‘Bossa Nova’ — Carioca Love Story: The Rio of One’s Dreams

Doing the Bossa Nova

Antonio Fagundes & Amy Irving in Bossa Nova

Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes) & Mary Ann (Amy Irving) in Bossa Nova

While Walter Salles’ Central Station attempts to bind up old wounds from Brazil’s past with expectations of a brighter future, Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999) takes a step backward towards an altogether different set of standards. There’s no point in making a side-by-side comparison of the two pictures, although if one were attempted it would be the equivalent of pitting, say, Mark Hellinger’s documentary-style The Naked City against Hope and Crosby’s farcical Road to Rio — both flicks from the same late-forties time period.

Adapted from the 1989 novel A Senhorita Simpson by carioca writer Sérgio Sant’Anna, Bossa Nova (a Woody Allen-like romantic comedy, by most descriptions) stars the director’s spouse, Amy Irving, as the widowed Mary Ann Simpson, a forty-something former airline hostess-turned-English language instructor; and Rio-born leading man Antonio Fagundes as Pedro Paulo Silva, a middle-aged lawyer who finds the still fetching Miss Simpson worth pursuing (don’t we all?) during the course of its long-winded plot.

The other cast members, most of whom have worked together in diverse capacities throughout the years, include Drica Moraes as Mary Ann’s friend and assistant Nadine; Alexandre Borges as Acácio, a girl-crazy soccer player who frets about his recent trade to a British club; Débora Bloch as Tania, Pedro Paulo’s wife of seven years who recently left him for a Chinese tai-chi practitioner; Pedro Cardoso as Roberto, Pedro Paulo’s lovesick brother who hankers after the law firm’s new intern; Giovanna Antonelli as Sharon, the new intern who only has eyes for the soccer player; Kátia Lyra as the English school’s one-track-minded receptionist; and Stephen Tobolowsky as Gary/Trevor, a nerdy American corporate type who strikes Nadine’s fancy via an online dating service.

You can imagine the endless combination of circumstances this mixed-up group of individuals gets into! Here’s a tiny sampling: still smarting from his wife’s separation, Pedro Paulo has a meet-cute with Miss Simpson; in fact, they share an elevator ride to the English school where she teaches. Naturally, he’s immediately taken with the tutor, so he signs up for nightly classes as a pretext for getting to know her better (his master-tailor father just happens to have an office in the same building as the school).

Pedro Paulo is but one of numerous of complications Mary Ann has to contend with, among them that over-sexed soccer player who wants more than private lessons from her. His prankish efforts at turning Brazilian expletives into their English equivalent (“Go to shit!” and “Kiss it, my ass!”) are nothing short of strained.

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Mary Ann (Amy Irving)

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Miss Simpson(Amy Irving)

Billed as a “love letter to Rio” — and a perfect Valentine’s gift to his wife — Barreto’s Bossa Nova was produced by his parents, Lucy and Luiz Carlos Barreto, and co-produced by the movie arm of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network. Shot in ultra-photogenic style by French cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, the city itself has never looked lovelier, scrubbed down and polished up in the manner of another French-guided frolic, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which also happened to have been filmed in Rio.

Miraculously, there are no street urchins or beggars to mar the luscious backdrops — and no prostitutes or drug dealers to confront, either; nor are there glimpses of ramshackle housing developments (known as favelas) to distract from this celebration of Rio as a place for lovers. From interior shots of rooms with strategically-positioned camera angles, to exterior settings of picture-postcard comeliness, the city’s idyllic landscapes (Corcovado, Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Copacabana Beach) are expertly arranged to elicit wistful sighs of longing and nostalgia.

“Everybody has some kind of fantasy about Rio,” Barreto claimed in the Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of Bossa Nova’s release, “and I wanted the film to take place in the Rio that people fantasize about … There is the Rio of the social problems; that’s there. Then there’s the Rio of the bossa nova; that’s there too.”

Dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the pioneers of bossa nova, Barreto’s candid admission is a most telling change from that of veteran filmmaker and fellow Brazilian Cacá Diegues, whose own views on the subject of Marvelous City, along with his motives for remaking Black Orpheus into something less pandering to potential tourists, are markedly different.

Pass the Soap, Please

Rather than go with the flow of more serious late nineties fare, Barreto kept to a winning formula that pays homage to the work of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, two of Hollywood’s finest purveyors of screwball comedies. Though scarcely what most people would think of as a Cary Grant or even a Katharine Hepburn, Mr. Fagundes (closer in build to the burly Gérard Depardieu) and Ms. Irving did make for a credible pair of over-aged lovebirds. The other participants gleefully joined in the fun, resulting in a generally pleasing if hardly innovative feature.

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson at the airport

Not surprisingly, the high-gloss sheen behind the film’s facade was shaped by a variety of factors, primarily those “soap-opera” vehicles called telenovelas (or novelas, for short) that super-conglomerate Rede Globo continues to export to countries beyond those of Latin America.

Those carefully crafted images of Rio — likely held together with spirit gum and baling wire — were deliberately designed to produce an effect, a dream vision of Cidade Maravilhosa which, as evidenced by the above quotation, the film’s director made no bones about exploiting. However, at this point some additional cultural background may be warranted.

For decades, Globo’s writing teams have been churning out dozens upon dozens of formulaic scripts, many if not all of these “serialized dramas” boasting interlocking story lines tailored to the serendipitous lives of the rich and fanciful. Most are ensemble pieces, i.e., character-driven dilemmas with serio-comic undertones that thrive on the chemistry and interaction of a capable cast, if only to make it in the highly competitive 9 to 10 p.m. viewing slot.

At their best, novelas are models of their kind, a factory product of enormous popularity and appeal, and, of course, staggering ratings success. Two of the more watchable examples from about the same period as Bossa Nova are Laços de Família (“Family Ties”), which aired between June 2000 and February 2001, and featuring such stalwarts as Vera Fischer, Carolina Dieckmann, Reynaldo Gianecchini, José Mayer, Tony Ramos, Marieta Severo, and the aforementioned Alexandre Borges and Giovanna Antonelli; and the earlier Torre de Babel (“Tower of Babel”), broadcast from May 1998 to January 1999, that included an all-star lineup headed by the ubiquitous Tony Ramos, Glória Menezes, Tarcísio Meira, Cláudia Raia, Maitê Proença, Edson Celulari, and Adriana Esteves.

With his qualified team of screenwriters (Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young), Barreto employed the same logic that TV Globo had mastered and developed for its own vast repertoire of sudsers. The web of interconnected plot threads that made Bossa Nova so typical of the genre is neatly untangled by movie’s end, though not always to an individual character’s liking. (No spoilers here, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that not everyone lives happily ever after, and leave it at that.)

The job of taking this kind of culturally specific program out of its natural element and preparing it for international dissemination must have been challenging not only to Barreto’s sense of his own Brazilianness (i.e., of his having been born a carioca), but also the California lifestyle he’s been leading for well on twenty years.

Bossa Nova is very personal to me on every level,” he admitted to IndieWire magazine in April 2000, “in the sense that I wasn’t aware as I was doing it. I guess that’s actually good … When I started to edit the film and then looked at sections of it, I went, ‘It’s so close.’

Bruno Barreto behind the camera

Director Bruno Barreto behind the cameras

“The fact that the more time I spend here, the more I miss the city where I come from. I remember that while driving all the time in L.A., whenever a Brazilian song played, some song from when I was growing up, I would just cry. I’m so homesick. At the same time, I’m very happy that I have a career here. That I do what I love to do.

“The way [Rio] is in the movie doesn’t really exist. It’s the way I like Rio to be. It’s a totally idealized city. People go, ‘Oh, wow!’ But the minute they get off the plane, they see a very different Rio. The Rio in the movie is the Rio I have in my heart. It’s the way I remember Rio. That is why I think this is my most personal movie.”

If we’re to understand the director correctly, Bossa Nova represents one man’s unrequited passion — a love story, if you will, though not necessarily about a woman but for a city. In the same IndieWire interview, Barreto explained his picture’s other dedication: to the late Nouvelle Vague director, François Truffaut.

“I think Truffaut was maybe the last truly romantic filmmaker in my opinion. Above all, he was a master for me. All the films I make are very much about relationships and encounters and miscommunications. All of these in a light romantic atmosphere. And I think Truffaut was the master of that.”

Along the lines of l’amour toujours, Barreto indicated that “In Brazil, there isn’t this obsession with youth and being young … People are not self-conscious about their bodies. They go around, even the men, in their small bikinis, and they go to the beach and they don’t care much about the way they look. They’re having a good time, and they think they can fall in love and have affairs in their sixties or seventies. They don’t think that love and romance is just for young people.”

Of course not! One is never too old for love, and the film proves that. It may also help to explain Barreto’s decision to adjust Pedro Paulo’s age in the novel from a young and restless public servant to a silver-haired legal professional in pin-striped suits and expanding waistline.

What of the movie’s namesake, that calmly soothing and rhythmically enticing beat of bossa nova? Alas, there are moments where the music is simply too overpowering — that is, when it’s not relegated to the background in a way that speaks inoffensively of Muzak. At other times, as in the gathering at the cemetery, the soundtrack wells up expectantly. But then, we hear the raspy tones of rocker Sting, groaning his rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” How apropos is that?

Pretty Little Love Songs

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio

Whether Barreto was conscious of it or not, his film bears a striking resemblance to another “rom-com” from the mid-eighties, Stanley Donen’s sex romp Blame It on Rio (1984), which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, and a young Demi Moore.

Caine plays a foreign businessman living in São Paulo, who, on vacation in Rio, meets up with his best friend’s daughter, the buxom Michelle Johnson. He’s hard-pressed to resist her nubile charms, so he winds up having an illicit affair with the girl. In return, his wife (Harper) has an affair of her own with his best pal (Bologna). The outcome? Emotional and family mayhem.

This irritating piece of fluff boasted a purely bossa- and samba-strewn score, with original music by guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, a longtime resident of the West Coast. Most of the movie’s songs were written by Kenneth Wannberg and Dennis Spiegel, with the title tune and another number, “I Must Be Doing Something Right,” the work of Cy Coleman and Sheldon Harnick.

Basically, the plot stayed at B-movie levels, and was the kind of thing done better by expert hands: case in point, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which, in 1973, was transformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim; and Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy from 1982.

As bad as it turned out, Blame It on Rio did serve its purpose as a stepping-stone to better things; in this instance Bossa Nova, as thoroughly acceptable a domestic product as any in recent memory, but only slightly more authentic as a snapshot of present-day Rio with its share of unresolved issues.

Bossa Nova poster art

Bossa Nova poster art

How, then, did Bossa Nova stack up in the popular song category? From such classics as “Useless Landscape” (“Inútil Paisagem”), “One Note Samba,” the inescapable “Girl from Ipanema,” “Wave,” “The Waters of March,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “No More Blues” (“Chega de Saudade”), and “Once I Loved,” it was a veritable Jobim love-fest.

This is where the film finally came into its own to live up to that iconic title. And with the artistry of orchestrator and musician Eumir Deodato, along with performers Djavan, Bárbara Mendes, Stan Getz, João and Astrud Gilberto, Claudia Acuña, Carlos Rogers, Elis Regina, and Jobim himself, how could it be otherwise?

Still, one can’t help recalling this sage advice, allegedly attributed to the self-same Tom Jobim. When pressed for his thoughts, upon stepping off his plane at Galeão International Airport, of having lived and worked in New York and Rio de Janeiro, the shy and unassuming Tom, in that vaguely understated fashion of his, complied as only he could:

Nova York é bom, mas é uma merda. Rio é uma merda, mas é bom.” Roughly translated, it means: “New York’s good, but it sucks. Rio sucks, but it’s good.”

That sums it up for Bossa Nova as well: “The film’s good, but it sucks. The film sucks, but it’s good.”

Oh, wow! ☼

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Everything Verdi: ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Ernani,’ ‘Don Carlo,’ and Other Met Opera Tragedies (Part One)

The Wayward World of Opera

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) & Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) at the Met

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) & Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) at the Met

This has been a lukewarm season for live opera on the radio and in theaters, I don’t mind telling you. Thank heaven for Verdi: there’s always a little bit of him to go around, as his music rides to the rescue.

Waxing and waning between halfway decent performances and below par presentations (I’m being kind here), the Metropolitan Opera labored in the early going to overcome a crippling strike that would have shut the house down for who knows how many months — a blow the financially strapped company could ill afford at this stage in the game. Fortunately, we were spared that hardship, almost at the eleventh hour.

What the Met could not avoid were the wretched weather, the constant winter flu outbreaks, cast reshufflings, indispositions, unforeseeable cancellations, and last-minute substitutions — ARGH! These unhappy happenstances conspired to make this broadcast season one of the bleakest in memory, strike threat or no.

At the outset, Margaret Juntwait, the Met’s radio announcer for the better part of a decade, was lost to illness with nary a word about her condition or if and when she’d be expected to return. I understand Ms. Juntwait has asked for privacy in her case, which we respectfully adhere to. Still, the Met Opera’s management has an obligation to its worldwide audience to inform listeners of what’s transpired instead of keeping everybody in the dark. By staying mum on the matter it only adds to the consternation.

This situation has put a dent in many listeners’ enjoyment (including this writer’s) of the Saturday afternoon programs. Ira Siff, Juntwait’s gushing, bouncy, entertaining, effervescent, and erudite co-host — the Ian Darke of color commentators — has tried his best to take up the slack, along with temporary co-host Mary Jo Heath, one of the show’s producers.

However, some of the remarks I’ve been reading lately on chat forums and such tell me there are plenty of disgruntled patrons out there with mixed feelings about the oh-so-carefully planned and structured on-air sessions. Do keep in mind that too loose an arrangement simply won’t do as time is of the essence (intermission features have to be sandwiched in between acts and within the allotted 30-minute time span). Ergo, some pre-planning and coordination have to be taken into account no matter what people complain about.

I do agree, in part, that the Opera Quiz has been “dumbed down” to accommodate those without a connoisseur’s knowledge of the operatic art. But Geez, Louise, it’s not rocket science! Although a few of the questions received are downright head-scratchers, the embarrassing lack of educated responses from panelists has turned-off sticklers for detail such as yours truly, who would prefer to tune them out. Oh, for the glory days of Edward Downes, George Jellinek, and Boris Goldovsky (sigh)… Now those were well-informed panelists! At this point, I’d even settle for one of the late Alberta Masiello’s barbed putdowns, but so be it.

Ira Siff, with Placido Domingo and Margaret Juntwait

Ira Siff, with Placido Domingo and Margaret Juntwait

And those stale HD features and artist interviews are positively appalling! They never seem to be as revelatory as the producers hope they will be. Besides, since when are opera singers fluent interview subjects? They’re in the middle of performing a role, for goodness sake, many of them quite taxing. You’d never think to thrust a microphone into the face of, say, James Earl Jones as he’s gearing up for his big speech as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So why bother doing it to opera stars?

Naturally, many members of the international set have foreign accents, which can hinder our understanding of their comments. But they aren’t nearly as bad as some people make them out to be. Heck, my own spouse has an accent, and my parents had accents, too, but they could get their ideas across when the need arose. In my view, it’s not how singers speak but what they say (or don’t say) that ultimately matters in these types of forums.

If a singer is going to rehearse his or her part in the opera, then the Met management ought to prevail upon them to consider rehearsing their between-act banter beforehand as well. That extra bit of coaching might actually help to smooth things over and avoid the mike-fright that’s plagued so many up-close-and-personal discourses of late. Just a suggestion!

On occasion, an arbitrary insight or articulate observation may find its way into the conversation, but what we’ve been getting lately are mostly platitudes (“That was great!” or “Thank your lucky stars!”), not just from the performers but from the interviewers. Who cares if this or that singer had to step in at the last minute to save the day? We know that already! That’s par for the course, people. It’s the perfect opportunity to strut their stuff and show audiences what they’re made of. This isn’t a boxing match, you know, it’s opera!

And despite my earlier allusion to professional soccer’s Ian Darke, opera is not a spectator sport, though many critics feel we’ve already gone beyond that point. We’ve become the iPhone, iPad, iWant, iFirst generation, and opera (like everything else) is now part of the 24/7 news cycle, never ending and always running — an online, in-your-face, be-on-your-way world.

Now, before you get cross with me, when it comes to tolerance and the operatic art I’m the most liberal-minded of musical aficionados. I don’t see myself as a persnickety pundit, just a regular opera-loving fan with strong attitudes and opinions. Given the opportunity I’ll listen to anything and everything, and attempt to form an educated view about it, too. Good performances and bad performances, good operas and bad operas (whatever those may be), new operas and old operas, I’m willing to sit through a work and give it a shot if I think it’s worth my while. But how would I know what’s worthy of attention if I don’t get the information I need to make an informed decision? That’s been the rub when it comes to these broadcasts: plenty of chatter and noise, but not enough substance; the dessert tray without the main course.

The same goes for the Opera Guild’s monthly magazine, Opera News, which used to be tied exclusively to the broadcast work. I fear it’s become a post-yuppie, Generation-Xer, -Yer, and -Zer print-version of the social network, Facebook. One searches its pages for articles relating to what’s going to be heard over the air, sometimes in vain. It’s not that these pieces have disappeared entirely; they haven’t, but they’re becoming harder to locate amidst the surfeit of full-color spreads of European holiday spots, or the provocative photographs of future Met Opera aspirants.

Mind you, none of this is so bad as to be annoying, but I find these all-too-intrusive distractions indicative of the kind of society we’ve grown to become: that is, one with a shortened attention span as well as deficient in the curiosity required for cozying up to the radio or HD transmission and actively listening to the opera at hand.

Broadcasts and Broadsides — A Met Opera Roundup

Alfredo (Stephen Costello) singing the "Brindisi" to Violetta (Marina Rebeka) in La Traviata

Alfredo (Stephen Costello) singing the “Brindisi” to Violetta (Marina Rebeka) in La Traviata

I’ve spilled too much wine on the table with my views, so let’s get on to the meat of the matter. After listening to three back-to-back December 2014 broadcasts of some of the core repertory items, i.e., The Barber of Seville, Die Meistersinger, and The Marriage of Figaro, the December 27th transmission of another favorite, Verdi’s La Traviata, left me with unfulfilled expectations.

Presented in director Willy Decker’s reconfigured and deconstructed version for Salzburg — played not as one continuous piece but with an intermission after Act I, thus doing grave injustice to Decker’s vision which calls for Violetta to hurtle head-long into a frantic race with Death — the cast of debuting soprano Marina Rebeka as Violetta, tenor Stephen Costello as Alfredo, and substitute baritone Quinn Kelsey (here we go again with the replacements), delivered its assignment dutifully if without much distinctiveness.

Kelsey, who stepped in for the previously announced Ludovic Tézier as Germont, was the most striking of the three — hardly a complimentary bon mot in these circumstances, if only that his voice reminded me of a young Rolando Panerai. That’s the best I can say for his contribution. As for the others, Costello has an attractive vibrato to his tone (similar to Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s style of singing), and Rebeka’s Violetta, the “wayward one” of the title, hit all the right notes and more. However, her performance as a whole was listless and in no way plumbed the dramatic depths of this remarkable role.

Marco Armiliato conducted in likewise conventional manner. No great revelations were heard, and certainly no great sparks of the imagination came out of this interpretation. Just a routine, run-of-the-mill show, as has become the norm.

Along the same lines, we heard the January 17, 2015 broadcast of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, in a new production with a new English translation — another of those tiresome efforts to update the proceedings for modern tastes. What’s wrong with the original that the Met’s board of directors finds so unappealing or unacceptable? If intelligibility was the key ingredient in their decision to do the work in English, then what was actually heard failed to convince.

Hanna Glawari (Renee Fleming) waltzing  with Count Danilo (Nathan Gunn) in The Merry Widow

Hanna Glawari (Renee Fleming) waltzing with Count Danilo (Nathan Gunn) in The Merry Widow

Conductor Andrew Davis presided over this lethargic reading of one of the cornerstones of European operetta. Or perhaps I should say the Great White Way, for this latest adaptation, starring American prima donna Renée Fleming as the titular widow Hanna Glawari, Nathan Gunn as the dashing Count Danilo, veteran baritone Thomas Allen as Baron Mirko Zeta, and Broadway star Kelli O’Hara as Valencienne, along with tenor Alek Shrader as Camille, and mezzo Wallis Giunta as Olga, was specifically geared toward that particular venue.

As many of you know, I am dead-set against tampering with a work’s lyrics or story line for the sake of a comprehensible English translation or two — comprehensible, yes, but utterly nonsensical, preposterous, contemporary, or even absurd? Not funny! This Widow never reached its peak as far as this run of performances was concerned. Most of the talented cast was wasted in a ho-hum, blandly irritating production of little to no exhilaration. I’m sorry, but that’s how it came off over the air: a stiff, boring, by-the-numbers rendition that drained the lifeblood of this tuneful piece.

“Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”

The Sleepwalking Scene with Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko)

The Sleepwalking Scene with Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko)

Speaking of draining the lifeblood, things picked up noticeably with the February 7 rebroadcast of an outstanding October 11, 2014 performance of Macbeth, one of Verdi’s earliest masterpieces. Cursed with multiple versions, this 2007 revival of a production by director Adrian Noble mixed music from both the original 1847 Florence premiere and the composer’s revised 1865 edition which was prepared, in French, for Paris. Curiously, while presented in modern dress (not that old bone again), this Macbeth was old-fashioned music-making at its unaccustomed best.

Thanks to a spirited cast, the opera came across with all the force necessary to keep faith with the Shakespeare play on which it was based. It featured Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in her role debut as the malevolent Lady Macbeth, baritone Željko Lučić as Macbeth, Joseph Calleja as Macduff, bass-baritone René Pape as Banquo, and tenor Noah Baetge as Malcolm. Maestro Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal conductor, led the orchestra and chorus.

This being Verdi’s initial stab at Shakespeare (his preferred poet), we tend to forget how revolutionary this piece was at the time of its premiere. This was the first time since Monteverdi’s 17th century masterwork, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (“The Coronation of Poppaea”) — one that included the Emperor Nero and his devious wife, Poppaea — that an opera had featured two such totally abhorrent protagonists as the murderous Macbeth and his sinister Lady. There’s certainly no love lost between this pair of plotters, and no ardent love duets, either, to slow the action down. This leaves audiences somewhat in a bind, as there is literally no one to root for (certainly not with the two leads).

In addition, listeners new to this work tend to be put off by the ludicrous nature of those cackling Witches (in Shakespeare, there were three of them, while in Verdi their parts are taken by three groups of choristers). For the 1865 Paris reworking — more of a rewrite of earlier material with new music added, the loss of two airs for Lady Macbeth, the insertion of a new number for her, more refined orchestrations, and a totally different chorus — Verdi wrote an Act III ballet in which the aforementioned hags prance about the stage before the sorceress, Hecate.

That same year, Wagner had revised his opera Tannhäuser for Paris, in a performance that had inflamed the French public, especially the fastidious Jockey Club whose members, you may recall, loudly protested the fact there was no ballet to cheer for in Act II (and no prima ballerinas, either). Ah, there’s no pleasing those Parisians! In Macbeth, most modern productions dispense with the ballet altogether in favor of the other revisions Verdi made. The Met’s version followed this expected path — a wise choice!

Banquo's ghost (Rene Pape) haunts Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) as Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) distracts the onlookers

Banquo’s ghost (Rene Pape) haunts Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) as Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) distracts the onlookers

What perked my ears in the Met’s revival was Anna Netrebko, who put on a powerhouse performance with her excursion into early Verdi. Her Lady Macbeth was a creature not only of the night but of the daytime as well. Whenever she was spotlighted, there was a palpable tension and excitement about her work. Every vocal effect, every tonal shift, indeed every verbal inflection spoke of the evil this character generated. Truly, this was one of Anna’s finest interpretations, one that spoke reams of how she has progressed over the years as an actress. While her words were still muffled and opaque, her basic sound has grown to immense proportions.

Her entrance aria, “Vieni, t’affretta,” and her later “La luce langue,” were hurled at the audience with all the venom and thrust that she and Verdi’s music could muster. Curiously, Verdi instructed the singer of this fiendish part not to sing beautifully, to use an ugly, covered, hollow tone, and similar directives. This is something the Russian diva is intrinsically incapable of doing, for her voice sounded fabulous throughout. Yet she stayed in character and, of course, the famous Sleepwalking Scene went off without a hitch, with Netrebko taking the high D and holding it there until her last breath gave out, signaling Lady Macbeth’s eventual demise.

Željko Lučić’s Macbeth, much like his broadcast Rigoletto, allowed for a mellifluous tone and generous expansion of the vocal line. In fact, his sound was almost too benign and attractive for such a despicable character. Yet, he captured the audience’s sympathy with his final aria, “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” delivered in a hushed, concentrated manner — almost introspectively at first, indicating how close the master’s music for Macbeth resembles that of the court jester Rigoletto. With all that in his favor, my problem with Željko is that he doesn’t sound like your average, everyday Verdi baritone. He is an above average artist, though, with superior intelligence. No wonder he’s scheduled to sing Iago in a new production of Otello on the Met’s opening night performance of the 2015-2016 season.

Joseph Calleja’s melancholy Macduff etched another strong portrait, his sometimes wildly fluctuating vibrato in better control here than in previous assignments. He excelled in his Fourth Act aria, “Ah, la paterna mano,” wherein Calleja regaled the public with the soothing warmth of his voice. René Pape’s full-toned Banquo was welcome deluxe casting. His flowing cantilena line was much appreciated in what basically amounts to a brief character turn, despite his solo to his son, Fleance (a non-singing part), “Come dal ciel precipita.” The same problem I posed to Lučić also afflicts Pape, in that he simply does not strike me as possessing a voice for Verdi. That could be said of a lot singers; still, Pape is such a versatile artist that any complaints on my part should be taken with heaping teaspoons of salt.

The Met chorus and orchestra outdid themselves in the many enlivening moments this opera presents them with. Verdi’s Macbeth is not the usual romantic piece, not by any means, but a full-fledged tragedy with music — the very essence of the term “opera,” one would think.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) — A War Epic Without the War

The plantation Tara in Gone With the Wind (1939)

The plantation Tara, with Scarlett and her father, in Gone With the Wind (1939)

It’s hard to fathom even today that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling 1936 fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the silver screen.

For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held belief (perpetuated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head of production, the “boy genius” Irving Thalberg) that “no Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” This was only partially true, of course: in its day, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, not only set attendance records whenever and wherever it was shown, but revolutionized the way motion pictures would be marketed and made for all time.

Still, Thalberg’s boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was a son-in-law to Louis B. Mayer (one of the M’s in M-G-M), purchased the rights to Atlanta native Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut, the likes of which went on to break all-existing records for decades to come.

As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary but not nearly as densely worded, the book version of GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) as the American variant of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace, but without the Russian author’s literary acumen or extraordinarily philosophical insight into the human condition.

The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent times of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Ms. Mitchell (who was known in her native Atlanta as Peggy Marsh, after marriage to her second husband) concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara.

A lively spitfire of a Southern belle, Scarlett uses large dollops of girlish allure, feminine guile, and willful behavior, along with a ruthless capacity for survival at any cost, to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara, the land her father, Irish plantation owner Gerald O’Hara, insisted was “the only thing worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for!”

But what relation does Scarlett O’Hara have to Natasha Rostova, the youthful heroine of Tolstoy’s massive novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye!

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) kisses Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) kisses the widowed Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh)

First of all, there are several pairs of individuals intimately detailed and observed in both works — Scarlett with Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes with his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, juxtaposed against Natasha and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, as well as Pierre Bezukhov and his wife, Helene Kuragina, among numerous others. It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personalities of Natasha and her own cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (a mirror image of the sweetness-and-light personified by Melanie), with that of Scarlett herself; then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre (standing in for the poetic dreamer Ashley), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene (another side of Scarlett’s capricious persona) and her dashing lover Dolokhov, who safely incorporates multiple facets of that lovable rogue, Rhett.

We may add another viable if all-too obvious connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose physical presence is never shown but whose name is blazoned across the screen in one of those telling intertitles familiar to followers of silent cinema.

Intertitle from the start of Gone With the Wind's second half

Intertitle for the second half of David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind

These contrasts may one day serve as the basis for a more extensive study along the same academic lines as I’ve outlined above. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the dramatic merits and deficits of its screenplay (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of slavery, as well as its muddled political views and skirting of the larger racism issue, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest.

One major reason for the film’s popularity at the time of its release was the coincidental element of a country (the U.S., in this instance), on the brink of war, sending its men folk off to battle while the women stayed put, waging their own fight to keep home and hearth intact. Scarlett O’Hara epitomized that daily struggle in her gutsy determination to hold on to her memories of the past, along with what remained of her family and property.

That the women of 1930s America related to Scarlett’s predicament and saw themselves in her heroic defense of the home front rightly bolstered box-office receipts to unheard-of levels. They loved the fact that Scarlett was a smart, and sometimes cold-hearted, small-business owner: a real-life Rosie the Riveter in every respect that no man could tame.

And speaking of taming men, contrary to commonly held wisdom, wise-cracking Clark Gable, in the role of a lifetime, was not exactly a shoe-in for the rugged Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee items as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone (author Mitchell’s personal choice), and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over the star’s employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to M-G-M, the opportunity to star in Selznick International’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would secure Gable’s services in exchange for M-G-M’s obtaining the distribution rights — a win-win situation for both studios.

Replete with double entendres and humorous asides for all occasions, as the nefarious Captain Butler, Gable delivers his lines with easy affability and abundant charm and finesse, even though his Southern drawl comes and goes with equal ease. It’s one of the actor’s best roles and a shame the he didn’t win an Oscar for it (he lost out to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the sentimental favorite of that year).

Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)

Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)

With literally a cast of thousands at its disposal, some of the other key participants involved in GWTW were two British subjects, Leslie Howard as Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, in addition to Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as whiny housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ward Bond, Paul Hurst, Cammie King Conlon, Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, Barbara O’Neil, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Everett Brown, Howard Hickman, Leona Roberts, Jane Darwell, J.M. Kerrigan, William Bakewell, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit parts, including stuntman Yakima Canutt.

Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by director Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all focus and attention belong to Vivien Leigh as the feisty Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging assignment.

Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the coveted part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead, Alicia Rhett (who appeared in the picture as Ashley’s sister, India), and Lucille Ball (!). In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two for the unstable performer) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. With few exceptions, from start to finish Scarlett is on-screen for roughly the entire length of the picture. And Leigh keeps her frivolous nature front and center throughout.

Puzzlingly, about the only thing that wasn’t transferred to the screen from the novel was the war itself. Look again at the restored Blu-ray/DVD editions of the movie: you will search in vain for any of the most famous battles being depicted. What there is involves the citizens of Atlanta running for their lives to escape the advancing Union Army. There’s plenty of shelling and noise, and runaway carriages with galloping horses and men, as well as pandemonium and voluntary evacuations (for example, the hustle and bustle of the flighty Aunt Pittypat); and, of course, that impressionable stomach-churning scene at the “hospital” where Scarlett witnesses a Confederate soldier’s leg being amputated.

Rhett bids goodbye to Scarlett

Rhett bids goodbye to Scarlett, as he leaves her to join the war effort

Beyond that, about the only sequence where viewers actually experience the consequences of a war-ravaged South takes place near the Atlanta train depot, i.e., that spectacular crane shot of thousands upon thousands of the dead and dying, lying wounded and waiting for medical attention, while the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the tattered flag of Dixie flapping helplessly in the breeze — a visual metaphor for the movie’s title.

The score by Viennese-born composer Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. His instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett.

If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (in the final analysis, it’s all a matter of personal taste), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes