Month: July 2014
Lo, the Savior Approaches (Part Six) — ‘Yerma,’ the ‘Girl from the Clouds,’ and the Flirtation with Hollywood
After Magdalena, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ only other stabs at the theatrical genre were the opera Yerma (1955-56), written in New York and Paris to a Spanish text based on the 1934 play by poet-dramatist Federico García Lorca; and his final subject for the stage, the children’s fairy-tale musical A Menina das Nuvens (“The Girl from the Clouds,” 1957-58), given a paltry number of posthumous presentations in Rio and São Paulo’s Municipal Theaters.
As his most ambitious and innovative vocal work yet, Yerma was an atypical oeuvre in the canon of the confirmed Brazilian nationalist. But if the operatic idiom was still an unfamiliar dialect to him, certainly the play’s tightly-knit structure (three acts with two scenes each) and dramatic plot devices (the clash of earthly frustrations with magical and supernatural elements) stirred Villa-Lobos to new heights of lyricism.
The central character of Yerma is one of those incredibly demanding soprano roles requiring the vocal resources of a Leontyne Price mixed with the dramatic capabilities of Maria Callas. The story bears a striking resemblance to German composer Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow,” 1919) in its psychological depiction of the eternal feminine and the archetypal yearning for motherhood, albeit transplanted to rural Spain.
In brief, a peasant woman named Yerma (derived from the Spanish word yermo, or “barren”) wrestles with her insatiable desire for children and the indifference of her husband Juan, who prefers working in the fields to raising a family of four. Yerma ponders an affair with the young shepherd Victor, but her honor prevents her from taking up the matter with the youth as her lover.
With her married life turning more and more bitter and her husband’s persistent recriminations and false accusations of infidelity, Yerma’s frustrations with Juan for his using her “for sexual rather than procreative purposes” boil over in Act III, leading to his death by strangulation at her hands. The tragedy of the piece, according to a 1989 Tempo article, “is that in killing Juan the chance of a child dies with him, and [Yerma] remains imprisoned by her childlessness even more.”
“I myself have killed my son!” she cries at the end. Unfortunately, the opera focuses almost exclusively on the vocally exhausting title part, with the additional negative factor of “too little dramatic variety and characterization” in the remaining dramatis personae.
Yerma never saw the light of day during the composer’s lifetime, and, as a result, went unperformed until New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera finally mounted a production of it on August 12, 1971, a full twelve years after his demise. A Time magazine article dated August 23, written a few days after the opera’s premiere, revealed that Santa Fe’s stage director, Basil Langdon, had heard of the Villa-Lobos score, “secured the rights” to the work, and “determined to produce it in the original Spanish.”
That task took him a total of thirteen years, which resulted in Yerma’s world premiere, in Santa Fe, in the Spanish language version that Villa-Lobos had initially set to music. Despite the sophisticated soundscape and numerous references to the styles of Puccini, Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg, along with “an undertone of suppressed sexuality running through the whole score,” Yerma did not catch on with audiences or with other opera houses.
There have been subsequent attempts to revive the piece: the first one, in 1983, in Rio de Janeiro, which was deemed its premier presentation on Brazilian soil; and the second, in England, in July 1989. About the British production, music critic Guy Richards remarked at the time that Villa-Lobos’ orchestration, as in all his mature works, was “highly individual, full of quirks that tease the ear, but always light and airy… and never overwhelming.” Not exactly the most ringing of endorsements as far as reviews go, but a fair-minded assessment nonetheless.
On a side note, Villa-Lobos dedicated the work to his mother-in-law, Hermenegilda Neves de Almeida, on Mothers’ Day, appropriately enough. An even more fascinating aspect is the theme of the original play, which apparently appealed to the composer, in that “the premise of the social ostracism of an infertile woman was a highly personal one… because,” in the words of Villa-Lobos’ biographer David P. Appleby, “he had never had any children of his own.”
Could this be a Freudian interpretation of real-life events? Perhaps. But children or no, Yerma miscarried just the same, and has languished in undeserved obscurity for the better part of half a century.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
The same could be said for his joyous Menina das Nuvens, although this work’s performance history has lately been less checkered than that of its immediate predecessor.
Dedicated to his wife Mindinha, with a text by Brazilian playwright Lúcia Benedetti, one of the founders of the Teatro Infantil (Children’s Theater) movement in Brazil, A Menina premiered in Rio on November 29, 1960, a year after Villa-Lobos’ passing. Soprano Aracy Belas Campos interpreted the title role, along with tenor Assis Pacheco, baritone Paulo Fortes, bass Guilherme Damiano, and conductor Edoardo de Guarnieri.
The work’s libretto is said to lie “somewhere between Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz,” but instead of a magic slipper, “it is a cloth made from the rays of the moon” that becomes the “deciding factor.”
The actual plot concerns a girl who has been brought to the clouds by a bird and is raised there from infancy into early adulthood. Upon learning of her origins the girl expresses a strong desire to get back to her terrestrial family. Complications ensue, as one might imagine, but all ends happily, as most fairy tales are wont to do, with her marriage to a handsome young prince.
The critics and public remained divided in their responses to the work, which, for a children’s opera, has its longueurs. Given its creators’ reputation, they were not as receptive to The Girl’s charms as one would have expected, the main objection being its overuse of recitative (with a preponderance of “melancholy tones”) and the lack of a consistent musical viewpoint.
Journalist Irineu Franco Perpetuo, reporting on a September 2009 revival at the Palácio das Artes in Belo Horizonte, noted that Menina das Nuvens suffers from “excessive length” and complained of “some banal writing by Villa-Lobos in the first two acts. But it all comes together in the third… where the lush orchestration and neo-romantic Villa-Lobos of the 1950s meets the melodic serenades of the 1930s, in addition to some rhythmic and harmonic daring from the 1920s.”
One of its tuneful glories, we would like to point out, is the lovely ode for soprano that opens Act III, “Ó Lua redonda” (“O Moon so round”), done in the form of an “invocation to the moon”; in style and in substance, it brought to mind an earlier set-piece, the “Song to the Moon,” from the late Romantic-period opera Rusalka, written by another, better-known European nationalist, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.
You can judge for yourself how thoroughly delightful this number is — when heard in its proper theatrical context, of course — in the following YouTube excerpt from the 2009 Palácio das Artes production. The titular “Girl from the Clouds” is exquisitely sung by Gabriella Pace, winner of the 2010 Carlos Gomes Competition; the bug-eyed Soldier in the Queen’s Guard uniform is humorously played by tenor Flávio Leite, and the Westerly Wind is voiced by bass Homero Velho: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5CJ81bkMAQ.
This same production was transferred to São Paulo’s Teatro Municipal in August 2011, with most of the original cast intact. William Pereira provided the direction and scenic design, with candy-colored sets by Rosa Magalhães and subtle lighting effects by Pedro Pederneiras. The work was arranged and conducted by Roberto Duarte, whose arduous task it was to organize and put order to Villa-Lobos’ chaotic material.
“Opportunities to familiarize oneself with Villa-Lobos’ operatic inclinations are exceedingly rare,” wrote reviewer Alexandre Freitas for the magazine Carta Capital’s online edition. “A large portion of his output is all-but unknown to the general public. For that reason, A Menina das Nuvens presents the perfect occasion to draw ever closer to Brazil’s main exponent of so-called classical music… In any form, it is a work that should be presented, performed, recorded, published and preserved as widely as possible.”
A “Forest” of Troubles
An amusing footnote to Villa-Lobos’ long musical career focuses on his Hollywood commission to write a music score for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1959 film adaptation of the old W. H. Hudson potboiler, Green Mansions.
Directed by actor Mel Ferrer, the movie starred his talented wife, the delicate but miscast Audrey Hepburn (War and Peace, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), as Rima, the “bird-girl” of the Amazon, and the boyish Anthony Perkins, in his pre-Psycho period, as the blasé love-interest. The other denizens of the studio rain forest included such equally out-of-place extras as Lee J. Cobb, Sessue Hayakawa, Henry Silva, and Nehemiah Persoff.
With typical motion-picture logic, the film’s producers informed the master musician of their intention not to have him orchestrate his work — actually, a standard studio practice at the time, but which totally infuriated the usually unruffled Brazilian. MGM further compounded the offense by releasing the finished product with most of the music credited to composer Bronislau Kaper, a more-established movie veteran, who had previously scored the delightful Leslie Caron vehicle Lili (1953), in addition to other gems for the silver screen.
Not that Villa was so naïve about movie-making that Hollywood took unfair advantage of his ingenuousness, but his unfamiliarity with how things were done in filmdom astounded even a famed film composer of Miklos Rozsa’s repute:
“I met [Villa-Lobos] when he arrived in Hollywood, asked him whether he had yet seen the film and how much time they were allowing him to write the music. He was going to see the picture tomorrow, he said, and the music was already completed. They had sent him a script, he told me, translated into Portuguese, and he had followed that, just as if he had been writing a ballet or opera. I was dumbfounded; apparently nobody had bothered to explain the basic techniques to him. ‘But Maestro,’ I said, ‘what will happen if your music doesn’t match the picture exactly?’ Villa-Lobos was obviously talking to a complete idiot. ‘In that case, of course, they will adjust the picture,’ he replied. Well, they didn’t. They paid him his fee and sent him back to Brazil.”
For his part, the wily Villa took his own “advantage” of Hollywood’s callous disregard for his abilities by re-fashioning the completed score into a large-scale symphonic tone poem for soprano, male chorus, and expanded orchestra. He christened it A Floresta do Amazonas, or “Forest of the Amazon,” a title that recalled, and paid belated tribute to, his earlier wanderings into the rain forest region.
Four love songs written expressly for the film, but never incorporated into the final cut had their concert premieres at New Jersey’s Palisades Park on July 12, 1959. Madame Dora Vasconcelos, the former Consul-General of Brazil in New York and a voracious musical dilettante, provided the lyrics for the unused numbers.
The richly exotic treatment of this colorful orchestral epic was everything one could expect from so fiercely independent and astute a musical artist as Villa-Lobos; it was, simply put, a classic case of Hollywood’s loss and the concert hall’s gain.*
The work (along with the four additional love songs) was committed to posterity in 1959 by United Artists Records, with the difficult soprano part taken by the legendary Bidu Sayão, who came out of her early retirement as a special favor to the conductor of the recording sessions: her most esteemed friend and admirer, the gravely-ill composer.
There have been several complete recordings of Forest of the Amazon, including a highly recommended 1995 version with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Villa-Lobos expert Alfred Heller, and starring American prima donna Renée Fleming who brought Rima the bird girl to vivid life.
Postlude: The Villa-Lobos Legacy
Heitor Villa-Lobos eventually succumbed to the bladder cancer that had been temporarily halted by the operation he had undergone a decade earlier. He passed away on November 17, 1959.
Four months before his death, however, Villa-Lobos received the prestigious Carlos Gomes Medal as part of the festivities commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.
One could make the argument that this award was a rather dubious honor, what with his having produced no operatic masterwork of any lasting renown. On the contrary, he had done more for Brazilian music education, and for Brazilian social awareness of music’s beneficial properties and potential, than any other national celebrity before or after him.
“He enriched the lives of various generations of students and guided the musical direction of an untold number of future artists,” went an official New York University document from 1959 dedicated to the composer’s work. “A vibrant personality, gifted with an infectious and communicative enthusiasm, his reputation has expanded throughout the known world as a brilliant creator of modern music.”
A more appropriate postscript might have included his equally infectious — and frequently sly — sense of humor:
“Artists live with God – but give their little finger to Satan. I sleep with the angels and dream of the devil.”
— Heitor Villa-Lobos
Although not the prophesied savior of the Brazilian national opera, Villa-Lobos was without doubt the most famous and highly regarded native-born classical musician in memory.
Who would have thought that another citizen of the state of Rio, the pert and petite Bidu Sayão, would become, as a result of championing Villa-Lobos’ works and following Toscanini’s baton beat, the person most linked in the minds of the theater-going public with the very best that Brazil had to offer in operatic circles; and the country’s foremost international proponent of the Italian, French — and Brazilian — repertoires. ☼
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
* The movie Green Mansions was not the composer’s first attempt at a film score, since, as we already know, Villa-Lobos had begun his long association with the cinema during the silent-movie era, as part of the music-band at the Odeon Theatre in Rio. He was later commissioned by the Vargas administration to provide the music for a patriotic picture, O Descobrimento do Brasil (“The Discovery of Brazil,” 1936-38), which was transformed by Villa into a four-movement concert suite of themes of the same name.
“We Poor People”
The Great War, as it was once called, served as the dividing line between the conventions of class-conscious Europeans and the introduction of modern sociological methods into fin de siècle thought. As an example, the resultant jolt that mechanized warfare brought to bear on the lives of the populace henceforth dispelled all pre-war notions of glory and honor in battle.
As previously indicated, 19th-century concepts of romanticism and morality, as they related to literature and art, were already on the wane and began to give way to more a nihilistic outlook overall. Cynicism and disillusionment grew rampant among those who survived the most catastrophic conflict Continental Europe had ever witnessed.
While in literature the elevation of the poor and downtrodden to near reverence was hardly front-page news — Dickens, Hugo and Zola were a few of the outstanding authors whose novels had been preeminent before this period — it was Goya and his provocative Disasters of War etchings, Daumier with his powerful rendering of Rue Transnonain, and Géricault via his monumental The Raft of the Medusa who had previously set the tone for polemically-charged artwork.
Not to be outdone, the advent of realism in opera (known as verismo), with such praiseworthy efforts as Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s La Bohème, Charpentier’s Louise, Massenet’s La Navarraise, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and d’Albert’s Tiefland, gave notice to audiences that attention must be paid to festering social issues and economic injustice (still a hot topic even today).
This trend eventually brought forth new and artistically viable forms of protest, with expressionism one of the most striking. Having made its presence felt in late 19th to early 20th-century poetry and art, expressionism’s effect on music was elaborated on by German sociologist Theodor Adorno as the “literary ideal of the ‘scream.’” Every work of art, he wrote, “was thus likely to be shocking or difficult to understand. Only through its ‘corrosive unacceptability’ to the commercially-defined sensibilities of the middle class could new art hope to challenge dominant cultural assumptions” (Source: New World Encyclopedia, August 24, 2012).
There is no other opera I know of that challenges our “dominant cultural assumptions” better than Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Once scorned by critics as “the twelve-tone Puccini,” Berg and his atonal compositions (to include the unfinished opera Lulu) have always occupied a shadowy corner of the standard repertoire. Accordingly, his works have earned the unique title of opéra noir (dark opera), an allusion to a type of drama where “the depiction of fear lies at the center.”
Dramatically speaking, we need only consider the much later Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler through-composed vehicle, Sweeney Todd, as a distant but equally perverted relative.
Based on the exploits of a former soldier-turned-barber (again, the Sweeney Todd connection), the Willy Loman-like Wozzeck suffers a constant stream of mental anguish and physical abuse from his so-called betters. Unable to cope with his and his common-law wife, Marie’s impoverished status, Wozzeck lashes out impotently at his tormenters, to no effect.
Right from the opening scene, the hypercritical Captain rebukes Wozzeck for having had a child out of wedlock, thus questioning his moral makeup. Wozzeck counters with a profoundly moving observation that it is difficult for “Wir arme Leut” (“We poor people”) to have morals without money. At this, the Captain nearly chokes on his own vehemence. It’s a good thing he’s a fictional character. Who knows what he would have said if he’d ever had the chance to meet up with Wozzeck’s promiscuous sister-in-arms, Lulu!
Wozzeck’s signature motto, “Wir arme Leut,” is repeated by the orchestra in the penultimate scene, after Marie’s brutal murder and his self-induced drowning have taken place, in what the Saturday Review’s late critic Irving Kolodin once praised as “a dirge for the collapsed world” of the protagonists, a “tensely, proudly beautiful and expressive” last interlude before the painfully poignant finale of the couple’s now-orphaned child playing on his hobbyhorse.
The themes of poverty, hopelessness and despair, spiced with a touch of the Grand Guignol, were explored in another brief work, Puccini’s one-act shocker Il Tabarro. This grimly realistic portrait of working-class Parisian life premiered as part of his Trittico (or Triptych) project at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1918, barely a month after armistice was declared.
Conceptually, Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”) has much in common with Wozzeck, in that both operas feature adulterous pairs in amoral situations, wretched social conditions, and overly violent episodes and/or conclusions. Puccini did not bask in this work’s unrelievedly gloomy company for long. His final lavish opus, Turandot, debuted at Milan’s La Scala in 1926, a year and eight months before Wozzeck made its mark in Berlin.
What a difference that year and eight months made! Why, to anyone’s ears there can be no question as to the sharp contrasts between these two composers’ approach to their subject: the debonair Puccini, a master melodist and experienced “man of the theater” extraordinaire; and Berg, a master of dissonance, as well as a doctor of musical expression and emotional upheaval.
John Rockwell, formerly of the New York Times, described Berg as a gifted, “psychologically acute colorist” — but a “twelve-tone Puccini”? Hardly!
Welcome Back, Maestro Levine!
Indeed, no other conductor has done more to turn the audaciousness of Berg’s vision for Wozzeck into a palatable “twelve-tone” staple of the opera-going experience than James Levine. Since first presiding over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a 1974 revival of this fabulous masterwork, Maestro Levine has conducted all but a handful of productions (he divided his Wozzeck duties with the British-born Jeffrey Tate during the 1984-85 season). Here, Levine’s experience with this work and how it should sound in the patently huge confines of the Met Opera auditorium proved invaluable.
The current revival, directed by Mark Lamos and designed by Robert Israel, premiered on February 10, 1997. “It was a dark production,” observed veteran opera writer Garry Spector, “with splashes of color [red being the most prominent] and excellent use of shadow effects.” I heard the Saturday afternoon broadcast of March 22, with a cast headed by baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, soprano Deborah Voigt as Marie, tenor Peter Hoare as the Captain, bass Clive Bayley as the Doctor, and tenors Simon O’Neill and Russell Thomas as the Drum Major and Andres, respectively.
This was Hampson’s first assumption of the difficult, laser-like role at the Met. His connection to Massenet’s romanticized Werther, the previous broadcast work heard just the week before, and Berg’s harried private is intriguing, to say the least. Incredibly, Hampson has sung the rarely performed baritone version (arranged by the composer) of Werther on past occasions. Barring a few key changes and a transposed high note here and there — and given a singer of stature and charisma, which he qualifies for on all counts — it can be safely pulled off.
But how did Hampson do as the hallucinating “poor soldier” Wozzeck? With such illustrious Met predecessors as Hermann Uhde, Geraint Evans, José van Dam, Christian Boesch, Alan Held, and Mattias Goerne to contend with, Hampson raced through the ordeal with voice and stature intact. He brought his own particular brand of emotional commitment and sterling musicianship to the part, along with his thorough preparation and a solidly-conceived incarnation of a man slipping ever so noticeably into madness.
Using his imposing height to his advantage, Hampson’s slender build is nowhere near Alan Held’s massively bulky form, bald pate and haunted visage. There’s something feral about the character, but in a childlike, non-threatening way. Although possessed by inner demons, the best Wozzeck interpreters are fairly adept at evoking the audience’s sympathy. While Hampson proved a bit short in that department, his peerless tones nonetheless penetrated the heavy orchestration at crucial moments. The final denouement where Wozzeck wades too deep into the lake to drown was gripping theater, thanks to Hampson’s noble efforts.
Deborah Voigt’s Marie, while not as taxing as her recent Wagner and Strauss assignments, was crisply acted, as well as firmly articulated. This is a most congenial role for Deborah, whose thinned out top notes in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung have definitely seen better days. As Marie, she etched a sympathetic portrait of the whore with a heart of gold — for her child, that is — and an uncontrollable urge to be loved by the strutting Drum Major (trumpeting tenor Simon O’Neill). The famous bible-reading passage at the start of Act III was heartbreaking in its simplicity, as delivered by Voigt.
Peter Hoare’s Captain and Clive Bayley’s Doctor fit the general pattern set forth by Berg of two clueless and duplicitous souls convinced of their own infallibility, yet incapable (or unwilling) of noticing Wozzeck’s physical and psychological deterioration. The other minor characters, as brief as their assignments were, each in turn contributed to the sum of the opera’s individual parts.
This is a harrowing work indeed, a disturbingly concentrated look at a sick mind trying to survive in a sick world. Wozzeck can take place at any time, and at any place (I’ve often thought of Fort Bragg as a possible spot for the action). In that, it’s a timeless masterpiece of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. As an ensemble piece, Wozzeck is as intricate as anything in Mozart. And to think that at one time the opera was deemed unplayable (come to think of it, so were Strauss’ Salome and Elektra). Look how far it’s come since the time of its debut.
Much of the credit for the opera’s staying power at the Met can be attributed to James Levine. His championing of this once inaccessible stage piece has enriched the modern repertoire and brought richness and diversity to the Met broadcasts as well. We poor people thank you, Jimmy!
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
The Soccer Lady Sings: “Deutschland Über Alles!”
The other day at work someone asked me, “Hey, Joe, who’s it going to be, Brazil or Germany?” The answer came loud and clear: “My head tells me Germany, but my heart says Brazil.” The heart speaks plainly, but I should have listened to my head.
I had committed the same grievous decision that Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto made in choosing to keep his battered goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, in the penalty round with the formidable Dutch substitute Tim Krul. My problem, as much as it was coach Pinto’s, was to let sentiment get in the way of my better judgment.
Not even Mel Brooks, the celebrated director, humorist, and screenwriter of such comedy classics as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein — yes, THAT Mel Brooks — could have dreamed up a more ludicrous scenario than the semifinal “contest” between host nation Brazil and top-rated Germany.
Can anyone explain what happened to Brazil’s national team on Tuesday, July 8, 2014? The only words that come to mind are shock, awe, dismay, anger, disbelief, betrayal, rage, and any number of choice epithets.
The above date will stand in the collective memory of Brazilian soccer fans as the most disgraceful performance put on by their national team since the World Cup debacle of 1950.
Sixty-four years ago, Brazil lost the final match to Uruguay at the newly built Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, designed for the specific purpose of showcasing the country’s prowess in the world’s favorite sport.
The score was tied 1-1 early in the second half. With barely 11 minutes left to play, two hundred thousand incredulous cariocas witnessed a Lilliputian opponent score the winning goal and wrest the coveted title of World Cup champion away from soccer-crazed Brazil.
Time and distance have blurred the reminiscences of this infamous event. But suffice it to say that it took eight years for stunned Brazilians to recover from that disastrous rout before such soccer luminaries as Pelé, Garrincha, Zito, Vavá, Didi, and others stepped up to meet the challenge in Sweden and hoist the first of five World Cup trophies.
Where are their likes today, may I ask? And how long will it take for Brazil to wipe this latest catastrophic stain from their collective memories, and from their hearts?
La Grande Illusion
The fervor with which the crowd greeted the singing of Brazil’s hino nacional (national anthem) at Tuesday’s semifinal match, in particular the way that goalie Júlio Cesar and captain pro tempore David Luiz held up their fallen comrade Neymar’s number 10 jersey — in the words of one journalist, “as if it were a holy relic” — made it known to the world that the country’s national team would boldly carry on despite his and Thiago Silva’s absence.
After the match was over, I could only commiserate with my fellow Brazil watchers as to the fatal outcome. There was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, no sirree. Instead, we were witnesses to the bursting of the Brazilian bubble, a grande ilusão do carnaval (“the great illusion of Carnival”) in the lyrics to the Tom Jobim-Vinicius de Moraes tune, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”).
The song starts off with this melancholy phrase: “Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim” – “Sadness has no end, but happiness does.” Truer words were never spoken!
It’s tempting for disheartened Brazilians, both in the country and abroad, to pile on the loathing for their failed national team. And heaven knows plenty of bile has already been spilled on social media, Twitter, and elsewhere over their loss to the German war machine. However, I shall resist the temptation to throw more fuel onto the fire and leave that distasteful task to others.
But the question still remains: how could such a staggering exhibition of ineptitude by a major soccer nation, if not THE major soccer nation, have slipped by unnoticed?
“We Are the Hollow Men”
I’ve been critical of the Brazilian national team’s lackadaisical attitude before in my pieces about the 1998 loss to France, and especially the substandard World Cup run of 2006 (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/soccer-field-of-fractured-dreams-brazil-2006-world-cup-debacle-part-one/). I stand by what I wrote then, which goes double for the events of today. That year, it was Portugal, a country that shares Brazil’s language and much of its cultural heritage, who took the honors as the Lusitanian upstarts who fought the hardest for king and country… and lost.
Their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or Felipão (Big Phil), was the individual responsible for much of the Portuguese players’ gung-ho attitude. Believe it or not, he’s the same Luiz Felipe Scolari whose national team won the 2002 World Cup, and today just about lost their shirts (and their guts) to the swifter, taller, and unbelievably more agile Deutschlanders. What went wrong, people?
Some say there was a last-minute change in the starting lineup, which led to a breakdown in communication on the field. Others blame the emotion of the moment, i.e., the passion that superseded all practical matters, to the banishment of proper pregame planning.
While we’re on the subject, ESPN commentator Michael Ballack, a veteran of Germany’s 2002 and 2006 World Cup campaigns, posed the theory that Brazil had no Plan B — which is absurd, since in many people’s minds (including my own) there was never a Plan A to begin with.
It could’ve been a whole range of possibilities, from the fact that Brazil, as the host nation, wasn’t required to participate in any of the qualifying matches. Politics may likewise have played a hand in the mess, but that’s not entirely satisfactory. Another ESPN analyst, former midfielder Gilberto Silva, who contributed to Brazil’s 2002 championship effort against their Teutonic rivals, actually praised Germany for having completely reshaped the team into the world-class contenders they are today.
“There needs to be a broader examination of how [Brazil] played,” Silva noted. “The team faced a difficult opponent and they could not cope.” Ballack was more forthright in his evaluation: “They weren’t prepared.”
Alexi Lalas, the third opinion-maker in the commentator’s chair and a former Team USA World Cup participant himself, offered this analysis: “Passion and emotion are not going to take you through, not against someone like Germany. You got to have players.”
From Alexi’s comment, it was evident that Brazil’s alleged proficiency on the pitch had been accomplished through smoke and mirrors — that is, the Mirror of Erised (the word “Desire” spelled backwards). For those who are unaware of its deeper meaning, the term “Mirror of Erised” derives from the Harry Potter series.
In the words of Albus Dumbledore, the Dean of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Mirror of Erised is a device that reflects the “deepest and most desperate desire of one’s heart,” which, in Brazil’s case, would equate to her dream of winning a sixth World Cup title.
All the country’s efforts were geared toward the realization of this dream, cost be damned. Commencing in 2007, when Brazil won the right to stage the quadrennial event, a million bags of cement, along with billions upon billions of local dollars, had been poured into building and/or renovating a minor kingdom of soccer stadiums in-and-around the principal sites where group matches were to be held.
Despite the Brazilian government’s lavish spending spree, a large portion of the projects had yet to be completed by the time of the opening whistle in early June 2014, a span of seven years. In addition, they had neglected to provide the requisite all-star players to do honor to the country’s soccer legacy. As a result, Brazil’s ignominious 7-1 defeat last Tuesday at the hands of the Germans would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.
According to MY calculations, that’s one goal for every year it took to bring the World Cup to fruition. Nice going, guys!
The Fickle Finger of Fate
You’ll pardon me if I don’t bring up the depressing first-half statistics of that by-now notorious “shooting” spree, where, in a six-minute sequence, four of the half’s five goals were placed into the Brazilian net. While the slaughter was still going on, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was if I were watching back-to-back reruns of The Twilight Zone, with the movie Groundhog Day thrown in as an added enticement, beckoning me to stay tuned for further suffering.
Curious readers can get their fill of the gory details elsewhere, if they are so inclined. As for this writer, I prefer to let this World Cup speak for itself.
From the start, the “Hand of God” moment was all over the 2014 tournament. The heavy smell of divine retribution was in the air, with the Flying Dutchmen of Holland being the first to feel its wrath.
In a portent of things to come, the Netherlands trounced 2010 champion Spain in their one-sided 5-1 win. At best, it was a Pyrrhic victory, for during their quarterfinal match with Costa Rica the Dutch bested the efforts of goalie Navas, by going 4-3 in penalty kicks. However, the tables were turned on Holland in their semifinal marathon with Argentina. After two hours of scoreless play in the driving rain, the exhausted Dutch Masters had little fuel left for their shootout with the colossal Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero. You could say they were running on empty.
Ah, but the soccer gods are jealous deities who must constantly be appeased. With a wave of his monstrous arms, Romero pounded his chest à la Mighty Joe Young in a self-congratulatory gesture of approbation for his outstanding skills at stopping the best the Dutch had to offer.
In the same manner in which they had triumphed over Costa Rica, the Netherlands lost to Argentina on penalty kicks, 4-2. And Argentina had the last laugh. Why is that? Because in 1986, their most famous player, Diego Maradona, scored a miraculous shot into the British goal via the so-called “Hand of God” — more fittingly, the “Fickle Finger of Fate,” or Maradona’s wrist-action motion whereby he flicked the ball over the head of goalie Peter Shilton and into the net, with the accompanying cries of “handball” going unheard.
Not only was God’s unseen hand at work that afternoon, but His ears were deaf to the pleas of supplicants to reverse the referee’s decision. Argentina won the quarterfinal match against England and went on to triumph over Germany for their second World Cup title. And now, Argentina has another chance to meet and beat Germany for a fourth World Cup title. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah! Take that, Netherlands!
The most blatant “Hand of God” moment of this World Cup, however, occurred earlier in the week when Brazil’s star striker Neymar felt a well-placed Colombian knee to his back in another quarterfinal battle. The result of that encounter: a fractured vertebra that forced Neymar to bow out of Tuesday’s disastrous contest with Deutschland. We should be so lucky.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
As a way of encapsulating the events of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands not only of God but of a superior soccer foe, let me conclude this postmortem with a story.
It’s the classic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, handed down by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Readers may recall the plot of this beloved children’s fable, about a vain Emperor whose only ambition in life was to wear the finest clothes that money could buy. He was so vain, in fact, that everywhere he went, whether it was to attend the theater or a meeting of his ministers, he would show off his fancy finery to their fullest.
One day, two swindlers heard of the spendthrift Emperor and decided to make a killing at the monarch’s expense. Posing as a tailor and a weaver, respectively, the two charlatans convinced the gullible Emperor they could spin a set of clothing so uncommonly fine and so magnificent in fabric and color, that only those who were unfit for office, or unusually stupid, would be unable to see the clothes with their naked eyes.
Suitably intrigued, the Emperor immediately gave the two swindlers a vast sum of gold and money, and whatever else their hearts desired, in order to make him a superb set of clothing. Pretending to work the looms, the swindlers went about spinning and weaving and going through the motions, although there was absolutely nothing to look at. The looms remained empty to the eye.
Although several of the Emperor’s ministers were sent to the workroom to report on the swindlers’ progress, none of them admitted to seeing the empty looms. They were convinced, as the Emperor undoubtedly was, that if they failed to notice the rich fabrics the two crooks had woven, then they would be admitting they too were unfit for office, or were unusually stupid. God forbid that were to happen!
Pocketing the Emperor’s fortune as they went about their business, the swindlers were prepared to fleece their dupe for all he was worth. Finally, the day arrived when the Emperor would try on his fabulous new wardrobe. When he entered the workroom, the Emperor was dumbfounded: there was nothing for him to wear. However, there was no way he was going to admit it. “I’m no fool! I’m not unfit for office!” he thought to himself. So the Emperor went along with the gag, as did his ministers and entourage.
“Magnificent! Superb! What excellent craftsmanship!” the Emperor cried out in glee. “I can’t wait to parade my new clothes before the whole town!” On the day of the procession, the two swindlers dressed the Emperor themselves, so convinced were they of their cleverness in hoodwinking the royal fool.
As the procession made its way around town, the cheering populace “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” at the richness of the sovereign’s attire. No one would dare speak the truth for fear of offending the Emperor, or worse, for admitting they were too stupid to notice he hadn’t worn any clothes.
Suddenly, a little child came out of the crowd. With a ringing voice, he shouted to his father, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” The father was stunned at his son’s brashness and tried to explain away his remark. But the boy repeated his comment: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”
Soon, everyone was whispering to one another. And the whispers grew louder and more pronounced: “Look! It’s true! Oh, my goodness, the Emperor has no clothes!”
Embarrassed and confused, the Emperor realized that the boy and the rest of the townspeople were correct in their assessment. But he dare not admit it in public, for he had been conned into believing the image the two swindlers had crafted for him. And what was worse, he had given himself over to the illusion created by those two unscrupulous connivers.
There he stood, helpless and alone. And on he marched, as proud as a peacock — and as shamefaced and naked as the day he was born.
The moral to the story: the Emperor represents Brazil and/or her national team (you can work in FIFA as well). The swindlers are Brazil’s coach and his staff (or FIFA again). The townspeople are the fans in the stadium and throughout the televised world.
And the boy? Why, he’s the crying child in the audience, the one who sadly realized the image of invincibility that Brazil’s national team had so carefully crafted over the years was nothing more than an illusion. And why was he crying? Because that day, the boy learned the illusion had vanished forever.
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
Cinderellas Turned into Pumpkins
After the thrilling Round of 16, World Cup Soccer fans were treated to an extended Fourth of July weekend of action-packed quarterfinal matches.
I wouldn’t be giving anything away to announce that prior to the quarters all eight of the so-called favorites (as determined, I guess, by odds-makers in the know) had won their various match-ups. Not ONE of the underdog nations was able to overcome those odds. Such upstart teams as those from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Greece, Nigeria, Algeria (who gave the Germans the most difficulty), Switzerland and Team USA all failed in their quest to make it past heavily favored Brazil, the aforementioned Germany, the Netherlands, or Argentina — all ranked in the top five.
With the exception of former world champion Spain, who sputtered out early in the tournament, that left the above four favorites to join Colombia, Costa Rica, Belgium and France in the knockout field-of-eight round.
Starting with the French, Les Bleus did their best to stem the rising Teutonic tide — which wasn’t easy, what with the poised German strikers possessing a clear height advantage and near pinpoint accuracy. Blessed with the likes of Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mezut Özil, and Mats Hummels, Germany took the lead off Hummels’ header in the 12th minute of play. It was enough to put them into the semis against Brazil on Tuesday, July 8, in Belo Horizonte.
He Came, He Saw, He Fouled
Uh, about last Friday’s quarterfinal win against Colombia, the cost of Brazil’s 2-1 victory may have been too high for fans to bear. Team captain Thiago Silva was yellow-carded, and will miss the semifinal match with Germany, due to his pointless blocking and unnecessary roughness of Colombia’s goalie Ospina. With no adequate substitute in sight, it’s difficult to believe how his absence can be anything but bad news for the Brazilians.
In another, perhaps even more “necessary” foul, goalkeeper Júlio Cesar tackled Colombian attacker Carlos Bacca in the penalty area, earning another yellow card and a penalty kick to boot. James Rodriguez, Colombia’s 22-year-old superstar, converted it into his country’s lone goal, giving his teammates hope of “possibly” conquering Brazil. Not a chance, fellas!
But the most egregious display of the match involved Brazil’s own superstar striker Neymar, who was hit from behind by the knee of Colombia’s Zuñiga. Neymar was dutifully carried off the field in a stretcher. He was later reported to have sustained a fractured rib in his struggle for possession of the ball, and will be out of action for the next six weeks. Obviously, Neymar is not expected to play in the semi as well.
So where was the referee while all this was happening? And what did he do about this flagrant abuse of the rules? According to one of the ESPN commentators (I believe it was Ian Darke, my favorite sports announcer, I don’t mind telling you), the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo must have left his cards at home. During the first half of the match, not once did Carballo single out a rule infraction — and there were an indecent number of them, to be perfectly frank. All were dismissed with a wave of the ref’s hand. Is this any way to officiate, FIFA? If Sr. Carballo had started issuing yellow cards at the outset, Brazil might not have lost Neymar for the duration of the Cup; or at the very least, we might’ve been spared the spectacle of having the young talent taken off the field writhing in pain — not the most comforting sight for his followers.
No doubt the cards are heavily stacked against Brazil in their upcoming bout with the Bully Boys of Germany. Still, I have a feeling the game’s not over until the Soccer Lady sings! And she’s going to sing a happy tune in Belo Horizonte. Why do I say this? Because Brazil FINALLY started to play like the five-time World Cup champions they are. The addition of Maicon to the starting lineup gave a kick-start to the team’s offensive push.
Adversity sometimes makes squads stronger. Look at Mexico against the Dutch, or Chile versus Brazil: both sides took the fight to their opponents, but good. If Mexico and Chile lost, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Each gave it their all, and they can leave this Cup with heads held high (well… most of them, anyway).
The same can be said for Belgium, who fought the good fight against Argentina. Lionel Messi scrambled about in unstoppable fashion, as is his wont, thus confusing the opposition by running this way and that. Argentina’s only goal in their 1-0 battle, however, came off one of Messi’s passes, first to teammate Di Maria, and then on the rebound to Gonzalo Higuaín, who fired a half-volley shot safely into the net and beyond the reach of Belgian goalie Thibaut Courtois, who was more tortoise (accent on the “French” pronunciation in this instance) than Courtois.
Infractions, We Have Infractions (But No Red Cards)
The final brawl of the afternoon occurred when the never-say-die Netherlands met the Cinderellas of the tournament, Costa Rica, the unlikeliest of candidates for World Cup stardom. Making it to the quarterfinals on a hope and a prayer if not their fairy godmother, the guileless Los Ticos had met every challenge posed to them. But this time, they were unable to withstand the ruthless onslaught that such powerful Dutch forwards as Arjen Robben, Wesley Snejder and Robin Van Percie unleashed. It was 120+ minutes of non-stop pounding of Costa Rica’s goalie, the heroic Keylor Navas, who was able to shut down the Flying Dutchmen until the dreaded penalty shootout.
It was here that Holland’s coach, Louis van Gaal (a dead-ringer for William Shatner of Star Trek fame, but with a broken nose) and his bench of assistants (Dutch Mad Men in gray-flannel business suits and orange ties) took a gamble and came up with their game-winning strategy: to substitute the goalie of the match, Jasper Cillessen, for the fresher arms and legs of the gigantic Tim Krul. Physically smaller in comparison, Navas did his best to block the Netherland’s penalty kicks, but his best wasn’t enough to turn the tide. Krul stopped two of the Costa Rican’s tepid shots on goal, thereby giving the Dutch Masters a semifinal berth against the Argentines.
Which brings me to my closing argument. There are now four teams left standing in the Cup, two more matches to go before the final confrontation: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina, both to take place next Tuesday at 3 o’clock PM (our time). I wish all these squads the very best of luck — they’ll need it! And may the best team win. However, a word of caution: may they win by honest means. By that, I mean let fate have a hand in their victory, not in their face.
In my first post about the 2014 World Cup, I mentioned the unavoidable “Hand of God” moment. To quote from my own writings, “All we need now is another ‘Hand of God’ moment (I’m referring, of course, to Argentine player Diego Maradona’s phantom goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England) to lend illegitimacy to an already dubious reputation that the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, has no doubt fostered.”
Well, dear readers, that moment came to pass. Earlier in the Netherlands vs. Costa Rica encounter, the “Hand of God” struck Navas across the eyes and forehead. To put it bluntly, it was more the eleventh-hour Dutch substitute Huntelaar’s outstretched arm that blatantly tried to interfere with Navas’ goal-tending skills. Down went Navas, and out came the referee’s yellow card — which, in my opinion, and after the still earlier roughness of Colombia’s goalie by Brazil, as well as Brazil’s own roughing up of an opposing player, was the perfect time for a RED card. Not this time, folks, thanks to another of those card-free referees.
I fear that sentiment by the Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto may have overruled tactics in keeping Navas on as goalie. Although a substitute was waiting in the wings, Pinto’s heart took the place of his head in making his fateful decision. Frankly, I can’t blame him; better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. To replace Navas as this late stage would have crushed Los Ticos’ fighting spirit.
Unfortunately, Navas’ subsequent poor state at the end, along with previous rough play at the goalmouth, may have contributed to his impaired ability to ward off the Netherland’s vicious penalty strikes — an unhappy ending to Costa Rica’s fairy-tale-like story. Did I say winning by “honest means”? A “Hand of God” moment? Make that “Fists of Fury.”
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
Better Luck Next Time (in Overtime)
It was a heart-breaker. Oh, man, was it a heart-breaker! Down to the last 10 minutes of extra time after scoreless regulation play, the fired up Team USA bombarded Belgium’s six-foot-six-inch goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with shot after shot, all to no avail.
After being down two goals to nothing, the U.S.’s German-born coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, decided to put in a 19-year-old substitute named Julian Green, who within a fraction of active field-time placed a tremendous volley into the farthest right-hand corner of the net, giving Team USA a needed shot in the arm. Yay! Go team, go!
USA goalie Tim Howard, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome but is one of the top five best gatekeepers in the business, must have been twitching about and jerking a blue streak throughout the offensive. It had no effect on his superb goalkeeping skills, though, with Howard setting a World Cup record of 16 saves.
But in a harrowing repeat of their 2010 performance in the Round of 16 at South Africa, whereby the U.S. lost a grueling 2-1 battle against Ghana, the Belgians belittled the American side by the same 2-1 margin in Tuesday’s match-up. Green’s goal came too little, too late for the totally spent USA squad to triumph over adversity. The heat and humidity sapped whatever strength Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley and their fellow World Cup underdogs Chile, Mexico, Greece, Uruguay, Nigeria, Algeria and Switzerland had stored up in order to press on.
You can’t blame the beastly weather on poor playing and even poorer officiating. Unforeseen injuries (the early loss of USA left winger Jozy Altidore due to a hamstring pull) and dubious penalty calls (or the lack of same) were other unnatural disasters that seemed to thwart these countries’ best efforts.
Beginning with the June 28 thriller between Brazil and Chile, it was frustrating to see the Chileans’ go down in infamy via penalty kicks after they miraculously made up a one-goal deficit in the 32nd minute at Belo Horizonte. The game dragged on to the inevitable shootout, with Brazil besting Chile three penalties to two, thus boosting Brazil’s chances in the quarterfinals against Colombia and sinking Chile’s chances for a first-ever bench.
The Colombians had a field day, too, so to speak, against the wary but ungainly Uruguayans. Without their star striker Luis Suárez, who was banned from Cup participation for his vampirish shoulder-biting episode against Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in a previous match, Uruguay mostly fired blanks at the Colombian goal. Colombia and their own star performer James Rodriguez will meet Brazil and 22-year-old superstar Neymar (I wonder what color his hair will be this time) later today in Fortaleza. Will the hot weather continue to be a mitigating factor, or will Brazil shape up in time to change naysayers’ mind about Neymar’s potential?
Meanwhile, it’s been publicized that many of Brazil’s players have been undergoing psychological evaluation and/or treatment, if not makeshift sessions with their shrinks, due to the enormous pressure (i.e., post-traumatic soccer disorder) exerted on them by the Brazilian press as well as over-anxious politicians — among them Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, whose reelection bid comes up later this year.
If Brazil makes a strong showing of their soccer skills all should go well at the polls, or so the prevailing wisdom goes. But if the national team loses or makes a pitiable meal out of the remaining matches, all bets are off as to whether Dilma — and the country per se — can recover from the shock of a loss to a supposedly “lesser” opponent. It would be 1950 all over again, when the upstart Uruguayans beat Brazil 2-1 before 200,000 awed fans.
Mark my words: Colombia is no pushover. Neither are any of the other combatants in this year’s World Cup. It’s amazing that Brazil has made it this far, no thanks to the under-performing, one-man task force Hulk and the continuously problematic Marcelo. Fred and Dani Alves have been less than stellar in their initial appearances, the tall and lanky striker Jo was out-headed by a much smaller Chilean defender, and their goalie Julio Cesar needs to step up his game BIG TIME if he’s to withstand the coming onslaught.
Other matches in the days ahead include the anything-goes Netherlands, with their chief diving expert Arjen Robben leading the Orange pack against the rising Costa Ricans and their hero goalie Keylor Navas; a replay of World War I with a revitalized France vying for a chance at victory against the bully boys from Germany; and don’t-cry-for-me Argentina and their goal-scoring lethal weapon Lionel Messi playing the puffed up Belgians.
This 2014 tournament and the Round of 16 is shaping up to be one of the all-time most thrilling World Cups in recent memory.
Soccer’s “Advanced Technology” in the Digital Age
And now a word or two about the latest novelties to hit the World Cup Soccer pitch.
To paraphrase the philosopher Descartes, soccer exists, therefore it is. And in order to understand how soccer is played one must first attempt to play it. The same goes for most sporting events, including (and especially) baseball, American football, rugby, basketball, hockey, tennis, cricket, you name it.
But unlike the above-named activities, soccer (and by that, I mean World Cup Soccer) is one game that has the easiest to follow rules. Most of the trouble starts when folks get confused over the offside rule. If you’ve ever played the game, you’ll be able to pick this one up fairly easily. If not, just follow the bouncing ball: to put it in as simple a term as possible, there must be at least ONE defender (besides the goalie, of course) in between an attacker. If the attacker gets possession of the ball BEFORE there’s a defender, the attacker is declared to be offside.
Many people would like FIFA to dispense with the offside rule. Maybe, maybe not — but for purists (such as myself), that would be anathema. However, I am all for listening to the arguments pro and con. If it were eliminated, that might reduce the game to 90 minutes of free-for-all penalty shots or interminable kicks on goal. That’s just one scenario, but I’m sure there are plenty more out there.
I’m very much for advanced technology, to include instant replays on questionable calls by referees and other face-saving devices. Of course, the instant replay proposal has to be used with discretion. Otherwise, we might as well call the Cup an International Super Bowl with the inherent stop-and-go non-action taking precedent.
I loved the new goal technology, however, which can correctly predict whether the ball has in fact crossed the goal bar or not. But that low-tech, foamy lather shaving cream (vanishing spray?) the refs have been using to keep jittery players “in line” during free kicks is a joke! Is that the best that FIFA can do? Still, if it works… why argue with success?
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes