Month: March 2017

Gods, Devils, Sinners and Saints — Visions of Heaven and Hell in the Movies

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The Devil Himself! Darkness (Tim Curry) in Ridley Scott’s Legend

It’s the Time of the Season!

The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And, as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.

Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether you’re attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to participate in. And most of them tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.

That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.

Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.

We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot co-exist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. Here, the presence of evil is portrayed by the least likeliest character, an individual so fragile and accident prone it’s amazing he can get out of bed without crushing himself to death. He is pitted against the forces of good by a clueless stadium guard in a green hoodie and baseball cap.

This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.

Good guys vs. bad guys: Unbreakable with Samuel L. Jackson & Bruce Willis

Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be. Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.

Considering the importance of religion in people’s lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic treatments of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.

Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations

All right, then, we know who or what Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that prominently spiked tail. Correct?

Oh, how wrong we are!

Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old child. He’s called Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. There’s mischief afoot (and that portentous-sounding soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith) whenever the tiny tyke is caught traipsing about the household. The simplest of childhood toys — a tricycle, for instance — can become a deadly weapon in Damien’s hands.

In the sequel, Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. Nothing so ominous about that. It’s the actions that swirl around and about him that make this moody teenager a powerful antagonist in the long run. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.

Mean widdle kid: Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) in Richard Donner’s The Omen

He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.

In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude, aptly named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match, topped off with a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the ever-so-charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far, far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper with the garden-hose appellation of Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).

On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.

Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.

The Devil (Donald Pleasence) in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told

Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.

In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery, followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins. No casting of stones here!

Jesus (H.B. Warner) rescues the adulteress from the mob in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings

Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his chest. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil beats a hasty retreat. The iconographic image that DeMille has conjured up recalls his early upbringing in the Presbyterian church, as well as the influence of art history (with reference to such figures as William Blake and Henry Fuseli). Note the Devil’s positioning vis-à-vis Christ, similar in many respects to painterly representations of Virgil guiding the poet Dante to the Inferno.

Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal view) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by actor Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him, while the heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we do get a good look at Heater’s backside, along with his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion sequence, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.

Switching to the top dog, God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in respectfully hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, His portentous voice booms forth loudly after reciting each of the ten rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.

Moses (Charlton Heston) hears the Voice of God in The Ten Commandments

While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his use of Heston’s baritonal timbre by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind. It would have scared Moses out of his headgear if he had been forced to listen to someone else’s voice (we now quote the classic Bill Cosby routine where Noah is called on by the Lord to build Him an ark: “Riiiiiiiight …. Who is this, really?”).

A Matter of Life and Death

In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning that very night, and that this will be their last supper together.

The Grim Reaper points to a tasteless treat in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned medieval knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say!) in the Oscar-winning drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.

Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged Catholic priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).

In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.

Max von Sydow as the Tracker in What Dreams May Come, 1998 (Photo: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from perpetual purgatory.

(End of Part One – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Carrie’ (1976): Be Careful Who You Pick On

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Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) & Tommy Ross (William Katt) at the senior prom in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)

Have you ever been bullied at school? At the playground? At work, or in your own home? We all have at one time or another. How did it feel afterward? Like crap, right?

Carrie White is a lonely, awkward teenager. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd, especially the girls. She can’t even play a decent game of volleyball. That’s made clear from the beginning. Her hateful classmates at Bates High School taunt her relentlessly for her failings. In this case, they badmouth and ridicule Carrie for her clumsiness in losing the game. Bullying is an everyday aspect of this high schooler’s lifestyle.

“Carrie White eats shit!” is their rallying cry. They write these words on the inside doors of the gymnasium, which a maintenance worker tries diligently to wipe off.

After the volleyball game has ended, the scene changes to the high school’s locker room and shower facilities. Most of the girls are in the nude, their femininity exposed to each other as the most natural, lighthearted thing in the world. But not for Carrie, who is out of their line of sight. She’s alone in the shower — an impossibly huge shower stall for the real world, exaggerated beyond all normal boundaries to accentuate the distance between her and the other girls.

Carrie (played by 24-year-old Sissy Spacek) is enjoying some down time, something she’s rarely been allowed to experience over the course of her young life. The slow-motion camera work focuses primarily on her hand as it reaches out for a bar of soap. She uses the soap bar to massage her body in a most pleasant, intimate manner. The music surges as Carrie cups her breasts in her hands. She likes the feeling it gives her, as she throws her head back in ecstasy. The water from the shower head splashes over her face and shoulders, soothing her bruised ego as much as it washes the sweat out of her hair.

Reaching down to her private parts, the viewer is made aware that Carrie takes pleasure in her own body, an all-too brief exercise in self-discovery. Naturally, this bit of business leads to what may be her very first orgasm. We see her hand brushing up and down her inner thigh, which borders on the voyeuristic but does not invite a puerile interest from the viewing audience. Still, it leaves no doubt as to what is happening. Minutes later, blood gushes forth onto Carrie’s hand and down her leg. Carrie takes immediate notice of the situation and reacts in horror at the sight. She has no idea what is happening to her.

Carrie is scared out of her wits at the sight of her own blood

In a panic, she rushes from the shower seeking help from her fellow seniors. But instead of aid and comfort, the girls in the locker laugh at and tease Carrie for her cluelessness. They corner Carrie in one of the stalls and throw white towels and tampons at her crouching form. Hearing the commotion, the fitness teacher Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley) pushes her way into the crowd and bends down to calm the hysterical girl. Ms. Collins slaps her hard across the face (there is a lot of slapping throughout the movie by both boys and girls, but mostly female to female — an early example of self-misogyny?) until Carrie gets a hold of herself.

What really gets their attention is when the overhead light suddenly bursts apart. Collins, along with the other girls — and especially the heartless school principal, Mr. Morton (who keeps calling her “Cassie” by mistake) — cannot comprehend why Carrie’s had no knowledge of basic female bodily functions. She’s given an early dismissal slip, which is tantamount to having her emotional and physical trauma dismissed as minor distractions.

Carrie’s body language reveals more about her predicament than anything else. Shy and reserved, her long reddish-blonde hair combed straight down the sides, which hide her raw-boned features, Carrie wears a shapeless, dull-gray outfit. She does this partly out of her mother’s puritanical dress code and Carrie’s own desire not to attract attention to herself.

Her dress is as formless and drab as her life has been up to this point. Her home, a rundown two-storey shack that’s up for sale, is in desperate want of a paint job. The chips and splits in the house’s framework signify a life that’s not at all what it’s “cracked up” to be.

Seeking the shelter of a mother’s arms, Carrie receives nothing but physical abuse and more holy-roller zealotry from her religious fanatic of a single parent, Margaret White (actress Piper Laurie, in a frizzy fright wig). Mom spouts pseudo-Biblical passages as a way of keeping Carrie in line. And Margaret’s solution to her daughter’s queries as to why she never told her about her monthly menstrual cycle is to lock her in a hall closet and demand that she ask forgiveness for her “sins.” Poor child.

As for the offenders, i.e., those nasty girls in the locker room, they are threatened with suspension and refusal to participate in the senior prom. However, one of the girls, Sue Snell (played by a young Amy Irving), has a change of heart and honestly tries to make amends. She asks her sometime boyfriend, a local jock named Tommy Ross (William Katt, in thick blonde tresses), to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. The suspicious Ms. Collins questions the couple when she learns from Carrie of Tommy’s plans. They insist it’s all on the level, but Collins remains unconvinced.

Earlier, in Carrie’s English class, the teacher Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) reads a love poem purportedly written by Tommy. This scene, which one can tell had a huge influence on the work of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (see The Sixth Sense, in particular the episode with Cole Sear and his teacher, “Stuttering Stanley”), is shot in such a way as to frame an extreme close-up of Tommy’s face at far left, placed directly in front of another student, followed by Carrie’s sad, downturned features at back and to the right. All three are in deep focus.

Tommy (Katt) listens to Carrie’s compliment in English class

Mr. Fromm seeks the class’s opinion about the poem, which, to the surprise of everyone (especially Tommy) Carrie volunteers a demure response: “It’s beautiful.” This has a positive effect on the jock, although at the prom he admits he did not write the poem. Nevertheless, Tommy thanks Carrie for praising his piece. In fact, she was the only one who did.

Meanwhile, another troublemaker, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen), has ideas of her own. Chris refuses to accept her punishment, so she hatches a plot with her none-too-bright beau, Billy Nolan (John Travolta, before donning the white suit in Saturday Night Fever), to get even with Carrie and Ms. Collins for being denied access to the prom.

That high school prom, however, will turn out to be the most “memorable” gathering in the sleepy town’s history. The flashing lights, the red-on-blue color scheme, the set design, and even the music (by Italian composer Pino Donaggio in the best tradition of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho) foreshadow a series of supernatural events that will be the downfall of practically everyone associated with them, including Carrie herself and the meddlesome Margaret and Ms. Collins. The tension is stretched almost to the breaking point as the slow-motion walk to the podium (calling to mind the music and mood of the shower scene at the start) drags out the inevitable climax ad absurdum.

Carrie gets drenched in pig’s blood at the senior prom

Director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 film adaptation of horror-writer Stephen King’s fourth novel Carrie, from 1973, while deviating partially from its original conception, actually enhances this coming-of-age tale by concentrating on Carrie and her obsessively-minded mother, Margaret. We learn, during the course of the picture, that Carrie was conceived by a drunken ex-father, in a violent rape of her mother that permanently turned Margaret off to the sexual act (in particular, to penetration). That led directly to mom’s preoccupation with religion and her use and abuse of the first woman, Eve, as the architect of original sin (a favorite theme of director Alfred Hitchcock’s).

Sissy Spacek, near the start of a 40-year film career, is flawlessly cast as the wimpy but telekinetic Carrie. With her gaunt visage and lissome body shape, Spacek is introspective and vulnerable in the movie’s first half, who is then magically transformed into a swan by the second. It’s a reversal of the Cinderella story where, instead of a glass slipper, Carrie is regaled with laughter (in her mind’s eye, we presume) for which she exacts a swift and terrifying revenge.

As her mother, Piper Laurie is utterly frightening. Her demise is a classic comeuppance: with her arms held up between an archway by kitchen utensils, her body is pierced (thanks to Carrie’s mind-bending abilities) with knives and other sharp instruments in a Saint Sebastian-like pose. Martyrdom comes to Margaret in a most convincing fashion. Bookending Carrie’s first orgasm from earlier in the picture, we see Margaret getting her jollies out of finally being “penetrated” for keeps. Her writhing death rattle, which sounds like extended moaning and groaning in orgasmic pleasure, is pure camp but nevertheless effective.

Although the story takes place in New England, she and Spacek speak in a perceptible Southern twang. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were once expelled from their place of origin for their antisocial habits. For a horror flick, the film is laden with nuances more subtle than one would expect in your average “horny teenager movie,” as the late critic Roger Ebert once coined these pictures.

A girls’ best friend is her mother? Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in a prayerful mood

I first saw Carrie in the theater when it came out back in 1976-77. I was impressed by the tautness and compact quality of its screenplay that emphasized character development and plot over special FX. Yes, there’s gore in that elaborate prom sequence, but again it’s not what one would expect. Carrie gets a bucket of pig’s blood spilled on her (telegraphed beforehand, we should point out, by that initial scene in the girl’s shower!), as well as on her revealing, self-made party dress. And the tuxedoed Tommy Ross gets knocked unconscious by that same bucket (in the novel, he too is bathed in the blood and instantly killed).

Seeing the movie again after, oh, 40 years or so, I continue to praise Carrie as an exemplary horror flick, one of the best screen versions of a Stephen King novel anywhere. More than that, this is an exceptionally well made feature. Director De Palma, who came from the same generation that spawned such rising stars as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Joe Dante, and John Milius, has been unfairly neglected for his past efforts not only in the horror and psychological thriller categories (Sisters, Body Double, Blow-Out, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Raising Cain) but for his financially lucrative ventures (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible). Though not as highly touted as some of the above-named artisans, De Palma nonetheless has been widely acknowledged as a master of his craft.

While it’s true his earlier features were often considered bastardizations of better work by others (some say his “admiration” for Hitchcock led him to outright imitation, the so-termed “sincerest form of flattery”), in the case of Carrie De Palma’s genuine ability for getting the audience to identify quickly with the protagonist literally carried the film through to its unexpectedly shocking end — a conclusion that today has become a standard horror cliché. Back then, in 1976, it was a bold and fresh move.

Sissy Spacek as Carrie with director Brian De Palma

Few directors from his perspective, working in any genre, have so successfully captured on screen the awkwardness and alienation that teenagers feel when faced with unsettling changes to their bodies. Indeed, body horror as a movie genre has long been the province of Canadian filmmaker, actor, and author David Cronenberg, whose own series of nightmarish variations on this theme (The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, et al.) have outflanked De Palma’s output by a factor of ten.

In that sense, and in many others, I’ve gained renewed respect and tolerance for De Palma’s brand of filmmaking than I have ever had for Mr. Cronenberg’s. Mind you, it’s a personal thing with me, and not meant to undermine the talents of either of these fine artists who continue to work at the absolute peak of their form. Along with Roman Polanski’s atmospheric Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), De Palma’s Carrie is a welcome addition to any horror buff’s expanding library shelf of shockers.

Experience these classics for their superb visual style and inventive casting and craftsmanship, say, around the end of October. During Halloween, or anytime, for that matter. You’ll be pleased and surprised at how well they have held up over time.        

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round Up: Playing ‘Catch-Up’ and Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part One)

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Here’s What We Missed

John Dexter's set for Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
John Dexter’s colorful set for Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

We’re back with more tales of operatic woes. One of them being the record number of missed Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts this author has experienced during the course of the past year.

For a die-hard fan, that may be considered anathema. However life — and not just operatic life — has a way of interfering with the normal course of events. I’ve mentioned this truism on various occasions in the past, but lately it has become the rule rather than the exception. If the current U.S. administration’s mania for cutbacks to funding for the arts continues on the path it’s been threatening to go down, will we even have an operatic life to talk about?

Whatever the future holds, let us deal with the here and now. Looking back at the current season, I can’t breed much enthusiasm for the casting in many of the recent Met Opera radio broadcasts. But before we get into that, let me go over old terrain by playing “catch-up,” as I call it, with what I have heard but failed to report.

Starting with the broadcast of February 20, 2016 of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, I could tell that bel canto, which Maria Stuarda is a prime example of, was much on the minds of listeners. What transpired over the airwaves was a very fine performance indeed of this rarely heard (at the Metropolitan, at last count) cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire.

Leicester (Celso Albelo) tries to spare Maria Stuarda (Sondra Radvanovsky) from Queen Elizabeth's wrath (Elza van den Heever)
Leicester (Celso Albelo) tries to spare Mary Stuart (Sondra Radvanovsky) from Queen Elizabeth’s wrath (Elza van den Heever) in Maria Stuarda

Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy, comprised of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, has been a showcase for dramatic coloratura sopranos for nearly two centuries. Some of our modern interpreters include Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballe, and Mariella Devia. And the stories (greatly embellished, I might add) of the Elizabethan period, involving King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and Robert Earl of Essex, have been widely depicted in a multiplicity of forms, especially in books and motion pictures (for example, that old 1939 Warner Bros. vehicle The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and the more recent The Other Boleyn Girl from 2008).

Sir David McVicar’s production of Maria Stuarda was staged along the same lines as the previous Anna Bolena, i.e., with drab gray sets offset by stunningly vibrant costumes. In the second part of the trilogy, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky took on the title character, the one who confronts the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, sung by the fiery South African soprano Elza van den Heever in her best Bette Davis mold, and ends up calling her a “vile bastard.” Historically, neither character met, but then there would be no opera as we know it!

Both artists acquitted themselves admirably, but all ears were focused on a remarkable new tenor named Celso Albelo as Leicester. A native of the Canary Islands, where his compatriot, tenor Alfredo Kraus, once hailed from, Albelo scaled the vocal heights in daring if somewhat cautious fashion. Nevertheless, his was the voice that caught the audience’s notice.

At the time, Albelo remarked, to the Latin Post, that he had sung Leicester “at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and all I was missing was the Met. So to do Maria Stuarda with a composer to whom I owe it all. For me it is a dream.” He went on to indicate that Leicester “is one of those roles that I have found some hidden difficulty. This one has a lot to sing in very little time and the tessitura is high. You need a lot of lyricism in the voice. Sometimes you tend to overdo it and end up going down the wrong path.”

Not likely, for such a budding talent. Albelo managed to tread lightly but securely. His colleagues all put on a commendable showing as well, to include the charismatic baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil and the rumbling bass tones of Kwangchul Youn. While Radvanovsky was the obvious attraction (she looked ravishing and sounded more and more like Callas than ever, minus the wobbles), the other participants showed their mettle, too.

Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) pitches some woo at Robert, Earl of Essex (Matthew Polenzani) in Roberto Devereux
Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) pitches some woo at Robert, Earl of Essex (Matthew Polenzani) in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)

Another demonstrable vocal showcase was put on with the April 16, 2016 broadcast of the third and final work in the series, Roberto Devereux, starring the incredibly pliable tenor of Matthew Polenzani in the lead, along with his frequent stage partner, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (known as The Pearl Fishers duo), as the Duke of Nottingham. We were also treated to the gloriously sung Sara of Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, in addition to the tempestuously acted Elizabeth of the Met’s reigning queen Sondra Radvanovsky, who mitigated her opulent tones somewhat to deliver a fiercely competitive sovereign in the twilight of her reign.

What a Lulu!

I started this post off by mentioning that I had missed several Met broadcasts, one of them being the difficult to appreciate Lulu by Alban Berg. Scheduled for February 27, 2016, this was to be the last time that German soprano Marlis Petersen would be assuming the title role in a new production designed by South African artist and director William Kentridge. Kentridge had earlier brought his highly stylized vision for Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose to the Met’s Russian wing. That production featured the versatile Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, whose ancestry is Polish.

Kentridge is the type of artist who loves to push the outside of the envelope. Both The Nose and Lulu share a similar theatrical basis, but the music is what differentiates them. Berg’s final stage work was left unfinished at his untimely passing in 1935. A tawdry tale from the pen of playwright Frank Wedekind (whose coming-of-age play, Spring Awakening, was transformed into a hit Broadway musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), Lulu was derived from two of his works, Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit. Shorn of its third act (a situation shared with another unfinished 12-tone masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron), the opera was completed in the late 1970s by Austrian composer-producer Friedrich Cerha.

Alwa (Daniel Brenna) is "hands-on" with Lulu (Marlis Petersen) in William Kentridge's production
Alwa (Daniel Brenna) gets “hands-on” with Lulu (Marlis Petersen) in William Kentridge’s production of Lulu (Met Opera)

Personally, I have a tough time listening to Lulu. I can’t put my finger on it, but this opera leaves me cold, sad and depressed. There is no joy anywhere — indeed the joy of living has been drained from its very essence. It’s a Lulu, all right; one of the most viciously scandalous and thought-provoking pieces ever to enter the modern repertory. And if you think this one is rough going, try lending an ear to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s immensely orchestrated and gigantically conceived Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), which is even MORE daring and disheartening. But I do digress.

Although I’ve grown accustomed to the defects and virtues of Wozzeck, Berg’s previous output for the stage, I greatly value its harshness and drab realism (one can have actual sympathy for the protagonists and empathize with their plight). It’s the character of Lulu herself that I find most detestable. Sorry, but she’s not my cup of tea.

Lulu meets her end at the hands (or blade, if you will) of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Yikes! Maybe Berg was right to have died prior to completing act three. Some things are better left undone.

Believe it or not, I missed two other bel canto broadcasts: the March 12 performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with the immensely enjoyable Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and the impressive Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as his nephew Ernesto; and the March 19 transmission of Donizetti’s other comic jewel, L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), with the artist of the moment, hunky tenor Vittorio Grigolo, as the country bumpkin Nemorino.

I did catch a moment or two of the March 26 Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) by Mozart, marvelously conducted by Fabio Luisi. However, the sameness in voice and timbre of the two male leads, Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro and Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as the Count (“One, two, three, ha-ha-ha!”), made for a bit of bewilderment as to who was singing whose lines. Figaro’s two arias, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” and “Non più andrai,” were undistinguishable from one another. More solidity in the low register and a more pointed tone on top — and, especially, a finer sharpening of the words — were called for.

The Joke’s on Us

Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) parries as Osmin (Hans-Peter Konig) thrusts in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) parries as Osmin (Hans-Peter Konig) thrusts in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

The final May 7, 2016 broadcast of the 2015-2016 season, Mozart’s delightful The Abduction from the Seraglio (or, in the unpronounceable German translation, Die Entführung aus dem Serail), under the leadership of the ever-resilient maestro James Levine, was a decided disappointment. In the right hands and with the right artists, this opera can make audiences squeal with glee at its comic antics and ever-so-timely statement about the rights of women in a male dominated world.

The Met Opera’s cast featured soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze (trivia note: she was named after Mozart’s spouse), chirpy coloratura Kathleen Kim as the perky maidservant Blondchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, Konstanze’s rescuer, and actor Matthias von Stegmann as the Pasha Selim (the fellow whose harem Konstanze needs to be rescued from).

This always charming, always beguiling work, with its madcap plot and extremes of both comic and dramatic devices — along with its humorous and irrepressible characterizations — lacked spontaneity, even in the gorgeously bedecked production by the late John Dexter. Especially revealing was the slack conducting by Maestro Levine. We were told he had been suffering from the ill effects of recent back surgery, which has been the bane of his conducting assignments at the Met for more than a decade. Take a long and welcome rest, Maestro!

The premise of this piece, something that many viewers and music critics miss, is that The Abduction from the Seraglio, at its core, is a spoof of opera buffa (or “comic opera”). Imagine a huge basso profundo named Osmin — in this case, embodied (literally) by the large economy-sized voice and figure of Hans-Peter König, in a capacious turban and baggy pantaloons — put in charge as the overseer of the Pasha Selim’s harem.

Now here’s the gimmick: this gargantuan guardian of feminine pulchritude was supposed to be neutered! Most such individuals, in actuality, were of African descent and likely castrated upon being given the job, resulting in their massive forms and high, squeaky voices (castration, naturally, would have had an effect on their vocal chords by stunting them). They’re supposed to be eunuchs, people; the reasoning being that eunuchs would be more trustworthy as they were incapable of molesting the “flock,” as it were. Yet here we have a big, booming bass pushing his volume up and down the scale, right into a cavernous low D.

Was this Mozart’s little inside joke, another outstanding example of the Austrian master’s wry sense of humor, and of his going against the accepted grain?

Ah, Wolfie! You are STILL the undisputed master of your musical universe!

(End of Part One … To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes