Opera Review: ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Met – Beefcake and Brimstone Amid the High C’s

David McVicar's Il Trovatore, Act II (metoperafamily.org)

David McVicar’s Il Trovatore, Act II (metoperafamily.org)

We can thank the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo and Chico – and MGM’s head of production, boy wonder Irving Thalberg, for helping to prepare the way for Il Trovatore’s mass consumption and appeal with their 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera.

With that in mind, the Met revived their successful David McVicar production of the work with an all new radio lineup for the January 12th broadcast. Unlike previous versions of this blood and thunder tale, this was a note-complete performance – well, almost note complete. I’ll explain in a moment.

The second of Verdi’s middle period operas, Il Trovatore derives from one of those revenge-filled Spanish plays the Italian master so loved to transform into superior stage hits. The composer’s earlier Ernani (written by Frenchman Victor Hugo) previously fit that bill nicely, while La Forza del Destino (originally titled Don Alvaro, o la fuerza del sino by the Duke of Rivas) and his later Don Carlos (based on a five-act tragedy by Friedrich Schiller) were also Spanish-themed oeuvres before Verdi and his librettists got their artistic hands on them. We are forever in their debt, mostly because the music for these marvelous works were among Verdi’s finest for the lyric theater.

Trovatore’s score is perhaps the most melodious of the lot (think “The Anvil Chorus”). However, its story line has been the object of much derision for as long as the opera’s been in existence. Regardless of that fact, any Trovatore performance stands or falls by two main factors: one, the old gypsy woman Azucena, a character at once terrifying and pitiable in her lust for all-out vengeance; and two, her son Manrico, the heroic troubadour of the title.

Angela Meade (news.centraliacollege.net)

Angela Meade (news.centraliacollege.net)

Fortunately, the Met had two fairly decent representatives of the above who could hold their own in these roles. But they were not the stars of this broadcast. No, that honor belonged to the soprano, Angela Meade. Replacing an indisposed Patricia Racette, as Leonora – the beautiful Spanish damsel in distress who is simultaneously wooed by both the hero and the villain – Meade, a 2011 Richard Tucker Award recipient, gave what can only be described as a master class in bel canto singing, in her maintaining of a firm line, in her superior diction, and in her perfect pitch and placement. This was Golden Age artistry of the highest order!

She stole the proverbial show with her two big arias, in particular her Act IV scena just prior to and immediately after the famous Miserere number – the one the Marx Brothers almost single handedly brought to ruin. Her cadenzas on “D’amor sull’ali rosee” were absolutely divine, something I’ve not heard in this role for many a decade. Meade’s trills were of the old school – and by that, I mean they fit the substance and mood of the piece, and were brilliantly executed to boot. The applause she generated for this astounding coloratura display was the loudest and longest of the day. Let’s hear more of this magnificent performer, shall we?

Following close behind was a thoroughly satisfying Stephanie Blythe as the crazed Azucena. Although she had a bit of trouble with her highest notes – I can still recall veterans Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto pulling out all the stops and devouring every twist and turn of this juicy part – only American colleague Dolora Zajick has brought any semblance of fireworks to this showiest of Verdi’s mezzo creations. Despite this minor flaw, Blythe chilled the air (and the bones) with her spine-tingling account of “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” where the delirious old hag relives the tragic events of her past life, events that will come together in the opera’s closing moments. Blythe was a standout in her frequent moments with her son, and her final scene was delivered with all the thrust and power the role called for.

Marco Berti as Manrico (bigstory-ap-org)

Marco Berti as Manrico (bigstory-ap-org)

Joining her in their several duets was tenor Marco Berti as Manrico. Berti’s voice is of the zesty-flavored, old-school Italian variety; a beefcake type we’re familiar with from listening to old 78 rpm’s of Aureliano Pertile, Kurt Baum, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and other gramophone greats. I’m not placing Berti in their illustrious company, not by any means. But if matching these tenor stalwarts high-note for high-note were a prerequisite in this part, then Berti would be a major asset.

But first thing’s first: he has no trill to speak of, so his lovely “Ah, si, ben mio,” in Act III went by the wayside. Without those trills, the aria is shorn of its most conspicuous bel canto elements. Still, when he finally got around to the rousing “Di quella pira,” the ne plus ultra of dramatic tenor moments, Berti delivered two solid high C’s that brought down the house, as well as the curtain. Verdi never wrote those notes, but tenors from Caruso to Corelli have long savored this chance to outshine the others — and Berti was no exception.

Since this was a note-complete performance, as indicated above, I was a little perturbed that Signor Berti did not give us the second stanza of his tune. Come on, it’s not all that strenuous, guys! Arnold’s big scene, “Asile héréditaire” and his fiery cabaletta, “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,” from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a true, honest to goodness voice killer – and an absolutely smashing conclusion to the act no tenor can resist. Apparently, Berti did resist. I take it he must’ve been satisfied to have gotten this far, so I guess there was no further need to take any unnecessary risks.

For me, the least impressive cast member was Russian baritone Alexey Markov as a robust sounding Count Di Luna. Now there’s a devil of a part for you! For eons, baritone voices from the dawn of recorded time have serenaded their lady fair with the magisterial “Il balen del suo sorriso” on their lips. From his first appearance in Scene ii, however, Markov appeared to be up to his neck in treacherous high tessitura territory. This role calls for — no, demands — a lyric voice. And certainly the Russian homeland has had its fair share of incredibly adept talents to call upon: Pavel Lisitsian, Yuri Mazurok, Vladimir Chernov, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky were some of the best in their field.

My own feelings about this are that Markov was in over his head. This isn’t Figaro or Rigoletto, roles where the comedy or tragedy can often times carry the day; no, sir, this is straight arrow cantilena singing at its finest. If you can’t make it past “Tace la notte,” the Count’s very first utterance, or “Il balen” and its continuation, “Per me ora fatale,” concluding with Leonora and Di Luna’s spirited Act IV duet (so like a similar one in Donizetti’s La Favorita), then you might as well hand in your sword. Markov made it to the end, all right, and that’s about the best I can say for him.

Greek bass Christopher Stamboglis made his network broadcast debut in the ungrateful part of Ferrando, the old Di Luna family retainer. I hear some interesting things in this young man’s voice, and his future certainly bears watching. The opera was conducted by Daniele Callegari, who brought real fire and brimstone to this darkest of bel canto works.

In the end, Trovatore never fails to please the crowd. Hey, not even the Marx Brothers could destroy its durability! It will surely survive into the next century, especially if Meade, Blythe and Berti are there to lead the way.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches! — Part Three: Heitor Villa-Lobos, the Middle Years

Entr’acte: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

Bidu & Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (classicopiano.com)

Bidu & Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (classicopiano.com)

On the occasions when Heitor Villa-Lobos deigned to write memorable vocal music — his failure to create a clear-cut national opera notwithstanding — he was plainly unsurpassed in inventiveness, originality, and means of expression.

For example, a thorough study of his superb Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945) is an absolute must for any classically trained artist to achieve a deeper understanding of the Brazilian composer’s methodology and mind-set. In these works Villa-Lobos brought “together his native folk-lore elements with the great European musical tradition [of Bach], and,” in the estimation of American conductor Leonard Bernstein, “[unified] them into a single style of his own, as he does in the very title of this piece.”

There were nine Bachianas in all, with the first one, for eight cellos, dedicated to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals; the second, for chamber orchestra, featured the delightful toccata movement O Trenzinho do Caipira, or “The Little Train of the Country Bumpkin”; the third and fourth were for piano and orchestra, respectively; the sixth, for bassoon and flute; the seventh and eighth, for full orchestra; and the ninth, considered one of his most sonorous musical creations, was composed for mixed voices or string ensemble.

The most performed of the Bachianas, of course, is the ever-popular No. 5 for soprano soloist and eight cellos, written in two movements, with the first having its world premiere in 1938, in Rio de Janeiro, and sung by its lyricist, the singer Ruth Valadares Corrêa; and the second, Dança (Martelo), a song with rapid articulation, completed around 1945, with words by Modernist poet Manuel Bandeira.

The cream of operatic vocal talent, including Arleen Auger, Kathleen Battle, Victoria De Los Angeles, Renée Fleming, Maria Lúcia Godoy, Jill Gomez, Barbara Hendricks, Ana Maria Martínez, Eva Marton, Anna Moffo, Bidu Sayão, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Galina Vishnevskaya, has recorded this gorgeous and oft-performed showpiece, focusing primarily on the lyrical Ária (Cantilena) section.

A small portion of the aria has even found its way onto the grooves of the post-pubescent Brazilian singing team of Sandy & Júnior, as a brief solo number for Sandy on her live Mercury album Quatro Estações (“Four Seasons,” 2000), further attesting to the popularity of the tune with teenagers.

Once heard, this hauntingly beautiful melody, augmented by contrapuntal pizzicato effects in the cellos, is not soon forgotten. Many listeners will be reminded of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s earlier Vocalise for soprano and orchestra from 1912, which served as a model for Villa’s later version. Nevertheless, it has remained one of the Brazilian composer’s most recognizable and universally beloved pieces of music from among his over fifteen hundred or more compositions.

There was poetry in the verses as well as in the scoring, which, in sum, read as follows:

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente

Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

Surge no infinito a lua docemente,

Enfeitando a tarde, qual meiga donzela

Que se apresta e a linda sonhadoramente,

Em anseios d’alma para ficar bela

Grita ao céu e a terra toda a Natureza!

Cala a passarada aos seus tristes queixumos

E reflete o mar toda a Sua riqueza…

Suave a luz da lua desperta agora

A cruel saudade que ri e chora!

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente

Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

A rosy, transparent cloud rises slowly

Over the dreamy and beautiful space!

Sweetly the moon appears on the horizon,

Decorating the afternoon like a darting damosel

Who rushes and dreamily adorns herself,

With an anxious soul to become beautiful

Shout to Nature, you sky and Earth!

All the birds become still to the moon’s complaints

And the sea reflects its splendor…

Softly, the shining moon awakens

To the cruel longing that laughs and cries!

A rosy, transparent cloud rises slowly

Over the dreamy and beautiful space!

Inconceivably, the familiar female part was originally intended for the violin. But at the suggestion of soprano Bidu Sayão, the composer was sufficiently convinced to re-score the wordless opening with her voice category in mind, thus equating the worldwide success of this lovely elegiac ode to the diminutive diva’s prescient advice.

All’s Fair in Love and War

“Though distinct from the Choros,” added biographer Simon Wright, “the Bachianas are indeed an extension of the earlier series, and both cycles demonstrate similarities and common features. Like the Choros, the individual Bachianas display a large variety of instrumental media…, [with] the scope [ranging] from the intimate to the gigantic.”

Villa-Lobos conducting (tocadacotia.com)

Villa-Lobos conducting (tocadacotia.com)

This very “gigantism,” as Wright so aptly described it, would manifest itself in unorthodox ways, which Villa-Lobos translated into huge public gatherings of massed choirs, numbering some thirty to forty thousand strong (and sometimes more), voiced by Brazilian school children of all ages, and from all grade levels, in soccer stadiums across the country.

It was all within the context of promoting Getúlio Vargas “as the head of state, of the Estado Novo, and of the regime,” by lifting the level of the country’s art in a newly unified and “independent” Brazil, that the Bachaianas came into being, concurrent as they were with the length and scope of President Vargas’ first administration, which ended in 1945.

For a variety of reasons – some highly controversial, others not so contentious – most authors tackling this subject have, in the past, overlooked the glaring historical record of this fervently nationalistic period in Brazil. With the extraordinary research put forth by Analía Cherñavsky, in her massive 2003 master’s dissertation for the State University of Campinas, Um Maestro no Gabinete: Música e Política no Tempo de Villa-Lobos (“A Maestro in the Cabinet: Music and Politics in the Time of Villa-Lobos”), along with those of José Wisnick, Arnaldo Contier, and others, only lately has Heitor Villa-Lobos’ wholehearted participation re-surfaced – and, most importantly, been acknowledged – in what, in retrospect, might have been regarded at the time as a highly suspect form of latent National Socialism (!).

According to Cherñavsky, “At that moment, marked by international criticism against fascism…, any association with a predominantly fascistic regime simply had to be obscured, especially if that association was considered to have come from the highest national order and whose strategic mission was to help keep the regime in power… Years later, when the process of revisionism that dominated the field of social science was introduced during the seventies and eighties, new research appeared that focused primarily on the educational work done by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the question of a link between music and politics, previously denied by his biographers.”

Her thesis merits closer inspection, mainly because the composer himself had propagated, in the early years of the 1930s, this very link. After the war, and certainly after Vargas’ subsequent resignation from the presidency, Villa-Lobos went about deconstructing (or, in less politically correct terms, “reinventing”) his formerly close connection with the Vargas administration; that is to say, his involvement as the country’s musical director, responsible for elevating the musical and patriotic tastes of Brazil’s younger generation – an exceptionally lucrative civil service position, mind you, with a regular salary, benefits and retirement pension to go with it.

*         *         *

Lucilia, Villa & Marian Anderson (vivavilla.com.br)

“Mindinha,” Villa & contralto Marian Anderson (vivavilla.com.br)

As his artistic career progressed and prospered by leaps and bounds, all was not so quiet along the home front. The joining of two such powerful forces as Heitor Villa-Lobos and his wife Lucília was not one to have withstood a constant clash of ego-driven temperaments, to say nothing of the conflicting demands of joint careers in classical music.

Around 1932, Villa-Lobos met and fell hard for the much younger Arminda Neves de Almeida, nicknamed “Mindinha,” who would become his most trusted aid and companion. Their initial encounters, which slowly blossomed into a full-blown extramarital affair, sparked a midlife crisis that was carried on, for the most part, in relative secrecy.

After years of furtive meetings, however, the time finally arrived for a firm commitment to be made, from one party or the other. From Europe, where he was scheduled to attend the First International Congress of Music Education in May 1936, Villa-Lobos wrote to Lucília requesting an end to their 23-year relationship:

“I am sure that the decisive news that follows will not be a surprise to you. For a long time I have considered this resolution [regarding my personal life]. My reasons are few but just. I cannot live in the company of someone from whom I feel entirely estranged, isolated, constricted, in short, without any affection except for a certain gratitude for your faithfulness during the many years we have been together.

I proclaim our absolute liberty [from one another]. I do so, however, with a clear conscience, in the knowledge that I have done everything to ensure that you lack for nothing…

“I should wish you never to feel resentment towards me or anyone else, but to accept that our situation could not end in any other way…

“I will send a reliable person to fetch my personal belongings, and I will live alone with my mother.

“Wishing you much happiness in your new life.”

Shocked and dismayed by his obvious betrayal, Lucília never formally consented to the separation. Her final letter to him, dated June 19, 1936, was all the more revealing for its unfettered expression of hurt feelings and, independent of their present predicament, her undiminished defense of his art:

“I never imagined that, open and impulsive as you admit you are, and enjoying absolute liberty, you would endeavor to hide the real reason for your conduct, casting around for excuses which are in any case quite unjust and without foundation for a decision as serious as our final separation…

“My attitude has always been one and the same and known to all: to be your sincere companion and collaborator.

“If the many enemies you have have been busy spreading this infamous nonsense, quite certainly your work, your response, your compositions have by themselves crushed any such outrageous allegations…  And despite the humiliations I have suffered, I continue to encourage interest in your work and to make it known in every post I hold, even though you are not there to see it.

“My devotion and sincerity have not grown less. I regard Villa the man and Villa the artist as quite distinct. I think, in any case, despite your insistence on your decision not to return home, that it would be better for us to have, as I already asked, a personal understanding between us…

“However, you should quite clearly understand that I will not relinquish any of my rights as your wedded wife and shall continue to sign myself Lucília Guimarães Villa-Lobos…”

Their exchange fairly crackles with tension and strain, and smacks, too, of the same kind of circuitous logic (from Villa’s part, at least) that Wagner’s head god, Wotan, once tried to pawn off on his harried mate Fricka as justification for his many wanderings and dalliances.

Villa-Lobos & Mindinha (villa-lobos.blogspot.com)

Villa-Lobos & Mindinha (villa-lobos.blogspot.com)

Brazil, being a Catholic country, had no divorce laws as such. Knowing this, Villa-Lobos and Arminda went ahead with their plan to share living quarters as de facto “husband and wife” — a scandalous Picasso-like arrangement to others, but a perfectly acceptable state to the enamored pair — until such time as an official 1973 decree allowed for the surviving Mindinha to legally adopt the composer’s surname.

Even more troubling for scholars, as well as for his many admirers, was the surprising discovery that the composer had instructed Mindinha to basically “rewrite” the entire history, as it were, of his association with his lawful spouse. This involved the virtual elimination of any mention of Lucília as a major factor in the dissemination and perpetuation of his works — certainly a much more “scandalous” revelation than his living in non-wedded bliss entailed, considering the position Villa-Lobos soon held as Brazil’s premier musical attraction.

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Four: Carlos Gomes, a Spent Force

The Man Who Would Be Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi (blogclasico.blogspot.com)

Giuseppe Verdi (blogclasico.blogspot.com)

Despite the comparisons to Giuseppe Verdi and the earlier predictions of his being the great man’s heir apparent, Gomes never attained the success and adulation in his chosen profession that had once been expected of him:

“In the music of Guarany, Verdi recognized much of himself, in so far as the ardor and dash of the Brazilian composer reminded him of the brilliance and excitement of his own youth. And Gomes was very much aware of the great Maestro’s liking for him and faith in him; in his last years when, after [his final opera] Condor, he felt all his bold hopes finally evaporate, he felt infinitely bitter. ‘You see’ – he told me one day in a moment of great dejection – ‘what grieves me most is my failure to live up to his prophetic words and become his successor…’ ”

— Quoted by Marcello Conati in Encounters with Verdi (1984)

“The issue of who would be the Successor to Verdi meant much more than who would write the next popular operas,” wrote author William Berger in Puccini Without Excuses. “It was a search for someone to justify the Italian national identity,” which, in one fell swoop, left anyone not fitting that description (i.e., Gomes) completely out of the running.

Whereas the teenaged Tonico once filled his tender thoughts with the melodic riches of Il Trovatore, the now prematurely gray-haired Carlos Gomes began to give way to despair, especially after the February 1887 unveiling of Otello, Verdi’s penultimate — and no doubt greatest — stage work: “ ‘What genius!’ [Gomes] continued, growing excited – ‘after Otello, I can no longer begin to measure it… It frightens me!’ ” (Quoted by Conati, above)

Two years earlier, Gomes had expressed recurrent yearnings for his own guileless past in a heartfelt tribute to his former hometown: “The Tonico of 1836 has turned into a grouchy old man, but his country-bumpkin heart is young enough to love Campinas and the city of his birth.”

Decimated by Disease

By that time, disease had ravaged the European Continent and taken its toll on several of the composer’s offspring. His two remaining children, five-year-old Ítala Maria and the eldest, Carlos André, were kept informed of their mother Adelina’s steadily declining condition.

Vila Brasilia in Maggianico (gounin.net)

Villa Brasilia in Maggianico (gounin.net)

Her untimely demise of tuberculosis in August 1887, at the age of 45, occurred six months after the Otello premiere, just as Gomes’ financial health took a decisive turn for the worse. The costly upkeep of his impressive Villa Brasília property in Maggianico, near Lecco, had led to his filing for bankruptcy protection and eventual selling off of the estate.

Gomes must have sensed that his afflictions were imposed upon him from above, in much the same manner as those suffered by the tragic figure of Othello, the Moor of Venice, the tortured Shakespearean soul that a “grouchy old man” named Verdi had turned into the greatest operatic creation the Italian stage had ever known. If the bad-humored Bear of Busseto once “recognized much of himself” in the Brazilian composer’s work, then it went without saying that Gomes must have contemplated as much in comparing the Moor’s troubles to his own.

Both Shakespeare and Verdi sympathized with the difficulties of a black man living in an all-white society — again, the analogy of Gomes, a dark-skinned outsider, trying to make a life for himself in the racial uniformity of late novecento Milan. While he was a part of that society, Gomes never learned to love wisely, nor even too well. He carried on several romances at once, which only added to his already suspect reputation as a ladies’ man.

Hariclea Darclee (apropo.ro)

Hariclea Darclee (apropo.ro)

His most tempestuous affair was with the Romanian diva Hariclea Darclée (whom Adelina dubbed her “bad luck charm”), acclaimed a few years later for her portrayal of Puccini’s Tosca, as well as for Odaléa in the Brazilian’s last opera, Condor. Together, the thoroughly besotted composer and his “prima donna” took their amorous liaison as far away as Russia before calling it a night.

(End of Part Four)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: Hector Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ (‘The Trojans’) – A Wooden Horse of a Different Color

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Les Troyens (pt-br,facebridge.net)

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra (or Cassandre in French) in Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ (Photo: pt-br,facebridge.net)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was truly a one-of-a-kind compositional genius. Not for him was the quaintness of Cherubini, Grétry or Méhul. No, his operatic role model was the great reformer Gluck, whose texts were taken from classical antiquity. Berlioz continued the trend by borrowing liberally from such masters as Shakespeare, Virgil, Byron and Goethe. This marked him out as a nineteenth-century rebel with a Romantic cause.

Unappreciated and misunderstood in his lifetime, today the French composer’s music is instantly recognizable – and for a variety of reasons, first for their coloristic elements (i.e., an exceptionally high quotient of woodwind, brass, choral and percussive effects), along with their originality, ingenuity and character. His output of operas and large-scale concert works – from the trailblazing The Damnation of Faust and Benvenuto Cellini, to his choral-symphonic Roméo et Juliette and comedic Beatrice and Benedict, as well as the reverent L’Enfance du Christ (“The Childhood of Christ”) and the massive Requiem – have all enjoyed a modern resurgence, with a handful or so belatedly joining the standard repertory, a most welcome inclusion.

The main difficulty I find with producing many of Berlioz’s stage works is their nonconformity to the accepted norms of the past. For example, the majority of his operas begin with no prelude or introduction to set the stage or mood. His scenes and arias are melodically flavorful and well-thought-out, especially those for mezzo-soprano and tenor. Yet his dramatic sense is unlike that of any composer I’ve encountered, in that his tales simply come to an abrupt halt – no big “ta-da,” no huge orchestral outbursts, no vocal demonstrations or bombastic coups des théâtres in the Wagnerian mode; they just plainly and quite modestly end… period.

This is what makes them so unique, and radio listeners were indeed fortunate to hear the January 5th Metropolitan Opera broadcast of his two-part, five-act Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), based on Virgil’s Aeneid and one of the works that follows the above schematic.

A scene from Berlioz’s ‘ Les Troyens,’ with Deborah Voigt as Cassandre

As one could imagine, Berlioz was most taken with the psychological aspects of the story, in particular the two female leads, the prophetess Cassandra and the Carthaginian Queen Dido, who each face such despair that, in the end, turns into terrible tragedy not just for themselves but for their two countries as well.

Among the myriad challenges in staging a work of this magnitude is to find a company of artists willing and able to do the gargantuan piece justice. Still, all praise and honor should go to the Met Opera chorus, who received the lion’s share of attention for their masterly, inexhaustible contribution to this demanding opus. Also worthy of mention is principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who led an expertly detailed performance – one of his finest to date, I must say. The frequent brass fanfares and orchestral episodes, including a wonderfully descriptive Royal Hunt and Storm, in addition to the numerous dance interludes and offstage sound effects, were all handled with the nuance and skill this miraculous score deserves; with additional kudos to the first clarinetist for his/her mournful solo during the fallen Hector’s funeral procession in Act I.

The big news, prior to show time, was the announcement that Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani had withdrawn from his scheduled appearances as Énée (Aeneas), the Trojan War hero who through various circumstances goes on to found the city of Rome. Giordani subsequently announced that he had permanently dropped the part from his repertoire. Understandably so, since Énée is what we opera buffs like to refer to as a “killer” role. It’s not that it’s a long part. In fact, compared with Wagner’s Tristan or Siegfried, there’s not all that much to sing: a brief solo number in Act I, the scene with Hector’s Ghost in Act II, followed by  Énée’s arrival in Carthage in Act III, the rapturous love duet with Queen Dido in Act IV, and the strenuous farewell in Act V.

The “killer” aspect, however, kicks in with the treacherously stratospheric vocal range. Those high C’s and D’s can drive any singer to drink. Berlioz deliberately designed this aspect to reflect the character’s constantly fluctuating state of mind. In other words, it’s a dramatic device but one achieved through purely musical means. A masterstroke!

No matter how one explains it, though, Énée remains a notoriously trying assignment, and to think that Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and Ben Heppner (among others) once gave it their all speaks volumes for the attraction this role has had for aspirants. We can thank the theater gods for providing the radio audience with a viable, if not well-nigh perfect alternative in New Orleans-born Bryan Hymel (pronounced EE-mel). At the eleventh hour, Mr. Hymel rescued The Trojans from oblivion (both literally and figuratively) in a performance that will go down as one of the greatest tenor triumphs of the past 20 years. His broadcast debut yesterday, which was beamed live to the U.S. and throughout the world via the Met’s Live in HD series, was watched and listened to by millions.

Bryan Hymel as Enee

New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel as Enee

I’m pleased to report that Hymel was an absolute sensation! His voice, a pleasant mixture of both a young Vickers and the mature Domingo, with a touch of Cajun French to his sound, is a thing of rare beauty. Not to belabor the point, but Hymel hit every high note squarely and securely (I hear a Tristan and/or Otello in his future). In addition, he showed an uncanny acting ability (yes, even on the radio, one could tell he was living every moment of the tragic hero’s plight).

For once, here was a tenor who threw caution to the winds to inject some needed excitement into his part. After his Act V lament, “Inutiles regrets” (“Useless regrets”), a last-minute water-torture test for any tenor, the live audience gave him a rousing and well-earned roar of approval that went on for several spine-tingling minutes. At the final curtain, Hymel was greeted with a huge standing ovation — no regrets from his side, I’m sure. (The Met has been lucky with their pinch-hitting tenor contingent: last year, Jay Hunter Morris stepped in at the last minute to salvage the house’s terribly expensive Ring cycle project with a more than credible assumption of Siegfried.)

Baritone Dwayne Croft, who I often find over-parted in some of his Italian roles, here was a model Chorèbe in Part I, while bass Kwangchul Youn as Narbal and the Voice of Mercury lent a sepulchral presence throughout. The minor roles of Iopas and the sailor Hylas, who opens Act V with a nostalgic song about his homeland, were both well sung by Eric Cutler and Paul Appleby, respectively.

The women were on an equal footing with the men, in particular the expansive and gorgeously phrased Queen Dido of Susan Graham. This extraordinary artist has made a career out of put upon female parts. In the past, she excelled as the Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos, Charlotte in Werther, and Marguerite in The Damnation of Faust.

Susan Graham as Dido

Susan Graham as Queen Dido

The French and German roles do appear to be her specialty, and I must say she sang Dido magnificently. I did notice a slight tiring toward the end of this marathon session, an ever-so-slight grating in her throat (possibly a holdover from the cold that had sidelined her earlier in the run), but beyond that she was above reproach. Visually, she must have been stunning to look at (I’ve seen her often on PBS and other telecasts from the Met, and she’s been on the cover of Opera News on several occasions, so I can vouch for her appearance). Graham is also a knowledgeable interview host and a sparkling TV and radio personality.

As for Deborah Voigt, the Met’s dependable Brünnhilde in their new Ring cycle (and a chatty individual in her own right), she played Cassandra, intelligently one should add. During the intermission feature, Voigt mentioned that this was her one and only French role, which I found startling since this part seems to be a natural fit for her voice category. Personally, I’ve always felt she was straining under all those Strauss heroines. Her last outing, in the execrable Die Aegyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen”), was undone by a ludicrous staging. Her Wagner has also seen better days. With her slimming down a few years back she now cuts a trim stage figure, but at the loss of some tonal “body.” This is all a question of placement and thrust, especially in a house as large as the Met. I am sure she’ll overcome these minor hurdles and get back to fighting form soon.

Stylistically, some of Voigt’s Italian roles were, how shall I put this, decidedly un-Italian. She should be wary of such works as Tosca, Andrea Chenier and La Gioconda from now on, and please give good old Minnie in La Fanciulla del West a rest. Let’s face it: Puccini and verismo are clearly not her cup of tea! For the sake of her many fans, we’d like her to stick with the French repertoire, if she can. It’s her safest bet, vocally and linguistically. Speaking of which, Voigt’s French pronunciation, while not exactly that of a native Parisian, was more than respectable.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: ‘The Barber of Seville’ in English – Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

Listening to opera on the radio is a completely different experience from seeing it on the stage. I first noticed this dichotomy when, after years of hearing the regular Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the air, I finally witnessed a live presentation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York State Theater. It was the most thrilling and life-altering experience of my early theater-going career. To hear those fresh young voices rise above the orchestra pit, as Donizetti’s music cut straight to the bone (and to my stomach), was a cherished moment I will long remember.

Later, when videos, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs™ became far more accessible for opera fans to enjoy I realized there was another aspect to live performances: with the addition of subtitles and supertitles, one could more fully understand what all the posing and strutting were about. Up to that point, I had spent a small fortune amassing an enviable collection of open-reel and cassette tapes, as well as LPs geared toward recapturing that initial excitement of live theater in the flesh. Now, I could wallow in this newfound treasure trove of works with renewed enthusiasm and in the comfort of my home. In addition, I came away with a much clearer idea of the difficulties inherent in staging and producing live opera.

I find it funny, then, as well as somewhat ironic, that after so many decades of theater-going and record/video collecting I’m back to where I started every time I hunker down in front of my stereo to tune in to the next in the continuing series of Saturday broadcasts. On the other hand, my ears have grown accustomed to hearing opera on this vastly reduced scale, which helps bring this “unseen” dimension into sharper focus as I assess the caliber of each week’s performance.

This is why reviewing the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012-2013 radio season requires a bit of tempering on my part, with the knowledge that I lack the all-important visual element, eventually filled in of course with Public Television’s delayed high-definition broadcasts. But for now, readers should take note of the above caveat as I make do with the essentially auditory portions of our program.

A Barber for the Masses

Alek Shrader & John Del Carlo (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Alek Shrader & John Del Carlo (minnesota.publicradio.org)

This brings me to my latest review of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. An English-language adaptation of the Pesaro-born composer’s delightful nineteenth-century masterwork, it was broadcast on December 22, in director Bartlett Sher’s crowd-pleasing production. The main problem here wasn’t so much the non-colloquial Italian as it was the unintelligible English.

The new translation by poet and literary critic J.D. McClatchy, whose ground-breaking Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation should be in every opera lover’s library, while solid and workmanlike in print was unworkable in execution. An admirable substitution for Cesare Sterbini’s imaginative Italian original (an acrobatic verbal exercise, if truth be told) this new version was, in a word, a letdown. It just wasn’t funny enough, at least to my mind, which led to my biggest deception with the entire enterprise — and that is, its inability to be understood.

One could overlook this basic point if the opera had been performed to near-perfection (a rare commodity indeed, even in the best of times), but the worst that could possibly be said for McClatchy’s adaptation was that it was frustratingly inappropriate for its target audience, i.e., New York City youngsters and their parents.

This being a children’s matinee performance, the other major complaint, from my part, was the cutting of more than an hour’s worth of music from this superb score. The end result wasn’t anywhere near what Rossini had envisioned. Indeed, this was not The Barber of Seville as we’ve come to know it, but “half scenes” and “bits and pieces” of scenes and arias from one of the standard repertoire’s most astutely-crafted creations.

One might as well call this The Cut-Rate Barber of the Met, for all the good the translation did to untangle the opera’s complicated plot. I should’ve known something was up the minute the overture sounded. Hah, did I say overture? Not even close! What was left of this world famous piece was chopped up and spit out in record time. Things went from bad to worse when the titular barber entered the picture. It’s a shame, really, to have heard Figaro’s tuneful showstopper, “Largo al factotum,” sliced up and shorn of nearly half its delectable vocal patter, while the same character’s effervescent duet with Count Almaviva whizzed by in nothing flat. The result being there was no setup, no substance, just words… and words on top of words. Ugh, a stylistic nightmare! You can sense my frustration with this show.

Isabel Leonard, Shrader, Del Carlo & Rob Besserer (stageandcinema.com)

Isabel Leonard, Shrader, Del Carlo & Rob Besserer (stageandcinema.com)

Among the vocalists, only veteran John Del Carlo’s crotchety old Doctor Bartolo reached the histrionic heights. As far as I could tell, his explosive bass-baritone was the most consistent of the so-called “mini-portrayals.” The other artists – especially the buoyant Moscow-born Figaro of Rodion Pogossov, the featherweight Almaviva of Alek Shrader, and the technically proficient Rosina of New Yorker Isabel Leonard – performed over and above the call of duty, although none of them were particularly adept with the new translation, with Shrader’s uncomfortable-sounding Count leading the way.

In this climate, where every note seemed to count, bass Jordan Bisch’s Don Basilio was reduced to a cipher after his wonderfully campy “La calunnia” was expunged from the overall concept. What was the sense of that? It defeats the entire purpose of the plot to cut this aria out, and leaves innocent audience members in the dark just as they’ve settled back in their seats. I imagine most youngsters would have been startled at this implausible fellow’s later presence, wondering why Don Basilio was making such a belated entrance in Act II. “Buona sera, mio signore” is a comedic tour de force, bar none. But instead of Rossini’s carefully constructed build-up to this scene what we heard was more in line with The Sound of Music’s “Goodbye, farewell, Aufwiedersehen, good night.” And that’s all, folks! In fact, all the arias and ensembles suffered from the same cosmetic surgery: too short, too quick, with not enough development.

A Teaching Moment Lost

Teaching young children about opera and the performing arts is a noble and well-intentioned cause. I should know: as the product of a New York public-school education, I can firmly attest to the fact that the thought-process behind these maneuvers was to expose as many youngsters as possible to the wonders of music, art and theater.

To the best of my recollection, the works I saw as a child were note complete, or as complete as they were allowed to be, given the time constraints placed on our school’s schedule. Still, “dumbing” opera down for modern-day audiences and their offspring is not the way to do it. Okay, I concede that children can turn fidgety to the point of irritation, as boredom quickly sets in. Yet they’re smarter and infinitely more perceptive than adults often take them for. So let’s give our little people a chance, shall we, by playing these exceptional pieces as they were intended – without hacking the very life out of them, if you please!

In Julie Taymor’s Met Opera production of The Magic Flute for kids, the self-same Professor McClatchy kept the richness and substance of Mozart’s score virtually intact. In that successful English-language adaptation what was trimmed away were the Overture and the lengthy dialogue passages, which are generally cut back anyway, even in the original German. But by slimming The Barber of Seville down to Pee Wee Herman’s size, we’re giving Figaro his own haircut – even at discount prices, this is too close a shave for comfort. I couldn’t help feeling that we, the radio audience, were being short-changed along with the paying public. If I were the father of a school-age child, I’d have demanded my money back (or half of it, at any rate).

My only hope is that this purported Barber was presented with clearly legible supertitles – the better to discern the non-discernible plot, my dear. As for the rest of the radio audience, we’re hopelessly lost in translation. Ω

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: Heavenly ‘Aida’? Maybe, Maybe Not

Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

I have previously seen the Metropolitan Opera’s 1988 production of Aida in an earlier incarnation. I kept this fact in mind as I listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of December 15, which was also a Live in HD transmission.

Starring French-born superstar Roberto Alagna as Radames, it included the network debut of Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Amneris, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Aida’s father Amonasro, Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán as the high priest Ramfis, and the Budapest-born Miklós Sebestyén as the King of Egypt. The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi presided over the proceedings and was the only Italian within earshot.

As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Monsieur Alagna, whose distinctive timbre and incisive enunciation of the text have enlivened many a romantic role. The warrior Radames was no exception. Although this is considered a heavier than normal assignment for him, Alagna adopted a “less is more, if not better” approach to the part, which worked wonders in the opera’s opening number, “Celeste Aida.”

Robert Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

Roberto Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

The tenor even took the final pianissimo B-flat as Verdi had intended, repeating the words “Vicino al sol” at a lower octave. Marvelous! When the final scene came around, instead of bellowing out “Si schiude il ciel” to the rafters (as most tenors would do), Alagna floated his top note on a delicate filigree of sound – a most welcome close.

I’ve seen Alagna on other occasions as well, i.e., in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a film version of Tosca, and a Public Television broadcast of Puccini’s La Rondine. Too bad he’s never been as popular at the Met as he’s been with other international venues. He’s a terrific actor who plunges headlong into his parts with passion and assurance (see the Met’s hot-and-heavy version of Bizet’s Carmen with Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča, if you don’t believe me). While his slightly leaner tone is nowhere near the brawny muscularity of a Del Monaco, Tucker or Corelli, his ability to invest these works with his own personal stamp leaves no doubt that Alagna has the Italianate style under his belt and in his blood.

Where the debuting Monastyrska was concerned, I’m not so sure. I had a chance encounter with the Kiev-born native on a recent PBS telecast of the 2012 Richard Tucker Gala, where the soprano was called upon to deliver the goods in the fiendishly difficult “Vieni t’affreta,” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Her physical assumption of Lady Macbeth, along with the accompanying cabaletta, left much to be desired. The slightly off-kilter coloratura was generally acceptable and accurate, but it was her onstage deportment that I objected to. For here was the mustache-twirling villainess of yore, brought to melodramatic life in an unashamedly over-the-top performance. Monastyrska needed a firmer directorial hand in relaying the malevolent nature of Shakespeare’s most fearsome protagonist but without the amateur-night theatrics, thank you.

Liudmila Monasturska (pacslo.org)

Liudmyla Monastyrska (pacslo.org)

As Aida, one of opera’s richest and most rewarding roles (and whose past proponents boasted such talents as Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Aprile Millo) let’s say that Monastyrska’s portrayal crossed the finish line intact, but without having moved this listener. Granted, I was missing her visual contribution; still, from what I heard on the air – in particular, her Act II battle with burnished mezzo (and fellow Slav) Olga Borodina – there was a decided lack of fire in the belly. Neither of these two artists raised the temperature to any noticeable degree, which was surprising in such a such-fire combination.

Madame Borodina did score a triumph in the Act IV Judgment Scene. But then again, most powerhouse mezzos of her variety manage to make a vocal meal out of this sequence. Why it took so long for the sparks to fly remains baffling.

Moving on to the male contingent, Gagnidze’s big and blustery Amonasro was inconsequential. Such has always been the case with this singer, whose brutish Baron Scarpia in the previous season’s new production of Tosca employed more of the same tactics and weight. Not surprisingly, Gagnidze’s a lot more convincing in Russian opera, for instance in the Met’s recent Khovanshchina broadcast which Borodina also co-starred in. However, I find him out of his natural element in the Italian repertoire. Kocán’s High Priest made a pleasant enough noise, as did Sebestyén’s booming King, but with none of the idiomatic flair or requisite authority these roles demanded.

Good, strong voices are fine and dandy for what they are worth, but there’s no excuse for mushy diction, the ultimate bone of contention for this cast. In sum, with Alagna’s lone exception none of the performers sounded remotely Mediterranean, a major deficit in such a familiar work as Aida.

As for Maestro Luisi, there were simply too many shifting tempos within a relatively short time span for him to make any lasting impression. Take the Grand March, which starts off Scene ii of Act II: too fast at one point, then too slow at another; the ballet music flew by in a flash without making any particular dramatic statement, along with other passages that merely slipped by unnoticed.

Some conductors love to linger over this score – the delicate violin figures in “Celeste Aida” can be downright pleasurable, if played with just the right touch of ardor (see Herbert von Karajan’s indispensable Decca/London set from the late 1950s, for an object lesson in how to lead this miraculous piece). But here, they barely registered on the emotional meter – a disappointingly bland showing. And finally, the Met Opera Chorus (so crucial in this work) sailed through their task with flying colors, thanks to chorus master Donald Palumbo.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ – Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’: Regicide on the Radio

Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) & Gustavo (Marcelo Alvarez) in ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’

Last Saturday, December 8, was the first broadcast of the new Metropolitan Opera radio season. It was of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) in a new production directed by David Alden. It was good to have the Met Opera back on the air I have to say, after a long, hot summer and a tediously unproductive fall.

I’ve been listening to the Met broadcasts since (yikes!) 1965-66, and regularly after the 1967-68 season. The first opera I heard was Aida, also by Verdi and scheduled for airing this coming Saturday, December 15. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the names of the individual cast members, which included American soprano Leontyne Price as Aida, tenor James McCracken as Radames, and baritone Robert (“Oh, say, can you see”) Merrill as Amonasro. I can’t tell you any more about the performance without consulting the Met Opera’s archives, but I do recall taping most of Act II for later playback, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

But this post is more about the current scene, so let’s get back to Ballo, one of the Italian master’s finest and most intricately detailed works. Composed between 1857 and 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera is a transitional piece that came just after his so-called middle period (1851-1853), a time that produced three of his most popular operas, i.e., Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. It shares similar thematic material with Rigoletto, in the basic plot of an assassination attempt on its tenor lead; and looks forward to the Judgment Scene in Aida (1871), particularly the heavy use of brass, which adds considerable weight to the conflicts that take place between the main characters. There are nods to the future Otello (1887), too, in the Third Act drawing of names sequence with its sonic echoes of Otello’s farewell to arms speech (“Ora e per sempre addio”) and the Vengeance Duet that closes Act II of that work.

Verdi wrote Ballo on commission for the theater in Naples. He chose as his subject the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which took place there in 1792. However, due to the sensitive nature of the story, highlighted by the actual onstage murder of a royal figure, the Neapolitan censors refused to stage it unless drastic changes were made. An old hand at dealing with bureaucratic stonewalling (especially after the modifications to Rigoletto’s plot and characters), Verdi directed his first-time librettist, Antonio Somma, to comply with the censors’ demands. Somma did as he was told and the original title of Gustavo III was changed to Una Vendetta in Domino (“A Revenge in Costume”).

Still not satisfied with the results, the censors called for even more cuts and alterations, no doubt spurred by a terrorist’s bomb hurled at French emperor Napoleon III’s carriage. Both Verdi and Somma were thoroughly dismayed by the actions demanded of them and subsequently withdrew the work. A short while later, after further adjustments to the story, which transformed King Gustav into the fictitious Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and placed the opera in pre-Revolutionary War times (!), they offered the re-worked and re-titled Un Ballo in Maschera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where it met with sizable success.

A masked King Gustavo (Alvarez) tries to bid farewell to Amelia (Radvanovsky)

There were other incongruities involved in this new context as well, the most noteworthy being the character of King Gustav (now Riccardo) himself. An extravagant individual and patron of the arts, the historical Swedish king was an admitted Freemason as well as rumored to be of a homosexual bent, although this has never been proven. That did not stop Verdi from giving him a love interest, Amelia, the wife of his would-be assassin Count Anckarström. In the Boston scenario, Amelia remained Amelia, but the Count had his name changed to Renato, the conspirators Horn and Ribbing were now called (don’t laugh) Sam and Tom, Oscar the page stayed Oscar the page, and Ulrica the mysterious medium became Ulrica the witch (or a soothsayer or prophetess, either one was acceptable). The work has since been performed in both its Swedish and American locales, while the Met uses the original Swedish one for its current production.

In the opera proper (and in the history books), the murder of the king occurs at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where the titular masked ball takes place. It’s this scene – the final one in the opera – that most resembles its predecessor Rigoletto, although everything about Ballo has an orderly flow and logical connection to the earlier work. The music here is bouncy and bright, full of ironic contrasts and startling juxtapositions, and done by the simplest of means: a minuet serves as the musical backdrop to the king’s murder, thus increasing the tension almost to the breaking point. Compare it to Rigoletto’s opening scene in Act I, which is equally light and airy, but with nary a hint of the darkness to come.

Enter Oscar, the king’s lighthearted page, voiced by a coloratura in boy’s clothing, what is often termed as a “trouser” role. Verdi fashioned this character after the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, but he clearly took after the adolescent Cherubino of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Needless to say, Oscar’s music is the main attraction in Ballo, and the most titillating Verdi ever wrote: at once charming and carefree, full of youthful vigor and warmth, the master would not compose themes of this flavor and wit until his very last work, the comic Falstaff, some 44 years later.

Scene for Act I of Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’

The story, in brief, involves King Gustav’s affair with the married wife of his chief counselor and friend, Anckarström, who hatches a plot to kill the king after he catches his spouse in an illicit encounter with the monarch. The role of both King Gustav and his friend are plum parts for tenor and baritone, as are Amelia, Oscar and Ulrica.

Now on to the review: Marcelo Alvarez did well as Gustavo. The Argentine tenor has a real feel for the words, and his lyric singing – the opening “La rivedra nell’ estasi,” for example – was exceptionally heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. However, he does not like to linger on high notes (unlike the late Luciano Pavarotti, who relished every aspect of this part). Elsewhere, Alvarez refused to dawdle. The attitude was, let’s get this show on the road, which was fine by me (and no doubt the conductor’s choice).

Unfortunately, he ducked the high C in the great second-act duet with Amelia, sung by the excellent Sondra Radvanovsky – what’s with that? Pavarotti was known to have thrust his face (and prickly beard) into the back of his female lead’s hair at this point, but he still managed to get that C-note out. In conductor Georg Solti’s Decca/London recording of the work, Carlo Bergonzi was all-but overwhelmed by the Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, but he still made it to C (or tried to, albeit in drowned-out form). As I recall, Marcelo (as Cavaradossi) sang the note in Tosca’s Act III duet with Karita Mattila, so I was a little taken aback by the omission. He did deliver a ravishing last act lament, though, so reminiscent of Otello’s death scene, with the final word cut off just as Gustavo expires – a nice touch, that.

How like the Duke of Mantua the king is, but without that character’s insouciance and self-centered egotism. A truly rewarding role for any tenor to tackle, which Alvarez could have made more of than he likely did. His “È scherzo od è follia,” Gustavo’s mocking reaction to Ulrica’s prophecy that the next person to shake the king’s hand would be his assassin, lacked the customary “laughs” and “giggles,” a practice started by Alessandro Bonci, and later taken up by Beniamino Gigli. Perhaps Alvarez was going for a more straightforward approach. Not that the scene was badly sung, it just missed that final spark of “fun” that would have truly ignited his performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia was sublime, the only word that comes to mind when talking about this marvelous artist. Sondra has done magnificent work in Verdi and Puccini before, but in Ballo she really outdid herself. All the emotional impact and dramatic thrust this role can have on an audience were there in spades. Mind you, Amelia is not the most gratifying of soprano roles – she makes a brief appearance in Act I, in a remarkable trio with Ulrica and the disguised king. But she really comes into her own in Act II, where she is onstage throughout. Act III starts off with her pathetic farewell to her son, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which earned Sondra a huge round of applause at its close. Brava!

Count Anckarstrom (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) repudiates his wife (Radvanovsky) after he learns of her “betrayal”

The Anckarström was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in good, solid voice but in my opinion he took an inordinately long time to warm up. He may have been under the weather, but Dmitri picked up steam in Act III during “Eri tu?” This aria stands as a carbon copy of Rigoletto’s great scena, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Act II of that opera, they’re so strikingly similar (in musical terms, that is, not textually), especially in the way both pieces start off fast and furious, but end up slow and calm. A prolonged and well-deserved ovation was in order! Stephanie Blythe was Ulrica, and a good one, to boot! I love her low notes. It’s one of the few true contralto roles that Verdi wrote, one to be savored no matter how brief it is. And no contralto worth her salt can hope to make it in the opera world without making one’s hairs stand on end in this part. Blythe met the challenge head on.

On the high-end of the scale, Kathleen Kim was delightfully chirpy as Oscar. I remember her as Madame Mao in Nixon in China – a killer role, to be sure, but she pulled both of them off with aplomb. Basses Keith Miller and David Crawford chuckled convincingly as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, respectively, without actually delineating their personalities to any audible degree (at least not over the airwaves).

Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted. He, too, refused to dawdle, although I like this opera to be more expansive in spots. Luisi sped things along á la Toscanini, much unlike James Levine, who used to find great drama in this piece. Less tautness and more deliberation next time, maestro, please. The Met’s chorus was in tiptop shape, a tribute to its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, who in the last six years has done yeoman work in making this aspect of the performance stand out from the rest. A job well done! Let’s see what awaits us with Aida. The season is young and there’s more to come… Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Three: Enter Toscanini and the Old Met

Bidu with Toscanini (juliacoulmas.com)

Bidu with Toscanini (juliacoulmas.com)

“Damozel” in Distress

That most formidable of early twentieth-century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, would once again influence the course and direction of Brazilian opera by his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu Sayão.

There exist several versions of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer’s sensitive portrayal of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata, given in the mid-1930s at Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served as musical director.

At a formal reception given for the diva in early 1936, at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself to Bidu, and, while reminiscing about her La Scala appearances, he immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La Demoiselle Élue (“The Blessed Damozel”), originally written for mezzo-soprano, a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to singing in.

Undaunted by the challenges inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach la piccola brasiliana in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative higher key for her comfort, for which he likewise supplied a revised vocal score:

“I am sending you the high notes that I think ought to be suitable. They aren’t difficult because they more or less follow the orchestra’s melodic line. You are a good enough musician to adapt immediately to these few changes. With my most cordial greetings, Arturo Toscanini, 14 April 1936”

Toscanini & Bidu from "Boast of Brazil" (Met Opera Archives)

Toscanini & Bidu from “Boast of Brazil” (Met Opera Archives)

Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the notorious Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait. With the experienced hand of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and New York Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press:

“Sayão captures the plaintive, mysterious atmosphere of LA DAMOISELLE ÉLUE. Conveying the purity of the vocal line, the innocence of the character, and the tenderness of Debussy’s setting of Rossetti’s poem, Sayão is an ideal interpreter of this music. Toscanini referred to her singing as ‘just like a dream, an angel, from the sky’.”

Broadcast Debut in Manon

Taking advantage of the increased exposure these Manhattan concerts had provided her, Bidu spent the next several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil and her soon-to-be-adopted North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents, but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing in as many as 200 different locations spanning the entire length and breadth of the country.

Upon her return to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini’s insistence) tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with South American artists: that of Jules Massenet’s wholly and beguilingly Gallic young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.

Although he himself no longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless proved relentless in persuading the Met’s stodgy management to take on the Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignment — this despite the fact that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks Bidu was then capable of producing, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.

Fortunately for the Met, the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the more lyrical aspects of such roles as Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, even before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise.

It was to Danise’s credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his young protégée further along this productive path and stretch her usual list of soubrette parts by including more “dramatic” vocal opportunities. This admittedly opened up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Rosina, and Susanna over the entire course of her career — even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.

With her authentic French diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly complex characters, Bidu was ideally poised to conquer the environs of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America some ten years earlier.

Bidu as Manon (Met Opera Archives)

Bidu as Manon (Met Opera Archives)

Finally, on February 13, 1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon (a national radio broadcast), the captivating 34-year-old Brazilian stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premier performance in Massenet’s opera Manon.

She delivered what many of her staunchest supporters would come to regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately heartfelt portrait to date. In addition to the chilly weather, there was a last-minute cast change in one of the leads, that of the Chevalier des Grieux:

“It was supposed to have been [Belgian tenor] René Maison,” Bidu recalled some years later for the New York Times, but it turned out not to be case. “He was sick, but they didn’t tell me, because they didn’t want to make me nervous. So I stood looking and looking, and I was getting nervous because I didn’t see him. Then a strange man greeted me! I almost fell down! When there was a moment, he said, ‘Hello, I’m Sidney Rayner.’ I said, ‘I’m Bidu Sayão,’ even though I think he already knew that, and we went on from there.”

Despite the impromptu nature of the proceedings, the broadcast came off as scheduled. Manon would go on to become her third most requested role (22 appearances in all) during her extensive Met Opera tenure, lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta (with 23), in number of times sung.

It is noteworthy to point out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so – and a full three years prior to Carmen’s own footprints were to be permanently enshrined on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame. ☼

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Three: Carlos Gomes, Down on His Luck

A “Slave ” to Passion

Carlos Gomes in his later years (memoriadaopera.blogspot.com)

Carlos Gomes in his later years (memoriadaopera.blogspot.com)

In 1880, the ill-tempered, disillusioned, and financially hard-pressed Carlos Gomes returned to native shores, where, by his own account, he was greeted “like a prince” and treated “like a king.”

He immediately set to work on several new projects, all of which were prematurely aborted for one reason or another, thus repeating a pattern of fits and starts first displayed back in Milan. It was during this same period that his fellow Brazilians became fully cognizant of his stage works, due in part to the slew of productions Gomes had personally supervised while on extensive tour there.

Traveling to and from Italy, he put the finishing touches to his next opera, Lo Schiavo (O Escravo, or “The Slave”), which debuted in Rio, on September 27, 1889, to wide acclaim. Based on “a hurried five- or six-page draft” by his good friend, the liberal activist Viscount Alfredo d’Escragnolle de Taunay, the scenario called for an African slave named “Ricardo” to participate in the epic struggle against slavery in Brazil circa 1801, no doubt a powerfully authentic tale — a little too authentic, in the eyes of some.

At the insistence of librettist Rodolfo Paravicini and publisher Giulio Ricordi, the black slave would be transformed into the Tamoio Indian “Iberê” in deference to the continuing European taste for “exoticism” in art music. Additionally, the time of the action was pushed back some two and a half centuries, purposely dulling the effect of the more relevant slavery issue and resigning the drama to the long-ago plight of defenseless South American natives and their brutal Portuguese colonizers.

In short, it was all a rather diaphanous attempt to recapture the glory years of La Scala by recycling some of Guarany’s previous plot threads. Doubtless the composer had been spoiling for a comeback, wherein his mounting financial obligations would finally be met and his future employment secured; consequently, he conceded to these changes without much of a fight. The catch, however, was that Lo Schiavo was never performed in the Italian mainland during his lifetime. It had been tentatively scheduled for Bologna, but due to Gomes’ continuing cash-flow problems and simultaneous legal action by Paravicini to prevent him from inserting his polemic Hino à Liberdade (“Hymn to Liberty”), with words by a different poet, into the score, the engagement was abruptly cancelled.

Adding insult to his injuries, Gomes broke free of Casa Ricordi’s constraints. He had reached the unavoidable conclusion that once the publishing house had secured the services of its newest discovery — one Giacomo Puccini, a fast-rising talent from Lucca — it perceptibly lost interest in the problematic Brazilian. From here on, Gomes would have to go it alone in the publishing world without Ricordi’s backing. In retrospect, he was no worse off for leaving Casa Ricordi than if he had stayed with them from the outset.

Still, why would the appearance of a black-African male figure on the Italian stage have caused such a stir, in light of the sympathetic treatment wise, old maestro Verdi had given his Ethiopian princess Aida, or the Moorish general Otello, for that matter? The only explanation one can arrive at is a none-too-subtle hint of racial prejudice: Indians battling settlers was one thing; but black slaves seeking independence from their masters may have hit too close to home for nineteenth-century audiences to accept.

We should not be at all surprised that the composer’s freedom-loving “Slave” was being treated no differently in his second homeland than Gomes himself had been treated of late. The experience of producing the opera was a most painful one for his friend Taunay to be embroiled in as well. Profoundly disappointed with the whole manipulative affair, Taunay repudiated any claim of authorship to the work  — a situation that, almost 70 years later, would call to mind a similar act performed by poet-musician Vinicius de Moraes, after the Brazilian premiere of the 1959 movie Black Orpheus.

Negotiations to bring the new opera to Brazil, where the political climate was no better, commenced almost immediately. These were long and drawn out, and eventually necessitated the direct involvement of Emperor Dom Pedro and his daughter, Princess Dona Isabel, who helped inject much-needed capital into the proceedings — to the absolute displeasure of the anti-royalists.

Cover page of the piano score of Lo Schiavo

Cover page of the piano score of Lo Schiavo

In spite of the various setbacks, however, the opera’s long-awaited first night was a smashing success. Along with its predecessor Guarany, Lo Schiavo is but one of only a handful of works in the entire active repertoire that have even treated or addressed Brazilian-based subject matter, in this instance the politically charged, hot-topic issue of slavery. The Gazzetta Musicale, Casa Ricordi’s representative voice in Milanese circles, dispatched its critic to Rio to deliver a favorable verdict, for once, on one of Gomes’ finest achievements: “…this Slave has many times the enchantment of musical might; it is ardent, imaginative, and moving, it draws you in and convinces. The ‘Hymn to Liberty’ is one of those fresh and spontaneous inspirations that [should] serve to popularize its author.”

The most curious description of the piece came, astoundingly enough, from Brazil’s Veja na História magazine: “A pity that the music’s sparkle is distorted by the grotesque image of semi-nude tenors in improbable mustaches, singing in Italian, an example of which occurred in Il Guarany. Indians in place of Negro slaves is difficult enough to take – but an Indian in a mustache is just too implausible.”

Facial hair or no, the melodic advancement Gomes showed in his writing of Lo Schiavo has never been equaled by him in his remaining works. Similar to Peri, the juicy starring part of Iberê is a favorite among baritones. The opera itself was dedicated to Her Serene Princess Dona Isabel, who had earlier signed the Lei Áurea, or “Golden Law,” into existence, abolishing the institution of slavery. Bolstered by that now-historic event and by Lo Schiavo’s impassioned ex-post-facto appeal, her father, the emperor of Brazil, decorated his most “faithful and reverent subject,” Carlos Gomes, with the title of Grand Dignitary of the Order of the Rose, and so much as promised him the directorship of the reconstituted Music Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro.

A Revolting Development

Unfortunately for the composer, the atmosphere in his home country was rife with revolution. In all, the bloodless coup d’état that resulted had altogether rocked Gomes to his very foundation:

“The shock that affected my heart, which was so devoted to the Royal Family, was so great that to this day I have yet to completely recover. My health has suffered greatly, even to the point of my body losing its balance. I cannot describe my profound sorrow, the reality of which appears to me more like some horrible dream that such a thing could take place in my native land… God forgive the perpetrators of this brutal act and, at the same time, protect the Brazilian nation and its people.”

By November 15, the Proclamation of the Republic was all but a fait accompli. The aging sovereign Dom Pedro II, the very symbol of Old World aristocracy and the ruling elite, was deposed and unceremoniously shipped off to Portugal. As a recipient of the benevolence and generosity of the now-exiled monarch, Gomes lost his yearly stipend, which he had been accustomed to receiving for nearly three decades. Because of his diminished economic status and personal connection to his royal patron — and amid unremitting allegations of his having squandered the emperor’s money while “living it up” in Europe — he was forced to temporarily leave Brazil. “They don’t even want me as the doorman,” the composer complained in an 1895 letter, written long after he had been passed over for the job of director, “because the government wants Miguez to be there.”

Leopoldo Miguez, a European-trained musician and composer from the city of Niterói, near Rio, had been chosen as the new head of the Music Conservatory. A disciple of Wagner and Franz Liszt, he became the New Republic’s man of the moment. As overtly political as this appointment appeared to be, Gomes’ unguarded praise for his former benefactor did his cause no justice and likely contributed to the Conservatory’s decision to go with Miguez. “I come from a barbarous race,” Gomes grumbled to his editor, “yet I am grateful until death to him who deigned to appreciate me, above all as a man.”

Statue of Condor at Praca Ramos de Azevedo, Sao Paulo (Antonio de Andrade)

Statue of Condor at Praca Ramos de Azevedo, Sao Paulo (Antonio de Andrade)

Placing his tail strategically between his legs, Gomes clawed his way back to La Scala — the last time he would associate himself with that venerable institution — to fulfill a contract for a new work: the oriental-themed Condor, his own variation on those exotic stage pageants that were all the rage in Europe. Given in February 1891 to much local fanfare but very little monetary recompense, it nonetheless racked up a fairly respectable number of performances, and against some remarkably stiff competition that included Wagner’s Lohengrin. The appearance of the opera a year later in Rio, with Romanian soprano Elena Theodorini as Odaléa, left Brazilian audiences cold. Sadly, the year 1891 ended with the death in France of his most ardent supporter, Dom Pedro II, thus sealing the composer’s financial fate.

As a test of his allegiance to the new order, he was invited by the recently-installed government to write an appropriate musical theme for the occasion. Surprisingly, Brazil’s most revered classical musician turned down the monetarily lucrative offer. Quite rightly, Gomes felt that his closeness to the dethroned ex-ruler should have excused him from taking up such a disloyal (in his eyes) commission; that being the case, his overtly righteous tone about it all played right into unscrupulous hands. Where he did the most damage was to his own long-term career prospects: by refusing the government’s one and only handout, he shot his chances for further advancement in the foot, as well as cleared the way for Miguez to be accorded the honor.

America Discovers Columbus

For the upcoming Fourth Centennial Celebration of the Discovery of America, Gomes contributed the four-part oratorio Colombo, which he dubbed a “symphonic poem with chorus.” One of his most ambitious and fully evolved large-scale compositions, it premiered in Rio de Janeiro on October 12, 1892 — Columbus Day, to be exact — to generally negative reviews. Desperate for new sources of revenue, Gomes had earlier grasped at the chance to present Colombo in two separate venues: one, a contest sponsored by the city of Genoa, the Italian explorer’s home port; the other in Chicago, for the International Columbian Exposition the year after. It lost out on both counts to others.

Rehearsal of Colombo at the Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo (Tiago Quieroz / AE)

Rehearsal of Colombo at the Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo (Tiago Quieroz / AE)

Gomes may have run afoul of partisan politics, but there was something else besides the writing of his symphonic poem that caused the cantata to be dropped so quickly from competition. Apart from its celebration of a major past event, this lushly orchestrated and lyrically refined masterwork re-enacted, in musical terms, his earliest encounters with the emperor and empress of Brazil, in the historical personages of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish King Ferdinand of Aragon, and his headstrong spouse, Queen Isabella of Castile. The scene in Part Two, in which Columbus tries to entice the monarch with his dreamlike vision of a sumptuous New World; followed by Isabella’s prodding of her irresolute spouse to finance the explorer’s questionable sea venture, mirrored that decisive point in Gomes’ own life when he was presented with the opportunity for study abroad, along with the more recent behind-the-scenes controversy involving the Brazilian staging of his “Slave.”

This final show of gratitude to the late emperor and his wife for their favor and trust in his abilities did not sit well with republican sympathizers. By and large, they were as outraged by the composer’s obliging attitude toward the royals as the abolitionists had been with the ludicrous alterations to Lo Schiavo’s plot. Who was the real slave to special interests, they pondered warily, the opera’s title character or the composer himself? Their uncompromising view of his work practically guaranteed that no such favor and trust would be forthcoming from the current administration — of that, Gomes learned firsthand.

Tired of waiting for authorization to participate in the International Columbian Exposition, Gomes used his own severely limited resources to journey westward from Europe to the Windy City. In September 1893, he caught up with his country’s delegation, which paid little heed as he scurried about preparing for what he had imagined were fully-staged performances of Guarany and Condor. However, when an “expected” subsidy from the Brazilian government failed to materialize — the result of political foot-dragging for his unofficial attendance at the fair — the put upon composer was forced to give free public concerts of excerpts from his works instead.

So what were his lasting impressions of an Industrial-Age Middle America? In a letter from that period, written in the United States to a colleague in Italy, the exasperated Gomes complained:

“The presentation in Chicago of Guarany came to nothing… I had hoped to make a world of contacts, but too late I realized the sad truth. In this country, art is a myth. Americans are only interested in new and practical matters, that is, in the easiest methods for making money!”

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches! – The Arrival of Villa-Lobos, Part Two: Paris Sojourn and the New Nationalism

Villa-Lobos in Paris (AFP Photo / Archives)

Villa-Lobos in Paris (AFP Photo / Archives)

His Own Man

Of all the classical works written by Brazilian musicians from the time of Carlos Gomes, up to and including the early twentieth century and beyond, none could be accused of having taken full advantage of the incredible wealth and availability of native indigenous sources, along with West African, folkloric, caipira (“country”), Caribbean, and urban-style street influences, as had the numerous hybrid creations of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The remarkable collection of songs, airs, sounds, tunes, snippets, and themes he amassed during this and other subsequent times in his life were put to fruitful, and often ingenious, use in much of his voluminous output.

In this, Villa-Lobos can be construed as the most nationalistic of Brazilian composers (certainly the most vocally demonstrative), and his country’s first truly authentic, resident musical representative:

“Yes, I’m Brazilian – and very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I do not put the brakes to or a gag on the tropical exuberance of her forests and skies, which I instinctively transpose to everything I write.”

Of course, this was all much easier in the saying than it was in the doing, a rather common occurrence with Villa-Lobos. Where exactly the voluble composer faltered, if one may be so bold as to use that term in connection with such a profoundly brilliant virtuoso, was in the area that he was most needed, i.e., the opera.

Two youthful short works, Agláia (sometimes given as Algáia) and Elisa, written in 1909 and 1910, respectively, were later fused into a single, four-act opus entitled Izath (or Izaht), completed between 1913 and 1914. It was met with some favor at its 1940 premiere and especially after the late 1950s, when the opera was revived in Rio for such prominent native talents as tenor Assis Pacheco and baritone Paulo Fortes.

The work showed trace influences of Wagner and Puccini, an early characteristic of Villa-Lobos’ vocal writing, along with the sophisticated scoring of French composer Vincent d’Indy. The end result, however, was a stillborn piece that paid considerable homage to traditional forms, the kind of thing Carlos Gomes used to do in his sleep, but with noticeably less assurance on Villa-Lobos’ part. The experience of writing his first opera convinced him to henceforth relegate all further attempts at the art form to the musical trash heap, what the composer himself termed “the graveyard of composers” — from his perspective, a remarkably clear-eyed appraisal. He would revisit the genre only after the Second World War’s hostilities had ended.

Unhappily, Izath has virtually vanished from the modern operatic repertoire and, to our knowledge, has never been performed in North America, nor has it received a complete recording, either in the United States or in its native Brazil.

The Week of Modern Art

The post-World War I period in Rio de Janeiro was one of undue privation for the enterprising young musician. He could be seen plying his trade in the many silent-movie houses, boîtes, bars, and bistros of the café-nightclub circuit, both as a composer-arranger and as a cello-playing accompanist. If anything, these early life experiences brought the unusually sociable Villa-Lobos into regular contact with an exceptional array of artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals,* all of whom shared his views and beliefs as well as his hand-to-mouth existence.

Those views and beliefs would be put to the test in February 1922, with Villa-Lobos’ acceptance of an invitation to participate in the now legendary Semana de Arte Moderna (or Week of Modern Art) at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo. The exposition — more accurately, a continuous non-stop cultural happening — was taken up with lectures, symposiums, concerts, and workshops devoted to literature, painting, poetry, and sculpture, along with the “new music” of Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, and Villa-Lobos himself.

The composer had already commenced work on one of his “two great cycles,” the fourteen Choros (1921-29), which stand as the “first large-scale application of new, Latin American and thoroughly tropical musical forms and structures.” Indeed, much has been made of Villa-Lobos’ contribution to this event and its subsequent influence on future musical endeavors. Ask any musicologist or historian about it, and immediately the Week of Modern Art becomes linked in their mind to his name. The truth is Villa-Lobos lucked into the event by default as the only Brazilian composer around who was of age, or available, to attend.

Participants in the Week of Modern Art (diariodotrovador.7p.com)

Participants in the Week of Modern Art (diariodotrovador.7p.com)

The resultant Modernist movement, launched by such luminaries as writer and musicologist Mário de Andrade, poets Oswald de Andrade and Ronald de Carvalho, author and diplomat José Pereira da Graça Aranha, painters Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, and pianists Guiomar Novaes and Hernani Braga, among others, represented a cultural backlash against the previous generation’s obsession with European influences. It was considered a major first step toward forging a purely nationalistic and fundamentally native-grown literary, artistic, and musical identity. Politically, it was “reflected… in the growing dissatisfaction with the coffee-oriented Old Republic, which was eventually overthrown by the revolution in 1930 that brought Getúlio Vargas to power.”

Negative, ad hominem reaction to Villa-Lobos’ presence, and to his flamboyant style overall, reverberated within the Municipal’s walls. Foot troubles had forced the normally fastidious and stylishly bedecked composer to make his entrance via cane and slippers. Quite amusingly, the noise these personal effects made as he cautiously groped his way down the aisles was loudly imitated by his detractors. None of this ado, however, appeared to have bothered Villa-Lobos in the slightest. Much as he had been leading — and would continue to lead — his own event-filled life, the maestro simply raised his baton on cue and, without hesitation, plunged headlong into one of his works, the audience and critics be damned.

The City of Light Awaits

With the modest success of the Modernist agenda behind him, Villa-Lobos, now an “undisciplined, willful and not at all coachable” adult, was encouraged in the early 1920s to spend time in Paris, the epicenter for artistic development (Germany and Italy had served the same purpose for previous generations of Brazilian artists and musicians).

Fortified by the confidence and self-reliance that were intrinsic to his makeup — and by the one-year government grant he was fortunate enough to have procured — Villa-Lobos took this stored up baggage with him to France. “I didn’t come here to study,” he immodestly announced upon his arrival there in 1923. “I came to show you what I have done.”

This was a different sort of bearing than most Europeans had been accustomed to hearing up to that point. Coming from a charming, tale-spinning Brazilian national, who relished the job of serving as “his own best publicity and promotion manager,” they were somewhat taken aback at first. Nevertheless, the “incorrigible child” within him literally lept at this opportunity of a lifetime, one he did not let go to waste.

It remains unclear if Villa-Lobos had any inkling of the troubles once experienced by his illustrious predecessor Carlos Gomes, who first set foot on foreign soil as a soon-to-be-feted Brazilian artist, only to be unconscionably tossed to the side by the region’s envious inhabitants, and later by his own compatriots.

Villa with Florent Schmitt (ENF Richlieu)

Villa-Lobos with Florent Schmitt (ENF Richlieu)

What is known about his two trips there was that, between 1927 and 1930, during the composer’s second Paris sojourn — financed this time by the philanthropist brothers, Arnaldo and Carlos Guinle — Villa-Lobos succeeded in attracting “the attention of the musical press, particularly that of the music critic of the influential daily newspaper Le Temps, Florent Schmitt, who turned into a great admirer and close friend…”

Philosophically and temperamentally, Villa-Lobos, the man and the artist — as intensely involved in self-promotion as any of his fellow expatriates — was as far removed from the Gomes model of “success” as coffee was from rubber. Vive la différence!

While in the City of Light, Villa-Lobos took it upon himself to hobnob with the leading aristocracy of the avant-garde, most notably composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Edgard Varèse, and Darius Milhaud (who he had previously befriended, in Brazil, in 1917); conductor Leopold Stokowski; French cinéaste and poet Jean Cocteau; Spanish painter Salvador Dalí; classical guitarist Andrés Segovia; eccentric Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky; cellist Serge Koussevitzky; and Polish-born pianist Artur Rubenstein, to whom he dedicated a vivacious (and fiendishly difficult) piano piece called Rudepoêma (1921-26), and who in turn promoted and played much of the Brazilian’s music abroad.

We are indebted to maestro Segovia for the following humorous passage in which the Spanish instrumentalist, who revered the legacy of Bach as much as anyone else, recalled his dramatic first encounter with the extroverted Brazilian:

“Among all the invited guests that night, the one who impressed me the most upon entering the hall was Heitor Villa-Lobos. Although short in stature, he was well proportioned and had a virile bearing. A wild forest of unruly hair topped his vigorous head… His gaze shone with a tropical sparkle, which quickly turned to flame when he joined the amused conversation around him… When I finished my presentation, Villa-Lobos came up and said to me in a confidential tone: ‘I too play the guitar.’ ‘Marvelous!’ I responded. ‘So you’re capable of composing directly from the instrument.’ Extending his hands, he asked me for the guitar… And when I least expected it, he struck a chord with such force that I let out a yell, thinking the guitar had shattered. He burst out laughing and with a childish giggle said to me: ‘Wait, wait…’ I waited, restraining with difficulty my initial impulse, which was to save my poor instrument from this vehement and alarming display of enthusiasm.”

We can gather, from the above extract, how utterly irresistible the Brazilian composer must have seemed to those operating within close proximity. It was on or before this same time that “Villa,” as he was more affectionately known to friends and colleagues, completed work on his thirteen Canções Típicas Brasileiras (“Typical Brazilian Folksongs,” 1919); the Epigramas Irônicos e Sentimentais for solo voice and orchestra, with the text supplied by poet De Carvalho (1921-23); and the Serestas (1925-26), a fourteen-song, voice-and-piano cycle reminiscent of Portuguese serenades, referred by musicologist Vasco Mariz as “the climax of Villa-Lobos’ vocal output and of the genre of Brazilian literature set to music.” These unfamilar concert works deserve much wider exposure than they have been subjected to in the past.

On the debit side, some of Villa’s more, how shall one phrase it, “elaborate” fictional forays had begun to trickle back down to his fellow Brazilians. To make matters worse, they were not amused by what they heard and read:

“Although the speed within the communications media in the 1920s was not what it is today, Villa-Lobos’s tales soon reached his hometown’s local press, and disgusted his countrymen; they felt that their compatriot in Paris had done a serious disservice to Brazil and had caused embarrassment to Brazilians. This did not make much impression on Villa-Lobos, in spite of the fact that in those years he was not yet recognized in Brazil as the country’s leading composer…”

Back in the High Life Again

Not being recognized as Brazil’s “leading composer” may actually have helped to put this annoying business behind him than Villa-Lobos had cared to admit at the time. On the contrary, his best musical days still lay ahead.

Getulio Vargas & Villa-Lobos (abi.org.br)

Getulio Vargas & Villa-Lobos (abi.org.br)

Having done well for himself, artistically speaking, under the Old Republic, Heitor Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil less sure of his standing with the newly installed Vargas regime. He need not have been concerned. Despite the ludicrous yarns that were spun during his absence, the authoritarian Getúlio was most receptive to the composer’s nationalistic leanings and fully embraced his public-spirited stance.

This happy coincidence dovetailed perfectly with both Villa-Lobos and the administration’s long-term plans to bring music and choral education to the nation’s culturally deprived youth — and, as an added benefit, lend a much-needed air of legitimacy and support to the Brazilian strongman’s cultural and social platforms.

For quite unlike the captivated Carlos Gomes, who became, in his musical language and lifestyle, every inch the European the more he was exposed to Continental culture — taking as his wife the Italian-born pianist and teacher Adelina de Conte Peri, a former Milan Conservatory graduate; and adding along the way a bevy of contessas and duchessas to his string of society conquests — the worldly Villa, a bon vivant by nature, remained wholly and ingratiatingly Brazilian to the core. He inspired one Modernist poet, Manuel Bandeira, to write upon the composer’s re-emergence in Brazil:

“One would expect whoever has just returned from Paris to be full of Paris. However, Villa-Lobos has come back full of Villa-Lobos.”

Villa-Lobos himself, in response to habitual complaints that his so-called modern music “hurt the ears” of his listeners, went on to expound eloquently upon his own innate and, for the times, uncharacteristic sense of Brazilianness:

“I don’t write dissonance for the sake of being modern. Not by any means. The way I write is a cosmic consequence of the studies I’ve done, of the synthesis I’ve arrived at, to mirror a Brazilian nature. When I sought to develop my culture, guided by my own instincts and experience, I realized I could only come to a conclusion of conscious knowledge by researching and studying works that, on the surface, had nothing to do with music… I went on, comparing my studies [of the people and the natural wonders of this land] with foreign compositions, and I sought something to support and strengthen my personal approach, and the inalterability of my ideas.”

While his passion for, and pride in, his native country proved most refreshing, and endeared him overall to the populace at large — and to the powers that be — they tended to alienate him completely from so Western European an art form as the opera, to the unfortunate detriment of the domestic product.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Some 40 or more years later, a bashful carioca native by the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim would find himself in similar straits. He, too, would make the acquaintance of one of the era’s best-known intellectuals: the poet, playwright, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes. Quite beyond either of their expectations, they would change the face of Brazilian pop music for all time.