It’s the Time of the Season!
The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.
Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to partake in. And most of these activities tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.
That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.
Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.
We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot coexist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.
Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be.
Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.
Considering the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic portraits of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.
Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations
All right, then, we know who Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that spiked tail. Correct?
Oh, how wrong we are!
Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old. He’s Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. In the sequel Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.
He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.
In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match; a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper named Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).
On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.
Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.
Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.
In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins.
Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his breast. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil makes a hasty retreat.
Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal form) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him as heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; while in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we did get a good look at Heater’s backside, as well as his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.
God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, his portentous voice loudly booms forth each of the rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.
While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his the use of Heston’s voice by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind.
A Matter of Life and Death
In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning and that this will be their last supper together.
The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say) in the Oscar-winning medieval drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.
Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).
In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.
Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from purgatory.
(End of Part One – To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
A giant killer gorilla escapes its confines to wreak havoc on the streets of 1930s New York. What a premise for a story about a down-and-out film producer pining for his next big hit! Known as the picture that saved a movie studio — RKO Radio Pictures studio, to be exact — King Kong is the granddaddy of all those big-bad-stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping fantasy epics. And it is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be.
Labeled box-office poison by the press and hounded by insurance investigators and fire marshals alike, restless mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his upcoming project. Upon a chance meeting with the impoverished Ann Darrow (lovely Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), Denham impulsively decides to star her in his yet-to-be-announced adventure flick.
Cryptic and secretive to a fault, the wily producer nonetheless convinces Ann to trust him enough (“I’m on the level. No funny business!”) to accompany Denham and his shoestring crew as the only female member on board a ship “with the toughest looking mugs” anyone has had the misfortune to be associated with.
In the blink of an eye, they’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to … who knows where? Darrow and Denham are accompanied on their journey by salty seaman Captain Engelhorn and his lantern-jawed first mate, Jack Driscoll. Once our adventure seekers arrive on Skull Island, however, all hell breaks loose — quite literally. After unknowingly interrupting a native ceremony whereby a young girl undergoes elaborate preparation as the newly christened bride of “Kong,” Denham and his crew come face-to-face with the titular deity: an enormous anthropoid dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Amid the ceaseless pounding of native drums, Kong runs off into the jungle with Ann clutched safely in his arms. It’s love at first fright! But, as Denham prophetically warned, the danger lies when the beast allows himself to turn soft where the girl is concerned. In fulfillment of the prophecy, Kong comes to his bride’s defense by fighting off various prehistoric creatures, including incredibly thrilling battles with a vicious T-Rex (or Allosaurus, according to some sources), a slithering salamander, and a flying Pterodactyl. He also disposes of most of the crew members, leaving only a band of sailors guarding the gate, with Denham and Driscoll at opposite ends of a huge precipice.
Denham finds his way back to the village, while Driscoll follows Kong’s trail in order to rescue Ann. With Kong distracted by the local fauna, Ann and Driscoll brusquely make their escape by plunging down into the river bed below Kong’s lair. They manage to flee for their lives into the thick underbrush, with the raging Kong in hot pursuit.
After the giant beast has terrorized the village by munching and crunching the native population, he is knocked senseless by one of Denham’s gas bombs. But instead of coming to HIS senses, the publicity-minded producer can only see the biggest get-rich-quick scheme in the history of Broadway. He decides to ship Kong’s massage body back to Manhattan, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets — and atop its tallest building.
One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of this or anyone’s time, King Kong did for the Big Apple what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single-handedly destroyed it — in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights of visionary fancy, breaking attendance records at every showing.
This box-office champion of champions was the brainchild of two men, veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an idea conceived by Cooper and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. David O. Selznick was the executive producer. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX expert Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout the picture.
Back and front projection and traveling matte shots were extensively employed, in addition to grisly close-ups of Kong’s denture work. His full-sized bust took 40 some-odd bearskins to cover! Not all of the effects shots were filmed perfectly to scale, mind you, nor did they blend seamlessly into the frame. Still, this picture was destined to become a landmark in the annals of horror fantasy films. It remains the lone monster flick from which all others need be measured.
The sturdy cast is headed by the rambunctious Robert Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his manic character’s ambition and drive. He’s both FDR and Horatio Alger: crippled by his inability to have audiences take him seriously (“Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at”), his ego refuses to admit defeat; this is one overwhelmingly optimistic venture capitalist. His is the unquenchable spark (and, by design, that of the film’s real-life producer-directors) that ignites the audience’s interest and imagination, particularly in the way he sums up the misadventure to its final, philosophical conclusion:
Police lieutenant: “Well, Denham, the planes got him.”
Denham: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Fay Wray is the all-time champion hog caller (or, in this case, “scream queen”), but don’t let that fool you — she’s as full of pluck and spunk as they come. The softness and beguiling femininity she brings to the story’s ebb and flow make Ann Darrow an appealing contrast to the unbelievable horrors she’s forced to confront. Wray never had a better part, even though she also appeared in the equally shocking The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Her peak period of popularity spanned the 1930s to the mid-1940s.
Lankily-built Bruce Cabot is crusty sailor Jack Driscoll, who falls in love with Ann upon snatching her from Kong’s humongous clutches. On the “strength” of his acting, though, he’s no match for the King. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the wisecracking theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the Cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor, Roscoe Ates as a press photographer, and Lesley Mason as a theater patron.
Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who piloted the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process. Film historian Rudy Behlmer interviewed Cooper back in 1964. During that interview, Cooper denied there were any “symbolic” or “phallic” overtones in the movie’s depiction of the Kong-Darrow relationship. According to Cooper, there were no “hidden meanings, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything resembling intellectual ‘significance’ in the film. King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple,” Cooper insisted. “A more illogical picture could never have been made” (The Girl in the Hairy Paw, 1976, foreword by Rudy Behlmer, p.13).
That may be. But for years, the film was shorn of many of its most, ahem, “revealing” sequences, the prime example of which finds Kong delicately peeling away most of Ann’s dress, leaving only her dainty negligee. An obvious vestige of the pre-Code period, this and other “politically incorrect” snippets (i.e., Kong tossing a woman he mistakenly takes for Ann out of her apartment window; scenes of Kong’s rampage at the native village; the odious connection of the wild and crazy natives with their skin color) were, for die-hard fans of the film, re-inserted in the mid-1970s. For better or worse, most movie prints include these once-severed sequences.
It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one Hollywood’s Golden Age best. Although dimly recorded, the picture would never have achieved the worldwide notoriety it deservedly merited without Steiner’s magnificent music. One of the most typical elements of which involved the split-second timing of the score with the action on the screen. This was known in the industry as “mickey-mousing,” in the way that music for animated cartoons always seemed to follow the characters’ movements.
None of the other remakes, including Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 effort, has come close to toppling RKO’s original from its throne. And no home theater should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb film.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
What’s the best superhero movie ever made? Give up? Why, it’s Superman: The Movie, of course. You can bet your loose chunk of Kryptonite it is! And a benchmark for all subsequent flyboy features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the superhero action flick.
In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001) whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” a deeply distraught Clark Kent (played by Jeff East — excellent, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of foster père, Jonathan Kent (dependable old Glenn Ford):
“All those things I can do, all those powers … And I couldn’t even save him.”
It’s a heartbreaking moment for the troubled youth, especially after his dad had, in the previous scene, given the lad a morale-boosting pep talk. But Clark’s words come back to haunt him later on when the now mature Mr. Kent (a beefed up Christopher Reeve, in a star-making turn), in his normal form as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss.
Will the Man of Steel be able to overcome a major setback involving one of his closest companions? And will Superman be able to reconcile the warning his scientist father, the apocryphal Jor-El, gave him not to interfere in Earth’s history?
Is the pope Catholic? Do bears hibernate?
Superman’s dilemma is eventually resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama — done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like — in what surely was a head-on challenge for director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke) and his talented crew.
What struck most viewers the most about Superman: The Movie was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Mr. Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a terribly long and tedious shoot.
In addition to which, one must also pay proper respect to newcomer Christopher Reeve, who became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions the world over, for his admirable — no, stupendous! — acting assignment as the Kryptonian native and his mild-mannered alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. Reeve defied the odds by perfectly capturing, and delineating, the differing attitudes and temperaments of both Clark and Supie in what must have been a supremely exhausting endeavor.
The film divides the superhero’s tale into three distinct sections, the first of which takes place on the distant planet Krypton. It is there that we meet the brilliant scientist Jor-El, who tries to convince the skeptical ruling counsel their planet is in danger of being destroyed by Krypton’s giant red sun. Ignoring his pleas and branding Jor-El an alarmist, the counsel cautions him to keep silent. Despite his seeming acquiescence, Jor-El intends to save his son, Kal-El, from their fate by launching him into space — and on a direct course for a tiny blue planet called Earth.
After Krypton is destroyed (convincingly, despite being shot entirely in a studio), we then follow the young Kal-El (now christened “Clark Kent” by the husband and wife who discovered and raised him) as he grows up in the sleepy Midwestern town of Smallville. This most lyrical of the three sections can be termed the adagio movement of the feature. Bullied and abused by his fellow classmates, Clark senses his own uniqueness, but continues to be disturbed by his inability to reveal his incredible abilities. Upon the death of his foster father, Clark learns of his true nature and otherworldly origin.
With little choice left, he tells his elderly mother that a neighbor has volunteered to watch over the family farm. Torn by his decision, he resolves to leave mom behind (in a highly emotional farewell sequence, buoyed by John Williams’ powerful score) to take up a career as a reporter for The Daily Planet (!) in the teeming capital of Metropolis, a stand-in for the Big Apple (filmed on the streets of New York City). This leads to the third and final section, which unites the other two portions in a resounding and, ultimately, satisfying climax.
Scrappy as a badger Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as the paper’s ace news hound, Lois Lane, who feels a rivalry brewing with the bashful but talented Mr. Kent. Although it was rumored that Reeve and Kidder clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Chris hit it off like brother and sister, or so we are told.
Genial Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on that evil genius Lex Luthor, who has self-aggrandizing plans of his own, while inept cohorts Valerie Perrine as his buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. It’s great to see Jackie Cooper on screen again after so many years. Here, he plays tough-minded editor Perry White (“Don’t call me sugar, I mean chief!”), with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by movie critic Rex Reed, as he bumps into Lois and Clark on their way out of the Daily Planet building — just prior to Clark fainting dead away in defending Lois from a typical Manhattan street mugger.
Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando makes for a most impressive Jor-El (he should, for what Warner Brothers paid him to appear in the part), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran as Non, whose stories are told in Superman II — shot simultaneously, but released two years later under Richard Lester’s direction. Others in the large cast include Maria Schell, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Larry Hagman, and (look quick or you’ll miss ’em) Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill on board the speeding locomotive. They are credited as the first Superman and Lois to star in the original Columbia movie serial way back in 1948.
Author Mario Puzo (The Godfather) wrote the screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton and “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. And who could forget that memorable John Williams music, from a composer who’s provided moviegoers with countless screen classics. Its driving, pulsating title theme sets the tone from the picture’s get-go. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind?” with lyrics by songwriter Leslie Bricusse, spoken in hushed voiceover by Ms. Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie, a truly magical moment:
Can you read my mind?
Do you know what it is you do to me?
Don’t know who you are
Just a friend from another star
Here I am, like a kid at the school
Holding hands with a god or a fool
Will you look at me, quivering,
Like a little girl, shivering,
You can see right through me.
Can you read my mind?
Lois Lane, as tough as nails around others and completely absorbed in her work and career, melts like a winnowed cocoa bean whenever she’s around the blue-suited adventurer. Her knees start to shake, and her heart goes all-a-flutter, at his mere presence. The Flying Sequence pictured above cements their blossoming relationship. In fact, it’s one of the most fabulously orchestrated interludes of any sci-fi fantasy picture.
Lois’ strong connection to the mighty Man of Steel is the exact opposite of the one she shares with newspaper colleague Clark. Ditto for Superman, who as the klutzy Kent is all thumbs and left feet whenever Lois approaches, but who sticks out his chest and rises to his full height the minute he reverts to his true guise. Today, we might term this type of behavior as indicative of bipolar disorder.
After almost four decades, Superman is still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our own favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: simple, straightforward, and beautifully realized by East, Ford, and Thaxter. They’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life (filmed in Alberta, Canada, by the way) depicting a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. Too, one must not overlook the obvious Christian parallels, hinted at by a “reconstituted” Jor-El when he reveals to young Clark, in that icy Fortress of Solitude, that he gave Earth’s human inhabitants his only son. What a nice Christmas present!
The expanded edition on DVD and Blu-ray adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family. And it could not have come at a better time, when true heroes with a heart are so desperately needed (and in short supply).
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Make a Wish (On Second Thought, Maybe Not!)
On this day after Christmas, what better way to celebrate the holidays than with a song on your lips! Better yet, the Songs of 7 – The Musical (7 – O musical), the adult-themed theater piece written and produced by the Brazilian musical “Dream Team” of Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho and Ed Motta.
Back, by popular demand, are the English lyrics to the Second and Final Act of this unforgettable musical theater extravaganza, first staged in Rio de Janeiro on September 1, 2007:
“A HEART IN THE FOREST” (Young Men, Clara)
THERE’S A WOUNDED HEART IN THE FOREST
THERE’S YOUR PRINCE CHARMING
A PUMPKIN, A COACHMAN
A CLOCK WILL STRIKE AT TWELVE
A CALENDAR THAT READS OF SEVEN
THERE’S A WOUNDED HEART IN THE RAINSTORM
FROGS THAT GO LEAPING
RIGHT OUT OF THE OCEAN
SO WHAT’S YOUR HEART’S DESIRE
WHEN THE CLOCK WILL STRIKE THE HOUR?
HUNTER WITH A HORN
RIDER ON HIS HORSE
WHO WILL THEN INVADE MY BASTION?
AND WHEN WILL HE ENCHANT ME WITH FEELING,
AH AH AH AH AH AH …
HUNTER WITH A HORN
RIDER ON HIS HORSE
WHO WILL THEN INVADE MY BASTION?
AND WHEN WILL HE ENCHANT ME WITH FEELING,
- “MOP THAT DIRTY FLOOR” (Clara)
MOP THAT DIRTY FLOOR
TRA LA LA LA LA
SAID THE WICKED OLD STEPMOTHER
LOCKS HER UP, THEN SHUTS THE CUPBOARD
TIDY UP THAT ROOM
TRA LA LA LA LA
MAKES SNOW WHITE A CLEANING SERVANT,
WASH THAT WINDOW, CLOSE THOSE CURTAINS…
- “LITTLE BABY AT MY DOOR” (Rosa, Carmen, Odette)
A LITTLE BABE
CAME KNOCKING AT MY DOORSTEP
A LITTLE BUD
THAT FLOWERED IN MY GARDEN
LIKE A BLOSSOM ON THE FLOOR
LITTLE BABY AT MY DOOR
I CAN SEE HER DIAPERS PILING HIGH
HER BABY FOOD CAME SPITTING UP WITH SIGHS
SAY HELLO TO ALL YOU COLDS AND SORES
ALL THOSE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS GALORE!
A BABY GIRL
THAT’S LANDED ON OUR DOORSTEP
A SWEET BOUQUET
THAT OCCUPIED MY SUNSET
THE RAIN AND THUNDER
CRASHED UPON MY HEAD
HER TINY HAND IT WAS
THAT CHOSE INSTEAD
SHE ARRIVED, I THRIVED
SHE CAME, I CRIED
SHE’S MINE, SHE’S MINE
ALL MINE – ALL MINE!
- “OH, LOOK AT ME” (Amelia)
OH, LOOK AT ME
I IMPLORE YOU
ALL THAT’S IN ME
BEGGING FOR AID
WHAT DID YOU SEE?
MY LIFE AS IT WAS THEN
MY TRUE SELF
MY DARK SIDE AS WELL
MY CALM, MY CALM
SO TAKE ME AWAY
IN A CARRIAGE
ME AWAY FROM THE BALL THIS NIGHT
TIME PASSED ME BY
AND MY FATE HAS BEEN TOSSED
AT YOUR FEET
TAKE CARE OF MY NIGHTS,
ALL THAT’S IN ME
TREMBLING WITH LOVE
TELL ME I’LL BE
YOUR SLAVE AND YOUR SERVANT,
A LOYAL MAID
FAITHFUL AND TRUE
NOTHING’S LEFT THAT MATTERS
AND THE DOORS WILL BE CLOSING SOON
COME, HURRY, OH HURRY, TAKE CARE OF ME
TAKE CARE OF THE HURT THAT AILS ME INSIDE
OH HURRY, BE QUICK FOR THE SUN HAS COME OUT
ALL THAT’S LEFT FOR ME HERE IS TO HIDE
- “HERCULANO’S SECOND LULLABY” (Herculano)
MOMMY’S ON HER WAY
TRA LA LA LA LA
SHE’S JUST COMING ‘ROUND THE CORNER
DADDY SINGS SO BABY’S CALMER
BEWARE THE WITCH
SHE’S ON HER WAY
SHE WILL BITE YOU
SHE WILL GRAB YOU …
WATCH HER CLOSELY
- “HE’LL ARRIVE ON TIME” (Amelia, Bianca)
LIKE THE DAY OF A WEDDING
LIKE THE END OF A SEASON
LIKE THE SMILE ON A BABY
LIKE THE SWEETS AT A BANQUET
LIKE A BREEZE FROM THE OCEAN
HE’LL ARRIVE ON TIME
HE’LL ARRIVE, I KNOW
HE WILL WIPE AWAY
ALL MY SORROWS, ALL
ALL OF THEM
HE’LL ERASE FROM ME
HE’LL ERASE FROM ME
MARKS OF MY DESPAIR
MARKS OF MY DESPAIR
HE WILL WIPE THEM CLEAN
THEY’LL BE WIPED AWAY
FROM THIS FACE OF MINE
FROM THIS FACE
- “MY HEART ON YOUR HEART” (CLOSING NUMBER: Amelia, Old Mistress)
MY HEART ON YOUR HEART
MY KINDNESS, MY PASSION, MY ALL
THE MOON IN THE SKY
WILL RISE AGAIN TONIGHT, MY HEART
THE ONE I ADORE…
MY HEART ON YOUR HEART
MY KINDNESS, MY PASSION, MY ALL
THE MOON IN THE SKY
WILL RISE AGAIN TONIGHT, MY HEART
THE ONE I ADORE!
T H E E N D
Book by writer/director Charles Möeller
Portuguese Lyrics by musical director Claudio Botelho
Music by singer/composer/performer Ed Motta
English translation and English lyrics by Josmar Lopes
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
The familiar and faintly comforting sound of Leo the Lion — MGM’s symbol of quality and excellence in motion picture arts and science — opens what was to have been a formula-B programmer. Instead, the Hollywood studio that gave larger than life presence to such icons as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and dozens more had wisely invested its money (and know-how) in an out-of-this-world science-fiction epic.
The forerunner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator, and other big-screen spectaculars, 1956’s Forbidden Planet (the original title was Fatal Planet) emerged head-and-shoulders above the usual bug-eyed monster movie of the fifties. Though not the first of its type to be released — 20th-Century Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, RKO’s The Thing (from Another World), and Universal’s This Island Earth preceded it by several years — Forbidden Planet was certainly the most prestigious in terms of budget, size, sets and production values. It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s premier excursion into the realm of outer space.
Based on characters found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story was conceived by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Novelist and scriptwriter Cyril Hume shaped the effort into a satisfying screenplay, combining elements of classical mythology, Freudian pop psychology, and author Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics (from his collection of I, Robot stories, first published in December 1950) in order to relate an interplanetary tale of man’s hubris in the face of forces beyond his control.
Forbidden Planet formed its core narrative around Professor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a brainy philologist who has been “stranded” on the planet Altair-IV for the better part of two decades. Left to his own devices (and with the aid of a so-called “Big Machine” left there by its former inhabitants), Morbius has learned to harness the planet’s elemental force so as to set up a private domain for himself and his comely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), or Alta for short.
When an investigating United Planets Space Cruiser, headed by the straight-laced Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), invades his pet paradise and attempts to take him back to Earth against his not inconsiderable will, Morbius unleashes this planetary force in true mad scientist-gone-amok fashion.
Followers of the genre have marveled at the film’s depiction of the Krell, an advanced alien civilization that, technologically as well as intellectually, was a million years ahead of humankind. Morally and ethically, however, they were as burdened by secreted bouts of lust, power and revenge as man himself had been. Despite never being seen, viewers came away from the picture knowing as much if not more about the wonders of this incredible race of beings as they did the all-too-fallible humans.
Roar of Approval
Starting things off with the lion’s roar — a harbinger of the bellowing Id monster that will take center stage as the story progresses and unfolds— is a masterstroke of foreshadowing and anticipatory plot devices. Movie critics and industry insiders have long pointed up the similarity between these two creatures. When the film is glimpsed in one uninterrupted sitting, Leo and his Id counterpart provide a neat “bookend effect” to the inevitability of events as they begin to take shape.
The creepy “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron, standing in for what would have been a full-blown orchestral score, distinguish this feature from earlier low-budget entries. It may even have been the first documented instance of cinematic “white noise.” Nevertheless, the use of the exotic-sounding theremin in the soundtracks to Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, the aforementioned The Thing, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein no doubt cleared the path for studio head Dore Schary to green-light the Barron’s avant-garde sound project for admission into Forbidden Planet’s world.
Les Tremayne, a mainstay of many a sci-fi outing from the genre’s peak period, provides the introductory voice-over lauding the discovery of hyper-drive and light speed technology, which led to the inevitable “conquest and colonization of deep space.” This line of thought, of man extending his reach outside his current capacity and into the farthest regions of the universe, would be incorporated into visionary producer Gene Roddenberry’s idea for the TV series Star Trek and its crew of intrepid explorers.
Speaking of which, the C-57D space cruiser’s all-male crew — “eighteen competitively selected, super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 years” — has been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days, not exactly the kind of circumstance that would be conducive to the presence of a long-legged blonde gamine, but there you have it.
Just as the cruiser enters Altair-IV’s oxygen-rich atmosphere, science officer Chief Quinn (Richard Anderson) receives a radar transmission from the cryptic Professor Morbius. As the only surviving member of the Bellerophon expedition of 20 years prior, Morbius talks in evasive circles around the insistent Commander Adams. Indignant at first with the officer’s stated purpose, Morbius grudgingly agrees to provide landing coordinates for the craft. At the same time, he washes his hands of all culpability for what might befall its crew, a vague allusion to something far more sinister.
We discussed at the outset the so-called mythological aspects of the plot, which start to make steady inroads at the mention of the name Bellerophon, the ship that brought Dr. Morbius, his future wife, and the other members of his party to Altair-IV in the first place.
In Greek mythology, Bellerophon was a mortal who had once been favored by the gods. He slew the dreaded Chimaera and even tamed the fabled winged horse Pegasus. But pride and arrogance took over his persona, so much so that he attempted to gain immortality by riding Pegasus straight up to Mount Olympus, the playground of the gods. Zeus, the head god, sent a gadfly to sting the steed, causing Bellerophon (à la Icarus) to fall ingloriously back down to Earth. He spent the rest of his days as a wandering cripple in the manner of King Lear.
With this back-story in mind, the cruiser lands on a barren wasteland; its surface bereft of “cities, ports, roads, bridges, dams” — in short, any recognizable structure indicative of a thriving society. No sooner does the crew disembark when it is confronted with the sight of a distant vehicle hurtling at supersonic speed. The driver of the vehicle is none other than Robby the Robot, a paradigm of man’s impulse to manage his surroundings by creating an artificial being — a mechanical Guy (or Gal) Friday, if you will — with extraordinary intelligence and superhuman strength, as well as highly refined social skills.
Robby’s soothing voice (belonging to actor Marvin Miller) and cultivated air of sophistication give Commander Adams the impression that all will be well. Agreeing to be escorted to the doctor’s residence, Adams boards the vehicle, taking with him Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Lt. “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens). As the men approach the abode, they are coldly greeted by Morbius, who stands in shadows inside the doorway — an elusive, solitary figure determined to plow on with his research despite the intruders. His intention is to show how safe and secure he’s been without the aid of outside interference.
After lunch, Morbius decides to demonstrate a bit of the Robot’s abilities, including his “absolute selfless obedience” to orders — except, of course, when they clash with Robby’s built-in safety mechanism whereby he is forbidden to harm a human being.
When pressed for details as to the whereabouts of his shipmates, Morbius explains their absence: one by one, they succumbed to an interplanetary force, “some devilish thing that never once showed itself.” He and his wife, the late Julia Marsin, remained immune to its influence. The others, however, were torn limb from limb and the Bellerophon vaporized upon takeoff.
Despite Morbius’ earnest yet awkward attempts at reassurance, the men remain jumpy and ill at ease, particularly when he activates the steel shudders that loudly surround his home.
The Pause that Refreshes
It’s at this point in his remembrances of bygone times that a graceful gazelle named Alta appears. Standing motionless in the entranceway, she calls to her father in a seductive tone. Immediately, Alta commands the undivided attention of the three visitors, one of whom (Lt. Farman) stumbles over himself in offering her some refreshment. Even though story-wise we are three centuries into the future, the men’s actions around this vision of loveliness — especially that of Lt. Farman — is typical of 1950s male behavior. One should mention his over-eagerness to be of assistance.
Since this is Alta’s first (ahem) experience with others of her race, Farman’s conduct goes completely over her head, which both amuses and perturbs her parent. Morbius admits to Adams and Ostrow the need to take his daughter back to Earth for her “natural development.” Ostrow agrees: “I should say fairly soon too.” The philologist’s patriarchal realm, a virtual Mount Olympus in miniature, has been encroached upon by these three “very fine exceptions” of Homo sapiens, only one of who will get to first base with his virginal child.
Stepping away from the others, Farman tries to get a leg up on his commanding officer by convincing Alta that Adams is a notorious space wolf “known throughout seven planetary systems.” Shaking his head and wagging his finger at her, Farman warns that, “Any girl or woman who lets him get her alone, anywhere,” is asking for trouble. Alta is intrigued, but concurs with his findings by catching the fire in Adams’ eyes. No such fire in Farman’s eyes, of that she is sure. Farman takes offense at this slight and insists he’s not entirely harmless.
At that moment, Quinn checks in to view the surroundings. A wolf whistle escapes from his lips as he spots Alta’s mini-skirted form. “Knock that off,” orders Commander Adams. It’s apparent to dad (and to us) that Alta is as enchanted by these “unbelievable” specimens as they are with her. She falls especially hard for Adams, the de facto leader of the group. When the officers take their leave, Alta gives the commander a long, hard look.
Until now, the conversation has been informal and routine, albeit tense — that is, if one takes into account the commander’s quite natural suspicions about the fate of the Bellerophon’s crew. The few references to the lady of the household come from Ostrow, who inquires as to whether she’s at home today. Morbius offers a rather dry response: his wife died six months after the others, only of natural causes. Ostrow then remarks that he thought Robby evinced some “very charming feminine touches,” hence our Guy/Gal Friday designation and sci-fi’s first ever asexual/bisexual artificial being.
The introduction of Alta into this all-male equation, a transitory disruption to the status quo, changes the balance of power from Morbius to his daughter. The discussion promptly shifts from domesticity as a topic — already touched upon in Ostrow’s observation about the Robot, and in Morbius’ demonstration of the handy “dispose-all” unit (“A housewife’s dream,” in Ostrow’s words) — to playfulness and innuendo, taken one step further by Farman’s libidinous interjections.
Through visual and verbal cues, i.e., sideways glances, whispered asides, and furtive gestures, the atmosphere becomes charged with sexual tension; the temperature in the room has been elevated, too, by several notches. The sense we have of the situation is that a conflict will arise by Alta’s attendance — a conflict that will bring about a cataclysmic cost to all concerned.
Love Ain’t Such a Splendored Thing
If possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, then Adams may be out of luck. For, in the ensuing scene where Alta visits the cruiser’s landing site and casually wanders off with Farman behind some jagged rocks, the commander can’t take his eyes off her. He is barely able to carry on with his duties as skipper, much less pay attention to Quinn and the others.
In the meantime, the Cook (Earl Holliman) provides some comic relief with his mechanical straight man, Robby. He has the Robot sample his last bottle of bourbon, a potable token of an “advanced” culture wallowing in the most basic of human weaknesses. Robby promises to run off 60 gallons of the “stuff,” thus contributing to Cookie’s habit of imbibing while off-duty.
This sequence highlights one of the many nods to a once-acceptable social practice of the 1950s, that is, of getting smashed at all costs. Later, when Cookie is reported as having been “falling down drunk” on the hooch that Robby provided him, his excuse is that he and the Robot were together the whole time the ship was being attacked, a tidy alibi.
Returning to our couple, we find Farman locked in an embrace, trying to instruct Alta in the healthy art of kissing and hugging. “All the really high civilizations go in for it,” he insists. Just the thing to stimulate the system, and earn the envy of his commanding officer! After several attempts at getting a rise out of the girl, a frustrated Farman (I would add, a sexually frustrated Farman) turns to her and asks if she’s giving him the “treatment” — in other words, “don’t brush me off, kid.”
In Farman’s company, she’s as cold as a mackerel. That’s about to change when Commander Adams re-enters the picture and decides to pull rank on his subordinate. A flustered Lt. Farman is dismissed, leaving the commander to sharply scold the oblivious Altaira for allowing a “space wolf like Farman” (branding the lieutenant with the same pejorative label Farman had earlier used on him) to take undue advantage of the situation, especially when she’s so scantily clad. “For Pete’s sake, go home and put on something … anything.”
Poor innocent Alta has a great deal of difficulty comprehending the cause of the commander’s anger. Her wits and childlike naiveté, which served her well in the preceding episode and in the comfort of her father’s living room — surrounded, as she was, by her “friends” (two white-tail deer and a full-grown Bengal tiger!) — have abandoned her under this new set of circumstances. To add to her turmoil, she has no idea what to make of Adams’ reaction, or how to deal with the newly-discovered emotions brewing inside her.
Equally disconcerted as well, Adams sends her off in even harsher language than he used on Farman. “Get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard,” he barks, “and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”
Back at the house, Alta repeats the commander’s rude comments to her father, who listens calmly to her outburst. He hears about how much she dislikes him, the look he gave her, and how he raised his voice at her. “What about?” Morbius inquires. She hasn’t a clue. “I was only trying to be nice about kissing the lieutenant,” she explains. Morbius raises an eyebrow. “How did the commander react to that?” Why, he was furious, is her reply. She never wants to see him again, ever! (Famous last words, or there would be no rest of the picture.)
The best she could do now, Morbius counsels her, is to go to bed. Claiming he has some unfinished business in his study, he kisses his daughter on the brow and departs.
Alta then beams for Robby the Robot, who, as we probably know, is busy preparing those 60 gallons of booze for the soon-to-be-besotted Cook. When he finally does appear, Alta demands that he make a new dress for her, one with nothing showing. No long legs, no curvy waist, no perfect ankles, nothing but a nice, boring gown. “Radiation-proof?” Robby quizzes her. “No, just eye-proof will do.” Oh, and while you’re at it, spiff it up with some diamonds and emeralds. Gotcha!
Brimming with joy and excitement, Alta hugs the Robot as if he were TV’s Hazel, the maid with all the answers. She saunters off to bed, with nary a care in the world as to whether she’ll have a good night’s rest or not.
A Few Words to the Wise
When I was an adolescent, those silly smooching episodes would annoy me to no end. Like most kids my age and younger, I wanted the actors to get on with the show; to move past these nonsensical time-wasters and get to the good parts, i.e., the business with the mysterious Krell and, of course, the Id monster’s nighttime “visitation.”
Today, I am fortunate to have acquired a healthy dollop of patience where it concerns my movie viewing. In doing independent research for this film I learned that during the time of Forbidden Planet’s release and, afterward, when it was reissued to second-run cinemas, the “kissing scenes” were snipped for the kiddie matinees and, as luck would have it, for local television viewing where my family and I first caught it.
Had I known it at the time, I would surely have realized that these and all the early scenes, which take up the first third or so of the picture’s running time, provide the missing keys to understanding the story’s plot and theme: that of man’s inability to tame his bestial nature — his baser instincts of hate, lust, bias, greed, carnal desire, want, need, and survival at any cost; eventually, to rise above the specie’s’ intrinsically destructive nature, that of “the beast, the mindless primitive,” and one day ascend to the heights the Krell had risen, only to fall back down again (like Bellerophon) as all mortals are wont to do.
In Altair IV’s paradisiacal Garden of Eden, Commander Adams could be considered the “first man,” i.e., after his namesake Adam. He’s got a bad disposition, but that’s acceptable considering the pressures he has to face as commander. Young Alta, an offshoot of Altaira (the name itself derived from the planet on which she was born), could be the “first woman,” but one who has attained the “highest position” in the evolutionary cycle (ergo the name “Alta,” meaning the “highest”).
On the opposite end of the scale, Professor Morbius, the loving father and authority figure, is a deeply flawed individual. At this stage in the story, he seems a benign character — intelligent, yes, and by all means brilliant; but secretive and enigmatic, purposely withholding of vital information that, during the course of the picture, will be divulged to his visitors only at crucial intervals.
Later in the movie, Morbius will state his personal credo “that man is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” His scholarly opposite, “Doc” Ostrow, counters this argument with one of his own: “Whereas Morbius, with his artificially expanded intellect, is now ideally suited to administer this power for the whole human race.”
That remains to be seen …
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Sprinkle a Little ‘Turandot,’ Seasoned with a Dash of ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’ (Part One): Reality Haunts the Met Opera Airwaves
Juggling work, family, and leisure-time activities can be hard on one’s body and mind. On any given day, you may find the demands of all three battling it out for dominance. The struggle to see who comes out on top, then, defines how we deal with modern life.
Despite the daily grind, I honestly try to make a good-faith effort in setting aside a few precious moments to discourse on my favorite topic: opera. Today’s post is no exception.
After a brief hiatus, getting back to the Met Opera’s Saturday afternoon schedule is more than sufficient to recharge one’s creative juices. We’ll be reviewing the January 30th broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot, in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production, in conjunction with the February 6th transmission of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, formerly given an in-depth analysis in the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/new-productions-of-cavalleria-rusticana-and-pagliacci-two-operas-joined-at-the-hip-part-one/.
All three pieces happen to bookend the period in European history known as verismo, or “realism” (Note: Americans experienced something along the same lines; it was dubbed “naturalism”). I’ve written extensively on the origin of this literary, artistic, and musical form, but as in all great works there’s always some aspect that might have been overlooked, hence this latest essay.
Birth of the Blues
Most scholars attach the early stirrings of verismo to the 1875 premiere of Bizet’s Carmen. While that may be the case, one must go back even further in searching for its roots: to the year 1853 and the unveiling in Venice of La Traviata by Verdi.
This work has been discussed and dissected by more musicologists than I could shake a conductor’s stick at. The point is that Verdi had chosen a contemporary topic to expend his energy and genius on.
His only other attempt at a work with so-called “modern” tendencies revolved around his choice of Stiffelio (1850), a tedious story about a Protestant minister who eventually absolves his wife from having engaged in an illicit affair. The librettist for Traviata, Francesco Maria Piave, had also prepared the verses for this unconventional three-act work. Considering the unfamiliar terrain Verdi deigned to wallow in, the opera did not go over well with either the critics or the public.
Comparable to Stiffelio, after Traviata’s own failure at the Teatro La Fenice, which Verdi attributed to bad casting and to the controversial subject of a prostitute “living in sin” with an innocent young lad, the composer never again set to music anything that smacked of topicality. Recall that Verdi insisted La Traviata be performed in contemporary clothing. No such luck! The premiere, and all subsequent productions of the opera up until 1902 or so, were staged in eighteenth-century garb, a bizarre compromise when you stop to think about it: Violetta, Alfredo, and Papa Germont, in powdered wigs and walking stick? How absurd!
The fascinating thing about Giacomo Puccini, the great man’s successor, was his inbred ability to take both contemporary and not-so-contemporary subject matter and re-formulate them to the necessities of verismo, courtesy of his unique musical language.
We may perceive Rodolfo and Mimì’s little romance as the embodiment of every young couple that has ever fallen in love. We may empathize with Cio-Cio-San’s predicament and ritual suicide, while loathing the naval officer who brought this about. We may snicker at Gianni Schicchi’s avaricious relatives by drawing comparisons to our own less-than-admirable family members.
This gift Puccini had for finding the truth in a given character or situation, particularly when they concerned his females, was a trait he shared with Verdi. Unlike the Master from Busseto, however, Puccini had an unrequited fondness for sopranos. Verdi, on the other hand, lavished some of his finest musical gifts not just on his leading ladies but on the other voice categories as well.
For some inexplicable reason, Puccini did not have much use for contraltos, basses, or baritones. Although he did manage to create some impressive adversaries in Marcello from La Bohème, Scarpia in Tosca, Rance from La Fanciulla del West, and the aforesaid Schicchi, with few exceptions — Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Tigrana in the rarely performed Edgar — Puccini virtually neglected the mezzo. The same holds for the haughty Aunt of Suor Angelica and the rag-picker Frugola from Il Tabarro, both sung by contraltos.
Of basses, there are hardly any to speak of, outside of a brief cameo or two (The Bonze in Butterfly, Angelotti in Tosca, and Talpa in Tabarro). The best bass roles, in the Puccini canon at least, lie with two early works: the old roué Geronte di Ravoir from Manon Lescaut (which we will review in weeks to come) and the philosopher Colline in Bohème. But the sturdiest of the breed — if not the one with the most impact on the plot — resides with the maestro’s final opera, the fairy tale-like Turandot. And the basso in question is the exiled Tatar king, Timur, father to the Unknown Prince (revealed to be Calaf, sung by your standard Puccinian tenor).
After so many depictions of “true-to-life” individuals undergoing daily struggles in highly-relatable situations, along came the older and wiser Tuscan melodist with a dark “Chinese” fable of death, violence, retribution, decapitation, torture, suicide, remorse, and finally all-out amour.
What had changed for the composer during the intermittent years between his writing of Manon Lescaut and Il Trittico, to result in the uncharacteristic culmination of Turandot?
Perhaps reality itself had set in.
After the string of successes that followed Cavalleria and Pagliacci, to include Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Fedora, Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana and Adriana Lécouvreur, Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re, and such associated oeuvres as Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Leoni’s L’Oracolo, Louise by Charpentier, and Tiefland by d’Albert, audiences began to grow weary of “real life” stories tinged with the utmost tragedy.
The cataclysmic conflagration, branded “The Great War,” had devastated a vast swath of the European continent, taking with it, to quote author Erich Maria Remarque, “the flower of German youth.” Feelings and attitudes were altered by the prolonged conflict, in addition to faith in established institutions and traditional methods of addressing social and economic concerns (see the related link concerning Alban Berg’s Wozzeck: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met-conclusion/).
A confirmed pacifist, Puccini would rather have made love than war. Sadly, after hostilities had finally ceased he was forced to leave his longtime residence of Torre Del Lago, by the shores of placid Lake Massaciuccoli, to live in nearby Viareggio. Ever on the lookout for fresh material and untested themes, for inspiration Puccini frequented the theaters of London and Berlin, read endless treatments of plays, novels, and libretti, and pondered wearily over a variety of subjects for years at a time.
According to biographer Mosco Carner, “a conventional sentimental melodrama no longer attracted him and he wished to ‘strike out on unbeaten tracks.’” Yet the same old, nagging self-doubts remained — that is to say, his inability to make up his mind about what to work on. Sometime around 1920, Puccini’s librettists Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami, stung by the composer’s constant rejection of their previous ideas and efforts, suggested he adapt a dramatic five-act fable by the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi. It was called Turandotte.
Gozzi versus Goldoni
By happenstance, Gozzi’s fantastical eighteenth-century output, which influenced the German romantics Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, was ripe for revival. They embodied the “most vital expression of the comic spirit in Italian drama and, in particular, regarded the Venetian commedia dell’arte as the living link with the period of glory and splendor which [Gozzi’s] native city had enjoyed in the past” (Carner, Puccini: A Critical Biography, Second Edition, p. 456).
In one of those artistic coincidences that only history could have foreseen, the trend for popular farce that Gozzi excelled at had been corrupted by the introduction of improvisation and buffoonery on the stage, with episodes “devoid of human and literary interest.”
In contrast to this occurrence, rival playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) proposed to “create genuine comedy, a comedy with characters drawn from real life, human beings with natural emotions and behaving in a natural way, instead of caricature and horseplay indulged in by the stock figures of the commedia” (Carner, p. 457). Thus the antecedents of the landmark verismo movement had firmly established itself with Goldoni’s visionary aim of substituting “literary drama for low-class entertainment.”
It fell, then, to Puccini and his librettists to force the pendulum back in the direction of Gozzi and away from the blood and thunder dictates of Goldonian “realism.” Oh, the blood and the thunder were still intact, make no mistake about that. But in Turandot, the commedia dell’arte characters — the chief cook and bottle washers Ping, Pang, and Pong — would now espouse a strictly philosophical bent, adhering somewhat to faux Chinese sentimentality yet upholding the traditional Italian elements.
The brilliance of Puccini’s conception, in Carner’s words, was in cloaking these figures “with a sadistic streak,” at the same time allowing them to indulge “in macabre humor” and snide comments about the state of their lives within the realm. In addition to which Puccini gave the trio “more humane feelings, as in the scene of Liù’s death; and in their nostalgia for the serenity of country life” (Carner, p. 466-67), much as the composer himself had so fervently expressed in his frequent correspondence with friends, relatives, and companions.
In the end, for him there was no escape from reality. The harsh lives of Europe’s citizenry, climaxing in the rise of Fascism amid such totalitarian strongmen as Mussolini in Italy and Stalin in Soviet Russia (later, Hitler in Germany), were unintentionally ascribed to the icy Princess Turandot and her bloodthirsty band of followers. Mob rule, as witnessed during the French Revolution, had upset the “natural order” of things, including that of the ruling classes.
In the case of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, a slave girl’s daring self-sacrifice and an Unknown Prince’s unquestioned ardor melted hearts and altered mind-sets — a barbaric tale with a happy outcome for once.
In truth, it took a second world war to combat the evil forces unleashed upon society. Puccini passed away in 1924, but not before he saw Mussolini become prime minister, and the Italian province expand into North Africa. Unable to flee the physical confines of his own existence, the melancholy composer orchestrated his flight from reality via the rich tapestry of a fairy-tale landscape where true love conquers all.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Those Were the Days…
Incorrectly termed a “children’s opera,” Engelbert Humperdinck’s charming yet deceptively simple retelling of Hansel and Gretel — or, in the original German, Hänsel und Gretel — holds a special place in my heart: as a youngster, it was the first opera I ever saw performed live and onstage.
I remember sitting in the auditorium transfixed by the event, unable to take my eyes off the performers or from the colorful sets and flashy costumes. I was completely immersed in the liveliness of it all — the music, the dancing, the sprightly song content, and (for me, anyway) the fantastical “special effects”: the haunted forest, the gingerbread house, the sandman and dew fairy, and of course the evil old witch. I was especially curious to learn how the witch was able to fly through the air with the greatest of ease (she used a harness, darn it).
I also fondly recall the memorable song-and-dance number little Gretel taught to her brother Hansel at the start of the piece. It had something to do with clapping your hands and tapping your feet. The melody turned out to be one of those instantly recognizable tunes that once heard would never be forgotten. In its own way, the song served a similar purpose as the one Anna Leonowens sang to her young son in the Broadway musical The King and I:
Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect I’m afraid
Both Anna and her boy, along with Gretel and her brother, had a lot to be afraid of. Anna had recently arrived from England to become a teacher to the children and household of the mighty King of Siam (our present-day Thailand). For their part, the nearly starving Hansel and Gretel would get lost in the woods and find they had become a tasty meal for a wicked witch. That was enough to scare the bejeezus out of most kids, including this one!
That was many years ago, of course, back in the heyday of the New York City public school system in the Bronx, where I lived, studied, and grew up. I can’t tell you where, exactly, I saw Humperdinck’s wonderful work — that’s too far back for me to recall. Now that I think about it, it might have been a student production at the Bronx High School of Science, located near the Jerome Park Reservoir, and sandwiched between the Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt Park sections of the borough. But don’t ask me to swear on a stack of bibles, because I can’t. All I know is that we were driven by bus to a remote locale and told to take our seats in a large assembly hall of a place I had never been to before.
In any event, the production was sung in English, which was a blessing in disguise for us opera initiates. In my day, there were no such modern-day contrivances as supertitles or real-time translations on the back of people’s chairs. Going to and appreciating the opera became an art form in itself that I, for one, took rather seriously. But that was much later in life. At that point in my public school “career,” all I wanted out of the trip was to sit back, relax, and enjoy the program, which I found entertaining and mirthful.
By way of background introduction to Hansel and Gretel, Engelbert Humperdinck (no relation to the British pop star) was a German composer who wrote the score between 1890 and 1893, to an original libretto fashioned by his sister, Adelheid Wette, who in turn based this “fairy tale opera” on the Brothers Grimm story.
In adapting the work for a wider audience, Humperdinck removed some of the more ghastly aspects of the plot (i.e., the Mother’s pretext for sending the kids off into the forest was to starve them to death!), while adding the beloved characters of the sandman and dew fairy, along with 14 guardian angels who watch over the pair as they sleep at night.
Originally, Adelheid had asked brother Engelbert, a serious musician and follower of Herr Wagner (he had tutored the master’s son, Siegfried, for a time) to provide the musical numbers for a puppet show her children were planning to put on — a simple request, right? Well, then, one thing led to another and within a relatively short time a full-scale operatic vehicle was in the works. Humperdinck expanded the original concept, resulting in a richly flavorful score fit for theatrical consumption.
The first performance of the work was given on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany. It was conducted by composer Richard Strauss (ten years younger than Humperdinck), the heir apparent to the Wagnerian mantle and himself a future beacon as to where German opera would be headed upon Wagner’s demise a decade earlier. We’ll be hearing Strauss’ one-act wonder Elektra in a few weeks, so listeners can judge for themselves whether he earned his stripes or not.
Although Strauss may have done Humperdinck a huge favor in presenting his work in a most favorable light, in the long run he quickly overtook Engelbert in the compositional arena. In truth, Humperdinck is mostly known to audiences for this, his earliest stage piece. More recently, the composer’s Königskinder (“The King’s Children”), another fairy-tale opera that came immediately after Hansel and Gretel and made a rousing 1910 debut at the Met, has been revived in both European and American opera houses with a fair amount of success.
‘Tis the Season!
Returning to Hansel and Gretel, here’s an example of a work that, although not necessarily related to or even directly involved with the Christmas season, has had an unusually strong association with the Judeo-Christian holiday throughout its performance history. In this country at least, this association came from its having been the first complete radio broadcast of a lyric work by the Metropolitan Opera Company, on December 25, 1931 — Christmas Day, for all intents and purposes.
That historic broadcast, hosted by announcer Milton Cross and moderated by New York Times critic Olin Downes, would go on to set the standard for what was to become a regular Saturday afternoon gathering of opera lovers from across the country and around the world. Strangely, on that same occasion Hansel and Gretel was paired with Leoncavallo’s highly dramatic opus, Pagliacci — about as different a double bill as one can get. However, the Leoncavallo work was not transmitted, which represents a lost opportunity in that the cast included such Met stalwarts as Giovanni Martinelli and Giuseppe De Luca. For shame!
We may sigh over that omission, but Hansel and Gretel, sung in German at this juncture, was given the royal treatment by Met Opera General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza (pictured below on the far right side, with his hand in his pocket). The production featured sopranos Editha Fleischer and Queena Mario in the title roles, dramatic soprano Dorothée Manski as the Witch, baritone Gustav Schützendorff as Peter the Father, and mezzo-soprano Henriette Wakefield as Gertrude the Mother. The conductor was Karl Riedel.
From the newspaper clippings of this and an earlier test broadcast, composer and well-known radio personality Deems Taylor provided the running commentary. Animated film fans may remember Mr. Taylor as the narrator and host of Walt Disney’s Fantasia from 1940.
Many positive telegrams and letters were received by the Met management praising the company for its efforts in this vein. However, an equal number of correspondents protested the presence of Taylor’s voice during the live transmission. One listener famously inquired: “Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?” According to TIME magazine, in later broadcasts, “Narrator Taylor was less garrulous.” How fortunate for all!
Where Would We Be Without Our Tradition?
In the past, traditional productions of Hansel and Gretel adhered to a mezzo or dramatic soprano Witch, with the requisite broomstick, warty nose, and pointy hat. Most up-to-date interpretations employ the services of a character tenor in the part — to good effect, it must be maintained. Some memorable men in drag who gave vibrant life to Rosina Dainty-Lips were Paul Franke, Andrea Velis, Charles Anthony, Graham Clarke, and Philip Langridge.
The enjoyable Met Opera version by producer Nathaniel Merrill and set designer Robert O’Hearn, which served the company well for nearly 45 years, boasted a bass-baritone, the German-born Karl Dönch, as the Witch at its premiere on November 6, 1967. In addition, the casting of major roles was spot-on perfect, with Rosalind Elias and Teresa Stratas endearing as the brother and sister act. Later casts included the teaming of Frederica von Stade with Judith Blegen, and that of Tatiana Troyanos with Catherine Malfitano. They all made handsome Hansels and girlish Gretels to charm the pants (er, dress) off any Witch, male or otherwise.
The Met’s current Richard Jones adaptation, first unveiled in December 2007 and formerly mounted at Welsh National Opera, updates and modifies the story to the 1950s. In the process of transformation, it created some incredibly imaginative, surrealistic stage pictures, at times in opposition to the text. Not to fear: the superlative new English translation (by librettist David Pountney) lends a wicked touch of darkness to the piece. The new cast starred Alice Coote as Hansel and Christine Schäfer as Gretel, with the aforementioned Mr. Langridge as the Witch, Alan Held as Peter, Rosalind Plowright as Gertrude, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski in the pit. The show was a hit with the public, and a little less so with critics.
One thing this production got right was to reintroduce those presumably lurid moments, such as the children’s punishment for refusing to do their chores and the sibling’s well-timed “execution” of the Witch by burning her alive in her own oven (always worth a round of applause). In line with the above incidents, some of the childhood themes this version explored included the Mother’s self-medication, the excesses of over-indulging one’s appetite for baked goods, and the escalating effects of poverty and hunger on one’s mental capacities. As you can see, this was not just a simple bedtime story but a harsh lesson in hazardous living.
Other outlandish details — for example, the drop-curtain of a large plate with knife and fork, which converts to a gaping tooth-filled mouth with a protruding pink tongue at the start of Act II — will remind viewers of the moral to the Grimm Brothers’ dark tale: “Be resourceful, face your fears, have courage in the face of difficulties.” It can also inform us to be kind to your mommies and daddies, or bad things can happen to those who disobey. Huh, I’ll say they can!
Another innovation was the bizarrely sumptuous Dream Pantomime sequence in which a fish-headed maître d’ served up a gargantuan banquet of gastronomic treats, escorted by a team of giant-sized cooks designed to resemble the iconic Chef Boyardee figure whose face was omnipresent on cans of ravioli. Well, then, if tenors and baritones can transform themselves into witches, why not make guardian angels into chefs?
Alas, much has changed since I first saw this opera in the Bronx. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed and that I will never forget: and that is, Gretel’s cheery little song to calm her mischievous brother:
With my foot I tap, tap, tap
With my hands I clap, clap, clap
One by here, one by there
Round you go without a care
(English Translation: Lewis Reynolds)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes