to good effect, it must be mentioned. The current Met version updates and modifies the story to create some incredibly imaginative stage pictures, if at times in opposition to the text, thanks to director Richard Jones. Not to fear: the superlative new English translation (by librettist David Pountney) lends a touch of darkness to this much beloved piece. This opera holds a special place in my heart: it was the first one I ever saw performed live and onstage. Now, children, don’t forget: “With your foot go tap-tap-tap / with your hands go clap, clap, clap…”

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Barbara Bonney (Gretel), Anne-Sophie von Otter (Hänsel), Marjana Lipovšek (Witch), Andreas Schmidt (Father), Hanna Schwarz (Mother) – Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate (conductor). EMI 2-CDs
  • Christine Schäfer (Gretel), Alice Coote (Hänsel), Philip Langridge (Witch), Alan Held (Father), Rosalind Plowright (Mother) – Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Victor Jurowski (conductor), Richard Jones (director). EMI Classics 1-DVD
Rolando Villazon & Anna Netrebko in La Boheme

Rolando Villazon & Anna Netrebko in La Bohème

5. La Bohème – Giacomo Puccini (music), with Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto). First performed at the Teatro Regio, in Turin, on February 1, 1896, it was the start of the trio’s three-work collaboration. A perennial favorite of opera fans the world over, there are more productions of Puccini’s masterpiece — and an equal number of recordings and DVD/Blu-ray Disc versions — than any other in the repertoire, bar none! With that said, La Bohème is not exactly a holiday-themed stage piece either, except that the first two acts do take place on Christmas Eve (okay, we’ll give it that). The romantic episode in the poet Rodolfo’s garret, where he declares his undying love for the consumptive seamstress Mimì, is a surefire tug-at-the-heart. They express their feelings in separate arias — Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina” (“Your tiny hand, so cold”) comes first, followed by “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes, they call me Mimi”) — prior to joining their voices in the rapturous love duet, “O soave fanciulla” (“O sweet, gentle girl”), which in most current productions leads directly to the Café Momus sequence in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Ah, yes, the City of Light — and young lovers, too! It’s here that we meet the audacious and flirtatious Musetta, who gets to toss off the opera’s most famous tune, “Quando m’en vo” (“Whenever I step out”), commonly known as Musetta’s Waltz. In Franco Zeffirelli’s overly opulent version for the Met, the scene is played as a bustling, nonstop production number, with color and movement everywhere that all-but robs the song of any intimacy. So who said opera was subtle?

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Mirella Freni (Mimì), Elizabeth Harwood (Musetta), Luciano Pavarotti (Rodolfo), Rolando Panerai (Marcello), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Colline), Gianni Maffeo (Schaunard) – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Herbert von Karajan (conductor). Decca/London 2-CDs
  • Anna Netrebko (Mimì), Nicole Cabell (Musetta), Rolando Villazon (Rodolfo), Boaz Daniel (Marcello), Vitalij Kowaljow (Colline), Stéphane Degout (Schaunard) – Bavarian Radio Orchestra & Chorus, Bertrand de Billy (conductor), Robert Dornheim (director). KULTUR Video 1-DVD/Blu-ray Disc
Laurel & Hardy Poster Art for Babes in Toyland

Laurel & Hardy Poster Art for Babes in Toyland

6. Babes in Toyland (aka The March of the Wooden Soldiers) – Victor Herbert (music) and Glen MacDonough (book and lyrics). First performed on October 13, 1903, at the Majestic Theatre in New York. Most readers’ familiarity with this operetta will come from the Laurel and Hardy film adaptation from 1934, produced by Hal Roach in conjunction with M-G-M Studios, which utilized only a hand-full of Herbert’s songs. The book was considerably altered as well, with the addition of L&H’s characters, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Otherwise, the use of Mother Goose, Little Jack Horner, and other nursery-rhyme figures (i.e., Little Bo Peep, Tom-Tom Piper, and the Master Toymaker) kept the plot firmly anchored in Toyland, whereas the original show incorporated a wealth of musical material, much of which was discarded through the years, along with a completely different story line. It’s easy to forget that Victor Herbert was considered one of the most influential figures in American musical-theater history. A full listing of his output would easily fill several volumes to include 43 operettas, two operas, and numerous pieces for other authors. As for Babes in Toyland, this melodious score was created specifically to (and I quote) “cash in” on the incredible success of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, staged in 1902 with music by Paul Tietjens, and the public’s growing craze for storybook plots. Disney’s attempt at a revival used the Babes in Toyland title in their 1961 film, in addition to more of Herbert’s music. However, it was woefully inadequate in the performance department, with a miscast crew of actors headed by Ray Bolger, Tommy Sands, and Annette Funicello of The Mickey Mouse Club fame. The Christmas angle is highlighted (albeit subliminally) in the original book. A later 1970 revisal added a more overt subtext focusing on the toys. In neither of these two versions does Santa appear, only in the Laurel and Hardy picture. Sorry kids!

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Stan Laurel (Stannie Dum), Oliver Hardy (Ollie Dee), Charlotte Henry (Bo Peep), Felix Knight (Tom-Tom), Henry Brandon (Silas Barnaby), Virginia Karns (Mother Goose) – Gus Meins and Charley Rogers (directors), Hal Roach (producer), distributed by MGM. Good Times 1-DVD


Amahl & His Mother (binghamton.edu)

Amahl & His Mother (binghamton.edu)

7. Amahl and the Night Visitors – Gian Carlo Menotti (libretto and music). Debuted on December 24, 1951, Amahl was the first opera to have its world premiere on national television. Commissioned by the NBC-TV network, it struck an immediate chord with viewers: straight off, the work became a seasonal favorite in the opera world — a most unusual occurrence even in the best of times. Kirk Browning, the original director, went on to an outstanding career in the pioneering of live telecasts. He cut his teeth, so to speak, with conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This experience led to his directing the first Frank Sinatra TV special in 1957, as well as the Live from the Met and Great Performances series on PBS. The opera is in one act and takes place at the time of the first Christmas. A poor, crippled boy named Amahl lives alone with his mother. One day, they are visited by Three Wise Men, who are on their way to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Christ Child. They bear gifts of surpassing richness, which tempt Amahl’s desperate mother to thievery. There’s a small miracle at the end that’s guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat and a tear to any Scrooge’s eye — a simple story, movingly and tenderly told, in the Pucciniesque style that made Menotti one of this country’s most sought-after opera composers. Anyone familiar with those Fa-La-La-La Lifetime Movies or Hallmark Holiday Specials will recognize a strong streak of sentimentality running through his oeuvre, with this one being especially cloying. Curiously, the opera was broadcast as the inaugural program of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, so that proves it! Menotti’s heart-on-sleeve approach went out of fashion past the 1960s after one disappointing failure after another. Amahl and the Night Visitors, however, successfully overcame the operatic doldrums and continues to be revived to this day.

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Chet Allen (Amahl), Rosemary Kuhlmann (Mother), Andrew McKinley (Kaspar), David Aiken (Melchior), Leon Lishner (Balthazar) – NBC Symphony, Thomas Schippers (conductor). RCA Gold Seal 1-CD


Silent Night (www.npr.org)

Silent Night (www.npr.org)

8. Silent Night – Kevin Puts wrote the music, libretto by Mark Campbell, world premiere at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, on November 12, 2011. Based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noël (French for “Merry Christmas”), directed by Christian Carion, the work was commissioned by Minnesota Opera and co-produced by Opera Company of Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love.” If there is a single opera on this list that embodies the true spirit of the Christmas season, it’s this one. Written in a most approachable and eclectic musical style, mixing jarring atonality with melodic compatibility (what I term “makeshift movie music”), as well as spoken dialogue and percussive effects in the pit and on the stage (the use of bagpipe and harmonica are unique in opera), this Pulitzer Prize-winning work takes a real-life incident from World War I — where Scottish, French and German soldiers negotiated a brief Christmas truce in 1914, when several of the men spontaneously ceased fire to the tune of  “Silent Night” and other songs — and transforms it into a modern-day parable of understanding among cultures. The staging is complicated but extremely effective, the performances believable, the singers totally immersed in and attuned to the work’s sensibilities. Sung in the respective language of each nationality, including most memorably in Latin, Silent Night is a highly listenable and cogent creation. The horrors of war are explored in a psychologically and morally penetrating manner as we get to know the various participants from each side. Although the opera’s film roots betray themselves intermittently, for the most part this is an outstanding achievement.

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Currently unavailable.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


‘All the World’s an Opera Stage!’ — ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Falstaff’ at the Met: Verdi’s Very Shakespearean Jester and Knight

“Is This an Opera Which I See Before Me?”

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigoletto (nytimes.com)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigoletto in Vegas (nytimes.com)

December 7, 2013 marked the start of the Metropolitan Opera’s 83rd consecutive season of live radio broadcasts of complete operas. To launch this yearly feast for the ears, listeners were treated to a revival of the company’s slam-bang, Las Vegas-style presentation of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece Rigoletto, which we reviewed back in February when the production was spanking new (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/a-ring-a-ding-ding-rigoletto-viva-las-vegas-at-the-met/. This was followed by the December 14 broadcast of the composer’s swan song Falstaff from 1893, in a lavish new production directed by Robert Carsen that sets this Shakespearean frolic in the vicinity of 1950s Windsor. Both works were played in purported “modern” dress — modern, that is, for the time periods in question.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Rigoletto anticipated Verdi’s later Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), particularly in its deft handling of the Duke of Mantua’s debauched persona as opposed to that of the munificent monarch, King Gustavo of Sweden (or Riccardo, in the Boston setting). See the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/un-ballo-in-maschera-verdis-a-masked-ball-regicide-on-the-radio/. Similarly, one can juxtapose the bawdy behavior of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, with that of the Duke’s acerbic court jester — in this case, a standup comedian-like Rigoletto. Both are prime candidates for representation by artists who’ve reached the pinnacle of their careers. The Met was indeed fortunate to have such artists at their disposal.

You’ll note that Shakespeare is mentioned not only in our title but in the opening paragraph to this essay. Although not actually based on any of the Bard’s plays, Rigoletto was Verdi’s most effective “Shakespearean” traversal to that time. His first stab at adapting one of the poet’s dramas for the lyric stage — an 1847 version of Macbeth, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, the same poet who supplied the text for Rigoletto — did not exactly meet with critical approval. Subsequently, the demanding composer revised the work for Paris fourteen years later. Still, the critics complained. “It may be that I did not do Macbeth justice,” Verdi confessed to his French publisher, Léon Escudier, “but to say I do not know, do not understand and do not feel Shakespeare, no, by God, no! He is my favorite poet. I have known him from earliest youth and read and reread him continually.”

Despite this affirmation, Verdi’s “dream project” of a work based on the tragedy of King Lear would prove fruitless. Instead, the Italian master placed some of the preliminary sketches he had formerly outlined for Lear into the plot of his next subject: “I have in mind… one of the greatest creations that the theater of all nations and all times can boast. The story is Le Roi s’Amuse [‘The King Amuses Himself’], and the character I mean is Triboulet, a creation worthy of Shakespeare.”

The “King” in question was Francis I, who eventually took on the characteristics of the licentious Duke, while Triboulet, his jester, would be transformed into the sharp-tongued Rigoletto. Unlike any other character Verdi had hitherto worked on, Rigoletto is a cruel-minded, misshapen individual (with a hint of Richard III in his makeup) whose barbed gibes and verbal assaults earn the ire of everyone around him — with the notable exception of the jovial Duke, who keeps the smarmy hunchback at court for his own amusement. Rigoletto’s physical deformities, however, mask a warm and loving heart.

These traits are what attracted the theatrically savvy composer to write one of his most musically inspired scores. The specific connection to Shakespeare, moreover, can be traced to the jester’s passion for his daughter, the pure and innocent Gilda — somewhat akin to Lear’s idealized love for Cordelia. Rigoletto wisely keeps Gilda under lock and key and away from the Duke’s prying eyes. He is ultimately betrayed by the nobleman’s spiteful courtiers who kidnap Gilda and leave her to fend off the womanizing Duke’s advances on her own.

Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Humiliated by these turn of events, the jester seeks revenge by hiring a paid assassin, Sparafucile, to dispose of his wayward master. Unfortunately, a father’s curse levied on Rigoletto’s head leads to his downfall: in the end, he winds up a lonely, broken man, with his daughter breathing her last in his arms — similar to Lear’s fate with the dead Cordelia. In these surroundings good does not triumph over evil.

With Falstaff, Verdi and his librettist, the brilliantly gifted Arrigo Boito, did a complete about-face. To begin with, this was the composer’s first comedy since the failure of his second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), from half a century prior. In addition, Boito fleshed out the story by taking a character Shakespeare had lifted from English history and providing Verdi with bits and pieces from both parts of Henry IV, as well as brief borrowings of lines and situations from The Merry Wives of Windsor, to create a highly literate, bluntly Italianate, yet suitably immodest Sir John.

Although more than four decades separate the composition of Rigoletto from Falstaff, musically both works boast the lightness of touch favored by W. A. Mozart, along with the nimble comedic hand of Gioachino Rossini. The lovely minuet that figures prominently in the Duke’s wooing of the Countess Ceprano owes much to a comparable theme employed in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, while the marvelous massed concertato that ends Act II of Falstaff pays tribute to Rossini and his madcap Barber of Seville. Pays tribute, yes, but the end result is tutto Verdi — a nearly 80-year-old Verdi, at that.

“Laugh, Clown, Laugh”

With Rigoletto, the Bear of Busseto had reached a stage of development where both text and music would dictate the terms of the drama. “Emotional truth” was his catchphrase at the time, and no finer example of this “new style” exists than Rigoletto’s monologue, “Pari siamo” (“We’re both alike”), from scene ii of Act I. More an exercise in free association than a typical operatic showpiece, the jester’s mind seems to wander from subject to subject, as he first compares himself to the sinister Sparafucile, then darts back to the curse that was hurled at him at court; in the next instant he rages against humanity, while expressing resentment at his miserable lot in life. He finally dismisses these morose musings with the phrase, “Ah, no! È follia!” (“That’s madness!”). It’s a masterstroke of psychological probing and complexity rarely encountered in works of the day.

Obviously, only a singing-actor of the highest order can express all the various facets of personality this part demands. Singing the strenuous role of Rigoletto for the first time at the Met, Siberian-born Dmitri Hvorostovsky filled that bill completely and gave an object lesson in how to interpret character through visual and vocal means. Shorn of his thick mane of silver hair (a trademark of his), Hvorostovsky now sported a balding pate with a prominent comb-over, making look him like a rather tall Don Rickles. In one of the intermission features, the eloquent singer told listeners of a disagreement he had with director Michael Mayer over the interpretation of the title character. However, after having worked out the particulars, Hvorostovsky was convinced he could bring out his vision of the warped jester without overwhelming the strictly vocal aspects.

Act I of Rigoletto, set in Las Vegas (Ken Howard)

Act 1 of Rigoletto, set in Las Vegas (Ken Howard)

We’re glad he did, for his Rigoletto was a moving portrait in manic obsession. The fear and loathing of the courtiers, his desperation at the disappearance of his daughter, and the horrible realization of the tragedy he himself had brought to bear, were etched in primary colors: from the bronze-toned ravings of “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!” and the tender shades of blue and gray in the “Piangi, piangi” duet with Gilda, to the blazing-hot outpourings of “Si, vendetta,” this Rigoletto encompassed all the elements of comedy and tragedy that have made this part a must for singers. Unlike his predecessor Željko Lučič, Dmitri was unsparing of his high notes, although some were a tad effortful — I’m thinking of the Act II finale (“Si, vendetta”) and the very end of the opera (“Ah, la maledizione!” – “Ah, the curse!”). Beyond that, this was a thoroughly convincing assumption of one of opera’s most challenging assignments.

As his daughter Gilda, debuting Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva displayed a Callas-like timbre, along with a fine feel for word values. The voice is not as large as Callas’, but it has the same dusky quality, particularly in the lower register. This could be used to advantage in heavier repertoire, but for now Gilda is a good starting point. Admittedly, Sonya held the coloratura fireworks in check throughout most of the afternoon, but as the popular “Caro nome” drew near, I detected some relief in her tone to the tune of “My time to show off has arrived,” and that she did, splendidly so. She and tenor Matthew Polenzani, as the tuxedo-sporting Duke, combined vocal suavity with first pangs of puppy love in their getting-to-know-you-number, “È il sol dell’anima.” For the first time in my experience, the duet ended with the original cadenzas as Verdi wrote them. They were most welcome.

Matthew Polenzai as the Duke (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Matthew Polenzani as the Duke (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The ending of the Duke’s Act II aria, “Parmi veder le lagrime,” also stressed the original cadenza, which is certainly better sounding than the tacked on high notes some tenors seem to prefer. Polenzani stroked the phrases of this number ever so plangently. In fact, his soft singing throughout was a balm to the ears — most Dukes drain all the gentility out of this role, especially at “La donna è mobile.” Strangely, both he and Piotr Beczala, his predecessor in the part, ran aground in this same showstopper. Polenzani might have been having an off day, since his highest notes (including his attempt at a high D in “Addio, addio, speranza ed anima”) were evidencing extra labor. He recovered in time to convey a potent reading of the quartet.

Returning bass Štefan Kocán, as the stiletto-wielding hit man Sparafucile, lingered over his low F to much applause, while mezzo Oksana Volkova, as his morally loose sister Maddalena, provided the sparks in their fiery trio with Gilda. Bass-baritone Robert Pomakov, as the wronged father Count Monterone, showed the same tubby sound and mushy diction from last season. That’s a shame, since Monterone is a key player in the drama. If his thunderous imprecations aren’t delivered with all the fury of hell itself, then the story falls apart and the jester’s terror and distress at the old man’s curse loses its meaning. Another debut artist, Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado, held things together well, having previously overcome a tendency to rush his singers. Once he settled down, he gave a consistently involving performance, although last season’s conductor Michele Mariotti proved more riveting.

“Who Said All Fat Men Are Jolly?”

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff at the Met (nytimes.com)

Falstaff was Met musical director James Levine’s first radio broadcast in over two years. I am happy to report that he passed the orchestral acid test with flying colors. “Jimmy,” as he’s affectionately known to fans and followers, maintained the light touch this masterful score calls for: there was a delicate refinement throughout his approach. The opera has long been one of Levine’s specialties, and his past experience with the work certainly showed in this performance. There was nothing heavy-handed or bombastic about it, merely the right amount of stop and go, flair and élan. Most of the sillier passages (Falstaff hiding in that humongous laundry basket, for example, or his thrashing at Windsor Park) as well as those few moments of clarity and calm came directly from the music. The audience welcomed Mr. Levine back with vigorous approbation.

Incidentally, the opera has never been an audience favorite. In fact, the running joke is that Falstaff is more of a connoisseur’s piece than a popular attraction. It’s strictly a communal affair, where every part counts, right down to the lowliest comprimario. The males have a slight edge in that department, but the females follow suit and fall in with the flow. Boito’s rapid-fire lines and Verdi’s lusty accompaniment to his characters’ buffo antics are miracles of ensemble writing. Even more startling are the composer’s musically shortened phrases and brief melodic signatures, which paved the way for the coming verismo movement. In Falstaff, his final word on the state of Italian opera, the aged Verdi finally got his chance to mock the operatic conventions he himself had been loathed to employ. He not only mocked them, he revolutionized and modernized them as well — Italian opera 2.0.

My own view is that Falstaff is two-thirds of an excellent score, with lively banter and judicious vocal displays at both extremes (particularly those for baritone). However, I find that Verdi lost inspiration as he reached Act III, which is unnecessarily long and drawn out and takes the wind out of the previous act’s sails. He’s also repetitive and unimaginative, a rarity for this composer — we can blame Boito for that oversight. He knew better than to play it slow and loose, where fast and furious would be the key.

But it’s here, at the opera’s finale, that Verdi redeemed himself by foisting upon his audiences a fabulous fugue, one of the oldest of all musical forms. He has the entire cast come up to the footlights to render their verdict on all that’s transpired before us: “Tutto nel mondo è burla” they sing – literally “Everything in the world is a joke,” but more commonly translated using Shakespeare’s famous line from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage,” which brings the opera full circle.

With his rotund form, imposing height and huge girth, baritone Ambrogio Maestri (love that first name!) showed himself to be a natural-born Falstaff. Blessed with comic timing and a burnished darkness to his timbre, Maestri embodied the corpulent knight as few singers have — no extra padding needed for this fleshy performer! Vocally, he struck a balance between the “fat” tone of a Giuseppe Taddei, his illustrious predecessor from the past, and the commendable diction of a Tito Gobbi. There was also something of the older style of such exponents as Giuseppe Valdengo (in the famed Toscanini recording), and especially the classic portrayal by Mariano Stabile. I noticed a slight beat in the highest reaches of Maestri’s voice, along with a tendency to approach his notes from below. Otherwise, his delightful renditions of “Va, vecchio John” and “Quand’ero paggio” were some of the finest singing of this part in many a year.

Franco Vassallo as Ford & Maestri as Falstaff (Ken Howard)

Franco Vassallo (left) as Ford & Maestri as Falstaff (Ken Howard)

He was ably partnered by Franco Vassallo as the excitable Master Ford. A smooth-sounding vocal presence, the young Milanese baritone reminded one of Rolando Panerai, who made a specialty out of this part in several well-regarded LPs (Panerai’s Falstaff in those recordings were the aforementioned Gobbi and Taddei). Vassallo sang the Jealousy aria with plenty of bite and variety, which held the audience’s interest — not an easy thing when surrounded by such talent. Ford is a high-lying part usually given to artists on the rise: Lawrence Tibbett made a tremendous impression in it at the Met, as did Leonard Warren after him.

The main distinction of this work, however, is the unprecedented sequence for two baritones in Act II, nowhere in evidence in any of Verdi’s previous output. Ford warbles an ersatz coloratura phrase that sharp-eared listeners may have picked up as a nod to Princess Eboli’s Song of the Veil (“Canzone del velo”) from the massive Don Carlo. It’s as if old man Verdi were chuckling to himself at the outlandishness of it all, his little inside joke.

Musicologists are fond of repeating the old saw that Falstaff and Ford were modeled on Fra Melitone from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Indeed, Melitone’s surly mannerisms and feisty ways set the right pattern for how Verdi would ultimately compose the music for the above-named characters. Going against the accepted grain, however, my feelings are that Verdi, writing a full five years after Otello (another Shakespearean-adapted drama), based the personalities of Falstaff and Ford on those of the musically closer Iago and Otello, with Ford playing the part of the obsessed Moor (again, the Jealousy angle in “È sogno o realtà?” – “Is this a dream or reality?”), and Falstaff as a rather cartoonish Iago (his Honor monologue, “L’onore, ladri,” with its brassy orchestration clearly aping Iago’s “Credo”; plus his third-act drinking bout, “Va, vecchio John” – “Go on, old rascal John,” with its mounting trills in the woodwinds and evocation of Iago’s warning to Otello to beware the “green-eyed monster”). Both Vassallo and Maestri excelled in this episode, neither artist giving ground to the other.

Angela Meade as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page (minnesotapublicradio.org)

Angela Meade (left) as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, with Falstaff (minnesotapublicradio.org)

Stephanie Blythe was an immensely gratifying Mistress Quickly, that ample contralto voice of hers completely filling the auditorium. Her comically exaggerated repetitions of “Reverenza” (“Your reverence”), each one keenly defined and tellingly differentiated, were just one of the many vocal thrills provided by this fine singer. She was every bit the equal of Maestri’s Sir John. Soprano Angela Meade, who triumphed earlier this season in Bellini’s Norma, sang Alice Page. This is more of an ensemble part. Oddly, Verdi gave Alice no solo numbers, only a spurious “love” scene with the enamored Falstaff in Act II. Surely this was luxury casting at its best. I only wish there were more moments for Meade to shine.

Paolo Fanale’s Fenton, sweet-toned and refined, had trouble with his high notes in the early going, but he did get to deliver the last tenor aria Verdi ever wrote, the lovely “Dal labbro” number in the Windsor Park sequence. He complemented the Nanetta of soprano Lisette Oropesa quite nicely, while she got to serenade audiences with her ravishing Act III aria, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” – “On the breath of a fragrant breeze.” As for the other cast members, Carlo Bosi was a blustery, fuming and fussing Dr. Caius, Keith Jameson as Bardolfo and Christian Van Horn as Pistola made Falstaff’s disloyal retainers into a vocal odd couple, while mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano capably captured Meg Page’s efforts to thwart Sir John’s amorous advances.

Some final thoughts on both Rigoletto and Falstaff: that dazzling quartet from Act III of Rigoletto, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (“Beautiful child of love”), is comprised of two separate duets joined together as one piece — two individual slices of action occurring simultaneously yet bound together by Verdi’s sublime score. While the Duke attempts to seduce Maddalena, Gilda weeps at her unfaithful lover, as Rigoletto gives harsh parental voice in the operatic equivalent of “I told you so.”

Several years later, composer Giacomo Puccini attempted the same trick with his double duet from (wonder of wonders) Act III of La Bohème: Rodolfo tries to convince Mimì to stay with him until the spring, while Marcello and Musetta engage in a lover’s quarrel over her flirtatious behavior with a potential customer. Coincidentally or not, Puccini’s first international hit, Manon Lescaut, debuted at La Scala on February 1, 1893, followed a week later (on February 9) by the master’s final opera Falstaff.

We’ve been hinting at this all along, whereby the end of an older era in Italian opera would be prefaced by the birth of a newer one. And if ever a man were born for the job of Verdi’s successor, Puccini was most assuredly that man. Rigoletto had blazed the trail; Falstaff both ended and expanded it. We’ll be hearing Puccini’s three most popular works, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, later in the season, which I look forward to reporting. Until then, a happy holiday to all!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Villa-Lobos’ ‘Magdalena’ — How to Succeed With a Modern Brazilian Musical by Really, Really Trying

Magdalena poster (movimento.com)

Magdalena poster art (movimento.com)

“Plan It by the Planets”

One weekend in April 2011, I happened by chance to be listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ beautiful Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano soloist and eight cellos. Out of the blue, I remembered that the Brazilian team of Claudio Botelho and Charles Möeller had done a production of the Villa-Lobos, Bob Wright and Chet Forrest “musical adventure” in two acts, Magdalena, about a decade ago in the northern city of Manaus.

The wheels inside my brain began to turn. “That’s as fine a work as any to bring back to the Great White Way,” I wondered to myself. After all, the show originally premiered in Los Angeles in 1948, and then, a few months later, the production came to New York, to the famed Ziegfeld Theatre.

The plot is a trifle ridiculous, I admit, sort of a South American offshoot of what passed for operetta at the time; but the music is truly memorable and composed by one of Brazil’s most prolific and talented artists, the incomparable “Villa.”

I brazenly considered the possibility: “Would Claudio and Charles be interested in bringing the work to the Big Apple?” This was one of those nutty schemes I’ve been wont to invent from time to time, mostly to keep me out of trouble, what for most people would appear to be an impossible dream.

My own experience, however, has taught me that impossible dreams have a way of becoming reality. “I’d love to have Claudio’s thoughts on the matter,” I decided, as the gorgeous voice of the late Anna Moffo filled the room with Bachianas’ melody.

I dashed off an e-mail to Claudio in the hope that he would respond to this latest effort at revitalizing the once vilified Magdalena. Just last month I posted an article about the making of this long-forgotten work (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/lo-the-savior-approaches-part-five-villa-lobos-magdalena-broadway-bound/), the result of several years’ worth of research on my part to understand the reasons behind the failure of Villa-Lobos’ lone Broadway excursion.

The principal problem at the time, among many, lay in a crippling musicians’ strike that not only made matters worse at the box office, but prevented the musical from being recorded and preserved for posterity. Another issue was the composer’s health and his unexpected bout with cancer.

The past is past, and we can surely learn from the experience. But as far as the present goes, what is it that’s prevented this “musical adventure” from flourishing on its own terms? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by asking. And who better to ask than one of the acknowledged Kings of Brazilian Musical Theater?

“Now you really got me excited!” Claudio shot back in response. “I ADORE Magdalena! It’s a dumb story, completely unrealistic and dated and (but for this very reason) very stimulating nowadays, especially because [the show] deals with dictators and the power of such people as Hugo Chavez and other tyrants…”

Finally, a ray of hope! I forged ahead with my mission.

“We did a concert version in Manaus, for the annual Opera Festival there,” he went on, “not at the Teatro Amazonas but in a club, with singers, a full orchestra, a chorus of children and native Indians, a ballet — the works. It’s such marvelous music!”

Scene from Magdalena (ruedetheatre.eu)

Scene from Magdalena revival in France (ruedetheatre.eu)

“I agree with you 100 percent!” I responded, with equal enthusiasm. “Villa-Lobos is long overdue for a major revival in this country. He was a big favorite of American audiences in the 1940s and ‘50s — everybody knows his Prelúdios and Estudos for guitar, such incredible stuff. And who isn’t familiar with the Bachianas or The Little Train of the Caipira?”

I asked Claudio if he had the original English text in his possession. He didn’t, but he did send me his Portuguese adaptation, which he used in Manaus in 2003 and which formed the basis for new productions in Rio, at the Teatro Municipal in 2011, and São Paulo in 2012.

“That’s pure Broadway,” Claudio noted, “especially if we try to take away a bit of the ‘operatic’ voices from the 1940s and do it with a younger (and braver) cast. I adapted the book for Brazil, more for the Brazilian style of humor, but I must confess: the script as written makes for a delightful parody.”

He continued extolling the virtues of this neglected masterpiece with an eye towards its musicological context: “In truth, Magdalena is a mix of many works by Villa. There are themes taken from the Bachianas and from his Choros, bits and pieces of songs, even those children’s numbers he set to music [i.e., Cirandas, Impressões Seresteiras] and the like.”

A major stroke of luck was Claudio’s close relationship to MTI, or Music Theatre International, the agency that licenses musicals for production to schools and theaters around the world. He helped me get in touch with Richard Salfas, Vice President for International Licensing, who kindly sent over the book for my perusal. In addition, both Claudio and I had, unbeknown to one another, ordered the same Sony CD of the work. That’s double the trouble, but twice the fun!

“Food for Thought”

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Magdalena, but I could tell that the work needed some indulgence on my part in order to, uh, “swallow” the convoluted story line. I won’t bore readers with its untold absurdities, only to mention that the Latin American dictator of the piece, one General Carabaña, faces a hefty “mouthful” of obstacles at the end, which leads to his farcical demise from over-eating.

General Carabana (musicalavenue.fr)

General Carabana in Paris (musicalavenue.fr)

I received the complete text within days of the request. After devouring its contents, I concluded that Magdalena, as the book was conceived by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Homer Curran (credited as the show’s producer), is rather silly, somewhat dated, and even condescending toward the native-indigenous population (in this case, the Colombian Indians).

Here’s what I told Claudio: “The sensibilities of people from the 1940s and ‘50s were very different from our own ‘politically correct’ era, and I can understand and appreciate those differences. Besides, if the music is superior to the text — and I am absolutely convinced it is — one can try to overcome some of the racial and ethnic stereotypes that are prevalent throughout the story.”

Claudio’s reaction was, as always for such a consummate professional, a most thoughtful analysis of the problems associated with the work. “I think the book of Magdalena shouldn’t be taken as a serious piece,” he acknowledged, “but as more of a pastiche. It was [originally] written to be taken seriously, and all that operatic delivery of the music tends (in my opinion) to make it sound dramatic, when it should be melodramatic and funny instead. If we [ever] get to put our hands on the script, we should treat it from the point of view of ‘Monty Python in the Amazon,’ but nothing like Fitzcarraldo, if you know what I mean.”

Ah, yes, Monty Python! I love it already: “Always look on the bright side of life,” right? How can you lose with a combination like that?

My streams of consciousness were hammered out in no time flat: “That’s exactly what is needed with Magdalena: more humor! I have an idea already: in the first scene, where the romantic lead, Pedro, sings the number, ‘My Bus and I,’ there is a group of passengers who leave the bus and comically ‘pray’ for their deliverance. And in the next scene, in Paris, there are male and female guests at the Little Black Mouse Café.

“My idea involves having one of the ‘passengers’ (or ‘guests’) appear as Villa-Lobos. He can show up throughout the musical, in various guises, as a ‘tourist’ or perhaps as a ‘resident’ of Paris. It’s well known that, in 1912 (the time period of the story), Villa had visited many parts of Brazil — including, it is speculated, parts of the Amazon region, although this has never been substantiated. In addition, between the years 1922-23, and again, in 1927-30, Villa lived and worked in Paris, which he continued to return to for years thereafter. So he was a familiar sight along the café circuit!

“It would be a fun way to have this character continue to appear as a sort of extra — a recurring personality who shows up on occasion and either comments on the action or participates as an onlooker. At the end, Pedro, Padre José or Maria can attempt to ask this fellow, ‘Hey, who are you?’ and the character can respond, ‘My name is Heitor Villa-Lobos, but you can call me Villa!’

“This is just one idea. Maybe you can invent other scenes that will make this musical lively and topical. Another aspect of Villa is that he insisted on bringing along his cello wherever he went, to play whenever he felt the urge. Our Villa can bring his cello with him to Colombia, as well as wear one of those jungle pith helmets or smoke Cuban cigars. He can also carry a cue-stick (Villa loved playing snooker with his friends). Again, these are just little character traits and quirks that I thought could add color and comedy to the story.”

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos and his ubiquitous cello

I was obviously putting myself out on a limb. Imagine, me, a complete novice as far as producing and directing were concerned, suggesting to a recognized authority such as Claudio Botelho how to fix a Brazilian musical… I must’ve been delirious!

“I love the idea,” Claudio answered back. “But if you allow me an opinion…” That’s it, I blew it. I had gone too far. Now I was dreading having to read Claudio’s e-mail, with the thought clearly in the back of my mind: “He must think I’m totally out of my mind.” I pressed on, but with much trepidation…

“Let’s put this Villa in, yes, but we’ll make him an ‘impostor,’ a fake Villa, who tries to take advantage of the fact that [the real] Villa-Lobos is starting to become famous in Brazil and elsewhere with his music. When in the end, the real Villa-Lobos appears and shows everyone that the fake Villa has been impersonating him all along. Something like that! What do you think?”

What did I think??? I could only paraphrase in my head what Fernando Lamas (as duly personified by Billy Crystal) was prone to say in the flesh: “That sounds mah-ve-lous! Ab-so-lute-ly mah-ve-lous!”

“And this fake Villa,” Claudio continued, “could have some interaction with the fake astrologer Zoggie, no? Oh, and I’m sure the real and the fake Villa could both bring their cellos together [on stage]. We could have a ‘choros’ number in the show. The very first choro on Broadway! Ha-ha!”

Dueling cellos…hmm… Well, why not?

“Yes, yes, that’s it exactly!” was my heartfelt reply. “By George, I think you’ve got it! It will be a Brazilian Comedy of Errors. We’re all on the same page, Claudio. No matter if the play is in English or in Portuguese, it would be as you say, ‘Monty Python Meets the Amazon Jungle,’ as well as a musical adventure. The real Villa confronts the fake one and the two of them have a ‘duel to the death’: one plays the cello, while the other strums a choro on his guitar. In the meantime, the soprano (Maria) sings a seresta or a bachianinha… The possibilities are endless, because it’s all about Villa’s music, isn’t it?”

I was starting to get carried away at this point, but I just couldn’t help myself: “The fake astrologer Zoggie reminds me so much of Geni from Ópera do Malandro, doesn’t he? As you know, many of the astrologers [called videntes] in Brazil are gay, so it would be great to have Zoggie do his séance in the manner of a Brazilian palm-reading. I’ve had this experience in Brazil myself. My wife and I once visited one of those astrologer types, and they were extraordinarily good at ‘predicting’ the future… It’s just another idea to bounce off you and Charles.”

“Magdalena, Come into the Valley”

I listened attentively once again to the Magdalena CD. And you know what? I liked it even more. The numbers I initially thought were good, were even better the second time around: “My Bus and I” (a very catchy tune); “Food for Thought” (really excellent — it will remind listeners of the Habañera from the opera Carmen); the entire episode in Paris (similar, in some ways, to the Café Momus scene in Puccini’s La Bohème, or La Vie Parisienne by Offenbach); and the beautiful “Magdalena” interspersed with that looney “Broken Pianolita” number.

Luciana Bueno as Teresa (www.youtube.com)

Luciana Bueno as Teresa (www.youtube.com)

Musically speaking, the second act was not as good as the first — there weren’t as many worthwhile tunes. But I did enjoy “Piece de Résistance,” an absolutely smashing showpiece for coloratura soprano. This number (along with “The Broken Pianolita”) was THE BIG HIT of the evening when it was done by Irra Petina, who also appeared in Forrest and Wright’s previous musical, Song of Norway.

The characterizations of Teresa and General Carabaña I found charming and irresistible — those two individuals work well together. On the debit side, Maria (soprano) and Pedro (tenor), as well as the Padre José character (bass), along with the “Miracle Madonna” finale of Act II, were typical of the period. The song, “Freedom,” was rather weak: compare it to some of the stirring choruses from Les Misérables (for instance, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”).

Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of The King and I (with the duet, “We Kiss in a Shadow,” serving as the main offender), of the kind of faux exoticism that was the norm back then; and especially Kismet, the show Forrest and Wright cobbled together after Magdalena folded. The English lyrics to Magdalena’s songs were, in my opinion, a bit too old-fashioned and banal for my taste. In contrast, Claudio’s Portuguese versions were better than the originals! I’m happy to report that he did an excellent job in adapting the book. But the problems, as noted above, remain with the original — and that’s a big concern for anyone wanting to undertake this “musical adventure.”

Considering how much Claudio has contributed to Brazilian musical theater over the course of the past 20 years — by turning the genre around and bringing it back from the edge of oblivion — the final word on Magdalena’s fate should rest with him:

“You’re absolutely right, Joe: it is more of an operetta. And unfortunately it’s not on the same level as either The King and I or Flower Drum Song, which would be the same sort of operettas, too, but with more dialogue. But let me tell you one thing. Some time ago, a very prominent Brazilian musician of choro came to me with an idea: ‘Why in hell doesn’t somebody think of transforming Magdalena into a ‘real’ Brazilian musical?”

“What did this fellow mean by that?” I inquired.

“He meant: why not re-orchestrate it for a more Brazilian ‘sound,’ with acoustic guitar, percussion, cavaquinho, bandolim, and of course the necessary reeds and strings. But what he meant, too, was: transform the original rhythms and the European sound that Villa put into the original work into a genuine Brazilian piece. In a way, it’s what Forrest and Wright did with Kismet: they picked up the opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin and transformed it into a Broadway musical. We would be doing the same thing, but to another degree.

“I never really stopped to think seriously about that subject. But the idea sounded good to me as a pre-project. I did something like that with Chico Buarque’s Ópera do Malandro: the original concept was based on the Brecht-Weill model, i.e., the story stopped at one point and the songs would come in at the end of a scene. So I turned the music more into a book, mixed it with new dialogue, and… well, I think it worked out well (in spite of the Portuguese press accusing me of “fucking around with the revolutionary aspect of the original and turning it into Broadway trash,” hahahaha… I love that!).

“I never thought of putting Magdalena on in the way it currently is, theaters don’t need us for that. Any competent conductor or director can stage it at the Metropolitan Opera or Lincoln Center, and that’s all. People will go and see a sort of archeological treasure and it’s done. My thought about Magdalena would be what that friend of mine, the ‘choro’ guy, said about the piece: to rewrite it as a native Brazilian musical. We did something similar with the works of Chiquinha Gonzaga [O Abre Alas – “Oh, Make Way,” 1998]. We picked up her beautiful tunes and added new lyrics and told her story using her themes with new words…”

Needless to say, the show about Chiquinha Gonzaga was not what I would call a “success story.” Then again, it’s been over 15 years since that project ended. The time is ripe to update the musical résumé, wouldn’t you say, by injecting something new and bold into the formula.

How about a bold, new version of Magdalena, made the modern Brazilian way? That would be an impossible dream worth having and doing! You know the old saying (updated for 2013 and beyond): “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… No, I mean it: really, really try!”

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes