Month: December 2016

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — Hero with a Heart

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Christopher Reeve as the "reel" Man of Steel in Superman (1978)
Christopher Reeve as the “reel” Man of Steel in Superman (1978)

What’s the best superhero movie ever made? Give up? Why, it’s Superman: The Movie, of course. You can bet your loose chunk of Kryptonite it is! And a benchmark for all subsequent flyboy features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the superhero action flick.

In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001) whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” a deeply distraught Clark Kent (played by Jeff East — excellent, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of foster père, Jonathan Kent (dependable old Glenn Ford):

“All those things I can do, all those powers … And I couldn’t even save him.”

It’s a heartbreaking moment for the troubled youth, especially after his dad had, in the previous scene, given the lad a morale-boosting pep talk. But Clark’s words come back to haunt him later on when the now mature Mr. Kent (a beefed up Christopher Reeve, in a star-making turn), in his normal form as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss.

Will the Man of Steel be able to overcome a major setback involving one of his closest companions? And will Superman be able to reconcile the warning his scientist father, the apocryphal Jor-El, gave him not to interfere in Earth’s history?

Is the pope Catholic? Do bears hibernate?

Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his forster mother (Phyllis Thaxter)
Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his foster mother (Phyllis Thaxter)

Superman’s dilemma is eventually resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama — done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like — in what surely was a head-on challenge for director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke) and his talented crew.

What struck most viewers the most about Superman: The Movie was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Mr. Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a terribly long and tedious shoot.

In addition to which, one must also pay proper respect to newcomer Christopher Reeve, who became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions the world over, for his admirable — no, stupendous! — acting assignment as the Kryptonian native and his mild-mannered alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. Reeve defied the odds by perfectly capturing, and delineating, the differing attitudes and temperaments of both Clark and Supie in what must have been a supremely exhausting endeavor.

The film divides the superhero’s tale into three distinct sections, the first of which takes place on the distant planet Krypton. It is there that we meet the brilliant scientist Jor-El, who tries to convince the skeptical ruling counsel their planet is in danger of being destroyed by Krypton’s giant red sun. Ignoring his pleas and branding Jor-El an alarmist, the counsel cautions him to keep silent. Despite his seeming acquiescence, Jor-El intends to save his son, Kal-El, from their fate by launching him into space — and on a direct course for a tiny blue planet called Earth.

Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman
Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman

After Krypton is destroyed (convincingly, despite being shot entirely in a studio), we then follow the young Kal-El (now christened “Clark Kent” by the husband and wife who discovered and raised him) as he grows up in the sleepy Midwestern town of Smallville. This most lyrical of the three sections can be termed the adagio movement of the feature. Bullied and abused by his fellow classmates, Clark senses his own uniqueness, but continues to be disturbed by his inability to reveal his incredible abilities. Upon the death of his foster father, Clark learns of his true nature and otherworldly origin.

With little choice left, he tells his elderly mother that a neighbor has volunteered to watch over the family farm. Torn by his decision, he resolves to leave mom behind (in a highly emotional farewell sequence, buoyed by John Williams’ powerful score) to take up a career as a reporter for The Daily Planet (!) in the teeming capital of Metropolis, a stand-in for the Big Apple (filmed on the streets of New York City). This leads to the third and final section, which unites the other two portions in a resounding and, ultimately, satisfying climax.

Scrappy as a badger Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as the paper’s ace news hound, Lois Lane, who feels a rivalry brewing with the bashful but talented Mr. Kent. Although it was rumored that Reeve and Kidder clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Chris hit it off like brother and sister, or so we are told.

Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) striking an inquisitive pose
Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) strikes an inquisitive pose

Genial Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on that evil genius Lex Luthor, who has self-aggrandizing plans of his own, while inept cohorts Valerie Perrine as his buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. It’s great to see Jackie Cooper on screen again after so many years. Here, he plays tough-minded editor Perry White (“Don’t call me sugar, I mean chief!”), with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by movie critic Rex Reed, as he bumps into Lois and Clark on their way out of the Daily Planet building — just prior to Clark fainting dead away in defending Lois from a typical Manhattan street mugger.

Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando makes for a most impressive Jor-El (he should, for what Warner Brothers paid him to appear in the part), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran as Non, whose stories are told in Superman II — shot simultaneously, but released two years later under Richard Lester’s direction. Others in the large cast include Maria Schell, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Larry Hagman, and (look quick or you’ll miss ’em) Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill on board the speeding locomotive. They are credited as the first Superman and Lois to star in the original Columbia movie serial way back in 1948.

Author Mario Puzo (The Godfather) wrote the screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton and “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. And who could forget that memorable John Williams music, from a composer who’s provided moviegoers with countless screen classics. Its driving, pulsating title theme sets the tone from the picture’s get-go. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind?” with lyrics by songwriter Leslie Bricusse, spoken in hushed voiceover by Ms. Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie, a truly magical moment:

Can you read my mind?

Do you know what it is you do to me?

Don’t know who you are

Just a friend from another star

 

Here I am, like a kid at the school

Holding hands with a god or a fool

Will you look at me, quivering,

Like a little girl, shivering,

You can see right through me.

Can you read my mind?

Lois & Superman in the Flying Sequence
Lois & Superman on a date, in the Flying Sequence from Superman

Lois Lane, as tough as nails around others and completely absorbed in her work and career, melts like a winnowed cocoa bean whenever she’s around the blue-suited adventurer. Her knees start to shake, and her heart goes all-a-flutter, at his mere presence. The Flying Sequence pictured above cements their blossoming relationship. In fact, it’s one of the most fabulously orchestrated interludes of any sci-fi fantasy picture.

Lois’ strong connection to the mighty Man of Steel is the exact opposite of the one she shares with newspaper colleague Clark. Ditto for Superman, who as the klutzy Kent is all thumbs and left feet whenever Lois approaches, but who sticks out his chest and rises to his full height the minute he reverts to his true guise. Today, we might term this type of behavior as indicative of bipolar disorder.

After almost four decades, Superman is still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our own favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: simple, straightforward, and beautifully realized by East, Ford, and Thaxter. They’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life (filmed in Alberta, Canada, by the way) depicting a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. Too, one must not overlook the obvious Christian parallels, hinted at by a “reconstituted” Jor-El when he reveals to young Clark, in that icy Fortress of Solitude, that he gave Earth’s human inhabitants his only son. What a nice Christmas present!

The expanded edition on DVD and Blu-ray adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family. And it could not have come at a better time, when true heroes with a heart are so desperately needed (and in short supply).

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Through the Dark of Night’ (‘Pela Escuridão’) — The Songs of ‘7 – The Musical’ (Conclusion)

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Amelia in 7 - The Musical (Moeller-Botelho-Motta)
Amelia in 7 – The Musical (Moeller-Botelho-Motta)

Make a Wish (On Second Thought, Maybe Not!)

 On this day after Christmas, what better way to celebrate the holidays than with a song on your lips! Better yet, the Songs of 7 – The Musical (7 – O musical), the adult-themed theater piece written and produced by the Brazilian musical “Dream Team” of Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho and Ed Motta.

Back, by popular demand, are the English lyrics to the Second and Final Act of this unforgettable musical theater extravaganza, first staged in Rio de Janeiro on September 1, 2007:

  

ACT TWO

"The Heart in the Forest" - Clara, Bianca, the Dwarfs
“The Heart in the Forest” – Clara, Bianca, the Dwarfs

“A HEART IN THE FOREST” (Young Men, Clara)

THERE’S A WOUNDED HEART IN THE FOREST

THERE’S YOUR PRINCE CHARMING

A PUMPKIN, A COACHMAN

A CLOCK WILL STRIKE AT TWELVE

A CALENDAR THAT READS OF SEVEN

 

THERE’S A WOUNDED HEART IN THE RAINSTORM

FROGS THAT GO LEAPING

RIGHT OUT OF THE OCEAN

SO WHAT’S YOUR HEART’S DESIRE

WHEN THE CLOCK WILL STRIKE THE HOUR?

 

HUNTER WITH A HORN

RIDER ON HIS HORSE

WHO WILL THEN INVADE MY BASTION?

AND WHEN WILL HE ENCHANT ME WITH FEELING,

ARDOR

PASSION

 

AH AH AH AH AH AH …

 

HUNTER WITH A HORN

RIDER ON HIS HORSE

WHO WILL THEN INVADE MY BASTION?

AND WHEN WILL HE ENCHANT ME WITH FEELING,

ARDOR

PASSION

 

"Mop That Dirty Floor" - Clara
“Mop That Dirty Floor” – Clara
  1. “MOP THAT DIRTY FLOOR” (Clara)

MOP THAT DIRTY FLOOR

TRA LA LA LA LA

SAID THE WICKED OLD STEPMOTHER

LOCKS HER UP, THEN SHUTS THE CUPBOARD

 

TIDY UP THAT ROOM

TRA LA LA LA LA

MAKES SNOW WHITE A CLEANING SERVANT,

WASH THAT WINDOW, CLOSE THOSE CURTAINS…

"Little Baby at My Door" - Dona Rosa, et al.
“Little Baby at My Door” – Dona Rosa, et al.
  1. “LITTLE BABY AT MY DOOR” (Rosa, Carmen, Odette)

A LITTLE BABE

CAME KNOCKING AT MY DOORSTEP

LOVELY

MAGICAL

A LITTLE BUD

THAT FLOWERED IN MY GARDEN

FRESH AND

BEAUTIFUL

LIKE A BLOSSOM ON THE FLOOR

LITTLE BABY AT MY DOOR

 

I CAN SEE HER DIAPERS PILING HIGH

HER BABY FOOD CAME SPITTING UP WITH SIGHS

SAY HELLO TO ALL YOU COLDS AND SORES

ALL THOSE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS GALORE!

 

A BABY GIRL

THAT’S LANDED ON OUR DOORSTEP

GORGEOUS

MIRACLE

A SWEET BOUQUET

THAT OCCUPIED MY SUNSET

LIVELY

LYRICAL

 

THE RAIN AND THUNDER

CRASHED UPON MY HEAD

HER TINY HAND IT WAS

THAT CHOSE INSTEAD

SHE ARRIVED, I THRIVED

SHE CAME, I CRIED

SHE’S MINE, SHE’S MINE

ALL MINE – ALL MINE!

 

"Oh, Look at Me" - Amelia, the Dwarfs
“Oh, Look at Me” – Amelia, the Dwarfs
  1. “OH, LOOK AT ME” (Amelia)

OH, LOOK AT ME

I IMPLORE YOU

ALL THAT’S IN ME

BEGGING FOR AID

FROM YOU

FROM YOU

 

WHAT DID YOU SEE?

MY LIFE AS IT WAS THEN

MY TRUE SELF

MY DARK SIDE AS WELL

MY CALM, MY CALM

 

SO TAKE ME AWAY

IN A CARRIAGE

TAKE

ME AWAY FROM THE BALL THIS NIGHT

THE DAWN

 

TIME PASSED ME BY

AND MY FATE HAS BEEN TOSSED

AT YOUR FEET

 

TAKE CARE OF MY NIGHTS,

NEVER RESTING

ALL THAT’S IN ME

TREMBLING WITH LOVE

WITH LOVE

TRUE LOVE

 

TELL ME I’LL BE

YOUR SLAVE AND YOUR SERVANT,

A LOYAL MAID

FAITHFUL AND TRUE

SO TRUE

SO TRUE

 

AND SO

NOTHING’S LEFT THAT MATTERS

COME

AND THE DOORS WILL BE CLOSING SOON

SO SOON

 

COME, HURRY, OH HURRY, TAKE CARE OF ME

TAKE CARE OF THE HURT THAT AILS ME INSIDE

OH HURRY, BE QUICK FOR THE SUN HAS COME OUT

ALL THAT’S LEFT FOR ME HERE IS TO HIDE

COME AWAY

 

COME AWAY

AWAY

 

 

  1. “HERCULANO’S SECOND LULLABY” (Herculano)

MOMMY’S ON HER WAY

TRA LA LA LA LA

SHE’S JUST COMING ‘ROUND THE CORNER

DADDY SINGS SO BABY’S CALMER

 

BEWARE THE WITCH

SHE’S ON HER WAY

SHE WILL BITE YOU

SHE WILL GRAB YOU …

 

WATCH HER CLOSELY

 

 

  1. “HE’LL ARRIVE ON TIME” (Amelia, Bianca)

LIKE THE DAY OF A WEDDING

LIKE THE END OF A SEASON

LIKE THE SMILE ON A BABY

LIKE THE SWEETS AT A BANQUET

LIKE A BREEZE FROM THE OCEAN

 

HE’LL ARRIVE ON TIME

HE’LL ARRIVE, I KNOW

 

HE WILL WIPE AWAY

MY TEARDROPS

ALL MY SORROWS, ALL

ALL OF THEM

 

HE’LL ERASE FROM ME

 

HE’LL ERASE FROM ME

 

MARKS OF MY DESPAIR

 

MARKS OF MY DESPAIR

HE WILL WIPE THEM CLEAN

 

THEY’LL BE WIPED AWAY

 

THE SHADOWS

FROM THIS FACE OF MINE

 

SHADOWS

 

FROM THIS FACE

Clara & the Seven Young Men (aka Dwarfs)
Clara & the Seven Young Men (aka Dwarfs)

 

  1. “MY HEART ON YOUR HEART” (CLOSING NUMBER: Amelia, Old Mistress)

MY HEART ON YOUR HEART

MY KINDNESS, MY PASSION, MY ALL

THE MOON IN THE SKY

WILL RISE AGAIN TONIGHT, MY HEART

 

THE ONE I ADORE…

 

MY HEART ON YOUR HEART

MY KINDNESS, MY PASSION, MY ALL

THE MOON IN THE SKY

WILL RISE AGAIN TONIGHT, MY HEART

 

THE ONE I ADORE!

 

The Women of 7 - The Musical
The Women of 7 – The Musical

 

Curtain

 

T H E   E N D

 

Book by writer/director Charles Möeller

Portuguese Lyrics by musical director Claudio Botelho

Music by singer/composer/performer Ed Motta

English translation and English lyrics by Josmar Lopes

 

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1940) — Robin Hood of the West

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Don Diego (Tyrone Power) fights a duel to the death with Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone) in The Mark of Zorro (Photo: film.thedigitalfix.com)
Diego (Tyrone Power) fights a duel to the death with Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone) in The Mark of Zorro (Photo: film.thedigitalfix.com)

Fancy sword-play, above-average horsemanship, dashing derring-do, a fair damsel in distress, padres and peasants in open revolt against their Spanish oppressors — all this, and lovely Linda Darnell, too! These are just some of the fabulous goings-on in this classic Twentieth Century-Fox swashbuckler, a film that defines the adventure genre as few others from that period have.

This sound remake of Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery Sr.’s 1920 silent feature is superior entertainment all around. Stylishly helmed by Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina and Blood and Sand, which also paired Tyrone Power opposite a saintly Linda Darnell and vampish Rita Hayworth), the director concentrated his efforts on atmosphere and flair, thereby giving the movie a touch of class. In addition, The Mark of Zorro boasts a marvelously memorable, one-of-a-kind music score by one of Hollywood’s most decorated film composers, Alfred Newman. Once heard, the main melody will remain with you for days on end.

Poised and handsome leading man Tyrone Power has a field day in the dual role of Don Diego Vega, foppish fool and carefree caballero by day; and the masked bandit Zorro (“an angel with a flaming sword,” as described by the excitable Fray Felipe), a devil-may-care swordsman and good-guy avenger by night. The script was adapted from Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano, with hints of The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in. Darnell plays the alcalde’s young niece, the beautiful Lolita Quintero.

Basil Rathbone takes over for Beery as bad-guy soldier Captain Esteban, who shows off his remarkable fencing skills in a fast-paced duel to the death with the youthful Power (thrillingly choreographed and doubled by Belgian fencing-master Fred Cavens). Ironically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba while filming a sword duel in Madrid, Spain, with the nefarious George Sanders.

Bullfrog-throated Eugene Pallette is the typically harried Fray Felipe, with J. Edward Bromberg as the alcalde Don Luis Quintero, Gale Sondergaard as his fawning wife Inez, right-minded Montagu Love (a silent cinema star in his day) as Don Diego’s stern father, Don Alejandro Vega, Janet Beecher as Señora Isabella Vega, and George Regas, Chris Pin-Martin, Frank Puglia, and Pedro de Cordova in minor roles.

Promo ad for The Mark of Zorro (20th Century-Fox, 1940)
Promotional ad for The Mark of Zorro (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

The plot revolves around Don Diego returning to nineteenth-century Southern California after having spent his youth at a military academy in Spain. He finds his hometown in turmoil, thanks to the greedy Don Luis (Bromberg) and the abusive Captain Esteban. Peasants are being provoked and tortured into paying their taxes, while the captain’s soldiers run roughshod over the populace. Conferring with his father, the former well-intentioned alcalde, as well as the revenge-seeking friar, Diego realizes he must take action, but decides instead to hide his true intentions in order to operate under cover of darkness.

Slowly but surely, Don Diego hits upon a plan whereby, with the aid of the bellicose padre, he begins to take the town back from the rich overlords by performing daring night raids on their purse-strings — sort of a Spanish-style Robin Hood, if you will. The Robin Hood angle is played to the hilt, with the obvious casting of Rathbone, formerly the malevolent Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Warner Bros.’ The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), as well as the rotund Mr. Pallette, who costarred as Friar Tuck.

In a comparison of the two films, there are many scenes in which the actions of Errol Flynn’s upstanding Robin of Locksley are mirrored in Tyrone Power’s bandito: his despoiling of the rich to give to those in need; the use of a knife to replace Robin’s skill with a bow and arrow in putting up so-called “special notices”; their wooing and winning over of an unconvinced love interest; the climactic sword fight at the end; the revolt of the downtrodden with the aid of a champion do-gooder; and, of course, the many bold escapes.

Publicity Shot of Tyrone Power as Zorro (www.tyrone-power.com)
Publicity Shot of Tyrone Power as Zorro (www.tyrone-power.com)

One in particular is especially exhilarating, as Zorro plunges his black Andalusian steed over a bridge and into a stream, while the military takes wild potshots at their form — and missing them both by a mile. In the meantime, Diego throws the suspicious Esteban off the scent by flirting with Don Luis’ wife, the social-climbing Doña Inez, while simultaneously attempting to charm the highborn Lolita (and everyone else) with distracting magic tricks. Diego manages to fool even his own parents up to a point, until such time as he reveals himself.

Considered a lightweight when he first came on the movie scene, Power earned praise for his performance as the effete Don Diego and his suavely sophisticated alter ego, Zorro. Power’s previous experience in the theater gave him an edge in the way he managed to smoothly switch from one character to the other, never overplaying the dandified aspects to the detriment of Diego’s scheme. Viewers should pay close attention to the sequence in which Diego (as Zorro) hides out in Fray Felipe’s chapel, while the soldiers are searching the grounds outside. His back-and-forth dialogue with the troubled Lolita Quintero, where Zorro’s physical features are all-but covered in shadow by a monk’s habit and cowl, is wonderfully clear and cleverly delineated by voice and figure alone — Power is especially effective throughout their banter.

The movie was remade for television, in 1974, with an appropriately languid and polished Frank Langella as Diego, villainous Ricardo Montalban as a scowling Captain Esteban, and old standbys Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo as Diego’s parents. There’s also a 1975 French adaptation with romantic lead Alain Delon as Zorro and Welshman Stanley Baker. In 1998, The Mask of Zorro appeared, starring the athletically-inclined Antonio Banderas as the man behind the mask, and an equally dexterous Catherine Zeta-Jones as the vivacious female lead (deadly with a rapier), along with Sir Anthony Hopkins as an over-the-hill Diego. Earlier, a spoof of sorts, entitled Zorro, the Gay Blade, was released in 1981, with lounge lizard George Hamilton as both Don Diego and his fey twin brother, Ramon.

Guy Williams in the Disney series Zorro (1957-59) (AllPosters.com)
Guy Williams as Don Diego in the Disney TV series Zorro (1957-59) (AllPosters.com)

As far as Zorro himself was concerned, most of my generation was heavily weaned on the popular Walt Disney TV series (1957-59), which starred the mustachioed Guy Williams (pre-Lost in Space) as a debonair Don Diego. He basically played the role straight, with no foppish mannerisms or effeminate flourishes within eyeshot. Williams was supported by comic foils Henry Calvin as Sergeant Garcia and Gene Sheldon as the mute servant Bernardo. The TV series was also a haven for veteran bit players Don Diamond (F Troop), Jay Novello, Eduard Franz, and Everett Sloane, as well as fresh faces, including that of ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

Here’s an interesting bit of Hollywood lore: Fred Cavens, who trained Doug Fairbanks, Flynn and Power in their respective parts, also served as Guy Williams’ fencing master for Zorro. Power’s version, however, is still the best of the breed by a long shot. Sumptuously photographed in gorgeous black and white by Arthur C. Miller, the 1940 film accomplished in 93 minutes what it took the other versions hours to complete, but never quite made the big leagues. A winner in every way!

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Produced by Raymond Griffith for Darryl F. Zanuck; directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by John Taintor Foote, adapted by Garrett Fort and Bess Meredyth from the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley; photographed by Arthur C. Miller; costumes by Travis Banton; music by Alfred Newman; starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Eugene Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg, Montagu Love, Janet Beecher, Robert Lowery, Chris-Pin Martin, George Regas, Belle Mitchell, John Bleifer, Frank Puglia, Eugene Borden, and Pedro de  Cordoba. Released by Twentieth Century Fox, 93 minutes.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘V’ is for Verdi: The Met Opera’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ and ‘Otello’ — How the Mighty Have Fallen (Part Two)

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Two Peas in a Pod

Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The subtitle of this post, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” expresses not only the fate of Verdi’s title characters in Simon Boccanegra and Otello, but also the ultimate outcome of those who deign to hold public office.

Despite claims of only being a simple farmer and land owner, Verdi, that student of the affairs of state, was a shrewd observer of the body politic. He served as an unwilling member of the Italian Parliament when the fledgling republic had achieved its longed-for reunification. He was forced to deal with the absurd demands of the censors when faced with making radical changes to Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera. He had also written about the difficulty of serving two masters in the first version of Boccanegra, as well as in the Judgment Scene from Aida and in the multiple revisions to Don Carlo, where public duty clashed with private anguish.

Today, we ourselves are bearing witness to similar wheeling and dealing, as a new administration begins to take hold via the age-old process of a peaceful transition of power. An endless parade of loyalists and appointees have come and gone, with each one vying for a piece of the coming administration’s pie. In this scenario, the main preoccupation appears to be the settling of old scores, along with the nursing of past grievances and perceived slights. To curry favor or gain the upper hand, politicians are prone to pit one against the other, a real-world Survivor contest in the timeless tradition of “may the best man win.”

These grievances and slights can serve as the modus operandi  for any number of operatic plot points. Luckily for us, maestro Verdi has taken the drudgery out of the task. He has brought the problem to light by setting down for modern audiences the basis for the story lines of both Simon Boccanegra and Otello. Grazie, signore!

The two works, composed roughly 30 years apart (which takes into account Simon Boccanegra’s 1881 revival), are more alike than they seem to the untrained eye. Take the character of Paolo Albiani in Simon. A goldsmith by profession and a plebeian by birth, Paolo is an agitator as well as a political opportunist. In the Prologue, he is the person who proposes that Simon run for the office of Doge of Genoa. As his main supporter, Paolo expects to be handsomely rewarded for his efforts in guiding Boccanegra to the top. Unfortunately, the rivalry between the plebeians and patricians rages on after 25 years of struggle; while Simon, now older and wiser, continues to be looked upon as a pirate and usurper.

In the emotionally compelling Scene i of Act I, the aged Doge has come to inform Amelia Grimaldi that she is to be married to Paolo as a reward for his unwavering loyalty. She, on the other hand, is repelled by the money-grubbing Paolo who is only interested in her family’s wealth and status. When Amelia insists she is in love with another suitor (the fiery Gabriele Adorno), and especially when Boccanegra realizes that Amelia is his long-lost daughter Maria, he is obliged to renege on his promise to Paolo. Swearing vengeance, the now seething Paolo hatches a plan to kidnap Amelia and force Boccanegra’s hand, among other matters.

Dom,ingo as Boccanegra, with Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, in the Recognition Scene, Act I, scene i (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Domingo as Boccanegra, with Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, in the Recognition Scene, Act I, scene i (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

It is in the justly celebrated Council Chamber scene that the kidnapping plot is revealed and foiled. The antagonists face one another in judgment, hurling allegations of murder, inciting to riot, and various other misdeeds. Seemingly cornered and unable to escape his accusers, Paolo becomes the focus of the great ensemble that begins with Boccanegra’s outcry of “Fratricidi!” (“Fraticide!”), and soon after by his splendid oration whereby he quotes the poet Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch, pleading for peace and love between combatants: “E vo gridando: pace! E vo gridando: amor!”

The Act ends with Boccanegra ordering Paolo to pronounce a curse on the head of the man responsible for the uproar — in other words, on Paolo himself. Recoiling in abject horror, Paolo repeats the curse, “Sia maledetto!” (“Let him be accursed!”), which is picked up by the entire cast and chorus, then whispered twice more in unison. Paolo can only blurt out the word, “Orrore!” (“The horror!”), over the blasting of the orchestra. In the subsequent acts, Paolo executes on his promise to seek revenge by lacing Boccanegra’s drink with a slow-acting poison. What a guy!

No less a scoundrel is the duplicitous Iago of Verdi’s Otello. In Shakespeare, this villain’s motivation is basically his anger at being passed over for promotion. In Verdi and Boito’s reconfiguration of the play for the operatic stage, Iago is evil incarnate, as his magnificent “Credo” makes plain. “I believe in a cruel God,” he thunders forth near the start of the second act, “who has made me in His image and who in wrath I now worship!” Iago’s hatred of the Moor goes beyond his elevation of Cassio to the rank of captain. In fact, it borders on the pathological.

Paolo, too, has his “Iago moment,” coming as it does, coincidentally enough, at the opening of Act II of Simon Boccanegra. Next to Iago’s perfidy, however, Paolo is an outright amateur. Both men were written about extensively in the correspondence between the composer and his librettist Boito. “It is a pity,” Verdi insisted, “to have such powerful verses in the mouth of a common rogue … I have, therefore, decided that this one shall be no petty villain.” Boito stressed Paolo’s skill as a manipulator of public opinion, along with his willingness to switch sides to suit his own purpose. “Paolo should take an active part in the later uprising of the Guelphs to betray and dethrone the Doge,” he suggested to Verdi. “He will be caught, imprisoned and condemned to death. Thus we shall at last see the Doge put someone to death!”

Lest we overlook the composer’s sheer admiration of Shakespeare, we now turn to Verdi’s fascination with the fiendishly clever Iago: “His manner would be absent-minded, nonchalant, indifferent about everything, skeptical, bantering, and he would say both good and evil things lightly, as if he were thinking about something completely different from what he is saying, so that if anyone were trying to reprove him and say: ‘What you’re saying or what you’re doing is monstrous,’ he could perfectly well reply: ‘Really? I didn’t see it that way. Let’s say no more of it then!’ A fellow like that might deceive everybody, even his own wife, up to a point.”

Verdi was so taken with this character that he often referred to the opera as Iago, not Otello. This was partially due to the deference he paid to the late Gioachino Rossini, who had premiered his own version of Otello back in December 1816. Not wanting to take the thunder away from his much admired predecessor, he was mindful, too, that Rossini had set out to stage The Barber of Seville in juxtaposition to a prior version by Giovanni Paisiello. History records that Rossini’s original name for the work was Almaviva, ossia l’inutile precauzione (“Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution”). After the disastrous premiere and subsequent successful revivals, the title reverted back to The Barber of Seville. This convinced Verdi to think the matter over and keep Otello as the title of his piece. A wise move!

Is It Live or is It Memorex?

Both Simon Boccanegra and Otello have been recorded extensively, mostly in the modern age after the 1960s and 70s when complete albums of these works became readily accessible. Neither opera appeared to have had an especially strong following on 78’s, however, which points up the undeniable fact that even today excerpts from Boccanegra are extremely hard to come by. Certainly the LP era improved matters somewhat, as did the video and DVD/Blu-ray Disc period. Live performances of many rarely performed Verdi works are plentiful online and on-demand, as well as on YouTube.

If I were to recommend a particular recording or performance of either opus, I would have to say that a live 1939 Met Opera radio broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, featuring a sterling cast headed by Lawrence Tibbett, Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, and Leonard Warren, conducted by Ettore Panizza, is high up on the must-have list. Tibbett spearheaded the Verdi revival at the Met of the 1930s. Here, this remarkable artist is at the top of his form, with a seamless legato, superb phrasing, peerless top notes, and that marvelous cello-like quality Tibbett was noted for. He and Rethberg make a marvelous father-daughter combo, as does the trumpet-like Martinelli (who was also an excellent Otello). Pinza is a model of what an Italian basso should sound like, and the young Warren was at the start of an illustrious career in Verdi. Included on this refurbished CD is a studio recording of the Council Chamber scene, with Rose Bampton replacing Rethberg, and Wilfred Pelletier on the podium. In either case, these are historic performances thrillingly captured for posterity.

For most opera buffs, Tito Gobbi is a name on everybody’s short list as one of the greatest Boccanegra and Iago interpreters. His RCA Victor recording of Otello with Jon Vickers and Leonie Rysanek is a model of its kind, due to the musicianship of conductor Tullio Serafin. Following close behind is Piero Cappuccilli whose snarl can be heard to fine effect as Iago in a live Arena di Verona video. The Otello is the wild Russian spinto Vladimir Atlantov.

Tito Gobbi as Iago in Otello
Tito Gobbi as Iago in Otello

Speaking of which, my favorite Moor performance comes from Mario Del Monaco, whose leonine stage presence, robust vocal output, and dynamic delivery of the text can be found in any number of live excerpts, including an astounding rendition of Otello’s grand entrance, “Esultate!” (“Exult!”). Del  Monaco takes the difficult passage, “Dopo l’armi lo vinse l’uragano” (“To those who were left the storm has scattered”), in one long-held, drawn-out breath, comprising the usually omitted acciaccatura (or triplet) notation above the staff. He must have had iron filament for lungs!

Mario Del Monaco as Otello, 1958 (www.liveinternet.ru)
Mario Del Monaco as Otello, 1958 (www.liveinternet.ru)

Do live performances supersede their recorded counterparts? That all depends on the caliber of the artists involved. For the Met’s Boccanegra broadcast of April 9, we have Plácido Domingo in the lead, with Armenian diva Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto  as Fiesco, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele, American baritone Brian Mulligan as Paolo, and bass Richard Bernstein as Pietro. The ailing James Levine was back at the helm of the Met Orchestra, in the revival of a production by Giancarlo Del Monaco (the mighty tenor’s son), with sets and costumes by Michael Scott, and lighting design by Wayne Chouinard.

From the initial sound of things, I would say that Señor Domingo tried to give his considerable all to Simon. In the early portions, where the part stays comfortably in the middle of his range, Domingo was heard to best advantage. However as the opera progressed, the voice lost body and luster. In the all-important Council Chamber, it sounded disembodied from the rest. Where was the requisite authority, or the command of his forces implied in the opening lines to Boccanegra’s great speech, “Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo dalla feroce storia!” (“Plebeians! Patricians! People with a ferocious history!”)? The volume and fullness called for in this sequence was nowhere to be found. Boccanegra’s voice must soar above the fray. It must send shivers down his betrayer’s spine. He must dominate by virtue of his position as Doge. Here, it vanished into the woodwork, with no sign of the ever-present sea in the staging either, another of this production’s faults.

Gobbi, in His World of Italian Opera (published 1984 by Franklin Watts), describes Boccanegra as “a giant, both physically and in character. He cannot be performed by a small man … [T]he figure is of a tall, imposing man … It is not even a question of what is suitable for your voice, although naturally this is of first-class importance … It is the strength and nobility of the inner man which makes the effect, and he should be in harmony with his surroundings.” Domingo certainly has the height and physique du rôle, but at age 75 (at the time of this broadcast) the “strength and nobility of the inner man,” represented by what can be transmitted via the voice, can no longer hold its own. This has given short shrift to a part Verdi himself considered to be “a thousand times more difficult” than Rigoletto.

I have spoken about this distortion to the composer’s carefully calculated effects on a number of occasions. Domingo’s attempts to do justice to the great Verdi baritone parts continue to do his favorite composer a disservice. Now, I know that Plácido Domingo began his career as a baritone, later changing over to tenor and back again to baritone. I wrote about this transition a few years ago in connection to his appearance as the elder Germont in La Traviata (see the following link for details: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/salad-bowl-italian-opera-style-continues-with-la-traviata/). But his soft-grained, streamlined variation on the manly, baritonal timbre has short-changed audiences expecting a more viral, penetrating interpretation.

At full tilt, that sound can be the most visceral imaginable! Give me a Leonard Warren, an Ettore Bastianini, a Cornell MacNeil, a Robert Merrill, or a Sherrill Milnes any day of the week. I’ll even take a Renato Bruson, a Giuseppe Taddei, or even a Leo Nucci when pressed hard for examples. All started and ended up as baritones, nothing more and nothing less.

For a change of pace, Chilean dramatic tenor Ramón Vinay, a noteworthy Otello, Samson, Tristan, and Siegmund in his day, began as a baritone. He switched over to tenor in the 1940s and 50s, but reverted to bass-baritone in the early 1960s to assume such parts as Telramund in Lohengrin, Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, and Scarpia in Tosca. There’s even a snippet of Vinay as His Moorship’s Ancient, Iago, with Del Monaco’s tremendously exciting Otello (documented on YouTube) in a 1962 broadcast from the Dallas Civic Opera of the “Si, pel ciel” Vengeance Duet, conducted by Nicola Rescigno. Vinay kept that rich, dark timbre from his baritone days, as evidenced in the above excerpt. Domingo, regrettably, has not.

Cast from Strength

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo Fiesco (Operchic)
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo Fiesco (Operchic)

The other members of the cast showed their mettle. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s rich-voiced Jacopo Fiesco was an absolute joy to listen to. He fulfilled every nuance and requirement  — even down to the low F called for in the aria, “Il lacerato spirito.” He dominated at every turn, his booming basso falling pleasantly on the ear, as did that of the mellifluous sounding Joseph Calleja in a memorable portrayal of the hot-headed Gabriele Adorno. Calleja’s been able to tame his quicksilver vibrato to the point that he can concentrate on characterization. I enjoyed his “Sento avvampar nell’anima” solo, with its rapid articulations indicative of Gabriele’s shifting states of emotion. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian matched him in vocal quality, with some fluid outpourings in the Council Chamber scene amid her dramatic pronouncements. Her lovely Act I scena was meltingly sung, as were her duets with both Gabriele and Boccanegra.

The only other downside, in my view, was — surprise, surprise — the inconsistent conducting of maestro James Levine. At times, Levine lost track of the forward momentum of this piece, which is deserving of a steadier hand in order to makes its subtle effects felt. His wasn’t necessarily a “bad” performance, just not up to his usual high standards. His finest moments were during the Council Chamber scene, which was to be expected. Verdi poured his heart and soul into this newly minted sequence, one that supplanted an earlier one that proved entirely inadequate. It may remind listeners of the big concertato that closes Act III of Otello. As well it should, since the 1881 revision of Boccanegra preceded the later work by only six years.

Getting to the new Bartlett Sher/Es Devlin production of Otello, heard on April 23rd, the listening audience was in for more than its fair share of surprises. To begin with, this was another in a long line of tiresome “barebones” production values. By that, I mean shifting glass-mirrored panels (or window panes — more like “pains,” if you get my drift) taking the place of actual scenery and sets. We were treated to more of that dispiriting “same old, same old” look that most productions have encompassed of late. The mirrored effect of all those sliding panels finally came into its own in Act IV, with Desdemona’s bedroom. And the opening storm scene, one of Verdi’s most elaborate episodes, featured some interesting cloud formations via digital software.

The Storm Scene from Act I of Verdi's Otello (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
The Storm Scene from Act I of Verdi’s Otello (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Otherwise, listeners heard a radio tribute in celebration of the four hundredth birthday and death of William Shakespeare (!). Nice, but what about the singers? Well, starting things off were American baritone Jeff Mattsey as Montano, Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Iago, and Texan Chad Shelton as Roderigo, followed by squally Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, and a pristine-sounding, movingly sung Desdemona by Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmova, with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano as Emilia, baritone Tyler Duncan as the Herald, and low-volume bass James Morris as Lodovico.  The conductor was Hungarian-born Ádám Fischer.

The most consistent of the above artists happened to be maestro Fischer, who started Otello off with a (literal) bang in an utterly involving storm scene of manic turbulence and excitement, helped along by the wonderful Met Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo. This tidal wave of sonic splendor dissipated somewhat at the appearance of an under-powered, under-the-weather Antonenko, which highlighted another problem with this production: Otello wasn’t even in “blackface,” to use the politically incorrect term. More to the point, Otello is supposed to be a Moor, a black African man in an all-white Venetian society, serving at that society’s whim to rule, in their name, as a governor on the island of Cypress.

I’ve been impressed in the recent past by his assumption of the Russian repertoire, in particular a very fine Dimitri in Stephen Wadworth’s staging of Boris Godunov from 2010, and some notable Puccini assignments, including Ramerrez in a Swedish production of La Fanciulla del West by director Christof Loy. The tenor is only in his early 40s, but he’s managed to develop a nagging wobble that has marred many of his performances.

More problematic was Antonenko’s inability to find his comfort zone with Otello’s daunting tessitura. I’ve heard my share of disastrous assumptions in years past, as well as an unnerving one by the barrel-chested Richard Cassilly. I have listened to enough broadcasts and recordings of the work, including several live transmissions and actual stage presentations, to form my own opinions about how Otello should be handled. And I instinctively know when a voice has the stamina and thrust to acquit itself favorably in the part. I’ve also been privy to the best of the best: Zenatello, Martinelli, Vinay, Del Monaco, Vickers, McCracken, Cossutta, Domingo, Cura, et al. But never have I heard a more wobbly, more tonally inferior, more dramatically inert performance than the one I experienced with Antonenko.

To be fair, even though no announcement of his disposition was forthcoming, I sensed trouble ahead, from the moment he opened his mouth. The love duet with Gerzmova’s beautifully inflected soprano, came off better than expected. And Antonenko’s Act II wasn’t all that bad, thanks largely to his Iago, the ubiquitous Lučić. For all his skills and ability in this repertoire, Lučić does not sound like your standard Verdi baritone. He hits all the right notes, holds on to those high ones with vigor and heft, and even injects an equivalent degree of dramatic urgency to whatever he imparts. This is what may have saved the broadcast from complete and utter ruin.

That, plus an intriguing last-minute substitution by debuting Italian tenor Francesco Anile as Otello, put this radio transmission on the radar. After the Act III ensemble, in which Otello flings his poor wife to the ground and practically accuses her of having an illicit affair with his former lieutenant, the disgraced Cassio, Antonenko , at the line, “L’anima mia, ti maledica!” (“Wife of my bosom, I curse thee!”), lost his voice. So little was left of his vocal apparatus that he barely got the words out. No wonder the chorus ran off to shouts of “Orror!” (in an echo and reversal of Paolo’s infamous cry at the Act I curtain to Simon Boccanegra).

Hibla Gerzmova as Desdemona, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Hibla Gerzmova as Desdemona, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

A quick switcheroo took place behind the curtains, as Antonenko’s cover was moved into position for Act IV. Overlooking one of the balconies nearest the stage, Anile was dressed in jeans, sneakers, and T-shirt, but with a black cape covering his form, while Antonenko mimed the role onstage. Right on cue, Anile delivered a most welcome Italianate rendition of the last act of Verdi’s masterpiece with an ideal Shakespearean  flourish.

Now HERE was a sound I had not heard in many a season. The Met was indeed fortunate to have engaged the services of this veteran artist, who has sung Otello and most of the Italian repertoire in his native Italy (he hails from the Reggio Calabria area) and abroad. In September 2016, Anile sang in the revitalized New York City Opera production of Pagliacci, via the principal role of Canio — a performance that generated glowing reviews.

We remain hopeful that a Met Opera star in the making may have been born that afternoon. Let’s hope, too, that another star tenor, i.e., Aleksandrs Antonenko, can recover from this ill-fated episode to re-emerge as the talented individual he no doubt is.

The mighty may yet recover from their fall …

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes