Author: josmarlopes

The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two

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The chariot race from William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959)

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!

When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”

Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”

Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is tested by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) aboard a Roman galley

Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.

Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.

But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”

If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.

The Way of the Cross

Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) washes his hands of Jesus (Claude Heater) at his trial

From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.

Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.

In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.

There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.

Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), Miriam (Martha Scott) & Esther (Haya Harareet) witness Jesus’s walk to the Crucifixion

In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.

The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.

The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.

Christ carries his cross past Judah and his family

At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?

Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.

The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.

The Center of Attention

We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).

Simon the Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross to the Crucifixion, as Judah (in the background) crashes into a well

Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.

As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.

Judah recognizes the fallen Christ as the one who saved his life

Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.

From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.

Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.

The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.

The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.

Rain falls on the crucified Christ

In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.

Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.

Close-up of the “Creation of Adam” panel, used in Ben-Hur

A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘Monsters, John! Monsters from the Id’ — The Brave New World of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (Part Two): Confrontations with Oneself

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Scene from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) – the Big Machine

Complications, Complications — Always Complications

It is night at United Planets Space Cruiser C-57D’s base camp. Wary crewmen Strong (James Drury) and Grey (Bob Dix) hear the sound of heavy breathing around them. Slipping by the two sentries, the unseen threat surreptitiously boards the craft. Opening one of the heavy-duty hatches, the invisible being enters the communications area where, it is soon learned, the cruiser’s Klystron frequency monitor has sustained enough damage as to be inoperable.

The next day Commander Adams chews out the two crewmen who inadvertently allowed the menace to invade their ship. He raises his voice at Youngerford (Jimmy Thompson), the poor fellow asleep in his bunk, for having had a dream. “A dream!” the incensed commander incredulously repeats. Yes, indeed, one that will eventually turn into a nightmare. Chief Quinn comes over to inform the commander that, if he skips breakfast, he can repair the Klystron frequency monitor in due course. Adams’ mood lightens at this jocular jibe.

Meanwhile, Lt. Jerry Farman is ordered to stay with the ship while Adams and Doc board the tractor for Morbius’ abode. Farman doesn’t take too kindly to being left behind (especially since he’s certain that Adams will pay a call on the attractive young Altaira), but he obeys his superior’s directive. Both Adams and Doc believe that Robby the Robot may have been behind the break in, although the artificial being’s presence was never reported. That leaves one other suspect to grill.

No sooner do the two officers ride off, when we cut to a shot of Robby playing housemaid. The robotic servant hits a meddling monkey with one of his laser beams, which drives the pest away. Upon the officers’ arrival, Robby alerts them that Morbius is in his study, “never to be disturbed.” The skipper tells Ostrow to wait for Morbius in the living room while he goes to meet Altaira at the pool near the back of her home.

Altaira, or Alta for short, is swimming in something, but it isn’t your typical bathing gear. We can tell she’s wearing a skimpy see-through outfit, with just enough material to cover some strategic body parts. There was no way a major movie studio like MGM, in mid-20th-century America, could get away with having a woman swim in the raw. Again, there’s a mindless 1950s mentality to this sequence (call it false modesty) of an obviously “embarrassed” Commander Adams forced to deal with an attractive young lady in the altogether.

Altaira (Anne Francis) dresses herself behind a red bush

Thinking that she’s dressed only in her birthday suit, Adams is coy about his intrusion and evades looking directly at this vision of loveliness. Alta rises from the pool to get dressed behind a patently fake red-colored bush. Adams takes advantage of the situation by apologizing for his brashness of the previous day. He turns around to find her in a ravishing white gown (the “virgin bride”) with a stunning emerald necklace wrapped about her neck.

Adams finally makes his move as they engage in a deeply satisfying embrace topped by prolonged kissing, certainly a more fulfilling encounter than the one Alta experienced with the overeager (and over-sexed) Lt. Farman.

Out of the blue, Adams and Alta are interrupted by the roar of a ferocious feline (a nice segue to MGM’s logo, Leo the Lion). Not to worry, it’s only her pet Bengal tiger, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting couple. Adams is forced to vaporize the leaping carnivore with his trusty blaster (with animation provided by Disney’s Joshua Meador). Alta is oblivious to the tiger’s reaction. She honestly has no idea why it was about to attack them. Adams takes her in his arms to protect her from further harm. He instinctively senses, as many in the viewing audience do, that the tiger saw him (and now her) as a threat to the peace and tranquility of its world.

Adams (Leslie Nielsen) repels the Bengal tiger attack (animated by Joshua Meador)

In the spring 1979 double issue of Cinéfantastique, devoted almost entirely to the making of Forbidden Planet, authors Frederick S. Clarke and Steve Rubin cite several sources for Irving Block and Allen Adler’s original story treatment (adapted by Cyril Hume for his screenplay). Among them is the legend of the guiltless damsel — in this instance, “the chaste and pure Altaira” who “enjoys an Edenic rapport with the transplanted Earth creatures who roam the lush, forested grounds of [her father’s] home, yet when she kisses Commander Adams for the first time, a change transpires in her relationship with the beasts and her pet tiger nearly kills her.”

This goes back to the fable of the maiden and the unicorn, “which states that only a pure virgin can tame a unicorn” — represented here by a savage tiger (or maybe, in the long run, by the Id monster itself!).

In the early going, when Adams, Ostrow and Farman first visit Morbius in the comfort of his home, the cagey Professor claimed immunity from the destructive forces that once threatened Altair-IV’s surface. Later on, Alta will claim to Adams the same impervious ability to the fiendish creature that still lurks about. Adams doesn’t believe it, and rightly so. For the simple reason that, from here on end, Alta has lost that golden glow of purity, no thanks to him.

Alien Nation

When he re-enters the house, Adams admits to Ostrow that he is quite taken with the girl. Who wouldn’t be in his position? Hmm, this complicates their assignment somewhat. After he and Doc are caught snooping around the Professor’s study by the philologist himself, they report a sabotage of their communication equipment — with Morbius as their prime suspect.

Caught in his own maze of deceit and denial, Morbius finally comes clean about the Krell, the race of intellectually superior beings that once inhabited the planet two thousand centuries before man. He plays a sample of their music and shows the visitors an example of their architecture, i.e. the characteristic doorway and arch. He also informs them that this “all but divine race perished in a single night” to causes still unknown.

Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in his study, explains the origins of the Krell

The Krell once visited the Earth, he tells them, and brought back many biological specimens, which clarifies the existence of the tiger, deer and monkey. But what were they like? “No record of their physical nature has survived,” Morbius comments, which is just as well. Better to imagine what the Krell might have been like than try to recreate the unimaginable.

This is one of the picture’s finest aspects, the fact that the screenwriters left it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the missing portions of the narrative. It also saved MGM studios some beaucoup bucks, since Morbius maintains that nothing of the Krell’s architecture or industry has survived on the planet’s surface. “Even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair-IV and nothing, absolutely nothing remains above ground.”

Morbius takes the two officers inside one of the Krell laboratories (just one of their remaining artifacts), and introduces them to a teaching tool, the so-called “plastic educator,” a futuristic contraption once used to instruct their young (the atomic-age equivalent of “finger-painting,” as he describes it). Morbius delves into the incredible depth of knowledge the Krell had in their possession, which led to his tinkering together of a cultivated companion, Robby the gregarious Robot. He demonstrates the capabilities of the educator by creating a three-dimensional image of his daughter — “Aladdin’s lamp in a physics laboratory,” in Doc Ostrow’s words.

Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) creating a 3-D image of Altaira, with Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) & Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) by his side

Today’s digital technology would be easily employed in carrying out the above process, what with the availability of such modeling software as Maya®, Autodesk®, Cinema 4D®, and others. However, back at the dawn of big-screen, science-fiction moviemaking the techniques used to visualize the 3-D description of Altaira (Ostrow’s “Aladdin’s lamp” analogy) was cumbersome and time-consuming in the extreme. “What you see on the screen, as far as the horizontal effect, is only a bare outline of what we could have done,” grieved draftsman Bob Kinoshita in the 1979 Cinéfantastique article. “It was very frustrating.”

Morbius nonchalantly invites the officers to take the Krell test of their intelligence. Of course, the men have no idea that Morbius’ own intellectual capacity has been doubled as a result of his taking the test a second time (his first attempt knocked him out for a day and a night). Doc is surprised that he is unable to raise the machine’s indicator above the halfway mark, despite his relatively high IQ.

Adams meets the same fate, to which Morbius inartfully observes that a “commanding officer doesn’t need brains, just a good loud voice” (which comes to mind when we recall that Adams became angry with Altaira for her revealing attire, and when he chewed out his men for allowing an intruder into their ship). When Adams endeavors to create an image, Morbius stops him dead in his tracks, insisting he’d never survive the ordeal.

Sensing their mistrust of his motives, Morbius changes tactics somewhat. He discloses that he has recently “turned up some rather puzzling indications that in those final days before their annihilation, the Krell had been applying their entire racial energies to a new project, one which they actually seemed to hope might somehow free them once and for all from any dependence on physical instrumentalities.” What this meant is that they would no longer be reliant solely on their machines in seeking further knowledge of the universe.

To movie-goers of the 1950s, Morbius’ disclosure might have seemed as incredulous and earth-shattering as it sounded, a giant leap of the imagination — maybe even more so. But in our time, with the arrival of Web-based systems and the daily usage of wireless products and myriad forms of satellite communication, it leaves modern-day audiences with the impression of quaintness and dull routine.

Morbius now draws their attention to the gauges, whose calibrations “are set in decimal series,” with ten times as many amperes as those preceding them; in other words, “the number ten raised almost literally to the power of infinity.” Seeing his visitors’ startled reaction to this bit of information, Morbius casually inquires if they’d like to see more of the Krell “wonders.” Silly question! Of course they would. Wouldn’t you? It’s what us kids, enamored in our youth of the marvels of good science fiction writing, looked forward to.

Matte painting of Krell ventilator shaft from Forbidden
Planet (1956)

Stepping into a claustrophobic shuttle car with Adams and Ostrow, Morbius suggests they prepare their minds for a mind-boggling “new scale of physical scientific values.” He takes them on a guided tour of such breathtaking wonderment and unimaginable complexity that it must have impressed the hell out of George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, to name but a handful of well-known future filmmakers, to new heights of science fiction fancy.

“A single machine, a cube 20 miles on each side,” he adds, emphasizing the opening and closing of nonstop circuitry, along with their immensely impressive ventilator shafts. Adams asks what the big machine’s intended use was. Morbius avoids a direct answer. Instead, he shows them a section of one of the power units, “the harnessed power of an exploding planetary system” — the face of the Gorgon, another reference to Greek mythology.

The enormity of the sets (mostly airbrushed matte paintings, cycloramas, double exposures onto meticulously detailed miniatures and painstaking optical effects) and the dazzling display of gee-whiz gizmos, circuits and doodads, all tuned to Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities must have left audiences aghast at the vastness of the proportions on CinemaScope’s wide-screen.

We cut to the men setting up and testing the force field around the perimeter of their base. Cookie approaches Lt. Farman. He’s itching to get out into the boondocks, in search of “wild radishes or something.” In truth, all he wants is to pick up his order of hooch, all 60 gallons of the stuff. In no time, Cookie gets smashed on the booze. “Genuine Kansas City bourbon!” he raves. Fortunately for him, Robby is standing guard close by.

Robby the Robot & Cookie (Earl Holliman) examining the 60 gallons of bourbon

The Robot is alert to a presence nearby, but does not raise alarm bells. It’s the Id monster on the prowl, crossing the freshly activated force field. We can make out the blue outline of a massive form as it traverses the beams. As the monster gets closer and closer to the space cruiser, it leaves some horrific footprints in the ground, coupled by those eerie electronic tonalities. Slinking up the gangplank and onto the ship itself, the Id monster’s bulk makes the stair steps bend and groan under its weight.

Without warning, a deathlike scream pierces the nighttime silence. Lt. Farman immediately reports in to the skipper that Chief Quinn has been murdered; his body splattered all over the communications area. (Yuck, shades of an interplanetary Jack the Ripper!)

Prior to Farman’s call, Adams has been arguing with Professor Morbius about his refusal to divulge any of the Krell’s secrets to the more “responsible” inhabitants of Earth. Morbius feels, as the keeper of the Krell flame, that “mankind is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power,” which only he is capable of administering (in dribs and drabs, of course). He’s the watchdog, the self-appointed family retainer and the executor of what’s left of the Krell estate. Doc Ostrow sarcastically seconds Morbius’ claim. Only Morbius, with his “artificially expanded intellect … is ideally suited” to the task at hand. The irony of Doc’s crack is not lost on either Adams or Morbius. Indeed, the officers get no argument from Morbius. He is his own judge and jury, in that order, which makes him a most formidable opponent.

Upon receiving the news of Quinn’s slaying, a dark shadow falls over Morbius’ features. At this stage in the story’s outline, about the only thing the philologist can muster is a stifled “It’s started again,” a muted reference to the mass murder of his Bellerophon colleagues two decades prior. His words are seconded by the same eerie tonalities that accompanied the Id monster’s attack on Chief Quinn.

Altaira stands in the doorway, looking intently at her father. What must she be thinking! Is there any truth to the rumor that her lover, Commander John J. Adams, suspects dear ole dad of slaughtering his former shipmates? Could he be at it again?

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Three)

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Mind Blowing!

Producer George Martin surrounded by the Beatles in Abbey Road Studios, ca. 1967

From the modal beauty and formality of “She’s Leaving Home,” to the purity and simplicity of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we come to Side Two of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

If anyone at the time of the album’s June 1967 release entertained such far-flung notions that the Fab Four had run out of inspiration, they were in for quite a jolt. It’s almost considered a cliché that critics and adherents alike held Sgt. Pepper up as a benchmark achievement in the pop-music field. True, the album had a considerable following among listeners and record buyers. In retrospect, many of these same folks looked at this release as not up to the standard set by the group’s earlier efforts, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Many also fell into the trap of reading way too much into its lyrics.

There may be some truth to these assertions. Be that as it may, once we get to the B Side, that illusory “drop in quality” disappears with the next items on the list: George Harrison’s mesmerizingly hypnotic, five-minute-and-three-second “Within You, Without You,” and the rollickingly jaunty “When I’m Sixty-Four” by Paul McCartney. These two numbers are as different from one another as, say, “Eleanor Rigby” was from “Yellow Submarine.” Yet, the words and music for both “Within You, Without You” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” helped sustain the image of the Beatles as modern-day pop purveyors working at their whimsical best.

A lot has been written about the droning, Indian-derived sonic textures for “Within You, Without You.” There’s a quantifiable, trance-inducing aspect to it, a mystical call-to-the-spirit-world ambiance unlike anything that had come before. Harrison, known to fans as the “quiet Beatle,” was speaking out and finally coming into his own as a songwriter. “One of George’s best songs,” John Lennon maintained in the Playboy Interviews. “One of my favorites, too. He’s clear in that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together.”

Prior to this, George had tinkered with Indian music in his “Love You To” (also written as “Love You Too”) on Revolver, playing the exotic-sounding sitar on that cut, and on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from Rubber Soul.  At the time of “Norwegian Wood,” George was far from a proficient sitar player. According to Lennon, reported in the Rolling Stone Interviews (1970), “it took some doing to work it in. The instrument was still unfamiliar to George, and John had thought up an accompaniment that challenged his new skill. Trying and failing repeatedly to get the version they wanted frustrated John, but Harrison kept at it, mastered the part, and it was dubbed in later.”

Inspired by his own studies into the music of India, in addition to Moroccan soundscapes, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones experimented with the sitar’s capacity to hold one’s rapt attention in their classic “Paint It Black,” recorded on March 8, 1966 and released as a 7-inch single two months later — over a year before Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” began to take shape.

The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones playing the sitar in “Paint It Black”

With the exception of boyhood chum and former roadie Neil Aspinall, Harrison was the only Beatle present when he recorded the number. On it, he played the tamboura, along with Indian and other session musicians, who provided the dilruba, additional tamboura, the tabla, the swordmandel (a zither-like instrument, reputed to have been played by George as well), eight violins, and three cellos.

Producer George Martin worked closely with Harrison “on the scoring of it, using a string orchestra, and he brought some friends from the Indian Music Association to play special instruments. I was introduced to the dilruba, an Indian violin, in playing which a lot of sliding techniques are used. This meant that in scoring for that track I had to make the string players play very much like Indian musicians, bending the notes, and with slurs between one note and the next” (All You Need is Ears, 1979).

The origin for the piece came from a conversation George had with German-born artist and musician Klaus Voormann, the fellow responsible for the psychedelic cover art for Revolver and other albums. “Klaus had a harmonium in his house,” George recalled in The Beatles: A Celebration (1986), “which I hadn’t played before. I was doodling on it, playing to amuse myself, when ‘Within You, Without You’ started to come. The tune came initially, and then I got the first line [‘We were talking’]. It came out of what we’d been discussing that evening.”

George Harrison taking sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar

 

We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth

Then it’s far too late when they pass away

 

We were talking about the love we all could share

When we find it to try our best to hold it there with our love

With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew

 

Try to realize it’s all within yourself

No one else can make the change

And to see you’re really only very small

And life flows on within you and without you

 

That’s deep stuff, Georgie Boy! And he was the type to deliver it, too.

The previous fall, in September 1966, George and his wife Pattie had gone to India to study with Ravi Shankar, whom he met in June of that year. “The press had been trying to put me and him together since I used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ” Harrison described in The Beatles Anthology. “They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity — a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no,’ because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did …. So in September, after touring, I went to India for about six weeks … Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises.”

Sitar master Ravi Shankar & George Harrison

“It was a fantastic time,” he went on to explain. “I would go out and look at temples and go shopping. We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr. Butt, would bring me tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practicing … It was the first feeling I’d ever had of being liberated from being a Beatle or a number … I saw all kinds of groups of people, a lot of them chanting, and it was a mixture of unbelievable things, with the Maharajah coming through the crowd on the back of an elephant, with the dust rising. It gave me a great buzz.”

Consequently, we would expect to get a “great buzz” from listening to this seminal track, the only one on Sgt. Pepper written by the quiet Beatle. George expanded his contacts with Indian personalities, and his knowledge of their music and culture, when he and Pattie, along with Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, flew to New Delhi in February 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Age Before Beauty…

19th May 1967: The Beatles celebrate the completion of their new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at a press conference held at the west London home of their manager Brian Epstein. The LP is released on June 1st. (Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

Following on the heels of “Within You, Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” gives the appearance at first glance of being an inoffensive pop confection with an entirely innocent tone and hurdy-gurdy backdrop to match. The quartet of Paul, John, George and Ringo are back, along with session musicians on bass clarinet and two normal-sounding clarinets (that “tooty” accompaniment was composed by producer George Martin).

By all reports, Paul wrote the tune when he was about fifteen or sixteen, and to different lyrics. He claimed that the later lyrics were in honor of his father’s sixty-fourth birthday. “So many of my things, like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and those, they’re tongue-in-cheek! But they get taken for real!” Paul told Playboy magazine in December 1986. “Paul says, ‘Will you love me when I’m sixty-four?’ But I say, ‘Will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ That’s the tongue-in-cheek bit.” Oh, right!

Seemingly innocuous at the time, today the words have taken on a darker, dour context, an unintentionally prophetic message about old age creeping up on people and overtaking them in the so-called prime of life:

 

When I get older losing my hair

Many years from now

Will you still be sending me a valentine?

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

  

If I’d been out till quarter to three

Would you lock the door?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

You’ll be older too

And if you say the word

I could stay with you

 

Will you want a divorce because I can’t (ahem) “perform” in bed as I used to? Could you stand my presence, now that I’m no longer handsome and svelte as I was in my youth? Hey, you’re getting older yourself! So the shoe can be on the other foot! To save money, we could shack up together! Good questions, all! But wait! There’s more:

 

I could be handy mending a fuse

When your lights have gone

You can knit a sweater by the fireside

Sunday mornings go for a ride

 

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,

Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

Here are my arguments, both pro and con, about the ravages of old age. Why, look at all the wonderful things we can do together, the narrator tells us. We can fix the lighting or knit ourselves some sweaters by that warm fireplace. How about taking a stroll in the park? Trimming the hedges, doing the wash, something, anything? Hey, please don’t abandon me! I’m still useful, even if my back aches like hell from pulling out those nasty weeds. And then, there are all those retirement perks:

 

Every summer we can rent a cottage

In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear

We shall scrimp and save

Grandchildren on your knee

Vera, Chuck, and Dave

 

Oh, yeah, about those perks….

 

Send me a postcard, drop me a line

Stating point of view

Indicate precisely what you mean to say

Yours sincerely, wasting away

 

Now you’ve done it! You’ve locked me up in a damn nursing home! On the Isle of Wight, of all places! And you’ve thrown away the key! Thanks a lot! I’m here, all by myself, “wasting away,” in body and mind — waiting for you to call, to visit me, to bring our grandkids. But so far, nothing! Nada! Zilch!

As Mick Jagger would claim (in the July 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper”), “What a drag it is getting old.”

 

Give me your answer, fill in a form

Mine for evermore

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

The music’s whimsy stands in barbed contrast to the lyrics’ light-hearted sentiments. This modest ditty makes for a fine companion piece to the A Side’s “She’s Leaving Home,” about a girl who seemingly had everything she could want (according to her parents) — everything, that is, except love.

The next number, “Lovely Rita,” also written by the mop-topped Paul, is about a beautiful meter maid. What is a meter maid? In England, they’re called parking-meter attendants. In our country, a meter maid is a public functionary who works for the city or municipality. This individual is in charge of handing out tickets to car owners who park too long in the street. If the owners neglect to pay the parking fee, and the meter’s internal clock runs out (indicating the time the owner has left to move his car), a fine would be levied.

Traffic warden (parking-meter maid) in London ca. the early 1970s

In McCartney’s view, it’s the same logic he used in conceiving “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “The idea of a parking-meter attendant’s being sexy was tongue-in-cheek at the time.” George Martin served once again as the arranger. He’s also credited with playing the honky-tonk piano. And three of the Beatles scrounged around Abbey Road Studio’s restrooms for the right consistency of toilet tissue in order to play the tissue paper and combs used in the song.

And Now, A Word from Our Sponsor

Moving on to “Good Morning, Good Morning,” this was a one-hundred-percent John Lennon effort. “Effort” is an extraordinarily exaggerated claim when used in connection with John’s compositional acumen. “I often sit at the piano,” he told Beatles in Their Own Words, “working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’….. it was a cornflakes advertisement.”

A commercial for breakfast cereal as inspiration? Well, why not, but the barnyard noises and sound effects, to include a fox hunt, bleating sheep, a mooing cow, and a cock crowing? Overkill perhaps? No, not really. The chicken clucking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” segues perfectly into the next to last number, a reprise (at one minute and twenty seconds) of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

No horns are present, as in the opening number. Instead, a Liverpudlian brass ensemble, known as Sound Incorporated, was employed for “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Here, an acoustic guitar and clanging piano lead directly into the album’s pièce de résistance, a highlight to end all highlights: the Beatles’ masterly “A Day in the Life.”

Entire chapters, if not whole treatises, have been devoted to this one song, so controversial and ground-breaking it became in its day and in our own time. Although “A Day in the Life” is the last number on the album, it was also one of the first to be recorded (after “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” in December 1966). Instead of being incorporated into Sgt. Pepper, the studio decided to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” separately, in February 1967, as the A and B sides of a single. After Christmas break, recording picked up in earnest on January 19 with “A Day in the Life,” and continued on until early April. Final overdubs and such lasted until May, just before its June 1 release date.

John Lennon listening to playback, with George Martin at center, Abbey Road Studios, 1967

Because they were recorded early on in the process, “Penny Lane,” a nostalgic refrain based on the lads’ reminiscences of childhood in postwar Liverpool, and the spellbinding “Strawberry Fields,” the name of a Salvation Army home in the neighborhood where John grew up, set the path as to where Sgt. Pepper would tread — with “A Day in the Life” serving as the encore and summation of all that went on before.

News reports gleaned from actual headlines figure prominently in the construction of the initial song. The first story involved the death at age 21 of the Guinness heir, Tara Browne, known to the Beatles personally. “He died in London in a car crash,” John remarked in that 1980 Playboy interview. The other story was “about four thousand potholes in the streets of Backburn, Lancashire that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was damn good piece of work.”

It sure was. Paul’s “little lick” served as the bridge between John’s two verses. Astonishingly, the numbers combined to form a unified whole. In The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record, Geoff Emerick was quoted as stating, “The need for a middle section became apparent. [Paul] offered some lyrics that he was intending for another song. After discussion, they were accepted, as long as the connecting part was very rhythmic. George Martin suggested the connecting passages have a definite length.”

George Martin added that “In order to keep time, we got [roadie and friend] Mal Evans to count each bar, and on the record you can still hear his voice as he stood by the piano counting ‘one, two, three, four ….’ For a joke, Mal set an alarm clock to go off at the end of twenty-four bars, and you can hear that too. We left it in because we couldn’t get it off!”

Emerick continued: “Martin then asked what should be used in those long connecting passages. McCartney answered that he wanted a symphony orchestra to ‘freak out’ during them. Martin disagreed, but McCartney persisted. They compromised on a smaller, forty-one piece orchestra.”

In another account, it was John Lennon who suggested the use of an orchestra. “Lennon’s only instruction to George Martin was that the sound must rise up to ‘a sound like the end of the world.’ ”

Very aptly put!

Paul McCartney conducting the 41-piece orchestra for the climax to “A Day in the Life,” at the Abbey Road Studios, January 1967

Some technical sleight-of-hand was utilized throughout the recording process. You can read about the equipment that was used, the tape splices and editing loops, the laborious electronic and echo effects surrounding John’s voice, the various feeds and feedback employed — all of them fascinating for sound engineers. But all that “tech talk” tends to bog the average reader down and can be stimulating only to those interested in the subject.

For us laypeople, the lyrics are what make this piece stand out from the rest: the way John, as he speaks the words he himself wrote, delivers them in his typically cutting, matter-of-fact manner; Paul, as he introduces his contribution into the framework, imparts a passing sense of relief from the gloominess of the main story line; then John, acting out the dream sequence implied in Paul’s narration, goes off into a wordless “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” his voice rising and falling as it goes up and down the scale, interrupted at length by the rising brass section; John picks up the thread about those potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire; he then makes that notorious crack about how we know how many holes (“assholes,” in many people’s opinion) it takes to fill the snooty Royal Albert Hall:

The Beatles in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, 1963

John:

I read the news today, oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw a photograph

 

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords

 

I saw a film today, oh boy

The English Army had just won the war

A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look

Having read the book

I’d love to turn you on….

 

Paul:

Woke up, fell out of bed

Dragged a comb across my head

Found my way downstairs and drank a cup

And looking up I noticed I was late

Found my coat and grabbed my hat

Made the bus in seconds flat

Found my way upstairs and had a smoke

And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

 

John:

I read the news today, oh boy

4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

And though the holes were rather small

They had to count them all

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on

 

The cacophonous crescendo (orchestrated, arranged and conducted by George Martin, with an assist from Paul McCartney) shatters the eardrums. The noise continues to mount, rising higher and higher in pitch, louder and louder in volume. It reaches an incredible din, until the final climactic masterstroke sounds: three pianos pounding at the same time; they’re played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans (in some versions, by Martin; in other accounts, by George Harrison) who strike the chords as loud as they can. Here’s where the facts become legend.

“The final bunched chords came from all four Beatles,” confirmed journalist and author Derek Taylor in It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, “and George Martin in the studio, playing three pianos. All of them hit the chord simultaneously, as hard as possible, with the engineer pushing the volume-input faders way down on the moment of impact. Then, as the noise gradually diminished, the faders were pushed slowly up to the top. It took forty-five seconds, and it was done three or four times, piling on a huge sound — one piano after another, all doing the same thing.”

John Lennon’s forty-five second “sound like the end of the world” idea brought to completion one of the most innovative and significant pieces of pop-music ever created by four (no, five … or maybe more) endlessly inventive artists known collectively as the Beatles.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Six) Second Intermission

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So Close, Yet So Far …

Margherita (Patricia Racette) & Faust (Ramon Vargas) in the Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” from Mefistofele (San Francisco Opera)

Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.

To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”

This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.

The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”

Tenor Mario Del Monaco (Avax Home)

What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.

To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.

Splitting Airs

Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”)  to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – Act I (Rome Opera House)

Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”

Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.

Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.

Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio, a famous Margherita

In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.

One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.

To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.

Croatian-born soprano Zinka Milanov as the ballad singer La Gioconda (Met Opera)

“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”

Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”

Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff as Mefistofele

While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.

But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.

Isn’t opera grand?

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New (Part Two) — Look Back in Delight

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Music that Soothes the Soul

Veronneau: Jazz Samba Project, with Lynn Veronneau and husband Ken Avis (far right)

It was such a pleasure to have met and chatted with musician Ken Avis (albeit briefly) on Saturday, June 7, 2014, after the Jazz Samba Project Symposium. A former organizational development consultant with the World Bank Group, Ken is a sharp and knowledgeable music lover, especially of Brazil’s music. I congratulated him and his co-curator, Georgina Javor, for a most enjoyable and thoroughly professional presentation, which brought a variety of speakers together. Among them were teacher, lecturer, musician and journalist David R. Adler; teacher, composer and bassist Leonardo Lucini; editor, producer and NPR host Tom Cole; multi-Emmy Award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene; and professor and author Charles A. Perrone.

The symposium itself was a huge success, as was my talk the following Sunday afternoon with drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt (see the following link to my interview: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/). Buddy turned out to be a terrific interview subject: involved, alert and ready with a memorable line or two. It was incredible how he managed to recall events from fifty years back with such facility, and in precise detail. And having Jazz Samba’s original sound engineer Ed Greene on the stage and alongside him was icing on the bossa nova cake.

My only regret was that my wife and I missed the Sunday afternoon performance of Ken’s group Veronneau with German-born harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. Regrettably, we had to rush back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to Dulles Airport. I also regret not having seen the world premiere of Ken Avis and Bret Primack’s documentary, Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World.  I asked Ken afterwards if and when the documentary would be made public, either online or on his group’s Website. He was kind enough to send me the link to Primack’s YouTube channel where I could watch the film “in the raw.” Ken assured me it was chock full of fascinating tidbits that a history maven and pop-music buff such as myself would be thrilled to have at my disposal.

While we’re on the subject, Ken also provided me with a copy of a CD he recorded in 2012. Under the title Jazz Samba Project, it was his group’s homage to the milestone Jazz Samba album from 1962. My initial thought was that it was smooth sounding, suave and sophisticated, as only bossa nova was meant to be. The lilting rhythms and additional percussion effects were added virtues, while his wife Lynn’s easy-going vocals fit in beautifully with what I like to refer to as the “Astrud aesthetic” (named after Astrud Gilberto, the former wife of bossa nova pioneer, João Gilberto, who shot to stardom on the strength of her English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema”).

I did have a few reservations with Lynn’s Portuguese pronunciation, though. Heck, even pop singer Lani Hall, one of two artists featured (the other being Janis Hansen) with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 on their many A&M albums, wasn’t all that perfect. Still, it did not detract from the generally relaxed vibes I got from the players. And the recording venue, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where the original Jazz Samba sessions took place, was heaven sent. While duplicating three of the selections from the original record (“È Luxo Só,” “One Note Samba,” and “Samba Triste”), Veronneau also covered the Bob Marley tune “Waiting in Vain,” Jorge Ben’s perennial “Más Que Nada,” Jobim-Mendonça-Gimbel’s “Meditation,” one of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes’ afro-sambas, “Samba Saravah,” the Joseph Kosma-Johnny Mercer standard “Autumn Leaves,” and lastly Jobim’s “Wave.”

Getting back to the bossa nova documentary, Ken mentioned to me that “it’s still a work in progress and won’t see the light of day formally until [he and Bret] are able to raise a bit more money for film festival showings, etc.” All the same, Ken urged me to take a gander at it. “I’m sure you will have seen many of the clips before,” he added, “but there’s a lot of new original interview material in there too. There are some things we will change but this is it as of today!”

Bandleader, musician, lecturer, producer and playwright Ken Avis (Photo: Strathmore)

Ken was absolutely spot-on regarding the documentary. There were clips (most of them from second-generation footage) that I had never seen before: a rare showing of composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá with Perry Como performing “A Day in the Life of a Fool” (known in Brazil as “Manhã de Carnaval”), the persnickety João Gilberto in an extended take on “Desafinado,” glimpses of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in concert, Elis Regina with Tom Jobim hamming it up on “Águas de março” (“Waters of March”), Vinicius and Tom in a rendition of “Felicidade,” and an interview with Charlie Byrd’s brother, Joe Byrd. In that one, Joe Byrd claimed, in his elegantly patrician Virginia accent, that brother Charlie called on the services of “two German drummers” — Philadelphia-born Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach — to man the rhythm section (see the link to the video: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjE3au2p4TXAhVBfiYKHVpiA2EQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F95835648&usg=AOvVaw0ijjbYF5DjAkC6YrGGGL7s ).

As for my talk with the “German drummer” William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (who is of Danish ancestry on his mother’s side), Ken had this to say: “I wish I could have caught the Sunday morning session — I heard from a couple of people who had been there, including the [Brazilian] drummer Vanderlei Pereira that it was interesting and entertaining. I [felt that] Buddy and his companions had a really good time at the festival and were delighted at the opportunity to be part of it, which for me is one of the best things we achieved.”

I asked Ken if he had ever heard of David Chesky and his audiophile label, Chesky Records. “I can recommend many of their CDs,” I wrote back, “especially the one called Club de Sol that highlighted composer-musician Chesky on piano with Brazilian percussionist Café, who my wife and I had met when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz oriented — plus it swings, man, it swings! I guarantee you will love it if you haven’t heard it yet.

“I also have two of their earlier compilations (they double as sound checks, too), some of which featured singer Ana Caram, guitarist Badi Assad (she is part of an incredibly talented guitar-playing family that includes her two brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad), Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother), Orquesta Nova, and a bunch of others. It’s all very eclectic stuff.”

My suggestion must have caught Ken’s ear. He wrote back to me after about a week: “When you mentioned Chesky I was aware of the label and a couple of days later I pulled out a compilation CD from them which I had bought years ago. It introduced me to [Bahian-born] Rosa Passos, who had a version of “Girl from Ipanema,” a Colombian singer Marta Gomez, who did a beautiful arrangement of “Cielito Lindo,” and included a bunch of other great tracks such as a bass and male vocal version of “Round Midnight.” If we were with a label, that’s the one I’d like to be with!”

With that said, I made up my mind to write to videographer and music journalist Bret Primack directly and introduce myself. Having put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to pull out a couple of those Chesky CDs I had told Ken about. As I began to peruse the contents, lo and behold, I realized that Bret had written the liner notes himself. No wonder Ken knew about the label!

Call Me, On the Line

Videographer and music journalist Bret Primack (Photo: Optimise, Kathleen Witten-Hannah)

It was no surprise to me that Bret was a Brazilian music lover, as were David and his brother Norman Chesky. They owned (and founded) the Chesky Records label back in the late 1980s and continue to do so today. I quickly answered back: “I love their stuff! I have several excellent CDs of theirs including the two demo discs, which I still use on occasion to get the imaging right on my speakers.”

I felt an inspiration coming. Here is the gist of what I wrote to Bret: “I got your e-mail address from Ken Avis, who I met last weekend at the Strathmore after the Jazz Samba Symposium. Ken was kind enough to send me the video link to your film, Bossa Nova: The Music that Seduced the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My congratulations! I know he spoke with you about the making of, and genesis, of the film. I’d like to correspond with you about it, if you have some free time.

“The interesting thing is that I recommended several recordings to Ken of Brazilian music on the Chesky label. He told me he was familiar with the label. The CDs I suggested were a recital by [Brazilian jazz singer] Leny Andrade with pianist Fred Hersch — in particular, her powerful singing of the song “Wave,” which I think is a standout; and David’s Club de Sol. I would have added Herbie Mann’s Caminho de Casa (see the link to my article about this album: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/a-brazilian-at-heart-for-jazz-artist-herbie-mann-brazil-was-home-too/), but his name did not come up in our conversation.

“Coincidently, I pulled out Caminho de Casa and a Luiz Bonfá CD (also on Chesky) called Non-Stop to Brazil, both of which are favorites of mine. As I looked over the liner notes, I noticed that YOU wrote the notes! I knew, by the way you and Ken had discussed bossa nova in your film, that you must love or at least be familiar with Brazilian music. I had no idea you wrote the liner notes to my favorite works!” I also told Bret about my having met the percussionist Café.

“Please let me know if we can discuss your film. I even suggested to Ken a possible avenue for funding your project via the Audiovisual and Rouanet Laws in Brazil (I don’t know if they apply here, but you can most certainly give it a try). Ken told me he was going to check into them as well. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.”

After several false starts, I was able to speak to Bret. I had no idea the Chesky brothers were his cousins! We had a most satisfactory conversation, for which I thanked Ken. Bret hailed from the suburbs of New York. He started booking bands while still a teenager. Wherever he went, Bret met up with Brazilians who were passionate jazz and music lovers. After years in the city, Bret moved out West — to Tucson, Arizona, where he set up a jazz video outlet. He became known as the Jazz Video Guy. Some of his YouTube videos include “Miles Davis, the Picasso of Jazz,” and a series about the life and work of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In our talk, Bret hinted that in order to complete the Bossa Nova film project he would need access to better archival footage as well as additional funding sources. Perhaps a trip to Brazil would be in order.

What really got my attention was that Ken mentioned using the unexplored avenue of the theater, by way of a play about the coming of bossa nova to the U.S. (specifically, the Washington, D.C. area). I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss, via our e-mail correspondence, a ready-made theater piece that many authorities consider to be the first (and, to date, only) bossa nova musical. That would be Pobre Menina Rica or “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a 1964 play (in the form of a cabaret piece) with lyrics and text by none other than Vinicius de Moraes, and songs by Carlos Lyra, a still-living icon of the bossa nova era.

Carlos Lyra, Nara Leao, Vinicius de Moraes (with Aloysio de Oliveira, standing) – Pobre Menina Rica (1964)

I told Ken that I had a CD of the music, as well as the original text (in both Portuguese and English) in my possession. “You can read about the musical in Ruy Castro’s book Chega de Saudade, translated under the title Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World” — a not inconsequential resemblance to Primack and Avis’ film title.

Suffice it to say that the plot line and music for Pobre Menina Rica are definitely of its time. The story is of the “poor-boy-meets-rich-girl” variety, result: love at first sight, the sort of innocent, innocuous fling that prevailed in the mid-1960s. The best examples I could think of were those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funnicello “beach blanket bingo” flicks from the same period. It may not have been what Ken was looking for, but it did touch on themes related to class differences (one of the main characters is a crippled Afro-Brazilian slum dweller, highly reminiscent of Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Nara Leão and Elis Regina were originally pegged to star in the show when it premiered. In fact, Lyra wrote the musical with Nara in mind: she’s the titular “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which as we know was the title of a Noël Coward song.

I offered to send Ken the text to read over. “You can probably download some of the songs online as well.  If this perks your interest, I can even reach out to my friends in Brazil, Claudio Botelho and Charles Moëller (of Moëller-Botelho) who I have written about extensively on my blog.” For years, Carlos Lyra had been dying for someone to bring his play either to Broadway or to North American theaters in some capacity. It was another way of approaching Ken’s idea, but from a different angle, outside of writing something from scratch (which is more difficult).

However, Ken decided to give the project his own spin, the result of which was an original play called Bossa Fever! — When Samba met Jazz in 1960s Washington DC, with music by his band Veronneau. The world premiere took place in 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C., as part of the INTERSECTIONS 2015 Festival (here’s the YouTube link to the show: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjg06GilYTXAhVFWCYKHXQjCRwQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXadG42P5DuA&usg=AOvVaw13PclTp0Xgyoy_XEBq2EFk).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, Act II (Part Five)

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“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”

Act II, Scene Two of Mefistofele at Baden-Baden 2016 – with Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (Faust)

In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.

Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).

The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).

She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”

Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.

Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”

Mefistofele: Act II, Scene One – Ramon Vargas (Faust), Patricia Racette (Margherita), San Francisco

In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.

Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.

As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.

When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.

In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.

If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.

Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.

Fernando De Lucia’s historic recording of “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito”

Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”

Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.

The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.

“Behold the World!”

“Ecco il mondo!” – Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele, San Francisco

Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).

Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:

Folletto, folletto,

Veloce, leggier,

Che splendi soletto

Per l’erma sentier,

A noi t’avvicina,

Che buia è la china

 

Will-‘o-the-wisp

So airy and light,

Which shines alone

Along our lonely path

Approach us more closely

How gloomy is this slope

Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.

Images of Norman Treigle as Mefistofele (Monroe Library – Loyola University)

Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.

Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.

Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”

Erwin Schrott as Mefistofele, Witches’ Sabbath, in Baden-Baden

Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”

Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.

Ezio Pinza as Mefistofele, Act II, Scene Two

In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.

In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”

Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”

The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”

“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.

Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.

End of Act Two

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

More of the Same: Curtain Going Up on the Met Opera’s 2017-18 Radio Season

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We Interrupt This Program

Scene from Laurent Pelly’s production of Cendrillon by Massenet

No sooner had one Metropolitan Opera broadcast season ended when the dutiful announcement came of productions yet to come.

By that, I mean General Manager Peter Gelb’s glib note of “an exciting lineup of live radio broadcasts and movie theater transmissions in store” for listeners in the upcoming 2017-18 season. No word, however, about the company’s growing financial concerns or the cost-cutting measures being taken behind the scenes (see the New York Times for details).

While there are some tantalizingly obscure items in the lineup, the coming Met Opera season is already shaping up to be another ho-hum event. Stepping up to the plate, listeners for the most part can be assured of all-too-standard fare, with precious few out-of-the-way works to enliven what promises to be exceptionally conservative programming.

Surely, there is nothing comparable to last season’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, based on Edmond Rostand’s play about the giant-nosed swordsman. Recalling your opera history, Alfano was the fellow granted the unenviable task of completing Puccini’s Turandot. The only thing that kept me from reviewing the 2005 production of Cyrano (with Placido Domingo receiving top billing) was my total unfamiliarity with the piece. I did listen to the May 6, 2017 broadcast, which starred the versatile Roberto Alagna in the title part, debuting soprano Jennifer Rowley as Roxane, and (to my surprise) Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the tongue-tied Christian. To my ears, Cyrano was a pleasant-sounding, late verismo work with a moving final scene and few memorable tunes, but I do digress.

Roxane (Jennifer Rowley) with Cyrano (Roberto Alagna) in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

There are no real novelties in the new season — that is, if you consider Bellini’s Norma (broadcast on December 16, 2017) and Verdi’s Requiem (heard December 2) and Luisa Miller (April 14, 2018) to be novelties in-and-of themselves. Still, when was the last time you raved over a live transmission of Norma, one of bel canto’s finest achievements? And when was it, really, that Luisa Miller, Verdi’s Sturm und Drang middle-period drama, stirred anyone’s blood?

Ah, well, at least one can drool over the broadcast of Norma, which stars power diva Angela Meade as the Druid priestess Norma (a dead-ringer for Greek mythology’s Medea), the equally endowed mezzo of Jamie Barton as her rival Adalgisa, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione, and British basso Matthew Rose as Oroveso. The orchestra will be presided over by Joseph Colaneri in this new Sir David McVicar production.

For Luisa Miller, we have what might be the final pairing of maestro James Levine with former tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Luisa’s father, Miller. I have no idea how Domingo will deliver the vocal and dramatic goods this role calls for. Heck, I’m still in thrall over the sheer sound of the young Sherrill Milnes when he sang the part in the late 1960s, or the voluminous Cornell MacNeil in his heyday, with high notes to spare.

Of course, these were Verdian masters in their prime, but I’m willing to give old Plácido a try. And why not? He’s come through unscathed before, so don’t count him out just yet! Others in the cast are the rising prima donna Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, mezzo Olesya Petrova as Federica, tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, and basses Alexander Vinogradov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Count Walter and Wurm, respectively. I’m hoping James Levine can bring some thunder to the proceedings.

It Always Sounds Better in French

To say there is no adventurous oeuvre out there might be an underestimation on my part. In fact, one of the premieres planned for this season is of Jules Massenet’s rarely heard Cendrillon, an enchanting French retelling of the Cinderella fairy story that rivals La Cenerentola, the more familiar Rossini version. With a cast headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Alice Coote as Prince Charming (yes, it’s one of those “trouser” roles for women), and stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, this Laurent Pelly production, conducted by fellow Frenchman Bertrand de Billy, promises to be a truly Gallic affair. The opera airs on April 28, 2018, a simulcast with the Live in HD series.

Cinderella (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s Cendrillon

There is also a new work in the offing, another of those operas based on this-or-that famous novel or movie: Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel, adapted from the iconoclastic 1962 Luis Buñuel film. I’m no fan of Buñuel’s output, but if anyone can turn this director’s surrealistic horror story of guests trapped at a dinner party into a viable operatic vehicle, then Adès surely can. The production is by Tom Cairnes and premieres in late April 2018 (the performance will be recorded on November 18, 2017, for re-broadcast).

In addition to Cendrillon, Massenet’s Thaïs is also up at bat (scheduled for January 20, 2018), in John Cox’s lavish production. Soprano Ailyn Pérez sings the role of the Alexandrian courtesan, with baritone Gerald Finley as the enamored Athanaël, tenor Jean-François Borras as Nicias, and David Pittsinger as Palémon. The conductor will be Emmanuel Villaume. Most listeners will recognize the thrice-familiar “Meditation” for solo violin, this opera’s most famous concert piece.

Another French favorite, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (May 5, 2018) has been steadily gaining ground in popularity over its more familiar older cousin Faust. A surprise hit last season (due to the impressive combination of German soprano Diana Damrau with smoldering Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo), this year listeners will be treated to the aforementioned Ailyn Pérez as Juliette romanced by her Roméo in the person of New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel, in the Bartlett Sher-Michael Yeargan production. The conductor is Señor Domingo, of all people. Mercutio will be sung by Joshua Hopkins, Stéphano by Karine Deshayes, and Frère Laurent by Kwangchul Youn.

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” The Balcony Scene from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

The score so far: two for Massenet and one for Gounod. And that’s it for Les Français! What about the Saxons? Well, I’m afraid there’s not much improvement in that department: only three German works by an equal number of composers.

On February 7, 2018, there will be a repeat of the controversial but well-received François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal. The cast for this revival will include Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal (the role that Jonas Kaufmann made his own), returning bass René Pape as Gurnemanz, Evelyn Herlitzius as the sultry Kundry, the excellent Peter Mattei as the long-suffering Amfortas, and inky-voiced Evgeny Nikitin as the wizard Klingsor. Boy wonder Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be on the podium.

Starting the New Year right, we take note of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the weirdly fantastical production by Richard Jones, sung in English. Set for January 6, 2018, the cast stars Irish-born mezzo Tara Erraught as Hansel and soprano Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, with veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as their mother Gertrude, Quinn Kelsey (a baritone star in the making) as their father Peter, and German tenor Gerhard Siegel (a wickedly nasty Mime in Siegfried) as the maniacally cackling Witch. Donald Runnicles is the conductor.

Wrapping up the paltry German contingent is Richard Strauss’ Elektra, broadcast on March 17, 2018. American soprano Christine Goerke will make her role debut at the Met as the titular protagonist. She will be joined by Dutch diva Elza van den Heever as her concerned sister Chrysothemis, mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster as their murderous mother Klytämnestra, Jay Hunter Morris as her husband Aegisth, and bass-baritone Mikhail Petrenko as the revenge-seeking Orest. The landmark Patrice Chéreau production, with monumental sets by Richard Peduzzi, will be presided over by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Mamma Mia, That’s Italian!

Lucia di Lammermoor with Vittorio Grigolo as Edgardo

The remainder of the season will be taken up by Italian works, which is the core of any opera house’s repertoire. However, warming up in the bullpen are several items by Herr Mozart.

The Austrian composer is well represented with simultaneous revivals of Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s Die Zauberflöte (sung in the original German) and, in a truncated English adaptation by J.D. McClatchy, The Magic Flute. We’ll be hearing The Magic Flute on December 9, 2017, with Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Pamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alfred Walker as the Speaker, and Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro, with Evan Rogister on the podium.

Two weeks later, on December 23, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) will be performed in Sir Richard Eyre’s Upstairs-Downstairs meets Downton Abbey rendition. It will be populated by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Figaro, soprano Christiane Karg as his betrothed Susanna, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Countess Almaviva, basso Luca Pisaroni as the womanizing Count Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino. The work will be conducted by Harry Bicket.

Towards the latter part of the season (on March 31, 2018), the last of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations returns in Phelim McDermott’s Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”). It’s a madcap affair, updated to the 1950s; a drawing-room comedy of sparring couples, featuring Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, along with Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara as Despina, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively, Christopher Maltman as the suave Don Alfonso, and maestro David Robertson presiding.

The Met’s madcap version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte

As we mentioned above, this will be a predominantly Italian season, which kicks off with Verdi’s Requiem on December 2, 2017 — a rather ominous note, if you ask me. James Levine, the company’s Music Director Emeritus, will be leading the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of the Manzoni Messa da Requiem (its original title). The soloists will include soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. I cannot vouch for the other participants in this staggeringly forceful piece, but most certainly Signor Furlanetto will lend his potent voice and signature artistry to one of the Italian master’s most noteworthy accomplishments.

This pillar of the Italian repertory will be joined the following month by the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (January 13, 2018), with Roberto Alagna doing double-duty as Turiddu and Canio; the new David McVicar production of Puccini’s Tosca (January 27, 2018) with Sonya Yoncheva (replacing Kristine Opolais), Vittorio Grigolo (in lieu of Jonas Kaufmann), and Sir Bryn Terfel in the leads; Verdi’s potboiler Il Trovatore (February 3, 2018), featuring Maria Agresta, Yonghoon Lee, Quinn Kelsey, Anita Rachvelishvilli, and Štefan Kocán; and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), starring Pretty Yende, Matthew Polenzani, Davide Luciano, and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.

Along similar lines, there is the classic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème (February 24, 2018), with Yoncheva, Susanna Phillips, Michael Fabiano, and Lucas Meachem; the same composer’s Madama Butterfly (March 3, 2018) in the now-iconic Anthony Minghella production, with Ermonela Jaho, Maria Zifchak, Roberto Aronica, and Roberto Frontali; Rossini’s Semiramide (March 10, 2018), with Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Javier Camarena, and Ildur Abdrazakov; the Zeffirelli mounting of Puccini’s Turandot (March 24, 2018), which features Martina Serafin, Guanqun Yu, Marcelo Álvarez, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk; and, last but not least, Mary Zimmerman’s version of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 7, 2018) by Donizetti, starring Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, Vittorio Grigolo, Massimo Cavalletti, and Vitalij Kowaljow.

The sole non-Italian, non-French, and non-German work is famed Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (broadcast on December 30, 2017) in Jeremy Sams’ veddy British translation. The cast includes the ever-popular Susan Graham as Hanna Glawari (the cheerful widow of the title), Paul Groves as Danilo, Andriana Chuchman as Valencienne, Taylor Stayton as Camille, and veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Baron Mirko Zeta (!). The conductor will be Ward Stone for this Susan Stroman production.

Renee Fleming (Hanna) and Kelli O’Hara (Valencienne) in The Merry Widow

Where’s the Beef?

One thing I noticed is the prevalence of non-Italian artists in major Italian roles. For instance, the female lead in many of the Met Opera broadcasts are to be taken by the likes of Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca, Mimì, Luisa), Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (Lucia), Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza), Pretty Yende (Adina), Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Angela Meade (Semiramide), Anita Rachvelishvilli (Azucena), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Martina Serafin (Turandot), and Guanqun Yun (Liù).

The same issue goes for the lower-voiced artists: Željko Lučić (Alfio), George Gagnidze (Tonio), Sir Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), Quinn Kelsey (Count Di Luna), Štefan Kocán (Ferrando), Matthew Rose (Colline), Alexey Lavrov (Schaunard), Ildur Abdrazakov (Assur), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), and Vitalij Kowaljow (Raimondo).

I’ve complained before about the mushy diction and indecipherable vowel sounds from some of the foreign artists engaged by the Met of late. While that’s always a pet peeve of mine, I have come to the realization that it’s unfair for me to judge a singer through a radio broadcast alone, when compared to that of a live performance.

There are so many factors that go into a theatrical presentation, intractable hurdles and variables of one kind or another (i.e. acoustics, venue, crowd response, orchestral and choral forces, and the like). So to criticize singers for poor delivery of the text — or not sounding Italian enough (or French, or German, or Russian, or what-have-you) — is just plain carping on my part. I will temper my views in the foreseeable future.

We should be grateful that opera, my favorite pastime (along with movies and music), is given at all these days, considering the current state of the art — that is, the sky-high cost implied in its production. Opera has always been, and will continue to be, an expensive proposition. It’s an art form that demands huge financial outlays and extraordinary commitment. The reason for that goes back to the vast number of artisans, performers and musicians, in addition to stagehands and crafts people, involved in its implementation.

The world’s greatest singers, conductors, producers, and directors are more than happy to participate in opera. That’s why they are booked solid so many years in advance. The difficulties implicit in the conception, however, can be off-putting and frustrating to professionals as well as to non-professionals. Opera is no place for initiates, nor does it have time for amateurs or first-timers. Consummate artists and musicians are called for, which explains, too, the high cost of production. The time and investment required to reach their level of professionalism are astronomic and, despite the efforts, infrequently attained.

Yet opera can be as rewarding for the amateur as it is for those thoroughly trained in its intricacies. Keeping all this in mind, one can only hope for the best.

Will the Met hit a home run this season? Stay tuned for late-inning developments!

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes