Drama

Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis (Part Three): The Dating Game, ‘Paulistano’ Style

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Life is What You Make of It

Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background
Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background

Telling my parents’ life stories, and, at the same time, getting the facts of their courtship straight, haven’t been easy. The main problem is that they have long since departed: my mother died on December 16, 1985, at age sixty-one, from kidney disease; dad left us on October 23, 1993, of congestive heart failure at seventy-one — a mere eight years between deaths.

Even when residing and working in São Paulo as a teacher of English, I was barely able to communicate with relatives from either side of the family during the time I had spent there (September 1996 to January 2001). Hence, you will forgive me if the details of my account must depend primarily on anecdotal evidence.

It’s not enough to claim that Annibal Peres Lopes (or Lopes Peres, as recorded on the marriage certificate) and the former Lourdes Ferreira eventually wound up in each other’s arms. True, it wasn’t anywhere near the way Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durance’s romance blossomed in Now, Voyager.

If you recall, the enamored pair were stranded for days on end after their motorcar crashed near the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Still, I have to admit: in their unique way, mom and dad did have what, in Hollywood parlance, would come to be called a “meet cute.”

In the numerous documents my father left behind, he gave his São Paulo street address as Rua Rio Bonito No. 1293. This was close enough to, if not in the general vicinity of, where my mother had worked and lived (i.e., Rua Dr. Vergilio do Nascimento). Based on who did the actual telling, this is where their stories diverge.

In dad’s version, he had seen my mother several times before they actually met, but had no idea she was related to one his helpers, her adolescent brother Rubens. Dad would see her walking with a group of young women, one of whom, her sister Iracema, happened to be engaged to Agostinho Pires, another of my father’s partners. One day, dad playfully asked Rubens if he had a spare sister for him to date. Just then, mom rounded the corner with her siblings.

“There she is!” shouted Rubens.

“But, I know this lady!” dad answered back. And from that moment on, they hit it off.

As my mother would relate it, she and her sisters were on their way to a church social or similar get-together. They had come upon some friends who, quite by chance, happened to know so-and-so, and/or so-and-so’s brother or sister. That’s how young people in the neighborhood got to meet and greet one another, through mutual acquaintances.

All the same, mom was waiting with her sisters at the local bus stop, called o ponto de onibus — a literal wooden stake, or “point,” shaped like a giant pencil planted in the middle of the block or street corner.

Old-fashioned "ponto de onibus") ("bus stop") in Sao Paulo
Old-fashioned ponto de onibus (“bus stop”) in Sao Paulo, Brazil

In a reversal of mom’s narrative, it was dad who suddenly put in an appearance with his buddies. They were dressed to the nines in their immaculately pressed suits and silk ties. By force of habit, dad would never, ever venture forth from his mother’s residence in anything but a white long-sleeved shirt, starched to the hilt by one of his sisters. With him was his ever-present cigarette in hand.

Having admired my mother from afar and taken a liking to her calm, reticent manner (quite unlike that of most girls he’d been dating), dad started a conversation with her. When he learned she was going to church with her sisters, he asked if he could tag along. Mom nodded in agreement, and they all boarded the bus together as it approached. Dad accompanied my mother inside and waited for her to find a suitable spot. Once she sat down, he dutifully planted himself on the seat next to hers.

In the meantime, his buddies had followed the couple on board the bus, all the while snickering behind their back and cracking loud jokes at my father’s expense: “Hey, Annibal, you bum! Watch those hands! We can see your every move! Oh, will you look at that! He’s making goo-goo eyes at her! Behave yourself, you dog, or we’re calling her parents!”

Dad ignored their crude remarks. He was too busy focusing his gaze on the shy, young woman to his side. For her part, mom was enraptured. In what seemed like no time at all, the chubby, bespectacled second-oldest daughter of Francisco and Ana Ferreira (an early portrait of my mother struck me as a carbon copy of Jerry Durrance’s daughter Tina) was engaged to the handsomest, most charming bachelor of Alto do Pari. “Um pão de homem” (“A hunk of a man”) was how the locals described him, with dark, wavy hair, olive complexion, and chestnut-brown eyes. Not only was he fastidious about his looks and dress, but dad boasted a muscular build, a slender face, and a strong chin, topped with a neatly trimmed mustache.

Oh, he was quite the catch, all right — with one hell of a Latin temper to match. Notwithstanding mom’s Protestant fervor, as a concession to her future mother-in-law the religious ceremony took place in a Catholic parish ministered by the local priest. Mom also agreed to have her firstborn child baptized in the same parish, that of Igreja São João Batista. Wedding pictures from that period bore witness to her miraculous change from a self-professed ugly duckling to that of a gorgeous September bride. Mom looked smashing in her lace bridal gown with matching flower bouquet and crown. She and dad were beaming with delight.

My parents' wedding photograph (September 1953)
My parents’ wedding photograph (September 1953)

And to think their storybook marriage almost failed to come off! About a week before the big day, dad’s partner “Noca,” who was known to take a nip (or more) between trips, crashed their truck into a ditch. There went dad’s sole means of livelihood. Before desperation began to sink in, our relatives came to my father’s aid: they were able to recover the vehicle and bring it back to its former working condition in time for the wedding ceremony.

Immediately after the reception, the couple honeymooned in nearby Santos, which for paulistanos was the seaside equivalent of Rio. When they returned from their trip, the newlyweds moved in with my father’s family. His father, Alfredo, had died years earlier when dad was only nineteen. Since then, his mother had taken up the challenge of running the Lopes household as she saw fit. Grandma Encarnación — La Abuela, as dad pejoratively referred to her — ruled with an iron rod. Charlotte Vale’s bully of a parent was child’s play compared to this formidable grande dame. Dressed all in black, my foreign-born grandmother would don the mantilla, which enveloped her long, gray-streaked hair, held tightly in a bun and comb. Her face was heavily lined, and her speech was spiced with a thick Spanish accent.

Mom suffered at the hands of her in-laws. Because of her total dedication to being a model wife and mother, with one or two exceptions (my aunts Marina and Herminia, for example) the others were uniformly resentful of her presence. Mom’s gentleness and timidity, along with the quiet, nondescript way she went about her business —and in particular, her good nature — were frowned upon in a home where clamor and name-calling were a common way of life.

They were jealous as well of mom’s daily visits to her mother, who lived only a few blocks away. Since Vovó Encarnación had been treated harshly by her alcoholic husband, she regarded everyone around her as worthy of being treated in like manner. In turn, Grandma was callously treated by her own children (including my dad). Now grown up, the harshest of the sisters felt it only fair to take their frustrations out on my mom.

On one of these visits, she expressed to her mother Ana the deep sorrow and profound distress she experienced while staying at her in-laws. Vovó Ana, who was well-schooled on the theme of rude relations, counseled her to carry on in the face of her difficulties; that the good Lord would provide an answer to her seemingly inescapable dilemma.

Shortly thereafter, mom became pregnant with her first child (yours truly). Because of this, my father resolved that mom should have a home of her own. For which he arranged a move to a new apartment above a local real estate office on Rua Pedroso da Silveira, a mere stone’s throw from her mother’s dwelling. Mom was overjoyed at the prospect. Since dad traveled so frequently, she would be better-off living close to her own kin than to her in-laws. They could care for her, too, in the event he was unable to be present for my birth.

It took years for Vovó Encarnación to recognize the precious jewel she had in her daughter-in-law: that hard-working, dedicated, and utterly selfless individual I grew to love and admire was forced to overcome her natural reserve in order to endure almost unrelieved anguish. During the time she spent with her in-laws, mom refused to argue back, but neither did she buckle under from dread. Moreover, she maintained her composure throughout the year-long ordeal, never once offending those who took it upon themselves to offend. Through her example, mom went on to earn their respect, if not their ardor. In time, dad’s relatives came around and softened their approach. There would always be someone that continued to harbor unmerited animosity towards her, but overall mom triumphed through kindness and resilience, and by never giving in to despair.

As for La Abuela, she continued to regard my mother warily, but with a noticeable degree of deference. After all, she was a full-blooded Spaniard. If anything, Vovó Encarnación applauded mom’s ability to care for her children (my brother, Anibal Jr., was born a year and three months after me) and, in all honesty, Grandma treated us kindly. Mom’s diligence in that department would serve her well in the biggest and farthest move of her life: to a home in the South Bronx, in the northeastern part of the United States, far from the familiar surroundings of Alto do Pari.

Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage
Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage

Dad paved the way for us in May 1959. With his inherent independent streak, he had wanted to get away from his relatives for some time, to live his own life free from their constant prying and whining. After securing employment at a lamp factory as well as putting a down payment on a three-story house at 942 Stebbens Avenue near Fort Apache in the Bronx, dad sent for his wife and two sons.

Mom had never left the State of São Paulo, nor had she set foot outside her native land, until the day she boarded a six-engine TWA transcontinental airline. It took twenty-four nonstop hours to reach Idlewild Airport in Queens. Mom traveled alone with her two boys, aged five and three-and-a-half. She spoke not a word of English. What courage she must have displayed! What strength and single-minded purpose! One can only imagine the thoughts that had gone through her head, or the hardships that would lie before her.

She once told me that leaving her mother behind was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She would have stayed in Brazil — willingly, at that — if only her mom had asked. The story goes that the wrinkled old woman took mom’s “little hands of gold” in hers. Staring gently but gravely into her searching eyes, Grandma Ana gave my mother this piece of advice: “Filha, seu lugar é com seu marido” (“Daughter, your place is with your husband”). And that settled that.

Mom learned to speak and understand a reasonable amount of English in the twenty-five years she lived and worked in New York. She braved the freezing cold winters and the blisteringly hot and humid summers as best she could. She even managed to get around with facility, taking the subway and the bus to wherever she needed to go. When neither was available, she made it under her own power.

She continued the daily grind almost up until the week she passed away. I had only seen my father cry twice beforehand, once at his mother-in-law Ana Joaquina’s demise, and again when my Aunt Marina’s husband, Uncle Frederico, died suddenly a week after New Year’s. When news reached him that his own mother had passed, I remember him sitting alone in the living room with the lights turned off. No tears were shed that night for Encarnación Peres Leimones, but they poured forth like a tropical rainstorm when our mother breathed her last, much as he had done for his mother-in-law when she had gone.

Dad lived another eight winters. He had suffered three heart attacks up to that point, the second of which, in the summer of ‘79, forced him into early retirement. His years were filled with frequent hospital visits — among them, for a triple bypass graft and carotid-artery endarterectomy — amid various nursing home stays. After experiencing multiple transcient ischemic attacks and strokes, aggravated by anxiety neurosis, a type-A personality, high blood pressure, an elevated cholesterol count, and hardening of the arteries, dad expired in the early morning hours of October 23, 1993.

Lourdes and Annibal Lopes were both cremated, their ashes preserved in solid brass urns that resided side-by-side, for a time, at the famed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. They were finally buried together, along with their urns, in 1996, at the Cemitério do Tremembé, in the North Zone of São Paulo, Brazil, the city and country of their birth.

Their life together was never an easy one. They might have looked at it as the story of two dissimilar spirits, wandering the earth with a shared purpose: to survive by any means at their disposal, and at any cost — even to their own lives.

They never asked for the Moon. And they never quite got hold of the stars. But for thirty-two consecutive years they were content to have each other, and that’s all that mattered. ☼

Copyright (c) 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis (Part Two): This is Your Cinematic Life

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Paul Henreid & Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)
Paul Henreid & Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)

THE QUEEN “B” OF HOLLYWOOD MADE HERSELF AT HOME IN OUR LIVING ROOM — AND IN MY MOTHER’S HEART

Obviously, my parents were not Boston natives but citizens of São Paulo. They were born in the same neighborhood — that of Alto do Pari, near Brás — and in the same month of September. They also shared the same astrological sign of Virgo. By tradition, those born under this sign are supposed to be exacting, nitpicking perfectionists. I can vouch for that conclusion where my father was concerned. My mother, however, followed the “gentler” attributes of Virgos: that of a loving, sincere, and caring human being.

Dad came first, on September 26, 1922,* with mom following two years later, on September 12. Her parents named her Lourdes, while he was christened Annibal. By sheer coincidence, the civil ceremony took place in September as well, on the first day of the month, in the year 1953, followed by nuptials at Igreja São João Batista on September 3, which remained the officially recognized date. And again, purely by accident, mom immigrated to the U.S. on September 3, 1959, the sixth anniversary of her church wedding.

She was the second of seven siblings, and the second daughter of Francisco Antonio Ferreira and the former Ana Joaquina, who were of Portuguese descent from the province of Trás-os-Montes (Behind the Mountains) in the northeastern corner of the country. My dad’s parents, Alfredo Estanislau Lopes Más and the much younger Encarnación Peres Leimones, came from Spain (Granada and Múrcia, respectively). They too had seven children: three sons and four daughters, with dad the second youngest of the lot.

In the movie Now, Voyager, Bette Davis’s character, Charlotte Vale, is the youngest (and only daughter) of an upper-class Boston family of four. She suffers from low self-esteem, brought on by her sharply critical, brow-beating mother (played by Gladys Cooper). This dowager matron treats Charlotte so harshly, keeping her life under wraps, telling her how to dress, what to eat, when to get up, where and when to go out, and with whom, that in time gives way to her daughter’s breakdown.

Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis ) confronts her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper)
Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis ) confronts her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper)

Realizing she needs professional help, Charlotte’s family members engage the services of a sympathetic shrink named Dr. Jaquith (the dependable Claude Rains), who successfully treats her at his sanitarium. He even arranges a little ocean voyage for Charlotte to romantic Rio de Janeiro, where the former ugly duckling, now transformed into a swanlike vision of loveliness and sophistication, meets the handsome and oh-so-charming Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) — an unhappily married man with a problem child of his own. I’d be giving nothing away if I said that, in due course, these two troubled souls wind up in each other’s arms.

As the story progresses, the lovers decide to part ways, until fate brings them back together. When Charlotte returns home to Boston after breaking off her engagement to another man, she has a bitter quarrel with her mother. Strengthened by her newfound independence (acquired through Jerry’s love, no less), Charlotte stands up to the old biddy, admitting to her that she never asked to be born; that she knew she was unwanted as a child, made to suffer needlessly for having appeared late in her mother’s life. Mrs. Vale is aghast at her behavior; so much so that, unable to accept this boldly assertive position, she has a fatal seizure and dies. Of course, this leads to a dramatic relapse, with the guilt-ridden Charlotte once again seeking Jaquith’s aid.

Upon re-entering the sanitarium, who should she meet but her ex-lover Jerry’s homely teenage daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson). Charlotte recognizes the equally unwanted girl’s situation as close to her own, ergo she allows her motherly instincts to take over. In an effort to bring Tina out of her shell, and with Jerry and Dr. Jaquith’s consent, she takes Tina under her wing, as one might say, and befriends the impressionable youth. Tina now becomes a conduit for the expression of her amorous inclinations, the means by which she and Jerry can maintain a semblance of their earlier relationship, while still keeping up appearances.

Charlotte & Jerry share a smoke together in the iconic final scene of Now, Voyager
Charlotte & Jerry share a smoke together in the iconic final scene of Now, Voyager

In the final scene, Charlotte and Jerry share a moment of repose. It’s another of those classic film sequences: Charlotte offers him a smoke. Jerry reaches into the box, takes out two cigarettes, and places them in his mouth. He then lights both cigarettes with his lighter, giving one of them to Charlotte. She takes the cigarette, gladly, and, with tears welling up in her eyes Charlotte responds to his query as to whether she will be happy with having just a part of him in Tina.

“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the Moon. We have the stars.”

Reality Bites

In life, my mother was prone to low self-esteem, which had nothing to do with her parents’ treatment of her. In all likelihood, her poor self-image can be attributed to sibling rivalry, what with an older sister and three younger ones to contend with, including two younger-aged brothers. That, and the fact that mom wore glasses, was physically on the “chubby” side (which made her exceedingly self-conscious), and had a more compliant nature than her sisters, may have contributed to how she saw herself with respect to relationships inside and outside the family circle.

Raised as a Methodist in a community dominated by the Catholic Church, mom made up in religious fervor what faith she lacked in herself. No matter what troubles befell her, or her brood, my mother maintained an unwavering commitment to the Golden Rule. She would be forced to rely on that commitment once she had left her mother’s side.

There were few career choices back then for girls her age: either you learned to handle a Singer sewing machine or you mastered the Remington typewriter. Mom chose to sew as a profession. At age eight, she completed primary school; she then spent the next half-dozen years learning to be a seamstress. Mom completed the course and received her diploma in “Garment Making and Sewing” on December 12, 1938, from Escola Santa Clara, located at Rua Rio Bonito No. 26-A, in São Paulo. The document was signed by Elisa Amelia Affonso, the director of the school.

Not only was mom an outstanding dressmaker, but she also designed and sewed her own wedding gown, along with those of her sisters, cousins, and family friends. By virtue of these unique gifts, she was given the pet name mãozinhas de ouro, or “little hands of gold.” Much later in life, mom would be employed by the Calvin Klein Sportswear Company in Manhattan’s fabled Garment District. On occasion, fashion designer and founder Calvin Klein, a Bronx native, would journey down to the showroom (where mom’s “little hands of gold” were at their busiest) to mingle with the predominantly female labor force.

Growing up in a large working-class family, mom was used to self-sacrifice. She saw her sisters Alzira and Deolinda, and brother Manoel, marry and move out of her parents’ house long before she herself started dating. Always willing to lend a helping hand, mom picked up the slack by doing double duty at her father’s butcher shop, catering to customers and making change, plucking the chickens and learning the ropes of how to provide for her family in times of need. When oldest sister Alzira’s husband died prematurely from tuberculosis, mom helped raise her little niece, Martha, through her formative years while the widowed Alzira went out into the working world.

Her weekends were spent in mild recreation. A devoted member of Igreja Metodista do Brás (Methodist Church of Brás), mom praised the Lord in spirit and song as a contralto in her church’s choir. She took a good deal of pleasure, too, in going to the movies, visiting with friends, conversing with relatives, and attending picnic gatherings with her siblings. Because of her inherent modesty, mom rarely, if ever, participated in Carnival celebrations, except as an inquisitive bystander. It goes without saying that she neither drank nor smoked.

Igreja Metodista do Bras (Methodist Church of Bras) in Sao Paulo
Igreja Metodista do Bras (Methodist Church of Bras) in Sao Paulo

It is also no cliché to suggest that my Carnival-loving, opera-going father Annibal was the polar opposite of my mother in outlook and disposition. The drive and self-assurance he exhibited at home, and around others, came early in life. On an impulse, dad left school at a tender age to become a “surveyor” in the Mato Grosso region of south-central Brazil. All told, he spent six months in the jungle brush, where a lifelong smoking habit was acquired so as to ward off the nightly swarm of mosquitoes.

Doing odd jobs for a time, dad eventually landed a position as a stock clerk and correspondent, first with a textile company and later for a German-based paper mill. In spite of his only having a secondary school education, he became proficient in Portuguese and Spanish, reading, speaking, and writing both languages equally well, and would jabber away in Italian, too, when the spirit moved him.

After twelve years inside a stuffy, poorly lit office, dad decided to quit the paper mill to tough it out as a self-employed traveling salesperson — more out of frustration at being passed over for promotion than any latent entrepreneurial skills. He invested what money he had earned in a franchise with the Confiança Company (Indústria de Produtos Alimentícios Confiança), a growing concern that specialized in selling candies and sweets. The company later changed its name to Balas Kid’s (“Kid Candies”), to more accurately reflect the nature of the business.

My dad drove a truck similar to the one pictured above
My dad drove a truck very similar to the one pictured above

With his partner “Noca,” my father would set off on extended road trips, first to the south of Brazil (Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Paranaguá) and an established customer base; then, up to Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte and its environs), and back down again to the interior of São Paulo State. He would be gone for weeks at a time, so mom was left to fend for herself. Upon his return, dad would sport the darkest suntan known to man, one that made him all-but unrecognizable to us kids.

When my parents and I visited dad’s family in Vila Maria, São Paulo, in July 1985, I happened to come across an old photo album that his youngest sister Marina had taken out of storage for our amusement. Leafing through the album’s pages, I spotted the snapshot of a runty-looking lad, aged twelve or thirteen, with spiky jet-black hair, darkly-colored skin, and strong, penetrating eyes. He was staring intently at the camera, his expression telegraphing his innermost thoughts: “Go ahead, start something,” the boy seemed to be saying to gawkers such as myself. “I dare you!”

I asked my aunt who that boy happened to be. Within seconds, dad came over to where I was sitting. He stared briefly at the photograph, and, with a broad grin and a snicker in his voice, blurted out, “Sou eu!” (“That’s me!”).

I was speechless. That unmistakable look of determination, of someone who knew exactly what he wanted out of life, and was willing to do whatever it took to obtain it, was plainly visible in the facial features of this puny child in short pants.

I thought to myself: How did two such disparate individuals as my mom and dad, with varying backgrounds, contrasting personalities, and entirely different priorities and perspectives, manage to come together and make a successful marriage out of so many incompatible elements?

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

* The September 26 date meant that dad was technically a Libra. However, for some inexplicable reason he always insisted that his actual birth date was September 18. Perhaps this dichotomy had something to do with his being born on one day and baptized on another. That may well be, but I have been unable to verify this claim or determine the whereabouts of his baptismal certificate – not that it would have mattered, since dad was far from a practicing Catholic.

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Four): Dial ‘M’ for Mo’ Better Movies

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Bleek (Denzel Washington) practicing his scales in Mo' Better Blues
Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) practicing imaginary scales in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Play for Your Supper

From the reverse racism and self-loathing of A Soldier’s Story to the lofty sentiments expressed in his Oscar® winning performance as Private Trip in Glory, Denzel Washington was on his way to forging an outstanding career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable — and versatile — screen actors.

He already won more hearts with honey than with vinegar in the delightful comedy-crime drama The Mighty Quinn. Now, Denzel (or “Dee,” as he was known to intimates) was steeling himself for the musical, verbal and romantic calisthenics of his next picture, Mo’ Better Blues from 1990.

Written, produced and directed by Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, Mo’ Better Blues had the undeserved distinction of following his topical and highly controversial third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989). Suffering mixed reviews by comparison, Mo’ Better Blues is better known as the first of Denzel’s four outings (to date) with the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred Mr. Lee. Their chemistry on and off the screen would, in years to come, result in what many critics would regard as both artists’ best work.

The Bleek Quintet: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn
The Bleek Quintet + One: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn

The action of Mo’ Better Blues revolves around Bleek Gilliam (Washington), a smooth-talking, easygoing trumpet player. Bleek, as descriptive a name as it implies, harbors a soft spot for childhood buddy Giant (the 5’6” tall Lee), who acts as his band’s no-account manager. Giant has a 24/7 gambling habit that lands him in hot water with the local bookie (Rubén Blades). Robbing Peter to pay Paul, he’s also in debt to two take-no-shit loan sharks named Madlock (Samuel L. Jackson, in a trial run for his role as hit man Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction) and Rod (Leonard L. Thomas).

As in practically all of Lee’s work, there are multiple plot lines that vie for audience attention. However, the main thrust here concerns Bleek’s love life — or rather, the dilemma of being caught between two equally bodacious babes. Who will win first place in his heart? Is it the overly ambitious, light-skinned lounge singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams) who longs to join Bleek’s jazz band, or the earthier and more level-headed Indigo Downes (Joie Lee, Spike’s real-life sister)? Complicating matters to some extent is the unassuming Bleek’s rivalry with his quintet’s tenor saxophonist, the flashy Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes).

Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time
Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time

In line with both his earlier and later efforts, Mo’ Better Blues expands upon Lee’s love of sports and jazz. According to the director, he basically grew up in a jazz household. This is reflected in his father, jazz musician Bill Lee’s background score, as well as the participation on the soundtrack of trumpeter Terence Blanchard with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Blanchard coached Denzel for months on end until he felt reasonably assured the star was capable of giving the appearance of someone who could go beyond holding his horn.

“When Spike called me to do this,” Blanchard told Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather, “it seemed like a tough assignment.” Fortunately for him, Denzel had prior experience with playing the piano in high school, as he demonstrated in The Mighty Quinn. He brought to the part his customary professionalism and preparedness. Blanchard even wrote out the fingering for all the tunes and the beginning portions of his solos. “I figured that actually teaching him to play the horn was going to take too much concentration away from his acting.”

In all, Lee used his familiarity with the genre to channel the well-documented friction that existed between two legendary jazz giants, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It was common knowledge that Miles, at the time the Kind of Blue album was being cut for Columbia — while simultaneously appearing in nightclub dates with “Trane” — would express his constant annoyance with the player’s longwinded, spiritually-motivated sax solos.

In Mo’ Better Blues, there’s a scene early on where Bleek steps backstage for a breather between sets. He runs into Giant, who takes him to task for allowing Shadow to “show off” by hogging the limelight in Bleek’s absence. Returning to the stage, Bleek gets back at both Giant and Shadow: with his dark shades and head bent low so as to commune more closely with his instrument, Bleek strikes an iconic Miles Davis-like pose as he purposely cuts short Shadow’s groove with a muted turn on his trumpet.

Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another
Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another, as Bottom (Bill Nunn) plays on

Talking with Washington about the film for the 2006 DVD edition of Inside Man, Lee acknowledged the existence of a downside to the jazzman’s lifestyle. He raised the issue of what happens when an artist devotes his entire life to his art; and then, when something unexpected happens, how it can prevent him from doing what he loves most. “What’s going to happen to [Bleek] when he can no longer play?” he queried.

Far be it for me to give away the game, but a situation eventually occurs — when Bleek steps in to save his manager from those vicious loan sharks — that changes the outcome for all concerned.

Family Time

There are two scenes of urban family life in Mo’ Better Blues that bookend the picture. In the prologue, a young Bleek (Zakee Howze) resents having to practice his trumpet. He’d rather play ball with his friends than work endlessly on his scales. But Bleek’s iron-willed mother Lillian (Abbey Lincoln) insists he finish his scales before running off into the street.

In the final scene, Bleek’s son Miles (guess who he’s named after?), also played by Howze, is seen practicing his scales. His friends call out to him from the street, pleading with Miles to come and play. Only, this time Bleek’s son is allowed to scurry off and join his pals in their game. Consequently, the film ends on a poignant note. Lee relied on the same dialogue in each of these scenes, while ingeniously utilizing subtle gradations of tone, looks and shading that, true to the nature of jazz per se, were remarkably effective in delineating character.

Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play
Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play ball

Speaking of character, audiences learned a thing or two from Do the Right Thing about associating Lee’s eccentric personalities with their given names. The viewer is bombarded with an assortment of colorful monikers, among them Bleek’s pianist Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito), bass player Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn), drummer Rhythm Jones (Jeff “Tain” Watts, the only trained musician in the group), the aforementioned Shadow, Giant and Indigo, and Moe and Josh Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro), the Jewish nightclub owners.

Denzel mentioned, in that same 2006 talk with Lee, that he and his cohorts were free to ad lib more in Mo’ Better Blues than in other pictures. Indeed, the nearly all-male ensemble fires off one-liners faster than those rapid-fire bebop notes Bleek practices ad infinitum in his apartment. This scene is an excellent example of what Lee calls his trademark “money shot,” i.e., the background appears in constant motion around a stationary figure or two. Here, Bleek, motionless save for the twitching of his eyes and the constant flexing of his fingertips, goes over the music in his head, whereas the camera takes a 360-degree pan of the room behind him.

The extensive use of improvisation, especially backstage, drew the gentle ire of the late Roger Ebert in his initial critique of the film. Knowing that Roger had freely admitted to limitations in his knowledge of music (many if not all of his reviews hardly mention a movie’s score), we must take issue with his assessment. This is a jazz-based feature, is it not? And, as indicated above, improvisation is the life essence of jazz. It’s what makes the music original and unique. Too, it can be a hit or miss affair, with some numbers sounding fresh and others falling flat. But that’s the chance you take when you’re trying to be innovative. Incidentally, the rambunctious Robin Harris, who passed away months before the film’s release, delivers a particularly raunchy standup routine as the motor-mouthed comic, Butterbean Jones.

Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment
Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment

Lee’s eye for detail and economy of means and time (helped in large measure by longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) contributed to the film’s most startling fantasy element: that of Bleek’s coitus interruptus, a virtuoso sequence in which he inadvertently calls Indigo by Clarke’s name, while doing the same for Clarke with Indigo’s name. The women take turns berating him for his slip-up. Meanwhile, Bleek stares blankly at one, then the other, then turns his visage toward the camera in glassy-eyed disbelief at the sheer inanity of his actions.

The issue of whether jazz was or was not the exclusive property of those who invented it is addressed in the bit where Bleek complains to Shadow that he doesn’t see his people appreciating their own music. “I see Japanese, I see West Germans in the audience,” he notes. “We will go to see some crossover created by other people, but we don’t come to see our own. It incenses me,” Bleek goes on, that “our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music, man.”

“That’s bullshit, man!” Shadow snaps back. “Out of all the people in the world, you never gave nobody else a chance to play their own music.”

“I’m talkin’ about the audience,” Bleek shouts right back at him. Shadow is indignant. “That’s right! The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you play the shit that they like, then people will come. Simple as that.”

And if Denzel Washington and Spike Lee continue to make movies that treat their subjects with as much dignity, respect, pride and affection as they did in Mo’ Better Blues, then audiences will continue to flock to see them. It’s as simple as that!

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Amadeus’ (1984) — Too Many Notes and Quite a Few More!

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Tom Hulce as Mozart in the movie Amadeus (1984)
Tom Hulce as Mozart in the movie Amadeus (1984)

A Comedy of Disproportions

British playwright, author, and screenwriter Sir Peter Shaffer (The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus) — whose own brother, Anthony Shaffer, was also a noted playwright (Sleuth) and screenwriter (Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy) — adapted his successful 1979 stage play Amadeus for the screen, both opening up and expanding the drama along the way for cinematic purposes.

The basic fiction of the jealous Antonio Salieri’s alleged poisoning of his rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which may have been derived from an 1897 one-act opera, Mozart and Salieri, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (itself based on an earlier play in verse by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin), is retained.

However, it’s the European backdrop (filmed on location, by cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček, in Prague and Vienna), the richly elegant eighteenth-century costumes (by award-winning designer Theodor Pištěk), the superb art direction (by Karel Černý and Patrizia von Brandenstein), the production’s overall concept and direction (by Oscar-winners Miloš Forman and Saul Zaentz), and the charismatic performances that give this picture its vibrant life.

In addition, we have Mozart’s heavenly music, performed on the soundtrack by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra, the Ambrosian Opera Chorus, and the Choristers of Westminster Abbey, as well as a long list of talented opera stars to do it justice, among them June Anderson in the Queen of the Night’s Vengeance Aria from The Magic Flute, Richard Stilwell, Willard White, and John Tomlinson in the final denouement from Don Giovanni, Samuel Ramey and Isobel Buchanan in the opening snippet from The Marriage of Figaro, and Brian Kay and Gillian Knight in the “Papageno, Papagena” duet, also from The Magic Flute.

Hulce (as Mozart) with Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze
Hulce (as Mozart) with Elizabeth Berridge as his wife Constanze

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus (Latin for “to love God”) Mozart (1756-1791), precocious, childlike, and overtly scatological — well documented in his voluminous correspondence with his wife Constanze, father Leopold, and older sister Nannerl — was a true and undeniable genius of his or any other time. A prolific composer, he dabbled in just about every conceivable musical form; produced works of astonishing range, depth, beauty, and originality; and achieved worldwide fame and recognition in his short lifetime.

From piano pieces, string quartets, octets, and concertos, to symphonies, sonatas, solo works for individual instruments, cantatas, motets, songs for soprano, dozens of operas (both comic and tragic), and even lofty church music — indeed, there was hardly anything that he could not do once he put his heart and mind to the task. Modern audiences take it for granted that Mozart may have been an overindulged, potty-mouthed, devil-may-care fellow who loved good wine and good jokes (but not so good women). That he was also a supremely gifted artist is a matter of historical fact.

His varied output of sacred works has been described as miraculous, melodious, and this side of heaven — in more ways than might have been imagined. One of his absolute finest, which the film takes great pains to suggest, came near the very end of his life: the unfinished yet spiritually uplifting Requiem in D Minor from 1791.

This fabulous choral and instrumental piece, “fueled by a dark and furious energy,” has been deemed by most musicologists as rivaling, if not altogether surpassing, the finest church music that issued forth from the pen of Johann Sebastian Bach. That’s high praise indeed, considering that Bach was one of the most creative musicians who ever lived, with two (count ‘em) two wives to his credit, as well as a boatload of talented offspring.

How the Requiem came to be written has been a matter of conjecture for a number of years. Incredible as it may sound, playwright Shaffer and director Forman were right on the mark (well, almost) when, in both the play and the movie, a mysterious masked stranger comes to Mozart’s door to commission a mass for the dead. Little does “Wolfie” know that the man behind the mask, and under the three-cornered hat, is his arch-rival Salieri; and the mass in question is supposedly for Mozart himself!

The Man in the Three-Cornered Hat
The Man in the Three-Cornered Hat

As patently melodramatic as this plot device may sound, there is some basis for it in fact. The reality of the situation was this: an eccentric aristocrat named Franz von Welsegg had the nasty habit of commissioning others to write music that he would later claim as his own. Such was the case with the Requiem. According to accounts of the time (some of which were of a purely speculative nature), Welsegg, through several intermediaries, gave Mozart a partial down payment to begin work on the project, only to have Mozart die a short while later.

Welsegg never fulfilled the remainder of his contract and was all set to claim the mass as his personal property. Fortunately for posterity, Mozart’s widow Constanze was able to deter this miscreant from making off with her late husband’s work by having the mass, or what little of it there was: a) completed by others, notably composers Franz Xaver Süssmayr and Joseph von Eybler; and b) performed in a public concert. Unlike the ditzy movie version, the real Frau Mozart knew a thing or two about how to outsmart the competition.

Of course, none of these ex post facto escapades is even hinted at in the movie. What we do get is an extraordinary, theatrically-derived bravura sequence (similar in scope to the Act II blinding of the stable horses in Shaffer’s Equus) of the incapacitated Herr Mozart dictating parts of the unfinished Requiem to an admiring but over-parted Salieri, punctuated by choral and orchestral excerpts from the piece in question, and by Constanze’s dramatic reappearance at her husband’s bedside.

The Composer as God’s Favorite

The young Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)
The young Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)

The real story of how the Italian-born Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), portrayed in the film as a fairly run-of-the-mill mediocrity, who came to prominence at the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II after having been a protégé of the great operatic reformer, Christoph Willibald van Gluck, is regrettably glided over. While it is true that Salieri wrote innumerable pieces for the church and the theater — one of which, the opera seria Europa riconosciuta, inaugurated the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1778 — very few of his works have survived into the modern classical repertoire.

In actuality, both he and Mozart were far from outright adversaries. As contemporaries with virtually unlimited access to the Viennese court, they maintained a casual friendship and mutual respect, even collaborating together on several drawing-room pieces. Incidentally, Salieri was a most influential music teacher as well, having had among his pupils such illustrious celebrities as Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt.

It has been determined that mounting dementia in Salieri’s later years, wherein the aged composer was overheard muttering to himself, by those attending to his needs, that it was he who had brought about Mozart’s demise, was the cause for the ensuing rumors and suspicions surrounding the younger man’s “mysterious” and untimely death. Most likely, Mozart passed away from either kidney failure or uremic poisoning of his system. Salieri’s alleged “confession” to the crime was, and still is, a matter for speculation.

F. Murray Abraham as the older, embittered Salieri
F. Murray Abraham as the older, embittered Salieri

F. Murray Abraham was catapulted into the front ranks of lead actors with his fascinating, multi-layered portrayal of the envious court composer Salieri, helped in large measure by the superb makeup job of veteran Dick Smith. Murray beat out an array of more famous stage and screen names, including that of Paul Scofield, who originated the part at London’s National Theatre, Frank Finlay, Ian McKellen (the Broadway Salieri), John Wood, Frank Langella, and Daniel Davis.

What Murray brought to the character was a humanity and understanding of the supposedly untalented composer as unworthy of a just God’s favor. The viewer could empathize with the embittered old man’s admission that true musical genius can come from the most unexpected and, yes, most unmerited of sources.

Tom Hulce, who made his Broadway debut in 1975 as Alan Strang in Equus (which this author happened to have seen), is the vulgar and maniacally cackling but ever-so-charming Wolfie, a finely detailed achievement, with Elizabeth Berridge as his klutzy, lower-class spouse, Constanze. Hulce and Berridge’s distinctive Americanness is wisely exploited by Czech director Forman as a counterpoint to the highbrow snobbery of the snooty types that populate the backstabbing royal court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, played with a haughty and self-contained air of confidence (and boundless good humor) by the wonderful Jeffrey Jones.

Jeffrey Jones (center) as Emperor Joseph II
Jeffrey Jones (center) as Emperor Joseph II

The other cast members include Simon Callow (a noted author in real life, who played Mozart on the British stage) as Schikaneder and Papageno, Roy Dotrice as Leopold Mozart, Patrick Hines as Kapellmeister Bonno, Charles Kay as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Christine Ebersole as Caterina Cavalieri, Vincent Schiavelli as Salieri’s servant, Jonathan Moore as Baron von Swieten, Richard Frank as Father Vogler, who hears Salieri’s self-loathing confession, Kenneth MacMillan (in an amusing bit restored for the expanded director’s cut) as the owner of musically-inclined canines, Barbara Byrne as Constance’s mother, and Kenny Baker (R2-D2 of the Star Wars series) in a “small” role in the Mozart parody episode. Twyla Tharp, who also worked on Forman’s Hair and Ragtime, choreographed the various dance sequences.

The movie narrowly misses a four-star rating, as: first, the play was, naturally, much more concentrated on the stage; and second, it is shorn of some of its lovely literary language due to the different requirements of the film medium. In addition, the work takes extensive liberties with the perception and presentation of Mozart’s operas that distort their true historical nature and significance — for example, in labeling Don Giovanni as Mozart’s “darkest, blackest work.” Preposterous!

And one of the more “revealing” sequences, i.e., that of Constanze’s disrobing in front of an infuriated Salieri, could have been dispensed with (it was only hinted at in the play). Other than that, it’s a fabulous showcase for classical-music lovers. The restored three-hour version on DVD and Blu-ray Disc is the one to see. (Hah! Too many notes, indeed!)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948) — Let Rabid, Sleeping Dogs Lie

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Humphrey Bogart (left) & John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Humphrey Bogart (left) & John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

A vagrant in a battered hat, raggedy clothes and unshaven visage comes up to a tall lean man in a white suit and matching white hat. The tall lean man, who is smoking a stogie and has a long inquisitive face, is reading a newspaper as he pauses to get his dusty shoes shined. Begging the man’s pardon, the shabbily dressed vagrant screws up enough nerve to ask the tall lean gentleman if he could help a fellow American who’s down on his luck.

Three times the vagrant pesters the tall lean man for a buck. After the last time, the tall lean man gives him two coins instead of one and simultaneously charges him with the responsibility of finding his own way in the world, but without his monetary aid.

As luck would have it, the vagrant runs into another fellow American down on his luck. Knowing full well that misery loves company, the twosome join forces to pool whatever wits and resources they still have to try and make a go at it in Tampico, Mexico.

The mysterious B. Traven’s 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre about three prospectors panning for gold in the rugged Mexican backlands served as the basis for this classic Warner Brothers motion-picture depiction.

Produced by Henry Blanke, the film was written and directed by Academy Award winner John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who lived for a time in Mexico and appears as the white-suited American continually hit upon for assistance. Co-starring Huston’s veteran actor father, a toothless Walter Huston, in an Oscar-caliber performance as the lanky old-timer Howard, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an epic morality tale about the dangers of too much greed and too little foresight.

Walter Huston, Tim Holt & Bogie in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Walter Huston, Tim Holt & “Bad Guy” Bogie in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Desperate for dough, the two down-and-outers, Fred C. Dobbs (a mean and ornery Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best “rabid dog” roles ever) and Bob Curtin (a stocky but game Tim Holt), team up with the aforementioned Howard, an expert on past prospecting ventures, upon hearing him talk up a storm about his exploits in a Tampico flophouse. Howard knows a thing or two about prospecting, and even more about human nature.

After Dobbs gets lucky with a winning lottery ticket, the trio sets off for the Sierra Madre mountains. Seeing the agile old geezer traverse steep terrain with precious little effort, Dobbs wonders if he isn’t part goat. With Howard’s help, they hit pay dirt; but soon after, the men are forced to confront other crises, among them a fourth vagrant named Codie (Bruce Bennett), who’s just itching for a piece of the action. When Codie is killed by bandits and Howard gets whisked off by the locals for saving a boy’s life, Dobbs and Curtin are left to fend for themselves.

Eventually succumbing to gold fever, Dobbs tries to eliminate the competition in typical delusional fashion. He meets his fate at the hands of those same Mexican bandits, one of whom, a nervous fellow known as “Gold Hat” (newcomer Alfonso Bedoya — forever fidgety, thanks to Huston’s non-direction), earlier uttered the famous line about not having to show “any stinking badges.”

Alfonso Bedoya as "Gold Hat"
“You’re the guy in the hole!” — Alfonso Bedoya as “Gold Hat”

The movie is hard to classify. Basically, it’s part Western and part film noir. For an action-adventure yarn, however, this adult drama emphasizes (wonder of wonders) character development over elaborate special effects – in particular, that of the reckless Dobbsey. His descent into a hellish, fiery furnace is a trifle too literal at times, but otherwise this is fine entertainment the whole family can enjoy. It’s amazing what the talented Bogart could do with this two-dimensional creature. By humanizing Mr. Dobbs, one almost feels sorry for the man, which is probably the right feeling to have in these circumstances.

Tim Holt, so easily affronted and forceful in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), is equally memorable for revealing Curtin’s warm and tender side (the touching letter reading episode, for instance). He’s joined by his old man, veteran cowpuncher Jack Holt, who can be seen briefly in the flophouse sequence.

And last but not least, there’s the great Walter Huston, sounding off with that infectious laugh of his, as well as doing that funny little dance that Billy Crystal so admired (and stole from) for his comedic version of the story (see City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). Huston is the picture’s moral center, the iron rod thrust into the dirt and the fellow you want by your side when the going gets tough — and brother, does it ever get tough!

Tim Holt & Walter Huston
Curtin (Tim Holt) & Howard (Walter Huston) share the last laugh together

One can’t fail to mention composer Max Steiner’s powerful film score, a major character in itself. Others in the strong cast are Barton MacLane as McCormick, young Robert Blake as the boy who sells Bogie the winning ticket, Arturo Soto Rangel as El Presidente, Manuel Donde as El Jefe, José Torvay as Pablo, Margarito Luna as Pancho, Pat Flaherty, and (most controversially) Ann Sheridan as a streetwalker, who had allegedly participated in the production, but which has never been confirmed with absolute certainty.

The ending is a masterpiece of cinematic irony and the film is noteworthy, too, for not having the spoken Spanish subtitled. Regardless, you can figure out what they’re talking about through their actions and gestures.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

In the Merry Month of December: A Boring ‘Bohème,’ a Rousing ‘Rigoletto,’ and a Delightful ‘Donna del Lago’ — Need We Say More?

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A Long Time Ago, in an Opera House Far, Far Away….

Finale to Act II of La Boheme at the Met
Finale to Café Momus scene, Act II of La Boheme at the Met

Welcome, opera fans, to the 2015-2016 Metropolitan Opera broadcast season! Did you miss those radio, online streaming, and/or Live in HD transmissions of your favorite works? No? Well, we sure did! As a matter of fact, this is the 84th consecutive season of Met Opera performances to be broadcast live for the pleasure of opera lovers everywhere and throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe.

Today, satellite feeds relay the experience to such faraway spots as Brazil, Australia, South Africa, China, and beyond. And I’ve been a steadfast and unswervingly loyal listener to the Met broadcasts for over half that time. You can’t beat a record like that for consistency, now, can you?

The new season will feature only the fourth host in its long history. Prior to the previously announced Mary Jo Heath, who for the past ten years has served as the program’s senior producer, there were the redoubtable Milton Cross (1931-1975), Peter Allen (1975-2004), and Margaret Juntwait (2004-2014) to contend with. With a master’s thesis behind her that delved into the minutiae of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and a PhD dissertation from the Eastman School of Music that contrasted Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle with Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (French for “Bluebeard”), the evidently knowledgeable Mary Jo is well equipped to take on the challenges that hosting live opera can pose.

In like manner, with a seemingly endless repertoire of facts, figures, useless trivia, and historical lore to entertain and amuse listeners, the eager and ever-smiling Ira Schiff returns to fulfill his main mission as Ms. Heath’s gushing co-host and commentator. Music producer Jay David Saks is back, as well as veteran producers Ellen Keel and William Berger. The series is executive produced by Mia Bongiovanni (now THERE’S an operatic name if I’ve ever heard one!) and Elena Park.

There is also a periodical called Opera News (published monthly by the Metropolitan Opera Guild) that acts as a sort of guide to the weekly Saturday broadcasts. In addition, the print version of the magazine has undergone an extreme makeover that caters more to the tastes of younger opera fanciers than to us old timers. Copious photos of aspiring young artists line its information-packed pages, along with reviews from local and international venues, as well as fluff pieces suggesting to readers what to eat, what to drink, where to travel, and who to watch for in which opera.

Cover of the September 2015 OPERA NEWS (Met Opera Guild)
Cover of the September 2015 OPERA NEWS (Met Opera Guild)

Certainly, the present look and feel of Opera News resembles that of an online podcast for the smart-phone generation, which it may very well become in the foreseeable future. Yes, the tell-tale signs that the youth market now dominates the scene are everywhere — even in the high-cultured world of opera. I wonder, though, if there is any truth behind the purported pandering described above.

I have noticed that orchestra members are indeed getting younger, with more and more women players participating than ever before. That’s certainly something to cheer about!

However, the undeniable irony of opera is that it takes a long time for voices to ripen and mature. Much like the finest wines, age can be both a blessing or a curse to the best of performers. Still, veterans can boast of a dependence on their hard-earned experience to overcome temporary vocal problems. It’s a fact of operatic life that established pros with rock-solid techniques can oftentimes weather these storms better than, say, those who have yet to encounter such difficulties.

As in any sport, relying on the aid and advice of good teachers, skilled vocal coaches or sympathetic stage directors can make the difference between success and failure, thus helping to turn boos into bravos when the time inevitably arrives to face such matters.

A Bohème with Something to Boast About

The radio season kicked off on December 5 with that perennial holiday attraction, Puccini’s La Bohème. The broadcast starred Italian diva Barbara Frittoli as Mimì, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as the poet Rodolfo, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez as Musetta, Rumanian baritone Levente Molnár as the painter Marcello, Russian baritone Alexey Lavrov as the musician Schaunard, the Rockville Centre bass-baritone Christian van Horn as the philosopher Colline, and American buffo John Del Carlo as Benoit/Alcindoro. The performance was presided over by Milanese conductor Paolo Carignani, who will also be conducting two other Puccini works at the Met, Tosca and Turandot.

If I had to describe this piece to the casual listener, I would say that La Bohème epitomizes all that is unique and characteristic of what we call “opera.” After years of studying the work and marveling at its musical pleasures, one can only add that music lovers often refer to it as the “perfect” opera. It’s short and it’s sweet; it’s comic and it’s dramatic; it’s funny and it’s sad, and ultimately tragic.

There are gently poetic turns by many of those involved as well as full-blown operatic ones. For example, a huge chorus in Act II and some lovely set pieces in the outlying acts; a bevy of memorable tunes, an orchestral tone poem at the start of Act III, and two (count ‘em) two lovesick couples to root for. What more can one ask? Oh, and it takes place on Christmas Eve.

Domestic opera companies from the Metropolitan and Chicago Lyric to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House have boasted opulent visuals and eye-popping production values every time they bring this work to the fore. I’m all for lavish scenery and costumes (if and when they are called for), but over the years I’ve grown to accept the fact that despite its reputation as a bustling crowd-pleaser, La Bohème is at heart an intimate drama.

In addition to the above, there are also attractive and rewarding parts both for the would-be novice and the reputable veteran. In the right hands, they can melt an audience’s heart. Two such parts are the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimì. He is the archetypal romantic lead, while she can be as delicate as a flower — and just as fragile, given that from the start she’s afflicted with tuberculosis.

Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) & Mimi (Barbara Frittoli) in Act I of La Boheme
Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) & Mimi (Barbara Frittoli) in Act I of La Boheme

Far from being a “goody-two-shoes,” Mimì is a passionate, loving individual who craves attention, if not so openly as her counterpart, the vivacious Musetta. In one of the discarded scenes from Mürger’s novel that Puccini insisted be excised, so desperate is she to be loved and cared for (but wary of Rodolfo’s jealous outbursts) that she leaves Rodolfo to take up with a wealthy viscount (oh, Mimì, how could you?).

Their Act I “meet cute” (Hollywood-speak for their initial encounter) is surely one of the most touching instances of operatic love-at-first-sight to be found anywhere. Only in opera can young people bawl at each other in full voice and declare their undying affection (they don’t even kiss until later — well, in most productions, anyway). In my mind’s eye, I would prefer to see them slowly but carefully get to know one another through mutual self-discovery.

An example of what I mean is Mimì’s first aria, “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, ma il mio nome è Lucia” (“Yes, they call me Mimi, but my real name is Lucy”). This is the latter half of their getting-to-know-you session, after Rodolfo’s admission in his introductory solo “Che gelida manina” that he has the soul of a millionaire (“L’anima ho milionaria”), even though he’s as poor as sin. He goes on to wax poetic about her enchanting eyes that have robbed him of whatever riches he once possessed (“Ruban tutti gioielli, due ladri gli occhi belli”). Soaring to a high C (not held, by the way, but indicated in the score with a fermata), Rodolfo tells her that the theft does not bother him. In fact, it has given him renewed hope (just like a poet to say that!).

Responding to his request to tell him about herself, Mimì tells him that her story is a brief one. Gradually — and shyly at first — she is guarded in her choice of words (actually, those of the librettist Giacosa), but ultimately reveals to Rodolfo what she likes to do (“I embroider patterns”) and how she spends her free time. She even admits to liking things that have poetic names. “Lei m’intende?” – “You get my drift?” Mimì asks him, quizzically. Rodolfo’s one word answer is: “Sì.” Well, of course he understands: he’s a poet, isn’t he?

Barbara Frittoli as Mimi
Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Mimi

This brief semi-sung passage inside an aria reflects Puccini’s masterly use of parlando — that is, of speaking in short bursts of pointed phrases. It takes the place of the previous generation’s overuse of recitative before the aria proper. What Puccini does here is mimic real conversation between two obviously attracted individuals by wrapping their exchanges in a musical structure that allows both for the advancement of plot and the expression of each character’s innermost thoughts and wants.

About halfway into her scene, Mimì repeats the opening line, “Yes, they call me Mimi,” then appends it with a questioning, “And why? I don’t know.” In her nervousness, her mind starts to wander, flitting from one subject to the other: “Alone, I make my lunch. I don’t always go to Mass, but I pray every day to the Lord.” This is as natural an expression of normal speech as any I can think of. “I live all by myself,” she insists, a fairly brazen admission to a complete stranger. But remember, this is opera, not real life. A reasonable facsimile thereof? Perhaps, or better, an attempt to capture “real life” in musical form.

Mimì then goes on to describe her little white room where she looks out onto the roofs and sky. It’s an unmistakable reference to Rodolfo’s first line in the opera, “Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi” (which translates to “I’m watching the thick gray smoke rise up from the thousands of Parisian chimneys”), the purpose being that these two lonely yet vibrant youngsters share a tedious lifestyle amid the deprivations of the Latin Quarter, the bohemian-like Greenwich Village of its day. But they each manage to draw sustenance from the tedium that makes them hopeful for better days to come.

At this point in my ideal production, Mimì takes a breath and slowly rises to her feet upon saying the line, “Ma quando vien lo sgelo” – “But when the spring thaw arrives, the first rays of sun are mine. The first kiss of April is mine.” She embraces herself with her arms, cuddling to keep the warmth from escaping; her hands reach up to touch her face in a gesture that expresses her yearning for the sun’s life-giving rays. Intuitively, Mimì knows she is dying, even at this early stage (a lost opportunity that many singers and directors fail to take hold of). Her eyes are closed as she sings, which allows her to expose her true feelings of holding on to the moment — and to dear life — through voice alone.

This highly emotional outburst is so typical of Puccini, and so typical of the tender loving care he lavished on his female characters. It’s also one of the opera’s most exhilarating moments, one I hold my own breath for. My only wish is that more conductors would allow the singers to draw the line out a bit longer than they normally do. It sustains the air of anticipation, of a moment frozen in time that may never return.

At last, she opens her eyes, only to notice her drab surroundings. Realizing she is back in Rodolfo’s garret, Mimì reverts to twittering about flowers. “But the ones I make have no fragrance,” she distractedly sighs. She ends her reverie with a rapidly uttered apology for not having more to say about herself and for being a bothersome neighbor. Surprisingly, her and Rodolfo’s autobiographical depictions end not with bluster but with softness, an indication of their sweet, ruminative natures. Ah, young love! If only they knew what troubles lay ahead of them…

And if the broadcast performance on December 5 had more of this kind of unfettered joy and life-affirming intimacy that La Bohème clearly calls for, it might have been a truly remarkable one at that. Sadly, the impression I got was of a routine, by-the-numbers program that was sorely lacking in that punch to the gut that only the best performances (and performers, to be perfectly blunt about it) can provide.

Marcello (Levente Molnar) & Musetta (Ana Maria Martinez) in Act II of "La Boheme"
Marcello (Levente Molnar) & Musetta (Ana Maria Martinez) in Act II of “La Boheme”

Even with the sort of cast that most opera companies would die for, Frittoli’s Mimì was thin and colorless of tone, Vargas’ Rodolfo (who took his “Che gelida manina” down a semitone) was strained and effortful, while the other cast members, including a frayed Del Carlo as a blustery cliché-driven Benoit and Alcindoro, and a far-from-elegant Schaunard by the wavery-voiced Lavrov, simply could not make up for the slack left by the two leads.

Molnár’s strong-willed Marcello and Martínez’s flighty, keenly-observed Musetta tried their best to liven things up, but the vocal chemistry and ensemble effort this work demands simply wasn’t there. Maestro Carignani added little to the general ho-hum environment.

At the least, chorus master Donald Palumbo’s Met Opera chorus was up to snuff, salvaging what little they could of the afternoon’s proceedings. It is an absolute pleasure to hear these excellent choristers prove their mettle each and every time they appear. Bravi, bravi!!! 

Verdi and Rossini at Their Finest

Act I of Verdi's "Rigoletto" with Piotr Beczala & Zeljko Lucic
Act I of Verdi’s Rigoletto with Piotr Beczala & Zeljko Lucic (at right)

December 12 brought Verdi’s Rigoletto back to the airwaves, in director Michael Mayer’s glitzy Las Vegas-style adaptation. Once again, the performance was anchored by Željko Lučić as the Don Rickles-like tragicomic Rigoletto. Debuting soprano Nadine Sierra sang the part of his daughter Gilda, tenor Piotr Beczala returned as the lascivious Duke of Mantua (a Frank Sinatra-type in this mounting), Nancy Fabiola Herrera was the hooker Maddalena, and Dimitry Ivashchenko was her hit-man brother, Sparafucile. Maestro Roberto Abbado led the wonderful Met Opera orchestra.

As readers of my blog are aware, I was thoroughly bowled over by this updated version of the opera when it first premiered, which is similar, in many respects, to an earlier production by Jonathan Miller for the English National Opera (from the 1980s) that set the story in New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy. One striking element from that staging was the third act scene where the “Duke,” a gangland boss, put a coin in the slot of an old jukebox in Sparafucile’s hideaway that went on to play a 45-rpm recording of “La donna è mobile” — a novel touch, if I do say so.

The afternoon’s performance suddenly caught fire with Ms. Sierra’s superbly delivered, excellently acted and articulated Gilda. Still only in her twenties, Sierra’s coloratura fireworks, in the virginal aria “Caro nome,” and her bold entreaties to her father in Act II ignited this production every time she appeared on stage, so much so that it bolstered the confidence of the other participants in outdoing each other. For instance, Beczala never sounded better as the ribald, all-or-nothing-at-all Duke, clearly in the Sinatra mold.

Nadine Sierra as Gilda & Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto
Nadine Sierra as Gilda & Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto in the tragic finale

Nadine’s effervescence even livened up the put upon hunchback of baritone Lučić, whose gnarly line and muscular tone can be torture to the ears at times. However, he overcame the title role’s treacherously high tessitura with a sympathetic and rousing portrayal of the jester.

In his earlier assumption of the part when this production was still new, Lučić merely avoided the alternate unwritten high notes that end the opera; but here, he threw caution to the winds and let out a long-held howl of despair at his daughter’s murder that lowered the curtain on this despondent character’s tribulations. Not for nothing was Rigoletto’s original incarnation (in Victor Hugo’s play) called Triboulet.

Moving on to the bel canto realm, the December 19 broadcast reintroduced listeners to Gioachino Rossini’s 1819 drama La Donna del Lago (“The Lady in the Lake”) in the production by Paul Curran, with Joyce DiDonato as Elena, Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcolm, the spectacular Lawrence Brownlee as Giacomo (or James) V, John Osborn as Rodrigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. The conductor was the resourceful Michele Mariotti.

The opera is based on a romantic poem by Sir Walter Scott, the same author who later had fired Donzietti’s imagination with his 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a 16th-century tale of knights and damsels in distress set in the Scottish highlands. The difference being that everyone warbles in Italian! Mamma mia!

I’m not the biggest fan of Rossini’s tragedies: they all sound like comedic romps to me, no matter how stark or dramatic the subject matter. His overtures are world renowned, however, and show a depth of understanding and mastery of the form like no other. Musicologists and historians have gone on record as claiming that Rossini wrote nearly 40 operatic works, with an almost equal distribution of comic and tragic pieces. Only his contemporary Donizetti surpassed him with a back-breaking 60 works to his credit.

John Osburn, Joyce DiDonato & Lawrence Brownlee in "La Donna del Lago"
John Osburn, Joyce DiDonato & Lawrence Brownlee in “La Donna del Lago”

Thankfully, La Donna del Lago provides ample opportunities for both protagonists and antagonists to display their coloratura wares, as it were. All the above participants were enjoyable and thoroughly reliable, with the amazing Lawrence Brownlee taking top vocal honors in an unbelievable demonstration of agility and control, along with astounding high notes and coloratura dexterity in alt. Brownlee will be appearing soon on a PBS broadcast of the annual Richard Tucker Gala. This warrants a not-to-be-missed disclaimer for his fans!

On that same PBS telecast will be adult-oriented pop sensation Andrea Bocelli singing Lionel’s popular “M’appari, tutt’amor” aria from Flotow’s Martha. From what I heard of his portion of the program, Bocelli has a long way to go in the operatic sweepstakes to please this listener’s discerning ears and tastes. I find his wavery attempts at a clear legato line and his choppy, broken phrasing distracting in the extreme. He should leave well enough alone and let experts like the superbly-gifted Brownlee, not to mention the incredibly flexible Joyce DiDonato, do their “thing” in operatic circles.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Madama Butterfly’ — North Carolina Opera Triumphs with Puccini’s Japanese Tragedy (Part Three): Cio-Cio-San’s Clipped Wings

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And Now, For Your Listening Pleasure…

Cio-Cio-San (Talise Trevigne) & Suzuki (Lindsey Ammann) in Act II of Madama Butterfly (Photo: Curtis Brown)
Cio-Cio-San (Talise Trevigne) & Suzuki (Lindsey Ammann) in Act II of Madama Butterfly (Photo: Curtis Brown)

Interestingly, North Carolina Opera’s November 1st presentation of Madama Butterfly was given in two acts, with the second act divided into two parts bridged by Cio-Cio-San’s night vigil, which includes the exquisite “Humming Chorus” and the orchestral Intermezzo. For all intents and purposes, this should be the preferred method of presenting the work, which as we know was the way Puccini originally envisioned his favorite opera to be performed.

That said, most opera company’s continue to stage the work with two intermissions, separating the piece into three distinct acts, but at the same time trying to respect the composer’s wishes by reminding spectators that Act II is really in two parts. Either way will work, the point being that audiences will flock to the opera no matter how it’s partitioned, as long as the lead roles are performed to the best of the artists’ abilities.

On that account, audiences in Raleigh had nothing to fear. NCO’s Artistic and Music Director, Timothy Myers, led a most revelatory reading of Puccini’s score, surely one of the composer’s most elaborately conceived creations in terms of exoticism, local ambiance and, despite the Japanese setting, quintessentially Italianate passion.

Maestro Timothy Myers
Maestro Timothy Myers

From the opening fugato to the final crashing chords, Myers was in firm command of his forces, displaying commitment and drive in conveying the primary colors of this gorgeous piece. His leadership kept the sometimes stagnant stage pictures from straying off into dull routine.

I cannot praise his efforts enough, which I first spotted with his excellent stewardship of NCO’s Don Giovanni in April. His best moments came during the dream-like night vigil and especially the affecting Intermezzo, one of Puccini’s most descriptive symphonic tone poems. The Intermezzo foreshadows Pinkerton’s return, a projection of Cio-Cio-San’s anticipation of her husband’s homecoming.

Tempos throughout were generally on the brisk side, but not so fast as to be rushed. For the depiction of dawn over Nagasaki Bay, Myers coaxed some lovely sounds from the string and woodwind sections, which made equally telling points during the marriage broker Goro’s introduction of the three servants at the start of Act I.

While the Intermezzo played in the pit, my mind wandered to inevitable comparisons with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, which Puccini must have known and surely been influenced by. This piece’s sweeping impressionistic harmonies contrasted vividly with the Tuscan composer’s more melancholy strains, which Myers dotingly brought out for our enjoyment. Overall, there wasn’t a moment of slackness anywhere in his leadership, a major accomplishment for a regional opera orchestra.

Maestro Myers is to be commended for a performance worthy of some illustrious predecessors, among them Arturo Toscanini, Oliviero de Fabritiis (who presided over the classic rendition of the opera with Dal Monte and Gigli), Tullio Serafin, Sir John Barbirolli, and the late Lorin Maazel. Myers’ guidance could also be felt in the singing, which was uniformly excellent in just about every role.

About the only things I missed were the backstage anchor noises (called for in the libretto) to supplement the sailor’s calls as Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln, pulls into port. In spite of that minor lapse, Myers steered the proceedings in exactly the right direction: all eyes were fixed on the stage where they belonged, while our ears made note of the superb musical accompaniment provided by the versatile NCO Orchestra. Under Myers, the music ebbed and flowed as few verismo scores of the period did.

The staging of the night vigil was preceded by the Flower Duet (so reminiscent of Delibes’ similar pairing in Lakmé, as previously noted), which featured a shower of flower petals tossed onto the stage from the overhead catwalk. I would have welcomed a more restrained hand in tossing out the petals. However, it did conjure up visions of La Bohème when, in Act III, snowflakes appear to fall on Rodolfo and Mimì as the couple agrees to part in the spring.

Since Butterfly was the natural offshoot of La Bohème, this bit of scene painting was most apropos. While it’s been said that La Fanciulla del West is basically a Tosca retread, both Butterfly and Fanciulla have profited from the melodic advances of the pentatonic and whole-tone scales that Puccini borrowed from oriental influences and from Debussy.

Butterfly Emerges from Her Chrysalis

In the title role, soprano Talise Trevigne had the toughest assignment and the biggest shoes to fill. Cio-Cio-San (or Butterfly, as she is called) has been performed by a wide variety of vocal categories: from light coloratura (Toti dal Monte) and heavier lyric (Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto and Mirella Freni), to full-blown dramatic (Maria Callas) and lirico spinto (Renata Tebaldi, Antonietta Stella, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Leona Mitchell).

The projection of a smaller voice into a large auditorium, and over a full orchestra, are the main obstacles to overcome. This is what prevented Brazilian light soprano Bidu Sayão from undertaking this strenuous part, one she had long wanted to sing on the stage. For the artist who possesses a more potent instrument, the issue involves scaling the voice down so as not to overpower the other artists. We are, after all, talking about a fifteen-year-old girl. And in order to make her sound credible and lend believability to her character, a bit of vocal sleight-of-hand is called for.

Physical appearance counts for much, although Cio-Cio-San’s Japanese ancestry can be hinted at through makeup, carriage, bearing, hairstyle and gestures — in short, all significant aspects of, and tailored specifically to, her samurai lineage.

Talise Trevigne as Butterfly in the Act II "Flower Duet" (Curtis Brown)
Talise Trevigne as Butterfly in the Act II “Flower Duet” (Photo: Curtis Brown)

Ms. Trevigne, while sounding subdued and soft-grained at the outset, slowly but confidently eased into the part as Butterfly’s dilemma began to unfold in subsequent scenes — so much so that by the middle of Act II, I was won over by the singer’s straightforward manner. Talise gave the impression of childlike innocence, tempered with a growing maturity brought on by the troublesome aspect of her position as the abandoned wife of an American naval officer.

Her fending off of the annoying Prince Yamadori, for example, was humorously handled and elicited chuckles from the audience for her cheek in confronting the haughty aristocrat. Vocally, Trevigne opened up marvelously in the central portions of Act II, which, in the words of the late tenor Richard Tucker, is the true test of a Butterfly. Earlier, her probing account of the searing solo “Un bel di,” despite excellent delivery, felt tentative, a sensation I had picked up from the first act, where Talise employed a “little girl” demeanor. I feared for her vocal security at this juncture, thinking of the rigors to come and the dramatic demands this role places on the performer.

On that score, my fears were unfounded. Talise traversed every hurdle called for in the score. For a coloratura, she displayed ample power when called for, i.e., in particular her dismissal of the American Consul Sharpless after he urges her to accept Yamadori’s proposal of marriage. Greatly offended, Cio-Cio-San shows him the door in a scene of intense anguish. Both Trevigne and Michael Sumuel as Sharpless stayed “in character” and timed each other’s reactions to the needs of the moment. Along with the entirety of Act II, their exchanges during the letter reading episode were the highlights of the show.

At the end, Ms. Trevigne was the only singer to have received a standing ovation from the crowd. When maestro Myers came out for his bow, the soprano greeted him with a generous hug. This told me all I needed to know about who was responsible for the preparation and coaching of this grueling assignment.

Another example of her mastery of the role came with Cio-Cio-San’s farewell and suicide. In the poignant “Piccolo Iddio,” Trevigne expressed an abundance of pathos, but dialed down the mawkish elements in order to make the final scene that much more gripping. Her voice poured forth torrents of sound, all of them specifically tailored to the drama — again, surprising for a coloratura whose previous assignments included Ophélie in Thomas’ Hamlet, Mimì in La Bohème, and encounters with Mozart’s Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro and Pamina in The Mozart Flute.

The Rest is Pure Gold

Tenor Michael Brandenburg
Tenor Michael Brandenburg

But for some issues early in Act I, due mostly to faulty intonation, Michael Brandenburg’s Pinkerton was exceptionally well sung. He coped valiantly with the high tessitura, hitting and sustaining all those A’s and B’s in his melodious exchanges with Sharpless, as well as those bountiful B flats in “Amore o grillo” and a ringing, full-voiced high C at the climax of the love duet.

On the whole, Brandenburg proved his mettle as an actor. His genuine Yankee swagger at “Dovunque al mondo,” was palpable, as was his diffidence in waiving away Sharpless’ concerns about his impending marriage to Cio-Cio-San. This Pinkerton was ready for action from the get go. Brandenburg’s lyric voice blended seamlessly with those of the other singers, including a more than satisfying Goro and a remarkably personable Sharpless — more about their individual contributions in a moment.

Continuing, the Indiana-born tenor’s handling of Pinkerton’s swelling vocal lines lent plausibility to his bride’s belief that here stood the man of her dreams. He was gentleness personified at the phrase, “Bimba, bimba non piangere,” imploring his young bride not to weep after being cursed by her uncle, the Bonze, and her disapproving relatives. And he melted all hearts with his bold entreaties of “Vieni, vieni,” later in their duet. Indeed, one could almost believe that Pinkerton really was in love with Butterfly (at least, until his tour of duty was over).

During the wedding scene, although he made light of Butterfly’s relatives, Brandenburg’s Pinkerton never overstepped the boundaries of decency. Tossing one of her puppet ancestors into the air, he sensed his bride’s discomfort at this apparent act of disrespect, which he quickly recovered from. This was done in the most natural manner, a refreshing departure from past portrayals of the American naval officer as an out-and-out S.O.B.

To be honest, I was more troubled by the boos that Brandenburg received at his curtain call, which (I am told) had mostly to do with the caddish nature of his character than with his fine singing throughout. In that regard, this is a young man on the rise who bears close watching.

Ian McEuen as Goro
Ian McEuen as Goro

Tenor Ian McEuen was an outstanding Goro. He really sang the role, which was another unexpected surprise. In most productions, Goro normally comes across as a busybody, the verismo incarnation of Wagner’s Mime from Siegfried:  a whining, scheming, sniveling gnome-like creature of little to no scruples. But in McEuen’s expert hands, a satisfying portrait of the manipulative marriage broker emerged. The tenor’s warm voice wrapped itself around his character’s music like a velvet glove, a most welcome departure from the norm.

Uncharacteristically, Puccini gave this “minor” player some of his most delectable tunes, something he would only deign to accomplish some twenty years later for the Trio of the Masks in his brilliant scoring of the incomplete Turandot.

I have only one objection, and that is with Goro’s reappearance towards the end of the opera, where he listened in on the maid Suzuki and Kate Pinkerton’s conversation. This was uncalled for and not at all required of the plot. When Cio-Cio-San dismisses him in Act II for his meddling and spreading of rumors about Pinkerton’s desertion (“Va via!”), it is assumed he is no longer welcome in her household. For Goro to lose face by sneaking back in and risk being seen by others goes against the very grain of Japanese custom. If I were the director, I would seriously reconsider this aspect of the production.

Michael Sumuel’s beautifully modulated and excellently articulated Sharpless was a delight throughout. His was the most consistently sympathetic portrayal of all, with marvelously shaped phrasing and deftly placed delivery, a superbly realized assumption by this amazingly pliable but no less talented bass-baritone. His American Consul was deeply felt and completely in tune with the character’s struggles to convince Butterfly of the seriousness of her situation.

Not only did Sumuel contribute to the dramatic arc of Act II, he sparked real interest in the ensuing dialogue between Sharpless and Pinkerton. Like Goro above, their scenes are usually treated in matter-of-fact fashion, with most conductors neglecting to take full advantage of the gorgeous tenor-baritone writing Puccini has provided them. For this, we have maestro Myers to thank. It’s at times like these, with a performer of the caliber of Mr. Sumuel, who is so in tune with the composer’s intent and purpose, that one laments the loss of Sharpless’ Act II aria, which Puccini cut prior to the La Scala premiere.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel (Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)
Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel (Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

Lindsey Ammann’s Suzuki displayed a rich mezzo-soprano voice. This was luxury casting for this role. She, too, elicited much sympathy for Butterfly’s plight as the loyal maidservant and only companion. Her Wagnerian-sized instrument filled the auditorium with her cries lamenting Cio-Cio-San’s sad fate. Ammann has previously sung in the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle production by Robert Lepage, during the 2010-2011 run of the work, as well as at Stuttgart Opera as Mary in The Flying Dutchman. Another talent to watch!

As Yamadori, baritone Jesse Malgieri drew a real flesh-and-blood individual out of this bland, self-serving and self-satisfied fop. Previously, Malgieri appeared with North Carolina Opera in Verdi’s La Traviata. Both he and conductor Myers shared a close association with Lorin Maazel, whose Decca/London recording of Traviata is a particular favorite of mine.

The Bonze was performed by Chinese bass Wei Wu, whose formidable physical size and booming voice brought a terrifying presence to Butterfly’s priestly uncle. One perceptive bit of stage business involved the Bonze’s close proximity to Pinkerton, where these two characters exchanged harsh glances at each other — a most effective moment and one endemic to the clash of cultures present in the work.

Others in the cast included mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar as Kate Pinkerton, given more to do in this production than most singers have been in the past, Charles Hyland as a clear-voiced Imperial Commissioner, Tom Keefe as the Registrar, Jacob Kato as Uncle Yakuside, Austenne Grey as the Cousin, Annette Stowe as Butterfly’s mother, Margaret Maytan as the aunt, and little Ella Fox as Butterfly’s son Sorrow (“Dolore” in Italian, but originally called “Trouble” in the Belasco play).

The lighting designer was Mark McCullough, who could have spotlighted the performers — and some of the front-stage action — a bit better. The chorus master was Scott MacLeod, and the costume coordinator was Sondra Nottingham. The atmospheric scenery was designed by David P. Gordon for the Sarasota Opera. It was constructed and painted by Center Line Studios, Cornwall, NY. The scenic backdrop was the work of Michael Hagen, Inc., of South Glens Falls, NY. The costumes were designed for the Utah Symphony and Opera by Alice Bristow. The men’s wardrobe was apt and strictly of the period (Japan, ca. 1900), while the women’s kimonos radiated authenticity without descending into parody or a road-show rip-off of The Mikado.

E. Loren Meeker (Photo: Bryan Boyce)
E. Loren Meeker (Photo: Bryan Boyce)

The opera was directed by E. Loren Meeker, who has previously worked with Washington National Opera on Carmen, Lyric Opera of Chicago on Die Fledermaus, Houston Grand Opera on Trial By Jury, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires on Manon, and the San Diego Opera on La Bohème. As indicated above, more spotlighting of the principals might have helped to position the players better and clarify their relationships to one another.

One major faux pas that this version and far too many Madama Butterfly productions overlook is permitting the performers to enter a Japanese home without removing their footwear. Even as humble a dwelling as Cio-Cio-San’s tiny abode demands that decorum be observed.

Finally, honorable mention must go to that adorable tyke, Ella Fox, who played Sorrow. Most child actors tend to either hog the limelight or are more “trouble” than they’re worth. Not Ella. She behaved commendably in these surroundings, with poise and ease in her moments on the stage. In addition, she helped to humanize the other participants in ways that only children can: by drawing out such feelings as joy and tenderness from a bunch of grown-ups. Brava, little diva!

Butterfly’s End and Puccini’s Passing

Cio-Cio-San completes her transition from young girl to mature woman by opera’s end. She achieves the stature of a tragic heroine with the realization that Pinkerton will never return; that her little son Sorrow will no longer be a part of her life. My only qualm with the finale as staged by NCO — and this is strictly from my personal perspective, not a reflection on the positive aspects of the production as a whole — involves the ritual surrounding Butterfly’s death.

In the original stage directions, Puccini indicated that Cio-Cio-San give her son a doll and an American flag to play with while he is blindfolded. She then goes behind a screen and plunges her father’s sword into her neck. (Historical note: only men and women of samurai descent were allowed to commit seppuku, which was part of the Bushido Code of Honor; the term hara-kiri has also been used to describe ritual suicide in the form of disembowelment. Men tended to kill themselves by this method, sometimes followed by a second who completed the task with decapitation; women most often placed a sword or dagger to their throat or neck).

Talise with Ella Fox as "Sorrow" (Curtis Brown)
Talise with Ella Fox as “Sorrow” (Curtis Brown)

In this production, the child is marched off to join Suzuki in the inner room. While Sorrow is there, Pinkerton cries out Butterfly’s name repeatedly (three times, to be exact) as Butterfly had indicated to Suzuki he would in “Un bel di.” But instead of killing herself at the crash of the gongs (again, as noted in the score), here she waits for Pinkerton’s last cry before doing herself in. The opera ends with a repeat of the music that followed Cio-Cio-San’s words, “Morta, morta!” (“Death, death!”) from her later aria “Che tua madre.”

I’m all for originality in staging. And I have no objection to director Meeker for varying the formula of Butterfly’s death somewhat. I believe choices were made in the many discussions beforehand as to what needs to take place and why. Goodness knows any number of avant-garde artists have taken greater liberties with the text than were found in Meeker’s direction. Nevertheless, Puccini and his librettists were skilled men of the theater. They knew their craft and practiced it wholesale. They also knew what worked and what didn’t (or at least, they thought they knew).

Puccini, above all the verismo composers, traveled widely to oversee new productions and revivals of his work. He visited New York’s Metropolitan Opera on several occasions, in 1907 with the company premiere of Madama Butterfly and again, in 1910, with the gala premiere of La Fanciulla del West. Even after spending so many frustrating years in search of a subject and then having to put up with an infinite number of diversions (many of the feminine kind), Puccini was still able to supervise the proceedings on a first-person basis. This in itself is quite extraordinary, that he took that much interest in his oeuvre that he would travel great distances to ensure their feasibility.

This extra degree of care which the composer demonstrated spoke volumes for how he wanted his works staged. Wagner left similar mandates, as did quite a few others. I wonder, then, what Puccini would have thought of these slight modifications to his carefully considered plans. Perhaps I am being needlessly picky or just plain obstinate. Yes, I admit that I am a traditionalist at heart, but I have enough of an open mind (especially where opera is concerned) to look dispassionately at a director’s work and accept that there are other points of view.

What we do know is that Puccini had been suffering from a throat ailment for some time — possibly two decades or more. If the known facts of his smoking are correct, he was mainly a two-to-three pack a day smoker. In his youth, this habit did not prevent him from working on his scores; in his later years, however, it tended to slow him down markedly, more so than the diabetes that was detected after his 1903 auto accident.

By the time of Turandot, around the end of October 1924, Puccini was suffering such excruciating pain that he reluctantly agreed to consult with various throat specialists (some without his family’s knowledge) in order to seek relief. One specialist suggested he receive a then-revolutionary and highly experimental radium therapy treatment at the Ledoux clinic in Brussels, Belgium.

Poster dramatizing Butterfly's death
Poster dramatizing Butterfly’s death

While in the city, and before his treatment began, Puccini had gone to the Téâtre de la Monnaie to see a performance of Madama Butterfly. This would be the last piece of music Puccini would ever hear. That it turned out to be the favorite from among his works proved prophetic. According to accounts of the composer’s last days, on November 24, 1924, seven radium tipped needles were inserted into an aperture in his throat. They were positioned as to destroy a tumor that had been welling up for years. Because of his weakened condition, Puccini was given only a local anesthetic.

Though outwardly successful in diminishing the tumor’s size, a few days later, on the afternoon of November 28, Puccini was said to have collapsed in his chair, his heart having given out due to the strain of the operation. He died a day later, on November 29, at 4:00 a.m.

The ironic twist of fate that led to Puccini’s untimely demise can be seen in Butterfly’s tragic death by suicide. In the samurai tradition, Butterfly had pierced her throat with her father’s sword. Puccini, whether it was known to him at the time or not, had his throat pierced not by a sword, but by seven needles — one each for the seven operatic works on which the composer’s fame rests today.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes