Month: January 2016

‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948) — Let Rabid, Sleeping Dogs Lie

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Humphrey Bogart (left) & John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Humphrey Bogart (left) & John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

A vagrant in a battered hat, raggedy clothes and unshaven visage comes up to a tall lean man in a white suit and matching white hat. The tall lean man, who is smoking a stogie and has a long inquisitive face, is reading a newspaper as he pauses to get his dusty shoes shined. Begging the man’s pardon, the shabbily dressed vagrant screws up enough nerve to ask the tall lean gentleman if he could help a fellow American who’s down on his luck.

Three times the vagrant pesters the tall lean man for a buck. After the last time, the tall lean man gives him two coins instead of one and simultaneously charges him with the responsibility of finding his own way in the world, but without his monetary aid.

As luck would have it, the vagrant runs into another fellow American down on his luck. Knowing full well that misery loves company, the twosome join forces to pool whatever wits and resources they still have to try and make a go at it in Tampico, Mexico.

The mysterious B. Traven’s 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre about three prospectors panning for gold in the rugged Mexican backlands served as the basis for this classic Warner Brothers motion-picture depiction.

Produced by Henry Blanke, the film was written and directed by Academy Award winner John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who lived for a time in Mexico and appears as the white-suited American continually hit upon for assistance. Co-starring Huston’s veteran actor father, a toothless Walter Huston, in an Oscar-caliber performance as the lanky old-timer Howard, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an epic morality tale about the dangers of too much greed and too little foresight.

Walter Huston, Tim Holt & Bogie in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Walter Huston, Tim Holt & “Bad Guy” Bogie in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Desperate for dough, the two down-and-outers, Fred C. Dobbs (a mean and ornery Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best “rabid dog” roles ever) and Bob Curtin (a stocky but game Tim Holt), team up with the aforementioned Howard, an expert on past prospecting ventures, upon hearing him talk up a storm about his exploits in a Tampico flophouse. Howard knows a thing or two about prospecting, and even more about human nature.

After Dobbs gets lucky with a winning lottery ticket, the trio sets off for the Sierra Madre mountains. Seeing the agile old geezer traverse steep terrain with precious little effort, Dobbs wonders if he isn’t part goat. With Howard’s help, they hit pay dirt; but soon after, the men are forced to confront other crises, among them a fourth vagrant named Codie (Bruce Bennett), who’s just itching for a piece of the action. When Codie is killed by bandits and Howard gets whisked off by the locals for saving a boy’s life, Dobbs and Curtin are left to fend for themselves.

Eventually succumbing to gold fever, Dobbs tries to eliminate the competition in typical delusional fashion. He meets his fate at the hands of those same Mexican bandits, one of whom, a nervous fellow known as “Gold Hat” (newcomer Alfonso Bedoya — forever fidgety, thanks to Huston’s non-direction), earlier uttered the famous line about not having to show “any stinking badges.”

Alfonso Bedoya as "Gold Hat"
“You’re the guy in the hole!” — Alfonso Bedoya as “Gold Hat”

The movie is hard to classify. Basically, it’s part Western and part film noir. For an action-adventure yarn, however, this adult drama emphasizes (wonder of wonders) character development over elaborate special effects – in particular, that of the reckless Dobbsey. His descent into a hellish, fiery furnace is a trifle too literal at times, but otherwise this is fine entertainment the whole family can enjoy. It’s amazing what the talented Bogart could do with this two-dimensional creature. By humanizing Mr. Dobbs, one almost feels sorry for the man, which is probably the right feeling to have in these circumstances.

Tim Holt, so easily affronted and forceful in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), is equally memorable for revealing Curtin’s warm and tender side (the touching letter reading episode, for instance). He’s joined by his old man, veteran cowpuncher Jack Holt, who can be seen briefly in the flophouse sequence.

And last but not least, there’s the great Walter Huston, sounding off with that infectious laugh of his, as well as doing that funny little dance that Billy Crystal so admired (and stole from) for his comedic version of the story (see City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). Huston is the picture’s moral center, the iron rod thrust into the dirt and the fellow you want by your side when the going gets tough — and brother, does it ever get tough!

Tim Holt & Walter Huston
Curtin (Tim Holt) & Howard (Walter Huston) share the last laugh together

One can’t fail to mention composer Max Steiner’s powerful film score, a major character in itself. Others in the strong cast are Barton MacLane as McCormick, young Robert Blake as the boy who sells Bogie the winning ticket, Arturo Soto Rangel as El Presidente, Manuel Donde as El Jefe, José Torvay as Pablo, Margarito Luna as Pancho, Pat Flaherty, and (most controversially) Ann Sheridan as a streetwalker, who had allegedly participated in the production, but which has never been confirmed with absolute certainty.

The ending is a masterpiece of cinematic irony and the film is noteworthy, too, for not having the spoken Spanish subtitled. Regardless, you can figure out what they’re talking about through their actions and gestures.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Yee Haw! A Met Opera Year-End Round Up with ‘The Barber of Seville’, ‘Die Fledermaus’, and ‘Anna Bolena’ (Part One)

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Some Productions are Best Left Unheard

Almaviva (David Portillo), Figaro (Elliot Madore) & Isabel Leonard (Rosina) in The Barber of Seville (Photo: Karen Almond)
Almaviva (David Portillo), Figaro (Elliot Madore) & Isabel Leonard (Rosina) in The Barber of Seville (Photo: Karen Almond)

There’s a lot happening lately over at Lincoln Center Plaza in New York, as well as right here in our little old hometown of Raleigh. Some events are, by their physical proximity, fairly easy to get to; others are much too far away. But wherever they take place, hearing and seeing opera takes precedence (for this opera buff, at least).

Let’s take the Metropolitan Opera, if you please. Last season, the house was plagued with a relentless flu epidemic that devastated the carefully programmed Saturday matinee broadcasts. One had to keep away at all costs to avoid the virus. The miserable wintry weather was partially to blame. Such as they were, both these unforeseen eventualities left their mark on the casts of several important revivals, among them Bizet’s Carmen and both Verdi’s Don Carlo and Un Ballo in Maschera.

Nevertheless, the shows must and did go on as scheduled. However this season, with a milder than average early winter and relatively pleasant daytime temperatures (that drastically changed this weekend, as we all know), the Met broadcasts have been entertaining for the most part, and without incident.

Still, my own feeling about some productions is that they are better left unheard. By that statement, I mean that the Met Opera’s revival of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, on December 26, 2015 (known in England as Boxing Day), happened to be the company’s sliced-and-diced and everything-is-oh-so-nice, English-language concoction by poet, librettist and literary critic J.D. McClatchy. This is one presentation that, by its very nature and execution, I needed to pass up.

Isabel Leonard as Rosina in The Barber of Seville
Isabel Leonard as the minx Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville

Having written at length about this version in a prior post (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/opera-review-the-barber-of-seville-in-english-shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits/), and blown my own gasket over its egregious cuts to such sure-fire elements as Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” and those marvelously timed Rossinian ensembles, I can only state the obvious: this is no way to woo young audiences over to opera.

With that bit of frustration put to rest, let me add that Rossini’s masterpiece is easily and without reservation his most admired work by far. It’s been in the public eye for well over two centuries, and has lost none of its sheen or its ability to gladden the ear and lift the spirit with those sparklingly inventive melodies.

The Barber has firmly established itself as a paean to popular culture, with Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo al factotum” (“Make way for the jack-of-all-trades”), having long ago joined the ranks of Carmen’s “Habañera,” Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” and Alfredo and Violetta’s “Brindisi” as the most frequently played of operatic numbers.

Our own North Carolina Opera will be staging The Barber of Seville this coming April 2016, which I will be very much looking forward to attending. If it’s anything like the NCO’s successful run of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it will surely be a hit. Readers can be assured of a much longer treatment and review when the time comes. For now, I’ll refrain from further comment.

I do want to mention the Met’s radio cast, which included the resourceful Rosina of Isabel Leonard (she’s made a career out of this part, along with the trouser role of Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), tenor Taylor Stayton as Almaviva, baritone Elliot Madore as Figaro, bass Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo, and bass Robert Pomakov in what was left of the reduced role of Don Basilio. Anthony Walker was the conductor in Bartlett Sher and Michael Yeargan’s colorful production.

A “Bat” Not Worth Taking

Susanna Philips (Rosalinde) & Paulo Szot (Falke) in Die Fledermaus
Susanna Phillips (Rosalinde) & Paulo Szot (Falke) in Act II of Die Fledermaus

One opera I missed last year, but this time got to hear in full was the live January 2, 2016 broadcast of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, in another English-language presentation translated by producer Jeremy Sams (lyrics) and Douglas Carter Beane (dialogue). Well, I asked for it.

For the background and plot of this riotous work, please see my previous review of this production when it was new (follow the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/). Suffice it to say, I am far from waxing enthusiastic over this piece. Although it was a favorite of Old Vienna and neighboring venues in its glory days, the forced sentiments and comedic double-dealings (including outright attempts at cuckolding) are somewhat passé by modern standards. You’ll find about as much if not more dirty laundry by tuning into any episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

In any case, the Met put its best foot forward by having their beloved music director, the ailing maestro James Levine, preside on the podium. The move, in my view, was strictly overkill. His legendary care and accustomed expertise was in no way challenged by the frothy, more lighthearted requirements of Die Fledermaus. We’re not talking Wagner here, or Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann) or Mahler, nor even Schoenberg or (heaven help us) Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose unbelievably bombastic and immensely orchestrated Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”) has become in recent years the surprise hit of European opera houses.

But enough about Europe, let’s get back to Manhattan (which, in 2008, mounted a production of Die Soldaten at the Park Avenue Armory) and the broadcast performance of Die Fledermaus, which starred Susanna Phillips as the wacky accident-prone Rosalinde, Lucy Crowe as the chirpy maid Adele, and Susan Graham (always a welcome and valuable commodity) in the walk-on part of Prince Orlofsky, another trouser role.

Ms. Phillips & Toby Spence as Eisenstein
Ms. Phillips & Toby Spence as Gabriel von Eisenstein

On the male side of the ledger, we have pop-eyed British tenor Toby Spence as Gabriel von Eisenstein, Dimitri Pittas as Alfred the Italian singer, Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, the titular “Bat” of the opera, Alan Opie as prison director Frank, and Broadway actor and comic mime Christopher Fitzgerald as the drunken turnkey Frosch. How could you miss with a talented crew such as this? Well, let me count the ways…

Seriously, this was a most distressing affair, topped by a total waste of Levine’s talents. Sure, there were individual bright spots and moments of sheer orchestral delight. But they were few and far between to be effective over the long haul, and clearly unnecessary in a work that tends to play itself. A lively overture and a Ländler waltz or two simply weren’t enough to merit the maestro’s presence. As I mentioned above, this isn’t Wagner, but Fledermaus is a long enough opera to slog through without having to put up with one-too-many dull spots.

Christopher Fitzgerald as rowdy jailor Frosch
Christopher Fitzgerald as rowdy jailor Frosch

Back in the mid-1980s, director Otto Schenk’s tradition-bound production of Die Fledermaus (along with an old-fashioned Ring cycle and an attractively adorned Tannhäuser, which we will soon be hearing) was a clear Met audience favorite. It at least mixed an authentic Viennese flavor with vintage champagne, principally in the New Year’s Eve party and jailhouse sequences. Schenk himself put in an appearance and made a particularly raucous and funny Frosch. But the jokes and hijinks in this American-English version fell flatter than a cheap bottle of imitation Dom Perignon.

At the least, Christopher Fitzgerald got some mileage out of the “inebriated sot” of a jailor, a tired old routine about as old as vaudeville itself. He joined such past cut-ups as Sid Caesar, Jack Gilford, Dom DeLuise, and Danny Burstein in the part. Fitzgerald even offered a bit of leftover schnapps to hopeful audience members, which delivered a goodly number of guffaws from the crowd. Of the two soprano leads, Ms. Crowe got the loudest applause for her stratospheric coloratura turns as Adele, while Ms. Phillips proved the more adept at a flowing cantilena line in the part of the scheming Rosalinde.

However, Susan Graham’s take on the pokerfaced prince (as an Earth Mother par excellence, mind you) left me cold. She appeared wearing a white fright wig, which made her a dead-ringer for Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Well, why not? Orlofsky is supposed to be a bored Russian prince (out of the Eugene Onegin mold, perhaps?), but this sort of cartoonish display can quickly get out of hand (i.e., considering the current state of Hvorostovsky’s health). I’m sure everyone got the joke the first time around. How I long to hear someone as classy as Ms. Graham in a truly praiseworthy part: as Dido again in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, or Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Oh, the pain…

Susan Graham as the bizarre Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus
Susan Graham as the bored and bizarre Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus

Another waste of a talented performer’s time and taste came with Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot’s limited assignment as Dr. Falke. With no major solo to boast of or anything worthwhile to show off this classically trained singer’s artistry, Mr. Szot melted into the woodwork, as did Mr. Opie’s smoothly vocalized Frank and Spence’s veddy British Eisenstein (here excruciatingly called “Gay-bree-ell” by the cast members).

Queens native Dimitri Pittas’ exuberance as Alfred, the lovesick and highly-strung tenor, overcame his apparent struggle with the part’s requisite high notes. Those top A’s poured forth with some effort and were anything but easily produced. He did display a winning comic persona, which was small comfort indeed in what was essentially a not-so-festive atmosphere.

Time to break out that fake Dom Perignon. I’d settle for some schnapps…

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

In the Merry Month of December: A Boring ‘Bohème,’ a Rousing ‘Rigoletto,’ and a Delightful ‘Donna del Lago’ — Need We Say More?

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A Long Time Ago, in an Opera House Far, Far Away….

Finale to Act II of La Boheme at the Met
Finale to Café Momus scene, Act II of La Boheme at the Met

Welcome, opera fans, to the 2015-2016 Metropolitan Opera broadcast season! Did you miss those radio, online streaming, and/or Live in HD transmissions of your favorite works? No? Well, we sure did! As a matter of fact, this is the 84th consecutive season of Met Opera performances to be broadcast live for the pleasure of opera lovers everywhere and throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe.

Today, satellite feeds relay the experience to such faraway spots as Brazil, Australia, South Africa, China, and beyond. And I’ve been a steadfast and unswervingly loyal listener to the Met broadcasts for over half that time. You can’t beat a record like that for consistency, now, can you?

The new season will feature only the fourth host in its long history. Prior to the previously announced Mary Jo Heath, who for the past ten years has served as the program’s senior producer, there were the redoubtable Milton Cross (1931-1975), Peter Allen (1975-2004), and Margaret Juntwait (2004-2014) to contend with. With a master’s thesis behind her that delved into the minutiae of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and a PhD dissertation from the Eastman School of Music that contrasted Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle with Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (French for “Bluebeard”), the evidently knowledgeable Mary Jo is well equipped to take on the challenges that hosting live opera can pose.

In like manner, with a seemingly endless repertoire of facts, figures, useless trivia, and historical lore to entertain and amuse listeners, the eager and ever-smiling Ira Schiff returns to fulfill his main mission as Ms. Heath’s gushing co-host and commentator. Music producer Jay David Saks is back, as well as veteran producers Ellen Keel and William Berger. The series is executive produced by Mia Bongiovanni (now THERE’S an operatic name if I’ve ever heard one!) and Elena Park.

There is also a periodical called Opera News (published monthly by the Metropolitan Opera Guild) that acts as a sort of guide to the weekly Saturday broadcasts. In addition, the print version of the magazine has undergone an extreme makeover that caters more to the tastes of younger opera fanciers than to us old timers. Copious photos of aspiring young artists line its information-packed pages, along with reviews from local and international venues, as well as fluff pieces suggesting to readers what to eat, what to drink, where to travel, and who to watch for in which opera.

Cover of the September 2015 OPERA NEWS (Met Opera Guild)
Cover of the September 2015 OPERA NEWS (Met Opera Guild)

Certainly, the present look and feel of Opera News resembles that of an online podcast for the smart-phone generation, which it may very well become in the foreseeable future. Yes, the tell-tale signs that the youth market now dominates the scene are everywhere — even in the high-cultured world of opera. I wonder, though, if there is any truth behind the purported pandering described above.

I have noticed that orchestra members are indeed getting younger, with more and more women players participating than ever before. That’s certainly something to cheer about!

However, the undeniable irony of opera is that it takes a long time for voices to ripen and mature. Much like the finest wines, age can be both a blessing or a curse to the best of performers. Still, veterans can boast of a dependence on their hard-earned experience to overcome temporary vocal problems. It’s a fact of operatic life that established pros with rock-solid techniques can oftentimes weather these storms better than, say, those who have yet to encounter such difficulties.

As in any sport, relying on the aid and advice of good teachers, skilled vocal coaches or sympathetic stage directors can make the difference between success and failure, thus helping to turn boos into bravos when the time inevitably arrives to face such matters.

A Bohème with Something to Boast About

The radio season kicked off on December 5 with that perennial holiday attraction, Puccini’s La Bohème. The broadcast starred Italian diva Barbara Frittoli as Mimì, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as the poet Rodolfo, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez as Musetta, Rumanian baritone Levente Molnár as the painter Marcello, Russian baritone Alexey Lavrov as the musician Schaunard, the Rockville Centre bass-baritone Christian van Horn as the philosopher Colline, and American buffo John Del Carlo as Benoit/Alcindoro. The performance was presided over by Milanese conductor Paolo Carignani, who will also be conducting two other Puccini works at the Met, Tosca and Turandot.

If I had to describe this piece to the casual listener, I would say that La Bohème epitomizes all that is unique and characteristic of what we call “opera.” After years of studying the work and marveling at its musical pleasures, one can only add that music lovers often refer to it as the “perfect” opera. It’s short and it’s sweet; it’s comic and it’s dramatic; it’s funny and it’s sad, and ultimately tragic.

There are gently poetic turns by many of those involved as well as full-blown operatic ones. For example, a huge chorus in Act II and some lovely set pieces in the outlying acts; a bevy of memorable tunes, an orchestral tone poem at the start of Act III, and two (count ‘em) two lovesick couples to root for. What more can one ask? Oh, and it takes place on Christmas Eve.

Domestic opera companies from the Metropolitan and Chicago Lyric to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House have boasted opulent visuals and eye-popping production values every time they bring this work to the fore. I’m all for lavish scenery and costumes (if and when they are called for), but over the years I’ve grown to accept the fact that despite its reputation as a bustling crowd-pleaser, La Bohème is at heart an intimate drama.

In addition to the above, there are also attractive and rewarding parts both for the would-be novice and the reputable veteran. In the right hands, they can melt an audience’s heart. Two such parts are the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimì. He is the archetypal romantic lead, while she can be as delicate as a flower — and just as fragile, given that from the start she’s afflicted with tuberculosis.

Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) & Mimi (Barbara Frittoli) in Act I of La Boheme
Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) & Mimi (Barbara Frittoli) in Act I of La Boheme

Far from being a “goody-two-shoes,” Mimì is a passionate, loving individual who craves attention, if not so openly as her counterpart, the vivacious Musetta. In one of the discarded scenes from Mürger’s novel that Puccini insisted be excised, so desperate is she to be loved and cared for (but wary of Rodolfo’s jealous outbursts) that she leaves Rodolfo to take up with a wealthy viscount (oh, Mimì, how could you?).

Their Act I “meet cute” (Hollywood-speak for their initial encounter) is surely one of the most touching instances of operatic love-at-first-sight to be found anywhere. Only in opera can young people bawl at each other in full voice and declare their undying affection (they don’t even kiss until later — well, in most productions, anyway). In my mind’s eye, I would prefer to see them slowly but carefully get to know one another through mutual self-discovery.

An example of what I mean is Mimì’s first aria, “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, ma il mio nome è Lucia” (“Yes, they call me Mimi, but my real name is Lucy”). This is the latter half of their getting-to-know-you session, after Rodolfo’s admission in his introductory solo “Che gelida manina” that he has the soul of a millionaire (“L’anima ho milionaria”), even though he’s as poor as sin. He goes on to wax poetic about her enchanting eyes that have robbed him of whatever riches he once possessed (“Ruban tutti gioielli, due ladri gli occhi belli”). Soaring to a high C (not held, by the way, but indicated in the score with a fermata), Rodolfo tells her that the theft does not bother him. In fact, it has given him renewed hope (just like a poet to say that!).

Responding to his request to tell him about herself, Mimì tells him that her story is a brief one. Gradually — and shyly at first — she is guarded in her choice of words (actually, those of the librettist Giacosa), but ultimately reveals to Rodolfo what she likes to do (“I embroider patterns”) and how she spends her free time. She even admits to liking things that have poetic names. “Lei m’intende?” – “You get my drift?” Mimì asks him, quizzically. Rodolfo’s one word answer is: “Sì.” Well, of course he understands: he’s a poet, isn’t he?

Barbara Frittoli as Mimi
Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Mimi

This brief semi-sung passage inside an aria reflects Puccini’s masterly use of parlando — that is, of speaking in short bursts of pointed phrases. It takes the place of the previous generation’s overuse of recitative before the aria proper. What Puccini does here is mimic real conversation between two obviously attracted individuals by wrapping their exchanges in a musical structure that allows both for the advancement of plot and the expression of each character’s innermost thoughts and wants.

About halfway into her scene, Mimì repeats the opening line, “Yes, they call me Mimi,” then appends it with a questioning, “And why? I don’t know.” In her nervousness, her mind starts to wander, flitting from one subject to the other: “Alone, I make my lunch. I don’t always go to Mass, but I pray every day to the Lord.” This is as natural an expression of normal speech as any I can think of. “I live all by myself,” she insists, a fairly brazen admission to a complete stranger. But remember, this is opera, not real life. A reasonable facsimile thereof? Perhaps, or better, an attempt to capture “real life” in musical form.

Mimì then goes on to describe her little white room where she looks out onto the roofs and sky. It’s an unmistakable reference to Rodolfo’s first line in the opera, “Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi” (which translates to “I’m watching the thick gray smoke rise up from the thousands of Parisian chimneys”), the purpose being that these two lonely yet vibrant youngsters share a tedious lifestyle amid the deprivations of the Latin Quarter, the bohemian-like Greenwich Village of its day. But they each manage to draw sustenance from the tedium that makes them hopeful for better days to come.

At this point in my ideal production, Mimì takes a breath and slowly rises to her feet upon saying the line, “Ma quando vien lo sgelo” – “But when the spring thaw arrives, the first rays of sun are mine. The first kiss of April is mine.” She embraces herself with her arms, cuddling to keep the warmth from escaping; her hands reach up to touch her face in a gesture that expresses her yearning for the sun’s life-giving rays. Intuitively, Mimì knows she is dying, even at this early stage (a lost opportunity that many singers and directors fail to take hold of). Her eyes are closed as she sings, which allows her to expose her true feelings of holding on to the moment — and to dear life — through voice alone.

This highly emotional outburst is so typical of Puccini, and so typical of the tender loving care he lavished on his female characters. It’s also one of the opera’s most exhilarating moments, one I hold my own breath for. My only wish is that more conductors would allow the singers to draw the line out a bit longer than they normally do. It sustains the air of anticipation, of a moment frozen in time that may never return.

At last, she opens her eyes, only to notice her drab surroundings. Realizing she is back in Rodolfo’s garret, Mimì reverts to twittering about flowers. “But the ones I make have no fragrance,” she distractedly sighs. She ends her reverie with a rapidly uttered apology for not having more to say about herself and for being a bothersome neighbor. Surprisingly, her and Rodolfo’s autobiographical depictions end not with bluster but with softness, an indication of their sweet, ruminative natures. Ah, young love! If only they knew what troubles lay ahead of them…

And if the broadcast performance on December 5 had more of this kind of unfettered joy and life-affirming intimacy that La Bohème clearly calls for, it might have been a truly remarkable one at that. Sadly, the impression I got was of a routine, by-the-numbers program that was sorely lacking in that punch to the gut that only the best performances (and performers, to be perfectly blunt about it) can provide.

Marcello (Levente Molnar) & Musetta (Ana Maria Martinez) in Act II of "La Boheme"
Marcello (Levente Molnar) & Musetta (Ana Maria Martinez) in Act II of “La Boheme”

Even with the sort of cast that most opera companies would die for, Frittoli’s Mimì was thin and colorless of tone, Vargas’ Rodolfo (who took his “Che gelida manina” down a semitone) was strained and effortful, while the other cast members, including a frayed Del Carlo as a blustery cliché-driven Benoit and Alcindoro, and a far-from-elegant Schaunard by the wavery-voiced Lavrov, simply could not make up for the slack left by the two leads.

Molnár’s strong-willed Marcello and Martínez’s flighty, keenly-observed Musetta tried their best to liven things up, but the vocal chemistry and ensemble effort this work demands simply wasn’t there. Maestro Carignani added little to the general ho-hum environment.

At the least, chorus master Donald Palumbo’s Met Opera chorus was up to snuff, salvaging what little they could of the afternoon’s proceedings. It is an absolute pleasure to hear these excellent choristers prove their mettle each and every time they appear. Bravi, bravi!!! 

Verdi and Rossini at Their Finest

Act I of Verdi's "Rigoletto" with Piotr Beczala & Zeljko Lucic
Act I of Verdi’s Rigoletto with Piotr Beczala & Zeljko Lucic (at right)

December 12 brought Verdi’s Rigoletto back to the airwaves, in director Michael Mayer’s glitzy Las Vegas-style adaptation. Once again, the performance was anchored by Željko Lučić as the Don Rickles-like tragicomic Rigoletto. Debuting soprano Nadine Sierra sang the part of his daughter Gilda, tenor Piotr Beczala returned as the lascivious Duke of Mantua (a Frank Sinatra-type in this mounting), Nancy Fabiola Herrera was the hooker Maddalena, and Dimitry Ivashchenko was her hit-man brother, Sparafucile. Maestro Roberto Abbado led the wonderful Met Opera orchestra.

As readers of my blog are aware, I was thoroughly bowled over by this updated version of the opera when it first premiered, which is similar, in many respects, to an earlier production by Jonathan Miller for the English National Opera (from the 1980s) that set the story in New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy. One striking element from that staging was the third act scene where the “Duke,” a gangland boss, put a coin in the slot of an old jukebox in Sparafucile’s hideaway that went on to play a 45-rpm recording of “La donna è mobile” — a novel touch, if I do say so.

The afternoon’s performance suddenly caught fire with Ms. Sierra’s superbly delivered, excellently acted and articulated Gilda. Still only in her twenties, Sierra’s coloratura fireworks, in the virginal aria “Caro nome,” and her bold entreaties to her father in Act II ignited this production every time she appeared on stage, so much so that it bolstered the confidence of the other participants in outdoing each other. For instance, Beczala never sounded better as the ribald, all-or-nothing-at-all Duke, clearly in the Sinatra mold.

Nadine Sierra as Gilda & Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto
Nadine Sierra as Gilda & Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto in the tragic finale

Nadine’s effervescence even livened up the put upon hunchback of baritone Lučić, whose gnarly line and muscular tone can be torture to the ears at times. However, he overcame the title role’s treacherously high tessitura with a sympathetic and rousing portrayal of the jester.

In his earlier assumption of the part when this production was still new, Lučić merely avoided the alternate unwritten high notes that end the opera; but here, he threw caution to the winds and let out a long-held howl of despair at his daughter’s murder that lowered the curtain on this despondent character’s tribulations. Not for nothing was Rigoletto’s original incarnation (in Victor Hugo’s play) called Triboulet.

Moving on to the bel canto realm, the December 19 broadcast reintroduced listeners to Gioachino Rossini’s 1819 drama La Donna del Lago (“The Lady in the Lake”) in the production by Paul Curran, with Joyce DiDonato as Elena, Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcolm, the spectacular Lawrence Brownlee as Giacomo (or James) V, John Osborn as Rodrigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. The conductor was the resourceful Michele Mariotti.

The opera is based on a romantic poem by Sir Walter Scott, the same author who later had fired Donzietti’s imagination with his 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a 16th-century tale of knights and damsels in distress set in the Scottish highlands. The difference being that everyone warbles in Italian! Mamma mia!

I’m not the biggest fan of Rossini’s tragedies: they all sound like comedic romps to me, no matter how stark or dramatic the subject matter. His overtures are world renowned, however, and show a depth of understanding and mastery of the form like no other. Musicologists and historians have gone on record as claiming that Rossini wrote nearly 40 operatic works, with an almost equal distribution of comic and tragic pieces. Only his contemporary Donizetti surpassed him with a back-breaking 60 works to his credit.

John Osburn, Joyce DiDonato & Lawrence Brownlee in "La Donna del Lago"
John Osburn, Joyce DiDonato & Lawrence Brownlee in “La Donna del Lago”

Thankfully, La Donna del Lago provides ample opportunities for both protagonists and antagonists to display their coloratura wares, as it were. All the above participants were enjoyable and thoroughly reliable, with the amazing Lawrence Brownlee taking top vocal honors in an unbelievable demonstration of agility and control, along with astounding high notes and coloratura dexterity in alt. Brownlee will be appearing soon on a PBS broadcast of the annual Richard Tucker Gala. This warrants a not-to-be-missed disclaimer for his fans!

On that same PBS telecast will be adult-oriented pop sensation Andrea Bocelli singing Lionel’s popular “M’appari, tutt’amor” aria from Flotow’s Martha. From what I heard of his portion of the program, Bocelli has a long way to go in the operatic sweepstakes to please this listener’s discerning ears and tastes. I find his wavery attempts at a clear legato line and his choppy, broken phrasing distracting in the extreme. He should leave well enough alone and let experts like the superbly-gifted Brownlee, not to mention the incredibly flexible Joyce DiDonato, do their “thing” in operatic circles.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New, and What’s New Gets Old Fast

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Of Concerts and Symposiums

The Felix E. Grant "Wall of Fame" at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014
The Felix E. Grant “Wall of Fame” at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014

What’s old is new. And what’s new gets old fast.

This was the takeaway from my visit in June 2014 to the Strathmore Music and Arts Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. As part of their week-long celebration, “Bringing Bossa Nova to the United States,” and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album Jazz Samba recorded by Stan Getz and the Charlie Byrd Trio, I was invited to take part in the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Among the featured events that week was the world premiere rough-cut screening of the documentary Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Charmed the World, directed and produced by videographer Bret Primack and co-produced by music journalist, educator, guitarist, and bandleader Ken Avis, along with a Q & A session with Buddy Deppenschmidt, who played on the classic Jazz Samba. I had the immense pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famed jazz drummer, performer, and teacher on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at the Strathmore Music Center’s Education Room 309, which I have previously written about and posted (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/)

Prior to our interview, my wife Regina and I took an extensive tour of the Jazz Samba Project Exhibit, co-curated by Georgina Javor, the Strathmore’s former Director of Programming, and the aforementioned Mr. Avis. The exhibit showed only a small fraction of the extensive Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, at the University of the District of Columbia, which was itself curated by Dr. Judith A. Korey, Professor of Music, whom I also met and spoke to.

Felix E. Grant was a local Washington, D.C. radio broadcaster who took a personal interest in bringing jazz and Brazil’s music and culture to American shores. It was a fabulous exhibit! We were extremely pleased with its breadth and scope, in particular the “walls of sound” (my term) wherein album covers of well known and obscure recordings from the late 1950s up through the mid-60s were displayed up-and-down and across the room’s walls. We had some truly memorable moments re-visiting and re-connecting with bossa nova greats (and not-so-greats) from years past. The entire display reflected a high degree of professionalism and respect for Brazilian music — a most satisfying experience for us.

One of the highlights was a prominently showcased, generously proportioned coffee-table tome (a copy of which I subsequently ordered online) entitled Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, and from which the above exhibition was drawn.

My wife Regina marveling at singer Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova - June 2014
My wife Regina marveling at Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova – June 2014

Published in 2010 by Soul Jazz Books, a division of Soul Jazz Records, this hardcover volume is a collection of bossa nova record album cover art work from the Odeon, Elenco, Philips, and other labels from the period in question. It was compiled by Gilles Peterson, a British-based DJ, record collector, and record label owner, and Stuart Baker, the founder and proprietor of the Soul Jazz label.

Between its covers were featured breathtakingly beautiful modernist and revolutionary designs (some hinting at the coming “psychedelic” era) that reflected “the radical and exciting idealism of Brazil at the start of the 1960s,” an idealism that was quickly squashed with the advent of the military dictatorship post-1964 and the subsequent crackdown of 1968.

The fading memory of those bitter times and my fellow Brazilians’ nearly two-decade long struggle to free themselves from the generals’ iron grip have left some young people — and a growing number of old-timers with faulty recollections — with an alarming nostalgia for “the way things were.” This self-deluded yearning for the purported “good old days,” where Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) — curiously, the country’s motto stamped on the Brazilian flag — remains an unrealized promise, will serve as an excellent example of our penchant for hankering after a non-existent past.

My observation above of things that are old being new and those that are new getting old stems as well from a Friday evening concert of June 6, 2014, by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and the Grammy Award-winning Niteroi-born singer-musician Sérgio Mendes and his band. Both Sérgio and Eliane have long pedigrees in the pop-music business going back many decades.

Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes - Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014
Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes – Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014

In Eliane’s case, her piano playing craft on the night of the concert was anything but old. Quite the contrary, she displayed finger-snapping pep and vigor to burn on the old 88s. Her treatment of material by Jobim, Ary Barroso, and Ronaldo Bôscoli, in addition to some of her own compositions, was well-nigh perfect, with just the right amount of zing and pizzazz in all the right places. Eliane was helped by a crack band of first-rate players, consisting of husband Marc Johnson on upright bass and the carioca-born Rafael Barata on drums. Barata made a particularly spectacular impression with his lightning-fast solos and fancy stick-work — why, the man was a veritable human octopus!

The second half of the program, which starred Mendes on keyboards and vocals, and his wife Gracinha Leporace as soloist providing backup support, included toward the end a re-imagined “rap” version of Jorge Ben Jor’s signature “Mas Que Nada” tune — fine and dandy in execution, but hardly an audience favorite with the over-50 crowd that predominated — and a final encore of Mendes, John Powell, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Siedah Garrett’s “Real in Rio” from their 2011 animated collaboration Rio (produced by Blue Sky Studios) that fell flat and virtually sucked the air out of the good vibes left over from “Mas Que Nada.”

Mixing the old with the new, then, turned out to not only to be a mixed bag but one that left a big, fat hole in an otherwise excellent program shared by two established Brazilian artists.

The Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Before I get into the particulars of the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium, let me recount what led up to my participation in that weekend invitational. It was Buddy Deppenschmidt himself who informed me about this event in Bethesda. He sent me the link back in mid-March 2014, which I swiftly checked out. As I did so, my wife called me to say that somebody from the Jazz Samba Fest had phoned my home asking for additional information. Now that was quick! My wife tried to get the name of the lady who called, but was unable to understand the semi-garbled message.

My initial thought, if indeed I’d ever get the rare opportunity to be up there with the Giants of Jazz Samba and Bossa Nova, was to discuss Black Orpheus (that is, the original play and musical), how it all came about, how the Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim partnership came together, and all that jazz. Might as well put my knowledge to good use, at least that was my impression, since I had been involved in trying to bring the project to Broadway for the last, what, six or more years!

Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall -- Strathmore, June 2014
Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall at the Strathmore, June 2014

Finally, I received an e-mail from Ms. Georgina Javor, the young lady who had called my home. She would love to have me attend some of the festivities and asked if I had ever moderated any discussions before? I told her that yes, I had moderated a few as well as interviewed several personalities in the recent past, and that I would love to moderate the Q & A session with Buddy.

Georgina spelled out the terms of my participation, to which I accepted. In addition, she kindly provided tickets to the Elias-Mendes Friday night concert, which for us turned out to be the spicy topping on this all-Brazilian pastry.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes