‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part One)

‘Dune’ – Fan Art by Toadz (Lawrence Rhodes) (Photo: Deviant Art)

A Test of Survival

There are many kinds of fear in this world. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of dying, fear of living, fear of making a fool of oneself. Fear of making the wrong decision. Fear of the other and of those who are different.

How does one overcome such fears?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt railed against fear. At his first inaugural address, the new president charged his fellow Americans with a task: to conquer their fear. What was he referring to? To the mindless, unpredictable illusion of fear and what it can do to those who give in to it. Of inaction in the face of dread, the kind that prevents real action from taking place.

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR at his First Inauguration, March 4, 1933, in Washington, D.C.

After three years of an ever-deepening and ultimately stupefying depression, President Roosevelt knew that by convincing Americans of the need for firm decisions and an immediate plan of action, he could rally the country’s forces to surmount their fear. But by what means could he do this? By being honest with them.

“In every dark hour of our national life,” he went on, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

The president’s mantra suggested that the way forward was to confront one’s fear. In this way, the immense problems the country and its people had been facing could be turned around. He did this by challenging them, and by giving them a choice: either to take that fear of the unknown and work their way out of their troubles, or give in to despair.

Paul Atreides, all of 15 years of age, had a lot to fear. His father, Duke Leto of House Atreides, had been assassinated by his adversaries; indeed, by the very spies the detested Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, his family’s sworn enemy, had planted within the palace at Arrakeen.

Alone, except for his surviving mother, the Lady Jessica, Paul would grow out of his fear to become that indomitable force of nature that would unite the desert tribespeople known as the Fremen — that is, the “free men” of Arrakis.

Arrakis, the “Dune” planet, where giant sandworms roamed the arid, windswept plains. Where water, the very symbol of life, was scarce. Where spice, an even more precious commodity, could be harvested and utilized. But for what purpose?

Paul Atreides would inspire all people of faith and those who longed for freedom from tyranny to prevail over their fears, to face down their foes, and to succeed in spite of the insurmountable odds against them.

Early on in the story, young Paul, uncertain and unsure, is tested by the Bene Gesserit witch, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. He’s told to place his hand inside a small box. As he does so, the Reverend Mother swiftly raises her arm to his neck, pointing a thimble with a deadly dart at his artery. This is the Gom Jabbar, the crucial test of pain.

Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) places his hand in the Pain Box, as Reverend Mother (Sian Phillips) holds the Gom Jabbar to his neck

Paul must resist the pain at all costs. If he removes his hand prematurely from the box, the Gom Jabbar will pierce his neck, resulting in immediate death.

Can he survive the test?

While his hand is in the Pain Box, Paul experiences a torture of the mind. He has horrible visions of his hand burning and melting, the flesh and bone ripped from his person; the excruciating pain of his hand and wrist being torn apart before his eyes.

If Paul pulls his hand out, he recalls to mind, the Reverend Mother will kill him — instantly and with no remorse. Instead, Paul wills himself to conquer his anxieties.

Having been taught the litany against fear by Lady Jessica, Paul recites its precepts silently to himself: 

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”  

This scene, as brief as it is, remains crucial to the Dune ethos. It is the declaration of Paul’s independence, his unshackling, as it were, from the stifling coils of the Bene Gesserit order. His triumph begins an affirmation of a new way of life, that of choice: either to live in fear, or live to survive; either to take up the challenge, or allow yourself to wallow in self-pity. From self-pity comes destruction of the self and that of an entire nation. Which is it?

Paul chooses wisely. He does not give in to fear, but allows it to pass over and through him. He would see his fear evaporate before his mind’s eye. And when it has gone past and through him, there will be nothing. Only he, Paul Atreides, will remain — until the end.

A Classic Revisited

Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune is a long, drawn out Greek tragedy of quasi-Shakespearean protagonists and complications. Barring further unforeseen developments (the coronavirus pandemic, for one), this long-admired magnum opus, a seminal work in its day — and for all days — is scheduled for re-emergence in the Fall of 2021. You can sense that excitement is brewing.

Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) in the Arrakeen desert — Scene from the 2000 miniseries (Photo: Sci Fi Channel)

Surely, French-Canadian film director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), the cinematic visionary who deigned to lay hands on Herbert’s 1965 epic novel, will kindle fond (and not-so-fond) memories of previous traversals so that the spaces of one’s mind can be savored.

The hope is that this newest iteration of the tale, a timely “space opera” worthy of the collective wisdom of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and other farsighted auteurs, will snatch Herbert’s victory from defeat through the gaping jaws of Arrakis’ monstrous sandworms.

At least, that  is the expectation. Will this be a case of “third time’s the charm”? Or will it grind this hoary old fable down into the dust from which it came; one more failed attempt at maintaining the status quota — the oft-repeated catchphrase, “the spice must flow” — by becoming just another “doomed Dune”?

To address these concerns, we’ll take a time-traveling peak into prior motion-picture attempts at resurrecting this enduringly popular fable.

The less said about Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted mid-seventies effort, the better for all concerned. While exceedingly ambitious and exorbitantly over-priced at the time, Jodorowsky’s wildly imaginative concept, to feature such erratic casting choices as Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, never reached fruition. A shame, really, but over-ambition killed this cat before it left the shop.

For an in-depth glimpse into that abandoned project (and for pure entertainment value), I strongly recommend watching the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’sDune’. It’s guaranteed to activate those science-fiction salivary glands. However, prepare yourself for a big letdown.  

Art work from the 2013 documentary of ‘Jodorowsky’s ‘DUNE”

What remains is not exactly what I’d call “choice.” Instead, the surviving examples of Dune pictures are more in the way of “acceptable” fare or, at the very least, worth a “once-over.” As a matter of fact, one of them, issued by Artisan and available (if you’re fortunate enough to acquire it) in a three-disc extended edition with tons of supplemental extras, merits repeat viewings. Mainly, it’s value is in satisfying one’s curiosity regarding creative mind-sets, what those individuals felt about Herbert’s writings and how they were addressed within the limited means given to them to work with.

We’ll be discussing the superior 2000 version, which debuted as a miniseries that stretched over three nights in December (from Dec 3 to 5) on the Sci-Fi Channel — written and directed by John Harrison — alongside that of veteran filmmaker David Lynch’s idiosyncratic 1984 Reader’s Digest edition, or, as I like to describe it, a messy “baroque meets punk” eyesore.

For curiosity seekers, there’s also Sci-Fi’s 2003 Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, an inferior sequel (also written but not helmed by Harrison) based on the original author’s Dune Messiah (1969) and Children of Dune (1976). The casting of young James McAvoy as Leto II and Susan Sarandon as the wily Princess Wensicia are the main attractions.

With many of the same performers taking on different roles, this rather tame effort to keep the narrative alive only brought painful reminders of how much better the year 2000 production was by comparison. Unless you’re an absolute completist, I’d give this one an especially wide berth.   

“The saga of Dune is far from over….”

(To be continued).

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Mussorgsky in the Raw: The Met’s ‘Boris Godunov’ — An Opera for Our Time

A scene from Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ with Rene Pape as the title role (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

A Matter of Authenticity

Watching the online streaming of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (given at the Metropolitan Opera on October 23, 2010), I was bombarded with thoughts of this country’s current struggles: an out-of-control pandemic, political conflict and upheaval, governance at a standstill, a suffering populace, and a divided nation facing mounting pressures from within and without. How much of a comparison, really, can one draw from a mid-19th century operatic work written by a minor government functionary and confirmed alcoholic? To be honest, quite a few.  

Mussorgsky, the “minor functionary” and alcoholic in question, took as his source a play by famed poet Alexander Pushkin. Setting his opera to the unwieldy spoken drama of Pushkin’s text, Mussorgsky revolutionized Russian opera by implementing his own ideas about how to replicate natural speech in song. While there’s a kernel of truth to the notion that he adapted existing folk material for some of the numbers (the most obvious being the Prelude and the Innkeeper’s little ditty in Act II), Mussorgsky went on to employ a technique whereby he was able to convey his characters’ thoughts and moods through shifting rhythms and bold harmonics.

If, in 1870, the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg had rejected Boris Godunov for its lack of a female lead and, to put it bluntly, its bold unconventionality, the composer’s 1872 revision (which the Met brought to the fore back in 1974) settled the matter once and for all where the original was concerned.              

Most people (yours truly included) have been seduced by the luxuriousness of the version set by Mussorgsky’s younger colleague, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who completely recomposed and re-orchestrated the work. Granted, the result was exotic, lush and pleasing to the ear, brilliantly sonorous, and regrettably termed “correct.” A teacher of composition and a strict academician down to his toes, Rimsky lamented his friend’s “obstinate, bumptious amateurishness.”

The Holy Fool (Andrey Popov) refuses to pray for Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) (Photo: Met Opera)

Years after Mussorgsky’s 1881 passing, Rimsky the perfectionist went about readjusting the score to his particular musical style, basically eliminating what he deemed were “impractical difficulties, fragmentary musical phrases, clumsy vocal writing, harsh harmonies and modulations, faulty counterpoint, poverty of instrumentation, and general weakness from a technical point of view.”        

For years, this drastically altered edition toured the world’s theaters, which, if truth be told, certainly contributed to its acceptance as a major addition to the standard repertoire. Such artists as the great Fyodor Chaliapin, Adamo Didur, Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela made a specialty out of the title role. After the rediscovery of Mussorgsky’s original manuscript (occurring sometime in the mid-1960s), a slow and steady encroachment took hold in that what had been deemed as amateurish and unperformable was now looked upon as worthwhile.

In our opinion, the only authentic version, then, is that of Mussorgsky, sans the optional Polish scenes. Its stark, angular, primal, and primarily string- and woodwind-based instrumentation, with lower vocal lines for Boris and a spare orchestral palette overall are emblematic both of Russian nationalism intermingled with emerging modernist tendencies.

In contrast, Rimsky’s romanticized rewriting was the result of a conventionally-minded pedant obsessed with rectifying (or “improving,” if you will) his contemporary’s vision, as sincere and ultimately wrongheaded as his motives may have been. History, as relentless a force as this opera has shown it to be, has vindicated the original’s standing as a unique and ultimately revolutionary masterwork.

The ‘Time of Troubles’

Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) contemplates his fate in a scene from ‘Boris Godunov’ (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan’s 2010 production had been plagued with its own troubles from the start. The original director, the feisty 72-year-old German theater titan Peter Stein, came up with a viable adaptation that incorporated Mussorgsky’s 1872 revision, along with the St. Basil scene from the 1869 original. Contributing to his vision were set designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel.

About mid-July of that year, Stein groused to Met Opera officials about the stodginess of the proceedings, how he regarded the company as a “factory,” amid myriad problems with the U.S. Sate Department in obtaining a proper work visa. One thing led to another, until Stein abruptly quit the production. In response, the Met’s management summoned director Stephen Wadsworth, whose previous efforts at the company included Handel’s Rodelinda and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, to pick up where Stein had left off. 

This resulted in a hodgepodge of stylistic components, some of which melded seamlessly into the framework, while others stuck out or stretched authenticity to a noticeable degree. In sum, though, this newest Boris can be considered a triumph, due principally to several factors: one, to the magnificence of the Met Opera’s Chorus (kudos, as always, to chorus master Donald Palumbo); two, to Wadsworth’s last-minute salvage job; three, to the suppleness of the Met Opera Orchestra, under Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s leadership; and last, but not least, to the magnificence of German basso René Pape as Boris.

Lasting nearly five hours in performance (with two intermissions), this latest excursion down the treacherous path of Russian history (Mussorgsky’s other historical epic, the never-completed Khovanshchina, was last given at the Met in 2012 in the Shostakovich edition, with the final scene orchestrated by Stravinsky) featured a large and varied cast of singing actors.

The Holy Fool (Popov) prays for Mother Russia (Photo: Met Opera)

The time is the mid-17th century. The oppressive police state, manned by soldiers, boyars (rich landowners), guards and other malcontents, is omnipresent. The system of serfdom had also recently been implemented. Repression and beatings were commonplace. The Holy Fool (tenor Andrey Popov), sometimes called the Idiot or the Simpleton, is the first character we see. He is an outcast, a constant symbol albeit of a lowly person of little distinction, yet filled with a higher wisdom and insight into Mother Russia’s fate. He’s a prophet in disguise, and, much like John the Baptist, unheralded in his own land.

The opera begins and ends with the Holy Fool. The uncrowned Boris (the aforementioned Pape) rushes forth from his palace to confront this disheveled soul. The Fool presents him with a stone. Boris looks at the object, a token of the simple life, of home and hearth, and of a country in peril. The mood changes with the entrance of the populace. Whips are cracked (as well as heads). Violence, as stated, is the predominant way of life. The people cross themselves repeatedly (in the Eastern Orthodox manner from right to left), praying for deliverance from evil, from pain and suffering, and from the guards’ brutality.

Responding to the crowd’s pleas for aid, the Secretary of the Duma (the Russian ruling body), the noble Shchelkalov (baritone Alexey Markov), informs the peasants that the regent Boris Godunov has again refused take up the title of Tsar. (Note: See Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the titular “noblest Roman of them all” thrice refused the laurels). He asks for prayers to the Almighty so that Boris will relent.

Secretary of the Duma, Shchelkalov (Alexey Markov) asks the crowd’s prayers for Boris (Photo: Met Opera)

The scene changes to Boris’ coronation before the Kremlin in Moscow. In the original Mussorgsky arrangement, the orchestral sound is thinner and leaner, the harmony skewed, rising and falling steeply, while searching for tonal consistency. A factor of Russian music is the repeated ostinato marking, a stubbornly insistent phrase so characteristic of this work in general and Mussorgsky specifically. Bells and trumpets herald the pronouncement by the duplicitous Prince Shuisky (tenor Oleg Balashov) that “Boris Feodorovich is to be hailed as Tsar” of all the Russias.    

Concentrating the drama on characterizations (as the composer preferred), René Pape’s towering portrayal of Boris, a flawed leader brought low by past atrocities, dominates his various scenes. Already, we sense his unwillingness to rule. He’s accompanied by his daughter Xenia and his young son Fyodor. Boris’ soul is grieving, his heart heavy with remorse and responsibility. Still, onward he trudges. The crowd hails his decision to accept the crown: “Slava! Slava!” they shout in glee. “Glory! Glory!” 

The Russian people maintain their presence throughout, either out front or in the background; on the sidelines of history or as vital participants. They are the true protagonists of the drama. The Pretender Dimitri (the novice monk Grigory in disguise) is the second most prominent character, with Boris, the newly crowned Tsar, the third in line. And why is that? In Mussorgsky’s vision, Boris is the symbol of flawed authority, a reluctant ruler burdened by the duties of his office (Tsar Nicholas II would be his closest historical counterpart, although Nicholas was but six years old at the time the opera premiered in 1874).

The tremendous guilt that Boris feels involved the crime of butchering the young heir Dimitri, son of his father-in-law, the late Tsar Ivan IV, dubbed “the Terrible” (in Russian, Ivan Grozny) — often mentioned but never seen. Historians and revisionist scholars have absolved the real Boris of his crimes. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky preserved the play’s conclusion that Boris was indeed to blame for the heir’s death.

The scene shifts to the Chudov Monastery in Moscow, where the aged monk Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) serves as the chronicler of Russia’s turbulent past. Tellingly, Boris looms in the background, sitting on his throne and lifting his scepter in the air. Pimen is also filled with sorrow, his eyes show dark lines beneath them. Yet, he is sleepless and ever-mindful of the heavy task before him. “Still one more story to tell,” the monk muses. His languorous theme underscores the endless notations. Pimen sits atop an enormous volume of Russia’s history, the “great book,” as we like to call it. He labors over this ever-present image that occupies practically every scene — a reminder of past misdeeds and the as-yet-to-be-written tale.

The old monk Pimen (Mikhail Petrenko) contemplates his next entry into the great book of Russia’s history (Photo: Met Opera)

There are many individual vignettes throughout this work. Mussorgsky was astute enough to capture this and other moments in short, descriptive passages: the greediness of the Innkeeper, the raunchiness of the rogue friars Varlaam and Missail, the traitorous aspects of Prince Shuisky, the idealism of the politician Shchelkalov. They push the dramatic arc along its solemn course: from top to bottom, a parable of political and moral failings.  

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory/Dimitri is a revelation, an authentic Slavic voice in the grand Russian manner. Although he’s a native of Latvia, “Sasha” Antonenko made his mark at the Met as the Prince in the 2009 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Sturdy of tone and of timbre, the novice Grigory fantasizes about a life outside the monastery. Pimen instructs him on the brutal record of Ivan the Terrible’s reign (whom he praises to the rafters), contrasted with that of Boris’ murderous rise.

When he learns from Pimen that the murdered heir to the throne, the infant Prince Dimitri, would be about the same age as himself (had he lived, of course), Grigory hits upon a scheme of impersonating the deceased heir as the Pretender. Inspired by his dream, Grigory leaves the monastery in disguise.

Immediately, we are taken to the frontier border between Russia and Lithuania. The lusty Innkeeper (mezzo Olga Savova) warbles a sprightly theme to herself. She is interrupted by the arrival of two boisterous friars, Varlaam (bass Vladimir Ognovenko) and Missail (tenor Nikolai Gassiev), who force themselves on their hostess. All they ask is for good wine and a good night’s rest. The friars spot the fugitive Grigory in disguise. They ponder his moody aspect and the fact that he’s sullen and withdrawn. Varlaam goes into a rowdy screed about Ivan the Terrible’s bloody siege of Kazan. After a few more cups of wine, the friar is sufficiently calmed. He places his head on the Innkeeper’s lap while singing himself to sleep.

Taking advantage of the lull, Grigory inquires about the safest route out of Russia, but the Innkeeper warns him of guards at every check point. Paying for her advice, Grigory learns of an alternate route, which interests him. Everyone is awakened by soldiers hot on the trail of an escaped fugitive named Grishka (a nickname for Grigory). But the Police Officer (Gennady Bezzubenkov) is illiterate and cannot read the warrant for Grishka’s arrest. In fact, he suspects that Varlaam is the man he seeks — especially after Grigory changes the fugitive’s description to match that of the drunken friar. Incensed, Varlaam barely manages to make out the correct description: It’s Grigory, the very person he is staring at! The novice then makes a run for it, with the soldiers and Police Officer in pursuit.        

The drunken Varlaam (Vladimir Ognovenko) reads the description of the fugitive “Grishka,” aka the escaped novice Grigory (Aleksandrs Antonenko)

The next scene takes place in the throne room. We are in the presence of Boris’ family members: his son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) and daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) whose betrothed has recently died. The Nurse (Larissa Shevchenko) entertains the youths with a literal song and dance. These poignant sideshows are designed to temporarily distract (and provide relief) from the larger context of the country’s unresolved ills, which lead to a scene in the Duma. The Tsar’s own love for his children and his tenderness towards them betrays his inner torment where worldly affairs invade his private thoughts (surely inspired, one would think, by Verdi’s Philip II in Don Carlos — had Mussorgsky been aware of it).

Wracked with remorse and overwhelmed by his duties, Boris is faced with confronting Russia’s dark past, a constant reminder of which is embodied in the immense history volume that dominates this scene. In the monologue, “I have attained the highest power,” Boris bemoans the fact that he is blamed for every conceivable ill, no matter what good he has attempted to bring. Plots are everywhere, and Shuisky’s sly machinations are always afoot. The boyars, who control the workings of the state, lament Shuisky’s absence from their meetings. “He’s a schemer and not to be trusted,” they complain, “but we need his advice.” Small comfort, indeed! He’s not the only one: the populace itself is wary and fickle, and easily swayed by rumors of a Pretender, the allegedly resurrected Dimitri, in league with the Poles and ruled by the ambitious Princess Marina Mnishek (mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk).

Both Shuisky and Boris stand, at one point, on opposite ends of the great book. Who will write the next horrific chapter, as Pimen had earlier prophesied? Tormented by a conscience that won’t quit, Boris begins to experience hallucinations of the dead and bloodied Dimitri, rising up ominously to confront him. Boris breaks down under constant psychological torment (the male version of a “Mad Scene”), falling to the ground in a delirium in the famous “Clock Scene,” the music of which depicts the monotonous ticking of a clock. “Get away! Get away from me!” Boris shouts to the monstrous vision. The act ends with his begging for God’s forgiveness.

The Fate of Mother Russia

The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni (Evgeni Nikitin) plots with Princess Marina (Photo: Met opera)

Through-composed sequences and so-called “set pieces” have been integrated into the whole. Still, the added Polish scenes are the opera’s weakest section. After the original 1868 opus was turned down for performance in 1869, Mussorgsky crafted these additions to placate the “professors,” as well as provide audiences with a “love interest.” Critics at the time felt the opera needed a feminine presence, a sort of comfort filler to suit contemporary tastes. It was felt, too, that the opera concentrated too much attention on the Tsar’s foibles at court. Nothing is lost by the Polish scenes’ elimination, which can seem superfluous to the main plot. In compensation, there is much lovely music (the sprightly polonaise for one, reminiscent of Chopin’s A major Military Polonaise). Some marvelous tableaux are also present, as is a carpet version of the great book.

Speaking of the Polish scenes, a different type of politics emerges, centering on the radical Jesuit priest Rangoni, as unctuous and loathsome an individual as the two drunken friars. Impersonated by bass-baritone Evgeni Nikitin, the scheming Rangoni entices Marina to seduce the willing Pretender and, most ingeniously, to align himself with their cause and that of their people. “Surrender to the Church, surrender to me,” he charges her, a warning with more than a hint of personal gratification. This would fulfill their mission of delivering Russian Orthodoxy into the lap of the Holy See in Rome — i.e., the unification of the Eastern and Western Church, which has been an unfulfilled goal for a millennium.

For his part, Dimitri is only too eager to be part of their campaign. He falls easily in “love” with the Princess, but make no mistake: They are using each other to further their individual gains, each with his or her own agenda. Ambition rules both Marina and Dimitri’s motives, but “power,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” And so it is with these supposed lovebirds, each one testing the other with feigned expressions of ardor, their true intentions coded yet made overt. We can be secure in the knowledge they are both on the same wavelength; their goals are one and the same, despite the play on words. Equally matched and desirous of the other’s charms, they give in to their passion.

Dimitri now stands on the great book of history. He will write his own story, knowing full well what lies ahead. In turn, Marina takes up her position on the great book, indicating that regardless of their union, she has every intention of following her own path. (We make note that Boris and Dimitri never meet; Mussorgsky wisely kept them physically apart, but individually they cannot help to be mindful of one another.)

Princess Marina (Ekaterina Semenchuk) tries to entice the Pretender Dimitri (Aleksandrs Antonenko) to her cause (Photo: Met Opera)

The Holy Fool reappears before the Church of St. Basil, along with the starving crowd. He wears a tin pot on his head, pleading for the people to pray to God for deliverance. Suddenly, a kopeck he has found gets snatched from his hand by one of the street urchins. Boris strolls past with his family and retinue. He is drawn and muted, his hair a premature gray. He distributes bread to the famished bystanders, while the masses beg for mercy. “We are hungry. Give us bread, for God’s sake,” they plead. Famine has ravaged the once fertile land.

At that moment, the Tsar is attracted by the Holy Fool’s pitiless wails. “They have robbed me!” he cries. Both Boris and the Holy Fool find themselves on opposite ends of the great book. But the Holy Fool refuses to pray for Boris. “One can’t pray for a Tsar Herod,” he discloses, a reference to the biblical king who murdered the firstborn of Israel to prevent the Messiah from reaching manhood, as well as a direct indictment of Boris’ own crimes.

“Weep, weep, oh faithful soul. Sorrow, weep, oh starving people.” The Holy Fool finds rest atop the great book, using its mammoth pages as a makeshift bedcover. He seeks protection from the elements — and from the inevitable march of history.

Back at the throne room, the boyar Shchelkalov reads Boris’ proclamation, urging any and all Russians to crush the Pretender Dimitri. The ruling court passes a stern judgment on Dimitri and his followers, one they will come to regret. Prince Shuisky enters. Shrewd and manipulative, he plays both sides of the political aisle. Boris is in a pitiful state, he relates, and incapable of governing. At that, the Tsar enters, crying out for the “dead” Dimitri to leave his sight. Continuously wracked by guilt, Boris sits on his throne (which is turned round to face the audience). The presence of the old monk Pimen is announced, and he is ushered in. He has a story to tell about a vision of the coming Pretender, but Boris can hear no more. He goes into a death spiral, dismissing the boyars and summoning his remaining family members.

A tortured Boris (Pape) bids farewell to his daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) & son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) (Photo: Met Opera)

Left alone, Boris bids farewell to his son and daughter. In a final gesture, he appoints Fyodor as his successor. Near death, Boris pleads for God’s mercy. “Prostii menya, prostii. Bozhe, smert! Prostii…” His few, fleeting words reveal his humbled state of mind: “Forgive me, forgive. Lord, death! Forgive…” The stricken Tsar collapses to the ground, his two children left weeping at his side.

The scene changes swiftly to the Kromy Forest on the outskirts of Moscow. Peasants enter. Symbolically, they tear the great book apart. What will become of Mother Russia, now that the history of the realm is in tatters? The boyars are taken captive. Taunted and tortured by the crowd, one of them is executed outright, the populace taking out their mounting anger on their former oppressors; it’s clearly mob rule. The two drunken friars reemerge, as does the Holy Fool. The friars drag one of the guards with them, bloodied and bound. They squabble atop of what’s left of the great book. A near riot breaks out, but the bloodlust grinds to a halt when Dimitri leads Marina into view, riding a magnificent steed. The Polish banner precedes their triumphant entrance.

The rejoicing is interrupted by Jesuit priests, several of whom are hung on the spot. Dimitri spares the lives of two of the Jesuits. With that, the treacherous Shuisky comes forward, accompanied by Rangoni. The two conspirators are obviously pleased with the results, but they eye each other suspiciously. The crowd praises the new young Tsar as their deliverer. On the sidelines, the two friars marvel at Dimitri in recognition of this Pretender as the fugitive novice Grishka. Dimitri begs his followers to walk with him to glory. The two remaining Jesuits kneel in prayer for the dead.

But the Holy Fool — the Idiot, the “guileless” Simpleton — repeats his poignant plea for Russia to weep for her soul. With arms raised upward, he looks to heaven, the unmistakable image of Our Lord in supplication.

Darkness falls. 

The Holy Fool holds up the Byzantine Crucifix to Heaven (Photo: Met Opera)

And where is our “happy ending”? Nowhere in sight, I’m afraid. History tells us that once he was established in Moscow, the newly crowned Tsar Dimitri put Boris’ son Fyodor to death. Within a year of the Pretender’s triumphant entry, he too was murdered shortly after his marriage to Marina Mnishek. Upon Dimitri’s death, Prince Shuisky assumed the title of Tsar. And within a few years after that, Tsar Shuisky himself was captured by the Poles and later died in one of their prison camps. Turnabout is fair play!

Amazingly enough, two more false Dimitris emerged, each coming to an ignominious end. To borrow a phrase from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One, “It’s ‘tough’ to be the king.” 

It sure is! And it can even get you killed. 

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Two) — Roku You!

Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Continuing from where we previously left off, below are my opinions and views of various Metropolitan Opera productions over the years. All are available online via the Met Opera on Demand app, or in this case through the Roku streaming device (and others). 

Eugene Onegin (2013) –  Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the dreamy Tatiana is the big draw, in this new production designed by Deborah Warner. If you ask me, it’s more Ingmar Bergman than Tchaikovsky, with obvious inspiration drawn from the Swedish director’s Smiles of Summer Night (1955), as well as Sondheim’s musical comedy A Little Night Music.

The title character, Onegin, is portrayed by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, the romantic poet Lensky by Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova is Tatiana’s sister Olga, bass Stefan Kocán is the aging Prince Gremin, and conductor Robin Ticciati leads the Met Opera Orchestra.   

Caveat emptor: Suspension of disbelief is definitely called for. That a matronly prima donna of Netrebko’s caliber (she had put on considerable weight since giving birth) can convince audiences that she’s a lovesick teenager bursting at the seams is a major triumph in itself. We say it’s chutzpah, but call it what you want, Anna nailed the part! Her apple blossom cheeks, full-moon facial expressions, and (ahem) buxom form did not stand in the way of her portrayal of a girl in the passionate throes of unrequited first love. Her schoolgirl crush on the brooding older gentleman Onegin is the stuff of drawing room drama. Still, the excitement of discovery, the sleepless nights, the realization that this is the man of her dreams — all of these emotions are captured by the diva with total sincerity and honesty.

Before long, one is forced to believe that a major artist is standing at the pinnacle of her career. When Onegin confronts Tatiana with her letter, a tome in which she bares her soul (perhaps too hastily) to this undeserving soul, we feel her disappointment. For Onegin’s part, and to his credit, he does not take advantage of the situation, despite her innocence and vulnerability. A man in his position, and worldly experience, could easily have had his way with her — and with society’s consent, we’ll have you know (see Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the details). Instead, Onegin takes apart her arguments before her tearful eyes. The girl’s esteem and self-respect has been shattered for all time.

Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) has a heart-to-heart with Onegin (Peter Mattei) in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s interpretation works within the confines of the story. Periodically brushing away the tears and/or wiping her eyes, Tatiana weeps openly during Onegin’s passionless oratory and justification for not accepting her declaration of love. Shattered and hurt to the bone, Netrebko captures every facet of this book-loving youth. It was a masterful performance, her letter writing scene being the highpoint of the drama. When she finally collapses to the floor, the audience greets her with a massive roar of approval.

Mr. Mattei’s personification of Onegin — tall, distinguished and emotionally distant — was but a cipher in comparison. Plainly, it’s not his fault that despite being the titular protagonist, the composer made Tatiana and Onegin’s friend Lensky the recipients of extended scenes. The poet’s sprightly air to Olga in Act I and his dour soliloquy in Act II are a lyric tenor’s dream. Unfortunately, Onegin is denied any such display. His explanation to Tatiana is altogether brief and to the point, no more. He does have an Act III arioso, but it’s based on the same melody that Tatiana sang in her declaration at the start of the Letter Scene. And that’s about the extent of it.

That final demoralizing confrontation where the now-married Tatiana rejects Onegin’s hopeless affirmations of affection — one she seals with a prolonged kiss — represents the final thrust of the dagger to his heart. Contrast this with his earlier brotherly buss on her forehead and you will come to understand Tatiana’s motives for doing what she did, which is giving this selfish suitor the brushoff and a bitter taste of his own medicine.  

Tenor Dolgov (a marvelous singing actor) performs the part of the poet to perfection. There’s something to be said for native Russian artists in this and other key roles. They bring a sense of authenticity to everything they do. Dolgov’s smallish stature and lean physique contrasts markedly with that of the much taller Mattei, which added to the impression that these two friends were miles apart in their views. Their awkward handshake and embrace before the fatal duel (leading to Lensky’s demise) are evidence of the gap that existed between them: Onegin, willing at least partially to concede to his error; and Lensky, unwilling to forgive his friend’s shameless flirting with the poet’s fiancé Olga. Their respective stations in life demand satisfaction, even if it ends in death.       

Oscar (Harolyn Blackwell) brings King Gustavo (Luciano Pavarotti) up to speed in Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Un Ballo in Maschera (1993) – Here’s a blast from the Met’s stolid past: A traditional staging of one of Verdi’s most unique works. However, the general stiffness of this production, stemming from that “stand up and sing” aesthetic previously discussed, pretty much places the spotlight on our old pal, tenor Luciano Pavarotti. To be honest, he luxuriates in the role, indeed the part was one of his finest creations. This, dear friends, is Pavarotti in his prime, with all his faults and pluses.

As the bumptious King Gustavo (or Riccardo, whichever you choose), Luciano regales the audience with his flamboyant personality. True he gives it his considerable best; and despite his sheer bulk, the tenor was able to convince viewers that he completely identified with this protagonist: carefree, loving, loyal, and in the end merciful. His name can be placed alongside such past proponents as Caruso, Pertile, Bonci, Gigli, Tagliavini, Bergonzi, and others.

The Italian names of some of the characters — Renato, Amelia, Samuele, Tommaso, etc. — were utilized, however the looks and costumes all point to pre-Revolutionary Boston mixed with Louis XIV (or was it George III?) outfits and décor: the powdered wigs and the natty waste coats, alongside your standard three-cornered hats. Why, the opera might have been mistaken for a roadshow production of the musical 1776, but I do digress.

As for the other cast members, soprano Aprile Millo’s portrait of Amelia is a caricature of a prima donna, all surface and superimposed from without, as if her somewhat mannered approach and cliched posturing were valid substitutions for actual, real-life emotions. Her singing is faultless, as was her vocal resemblance to Italian diva Renata Tebaldi. But beyond that, there is little depth to this assignment. Italian baritone Leo Nucci’s lightweight tone and relentless barking as Renato, the cuckolded husband, is crisply enunciated and marvelously inflected, even if his vocalism was less than high-powered.

Some quite novel casting choices was apparent, in that I detected the presence of four major African American singers on the Met Opera stage: coloratura Harolyn Blackwell as a chirpy and lively Oscar the page, bass Terry Cook’s mellow sounding Sam, contralto Florence Quivar’s earthy prophetess Ulrica (albeit a bit stiff in her overall deportment), and baritone Gordon Hawkins’ smoothly sung messenger.

That old reliable, tenor Charles Anthony, appears as a model Judge, his diction and projection well-nigh perfect and unbeatable (Signor Nucci could have taken a lesson from this old pro). And, of course, the very young conductor James Levine’s unquestioned musicianship gets him through this score’s trickier aspects, although coordination between the pit and stage was off in spots (most notably, during the many ensemble passages).

All in all, this Masked Ball was enjoyable vocally, but scenically and histrionically a desultory affair. The sets are ugly and dull and representative neither of time nor of place; with few exceptions they were very much in the style of the dreary staging for Giancarlo del Monaco’s Simon Boccanegra (see below).            

Amelia (Kiri Te Kanawa) & Gabriele (Placido Domingo) hear Simon (Vladimir Chernov) pass judgment in Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Simon Boccanegra (1995) – Talk about static! This production of Verdi’s dark and tragic middle period work (revised extensively, years after its premiere, by the poet-composer Arrigo Boito) is dead on arrival. Most of the characterizations are as immobile as marble statues, their movements stilted and choreographed with the calculation of pieces on a massive chess board (think: Harry Potter). Now, what’s the word I’m looking for… How about “dull, dull, dull”?

In the title role, the decent sounding Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov has a gorgeous voice. His delivery is full throated, the high notes secure, a true Verdian in its richness and timbre. The effect, however, is mitigated by his short stature and frozen facial expressions. On records, this is hardly an issue, but on the stage these detriments can be amplified in the extreme. A shame, really, for Chernov, in his relatively brief Met Opera career, pointed the way for many wonderful lowered-voiced artists of Russian and/or Slavic descent, among them the late and much lamented Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the young Alexey Markov.

New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa is an odd choice for Amelia (or Maria, if you will — the plot is most confusing and I won’t get into the particulars, thank you!). She’s as cold as a two-day-old mackerel. Lighting a match under her “might” have helped. Her Act I duet with Chernov hardly raises the pulse level. Let’s say that “tepid” is about the best description one can give concerning her participation. With that said, British basso Robert Lloyd’s weighty Fiesco suffices without being either menacing or exciting. And bass-baritone Bruno Pola is an underpowered Paolo, a key role and a missed opportunity for sparks to fly. What we get are regional flares, and nothing more.

The much heralded Council Chamber scene, the one that Verdi and Boito had slaved over and inserted into the earlier version of Simon, went by the numbers. When adequately performed and executed, the effect this addition can have on audiences is nearly foolproof. Alas, not here. In fact, one of Master Verdi’s most inspired sequences, one that looks forward to Otello in many spots, went for naught — it made too little impact. About the only saving grace of this performance is tenor Plácido Domingo’s virile Gabriel Adorno. He, above all the others, brought genuine vocal fire and muscularity to his role. The rest went by the wayside.   

Tristan (Robert Dean Smith) professes his love for Isolde (Deborah Voigt) in Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Tristan und Isolde (2008) – This performance was first transmitted as a live Saturday afternoon broadcast on March 22, 2008. Due to tenor Ben Heppner’s indisposition, noted Wagnerian Robert Dean Smith was flown in from Germany as a last minute substitute for the grueling role of Tristan. He did not disappoint. And what an impressive debut! At the time, Dean was a relatively unknown artist who had an established career in Europe, but in 2008 (at age 52) he made for a sensational contrast with soprano Deborah Voigt’s singularly successful assumption of Isolde.

I’m sure there are fans out there who remember the classic teaming of Kirsten Flagstad with Lauritz Melchior, two large and outgoing singers from the Met’s Golden Age. Some might recall the lava-like outpourings of Birgit Nilsson with Jess Thomas, or Nilsson with frequent stage and recording partner Wolfgang Windgassen at the Bayreuth Festival in the mid-1960s. More modern ears may boast of having heard the Austrian Helga Dernesch with the fabled Jon Vickers at Salzburg. But this Wagner lover will have to give the Voigt and Smith partnership their due in Dieter Dorn’s strikingly abstract production — a hell of a lot more impressive (and far more interesting), in terms of the scenic potential of the story, than the Met’s somberly lit newest version.

James Levine simply adored this score, and the former Met maestro gave it his undivided attention in that customary leisurely stride of his. For one, the opera is given note complete, a major undertaking in itself. For another, a good supporting cast was a most welcome plus. It included mezzo Michelle DeYoung as the somewhat sisterly handmaiden Brangäne, baritone Eike Wilm Schulte as Tristan’s faithful retainer Kurwenal, a still potent Matti Salminen as a massive-voiced King Marke whom Tristan betrays, Stephen Gaertner as the unctuous knight Melot, Matthew Plenk as the Sailor, and Mark Schowalter as the Shepherd.

Finnish bass Mr. Salminen was near the end of a long career. Still physically imposing and vocally formidable, Matti made for a sorrowful monarch. Although his basic timbre is marked by a certain “yawning” quality, his characterization was moving and spot on. His roles at the Met, and elsewhere, have encompassed such outstanding portraits as the villainous Hagen in Götterdämmerung, a towering Boris in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and a regal King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Ms. Voigt’s Isolde was heard to much better advantage than her strained Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, the voice full and opulent on top, with plenty of body and roundness (this was near the start of her slimming down period), something she ultimately lacked during that disastrous 2011 run of the Ring cycle. Tristan’s delirium in Act III and the lovely Liebestod (“Love Death”) are some of the highpoints of the work (if you’re interested), but the entire opera is well represented as a tragic tale of misguided love and mutual misunderstanding between couples. I was especially impressed with the bold and stark color design and scheme. Indeed, this was a production to die for.

It’s a shame it was so quickly abandoned for the current “empty vessel” addition, played out in near total darkness. What gives with these new productions, anyway? I’m thinking that the barebones nature of many of them have a lot to do with budget cuts and the like. Well, with the Covid-19 pandemic still running rampant in this country and elsewhere, who knows when things can get back to a semblance of normalcy.

Lisette (Lisette Oropesa) & Prunier (Marius Brenciu) look on, as Ruggero (Roberto Alagna) raises his glass to the swallow (Angela Gheorghiu) in Puccini’s ‘La Rondine’ (Photo: Met Opera)

La Rondine (2009) – Now here’s an odd little bird. It’s a mature Puccini work, and then it isn’t. It has catchy waltz tunes and beautifully crafted melodies that seem disembodied from the main plot. We’ve called this opera a Traviata wannabe, and there’s much truth in that assessment. To be honest, there’s very little drama to grab one’s attention, an atypical Puccini piece. Lacking a truly compelling story line, in all fairness La Rondine (or “The Swallow”) possesses charm if little else. Being from the period post-La Fanciulla del West and before Il Trittico, there’s an unmistakable Puccianian “air” about it.

The main problem, in our opinion, is the opera’s frivolity. The main characters — Magda, the titular swallow; Ruggero, her earnest young lover; Prunier, the misanthropic poet; and Lisette, Magda’s highly opinionated housemaid — are caricatures of better, more substantive individuals found in such works as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Fledermaus, and, yes, La Traviata, not to mention that most characteristic of all Puccini’s oeuvres, the poetic La Bohème, which it most closely resembles.

La Rondine is the least appreciated (and, ergo, least produced) of all Puccini’s mature works. This swallow can go back to Capistrano with but little fanfare or loss. Still, the Met’s lavish Nicolas Joël production, starring the former “love couple” Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, exuded abundant allure and a good deal of panache, with Gheorghiu operating at low voltage. Conductor Marco Armiliato held the varying elements together; his own passion for this buoyant if puzzlingly empty score revealed an inner beauty and tunefulness not normally achieved in other productions.         

I fondly remember a PBS television production with a very young Teresa Stratas and rising tenor Anastasios Vrenios that, if truth be told, caressed both the eyes and ears, but was as pointless as it was unfulfilling. Blame the composer, whose heart was never in this poor excuse for a comedy-drama. The abrupt changeover to “tragedy” at the end feels unearned. It’s so sudden as to be off-putting. Not that the two stars suffered because of it: they were ideal at this point, acting and emoting to their fans’ delight. Perhaps they were TOO ideal — stage life would soon imitate reality life, as the love couple subsequently parted ways, never to be united again.

The Met’s supporting cast did wonders with this tuneful piece, especially with the secondary couple, convincingly sung and acted by debuting tenor Marius Brenciu as Prunier (a substantial part) and the lovely Lisette Oropesa as her namesake Lisette (pert and frisky). Veteran bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, who has seen better vocal days, supplied the few lines allotted to Magda’s sugar daddy Rambaldo; he’s the Baron Douphol character if you recall your Traviata. Magda’s tarty friends, Yvette, Bianca and Suzy, were taken by Monica Yunus, Alyson Cambridge, and Elizabeth DeShong.

This, then, is the fate of La Rondine: to be forever lost and on the wing. Signor Alagna cried real tears, and so do we at the outcome. The similarities to other, better works proved too much to surmount the general sense of too little, too late. Puccini’s swallow flies off in all directions at once, but never really lands. A wasted opportunity, we’re sad to note.  

End of Part Two

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: The Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Three)

Time to Name That Tune!

Elis Regina and her Mia Farrow look (Photo: last.fm)

There are billions of stars in the evening sky

But only one can be viewed with the naked eye

— The Author

The month was mid-July, the year 1971. I had just turned seventeen, still thirteen months away from my high school graduation. Unsure of what to do, unclear as to what path I might lead, I struggled with the thought of what the next four years would be like. 

Another trip to Brazil was planned. I would once again meet and greet our relatives, most of whom I had not seen or heard from since 1965.

Over on the distaff side, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, at age twenty-six, was already Brazil’s most popular recording and concert artist. She was born on March 17, 1945, in the southern city of Porto Alegre, State of Rio Grande do Sul. Yet, wherever I traveled around the vicinity of São Paulo, and whoever I discoursed with — especially in the households of cousins, friends, and family members my age or older — the topic would unavoidably come around to the singer’s powerful vocals.

That’s where I stumbled.

“Elis … Elis … What’s her name again?” I would inquire.

“Elis Regina,” came the response. “Why do you ask? Don’t you like her?”

I must confess that, at the time, I felt embarrassed, confused, and completely out of my element at being placed in the delicate position of having to defend my ignorance of this subject.

My excuse for having been put in such a tortured, tongue-tied state was that I had no idea who Elis Regina (her stage name) was or what she had sung that made her so popular. Although I kept hearing one of her songs on countless occasions, once our Brazil trip was over and we returned to busy New York City, for the life of me I could not recall the title of that piece, nor could I tuck away the melody into any conceivable corner of my memory for future reference. I knew the number to be extremely catchy, though, and oh-so-heavily pop driven. But beyond that, I was left adrift.

Psychologically, I must have blocked the song from my subconscious. Indeed, there could be no other explanation for my apparent brain freeze. Not that I disliked the number — to be honest, I reveled in its light and airy feel, coupled with the loose approach that Elis took in the Philips album that introduced it. It reminded me of something Sinatra might have taken a “nice and easy” approach to in his day. But no matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many Google searches I launched throughout the coming years (and then some!) in a last-ditch effort at naming this enigmatic tune, I was unable to pin the title down.   

And then, out of nowhere, the mystery was solved.

One weekend in mid-August 2020, I happened to have been on the cellphone with my brother Anibal, explaining to him that I had just about finished the Fat Lady’s story; that the last thing I needed to get straight was this missing chapter about the pop star, Elis Regina. Our discussion then turned to that unnamed number and my lingering frustration with it.

“Oh, yeah, I know it,” he stated calmly.

“What? You know it? After all this time?”

“Sure,” he confirmed. Instantly, my brother began to hum the mysterious tune, the one that had been wracking my middle-aged intellect for so long.

“My God, you remembered! That’s it!” I shouted. “That’s the song!”

Exhilarated at the prospect of having finally unraveled this decades-long conundrum, I rushed to the living room and handed the cellphone to my wife, Maria Regina, our resident expert on matters Brazilian and — another stroke of luck — the one person who considered her namesake to be among her favorites.

“Dear, quick! What’s the name of this tune? My brother’s going to hum it for you.”

Thank goodness my wife remembered the song, but, like me, the title had completely escaped her. My hopes seemed to have been dashed in the moment of claiming victory. Still, both she and my brother continued to hum the number together. Well, if they didn’t know the title, at least they were familiar with the melody (and to my surprise, my wife even mouthed some of the words). There was hope after all!

After a quick look-up on YouTube, it finally came to her: the title, that seemingly unattainable object of my desire; the one that had so eluded detection for nearly half a century.

“Here it is,” she announced triumphantly. “ ‘Vou deitar e rolar.’ ”

Ah, so that’s it! “Vou deitar e rolar,” (loosely translated as “I’ll make my bed and lie in it”), written in 1970 for the album … Em Pleno Verão (“… At the Peak of Summer”). The authors were songwriter-guitarist Baden Powell and poet-composer Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, both natives of Rio de Janeiro and known quantities in the pop-music field. Produced by the ubiquitous Nelson Motta, with arrangements by Erlon Chaves, Elis Regina’s bandmates included José Roberto Beltrami on piano, Luiz Claudio Ramos on guitar, Luizão Maia on bass, Wilson das Neves on drums, and Hermes Contesini on percussion.

As bouncy as a Copacabana beach ball, as refreshing as the carioca dew at sunrise, this irresistible number was delivered by a performer at the absolute “peak” of her profession. The song makes reference to a young girl who, aware of having been two-timed by her lover, shoves the betrayal to his face by vowing to “do her own thing” no matter what. He’s shown the door with a hearty “Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah,” a hilarious sendoff that indicates to her former paramour that she who laughs last, laughs best.

I thanked my brother for his timely assistance. His response told me all I needed to know about what he thought of this little mini-project of mine: “You can take the boy out of Brazil, but you can’t take Brazil out of the boy.” Amen, brother, amen.

The song illustrated both the highs and the lows of a remarkable singing career that began at age fifteen and ended prematurely at thirty-six.

A young Elis Regina from the 1960s

 A Flickering Light that Burned Too Bright

Ambitious, audacious, extroverted, and charismatic on the stage and on live television, the highly-charged personality known as Elis Regina was also capable of turning shy in private, even reserved to the point of inhibition. Decidedly pugnacious when the mood suited her, she was fearless and confrontational. At times, Elis experienced a devastating stage fright before performing — astonishing for one so gifted with such a natural-born propensity for picking the right style for every occasion.

For example, in 1965 she debuted on national television, in the First Festival of Popular Music, with “Arrastão” (“Fish Net”), a song about a poor Northeastern fisherman written by singer-composer Edu Lobo with the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Sporting a beehive hairdo (which made her look like one of The B-52’s) and extending her arms high above her head, Elis swung her limbs in a backwards swimming motion (very 1960’s, we might add). To most viewers, she appeared to mimic the rotating blades of an airplane, movements that baptized her with the first of several nicknames: “Hélice” Regina, or “Propellor” Regina. It also won her nationwide acclaim.  

At other times, Elis would turn destructive — what today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, earning her the sobriquet pimentinha (“little pepper,” which also described American cartoonist Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace). She took no prisoners. And by taking a virtual wrecking ball to her associations with both men and women, Elis damaged their personal property as well: The well-worn story of her flinging ex-husband Ronaldo Bôscoli’s entire Sinatra collection into the sea is, unfortunately, all too true (the discs were last “spotted” somewhere off the coast of West Africa).

I can hear it now: “Let it all go to hell!”

That sounds like something Furacão (“Hurricane”) Elis would have said. With few exceptions, her choice of repertoire was also frequently eclectic as well. Despite kicking off her recording career with the 1961 album, Viva a Brotolândia (“Long Live Teenybopperdom”), devoted to adolescent drivel, Elis displayed a seasoned professional’s knack for capturing exactly the sound the pubic was yearning for.

The essence of Elis Regina – Expressed in this beautiful mosaic

And contrary to what most pop-music mavens might have believed, she did not possess a natural “voice” for bossa nova but rather developed her skills through trial and error. Elis eventually came to grasp what the bossa nova idiom had begun to imply: that is, as a window into other Brazilian song forms and influences. In her mind, samba and pop blazed a much wider (and richer) trail, and were a lot more diverse and meaningful than,say, bossa nova’s basic “love, flower, ocean” themes would have you believe. In that, she shared the sentiments (on and out of the spotlight) of her nearest rival, Nara Leão, only less overtly. 

Yet, of all the aspiring female talents at or below her level of excellence (and there was quite a hefty assortment to choose from), Elis Regina is the only one, in my mind, to have been considered worthy of comparison to her illustrious predecessor, the equally volatile Carmen Miranda.

It came as no surprise that both Carmen and Elis were of Portuguese descent, as were a sizeable proportion of Brazilians. Both artists were short of stature (five-feet-two-inches tall), both came from poor working-class backgrounds, and both had extraordinarily productive careers inside and outside Brazil, despite some negative reaction from the public and press. With respect to financial compensation, they were the highest paid female entertainers of their generation. Accordingly, both died from substance abuse: in Carmen’s case, from alcohol mixed with barbiturates and amphetamines; in Elis Regina’s, from cocaine and Campari.

What surprised me the most, in researching this topic, was that few if any authors have pointed the above coincidences out to readers. How strange. One can only conclude that Carmen and Elis had artificially extended their lives beyond all reasonable limitations because of their early demise. As iconic symbols of their respective fields, they had outlived the normal passage of time to become goddesses of popular song.

At first, Elis, to her good fortune, managed to survive the so-called “curse of twenty-seven,” the age at which many of her contemporaries (Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison) had succumbed to personal demons with their premature passing. That Elis’ cocaine use came near the end of her short life is doubly unfortunate.

Still, in spite of their professional accomplishments, Carmen and Elis’ private lives were anything but tranquil. Carmen’s sole marriage to a non-Brazilian was, if anything, loveless and abusive, while Elis’ two marital relationships ended in separation and divorce. The difference between them being that Elis left three young children for posterity (a boy, João Marcelo, from Bôscoli; and a boy and a girl, Pedro and Maria Rita, from second husband, pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano), whereas Carmen left no progeny behind.

 That ‘Sinatra’ Moment

A pair of Aces: Sinatra & Jobim, together on American television

If the Brazilian Bombshell’s latter-day notoriety as an emblem of gay culture has brought renewed interest in her artistry, then Elis Regina’s elevated status as Brazil’s most complete singer-performer can be reasonably assured.

As far as her fans were concerned, Elis’ time had finally come. Between February 22 and March 9, 1974, at MGM Studios in Los Angeles, the recording of the album Elis & Tom took place. An acknowledged “greatest hits” package of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s most accessible song works, involving three of his favorite songwriting partners (Vinicius, Chico Buarque, Aloysio de Oliveira), a number of items on eponymously titled Elis & Tom were arranged by the singer’s soon-to-be-husband Cesar Camargo Mariano.   

Listening to the album after so many years, the first thing one notices is that Elis had modulated her famously potent delivery to this more-intimate lounge setting. Compare her rendition of “Corcovado” (sung in Portuguese) with Frank Sinatra’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (in Gene Lees’ English translation) from Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim on Reprise (1967). Seven years — a lifetime in the recording industry — separate these two accounts; yet, how strikingly similar they sound: mellow, low-key, and softly executed, with a lighter than average orchestration (flute, clarinet, piano, violins, guitar, drums, percussion) on Elis’ version, and a jazzy interval taking up the middle portion, ending with Jobim’s participation (on voice and piano) at the fadeout.      

Oddly enough, “Corcovado” and “Triste” are the only two numbers found on Elis and Frankie’s respective forays (originally, “Triste” was not a part of either Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos or on Sinatra & Company, his 1969 follow up). Still, one can draw some basic conclusions, and a viable contrast, regarding these two settings, as performed by two incredibly gifted artists: first, to Sinatra and Jobim on “How Insensitive” — see the following link to my original article: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/brazils-musical-polyglots-part-two-the-american-side/); and, second, to Elis Regina on Tom and Vinicius’ sorrowful “Modinha.” Her voice, curt and trembling with barely restrained emotion, sets the norm for expressivity in this thoroughly committed, let-it-all-hang-out interpretation. 

The common denominator on both albums, of course, is Jobim. You would be shocked to learn that Jobim was hardly, if at all, impressed with Elis upon their initial encounter back in Rio in 1964. “Who’s this hick from the sticks?” he wondered upon catching sight of her at a recording studio. “She still reeks of burned charcoal,” hinting at her “down home” country roots and lack of refinement.

Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah, who’s laughing now, Tom?

The composer was forced to eat his words (mercifully, Elis never caught on) when the two of them appeared together to record, at that later session, what became the standard of all standards, the classic “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”). After years of subpar translations, Jobim decided to convert the Portuguese lyrics himself into plausible English: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road / It’s the rest of a stump, it’s a little alone.” Sung, here, in the original Portuguese, Tom and Elis play off one another beautifully in a joyfully brash battle of words, an “I say this, you say that” game of give and take — each egging the other on for as long as they possibly can. One could almost see them in your mind’s eye, smiling and giggling at the end result.       

You can also take the Sinatra connection a step further in that, during the latter part of the sixties and seventies, Elis Regina sported a stylish Mia Farrow-like haircut (courtesy of Rosemary’s Baby). Farrow, you may recall, was at one time briefly married to Sinatra. If one were to exercise some amateur analysis, I’d say the Brazilian singer conveyed a strong stylistic and unconventionally intimate connection to Ole Blue Eyes that went beyond international boundaries.

Tom Jobim meets Elis Regina. Object: Sublime music

Another, more moving performance in a similar vein, considered by many to be one of her finest, is Elis’ superb interpretation (on several YouTube videos) of the 1973 Chico Buarque-Francis Hime number, “Atrás da porta” (“Behind the Door”). The poetic lyrics by Chico, heavily laden with dramatic irony, sadness and pathos, and Hime’s simple, minimalistic theme express all the hurt, hate, love, and longing of a submissive woman left to beg and claw her way back from humiliation by a man who treats her no better than his pet dog.

Incredibly, a devastated Elis, sobbing real tears, allows us a glimpse into the immense tragedy that has engulfed this scorned lover. Is it over the top? Possibly. But If you want to call it “operatic,” then who am I to argue. In my observation, there’s a close affinity (and unstated pertinence) to Judy Garland and her sad ending, as envisioned in Peter Quilter’s hit Broadway play, End of the Rainbow. As with most artists of this caliber (Sinatra being at the very top), Elis Regina’s ability to turn a heartbreaking experience into a transcendent personal statement eclipses all other contemporary efforts.

Besides the obvious sincerity she brought to everything she did, our only concern is this: Were her reactions based on real-life circumstances or were they carefully rehearsed performance art? A little bit of both, one would think. Certainly, no singer of her generation has had as much awareness of and insight into the human condition as expressed in Brazilian popular song; and no subsequent artist has had as better a claim to the title of Brazil’s greatest interpreter of her music as Elis had. Her personal magnetism drew more people into her art than nearly any other performer, male or female.

Now, after all these years, I can finally respond to the question that was posed at the beginning of this essay: “Do I like Elis Regina? Yes, I do. I like her very much.” And there you have it: that guy Jairzinho, O Rei Roberto, the clown Chacrinha, and the pop star Elis Regina. Three singers, one host, all Brazilian. This began as a story of my youth. It ends with a plea for absolution. “Let it all go to hell?” I don’t think so. Better to preserve whatever memories we can still hold on to, the raison d’être for any discussion around Brazil’s Fat Lady. They may be all she has left.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Two)

The clownish TV host, Chacrinha (Abelardo Barbosa)

Days of ‘Whine’ and Roses

The interval between our first visit to Brazil and the one our family made in July 1971 was, indeed, an historically turbulent one. Censorship, in the form of suppression of the news and print media, had expanded to alarming proportions; the free-flow of ideas and the exchange of divergent opinions — and with them, the freedom to express those ideas and opinions — were vastly curtailed.

The critical year of 1968, for example, was one marked by violent demonstrations and brutal crackdowns throughout Continental Europe and the United States. Brazil was no different. But how much could a seventeen-year-old youth from the South Bronx have known of these events? Having lived and grown up in a New York City Public Housing Project, could he have been cognizant of the harsh realities facing the country of his birth? Was he attuned to the problems encountered by native-born artists, singers, songwriters, journalists, politicians, and the like, or did he remain blissfully unaware; just going about his business with nary a care in the world for what others thought or what they were going through?

“Let it all go to hell!” he would say.

No, that couldn’t have been the attitude. That’s not how Brazilians, especially the ones I got to know and love and respect, reacted to the troubles afflicting their beleaguered homeland. A large portion of the population, including most of my family members, were working-class stiffs who took what was occurring with their country in measured strides, not in resignation. If they also took their solace in song and other forms of entertainment, where expressions of hurt, loss, and frustration could be collectively shared via these means, who could blame them.

Chacrinha with songbird Robert Carlos

The Popular Song Festivals continued to be nationally televised, of course, but their glory days were over and coming to a swift and ignoble end. Tropicália had already been banned if not prohibited outright from public performance. It happened that the music and stagecraft that helped shape the tropicalismo movement were labeled as subversive and beyond the mainstream for the ruling classes to stomach. It would be many years before I, too, discovered how forward-thinking and “out there” this specific music genre had been.

And what of the others, the so-called “Jairzinhos” of their time? They had also come and gone: Having rightfully served their purpose, they were now being escorted off the platform. No longer did the former main attraction, Brazil’s Jair Rodrigues, who continued to hold sway as a human prancing pony, mow his audiences down with silly grins and pointless gestures. True to his tranquil nature, “that guy Jairzinho” continued on his merry way while remaining oblivious to the situation at hand.

An Uncommon Man

Most, if not all, of the television programs in São Paulo that I witnessed back in 1971 were preceded by the distinctive Censura Livre (“Cleared by the Censors”) logo before they began. And that included the ever-popular, late Saturday-afternoon show A Buzina do Chacrinha (“Chacrinha’s Horn”) on TV Globo. The clownish emcee Chacrinha, portrayed by comedian and Pernambuco-born actor José Abelardo Barbosa de Medeiros (1917-1988), was an eccentric and jovial radio and TV host from popular culture who personified (in attitude, if not in looks) not only the carefree and quick-witted prankster and folkloric disrupter of legend Macunaíma, but more appropriately the Common Brazilian Man.

Chacrinha wearing an outrageous “horn hat”

Resembling a potbellied, bespectacled, and top-hatted Harpo Marx, especially with that noisy contraption he carried by his side, the mildly pompous Chacrinha was the hardworking maidservant’s dream, a domestic’s ticket to possible fame and good fortune; and the one person in all of Brazil who could command the respect of the masses in a program tailored to their tastes.

Amateur contestants, rookie aspirants, and veteran competitors alike were corralled into shockingly simplistic (and occasionally embarrassing) skits, games, talent contests, and anarchic diversions (for example, the host’s tossing of live codfish into audience members’ laps), backed by an ever-present chorus line of leggy showgirls. All were at the mercy of Chacrinha’s earsplitting hooter and his fawning fan base, which consisted of everyday citizens: young and old, male and female.

Chacrinha, who never took himself too seriously, had about him an air of nonconformity. “I’m here to confuse you, not to explain things” was one of countless aphorisms designed to both distract and bemuse the wary visitor into submission. Faced with an avalanche of contradictory statements, it became increasingly difficult for anyone to pin Chacrinha down about anything. You might compare him to a resurrected anarchist, a person of his time but born at the brink of Modernism. The best one could say about this peculiar fellow was that he looked and acted outside the box.

Although I hadn’t known about it at the time, Chacrinha had been responsible for furnishing Caetano Veloso with the unambiguous title to one of the singer-songwriter’s most requested numbers, the song “Alegria, alegria!” According to Caetano’s account in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Chacrinha had appropriated the lyrics from a similarly-titled song by samba artist Wilson Simonal. And it didn’t take long for Caetano to do likewise, thus a classic was born out of the chaos.

Chacrinha (top) with the young Caetano Veloso, circa 1971

Another expression he employed with abandon, and that I recollect with mild amusement, was the recurrent phrase, “É hora! É hora!” (“It’s time! It’s time!”). Time? Time for what, I wondered. With finger raised and placed in the space between his nose and upper lip, the host would shout to the crowd: “É hora da Buzina! É hora da Buzina do Chacrinha!” I took this to mean, “It’s time for Chacrinha’s horn to blow!” And with the antics of funnyman Jack Benny’s The Horn Blows at Midnight reverberating in my head, the blast from the pernambucano‘s honker signaled the end of a contestant’s “dream” before it had begun.

From the above descriptions, one might have inferred that Chacrinha was a most congenial and approachable individual. Quite the opposite, his guile-driven nature was coarse and aggressive and anything but warm and fuzzy; and he certainly wasn’t ingratiating. You might also have picked up familiar elements from American TV-game shows such as Let’s Make a Deal, Truth or Consequences, and The Price is Right. And you’d be right on the money! Commercialism and mass marketing had begun to pervade the average Brazilian household as much as it had the American variety.

Seu Abelardo, as he was familiarly termed, knew his public well. For unlike many others, Chacrinha had kept in touch with reality by dexterously placing his pudgy hand on the nation’s pulse. In relation to Brazil’s economy and politics, the garrulous presenter sensed how the situation in the country had deteriorated over time and which had negatively affected his lower-class adherents. His outlandish mode of dress and outspoken demeanor were but covers for what lay beneath: an instinct for survival, shrewdly applied and projected, and utilized not to make fun of his guests but to throw the censors off his trail.

As a form of social criticism and a message to those who took undue advantage of their constituents, that wise-old clown Chacrinha and his popular television program represented a method of masking the people’s contempt for their government in ways they would better understand and appreciate.

What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

(End of Part Part)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilians Who Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part One)

The ‘Jovem Guarda’ crowd: Erasmo Carlos (l.), Wanderlea, Roberto Carlos

Remembrances of Memories Past

This is a story of my youth. More precisely, a story about what I remember of my youth from the limited times I visited Brazil — and how a song (no, several songs) transformed my opinions about the family and country I left behind.

My earliest recollections are, by curiosity and contradiction, both clear and vague: of seeing myself as a toddler, running wildly about our home in São Paulo; of bumping my eyebrow onto the sharp edge of a dining-room table and going to the doctor immediately afterwards to get my supercilium stitched up; of badly scraping my knee and wrist outside a street in the South Bronx, along with comparable mishaps. Depending on who was recounting the story, the accidents were either my fault entirely or the fault of someone else. Blame for their occurrences, I soon surmised, was swiftly assigned but not always fairly distributed.

Some of these memories get tangled up with the rare times my family returned to São Paulo and its surroundings. Over the years, it has become practically impossible for me to differentiate between one event I experienced at age five and similar incidents that took place a few years later. Anyone forced to recall their youthful wanderings, either in the writing of one’s memoirs or through therapy and analysis, will have faced a comparable predicament: invariably, specific episodes and personalities are remembered with clarity and intent; while others (dates, times, and places), not so much, and vice versa.

With the above caveats in mind, my first exposure to Brazilian popular culture occurred on or about the year 1965, a pivotal point for music in Brazil and for my growing awareness of a Brazilian identity growing inside this ten-year-old brain. It was the same year that bossa nova became a worldwide sensation. But in the country itself, a onda (that is, “the wave”) had receded. You could say it was paying a fond adieu to all that had come before. Yet, I remained oblivious.

By the time that our family had set foot again in “Sampa” (in the winter of 1965), the heat that bossa nova had produced around the pop-music world had substantially abated. New styles began to emerge by dint of the latest advances. The prevalence of television, for example, and, along with it, the phenomenon of mass viewership took hold of Brazilian audiences like nothing else before. Not inconsequentially, the military had staged a government takeover the year prior, in April 1964, which forever altered Brazil’s musical landscape — for better or for worse.

Tanks invade the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the military takeover of April 1964 (Photo: Agencia O Globo)

Strangely enough, bossa nova had completely bypassed my Brazilian-born parents, who, by their having moved to the South Central Bronx, remained remarkably uninformed as to the artistry and output that had circumnavigated the globe. In the interval between the year they left their homeland (1959) and the time that we, as a family of four, made our first return trip to the big city (1965), bossa nova had been replaced by popular song contests, possibly as a distraction from the bitter reality of military rule.

To get right down to it, bossa nova espoused a greater degree of sophistication, subtlety, and nuance than what had come before (choro, samba, and samba-canção). The artists who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, and then performed those same numbers, which abounded in poetic imagery and reflective ruminations, came out of an entirely separate reality, distinct and apart from that of the majority of Brazilians. The sparseness of the orchestration (for guitar, voice, drums, and percussion) belied the complexity of its arrangements. Too, the imaginative use of language and jazz-influenced instrumentation raised the intellectual level of both performers and listeners to undreamed-of heights.

Despite some awareness on my part, my limited knowledge of Portuguese prevented me from fully absorbing and appreciating the genre. Naturally, I was much too young, therefore deficient in the cognitive skills necessary to wrap my arms around bossa nova’s form. Despite this disparity and my lack of cultural refinement, a treasure trove of memorabilia laid before me: everything from MPB, bubble-gum music, iê-iê-iê, and Brazilian rock-‘n’-roll to classically derived constructs. These were much easier to absorb, due to their utter simplicity and absence of erudition. But bossa nova? Not a chance, at least not yet. Creatively speaking, the country had taken two steps forward, one step back.

Still, one couldn’t fault my parents for not having “kept up” with the latest trends. They had more pressing matters to concern themselves with — namely, making a life for us in New York City, and raising and caring for two small boys in a strange, bewildering land with its own distinct and immensely diversified culture.

As I mentioned, we immigrated to the U.S. in September 1959. Although my mother and her boys remained at home in the Bronx, my father had gone back to Brazil every other year up through 1965, and then some. Those excursions had something to do with his attending the annual Carnival pageant (in Portuguese, pular Carnaval). At the time, I had no comprehension of what that actually meant or entailed. Yet despite his weeks-long absences, dad always managed to bring back plenty of trinkets, souvenirs, and assorted keepsakes, provided, for the most part, by his and my mother’s respective families.

Family. A word, a term, a concept this soon-to-be-eleven year old was but vaguely familiar with. The only “family” I knew, to be exact, was my younger brother Anibal, my father Annibal Sr., my mother Lourdes, her younger sister Aunt Deolinda, her husband Uncle Daniel, and my two older cousins Dario and Daniel Jr. A year or more before we made our trip, another of my mom’s charming sisters, Aunt Iracema, had spent a year in the Bronx living with us. In fact, she had immigrated to the U.S. in 1963, but returned to São Paulo in order to care for her ailing father Francisco, or “Grampa Chico” as we called him. He had been struck at age sixty-five with throat cancer.

Gather ‘Round the Television Set, Boys

“Quero Que Va Tudo Pro Inferno” – Original Single by Roberto & Erasmo Carlos (Discos CBS)

Much of the bounty dad had brought back from his trips was comprised of phonograph records, usually of the compacto duplo type. These dandy little items, known in the U.S. as EP’s (or “Extended Plays”), had the capacity for two songs per side, for a total of four numbers in all. A healthy smattering of long-playing records, Brazilian magazines (Manchete, Veja, Marie Claire, etc.), O Guia da Televisão (“TV Guide”), tasty and highly edible sweets, and a half-dozen or so children’s books comprised what remained of the lucre.

To me, the unfamiliar names of these Brazilian artists and entertainers, to be found among this random assortment of knick-knacks, were foreign-sounding and nearly unpronounceable. These were difficult enough for adults, but you can imagine how challenging they were for us kids. To compensate, I used what nascent abilities I possessed of the Portuguese language to try my hand at reading the Brazilian versions of Walt Disney comics: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Scrooge McDuck, anything I could get my little hands on.

To pass the time, I took it upon myself to draw these and other cartoon characters (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones) on makeshift writing pads; when those were unavailable, my mother would tear open brown-paper shopping bags for me to scribble on. I even tried jotting down my impressions of these characters in feeble-sounding Portuguese. Little did I know that my childish efforts at words and images would come in handy decades after the fact. On the days when I didn’t feel like drawing, I would listen attentively to the music.

One good thing did come out from all of these activities: the more songs I heard, the more I liked and learned from them. It never occurred to me that Brazil harbored such a wealth of music programs to accompany what I encountered in our makeshift record collection. Since I had grown up outside the country, I wasn’t privy to what the native population had been exposed to on an ongoing basis. To have noticed these melodies at the time this form of music was becoming more widely accepted and circulated proved a timely fluke.

One program that I heard mentioned was the weekly Festival de Música Popular. My boyish earbuds were primed for absorbing these fantastic new sounds. Consequently, earing the likes of Jair Rodrigues, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Erasmo Carlos, Wanderléa, Agnaldo Rayol, Dalva de Oliveira, Nana Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Agnaldo Timóteo, Elis Regina, and so many others shaped my appreciation for Brazilian music and song. The weird thing about all this was that I had never seen this music program while staying in Brazil, nor had I laid my eyes on these artists in any capacity, that is to say, until much later in life. I only learned about them from hearing my relatives discuss the merits of this or that singer who appeared on this or that showcase.

Speaking of which, the show Jovem Guarda on the newly christened TV Record had one of the highest national ratings (known as IBOPE) of any of these programs. Another was O Fino da Bossa (“The Best of Bossa”) and on the same network. Not knowing anything about ratings or programming, I became frustrated with my relatives’ efforts to initiate me into the electronic medium.

For instance, I heard so much talk about a fellow named Jair Rodrigues and his smash hit, the nonsense number “Deixe isso pra lá” (Alberto Paz/Edson Menezes), that in my infantile carnium I honestly believed that I had seen Jairzinho on Brazilian television.

‘O Fino da Bossa,” with Elis Regina & Jair Rodrigues

What typically transpired was that every time I found myself in someone else’s house or apartment, I would question the occupants about “that guy Jairzinho.” Their response would be, “Oh, you should’ve been here last night when he was on TV,” or “Come by our house next weekend, you are sure to see him then.” Seeing my disappointment, they would compensate by describing, in minute detail, Jairizinho’s over-and-under handsaw movements, which became his signature gesture; topped off with that broad, toothy grin, a smile that all-but enveloped the beaming audience but that, to me, seemed to emulate a dark-skinned version of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. What Chubby Checker and the Twist did for people’s hips, Jair Rodrigues did for Brazilians with his bare hand. Despite their kind offers to come over (usually, on the weekends), our time with the relatives was limited. Alas, I never got to see Jairzinho perform, no matter how many people I talked to or visited.

That same, frustrating response followed another popular singer of the period, the song idol Roberto Carlos Braga. Although he hadn’t yet become brega, a variant on his official surname (and what, in Portuguese, meant “tacky”), Roberto Carlos was the nearest thing to a world-renowned celebrity that Brazil had at its disposal, outside of soccer star Pelé. Still, there was one song of Roberto’s that, for me, stuck out from the rest of the mawkish round of ballads and teenybopper tedium. And that was the song, “Quero que vá tudo pro inferno” (“Let It All Go to Hell”).

I first heard this number in New York, possibly a year or more after we returned from our trip. Oddly (well, maybe not so oddly), I became fixated on the title — especially the “hell” part, which, if you were fortunate enough to have grown up in polite society, or in a somewhat religious environment, was strictly verboten. (You would REALLY burn in hell if you dared to speak the “F ”bomb in public!) Mesmerized by that word inferno — especially the way Roberto lingered over the “r” (“in-ferrrrr-huh-no”) in his capixaba accent — I listened carefully to the lyrics over and over again, not understanding the words or sentiments being expressed, yet all the while wondering to myself how the hell Roberto got away with saying this forbidden term:

De que vale o céu azul e o sol sempre a brilhar
Se você não vem e eu estou a lhe esperar
Só tenho você, no meu pensamento
E a sua ausência, é todo meu tormento
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

De que vale a minha boa vida de playboy
Se entro no meu carro e a solidão me dói
Onde quer que eu ande, tudo é tão triste
Não me interessa, o que de mais existe
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

Não suporto mais, você longe de mim
Quero até morrer, do que viver assim
Só quero que você me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Roberto Carlos “Compacto Duplo” from CBS Records

What is the blue sky worth or the ever-shining sun

If I’m left pining for you to be here by my side?

All I have is you, you are always in my thoughts

But your absence is a constant torment

All I want is you, to warm me through this winter

And that it all goes to hell

What good is this playboy life of mine

If I get in my car and this loneliness persists

Wherever I go, this sadness always follows

I don’t care about anything, and what’s more

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

I can’t take it anymore, you away from me

All I want is to die, than to go on like this

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

(English translation by the author)

Now, I ask you, what did I expect? Something insightful along the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? Witty poeticisms analogous to Baudelaire? This was nothing more than easy-listening music, a love poem pure and simple. Years later, I read that Roberto had written these verses to Magda Fonseca, his girlfriend at the time, who had gone abroad to study English in the U.S. His songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (né Erasmo Esteves), helped him to hammer out the lyrics. The orchestration was of its time: a bombastic Hammond organ solo, spiked with a “Roy Orbison meets the Beach Boys” aesthetic, surrounded by a surf-rock beat. The end result: Twenty-four-year-old Roberto’s honest expression of longing (caused by Magda’s absence) and his frustration with conditions in military-run Brazil spilled over into youthful rebelliousness.

Hell, I was all of eleven years old. What did I know of youthful rebelliousness? I knew nothing of the military’s overthrow of the Brazilian government, or that the CIA had orchestrated the bold power grab, or that barely three years later (in 1968) the suppression of dissidents would only add to the country’s ills by making things worse for the populace, leading to the expulsion of songwriters and others associated with the genre of Tropicália and such. Roberto Carlos’ “pure and simple” love poem, a monster triumph upon its release, signaled both the beginning of public outcry and the end of rebellion.

What I, myself, took away from our visit was not rebellion but a sense of togetherness. For the first time in my young life, I experienced a closeness to my Brazilian family members I never knew existed: from aunts and uncles I had not grown up with, from grandparents and cousins I had hardly known, and from newfound friends and acquaintances I had never met. I came away with the impression they all enjoyed each other’s company; that they exuded a spirit of fun just by being together and, you’ll pardon the expression, “in the moment.” Their openness to me and to my brother was warmly received and, to be honest, completely unanticipated.

Having spent several extremely cold winters and blisteringly hot summers in the Big Apple, and having my first and last names constantly misspelled and mispronounced by people unfamiliar with our language, the balmy sun-filled skies of São Paulo seemed to reflect back at me in the sunniness of the dispositions I encountered during our month-long stay. I felt accepted, understood, loved, and listened to, for once, by those inside and outside the family circle — feelings that were roughly alien to me for the first six years of our residence in the Bronx.

It would take another six years before I was able to recapture those feelings.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part One)

Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere,’ Act II: Magic Fire Music, with Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Photo: Yves Renaud/Metropolitan Opera)

There’s still no live opera to speak of, anywhere or anyplace. Of course, the primary cause for this deficiency can be traced to the coronavirus outbreak. Regardless, you can obtain your daily dosage of the operatic art via Met Opera on Demand, the company’s streaming app, if you are so inclined.

Well, this fan happens to be so inclined. Available for download (including from the Roku streamer), Met Opera on Demand can provide the starving opera lover with whatever jolt to the system one needs. The only limitation, if you would like to hear about it, is that all performances come from previously available material: Live in HD, Live from Lincoln Center, and/or Great Performances at the Met. Most are courtesy of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) archives and go as far back as the mid-1970s, the dawn of live televised opera.

Having watched many (but not all) of these productions when they were first broadcast, I noticed a number of changes that have taken place in the four or more decades since they made their initial appearance. The main differences between Met Opera productions from the seventies and eighties and those that materialized in the 1990s through 2010 and so forth were not only in the physical aspect of the sets and costumes, but in the looks and actions of the principal players.

The ones from earlier years featured large structures with little in the way of flow and movement. Modern lighting techniques and elaborate choreography, as viewers have come to understand and appreciate them, were limited and crudely handled. Simply stated, productions revolved around major stars (i.e., Millo, Scotto, Price, Sutherland, Horne, Verrett, Bumbry, Pavarotti, Domingo, Milnes, MacNeil, and many others) who planted their feet firmly on the Met’s stage and basically confined themselves to a given space. Stand and deliver, that was the maxim. You entered, you sang, you exited. You bowed to the audience and called it a night.

By my count, the notion of European Regietheater did not take hold until the 2006 arrival of General Manager Peter Gelb. Prior to Gelb, Joseph Volpe controlled when and what got produced, and with whom. Before Volpe, the Schuyler Chapin era flourished, despite money being especially tight. There was also a traditionalist fervor prevalent in those long-ago Volpe years, in that an opera’s looks and time period were set in the traditional manner, with little to no variance from the norm.

On occasion, a more provocative experiment would spring up from the doldrums that had inevitably set in (for example, the sparseness of John Dexter’s work). This was due mostly to the scarcity of financial resources. With Gelb’s rise came productions with a modernistic bent (with sets and costumes to match) that challenged how audiences experienced opera in ways not formerly seen.

Hand in hand with these came a strong impact from the nearby Broadway stage. Although many joint productions from Europe and major North American theaters began to take hold, overall these proved less expensive and, therefore, more practical to put on in comparison to something developed from scratch. This smacked of the old “out of town tryouts” long favored by Broadway producers. Well, if it worked for the Great White Way, why not give opera a shot.

Since those earlier times, today’s audiences have been privy to a younger crop of singers who have demonstrated an increasing mastery of the art form. Additionally, this newer generation can boast of superior vocal talent and acting abilities where the stand-and-sing methodology of yore has grown stale with the years. But for every gain there is some loss. A star one moment can become a has-been the next — and in far less time. In truth, a forty-or-more-year career span is becoming increasingly rare these days.

What drove this obsession with appearance and relevance is a simple fact of theatrical life: audiences want to be moved. As a result, the public must believe in the protagonists’ struggles on stage, or at least suspend their disbelief for the duration. Those trials and tribulations called for in the music and text must be convincing (that is, to a reasonable extent). Along with this, singers must strive to “look” their parts. That’s a tall order if you happen to be six-foot-two and weigh 300 pounds, or five-feet-nothing. “No problem,” you say. “They can play character roles.” Well, maybe. That’s if they want to play them.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about when dealing with modern-day opera productions. Still, those Golden Age throats were golden for a reason: the Pavarottis, the Prices, the Domingos, the Hornes, the Sutherlands, and the MacNeils of the opera world could SING and sing WELL, with personalities that spilled over the footlights and into the audiences’ laps.

With all that said, let me take you through a partial romp of Met Opera on Demand performances from the past:

Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna (l.) with James Morris as Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni (1978) – Eugene Berman’s original 1957 ink and watercolor sets for Mozart’s most controversial work is a certified design classic. In this broadcast, a young James Morris appeared in his first starring role as the titular libertine. Channeling Howard Keel in MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate, the Cole Porter musical about temperamental theater people, Morris steals the thunder (and the spotlight) from veterans many years his senior. Only 31 at the time, the novice bass upstaged everyone with his mellifluous tones, slim build and carefree stage deportment. It was obvious to anyone watching that here was a star in the making. His only problem, as far as I could discern, was getting through the high tessitura of Giovanni’s Act II serenade. This impediment, however, became mute when the budding bass-baritone took on Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle (see below).

Sad to say, Morris did not have a Kathryn Grayson to play off, nor were the tap-dancing skills of Ann Miller around for added comfort. Instead, we had Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna and Julia Varady as Donna Elvira — both artists equally adept at Mozart’s fast runs and intricate passage work but lacking in genuine vivacity. An atrociously made-up Huguette Tourangeau as Zerlina did little to convince me of her feminine charms. I am aware this was an early TV transmission, but the closeups did this fine artist no favors. She failed to make viewers believe that the dapper Don would want to make a play for this 40-something peasant. In this and in other respects, the camera does not hide but reveals.

Giovanni’s comic foil, Leporello, was taken by the stylish French baritone Gabriel Bacquier. From a previous generation of classically trained singers, Monsieur Bacquier played the servant with a mixture of deference and defiance. His crisply enunciated patter and elegantly executed exchanges were the work of a refined artist. At all times, one had no trouble mistaking who was the master and who was the servant. Bacquier was that rarest of birds, one I had the immense pleasure of seeing live at the Met as Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

John Brecknock’s Don Ottavio was pleasurable as well, if without much dash. Unlike most tenors, he observed the composer’s markings which included the usually omitted appoggiaturas, those added grace notes that come before the written score. Bass John Macurdy’s Commendatore was a refreshing bit of booming bass bluster, albeit short-lived. And baritone Alan Monk’s overly ripe Masetto, while firmly sung, seemed out of sorts. He reminded me of comedian Red Skelton in his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. But Morris was the main draw, a winning television debut which I can recommend without reservation.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Don Giovanni (2013) – Completely apart from the old Berman set, this Michael Grandage production is another in a long line of what some critics like to call the Laugh-In look. That is to say, it will rekindle older viewers’ memories of the 1960s NBC-TV comedy show (hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin) where cast members and invited guests popped in and out of windows to make dumb remarks about the latest goings-on.

In the title role, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien dominated with his virile if smallish stature and cutting tone. But compared to that old pro Morris, Kwiecien’s Don was a bush leaguer. He did make for an unctuously sensual Don, and his interactions with Luca Pisaroni’s bumptious Leporello were amusingly varied. Pisaroni was a tad short at the top and bottom of his range, but he shone in the comedic portions that were allotted to him.

The women’s roles were well acted and sung, starting with Marina Rebeka’s Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli’s Donna Elvira, and Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina, all convincingly youthful and vividly voiced. They were smartly dressed, too, their costumes and headwear being of the period in question. Ramón Vargas’ Don Ottavio felt more comfortable in the ensemble passages (he was wonderful in the Trio of the Masks) than in his two solos. And Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán was an appropriately other-worldly Commendatore, his voice soaring mysteriously over the loudspeakers.

Hildegard Behrens as Brunnhilde, listening attentively to James Morris’ Wotan, in Act II of ‘Diw Walkuere’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Die Walküre (1989) – Eleven years after his ground-breaking Don Giovanni, James Morris went on to appear in the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Wagner’s Ring. In the second opera of the cycle, Die Walküre, Morris is the god personified, his formidable six-foot-four-inch frame easily filling the bill. Even more significant, his impressive bass-baritone had matured to the point where Morris’ interpretation set standards (he had studied the role with the great Hans Hotter, the previous generation’s leading exponent). He went on to become the Wotan of his generation. And why not? Few singers could master the Act II dialogue in such a biting manner as he could. Yet, he managed to portray an awesome fury as the angry god struck Hunding dead with a look and a wave of his hand.

For me, Morris’ poignant and dramatically forthright musings in the long Act II scene with daughter Brünnhilde, sung and acted to perfection by soprano Hildegard Behrens, were this performance’s high points. Even better was Wotan’s Farewell, with both artists’ emotional commitment to the drama (and their moving glances to one another) captured for all time by the superb camera work. Unfortunately, the image has become blurred and faded with time (remember, this broadcast took place in the days before high definition), but the impact these sequences held for viewers are worth putting up with such minor inconveniences.

As added bonuses, Jessye Norman’s womanly Sieglinde was seconded by Gary Lakes’ fervent Siegmund. Kurt Moll, growly voiced and threatening, made for a low-bottomed Hunding. Christa Ludwig, a stylish singer in Strauss and Mozart, proved a good choice for Wotan’s put-upon spouse Fricka. But at this stage in her long career, Ludwig’s high notes were wanting. Still, she gave her all to the part. James Levine’s conducting, as good as it would get in this early going, managed to whip up a thick head of steam for the Act I duet with Lakes and Norman. The Magic Fire music toward the end put the finishing touches to a classic performance (in the old stand-up-and-sing style!), one not to be forgotten.

Brunnhilde (Deborah Voigt) hears the origin of the magical Ring from her father, Wotan (Bryn Terfel) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Die Walküre (2011) – There is little to recommend in director Robert Lepage’s “Barnum & Bailey meet Cirque du Soleil” version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Contrasted with the Met’s stodgy old Otto Schenk standby, this so-called “novel take” on the composer’s second installment, Die Walküre, points out the major flaws in placing too much faith in modern technology. Those 24-noisy planks and the noticeably restricted playing area that resulted left most viewers and critics with a bad taste in their mouths. Only in Siegfried did the stage machinery appear to work in the way the production team had planned. Otherwise, give me the tried and the true, please.

If only the singing were up to the task! And in this, for Act I anyway, we had Eva-Maria Westbroek in her company debut as a womanly/girlish Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as a heroic and iron-lunged Siegmund (for once, they actually looked like twins), and Hans-Peter König’s menacing Hunding (as gentle as an ox otherwise). The pair’s rousing duet closed out to raucous shouts of approbation. James Levine was back in the pit (he did not take up the baton for Das Rheingold due to a back injury) and was greeted with a thunderous roar.

For Act II, the heart of the drama, Bryn Terfel’s blustery, bright-voiced Wotan left this viewer wanting: more bite, and less fuming and fussing. His frequent eye-popping at the slightest provocation was distracting to the point of our nominating him to the Ralph Kramden Appreciation Society. Soprano Deborah Voigt’s trim figure and spunky attitude were ideal for Act II, but they came at a loss of full-bodied warbling. Her voice grew thin on top, and those high C’s called for in her war whoops were indistinguishable from one another.

Despite the two decades that separated them, neither artist were a match for the bond and chemistry that generated between James Morris and Hildegard Behrens. A real singing lesson was delivered by the great Stephanie Blythe as a thunderously imposing Fricka. Her acting with the eyes alone was enough to make any god whither before this harridan.

Eva Marton as Elsa of Brabant, with Peter Hofmann as her knight Lohengrin (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Lohengrin (1986) – An August Everding barebones production, with the sets held together by Lincoln Logs. In Act II, it’s all ceremonial pomp and circumstance for 40 minutes where the action comes to a halt. Peter Hofmann, the titular knight in shining white armor, looked every inch the part. His voice, however, lacked power in the ensembles. The ring of a Jonas Kaufmann or a Piotr Beczala was not Hofmann’s to command, despite his golden-haired looks and gentlemanly manner. He did deliver a congenial tone, and his soft utterances to his bride-to-be were not to be missed. Still, he lacked that spark of inspiration, the near-Christlike aura that must surround the otherworldly Lohengrin, a Knight of the Holy Grail. It’s what artists such as Jess Thomas, who had that ethereal quality in spades, exuded and conveyed, as did Sandor Konya, a notable knight in his own right. Hofmann got by on looks alone, the rest we must take for granted.

Two major female stars gave polar opposite performances: soprano Eva Marton as Elsa of Brabant, the damsel in distress, and legendary diva Leonie Rysanek as the witch Ortrud. Marton’s Madonna-esque Elsa mesmerized Met audiences with her teary-eyed, emotionally laden assumption, one of the best we’ve ever witnessed. At nearly every juncture, Marton poured out sumptuous tones of warmth and humility. She meant every word of her tale of woe. Who, one need ask, would doubt such a winning persona?

Marton moved mountains, and proved immensely effective against the vicious tirades and calculating villainy of Ortrud, played by veteran scene-stealer Leonie Rysanek. This was old-fashioned acting at its finest, compared to Marton’s measured approach. Wild-eyed and untamable, Ryansek’s voice tended to spread on top. But the scale of her instrument was larger than life. Indeed, this was a stage performance aimed at the farthest reaches of the Met balcony. Exaggerated? Yes, and way over the top. Yet, Rysanek earned the lion’s share of the applause — not unmerited, mind you, but not one to be repeated. Again, think theatrics: How captivating she must have been live, but not in HD!

As the witch’s husband Telramund, baritone Leif Roar was a cipher, a dull and routine “villain,” weak-minded and too easily manipulated. Telramund must be the most ungrateful part Wagner ever wrote. No wonder few star singers take it on. It’s punishing to the voice, the tessitura merciless and unyielding. He’s plainly a Mama’s boy, one who deserves his pitiless end. John Macurdy’s sturdy-voiced King Henry brought welcome power and thrust. Upon learning of his death at age 90, one felt the sad passing of an era, and a major American artist in one of his signature roles. Macurdy was one of those old Met Opera stalwarts who seemed ageless. He was a dependable mainstay, and will be sorely missed by those who knew his work.

Diana Damrau as Juliet and Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo breathe their last in Gounod’s ‘Romeo wt Juliette’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Roméo et Juliette (2017) – This operatic version of Shakespeare’s tragedy all but confirmed tenor Vittorio Grigolo’s standing as one of the Met’s most valuable go-to-players for French repertoire. Not only was his finesse with the French language close to that of a native, his natural acting ability and complete immersion in whatever role he’d been assigned to brought a whiff of spring air to what could have been a stuffy drawing-room drama. To date, Grigolo has taken on Gounod’s Faust, Massenet’s Werther, and Offenbach’s Hoffmann. Visibly dashing and handsome as all hell, the Tuscan tenor would win any woman’s heart with this portrayal — especially with his bold ascending of the balcony and his athletic displays of swordsmanship.

It’s a shame, then, that in late 2019 he was summarily dismissed from both the Met and London’s Covent Garden for “inappropriate and aggressive behavior” with a chorus member and (allegedly) others. Since then, Grigolo has been sidelined in this country, but was received with a standing ovation at La Scala. Go figure.

His partner on this occasion, soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette, outdid herself in presenting a strong-willed and forceful heroine, one eager to match her Shakespearean wit against any and all comers. Their many love duets (and their marvelous death scene) left no dry eyes in the house. At the curtain, Vittorio literally swept Damrau, and the audience, off their feet! Thanks to this production, this old warhorse from the pen of Charles Gounod surpassed the boundaries of this dainty Victorian-flavored score to become a box office favorite.

Erin Morley as the mechanical doll Olympia, being wooed by the poet Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo) in ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (2015) – In an interesting twist, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja had earlier premiered as Hoffmann when this 2009 Bartlett Sher production was new. While he has a pleasant enough timbre and displayed fine musicianship, Calleja’s carefully calculated portrait of the poet was no match for the sheer gut-wrenching thrills that Vittorio Grigolo was capable of bringing to this long and terribly difficult assignment. What set Grigolo apart from his colleague was that fiery temperament, that sense that he’s willing at all times to throw caution to the winds and go for broke: those endless, prolonged high notes, those pauses between breaks, that impending sense of disaster. These take an artist of the first rank to bring off. Not that Calleja is an unqualified performer, but his basically refined sound — cautious, cool, deliberate — doesn’t quite tingle the nerve endings the way that Grigolo seems adept at pulling out of a hat (or from his vocal bag of tricks).

As Hoffmann, Grigolo was the best of the modern breed of spinto tenor. Perhaps his only rival in this category is the Polish Piotr Beczala, who has lately moved on to heavier repertoire, i.e., in Wagner’s Lohengrin. Suffice it say that this production is a mash-up of many shock elements (lots of semi-nude vistas and provocative poses), mostly from the decadent 1920s. Stylistically, it was all over the European map: part Kafkaesque delusion, part vaudeville spectacular. Some settings were downright ugly, others littered with Hoffmann’s writings spilled out and about the Met stage. Most impressive of all was Kate Lindsey’s dual role as the poet’s Muse and his constant companion Nicklausse. Lindsey was seen as well as heard in practically every scene, which begs the question of whether to retitle the opera The Tales of Nicklausse and Hoffmann. This was a major undertaking that merited the rousing ovation given to her at the end.

My earlier criticism of Thomas Hampson’s assumption of the four villains (Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, in that order), was reinforced by this HD transmission: His voice got lost in the proceedings, and his solo pieces went by with no force or thunder to speak of (Dappertutto’s bogus “Diamond Aria” was taken a half tone lower). If this character isn’t allowed to roar and bellow as the evil Dr. Miracle (or is it the miraculous Dr. Evil?), then the Antonia act falls apart. He looked smart in his top hat and tails, though, his height and bearing that of an aristocrat. As for his singing, much was wanting at this stage.

All the ladies were committed to their parts, especially Erin Morley’s stratospheric, scale-ascending windup doll Olympia (just try to pick her out from the lineup of mechanical automatons onstage). Both sopranos Hibla Gerzmava as the consumptive Antonia and Christine Rice as the courtesan Giulietta did well enough. The men were a hair better at discerning individual characterizations. We must make note of Tony Stevenson’s multiple portrayals (my favorite was his Gene Wilder-inspired Young Frankenstein takeoff as Spalanzani’s goofy lab assistant, Cochénille), Dennis Peterson as the oleaginous Spalanzani, and baritone David Pittsinger’s full-throated Luther and Crespel.

This new production of Hoffmann incorporated not only the bogus and ersatz “standard” version, with those Ernest Guiraud recitatives and that spurious Septet in the Venice act, but numerous material that was unearthed over 40 years ago and only recently has become part of the company’s practice. These “newly discovered”(!) pieces include two arias for the Muse/Nicklausse, and a completely new number for Coppelius, along with a different ending for the chorus in the Epilogue. Hoffmann’s chair and writing desk predominate throughout — giving notice to everyone, as if they were in doubt, that the poet’s lot is to create no matter what. To hell with his love life!

We may never know what composer Jacques Offenbach ultimately had in mind for his masterpiece, since he died without having finished work on this major opus. What we do have is a theatrical assemblage, a hodgepodge if you prefer, that contains a fair amount of memorable, oftentimes jumbled yet supremely hummable music.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather’ Parts I and II — “Of Mike and Men”

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ logo (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, fanzine publisher, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay below is an analysis of director-producer Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather epic, specifically the fraught relationship between Vito Corleone and his youngest son, Michael.

Michael’s Failure to Be Like His Father

Both different and alike, Michael and Vito Corleone’s relationship is an unique one. All of his life Don Vito has tried to set a different path for his youngest son than the one he himself had chosen as a child. But when Michael is faced with his family threatened, he takes on the role of the don, or “Godfather,” and tries his best to fill his father’s shoes. However, as time passes, both his friends and his enemies realize that he could never be like his father, that this was not the path he wanted for himself. And it is not until the end of Part II that Michael realizes that perhaps everyone was right all along. Unfortunately, the lesson is hard learned.

Throughout both Godfather movies, Vito is portrayed as a respectable and admired don to the Corleone family. He listens to all who come to him and can “take care” of anyone’s troubles simply by “making them an offer they can’t refuse.” When we, the audience, are first introduced to Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone, who has just returned from serving in the army during World War II, we note that he seems a bit different from his other siblings, in that he doesn’t want to get involved in the same “business” as his father, that is, the Mafia. Instead, he has a desire to create his own path. We can see that in the mere fact of his dating Kay, an American woman who is outside of the family loop and tradition — and who does not understand the ways of Michael’s family.

Young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at his sister Connie’s wedding

We can see a prime example of his dislike for the Mafia when he and Kay are at his sister Connie’s wedding. Michael tells her that his father kills for a living and threatens people’s lives to avenge his family and friends. He distinctly claims that it’s his dad’s business, yet he wants no part in it. From that moment forward, the audience feels a great sympathy for him, in that we want him to succeed in creating his own path.

With all of that in mind, however, Michael takes an unexpected turn that manifests itself in Part I, where, with his father’s life at stake, he takes extreme measures to seek vengeance for the family. When in the hospital, at his father’s bedside, he tells him “I’m with you, Pop,” this means that he has finally crossed over to the other side and decided to be part of the Mafia after all. While we see his father in tears as he hears his son say this, it is a very ominous scene, mostly because the audience cannot tell whether or not Vito’s tears are of joy or of sorrow.

This is because later we find out that Vito did not want Michael to take on the family business. This is made much more prominent in Part II, where we see the young Vito’s efforts to shield his son away from doing so.  As much as he voices his dislike for his father’s business, toward the last half of Part I Michael decides to take action and to “be a man” in order to protect his family. In the famous scene where the camera closes in on Michael sitting among his brothers, he speaks of killing Sollozzo, the individual behind the attempt on his father Vito’s life, and the corrupt police captain, McCluskey. Nobody takes him seriously when he says this, because his brothers know him as the baby brother who didn’t want to get involved in the family “business”. Yet he insists that he will kill them both, so they let him do it just to see what he’s really made of.

Michael (Al Pacino) hears his father, Don Vito (Marlon Brando), confess his true feelings regarding his son’s career move

As it turns out, he succeeds in killing both Sollozzo and McCluskey, yet he does not follow directions on how to do it. While the specific details are not necessary to point out in this scene, it shows how Michael was, despite his strong words, afraid of killing them, something that Vito would not hesitate to do to his enemies — especially those who had threatened his family at an early age.

However, once Vito decides to make Michael the new don, he shares a moment with him outside of his house in which he explains to Michael that “I didn’t want this for you.” He would much rather have his youngest son be known as “Senator Corleone,” “Governor Corleone,” or someone of political power. And with the mood of the scene, it feels as though Vito has been waiting his whole life to say that to Michael directly.

Throughout the two films, we see Vito’s efforts in keeping Michael away from following the Godfather’s path. While in the past he killed the two heads of the Mafia in Sicily and in Nevada (and, we might add, he killed them both brilliantly and brutally), he did it to protect his family. We can see that after he has killed Don Fanucci, Vito walks over to his family and holds Michael in his arms, telling him, “Your father loves you very much, very very much.” The interesting part about this scene is that he tells this specifically to Michael. Upon his saying that line, Vito has set him apart from the rest of his sons, in hopes that Michael would not have to go to such extreme lengths to protect his family.

Sadly, despite all of Vito’s best efforts, Michael becomes the don and takes over officially after his father’s death. The fascinating part is that Vito placed his full trust in him, so that when some of his own men hesitate to obey Michael’s orders, Vito tells them, “If you trust me, then listen to my son.”

While he seems as if he is meeting his father’s expectations, later on Michael becomes a far more aggressive killer, and at times the exact opposite of his father. He starts ordering people to kill left and right, for example, the heads of the five families, Connie’s abusive husband Carlo, and even his own brother, something he later bitterly regrets. He also does not care to hear people’s objections, and fails to satisfactorily take care of those who come to him for advice. Tom Hagen, his adopted brother, comes to him toward the end of Part II to ask, “Are you going to kill everybody?” To which Michael casually replies, “Only my enemies,” which goes to show just how many of them he supposedly had.

Alone, Michael Corleone (Pacino) ponders his disturbing path to “success”

Toward the end, people lose trust and confidence in him, and begin to question his methods, especially after killing his own brother, an act that contradicted the theme of family togetherness the entire Godfather series has emphasized. And the saddest part of it all is that it is only at the very last scene that we realize how much the decision to become the don has taken its toll on him.

He is left alone contemplating, the camera slowly closing in on his face, which is worn and tired. For the first time since Part I, the audience has regained its sympathy for him. As much as he tried his hardest to make his own destiny, Michael was not really meant to fill his father’s shoes. Only at that moment does he realize this.

Copyright © 2007 by Natalia C. Lopes

The Defiant and the Profane — Getting a Grip on Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ at the Met

David McVicar’s staging for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marry Sohl / Met Opera)

If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t’ Fix It: Part Two

Baroque opera has little appeal for me. I know, I know. I need to get with the times. And, yes, I am fully aware that those longwinded works from the early 18th century have been back in vogue for nearly half a century. But I can’t help it. I find their laborious plots and over-complicated story lines a chore, the set pieces painful to listen to (well, not all of them), and especially the samey-samey quality of the music and solo numbers (called aria da capo). And those annoyingly drawn-out recitatives are especially egregious.

Yet, I keep saying to myself, Get a grip on it already! Give yourself a break. Now, with all the above said and done (and off my chest), I would much rather watch a live or pre-recorded performance of a Baroque piece than listen to one on the radio or compact disk.

Speaking of which, the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Handel’s 1709 Agrippina was touted as the oldest work in the company’s active repertoire. That claim may very well hold up for the opera house itself at Lincoln Center. However, I seem to recall some mid-1970 performances at the mini-Met of Sir Henry Purcell’s one-act Dido and Aeneas from 1689, which would place that opus a good two decades ahead of Agrippina.

Historically, George Frideric Handel’s first opera seria for Italy was Rodrigo, written for a Florentine academy sometime around 1707. Agrippina appeared two years later, for Venice, and became his first big stage success. It certainly proved its worth at the Met this past season, having received a rousing reception at its debut. I heard and saw Agrippina this weekend as part of the Live in HD transmission, available for free on the Met Opera on Demand online streaming service. The original broadcast date was February 29, 2020.

Sir David McVicar’s production set the work in modern times. In actuality, this was a 20-year-old production, created by the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, and adapted for the stage by the Metropolitan. John Macfarlane was credited with the set and costume designs, Paule Constable with the lighting, Gareth Morrell, harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, and Dimitri Dover with musical preparation, and Hemdi Kfir with the Italian diction.

Handel’s opera concerns the machinations of the wickedly Machiavellian Empress Agrippina, married to Roman Emperor Claudius (called Claudio in the opera). It’s historically inaccurate, irreverent and funny, but the guffaws and chuckles begin to stick in one’s throat when we relate the characters’ machinations to actual real-life events. Politics, so the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows, as they most assuredly do here.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) greets her husband, Emperor Claudius (Matthew Rose)

And as he did with the earlier Giulio Cesare from 2013, Sir David, by way of composer Handel and his librettist Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, has brought poet Tacitus to life (in fact, one of the minor characters, Lesbo, appears early on holding a copy of the Roman historian’s book). Given these sets of parameters, modern-day audiences will have no trouble following the meandering plotline.

Into the Roman Woods

In this all-but contemporary staging, evil runs rampant and corruption is a way of life. As with most such Baroque products, the plot moves slowly and fitfully through prolonged dry recitatives (or recitativo secco), while highly embellished da capo arias tend to express, by turns, lofty sentiments or banal syllogisms (more like clichés, if you get my drift). These are repeated in A-B-A sequence, which in practice are a perfect forum for displaying an individual artist’s technical and vocal abilities by means of fast runs, roulades, fioriture, cadenzas, and so forth — a veritable feast for the ears if not the eyes.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) has a one-on-one with her son Nerone (Kate Lindsey)

To director McVicar’s credit, he kept things moving. The action never stops for a second, which wins praise from yours truly for sheer inventiveness. And a most feisty and accommodating cast brought the onstage shenanigans smoothly and seamlessly to fruition, if not always coherently. Each individual character was allotted sufficient time and space to establish his or her presence and, most importantly, a certifiable personality type (uh, “dysfunctional” would be a better term).

In the title role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato was in her element, relishing the opportunity to play as devious and twisted a figure as she possibly could. This Agrippina would make even Lady Macbeth blush. Her sly, crooked smile, copious winks and double-entendres were priceless. Vocally, DiDonato was above reproach, although her coloratura was a shade off its usual mark. She compensated by using her innate language skills in enunciating the Italian text with bite, rrrrolling her r’s trippingly off her tongue till there was nothing left to roll. This verbal affectation, to my mind, was indicative of a disturbed, one-track mind.

Along those same lines, mezzo Kate Lindsey took the acting laurels, as it were, for her bravura take on the man-child Nero, or Nerone as he’s known. Lindsey played the emperor-to-be as a butch version of rapper Eminem, with tattoos across her arms and chest, and on the back of her neck, crossed with Jared Kushner in a slim suit and narrow tie. A punkish hairdo and saucy snarl on her lips, along with a take-no-crap-attitude completed the picture.

Nerone (Kate Lindsey) hands out alms for the poor in ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

One clever sequence involved Nerone’s handing out of Care packages to the vagrants assembled at the palace gate. That look of utter disdain on Ms. Lindsey’s face said it all. Slippery as an eel and twice as unstable, this Nero had his hands full with both wooing the lovely Poppaea (debuting soprano Brenda Rae) and keeping her suitor Ottone (countertenor Iestyn Davies) at bay.

Together, Agrippina and Nerone shared what might have been an incestuous relationship. This falls neatly into line with the basic premise for this work, in which Agrippina schemes to bring her debauched, mentally challenged offspring to the throne as Rome’s next emperor. Complications temporarily disrupt her little plans when, after having planted the false rumor of Emperor Claudius’ death (via poisoned pen letter), Claudius reappears to assert his position.

Sung and acted by British bass Matthew Rose, his amusing personification of Claudio reminded one of England’s Edward VII (“Bertie” to his friends), all hot and bothered and itching to get into his lover Poppaea’s pantyhose. With his large frame and booming voice, Rose hit the right note in depicting the emperor as a libidinous lout, full of macho posturing and empty-headed pronouncements. His scales needed a bit of work, though, and his low notes lacked a solid bottom.

The throne room set for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

He did, however, display a flare for comedy, as did Brenda Rae, in a penetrating characterization of the sexpot Poppaea. Their relationship was played strictly for laughs — and, indeed, it should be. Both Rose and Rae had a field day, with the bass practicing his golf swing and Rae fighting off the emperor’s (and practically everyone else’s) advances.

In fact, this entire enterprise smacked of a vaudeville free-for-all. For example, the angst-ridden Nero, acting like a freaked-out cocaine addict, indulged himself to the fullest by, literally, sprinkling his desk with happy dust and dropping his face into the white powder. This aspect of the show played like an episode of House of Cards or a Saturday Night Live parody of The West Wing. Uncanny!

Into this rather bizarre company strode countertenor Iestyn Davies’ more subdued bearing as Navy Admiral Ottone, a welcome respite from the lunacy. Baritone Duncan Rock’s solidly vocalized Pallante, in military uniform throughout, vied with countertenor Nicholas Tamagna’s nerdy Narciso in his makeshift combover for most obnoxious cohort. Both singers embodied groveling toadies, obsequious pawns in the manipulative Agrippina’s hands. Bass Christian Zaremba played the emperor’s press agent Lesbo. And high fives all around for the supernumeraries who did double duty throughout the program, especially the two security guards dressed up as Men in Black at the hotel’s bar.

Across the board, fast and slow runs, going up and down the scale, were flawlessly executed and accompanied, on the harpsicord and in the pit, by conductor Harry Bicket, a Baroque opera specialist leading the superb Met Opera Orchestra.

Poppaea (Brenda Rae) meets Ottone (Iestyn Davies) in the hotel’s bar

You could say that everybody and their mother — in this case, Agrippina— kept themselves busy with illicit affairs and off-the-record trysts in hotel lobbies, bars and apartments. Some silliness was bound to spill over, as in Agrippina giving a hand job to Narciso, an action straight out of Peter Sellars’ staging for John Adams’ Nixon in China. Good artists copy, great artists steal? Maybe. Others were routine or vulgar, yet stayed within the PG-parameters. The sole exceptions were the many hand gestures and raised middle fingers, which drew hearty laughter from an appreciative audience.

Anachronistic dance movements only added to the entertainment value. These were provided by choreographer Andrew George, with much of the routines seemingly tied to the plot or otherwise just plain outlandish. History meets theater, competing for viewer attention. It can often lead to absorbing material, or not. As for myself, I delight in such treatments as Verdi’s Don Carlo and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, operas based more or less on the historical record, with a preponderance of invention.

In Handel’s Giulio Cesare, which relayed the tempestuous affair between the noblest Roman of them all, Julius Cesar, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, David McVicar placed the setting in India during the British Raj (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/handels-giulio-cesare-if-it-aint-baroque-dont-fix-it/). As for this musty old warhorse Agrippina, from another time and another place entirely, I am pleased to have given ample time to this piece so as to allow it to make its point.

The opera begins and ends in a mausoleum, with the principle participants perched atop their tombs. Although it’s our understanding the Met’s version had suffered some doctoring from its earlier Brussels incarnation, the nearly three hour and thirty minute running time flew by in a flash. From beginning to end, Agrippina remained a bawdy and sexy showpiece, as well as plainly over-the-top. If that’s what Baroque opera takes to draw attention to itself, then let’s have more of it. Those badass Romans can teach us all a valuable lesson about drama and art imitating life.

In sum, this was as happily realized an undertaking as they come, a welcome novelty that should help in expanding the boundaries of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire, one most audiences are unfamiliar with. Now, let me get back to reading a good book. I have it: Sir Robert Graves’ I, Claudius….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) — Last Bastion of Civility

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ — A Film by Wes Anderson

A Tragicomedy of Errors

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s were benchmarks for generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Such laudable efforts as those of Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be), Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace) exerted a strong influence on many of the era’s directors — and on those yet to come.

As a rule, comedy films are governed by a given set of parameters, many of them holdovers from the silent movie era. The standard formula for these pictures, then, combined aspects of a wacky plot, zany antics, an ensemble cast, the requisite chase scene, oh, and the occasional pratfall or two. With the injection of cynicism into the picture, epitomized by the classic films of Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), and the incongruous romances and knuckle-headed folly found in Woody Allen’s work (Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the world of madcap comedy took on a decidedly modern turn.

Be that as it may, the above properties began to rub off on a young and up-and-coming Texan named Wes Anderson. An independent writer-director, who followed in the footsteps of another well-known advocate for autonomy, the equally gifted Jim Jarmusch (whose Only Lovers Left Alive was reviewed by yours truly: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-lovers-left-alive-2013-a-parable-of-class-consciousness/), Anderson adopted many of the attributes normally associated with screwball comedies and turned them into quirky character studies.

Among his contributions are Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). As for myself, I am embarrassed to admit that, for a variety of reasons, I remained ignorant of Anderson’s previous output — that is, until I was introduced to the absurdly audacious but adorable The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I am happy to note that it was this feature that led me to explore all of Anderson’s work in reverse order, from the newest to the oldest.

But let’s call The Grand Budapest Hotel what it is: i.e., the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll in which layer after layer of stories within stories are peeled back to reveal, well, more layers of stories. The “truth,” if indeed such a concept exists, is eventually exposed, and the contents of what lies therein are spilled out for all to see and admire (or not).

Indeed, Mr. Anderson, along with veteran cinematographer Robert Yeoman, set designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Milena Canonero, editor Barney Pilling, and composer Alexandre Desplat, have concocted an utterly enticing comedic showcase in the form of an “Encyclopedia Europa.” The experience of sifting through this filmic compilation, while scanning its horizons for deeper meaning (whether or not it relates to the basic premise), is left up to the viewer.

“An impossible assignment,” you say. Not really. How Anderson and his dedicated crew of technicians succeeded in dissecting this amalgamation of material is part of the fun of watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even after multiple viewings, we can still find something new and fresh to sink our teeth into. For instance, the whizz-bang, fast-paced aspect of the story; the constant back-and-forth of characters entering and exiting; those head-on camera angles and revelatory tracking shots. Why, there’s no end to the innovations that Anderson employs in telling his faux-Continental fairy tale.

The way that he achieves his objectives is by an extension and reduction of the film frame in conformance to the story’s intent. It begins in the present time, with a little girl walking through a cemetery on a bleak winter’s day. She stops at the gravesite of a famous writer, modeled after the Viennese author Stefan Zweig. The girl carries a storybook in her hand, bearing the inscription The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly, viewers are transported back in time, to the year 1985, with the old Author (Tom Wilkinson) sitting front and center, reading from a prepared text. He is interrupted by his little grandson (Marcel Mazur), who shoots a pellet at him from a toy pistol — a juvenile act that, in the course of the story, will come to symbolize the loss of innocence cloaked in deadly seriousness.

The old Author (Tom Wilkinson) and his grandson (Marcel Mazur)

Next, the old Author whisks the viewer off to 1968 and the ramshackle rudiments of the Grand Budapest Hotel, tucked away in the fictional Zubrowka hills. The film frame, which began with the Standard aspect ratio of 1.85:1, expands to the full 2.40:1 ratio of CinemaScope, the apogee of widescreen movie-making. Here, we are introduced to the Author as a young man (shades of Ernest Hemingway), played by an actor (Jude Law) of suitable age and vigor, in yet another manifestation of Herr Zweig. Young Author now takes over the narration.

In this section, though, the young Author is drawn to an elderly gentleman who sits motionless in the hotel’s lobby in contemplation of who knows what. Both men have a variant of the “meet cute” in the vast and empty bathhouse. Despite their unfamiliarity with each other, the elderly gentleman (F. Murray Abraham) invites the young Author to dine with him that evening. After the older gentleman has ordered his meal, he begins to open up about his life to the intensely receptive Author.

As it turns out, the older gentleman is Zero Moustafa, the former lobby boy and current owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. His lined face and heavily-lidded features betray an individual who has spent a lifetime harboring sadness and loss. When Zero begins his sorrowful saga, we are once more treated to a further reduction of the frame, this time to the Academy ratio of 1.37:1. This steady narrowing of the movie’s viewing space is a deliberate choice by the director, in that we begin our journey down old Author’s memory lane with a wide-angle shot — indicative of a broader grasp of the world at large.

The elder Zero (F. Murray Abraham) with the young Author (Jude Law)

As the frame tightens around a cluster of separate settings and images, the focus has correspondingly shifted along with it. With the frame having reached the aforementioned Academy ratio, the viewer can finally sit back and savor the nest of colorful characters and their individual dilemmas — a cinematic narrowing of the eyes, as it were, on exactly where Anderson wants his audiences to focus: mainly, on the year 1932.

This technique parallels Zweig’s own writing style. In other words: the more open the presentation, the less focused the story; the less open the presentation, the more focused the story. To be precise, Anderson has settled on a visual form of storytelling — the equivalent of picking up a favorite book and leafing through its pages, while stopping at key moments in the narrative so as to place one’s concentration on what’s written on the printed page. That it works as well as it does in this motion-picture format is a tribute to the director’s ingenuity and persistence in bringing his story to light.

When we are long past the movie’s three-quarter mark, the aspect ratios reverse course and return to their original proportions. We end up, surely enough, exactly where we began: with the little girl furtively closing the pages of her storybook.

Smash and Grab World

‘Boy with Apple’ by Johannes van Hoytl the Younger

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a slapstick, knockabout comedy of the most absurd, revolves around a murder mystery tied to the theft of a dubious masterwork of Northern Renaissance art by fictitious painter Johannes van Hoytl the Younger. (Note to readers: Spoilers ahead!) To complicate matters further, audiences should be alert to the existence of a half-dozen or so side plots. Bear in mind, too, that one can hardly scratch the surface of these myriad plots in this review.

The painting, Boy with Apple, is an abominably crude, amateurish recreation modeled after Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of European nobility. It also bears a striking similarity to a High Renaissance portrait of The Magdalene by one Bernardino Luini (1525) that hangs in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Any relation to religiosity or the church, however, is purely incidental.

‘The Magdalene’ by Bernardino Luini (Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In actuality, the Boy’s features have an uncanny resemblance to that of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel and (as described below) one of many principal protagonists. For those art history buffs out there, the apple the Boy holds in his hand is synonymous with the forbidden fruit which Gustave has not only tasted but indulged in to the fullest.

This garish artwork also happens to be Wes Anderson’s version of Hitchcock’s infamous MacGuffin, or that thing which the characters, both the good and the bad, are desperately searching for. The good guys, in this case, are M. Gustave and the young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, in a literal pencil-thin mustache), his lobby boy in training. For the most part, the bad guys are comprised of the malevolent Dmitri (a more naturally-mustachioed Adrien Brody) and his sharp-toothed henchman Jopling (brass-knuckle-wielding Willem Dafoe).

Zero (Tony Revolori) is rescued by his lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan)

Stuck in the middle somewhere (among other places) are the wealthy widow Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), apprentice baker and Zero’s intrepid lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), executor of Madame D.’s estate Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), Serge the nervous butler (Mathieu Amalric), the intimidating prisoner Ludwig (bald-pated Harvey Keitel), and the inquisitive Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), the officer in charge of finding the murderer. There are also a number of cohorts and accessories after the fact, to include members of the secret Society of the Crossed Keys(!).

Almost laughably, the stolen Boy with Apple is replaced with the all-too revealing Two Ladies Masturbating, their wide-open “charms” leaving nothing to the imagination. The irony lies in the fact that this prurient painting happens to be a true work of art, whereas the simplistic Boy with Apple is a travesty of portraiture. That its monetary value happens to drive the lunatic plot along is, in itself, farcical and hard to fathom. Seemingly, everyone runs around town after an object of questionable worth, which is as it should be in a screwball comedy. Lessons are learned, some for better and some for worse.

Upon seeing Two Ladies Masturbating instead of Boy with Apple, the easily angered Dmitri reacts in horror: “Holy fuck! What’s the meaning of this shit?” And immediately smashes the Two Ladies against a piece of sculpture. “Thus, always, to filthy artists!” he seems to be saying with this gesture. There will be more such moments to come.

Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Serge (Mathieu Amalric) & Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) have a “difference” of opinion

Proof of Boy with Apple’s worthlessness can be seen in the episode that takes place in 1968 involving the nearly dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, where the painting hangs ignominiously above the bored desk clerk’s post. Similarly, it is pictured on the back of the hotel’s dinner menu (but you’ll have to look closely to find it). In this risible aside, Anderson mocks what the art world of the time considered “treasurable.” This revives the age-old argument over what one society reveres as “art” as opposed to what another deems as “obscene.” The film’s theme, in retrospect, becomes the story of an openly permissive society about to face artistic and socio-political repression.

Introducing Monsieur Gustave: From Hero to Zero

There are several star attractions in this convoluted comedy of errors, chief among them the ubiquitous Monsieur Gustave H., the Old World ambassador of a now-forgotten past. Handsome, debonair, charming, smooth-talking, sophisticated, and resolute — there are not enough adjectives to describe this fellow’s magnificence. A bon vivant par excellence, M. Gustave is discretion personified. His movements are planned to split-second perfection. His speech and rapid-fire delivery are executed with Swiss-watch precision. Indeed, timing is everything to this professional busybody. He’s not only a master of all he surveys, but is immaculate in his appearance  and dress (as to be expected).

Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) admires Madame D.’s makeup

Additionally, Gustave H. is blessed with a sharp wit, whose mind races constantly at breakneck speed, a thoroughbred among also-rans. For a concierge, he is quite the man-about-town. Ah, but Gustave does have his faults. For one, he never thinks of himself as simply a concierge. He’s the prime cut to everyone else’s roast beef, the filet mignon to their rib steak. And, as a matter of course, his supreme belief in himself and his abilities confirm what he sees in his mind’s eye: that he’s up to the challenge of any given situation, give or take a few exceptions.

As the film progresses, the viewer experiences a subtle pulling back of the bedsheets — more like a peeling away of the layers of a pungent-smelling onion (whew…). We learn, among other things, that Gustave is prone to exaggeration (that’s putting it mildly). He also possesses a terribly short fuse, especially when matters get out of hand. There are points in this tragicomedy where, down for the count and seemingly out, M. Gustave manages to wrangle his way back from a tricky situation. Where most people would give in to despair (for example, the brief time he spends in prison), Gustave seeks out opportunities to be of service. Each time, he rises above the tumult, only to find that by movie’s end his luck has run out.

He is especially favored by the doddering dowager, Madame D. Sporting a Marie Antoinette hairdo by way of Antoine of Paris, Madame D. is enamored of the man. Early on, she confesses to him that she fears for her life. “She was shaking like a shitting dog,” Gustave mutters in an aside. Incredibly, the concierge is not repulsed by the woman’s advance age, nor by the dozens of elderly widows he surrounds himself with. On the contrary, he finds them much to his liking. “She was dynamite in the sack, by the way,” he observes. “She was 84,” queries Zero. “Mmm, I’ve had older,” Gustave adds. He cultivates the illusion of subservience and refinement, but they’re all for show and (obviously) for later telling.

Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dines with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)

Our lobby boy in training, the young Zero, is a cipher by comparison, a real “nothing” as his name implies. Conveniently, he becomes Gustave’s protégé, someone the seasoned concierge can take under his wing. No doubt, M. Gustave sees much of his younger self in Zero. A youth barely out of his teens yet burdened with a lifetime of heartache over the loss of his family, at best Zero is a survivor. He tells us so at key moments in the story, as when Gustave, desperate to get his cooperation on learning the police want to question him about Madame D.’s passing, lets it slip that his family had been tortured and killed.

Still, Zero knows how to keep silent. “Zip it,” M. Gustave curtly orders. To his credit, Zero is a fast learner and always willing to pitch in. But as quick a study as he is, Zero cannot possibly touch Gustave H. in the (how shall we put it) gratification department. Gustave aims to please, which takes on many forms. With a wealth of rich old spinsters at his feet, Gustave is much in demand for his, uh, services. No wonder he’s so beloved by Zubrowka society! Who could resist such a treasure? The ladies find him eminently desirable, a reminder of their own youthful dalliances. Likewise, Gustave plays on the ladies’ vanity, until he is no longer able to.

Note the quick flashback to Gustave’s servicing of the old biddies. These “quickies” fulfill the dual purpose of solidifying Gustave’s patronage of and acquiescence to the “old ways” of doing things. Whether those old ways actually worked in his favor, no one can tell for certain. If anything, Gustave H. is the hotel’s last bastion of civility, the final redoubt of a way of life that will shortly cease to exist; an Old World society on the brink of all-out conflict and, as author Zweig termed it, “the end of all we know.”

Regardless of the consequences, both Gustave and Zero’s positions are a calculated means toward a desired end, designed to give themselves enough leeway — call it a “pause for effect” — where personal service, of a kind no longer in existence, takes absolute precedence.

As the top dog of (at one time) a luxury establishment, Gustave’s responsibility is to see to the comfort of his guests. As he’s putting young Zero through his paces (a terribly funny sequence punctuated by nonstop banter), Gustave explains that a lobby boy must anticipate his guests’ needs without their knowing what those needs are — a veritable feat of mind over matters of fact. This motto has served Gustave well, to a point. It will also serve our survivor, Zero, well into his old age.

Lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) shares a drink with M. Gustave (Fiennes)

For chaotic chase scenes and preposterous situations that defy the laws of gravity, nothing in recent years has topped the remarkable skiing sequence where Zero and Gustave are hot on the trail (on a cold, snow-covered slope) of the nasty little assassin Jopling, who experiences a nasty little comeuppance. There are mad dashes across the frozen tundra and others too implausible to give credence to. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the climax and dénouement of The Grand Budapest Hotel are nothing if not bittersweet. You’ll be forced to wipe away a tear or two, as you smile broadly at the outcome.

Stefan Zweig wrote, in his autobiographical The World of Yesterday, that “our world of security was a castle in the air.” In Wes Anderson’s film, that bygone period is embodied by the once-elegant Grand Budapest Hotel (Zweig’s “castle in the air”), whose lobby boy and head concierge are past emissaries of that last gasp of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. M. Gustave had both feet planted in each of these worlds, although anachronistically speaking he was out of step with the times. His genteel manners and general air of bonhomie were woefully inadequate to thwart the coming menace, especially when confronted by brutish military guards. And with most of the deaths occurring offscreen, it’s left it to our imagination to fill in the gruesome details.

Writer-director Wes Anderson, along with his collaborator Hugo Guinness, have given audiences not just a tale as tall as Zubrowka’s hills but one involving a world that once prided itself on knowledge and culture, on nourishing the intellect and satiating the senses. However, towards the end that same world, corrupted by forces from within, rebelled against common decency. It turned away from knowledge and understanding to perpetuate false notions of superiority; to raising borders against those who were different, and allowing their basest, most bellicose instincts to take over.

In that, and in most other respects, The Grand Budapest Hotel has much in common with Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, a dark, portentous comedy premiering in March of 1942 (and set ten years after Anderson’s film) that poked fun, if we can call it that, at Hitler, the Nazis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the German occupation of Warsaw, and the Second World War. The alarm was already sounding when United Artists released this classic picture.

A month earlier, in February 1942, in the resort city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together. Despondent over the state of their beloved Vienna and the chaos unleashed upon the world, Zweig and his spouse resolved to put an end their suffering.

Civilizations, take note: The warning signs are as viable today as they were so many decades ago. We must not let the world of yesterday become the world of tomorrow. Zweig’s message was clear. And Anderson’s film has underscored it.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes