Alagna Hits It Out of the Ballpark! — The Met Revives David McVicar’s ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’

Nedda (Aleksandra Kurzak) comes face-to-face with the jealous Canio as Pagliaccio (Roberto Alagna) in the Met Opera’s Pagliacci

Background to Realism

Funny how a single performer can change the dynamic of a show — and what a show it was! French-born tenor Roberto Alagna, the son of Sicilian immigrants, did double duty in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival (under the stage direction of Louisa Miller) of Sir David McVicar’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

Taking on the dual roles of the two-timing Turiddu in Cavalleria and the cuckolded clown Canio in Pagliacci, Alagna scored a home run with audiences and critics alike for his impassioned portrayals of these two iconic characters. The twin bill aired on Saturday, January 13, 2018.

These two works were not as prominently featured at the Met in the two-decade period before Mr. McVicar’s 2015 version came along. Although Franco Zeffirelli’s production saw active service for nearly 40 years, it did not last as long as the Robert O’Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill staging of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered in 1969. Despite their longevity, you know what they say: Old productions never die, they just get recycled away into newer ones.

To tell the truth, I doubt Signor Zeffirelli ever imagined the perennial Cav and Pag would be treated as part of a unified whole, as they are here. Although both operas happen to be set in Sicily, Cavalleria takes place in more rural times, while Pagliacci occurs a half century later — in exactly the same plaza where electricity, street lighting, and automobiles now abound.

In this production, Pagliacci officially commences (after the Prologue) with the wheeze of a backfiring motorcar engine. In contrast, Cavalleria (which precedes Pagliacci) begins in total darkness, with just enough light to cast a shadow over the ritual-like observances of Easter. The difference in staging is telling.

Even more gratifying for fans of these wonderful works was the decision to present them note complete, instead of the usual truncated performances from decades past. But no matter how they are presented, both operas are splendid examples of what is termed verismo, or “realism.” For more information on the history and background of this stylistic musical genre, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/new-productions-of-cavalleria-rusticana-and-pagliacci-two-operas-joined-at-the-hip-part-one/.

Considering how wildly successful Cavalleria and Pagliacci were at their premieres (in 1890 and 1892, respectively), the Italian verismo movement boasted comparatively few lasting examples. The majority of composers from this period, including Umberto Giordano (Andrea Chénier, Fedora), Francesco Cilèa (L’Arlesiana), Alfredo Catalani (Loreley, La Wally), and Giacomo Puccini (Manon Lescaut), whose 1895 work La Bohème became the ne plus ultra of verismo showstoppers, wrote operas with story lines that were anything but realistic.

If you rule out Puccini’s Il Tabarro (part of his Triptych, or Il Trittico), a dark-tinged one-act tragedy that bordered on the Grand Guignol, his La Fanciulla del West from 1910 — hardly verismo source material to begin with — is the one piece that was most associated in spirit with naturalism (a close cousin to realism), which the original playwright, impresario David Belasco, pioneered on the American stage.

Pietro Mascagni & Ruggero Leoncavallo – two caricatures by David Levine

It’s common knowledge among musicologists that Mascagni, the composer of Cavalleria, never wrote another work in a purely realistic vein. On the other hand, Leoncavallo’s four-act Zazà, which premiered in 1900 (the same year as Puccini’s Tosca) and was nearly as popular in its day as Pagliacci, took a nostalgic peek at the music-hall life of two lovers, one of whom is secretly married.

As Leoncavallo did with Pagliacci, the composer wrote his own libretto for Zazà, which was based on the Émile Zola-like stage play of the same name by Pierre Breton and Charles Simon — a play that served as a showcase for soprano-turned-actress Geraldine Farrar, and as a 1923 silent film with Gloria Swanson. Beyond that, there was nothing approaching classic verismo until the arrival of Italian neo-realist cinema, which surfaced soon after World War II.

Curiously, Cavalleria has had less of a stellar standing than Pagliacci, with critics cynically referring to it as the “cruder” and “less sophisticated” forbearer of the two. How absurd! I find both operas equally enthralling. Still, most enthusiasts would refer to Leoncavallo’s adaptation of his own text as musically superior to the Mascagni opus, with many instances of his borrowing from Wagner.

One example from Pagliacci emerges toward the end of Nedda and the hunchback Tonio’s first encounter, where she strikes him violently across the face with a whip. As Tonio slinks off vowing vengeance, the “sharply accented theme” that accompanies his steps can be traced to the Act II plotting of Ortrud and Telramund from Lohengrin. The theme reappears after Tonio leads Canio to the place where Nedda and her lover, Silvio, are caught in an illicit embrace. One can also cite the Intermezzo between Acts I and II, with its captivating use of chromatism similar in essence to Hagen’s Watch from the opening of Act II to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

The musical texture of Cavalleria, however, is no less intriguing. It is dominated by a so-called “melodic triplet” in the orchestration, a figure that continues to crop up intermittently throughout the opera. Another characteristic of the Mascagni piece (and of verismo in particular) involves brief interruptions to the dramatic action, followed by “periods of repose or alleviation” of a situation previously introduced. There are boundless instances where this technique is employed, the most famous of which occurring at the start: the stirring prelude is cut short by the sound of a harp and Turiddu’s offstage voice intoning the Siciliana, a sort of Sicilian serenade to Lola, the adulteress wife of the teamster Alfio.

Alfio (George Gagnidze), the whip-cracking teamster from Cavalleria Rusticana

Another bolder example can be found in the powerful duet between Turiddu and the desperate Santuzza, the woman he has abandoned (and whom he has purportedly impregnated). As the one begins to hurl imprecations at the other, the driving score comes to a sudden halt and we hear Lola’s voice enter the scene in complete contrast to the previous episode. As was the case at the beginning of the opera, Lola sings a light-hearted Italian stornello, a poetic ditty timed to relieve the tension. After a few choice words, Lola leaves and the drama picks up anew with a fresh batch of accusations, ending in Santuzza’s malediction, “A te la mala Pasqua!” (“A bad Easter to you!”).

With all the give and take that abounds, a supreme effort is required for artists to make a positive impression in these works. Are they up to the task? In Pagliacci, the violence quotient is revved up to eleven, demanding that performers husband their resources, less they shout themselves hoarse before the work is over. Does the end justify the means? It certainly does, if the result is Canio (originally Tonio) mouthing the immortal closing line “La commedia è finita! – “The play is ended!”

A Star is Reborn

For this revival, the Met was indeed fortunate to have Roberto Alagna at its disposal. Not necessarily a dramatic or spinto tenor in the tradition of a Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Vickers, Giacomini, or Martinucci, and lacking the immensity in tone of a Marco Berti or the volume of a Vladimir Popov, Alagna nevertheless persevered in the dramatic acting division. He brought pathos and sympathy to the tortured Canio, as well as passion and vivacity to the headstrong Turiddu (a short name, in Sicilian dialect, for Salvatore).

After a nearly 30-year opera, song, and film career, Alagna, at age 54, has had his personal ups and downs, including a stormy relationship with previous wife, Romanian prima donna Angela Gheorghiu. They were better known to fans as the “love couple,” although towards the latter part of their association the “love” portion had all-but evaporated (see my previous article about the pair: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/).

Canio (Roberto Alagna) wields his knife at Nedda (Aleksandra Kurzak) in Pagliacci

Temperamental and highly strung in the extreme (ah, well, he is a romantic tenor) but determined to plow on with the exigencies of his chosen career path, Alagna’s operatic aspirations continues unabated. His unquenchable curiosity about the French repertoire led him to uncover some genuine jewels among the glitter, to include Massenet’s Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (“The Juggler of Notre Dame”), Pénélope by Gabriel Fauré, Cyrano de Bergerac by Alfano, the French adaptation of Donizetti’s Lucia (redubbed Lucie de Lammermoor), and Marius et Fanny, a new opera by the Romanian-born French composer Vladimir Cosma.

Alagna made his official Met Opera bow in 1996 as Rodolfo in La Bohème, which did not exactly bowl the critics over but did lead to other return engagements. Since then, Alagna has established himself as an adaptable and reliable artist. He subsequently went on to appear there as Radames in Aida, Don José in Carmen, Don Carlo in Don Carlo, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, Faust in Gounod’s Faust, the Duke in Rigoletto, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, Ruggero in Puccini’s La Rondine, as Massenet’s Werther, and as Cavaradossi in Tosca.

True artists test the limits of their abilities. They know (or, rather, they should know) how far to push their precious instruments. To cross the line into extremes can kill a budding career or end a flagging one. Even so, certain eccentricities can creep in. For instance, we know from history that Napoleon needed very little sleep between battles; that Caruso loved to draw caricatures; that Puccini was a voracious nail-biter and chain smoker; that Sarah Bernhardt slept beside or in a coffin.

In Alagna’s case, I have seen and heard many of his performances where one could swear the man was at the end of his rope. He was so convincing in his wrath as the embittered Don José that I feared for the safety of his real-life Carmen, Elīna Garanča, not to mention Alagna’s sanity. Is this an individual quirk or artistic liberty?

Elina Garanca as Carmen & Alagna as Don Jose, in Bizet’s Carmen

In a live 2007 DVD production of Pagliacci from the Arena di Verona, Opera News reviewer Andrew Druckenbrod raved about the tenor’s radiant singing, yet noted that “[o]ne can almost believe he has become Canio, and there is a shade of danger about his committed performance. In the climactic fatal assault, Alagna, raging like a madman, channels an even more intense ferocity, allowing ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’ to almost fray at the edges.” But then, appearing to snap out of his stupor, the reviewer quickly added: “Yet it’s all an illusion, and [Alagna’s] voice retains its brilliant hue and full character.”

But it’s the pain of truth that moves an audience. And seeing characters suffer because of their pain defines what verismo continues to represent, which is the unvarnished truth that life is pain. Alagna captured that pain in his portrayals, first of Turiddu, who knows he has caused wrong to others as well as to himself; and to Canio, who is intimately aware of his explosive temper, but is resigned to face the consequences of his invidious nature.

The tenor brought out not only the nuances of his portrayals but the artistic truths inherent in them. Vocally, this was old-fashioned barnstorming at its most deliberate and premeditated. Holding on to his high notes until his face turned crimson red, the intensity that Alagna gave off filtered all the way down to his colleagues. His moving farewell to Mamma Lucia, “Voi dovrete fare,” bordered on controlled hysteria; not only was it thoroughly engrossing, but it was enunciated in crisply delineated Italian.

Due to cancellations and indispositions left and right, the originally announced Željko Lučić as Alfio in Cavalleria was replaced by the burly-sounding George Gagnidze. In Pagliacci, Gagnidze also sang Tonio, however the previously advertised Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (the current “Mrs. Alagna”) as Nedda was substituted by the young American soprano Danielle Pastin. Russian baritone Sergei Lavrov took over for Alessio Arduini as Silvio, while conductor Nicola Luisotti presided over the orchestra in both works.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana

Ekaterina Semenchuk started things off with a wallop in her strongly voiced Santuzza. Only a mere vestige of an accent crept into her vowels. Otherwise, she was the steady ship’s anchor, until Alagna’s arrival midway through the action. Semenchuk was expertly partnered by mezzo Jane Bunnell’s rock-solid Mamma Lucia. Rihab Cahieb’s lovely solo work as Lola provided a neat respite from the onstage fury. In his scenes with Santuzza and Turiddu, baritone Gagnidze captured Alfio’s brutish nature, his harsh words spitting out their venom in over-powering fashion. Alfio, contrary to popular belief, is not the villain here but the victim of the cad Turiddu’s dalliances, an errant youth who can’t seem to make up his mind whether he loves Lola or Santuzza more.

For Pagliacci, Alagna pulled out all the stops for a riveting “Un tal gioco, credetemi” (“Such a joke is no laughing matter”), where he claims to be only play-acting — the precise opposite of what Tonio in the Prologue admonishes the audience, that what they are about to witness is “a slice out of real life,” the essence of verismo. Alagna practically leaped across the stage in his furious attack on Nedda, after catching her in the act with boyfriend Silvio (substitute baritone Alexey Lavrov, in mellow voice). His emotionally draining performance of “Vesti la giubba,” with its profoundly ironic cry of “Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto” (“Laugh, Clown, though your heart is breaking”) rang true and earned him the longest and loudest applause of the afternoon. But the best was yet to come!

Roberto Alagna as Canio, letting it all hang out in “Vesti la giubba”

The play-within-a-play that ends the opera culminated in a raw, utterly convincing turn by all the performers. Gagnidze, previously cast as Tonio/Taddeo in two earlier broadcasts of the work, made his third assumption of the part the charm. After a rousing Prologue, with his prolonged high A-flat, the Georgian-born Gagnidze continued to render the listener senseless with an inky-black portrayal of the scarred and battered Tonio. He is no demonically-scheming Iago, as many directors fail to point out, but a flesh-and-blood human being. (Leoncavallo was certainly mindful that Verdi’s Otello had premiered only a few years before Pagliacci made the rounds of the world’s theaters. In fact, Otello’s cry of “A terra e piangi” – “On the ground and weep” from the great Act III ensemble is note-for-note the same as “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”).

As Nedda, the young Danielle Pastin displayed plenty of spunk and sparkle, especially in her confrontations with Tonio. In the long love duet between her and Silvio, her ease with the character’s plight and long-limned phrases helped to mold a character who, despite her disloyalty to husband Canio, wishes only to live a normal life away from the drudgery of constantly being on the road. Tenor Andrew Bidlack as Beppe also made listening to his character’s delightful little serenade a joyous affair.

Keeping it all together was maestro Luisotti. Overall, his was a taut realization of both Cav and Pag. He kept the scores moving in the right direction, with swiftness and proper pacing. Still, I would have welcomed a bit more expansiveness, especially in the Intermezzos. Oh, how I missed Fabio Luisi’s way with these scores! Luisi made the string section sing, and the rest of the orchestra right along with him. As admirable as Luisotti’s efforts were, he was no match for fabulous Fabio.

But that’s real life, isn’t it?

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Recent Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part One)

Carmen (Macarena Garcia), the lady bullfighter, in Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy, here comes another one of those ‘Best of the Year’ surveys!” Well, yeah, but not exactly.

My thoughts in compiling this list are more in line with taking an off-center approach to a much abused topic. By that, I mean to jot down my impressions, good, bad or indifferent, of films I happened to have enjoyed (or not) in the venues in which they were originally shown: the movie theater.

As readers of my blog are aware, movies have been a major preoccupation of mine for a number of years now. And since nowadays most films can be viewed online or in the comfort of one’s home on a variety of platforms, I decided to give equal time to works that merit the wide-screen approach. That’s the way these films were meant to be seen — and that’s how I saw them. Up there, big as lights!

Another reason I decided to make this list was simple: due to time constraints, I have been unable to write a longer analysis. However, I do hope to remedy that situation in the near future. Indeed, many of these works require, no, DEMAND, a full-length commentary on their own. For now, though, I believe this year-end to mid-year wrap-up will serve the purpose.

The films are in chronological order by year. Happy 2018 everybody!

Maribel Verdu as the wicked stepmother Encarna in Blancanieves

Blancanieves (2012)

A Spanish gothic adaptation of Snow White, with hints of magical realism and the Grand Guignol, Blancanieves took me and everyone who watched it by total surprise and sheer delight. Much as I experienced with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when it was first shown in 2005, I found myself smiling all the way through while viewing this fabulous feature at the North Carolina Museum of Art — a most appropriate venue for this work. For indeed, this is a definitive example of film art, a pièce de résistance and labor of love for Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger and his cast and crew. The wind was nearly taken out his sails, however, when Señor Berger was informed that his silent-film project would be overshadowed by Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011), which beat him to the punch by almost a year. Seen on its own terms, Blancanieves is the more challenging of the two for audiences unfamiliar with Spanish culture. Filmed in glorious black and white by cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, with an unforgettably haunting music score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, the plot takes a few liberties with the accustomed “happy ending” of most fairy tales, much to the film’s betterment. Set in and around Seville, Spain in the early 1920s — in particular, the bullfighting arena (with emphasis on Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s 19th-century Tauromaquia prints) — this revisionist retelling of Snow White (or “Blancanieves” in Spanish) tells the tale of little Carmen (Sofía Oria) and, as the young adult Carmen, Macarena García, the orphaned daughter of a once famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Through various plot contrivances and twists of fate, Carmen finds herself in the care of a troupe of wandering circus dwarfs, garnering fame through her travels as a female bullfighter. Of course, there’s a wicked stepmother, Encarna (played with lip-smacking glee by Maribel Verdú), and a perfidious henchman who doubles as her chauffeur (Pedro Ponce). Told through purely visual and musical terms, the film pays homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, with references to the silent-film oeuvre of Abel Gance (Napoleon, Le Roue) and Carl Theodor Dreyer, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc in Berger’s close-ups of the bizarre and the grotesque. The purposely ambiguous ending will have you scratching your head for days, but if you are attuned to the director’s vision it should satisfy the insatiable critic in all of us.

Director Guillermo del Toro (l.) and Charlie Hunnam (r.) on the set of Pacific Rim (Photo by Kerry Hayes)

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim, Mexican-born director-writer-producer Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget foray into the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world genre, has some captivating character studies, specifically the interactions between our hero, Raleigh Becket (British actor Charlie Hunnam), his literal sidekick Mako Mori (Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), and the straight-talking General Stacker (tough-as-nails Idris Elba), their mentor and savior. If the ravings of Godzilla and King Kong are the ultimate in prototypical movie monsters that love to level your major cities around the globe, then the fantastic beasts of Pacific Rim will likely tickle your fancy. If not, then look elsewhere. Pacific Rim came out at time when a spate of dystopian pictures from World War Z, Oblivion, Battle: Los Angeles, The Avengers, and Edge of Tomorrow dotted the movie-going landscape. The gigantic sea monsters known as Kaijiu are indeed impressive, as is the interplay between secondary characters Dr. Newt Geiszler (a manic Charlie Day), the resentful Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), and black marketeer Hannibal Chau (the ever-reliable Ron Perlman, a Del Toro stalwart, in search of his missing shoe). In addition to which, the Jaegers, those humongous robotic machines built to combat the rampaging Kaijiu, are individually differentiated, if given less screen time than one would have liked. The story, however, has a “been there, seen that” quality to it, with an ending that can be telescoped a mile away and that calls to mind Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Still, Del Toro’s affection for these monstrous adversaries is never in doubt, despite his characters’ penchant for indulging in stereotypical screen behavior, i.e., macho posturing. With that said, Charlie Hunnam has become (or tries to become) the Heath Ledger of his day. The walk, the talk, the attitude, the look, and feel of the late Australian-born Ledger are certainly “there” in spirit. What’s missing, at least from this angle, is Ledger’s obsession with establishing a real onscreen persona, quirky as many of them were. One a side note, the film’s score was composed by Ramin Djawadi, noted for his musical contributions to the popular Game of Thrones series on HBO, along with the cable channel’s Westworld.

Godzilla taking a stroll along San Francisco Bay in Godzilla

Godzilla (2014)

The big, bad Japanese gorgon is back! He’s filled out somewhat, and that midriff has gotten a shade heftier with “age.” But he’s as fire-breathing mean as the old boy has always been. A fairly winning reboot of the old Toho Studios franchise (despite the cheesiness of their later film product), this latest reincarnation of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (originally titled Gojira in 1954, which was retro-fitted in 1956 with scenes in American English starring Raymond Burr) holds up fairly well against the competition. Directed by British-born Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), the plot of this newest exercise in urban bashing extends the chaos to San Francisco, where U.S. Navy officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wages a one-man battle to save the city not only from Godzilla’s atomic-age belches but from some Rodan-like pterosaurs called “MUTOS.” The film starts off well, with a genuine air of mystery about it. For one, we learn the reason for those atomic bomb tests in the forties and fifties was to combat Godzilla’s growing menace. For another, the menace was never extinguished. Yikes! As Ford’s scientist father Joe Brody, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) acts rings around the other players. The intensity of his performance alone is what makes the first 20 minutes of the film so absorbing. The stunt guys in the monster suits are also believable enough, with some elaborate set pieces (i.e., Godzilla’s first entrance, and the destruction and mayhem surrounding San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge) earning kudos for realism and seamless integration into the whole. However, some of the main characters undergo little development. For instance, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who served an essential function in the original Godzilla, can only stare blankly at the ensuing carnage. He’s there as a cynical nod to the Asian market. More’s the pity! The same goes for his assistant Dr. Graham, the usually capable Sally Hawkins, left to mutter pseudo-scientific bromides while the single-minded Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn, whose talents are also wasted) ignores her and Serizawa’s warnings about the implementation of atomic weapons against the beasts. As you may have gathered, there are more than enough similarities between this picture and Pacific Rim (reviewed above) to warrant copyright infringement. We won’t go into that (and neither did the producers). Let’s say that when the focus is on the almighty Godzilla’s battles with the voracious MUTOS, all is well. There’s a side-story, too, about Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, and his little son, juxtaposed against the opening sequence involving the loss of Joe Brody’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Beyond that, you may enjoy this FX exercise in technological gobbledygook.

Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s The Martian

The Martian (2015)

A middle-of-the-road, sci-fi adventure flick from director-producer Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, The Martian is about survival of the smartest and how a daily routine can keep you firmly grounded, even on as desolate a setting as Mars. Based on writer and ex-computer programmer Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, with hefty nods to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the film focuses on space explorer Mark Watney (Matt Damon), accidentally abandoned on the angry red planet by his fellow crewmates. A botanist by profession, Watney uses what knowledge he has of the field as a way to increase his chances for survival, while hoping against hope that his crewmates will be able to rescue him before water, food, and oxygen give out. Meanwhile back on Earth, politics and monied business interests are at constant loggerheads with each other, as well as concern for the rescue crew’s safety. Eventually, international cooperation and humanitarian needs take precedent in this ultimately engrossing drama. You will be surprised to learn that there are no bug-eyed monsters in space (at least, not in this reality-based depiction), nor are there villainous saboteurs lurking behind the scenes. Just your normal, everyday human beings caught up in the business of rescuing a fellow space traveler from disaster, amid hyperbolic discussions about whether a single, supposedly expendable life is truly worth saving. The film shares a similar storyline with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), with lots of tech talk and thousand-dollar words. There are also many fine performances, chief among them by Damon as the titular “Martian,” whose ingenuity and instincts for self-preservation are stressed almost to the breaking point. Too, there’s a war of wills between NASA director Teddy Sanders (an implacable Jeff Daniels) and mission director Mitch Henderson (one-track-minded Sean Bean), in addition to numerous character vignettes by Jessica Chastain as Commander Melissa Lewis, Kristen Wiig as NASA media director Annie Montrose, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor, Benedict Wong as director of the jet propulsion lab Bruce Ng, and Michael Peña as jocular mission pilot Rick Martinez. While botanist Watney is steadfast all the way through his ordeal, he does manage to lose his composure once he realizes the odds are stacked against him. His solution for preserving his sanity (and his own humanity) is in recording his feelings, hopes, struggles, and aspirations in video form. Of course, with such a big budget as US $108 million at risk, director Scott could not afford to let his hero perish. This gives the movie an atmosphere of inevitability and, if you will, futility. We know that Watney will be rescued in the end; that all will be well and the world will be made whole again. Still, despite the obviousness of the film’s chosen direction, my favorite sequence, implausible as it may seem, occurs towards the end of this elaborate sci-fi production. Sitting alone on a campus bench, Watney wordlessly contemplates his past exploits before stepping into the lecture hall. The survivor of a mind-boggling experience, he is now a survival instructor, about to teach a class of astronaut recruits the dirty business of keeping oneself alive. When practically all of his recruits raise their hands with questions, I wanted to raise my hand, too. Perhaps a sequel will come out of this lone and uniquely satisfying episode.

Amy Adams as linguist Louse Banks attempting to communicate in Arrival

Arrival (2016)

If you knew what the rest of your life would be like before anyone else did; if you had insight into your loved ones’ future prospects and, knowing what you knew, would you change anything about the outcome — or want to? These are the underlying themes of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, his low-key answer to present-day, slam-bang science fiction. Based on writer Ted Chiang’s 1998 “The Story of Your Life,” taken from his larger collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer takes a tried-and-true formula — the presence on Earth of beings from another planet shake up man’s preconceived notions of superiority — and overlays it with both an intellectual and profoundly emotive core. The story is a simple one, though less straightforward than you would expect: Earth is invaded by twelve enigmatic, stone-shaped spacecraft which harbor seven-armed, octopus-like creatures the scientists have dubbed “heptapods.” Unable to converse with the aliens by ordinary means, the U.S. military, headed by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with its counterparts in eleven other nations, enlists the aid of linguistic expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Remmer) in an effort to comprehend the motives behind the visitation. The immediate by-product is skepticism on the military’s part. However, by dint of a series of hours-long learning sessions, Louise mounts a heroic effort at personal outreach. Soon, she is able to communicate with two of the aliens (whom she nicknames “Abbott” and “Costello”) via their pictographic non-linear language. Amy Adams’ shining portrayal of linguist Louise is a joy to behold. Her emotional catharsis throughout her journey helps the viewer comprehend the pain and suffering of one’s life in ways that become clear later on. Beautifully crafted and excellently acted, the film revels in a newfound appreciation for mutual cooperation between the sciences and language arts. It’s the triumph of reason, introspection, and empathy over force and armed might; of understanding the “other” through communication and language (“the foundation of civilization,” as Louise describes it), and of learning to view the passage of “time” in a totally different light. Archways, doorways, ceilings, and textures (along with strategically placed “flashbacks”) provide visual clues to the story’s definitive conclusion. The late Jóhann Jóhansson is credited with the percussive sound-scape. But the film is bookended by the superb use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” for string quartet, an oft-employed piece found in several recent features, among them at the end credits of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, where it is paired with a Dinah Washington song.

End of Part One

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Jazz Samba’ Project: What’s Old is New (Part Three, Conclusion) — A Penny for Your Thoughts

Let’s Discuss It!

Drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt at the Jazz Samba Symposium, June 2014 (Strathmore Music Center)

After Ken Avis’s introduction, Leo Lucini started the discussion off with a few words about the roots of Brazilian music, especially the native indigenous sources, mixed in with those of the country’s Portuguese colonizers, and, of course, the African slave influence. He went into a bit of the history of how the descendants of former slaves came together at a street corner named Praça Onze (“Square Eleven”), in Rio, and began to play the rudiments of choro, maxixe, and street samba. From there, later generations of Brazilians, i.e., Jobim, Vinicius, and, in Lucini’s opinion, the “founder” and pioneer of bossa nova, João Gilberto, had also banded together along the beachfront sections known as Ipanema and Copacabana.

Leo paused in his talk to give an active demonstration, involving sections of the audience, of the sounds that comprised the basic samba rhythm. This portion of the program went on a trifle longer than necessary; however, the point was made that samba encompassed a variety of contrasting elements that, together, created the music and rhythm which, when slowed down, gave way to what we know as bossa nova.

The next speaker was David Adler, who wrote the 2004 cover story for JazzTimes on the making of the album Jazz Samba. Most of David’s discussion was centered on his article, but the part that opened most of the audience’s eyes was the sidebar involving the so-called “Phantom Sessions” that allegedly took place prior to Jazz Samba being recorded. Basically, it was an October 1961 session with guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz with Getz’s working quartet at the time, including bassist John Neves and drummer Roy Haynes.

Jazz writer and musician David R. Adler

David actually talked to Haynes, who remembered being in the studio with Charlie Byrd before bossa nova became popular. David even sought out and spoke with knowledgeable individuals, several of whom were able to provide specific dates (October 24-26) for the sessions, although no tapes or supporting material was found. “So there is a Jazz Samba session that’s in the ether somewhere, and it is gone,” David concluded. “It doesn’t exist anymore.”

What David drew from this disclosure was the incontrovertible fact that bossa nova required artists who were exposed to the music, who knew it and were capable of playing it. This is where the drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt and bassist Keter Betts came in.

The talk transitioned over to Buddy and his experience with making the now-classic album. He admitted, quite candidly, that “it’s just my version of it, my interpretation of it. It is not pure bossa nova. It’s exactly what the [album] cover says it is. It’s Jazz Samba. It’s the first fusion album before they even started using the word ‘fusion.’ ”

Without realizing it, Buddy held the audience in the palm of his hand from the start. He remained calm and collected throughout the experience. And he showed a canny sense of humor and comic timing, too, when he regaled the crowd with this morsel: “We had no idea [the album] was going to be so successful. Keter Betts said months later, ‘You know that album we did?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, it got a Grammy.’ And what’s even funnier is, I was 24, and I said, ‘What’s a Grammy?’ I didn’t even know what a Grammy was!”

More controversially, Buddy equated the album’s popular success with, quite possibly, percussionist and second drummer Bill Reichenbach’s placing the emphasis on the rhythm of the songs (which Charlie Byrd selected) on beats two and four, something the “American public was used to hearing” and “could identify with.”

It was now multi-award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene’s turn to discuss his participation in the venture. Ed wasted no time in stressing the fact that a jazz combo, as much as a symphony orchestra, needs to be recorded in an acoustically agreeable environment, not in a “dead room.” It was the raison d’être for recording Jazz Samba at All Souls Unitarian Church in D.C.

Sound engineer Ed Greene

True to his profession, Ed emphasized the technical aspects of sound recording, including his use at the time of vacuum tube circuitry, Ampex tape recorders, condensers, and mixers. More important than these was his insistence the musicians be comfortable playing with one another.

It was at that point that Ed turned to Buddy, who he hadn’t seen in over fifty years, and asked, “Were you guys comfortable on stage, playing together?” Buddy replied with a simple “Absolutely,” which he prefaced with “You made my drums sound better than they ever sounded.” This pleased Mr. Greene to no end, who confided to audience members the reason he left the record business, mainly because he got tired of doing guitar overdubs on albums for weeks on end. Again, the musicians had no one to relate to, which in his opinion made the business much too complicated, what with earphones and monitors and such. “It’s a miracle anything comes through at all.” He did say that he enjoyed the immediacy of television, which is where Ed had been thriving for the past several decades, prior to his passing in August 2017.

Returning to the panel discussion at the Strathmore, D.C. native Tom Cole was asked to provide, in response to Ken Avis’ prompt, some context for, as well as the impact of, the album on pop music during and after the 1960s. Turning the tables on the moderator, Tom inquired of the participants that although both instrumental and vocal music were listened to with equal interest, did any of them recall hearing Jazz Samba on the radio; and, if they did, how did they react to it?

Words to the Wise

Ed Greene was the first to interject, in that he still “hears the album on the radio. It’s an unmistakable sound. There’s something about it. The music was not only well played, superbly played. It’s a very sensual music. That’s really what that album’s about. And that’s the essence of bossa nova.” Leo Lucini confirmed Ed’s appraisal, adding “among other things.”

Buddy offered his own thoughts in that he was “pleased that it sounded good. Everything about it was okay, it was correct. I didn’t hear anything that I disliked. And I’m always listening to mistakes that I made. The worst thing about making any recording is that you have to listen to your mistakes over and over and forever.”

What ultimately came out of this phase of the discussion was that the American record-buying public was readily taken with Jazz Samba over earlier recordings that were issued (in some cases, a decade or so earlier), among them Brazilian music featuring guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bud Shank.

Cover of the classic Jazz Samba album on vinyl (Verve Records)

A brief question-and-answer session followed, wherein yours truly, who was present in the audience and listening attentively to what was being divulged, was asked by Buddy (thank you, my friend!) to comment on the influence of the movie Black Orpheus in popularizing bossa nova. Here’s the answer I gave the panel:

“Vinicius de Moraes and Jobim wrote the music for the original play, Orfeu da Conceição, which later was turned into a film by Marcel Camus, made in Rio. It included none of the music from the play, but all new music by Jobim, as well as music by Luiz Bonfá. That “The Morning of Carnival” and “Samba de Orfeu” were Bonfá’s music. Black Orpheus is a totally other story. It’s a film that really captured, visually and sonically, the imagination of Americans and pretty much the whole world — except at the time the native Brazilians.”

Although nobody asked me, I volunteered a story that I had read in journalist and writer Ruy Castro’s book, Chega de Saudade (a.k.a. Bossa Nova): “My comment is about Stan Getz, they said he was a great player because of his sound and everything. During the recording sessions of Getz-Gilberto, João Gilberto made a comment to Jobim about it. As Getz was blowing away, Gilberto told Jobim [and I was paraphrasing here], ‘Tell that moron to shut up, he’s playing too loud.’ Jobim saw Stan’s expression and he said, ‘He says he likes the way you play.’ And Getz, in response, said, ‘Funny, I don’t think that’s what he said.’ ”

Stan Getz (l.), with Joe Byrd (c.) & brother Charlie Byrd (r.) recording Jazz Samba

I was pleased — no, thrilled — to hear that Brazil’s music, especially the soothing sounds of bossa nova, was still seducing audiences the way it had over half a century ago.

Looking back on the previous Friday night’s  concert with Eliane Elias and Sergio Mendes, I was reminded of an elderly gentleman seated to my right. He had come into the Strathmore Music Center with the aid of a walker, so fragile and weak was his appearance. The man must have been in his eighties. He was accompanied by his wife, who looked about a decade younger.

As the music and vibes reached their peak, the man stood up and, to my astonishment, started jerking his arms around in time to the rhythm. He was hardly able to keep up with the music, but boy, was he having the time of his life! Fond memories of his younger and healthier self must have been on his mind.

Then it dawned on me. Bossa nova continues to charm the world. And based on what I witnessed that night, it never really gets old, does it?

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes