Month: September 2016

‘Manon Lescaut,’ ‘Madama Butterfly,’ and the Met’s Latest Love Couple (Part Two): The Tall and the Short of It

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Game of Thorns and Thrones

Bunraku puppet Trouble, Cio-Cio-San (Kristine Opolais) & Suzuki (Maria Zifchak) in Act II of Madama Butterfly
Bunraku puppet Trouble, Cio-Cio-San (Kristine Opolais) & Suzuki (Maria Zifchak) in Act II of Madama Butterfly (Met Opera Photo)

In a little under a decade, Puccini had achieved the seemingly impossible: he was finally being recognized as the inevitable heir to Verdi’s throne. With the premature passing of fellow Tuscan Alfredo Catalani, Puccini was, by all reports, the last man standing. If the title of Italy’s leading composer had any particular significance for him, it meant he had no alternative but to go on providing one hit opera after another.

As you can imagine, the pressure on his nervous system was enormous. Added to which, Puccini’s penchant for endlessly searching for a viable story, plot element or theme grew precipitately worse with age. With his two most dependable collaborators, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Puccini created La Bohème (1896) — all poetry, no drama — and Tosca (1900) — all drama, no poetry; works as different from one another as Genoa salami was from Virginia ham.

And, to be perfectly blunt, Puccini was never more enticed by a subject than when another composer had begun to work on it. We have ample evidence of his “theft” of other’s ideas, to call it what it was, throughout his professional life. Despite warnings of box-office doom, a decade earlier he had turned the Abbé Prévost novel Manon Lescaut, previously adapted by Frenchman Jules Massenet, into a major triumph (with certain musical-dramatic reservations, we might add).

Two months later, while sipping espresso at a restaurant with fellow composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Puccini let it slip he had been working on another French novel entitled Scenes from Bohemian Life. This innocent aside led to a heated argument between the two. It seemed that Leoncavallo had also been busy working — on the exact same title! Did Puccini not recall that fact, which Leoncavallo had conveniently told him about only a few months prior?

Brushing this revelation to the side, Puccini told his friend he was forging ahead with plans to set La Bohème, as it was going to be called, to music (loose copyright laws being what they were back then). In the meantime, Leoncavallo had left the restaurant, and his espresso, in a steaming huff. Settling down to write both the lyrics and the score, Leoncavallo labored over his version of La Bohème for what seemed an eternity. Consequently, Puccini beat his former friend to the punch by having his opera bow a year and three months before Leoncavallo had laid down his quill.

To be fair, some niceties do abound in the Leoncavallo piece, including a dramatic air for tenor much favored by Caruso. All in all, Puccini’s lighter touch in depicting his opera’s star-crossed lovers touched audience’s hearts as well. In Leoncavallo’s drier-eyed reading, the plot focused instead on the foibles of Marcello the jealous painter and Musetta the saucy hoyden. Wrong choice of leads! The winner: Puccini by a head.

Almost the same situation occurred a few years hence when Puccini got wind of French playwright Victorien Sardou’s five-act melodrama, La Tosca. He caught the play in performance, and straight away grasped that this was the vehicle for his next opus. Alas, it too was currently being worked on, having been assigned to composer Alberto Franchetti (Cristoforo Colombo, Germania) by Puccini’s own publisher, Giulio Ricordi.

Such was Puccini’s determination to possess the work that Ricordi, once he learned of his interest in it, realized his talented protégé would be the perfect choice to do justice to the bloody tale. A plot was thereupon hatched to “convince” Franchetti that Tosca was a bad play, that it would be hooted off the stage by respectable folk, and that anyone attempting to draw poetic verse from this tripe would be in for a rude awakening.

Alberto Franchetti, circa 1906 (en.wikipedia.org)
Alberto Franchetti, circa 1906 (en.wikipedia.org)

The deception worked. Franchetti returned the libretto to his publisher and Puccini was handed the assignment forthwith. But unlike the resentful Leoncavallo, who harbored a lifelong animosity toward his ex-colleague, Franchetti was made of stronger stuff. In the first place, he was born into wealth, ergo, he felt little need to depend on a successful stage work for his survival. In the second, it was clear that Puccini, a fellow Touring Club member, would be far better at setting a play of this particular “notoriety.” Besides, he had the redoubtable Giacosa and Illica at his beck and call. The winner and still champion: Puccini!

With his next work, Madama Butterfly, which premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1904, the composer found himself facing an exotic-themed subject alien to his basic nature. Inspired by another play he had seen performed on the stage (American impresario David Belasco and lawyer John Luther Long’s one-act Madame Butterfly), Puccini was overwhelmed. Although he barely understood a word of English, he claimed to have followed the story line with relative ease. To him, it made perfect sense that if he could comprehend the mechanics of the plot, then others would have no trouble discerning them as well.

The main problem was obtaining the authorship rights, negotiations for which were long and protracted. When they finally came through, Puccini settled into his old pattern of providing local flavor and effect. Much time was spent on researching Japanese customs and foreign mores. There are even accounts of his visiting the noted Japanese actress and former geisha, Sada Yacco, for tips on how to dress and walk; and there were more than a few conversations with the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy, whose promise to send Puccini recordings of her country’s music never materialized.

Japanese Sada Yacco (alchetron.com)
Japanese actress and former geisha Sada Yacco (alchetron.com)

The outcome of his obsession with authenticity, however, was a far cry from what Puccini had initially anticipated. The opera, as we know from history, was an abject failure at its La Scala premiere. After considerable alteration to its original two-act structure, Madama Butterfly stretched forth her wings anew in a revamped three-act version for Brescia. Failure was turned into success as the opera settled in for an extended run.

For more on the troubled history of, and background to, one of Puccini’s most in-demand works, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/madama-butterfly-north-carolina-opera-triumphs-with-puccinis-japanese-tragedy-part-one/.

One Fine Day (Or Not)

With the exception of Japanese hostilities during World War II, there has hardly been a time when Madama Butterfly was out of favor with the general public. Every major and minor house you can think of has made the opera an integral part of its permanent repertory.

And speaking of which, the late Anthony Minghella’s opulent Metropolitan Opera production has been a mainstay at the company for the better part of a decade. With sets by Michael Levine, costumes by Han Feng, lighting by Peter Mumford, and direction and choreography by Minghella’s widow Carolyn Choa, this revival went on to set the standard for modern-day presentations of this Italian masterwork. That was then; this is now.

Familiarity, as the saying goes, can also breed contempt. And for this writer, I find this once path-breaking adaptation to be suffering from a midlife crisis. For one, it’s much too slow moving. The pacing of the opera’s key scenes — in particular, the wedding party in Act I, the love duet that ends the act, Cio-Cio-San’s sliding partitions in Act II, the Bunraku puppetry, et al. — have the added problem of trying to appear fresh and innovative. True, at one point this production was on the cutting edge of topical theatricality. Today, however, it’s burdened with taking on too much of its own weight.

For instance, the wedding party is lacking in drive and energy. With the addition of two extra minutes of music for the Met (most regional opera companies tend to cut the scene down to a bare minimum, as witnessed by this author in last season’s North Carolina Opera presentation), that for the most part can liven the proceedings twofold. When the fanatical Uncle Bonze makes his entrance before the ink is dry on the marriage certificate (in the manner of Count Monterone in Verdi’s Rigoletto), he must shake the rafters with bombast and rage, as I’ve seen in countless other productions. He’s an oriental holly-roller, if you will, and his denunciation of Cio-Cio-San for having abandoned her ancestral religion is the central thrust of the action.

Because of those gorgeously polished mirrors above and below the stage, running about — even walking from one side to the other— becomes as precarious as scaling Mount Fuji. In my experience, there have been a host of fantastically costumed Bonzes weighed down with all types of Kabuki and Noh paraphernalia. Yet, the effect of their curse has been nothing less than stupendous. In this production, we had (for once) the powerfully intoned pronouncements of bass Stefan Szkafarowsky. His movements, however, and everyone else’s were visibly hampered by the treacherous footing on those same polished mirrors. The scene lost its thrust and focus as a result.

The Wedding Party scene, Act I of Madama Butterfly (Met Opera Photo)
The Wedding Party scene, Act I of Madama Butterfly (Met Opera Photo)

This effect spilled over into the singing and acting, which was not necessarily a blemish. On April 2, 2016, Latvian diva Kristine Opolais took over the title role. Opolais has sung Cio-Cio-San on prior occasions, including a memorable Friday evening two seasons back, on April 4, 2014. Due to the indisposition of fellow artist Anita Hartig, Opolais filled in for her at the proverbial last-minute as Puccini’s Mimì in the following day’s Saturday broadcast of La Bohème.

Opolais was joined on the radio by rising star tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo, baritone Massimo Cavaletti as Marcello, bass Oren Gradus as Colline, baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard, and soprano Susanna Phillips as Musetta, all of whom gave absolutely splendid accounts of their respective roles. The Live in HD transmission captured the spirit of camaraderie of all these fine singers, especially those of the men.

In Kristine Opolais’ case, she had just come off the Madama Butterfly production on Friday, April 4, when, bright and early the next morning, she received an urgent call from the Met’s management imploring her to take over the matinee broadcast of Bohème. It was the first time that a Met artist had sung two back-to-back performances in two different works with barely a few hours notice in between.

Working off only three hours sleep, Kristine nonetheless came through like the trouper that she is. Her singing, though sounding tired and forced in certain spots, was just what the doctor ordered for the part of the consumptive heroine. In fact, she brought Mimì to life, delivering a beautifully phrased and elegantly expansive reading of “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” in Act I, as well as a pulsing, thoroughly vibrant “Donde lieta usci” in Act III as she bade farewell to her lover, meltingly sung and acted by the suavely handsome Grigolo, an unusually reactive Rodolfo.

Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo with Kristine Opolais as Mimi in La Boheme (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)
Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo with Kristine Opolais as Mimi in La Boheme (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

Her death scene was poignant and affecting in its subtlety, with all of the players contributing truly heart-breaking asides at the close. At the curtain, one could sense that the participants were as emotionally drained by the experience as they were justifiably satisfied with their performances. These artists gave it their all in pitching in for a fellow player. And their efforts showed.

Only Opera Lovers Left Alive

Incidentally, not only was that April 2014 Butterfly Kristine Opolais’ role debut in the grueling part, she had also made her Met stage bow with La Bohème. And here we are, almost two years to the day, with the Latvian soprano at it again. Her colleagues on this occasion were French tenor Roberto Alagna as Lt. Pinkerton, baritone Dwayne Croft as the Consul Sharpless, tenor Tony Stevenson as Goro, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, the aforementioned Stefan Szkafarowsky as the Bonze, Yunpeng Wang as Yamadori, mezzo Edyta Kulczak as Kate Pinkerton, and David Crawford as the Imperial Commissioner. Karel Mark Chichon was the conductor for this matinee performance.

Height advantage in opera can be either a blessing or a curse, especially for sopranos paired with much shorter colleagues. Because a lower-voiced singer needs the additional height for added resonance, basses tend to be on the tall side. Tenors, on the other hand, require less height to reach their top-most notes. This is not a hard and fast rule, not by any means. But I’ve noticed that the average Rodolfo or Pinkerton falls somewhere in between the tall and the short side of their parts.

Alagna, whose Chevalier des Grieux we reviewed in our last post, is not the puniest of the breed, but nor is he the most lanky Pinkerton on record. I must admit that seeing him perform next to Ms. Opolais in Manon Lescaut was a bit like watching a boy in confrontation with his mother. It’s hard for artists to overcome these economies of scale, so let me say this: whatever disparity in their relative stance, Alagna and Opolais sang and acted their roles in both Butterfly and Manon Lescaut about as well as anyone could, given the above set of caveats.

Shy and demure as the teenage child-bride in Act I, Opolais blossomed into a tough and determined woman in Act II, fighting to keep her family circle intact. That family circle included her three-year-old son Dolore (“Sorrow” in translation, but called “Trouble” in the original play) and her loyal maidservant Suzuki. I noted in my Manon Lescaut write-up that her vocal production was akin to that of Italian prima donna Renata Tebaldi. The rubato and overtones she employed were unmistakable in their resemblance to Tebaldi, a sign of Opolais’ growing development as a serious artist and performer.

Both on the radio and in the Live in HD transmission, Opolais dominated the field through the sheer force of her personality. I do believe, however, that vocal maturity may guide her further along the path of becoming a singer of the first rank. Shaping her Italian vowels more precisely may help achieve that goal, while making those sounds more distinctive in contrast to her consonants can only enhance what is already a fully-formed portrait of the geisha girl-turned-proactive parent.

Cio-Cio-San (Opolais) & Pinkerton (Alagna), Act I of Madama Butterfly (Met Opera Photo)
Cio-Cio-San (Opolais) & Pinkerton (Alagna), Act I of Madama Butterfly (Met Opera Photo)

One curiosity for lovers of useless trivia: in the original Italian vocal score, the lieutenant’s full name is given as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton or “B.F. Pinkerton” for short. However, when the opera was translated for English-speaking audiences in Great Britain, the initials “B.F.” were an abbreviation for the disparaging phrase “Bloody Fool.” Therefore, the name was changed to Francis Blummy Pinkerton, with the ensuing “F.B.” taking the place of the traditional “B.F.” Sounds like “B.S.” to me, but the result is that audiences have been treated to an array of misnomers that clash with the prevailing wisdom. Most sopranos, including Ms. Opolais, still continue to call Pinkerton by the initials “F.B.,” even on records and DVD; while the rest of the cast address him as “B.F.” Go figure!

As for Alagna, his easy vocalism and casual deportment are positive aspects in his personification of the callous Navy lieutenant. One should also make note of his lifting of the taller Ms. Opolais into his arms, as he carried her off to their love nest. (Include weight training as a prerequisite for operatic stardom.) The role is not as strenuous as that of the Chevalier des Grieux, nor does it encompass the extremes of range of a Prince Calaf in Turandot. Above all, the artist portraying Pinkerton must display a noticeable swagger to his tone, a carefree above-it-all attitude to Cio-Co-San’s relatives and servants, to the slimy marriage broker Goro and, most important of all, to the American Consul Sharpless.

This Alagna did, though at the expense of extending his basically lyrical instrument beyond its comfort zone. He took the unwritten high C at the end of the Love Duet, as most present-day performers do in this part, and made the most of his wonderful banter with Goro and Sharpless early on — superb examples of Puccini’s gloriously natural writing for tenor and baritone.

Cio-Cio-San (Opolais) speaking with Consul Sharlpess (Dwayne Croft) in Act II of Madama Butterfly
Cio-Cio-San (Opolais) speaking with Consul Sharlpess (Dwayne Croft) in Act II of Madama Butterfly

Moving on to the other singers, Dwayne Croft was his old sympathetic self as the Consul Sharpless. Now here is an artist who completely envelops himself in the Consul’s dilemma of having to relay the bad news to Butterfly of her husband’s coming. Croft fully recovered from some uncharacteristic unsteadiness earlier in the season as the minister Ping in Turandot, during scene one of the Act II trio. Always a welcome presence on the Met Opera or any stage, for that matter, Croft acquitted himself well. He was awarded the Richard Tucker Award back in 1996, and has been making Met appearances for well-on 20 years and counting. Great going, Dwayne!

A veteran of many a Butterfly production both here and elsewhere, Maria Zifchak sang Suzuki about as well as could be expected. It’s been stated that Puccini had an unfortunate tendency to slight his minor characters out of extended solos and such. That may well be. However, artists of the exalted caliber of Zifchak, Croft, Tony Stevenson as Goro (a tad underpowered vocally, but portrayed with oily pomposity), and the rest of the Met cast are as valuable to a production’s success as any lead singer’s contribution — solo numbers or not.

London-born British conductor (by way of the island of Gibraltar) Karel Mark Chichon, who is also married, by the way, to Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, led the Met Opera Orchestra in an evenly-spaced, thoroughly satisfying navigation through the Puccinian minefield of melody and tone painting. At the end, I was left to ponder how the Met’s outgoing principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, would have sounded in this piece after his extraordinary double-duty in Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the previously stipulated Manon Lescaut. They were to die for!

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis (Part Three): The Dating Game, ‘Paulistano’ Style

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Life is What You Make of It

Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background
Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background

Telling my parents’ life stories, and, at the same time, getting the facts of their courtship straight, haven’t been easy. The main problem is that they have long since departed: my mother died on December 16, 1985, at age sixty-one, from kidney disease; dad left us on October 23, 1993, of congestive heart failure at seventy-one — a mere eight years between deaths.

Even when residing and working in São Paulo as a teacher of English, I was barely able to communicate with relatives from either side of the family during the time I had spent there (September 1996 to January 2001). Hence, you will forgive me if the details of my account must depend primarily on anecdotal evidence.

It’s not enough to claim that Annibal Peres Lopes (or Lopes Peres, as recorded on the marriage certificate) and the former Lourdes Ferreira eventually wound up in each other’s arms. True, it wasn’t anywhere near the way Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durance’s romance blossomed in Now, Voyager.

If you recall, the enamored pair were stranded for days on end after their motorcar crashed near the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Still, I have to admit: in their unique way, mom and dad did have what, in Hollywood parlance, would come to be called a “meet cute.”

In the numerous documents my father left behind, he gave his São Paulo street address as Rua Rio Bonito No. 1293. This was close enough to, if not in the general vicinity of, where my mother had worked and lived (i.e., Rua Dr. Vergilio do Nascimento). Based on who did the actual telling, this is where their stories diverge.

In dad’s version, he had seen my mother several times before they actually met, but had no idea she was related to one his helpers, her adolescent brother Rubens. Dad would see her walking with a group of young women, one of whom, her sister Iracema, happened to be engaged to Agostinho Pires, another of my father’s partners. One day, dad playfully asked Rubens if he had a spare sister for him to date. Just then, mom rounded the corner with her siblings.

“There she is!” shouted Rubens.

“But, I know this lady!” dad answered back. And from that moment on, they hit it off.

As my mother would relate it, she and her sisters were on their way to a church social or similar get-together. They had come upon some friends who, quite by chance, happened to know so-and-so, and/or so-and-so’s brother or sister. That’s how young people in the neighborhood got to meet and greet one another, through mutual acquaintances.

All the same, mom was waiting with her sisters at the local bus stop, called o ponto de onibus — a literal wooden stake, or “point,” shaped like a giant pencil planted in the middle of the block or street corner.

Old-fashioned "ponto de onibus") ("bus stop") in Sao Paulo
Old-fashioned ponto de onibus (“bus stop”) in Sao Paulo, Brazil

In a reversal of mom’s narrative, it was dad who suddenly put in an appearance with his buddies. They were dressed to the nines in their immaculately pressed suits and silk ties. By force of habit, dad would never, ever venture forth from his mother’s residence in anything but a white long-sleeved shirt, starched to the hilt by one of his sisters. With him was his ever-present cigarette in hand.

Having admired my mother from afar and taken a liking to her calm, reticent manner (quite unlike that of most girls he’d been dating), dad started a conversation with her. When he learned she was going to church with her sisters, he asked if he could tag along. Mom nodded in agreement, and they all boarded the bus together as it approached. Dad accompanied my mother inside and waited for her to find a suitable spot. Once she sat down, he dutifully planted himself on the seat next to hers.

In the meantime, his buddies had followed the couple on board the bus, all the while snickering behind their back and cracking loud jokes at my father’s expense: “Hey, Annibal, you bum! Watch those hands! We can see your every move! Oh, will you look at that! He’s making goo-goo eyes at her! Behave yourself, you dog, or we’re calling her parents!”

Dad ignored their crude remarks. He was too busy focusing his gaze on the shy, young woman to his side. For her part, mom was enraptured. In what seemed like no time at all, the chubby, bespectacled second-oldest daughter of Francisco and Ana Ferreira (an early portrait of my mother struck me as a carbon copy of Jerry Durrance’s daughter Tina) was engaged to the handsomest, most charming bachelor of Alto do Pari. “Um pão de homem” (“A hunk of a man”) was how the locals described him, with dark, wavy hair, olive complexion, and chestnut-brown eyes. Not only was he fastidious about his looks and dress, but dad boasted a muscular build, a slender face, and a strong chin, topped with a neatly trimmed mustache.

Oh, he was quite the catch, all right — with one hell of a Latin temper to match. Notwithstanding mom’s Protestant fervor, as a concession to her future mother-in-law the religious ceremony took place in a Catholic parish ministered by the local priest. Mom also agreed to have her firstborn child baptized in the same parish, that of Igreja São João Batista. Wedding pictures from that period bore witness to her miraculous change from a self-professed ugly duckling to that of a gorgeous September bride. Mom looked smashing in her lace bridal gown with matching flower bouquet and crown. She and dad were beaming with delight.

My parents' wedding photograph (September 1953)
My parents’ wedding photograph (September 1953)

And to think their storybook marriage almost failed to come off! About a week before the big day, dad’s partner “Noca,” who was known to take a nip (or more) between trips, crashed their truck into a ditch. There went dad’s sole means of livelihood. Before desperation began to sink in, our relatives came to my father’s aid: they were able to recover the vehicle and bring it back to its former working condition in time for the wedding ceremony.

Immediately after the reception, the couple honeymooned in nearby Santos, which for paulistanos was the seaside equivalent of Rio. When they returned from their trip, the newlyweds moved in with my father’s family. His father, Alfredo, had died years earlier when dad was only nineteen. Since then, his mother had taken up the challenge of running the Lopes household as she saw fit. Grandma Encarnación — La Abuela, as dad pejoratively referred to her — ruled with an iron rod. Charlotte Vale’s bully of a parent was child’s play compared to this formidable grande dame. Dressed all in black, my foreign-born grandmother would don the mantilla, which enveloped her long, gray-streaked hair, held tightly in a bun and comb. Her face was heavily lined, and her speech was spiced with a thick Spanish accent.

Mom suffered at the hands of her in-laws. Because of her total dedication to being a model wife and mother, with one or two exceptions (my aunts Marina and Herminia, for example) the others were uniformly resentful of her presence. Mom’s gentleness and timidity, along with the quiet, nondescript way she went about her business —and in particular, her good nature — were frowned upon in a home where clamor and name-calling were a common way of life.

They were jealous as well of mom’s daily visits to her mother, who lived only a few blocks away. Since Vovó Encarnación had been treated harshly by her alcoholic husband, she regarded everyone around her as worthy of being treated in like manner. In turn, Grandma was callously treated by her own children (including my dad). Now grown up, the harshest of the sisters felt it only fair to take their frustrations out on my mom.

On one of these visits, she expressed to her mother Ana the deep sorrow and profound distress she experienced while staying at her in-laws. Vovó Ana, who was well-schooled on the theme of rude relations, counseled her to carry on in the face of her difficulties; that the good Lord would provide an answer to her seemingly inescapable dilemma.

Shortly thereafter, mom became pregnant with her first child (yours truly). Because of this, my father resolved that mom should have a home of her own. For which he arranged a move to a new apartment above a local real estate office on Rua Pedroso da Silveira, a mere stone’s throw from her mother’s dwelling. Mom was overjoyed at the prospect. Since dad traveled so frequently, she would be better-off living close to her own kin than to her in-laws. They could care for her, too, in the event he was unable to be present for my birth.

It took years for Vovó Encarnación to recognize the precious jewel she had in her daughter-in-law: that hard-working, dedicated, and utterly selfless individual I grew to love and admire was forced to overcome her natural reserve in order to endure almost unrelieved anguish. During the time she spent with her in-laws, mom refused to argue back, but neither did she buckle under from dread. Moreover, she maintained her composure throughout the year-long ordeal, never once offending those who took it upon themselves to offend. Through her example, mom went on to earn their respect, if not their ardor. In time, dad’s relatives came around and softened their approach. There would always be someone that continued to harbor unmerited animosity towards her, but overall mom triumphed through kindness and resilience, and by never giving in to despair.

As for La Abuela, she continued to regard my mother warily, but with a noticeable degree of deference. After all, she was a full-blooded Spaniard. If anything, Vovó Encarnación applauded mom’s ability to care for her children (my brother, Anibal Jr., was born a year and three months after me) and, in all honesty, Grandma treated us kindly. Mom’s diligence in that department would serve her well in the biggest and farthest move of her life: to a home in the South Bronx, in the northeastern part of the United States, far from the familiar surroundings of Alto do Pari.

Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage
Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage

Dad paved the way for us in May 1959. With his inherent independent streak, he had wanted to get away from his relatives for some time, to live his own life free from their constant prying and whining. After securing employment at a lamp factory as well as putting a down payment on a three-story house at 942 Stebbens Avenue near Fort Apache in the Bronx, dad sent for his wife and two sons.

Mom had never left the State of São Paulo, nor had she set foot outside her native land, until the day she boarded a six-engine TWA transcontinental airline. It took twenty-four nonstop hours to reach Idlewild Airport in Queens. Mom traveled alone with her two boys, aged five and three-and-a-half. She spoke not a word of English. What courage she must have displayed! What strength and single-minded purpose! One can only imagine the thoughts that had gone through her head, or the hardships that would lie before her.

She once told me that leaving her mother behind was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She would have stayed in Brazil — willingly, at that — if only her mom had asked. The story goes that the wrinkled old woman took mom’s “little hands of gold” in hers. Staring gently but gravely into her searching eyes, Grandma Ana gave my mother this piece of advice: “Filha, seu lugar é com seu marido” (“Daughter, your place is with your husband”). And that settled that.

Mom learned to speak and understand a reasonable amount of English in the twenty-five years she lived and worked in New York. She braved the freezing cold winters and the blisteringly hot and humid summers as best she could. She even managed to get around with facility, taking the subway and the bus to wherever she needed to go. When neither was available, she made it under her own power.

She continued the daily grind almost up until the week she passed away. I had only seen my father cry twice beforehand, once at his mother-in-law Ana Joaquina’s demise, and again when my Aunt Marina’s husband, Uncle Frederico, died suddenly a week after New Year’s. When news reached him that his own mother had passed, I remember him sitting alone in the living room with the lights turned off. No tears were shed that night for Encarnación Peres Leimones, but they poured forth like a tropical rainstorm when our mother breathed her last, much as he had done for his mother-in-law when she had gone.

Dad lived another eight winters. He had suffered three heart attacks up to that point, the second of which, in the summer of ‘79, forced him into early retirement. His years were filled with frequent hospital visits — among them, for a triple bypass graft and carotid-artery endarterectomy — amid various nursing home stays. After experiencing multiple transcient ischemic attacks and strokes, aggravated by anxiety neurosis, a type-A personality, high blood pressure, an elevated cholesterol count, and hardening of the arteries, dad expired in the early morning hours of October 23, 1993.

Lourdes and Annibal Lopes were both cremated, their ashes preserved in solid brass urns that resided side-by-side, for a time, at the famed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. They were finally buried together, along with their urns, in 1996, at the Cemitério do Tremembé, in the North Zone of São Paulo, Brazil, the city and country of their birth.

Their life together was never an easy one. They might have looked at it as the story of two dissimilar spirits, wandering the earth with a shared purpose: to survive by any means at their disposal, and at any cost — even to their own lives.

They never asked for the Moon. And they never quite got hold of the stars. But for thirty-two consecutive years they were content to have each other, and that’s all that mattered. ☼

Copyright (c) 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016: Brazil’s President ‘Burns’ as the World Watches the Summer Olympic Games (Part One)

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Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics
Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics, held in August 5, 2016

Celebrate Bad Times, Come On!

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And it most certainly wasn’t part of anyone’s game plan, either.

This was going to be the twin jewels in the crown of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose personal efforts on behalf of his country’s pitch to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resulted in a dual victory of sorts.

The first prize was awarded on October 30, 2007, in Zurich, Switzerland, with Brazil being chosen as the site for the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, its first since the contest took place there in 1950 (and we know how that venture turned out). Next up, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, which were formally announced in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 2, 2009.

That was seven seasons ago, when Lula was at the height of his fame and esteem, with an astounding 75 percent (or more) approval rating among his fellow Brazilians. Lula wept visibly, and uncontrollably, as then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called out the name of “Rio de Janeiro” as the first South American host city in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Time to party!

Brimming with pride and self-confidence, Brazil sauntered forth in preparation for two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. If anything, Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or PT for short, had every right to believe that Rio would make itself ready to receive close to half a million visitors, without undue controversy or delays.

If only …. !

When I was a boy, I remember hearing my dad reminisce about the countless times his foolhardy compatriots would brag that Brazil was on its way at last. “Dessa vez vai!”  they would shout at him, in defiant assurance. “This time for sure!”

Over the course of the last two years, however — ever since Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final match — the country has had nothing but uphill battles in its attempts to overcome the odds of mounting a crowd-pleasing, if not financially rewarding, 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Throughout Brazil’s summer and into the fall there was plenty of “trash talk” from news outlets the world over, calling for cancellation of the quadrennial event. At the very least, the games must be postponed, journalists hinted at loudly. If not, they would dissolve into an unqualified catastrophe.

Athletes from around the globe, including those of the host nation, would become infected with the dreaded Zika virus, spreading its harmful effects (i.e., infants born with shrunken heads and severely impaired brain function to women of childbearing age) in a full-blown pandemic. They conveniently overlooked the fact that winter had settled upon the region, which meant the mosquito population carrying the virus would be at its lowest point.

Needless to say, dire warnings of the end of civilization as we know it were foisted upon anyone willing to listen to these modern-day Cassandras, as if Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ introduction of venereal disease to the New World had left a less damaging legacy.

Astonishingly, the organizers of the Rio games, as well as the unruffled IOC members, didn’t see it that way at all. As a matter of fact, they maintained an unwavering Pollyanna-ish outlook on the situation. “Everything is awesome,” they seemed to be spouting. “No Trojan horses here, of that we are certain. So it’s on with the show!”

And what a show it would turn out to be. But before dealing with the main event, South America’s most populous nation would have to wade through a lightning round of preliminaries. With forecasts of a calamity worse than the plagues of Egypt, commentators openly implied that those self-same “preliminaries” would be better by far than the games themselves.

Was it possible they could be right?

Light That Torch

Torch lighting ceremony - Rio 2016
Torch lighting ceremony, with torch bearer Vanderlai Cordeiro de Lima, Rio 2016

On May 3, 2016, the Olympic torch finally arrived in northern Brazil. It made the long, arduous journey through the country’s five major regions, eventually winding up in Rio’s mammoth Maracanã Stadium in time for the opening ceremony.

In many instances, Brazilian runners carrying the renowned sports symbol were met with a bizarre combination of cheers and jeers, and unbounded exuberance mixed in with outright antagonism.

On more than one occasion the torch relay was interrupted by masses of noisy protesters lining the route. Among the demonstrators were striking teachers from Angra dos Reis, in the state of Rio, who were dispersed later on by military forces when tear gas and rubber pellets were haphazardly fired into the crowd.

One such torch bearer, a woman, collapsed on the pavement from sheer exhaustion. Another bearer, surrounded by police jogging alongside and in unison, was sprayed with the contents of an extinguisher. (What part of “light my fire” did they not get?) The police quickly rushed in to tackle the offender.

These and similar incidents continued unabated, up until show time. However, to be fair most foreign viewers and participants were left speechless by the boundless good will and easy camaraderie shown by their Brazilian hosts during the actual games.

All the drama and tension of a two-act theatrical production, with lengthy intermission features and triumphant medal winners, were spaced strategically apart from incidents that took place before and after competition began.

Politics Rule the Day

Brazil's ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in Brasilia
Brazil’s ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in the capital of Brasilia

To start with, Brazil’s political system had been in virtual freefall. President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension, on May 12, 2016, from the nation’s highest office — nine days after the Olympic torch had landed — along with the Brazilian Senate’s historic vote for her impeachment on August 31 — exactly nine days after the Olympic closing ceremonies on August 22 — had thrown the ruling Workers’ Party into a tailspin.

Dilma had been tried for the crime, such as it was, of falsely propping up the economy in order to cover up the “true” state of the federal government’s deficit-ridden coffers during her 2014 re-election bid — a technical accounting maneuver that past presidents had taken full advantage of.

Only in her case, the implications were indicative of what some critics had foreseen as a personal grudge against an unpopular, uncompromising, and totally unbending head of state, a convenient scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.

Having won a narrow victory in the November 2014 runoff election, Rousseff implemented an array of measures that did little to prevent the country from slipping further into recession. Despite having been Lula’s handpicked successor, and by dint of her carrying on with his policies of lifting the living standards of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes via the enormously effective Bolsa Família (Family Aid) program, Dilma’s mishandling of the coming fiscal crisis had riled the nation’s elites into action.

“I may have committed errors,” Rousseff admitted to her accusers, “but I never committed crimes. It’s the most brutal of things that can happen to a human being — to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating justice.”

After more than a decade of social uplift and federal handouts initiated under Lula and the Workers’ Party, Brazil’s “traditional ruling class,” consisting of influential oligarchs with vast monetary holdings (an eerie nod to the U.S.’s own circumstances re: Citizens United), saw an opportunity to take back the reins of power.

There were those within this select group of career politicians who were more corrupt than the person they were pursuing. Let him who is without sin cast the first impeachment vote.

Some even insisted on going forward with proceedings against Brazil’s first woman president on the grounds of her poor command of the Portuguese language. This wasn’t so much a crime as it was a clear-cut expression of the deplorable state of the Brazilian educational system.

Be that as it may, Dilma’s vice president and sidekick, Michel Temer, from the opposition Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), or PMDB, while temporarily in charge of the government in her absence, has himself been implicated in corruption activities.

Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo - Evaristo Sa)
Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo – Evaristo Sa)

The charges stem from his alleged solicitation of illegal campaign contributions from the then-head of the transportation unit of the state-owned Petrobras oil conglomerate. The accusations were part of a much larger investigation commonly known as Operação Lava-Jato (Operation Car Wash), in which an ever-widening circle of Brazil’s politicians were caught with unclean hands, including possibly ex-President Lula himself.

In addition to which, Temer’s brand of right-wing politics, his handpicked all-male (and all-white) cabinet members — in a country where 60 or more percent of the population has some kind of black African roots — and austerity measures that plan to cut back the very programs that helped poor Brazilians out of their misery, have infuriated those who deem his efforts as geared primarily towards saving his own party’s skin and the monied interests of the ruling elite. He remains almost as unpopular as Dilma had been.

As of this writing, Temer has been confined to serving out the remainder of Dilma’s term of office through 2018. With all that has transpired in the political arena, the Brazilian people as a whole have been left with little credibility in their leaders to shake the weary nation out of its torpor.

“This time for sure” remains as unfulfilled a slogan as it ever was.

Oh, We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in Rio City

The escalating violence — over 60,000 or more unsolved murders in the past few years alone — has continued to upend efforts by both government and paramilitary groups to control drug traffickers and their constant turf wars for dominance in Rio’s squalid slum areas, known universally as favelas.

The city’s own fiscal crisis, wherein it spent over $11.9 billion on Olympic facilities as well as expansion of the existing infrastructure — much more than was taken in to make the 2016 Summer Games a profitable endeavor — has only contributed to the once nascent BRIC nation’s problems, leading to a 4 percent drop in average wages and a staggering 11.6 percent increase in the unemployment rate. (Note: The estimated “unofficial” figure has been pegged at nearer the 37 percent mark, which takes into consideration the number of undocumented workers, the so-termed clandestinos, who make their living the unofficial way.)

Brazil’s gross domestic product, or GDP, also fell 3.8 percent in the second quarter of this year. According to the Website Focus Economics, this was considered an “improvement” over the first quarter’s tumbling of nearly 5.4 percent. Didn’t they say there were no Trojan horses?

This unfortunate reversal of fortune, in a country once touted as the most likely to break through to the level of a First World state (the letter “B” in BRIC stands for Brazil), has brought about a massive recession the likes of which has not been seen since Brazil’s military leaders staged a nonviolent coup back in 1964. You would have to go back to the Depression and war years to find a comparable situation.

As if all that weren’t enough, the raw sewage dumped into Rio’s picturesque Guanabara Bay was rumored to have been detrimental to swimmers and rowers’ health. Despite assurances by the IOC and the city’s planners, who continued to claim progress in “cleaning up” the filth and muck, the situation will continue to rankle long after the games have ended. Problems in Rio’s sewage treatment plants were to blame, allowing for a paltry 20 to 30 percent success rate in eliminating the contamination.

Clean up of Rio's Guanabara Bay - Rio 2016
Clean up of Rio’s Guanabara Bay – Rio 2016

Along the same lines, reports of incomplete or faulty construction, involving the accidental deaths of workers on one of the newly built bike paths in the upper-class neighborhood of São Conrado, as well as the use of cheap labor and shoddy materials, renewed concerns over the slipshod working methods employed in building the Olympic Village and other select venues.

Poor or nonexistent accommodations, faulty wiring, intermittent power outages, cost overruns, and related structural issues were an unavoidable nuisance, a constant reminder that problems continued to plague the seaside paradise of Rio de Janeiro.

Added to which the colossal upheaval to the city’s mass transit system has led to constant disruptions in service to a public entirely dependent on its functionality for getting around town. Detours, work stoppages, and miles upon miles of snarled traffic have contributed in many cases to bringing Marvelous City to a marvelous standstill.

All this gloom and doom was projected to bring about a correspondingly Olympic pool-sized fiasco. The opening ceremonies would be a joke. The lighting of the Olympic flame would be doused by Brazil’s inability to meet expectations, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

On the other hand, the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to coin a phrase once used by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (and attributed to writer William Safire), would rue the day they badmouthed Rio to a skeptical sports world.

Goodness, gracious me! Has there ever been a more negative view, in anyone’s experience, of a host city’s ills? And we thought the situation with Athens 2004 was bad! If “Greece” is the word, what would Rio 2016 spell in the wake of these impending disasters?

(End of Part One – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes