A Cloak, a Convent, and a Conman: Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ Celebrates 100 Years at the Met

Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ (“The Triptych”), his trio of one-act operas, at the Met Opera revival, Dec 2018: ‘Il Tabarro,’ ‘Suor Angelica,’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

Three for the Price of One

Puccini’s Il Trittico (or “The Triptych”), a dark, somber, and moody work for two-thirds of its running time, is brightened in the final third by Gianni Schicchi, the composer’s only opera in the buffa vein. Given in three acts (each of the mini-pieces runs to about an hour in length), Il Trittico, Puccini’s most sustained and atmospheric theatrical creation, celebrated its one hundredth birthday at the Metropolitan Opera House this past December 8, 2018, in a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. The production was by Jack O’Brien, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, and costumes by Jess Goldstein.

A later transmission, on December 22, showcased the same composer’s La Fanciulla del West, the only bona fide Italian spaghetti Western in the entire standard repertoire. Based on American impresario David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage play The Girl of the Golden West, we’ll soon be reviewing Giancarlo Del Monaco’s production of this “horse” opera in a future post.

So which came first, The Girl or the triptych? In actuality, the 1910 gala premiere of Fanciulla brought the world famous composer, on hand for the opening night performance, heavier than usual press coverage (Puccini’s first visit to America came in 1907 for the New York premieres of Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). A stellar cast, headed by Emmy Destin, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, along with some spectacular production values, wowed the Met’s diamond-horseshoe set.

Conducted by the renowned Tuscan maestro Arturo Toscanini, La Fanciulla, Puccini’s seventh effort for the stage, was the most lavish operatic presentation of its day. Oddly enough, The Girl’s beauty began to fade just as the world sank ever deeper into international conflict. On the other hand, the reputation of Il Trittico, which did not bring Puccini back to the Big Apple (the First World War had only recently ended in November 1918, which meant that floating mines were still a major hazard for trans-Atlantic crossings), suffered as a result.

Despite the presence of several outstanding artists, among them Claudia Muzio, Luigi Montesanto, and Giulio Crimi in Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”), Geraldine Farrar in Suor Angelica, and Giuseppe De Luca, Crimi, and Florence Easton in Gianni Schicchi, the Trittico was far from an immediate hit. Praise for Gianni Schicchi was universal, of course, but critics puzzled over the other two works, most misunderstanding their content and character. The association with Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Schicchi is briefly mentioned, and the notion that individuals must journey through phases of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise for their redemption, are essential to their interpretation. In reference to Il Tabarro, Toscanini himself declared: “I don’t like it at all,” a perceptive observation on his part — in fact, his only complete recording of a Puccini opera would be the composer’s youthful La Bohème with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce in the leads.

The original cast of ‘Il Trittico’ at its Met Opera premiere in Dec 1918

The sordidness of that opening piece or the sentimental quality of the second one, Suor Angelica, may have had something to do with Toscanini’s harsh judgment. Certainly the famed musician could have fallen hard for item number three, Gianni Schicchi — a work of comedic genius in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff. Nothing doing! It was left to opera companies, the changing nature of opera as a whole, and the passage of time to render a more favorable outcome for Puccini’s trio of compact masterworks.

Nevertheless, despite past misgivings I was thrilled to be hearing these three operas again, after their being absent from the Met repertoire for much too long a time. In my view, they are the composer’s most mature and perceptive creations.

Attend the Tale of Il Tabarro

Luigi (Marcelo Alvarez) reminisces with Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) about their youth in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, in ‘Il Tabarro’

The opening piece, Il Tabarro, based on a one-act French play La Houppelande by Didier Gold, is a forerunner to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: it is pure Grand Guignol, and a stark one at that. But don’t be fooled by the comparison! No one gets their throat cut or baked into meat pies. The brutality in Tabarro is swift and resolute in the lead character Michele’s hands and fully warranted, one might add, given his young wife Giorgetta’s secret affair with the hunky Luigi. A second murder by a minor character, the drunkard Tinca, one that takes place offstage in the play, was discarded by the composer for reasons of dramatic unity and coherence. That’s one too many killings for a single act.

The curtain rises in silence. It’s only then that we hear the prelude to Il Tabarro, a masterful depiction of the River Seine flowing languorously through the byways of Paris, here (thanks to an excellent libretto by Giuseppe Adami) given prominence as a major character. The water’s ebb and flow goes in only one direction, stressing the inevitability of fate, and a life of labor and pain. The protagonists get what they can out of this harshness, and Puccini’s music reflects that warped, oppressive environment. You can taste the expressionistic flavor in nearly every bar.

After his whole-tone experiment with La Fanciulla, in Il Tabarro the composer went all-out by not only channeling Debussy, but more prominently the music of the Russian school (Mussorgsky and the young Stravinsky). It’s remarkable how far Puccini had progressed from the banality of La Rondine (1917), that pseudo-Viennese operetta and Traviata wannabe that prefaced Il Trittico, to this.

You could say, too, that the problems of little people in Trittico don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world of the opera. However, the issues that working stiffs had to deal with in Berg’s Wozzeck, which had its world premiere only a few short years after Il Trittico bowed, were fully formed and addressed in Tabarro, and by the briefest of means. Compositionally speaking, there are numerous examples of characters commenting on their situation, sometimes spoken in hushed tones, other times in rising and falling cadences, or just plain monotones.

One of them, the rag picker La Frugola, has an odd little number early on where she shows off what her rummaging through the Paris trash heaps has turned up. It’s basically a stream of consciousness narrative. With metronomic echoes of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, along with similar vignettes scattered throughout the entirety of the triptych, these moments pay considerable reverence to the downtrodden (specifically, those found in Hugo’s Les Misérables, or the works of Émile Zola), in a type of musical shorthand only a composer of Puccini’s innate dramatic sensibility could assemble.

Giorgetta (Amber Wagner, left) tries to follow La Frugola’s (MaryAnn McCormick) thoughts in ‘Il Tabarro’

This musical shorthand went hand-in-hand with the prevailingly bleak atmosphere, one of inescapable despair and drudgery; of common folk grasping at fleeting moments of gratification, be they sexual (i.e., Giorgetta’s wild fling with Luigi) or other forms (Tinca’s alcoholism, La Frugola’s obsessive compulsiveness). Events occur at such a rapid pace that audiences barely have time to catch their collective breath, so well has Puccini understood and developed the art of the short phrase. The handling of key dramatic situations, and the spaces between notes, are flawlessly interpreted all through the opera’s single act, and, indeed, throughout its sister works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Despite the added casting burdens placed on opera houses due to the multiple roles involved (several of which can be doubled or even tripled, I might add), the rewards are great for artists rightly in tune with their requirements.

On that note, the Met’s matinee cast for Tabarro was ready and able to tackle this assignment. It included the amply endowed soprano of Amber Wagner as Giorgetta, tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Luigi, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (in place of the formerly announced Stephanie Blythe) as La Frugola, baritone George Gagnidze as Michele, basso Maurizio Muraro as Talpa, and tenor Tony Stevenson as Tinca. The Parisian-born Bertrand de Billy (an excellent choice) presided over the worthy Met Opera Orchestra. As a matter of fact, Monsieur De Billy was a most indulgent and reliable orchestra leader. His background in French and Italian opera gave him a tremendous advantage in presenting these three works in the best light, especially Tabarro where the setting is not-so-Gay Paree.

Michele the barge owner (George Gagnidze) wonders who his wife’s lover is in the finale to ‘Il Tabarro’

To start things off, Marcelo Álvarez struggled with the high, punishing tessitura of his role as the tortured stevedore Luigi. One of the finest recorded examples is that of Mario Del Monaco on Decca/London, in a virile vocal display that set the standard for subsequent performers. Of course, he had the luxury of having Renata Tebaldi by his side, and both were ably guided by Lamberto Gardelli’s knowledgeable baton beat. Still, Álvarez managed to mold something out of those high notes into an anguished human being. His arioso, “Hai ben ragione,” was flung full force into the audience with more abandon than I’ve heard from him of late. Praise be! He did a better job here than in the previous season’s Turandot broadcast: his Calàf was vocally bland and high-note shy throughout.

Amber Wagner’s weighty Giorgetta had the requisite thrust, including a superbly held, optional high C in her brief, agitated first duet with Álvarez. There’s no aria for the soprano, as such, in these intense exchanges. All the same, the two lovers offered a distinct contrast from the tensions wrought by their illicit assignation to that of the billing and cooing of Lauretta, Schicchi’s twenty-something daughter, and her similarly smitten betrothed, the resourceful Rinuccio.

George Gagnidze’s burly baritone — dark and tightly wound — and hulking menace made for a memorable Michele, the brooding barge owner and Luigi’s boss. The abundance of chromatics in his character’s music lent an air of tension to Michele’s dilemma. That Gagnidze simply could not rival the acting chops of a Tito Gobbi, or the burnished bronze of Ettore Bastianini’s 1953 radio broadcast, or that of Robert Merrill in the same Decca/London outing with Tebaldi and Del Monaco, need not diminish the Georgian baritone’s accomplishments.

Michele (George Gagnidze) attempts to rekindle his relationship with wife Giorgetta (Amber Wagner)

Foghorns, offstage chorus, sound effects, a bugle playing taps — all of them superbly employed as mood music — set up the magnificent closing monologue, “Nulla, silenzio” (“Nothing but silence”), the wary Michele’s fatalistic rumination on who the culprit fooling around with his wife might be. This is one of Puccini’s gloomiest and most forceful depictions. An earlier version of this aria, employing basically the same music, but longer and more lugubrious in nature, was rejected. It was a direct translation from the play, which would have been all wrong for the exigencies of the opera house. Fortunately, the composer insisted on a complete rewrite, which transformed the solo into the much-improved current version.

This was something that had also occurred with the first draft of Cavaradossi’s third-act aria in Tosca, originally a so-called “Farewell to Life and Art,” with text by Luigi Illica and subsequently replaced by the instantly memorable (and dramatically more pertinent) “E lucevan le stelle.”

Luckily for listeners, Gagnidze too was transformed into a singing actor, where word-play became paramount in this multi-layered sequence, and high-powered vocalism a prerequisite. The climax of the opera is one rip-snorting coup de théatre: Michele pounces on the unsuspecting Luigi and throttles him to death. Luigi dies with the words “L’amo” (“I love her”) on his lips, admitting his affair with Michele’s wife. Hiding his lifeless body underneath his long cloak (ergo, the ill-omened title of the piece), the barge owner reveals its grisly contents to his disbelieving, adulterous spouse, as the curtain falls. The original stage directions called for the baritone to shove Giorgetta’s face onto her dead lover’s ashen visage. (Shudders!!!)

The music throbs with expectancy at this violent episode; the basses and cellos pluck away in imitation of Luigi’s heartbeat, fluttering and fading to the last strains of the music. Giorgetta has her last moments of regret for betraying her husband in her choppy dialogue. She wants only to sit next to Michele, as in olden days — before their child had died — to cuddle in his cloak. Be careful what you wish for, girl! As Giorgetta dejectedly declared earlier in the drama, “How difficult it is to be happy.” That’s Hell for you!

A Lot of Nun-Sense

Kristine Opolais as Sister Angelica in Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’

For a change of pace, Suor Angelica is a delicate filigree of a work (Giovacchino Forzano provided the libretto, along with that of Gianni Schicchi; both were original ideas). Modal Gregorian chanting pre-dominates in the opening sequence. Note to readers: Puccini’s real-life sibling Iginia was first a nun and then a Mother Superior to a small convent in Italy. She “inspired,” shall we say, the title character as well as the ambient church melodies to be found in Suor Angelica (and in Tosca, too, if memory serves). Puccini learned much from tapping into his sister’s experiences of daily convent life, in addition to that of a priest he befriended, although the composer himself remained a lapsed Catholic to the end.

Consequently, the music in this act is entirely dissimilar from that of Il Tabarro, setting a tone of reverence and mysticism implicit in the story: those short phrases, little musical episodes endemic to verismo as a whole — something that Puccini continued to master over the course of the many decades he spent perfecting his art — govern this work, as well as Tabarro and Schicchi.

The tragedy of Sister Angelica, then, is that of a young noblewoman who bore a child out of wedlock, now cloistered away from society in a convent. She’s visited by her stern aunt, the family matriarch. Angelica asks for word of her son, only to be told in the harshest of terms that the child passed away after a brief illness. Devastated at the news, the little sister prepares a poisonous mixture from the herbs she has planted in the garden.

Drinking the fatal concoction, she realizes, to her horror, she has committed a mortal sin by attempting suicide. As she dies, Angelica (an appropriate name, to be sure) has a miraculous vision of her little boy with the Virgin Mary (in many productions, this celestial visitation is only hinted at, as it was in the Met’s previous Fabrizio Melano production). It’s a heartbreaking moment, guaranteed to leave audiences in tears. Only the most exceptional of artists — I’m thinking of the splendid Renata Scotto, and the equally-gifted Teresa Stratas and Gilda Cruz-Romo — can hold themselves together to pull this scene off. It takes a performer of the absolute first rank to survive such an emotional and vocal ordeal.

Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, a welcome and frequent figure at the Met, has appeared in many a Puccini part, i.e., Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, and Magda in La Rondine. She sang the titular Angelica with poignancy and nuance. In her broadcast performance, Opolais opened the floodgates to summon the ghosts (and artistry) of verismo singers past: Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, Victoria De Los Angeles, Tebaldi, and the aforementioned Ms. Scotto — all of whom excelled in this repertoire.

Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) goes into a tailspin at the thought of her mortal sin

Since the opera is short, Ms. Opolais felt no compulsion to hold back for fear of running out of voice. Outside of some mild shrillness on top, she conveyed the character’s strength in adversity, maintaining her composure throughout her ordeal with the formidable Zia Principessa (“Princess Aunt”), sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. It’s here that Angelica matures from a young novice into an adult woman of substance. Others in the all-female cast included MaryAnn McCormick as the Monitor, Rosalie Sullivan as Sister Osmina, Maureen McKay as Sister Genovieffa, and Lindsay Ammann as the Abbess.

As mentioned above, the opera starts quietly, with hints of melodies to come. For roughly half its playing time we are presented with little character portraits from the large ensemble; each one voicing pointed commentaries or whispered asides around the routine of their convent, or the comings and goings of visitors, especially the wealthy aunt. Individual moments emerge, similar to but quite apart from those in Il Tabarro. We are not at the Seine, but in a religious community: there are no saints here either, only sinners. Leave it to Puccini who, along with Verdi, Boito, and others, had little use for organized religion EXCEPT as inspiration for their music.

The Musical Nature of Characters

Opolais’ middle voice had a beauty and vibrancy that signaled a close identification with this part. Short phrases both underscored and moved the action along in snippets — that is, until the music grew deadly serious upon the arrival of Angelica’s aunt, the nameless Zia Principessa. A character that Puccini etched from real life (quite possibly from his wife, Elvira), she is the arbiter of righteous indignation: proud, imperious, unyielding, and bereft of the most basic of human emotions toward her niece — that is, a monumental lack of compassion.

The implacable Zia Principessa (Stephanie Blythe, l.) confronts her niece, Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) at the convent

Ms. Blythe took the attitude of a performer trying to bring some level of humanity to a complicated part. In her intermission interview, Blythe expressed the view that to make the Aunt an all-out villain does the character an injustice. One has to imagine her as a flesh-and-blood individual, not a cardboard caricature, in order for audiences to relate to the tensions at hand. She’s a woman tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the family structure (and, let’s face it, the family fortune) in the face of a difficult situation. The Aunt is there to force Angelica to sign over her share of the family inheritance to her little sister, who is about to be married (a fascinating correlation to the goings-on in Gianni Schicchi).

While it’s hard for audiences to feel much sympathy for this creature, Blythe brought a heavy world-weariness to the part, along with rock-solid vocal technique and potent chest voice (never overused, mind you, but unleashed in the service to the plot). Puccini’s previous writing for mezzo or contralto is sparse (for example, the maid Suzuki in Butterfly has few opportunities to shine), but in Il Trittico there are three prominent roles that the same singer can take on and add luster to.

Puccini engaged in various modernesque techniques in his never-ending quest for how to tell his story by way of his music. An example of this is Sister Genovieffa’s brief arioso about her bleating lamb, vividly illustrated by thumps in the double basses and high strings. Again, a trick of the operatic trade that the composer marshaled forth to foster color and musical interest, from the chirping of the birds (flutes and woodwinds) to the tingling of the bells (both real and simulated).

Themes to be heard later in the opera, and more forcefully at that point, intrude on the nun’s chatter; the future telescoped portentously into the present — another way of foreshadowing events via purely musical terms. How carefully has the composer crafted his work: Puccini knew instinctively where to go with his score, as well as how to mold the text to fit this basic scheme. Too, there’s much to marvel in the novelty of his orchestration. His understanding of human nature, both here and in the two outer works, was built from the ground up in a lifetime spent in sorrow and disappointment. All his biographers have dwelled on the inescapable fact that Puccini’s own nature was one of perpetual melancholy.

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

The music turns solemn as we hear the Princess Aunt’s sinuous, stern lines (like a serpent ready to strike) along the lower wind instruments and strings (cellos, violas) and the ubiquitous ostinato passages in the basses (see La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly for comparison). She’s not a villain in the Scarpia mold; nor, for that matter, was Michele. Here, Blythe remained unemotional in her banter with Angelica, sporting a monochromatic delivery — the Princess Aunt on her high horse. Angelica’s more humane interactions contrast sharply with the Aunt’s self-righteous discourse. She speaks only of “justice” and “expiation” for her niece’s sin. Angelica, for her part, only wants to know about her child, repeating the words “Mio figlio, figlio mio” over and over again — another ostinato figure that is reiterated in the orchestra multiple times.

From this exchange, the haughty Aunt hits her anxious niece between the eyes with a thunderbolt: “It’s been two years since he passed. We did all we could.” Angelica lets out a hurtful wail that goes to the heart of the issue. She has nothing to live for, and therefore signs away her inheritance. The Aunt departs, accompanied by her winding theme in the lower strings (again, monotonous ad absurdum).

In Angelica’s gorgeous aria, “Senza mamma,” she voices her thoughts about her son, how he died without ever having known his mother’s love. When can she see him again? According to William Berger’s description of this episode, “The vocal line soars in G minor, but the muted orchestra recalls the Zia Principessa’s prayer in the previous scene” (Berger, Puccini without Excuses, p. 254). Indeed, her aria begins with the same three notes that accompanied the Aunt out the door, hinting that Angelica can never fully escape her relative’s long shadow. The intermezzo that follows is justly renowned as a passage of supreme repose.

Opolais returned to deliver the final scene in tightly controlled, but emotionally gripping fashion, the sorrow in her voice taking on Tebaldi’s velvet blanket in a most soothing and respectful mode. Needless to say, the soprano broke all hearts with her portrayal and was feted with a long ovation at the end. Puccini then concludes the opera in the same way that it began: with the nuns’ voices (representing the angels of heaven) heard from above, and the musical forces of two pianos, organ, glockenspiel, celesta, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, etc., in the background — a psychological if not a religious manifestation of a miracle, or “the poignancy of the human need for salvation,” as Berger put it.

It’s a more “restrained” approach to the subject than audiences might have anticipated, and will rekindle fond memories of Cio-Cio-San’s ritual suicide in Madama Butterfly, a coincidence this opera happens to share. The whole of the instrumentation dies out quietly with the subdued voices of the nuns, a hushed ending to accompany Angelica’s death and the wonder of salvation through grace. Purgatory was never so sublime.

‘Rich Relations May Give You Crust of Bread and Such’     

Placido Domingo (in hat and scarf) as Gianni Schicchi, surrounded by the Donati family

For Gianni Schicchi, Puccini treats audiences to a story of greedy relatives out to fleece the recently deceased Buoso Donati, a rich family member, out of his estate. They only need to find his last will and testament, that’s all. But where the heck did Buoso hide it? When they eventually locate the document (thanks to the young Rinuccio), they discover that he’s left his entire fortune to the church (gasp!). Undeterred by this unfortunate setback, they ponder how to rectify the situation.

[Author’s Note: In our estimation — and one that has been overlooked by many writers — the plot of Gianni Schicchi is a continuation of where the Zia Principessa left off with her niece Angelica. Puccini’s little in-joke, then, takes the story of the Aunt, now reshaped into that of Zita, the senior female member of the Donati clan (note that “Zita, i.e., zitta, or “shut up” in English, is close to the Italian word “Zia,” or “Aunt”), and follows it to its natural conclusion: i.e., what happens to the family fortune that Angelica signed away to her little sister, Anna Viola, so that she could marry her unnamed suitor. The raucous consequences, as put forth in the farcical routines of Schicchi, are funny and startling.]

Rinuccio suggests they summon Gianni Schicchi, a so-called “new monied man” whose cleverness and quick wit can help to recover their inheritance. Of course, Rinuccio has an ulterior motive behind this suggestion: he plans to wed Schicchi’s beautiful young daughter, Lauretta, with the inheritance serving as a tidy little wedding present. The relatives balk at the mere mention of this upstart. When Schicchi enters, he hits upon a plan to impersonate the dead Buoso and take his place in bed. His idea is to trick the Lawyer and his Notary into rewriting the will in the relatives’ favor (ahem, but taking the bulk of the riches for himself, lest he accuse the relatives of conspiring to cheat the state).

After the Lawyer and Notary have left, the relatives grab whatever articles aren’t nailed down and exit the house with Schicchi in hot pursuit, leaving the two lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio, alone to blissfully make their wedding plans. True to form, Schicchi has the last word on the subject: “I trust you audience members have enjoyed this little plot. If what you’ve seen today pleases you, then join in unison and declare me ‘not guilty’.” Paradise was never so good!

In the finale to ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ the lovers Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) and Rinuccio (Atalla Ayan) fall into each others’ arms

There are some tricky time signatures and rhythm changes throughout this wonderfully paced score. Puccini’s penchant for stating a theme he has every intention of re-using down the road continues in the same vein as in the other two works of Il Trittico.

One obvious illustration is found in the ubiquitous aria, “O mio babbino caro,” which translates to “Oh my beloved father” (or “daddy,” a more accurate rendition), the thrice-familiar theme of which is first heard in Rinuccio’s “Firenze è com’un albero fiorito” (“Florence is like a flowering tree”). Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan, as Lauretta in the Met broadcast, sang the aria brusquely, as it was originally intended, with no undue schmaltz attached or prolonged delays.

The piece comes and goes in a flash and should be delivered that way, not drawn out ad infinitum as heard in countless on-air ads and TV commercials, and especially its egregious misuse in the Merchant-Ivory production of A Room with a View (1986). Taken out of context, the air collapses of its own weight and winds up being a trial to the ears as well as a test of listeners’ patience. In its proper place, and as a spontaneous plea for a father’s aid, Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” is a pleasant enough diversion (a “breather,” in modern day parlance) from the actions of those money-grubbing relations.

As Rinuccio, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan (Christian in the Met revival of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac) was primed for this high-lying lyric role. He even sounded like a younger version of Plácido Domingo, who took on the sly Signor Schicchi in this performance, and will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut at the Met this season. Stephanie Blythe repeated her imposing Zita, with Maurizio Muraro as Simone, Lindsay Ammann as Ciesca, Jeff Mattsey as Marco, Gabriella Reyes as Nella, Tony Stevenson as Gherardo, Patrick Carfizzi as Betto, and the other artists, all contributing to a unified ensemble. And that’s what counts in any Schicchi performance.

Zita (Stephanie Blythe), Nella (Gabriella Reyes), and Ciesca (Lindsay Ammann) sweet talk Schicchi (Placido Domingo)

As the star of the afternoon, Mr. Domingo proved once again that at 78 he can still deliver the goods, but barely. He sounded like his old self — that is, a tenor posing as a baritone trying to sing in the lower register. I’ve been critical about this for the last decade or so. I know it’s one way for him to prolong his singing career, and I know he thoroughly enjoys performing on the stage. But no matter how hard he tries or how much work he puts into it, Domingo simply does not sound like a baritone. This creates an imbalance in pieces that demand a firm and rich sound, something that, at THIS stage in his vocation, the artist does not command. With a 50-year career behind him, it is long past the time for Sr. Domingo to step off the stage and allow the next generation of talents to assume their rightful position.

He came off well enough on Saturday’s broadcast, though, injecting humor and humanity into this lustrous part. But again, I must stress that his voice was but a shadow of what it once was. Oh, well, I’ve groused about this matter long enough, so I’ll let bygones be bygones. Everyone had the time of their lives, so who am I to quibble? In fact, where most baritones run aground, in the arioso “Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino” (“Goodbye, Florence, goodbye divine sky”), Domingo excelled. Bravo to that!

There’s one thing I am pleased to confirm: never again will these wondrous works be separated from one another, as they once were in the years after the premiere. Paired with a plethora of other operas (including Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle), Il Trittico can be enjoyed in its entirety as three parts of a unified whole. Father Dante would be well pleased!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”

In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.

In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Hail, Lord of Heaven’: The Met Opera 2018-2019 Broadcast Season Opens with Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’

The Epilogue to Boito’s ‘Mefistofele,’ with Christian Van Horn (l.) as Mefistofele & Michael Fabiano (r.) as Faust

Second Tier Siepi

That was my main take-away from the Metropolitan Opera’s first Saturday radio broadcast of the season, on December 1, 2018, of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. The cast included bass-baritone Christian Van Horn in the title role, tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust, soprano Angela Meade as Margherita, soprano Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, mezzo Theodora Hanslowe as Marta, and tenor Raul Melo as Wagner. The work was conducted by Joseph Colaneri. The production was the handiwork of Robert Carsen, and the revival staged by Paula Suozzi, with sets and costumes by Michael Levine, lighting by Duane Schuler, and choreography by Alphonse Poulin.

Calling someone, anyone, “second tier” may or may not be considered an insult in some quarters. I certainly do not mean it as an insult, but as a half-hearted compliment. The reason I included the late, great Italian basso Cesare Siepi’s name in the subtitle to this review is my way of paying homage to an incredible artist, one whose longevity as a vocalist and star performer will forever be remembered by records buffs and fans of beautiful singing. He was often associated with this opera, and with good reason.

Siepi had a long and storied career at the Met, starting with his surprise debut in 1950, as King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the inaugural Rudolf Bing season. Just to show you how stellar that occasion happened to be, Siepi was surrounded by such renowned artists as Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, American baritone Robert Merrill, debuting Argentine soprano Delia Rigal, and Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. The original Philip was to have been Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, no slouch as far as dramatic performances were concerned. But due to visa problems with the U.S. State Department (this was at the height of the Cold War), Christoff was unable to obtain entry. Hands down, his loss was Siepi’s gain!

Former Met Opera great, Italian basso Cesare Siepi (1923-2010)

From there, Siepi took up the mantle of lead singer (he was still in his 20s), singing in a variety of roles from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, to, in his later career, Gurnemanz in Wagner’s Parsifal — quite an array of characterizations for a citizen of Milan. Siepi also appeared on Broadway in two unsuccessful musicals, Bravo Giovanni in 1962 and Carmelina in 1979. Siepi would never become the idol of millions in the manner of fellow Italian Ezio Pinza. But one could always depend on him to give 100 percent of himself each and every time he took the stage.

One of Siepi’s best known stage assumptions, one he lamentably never got to perform in his nearly 25 seasons with the Met, was as the titular Devil in Mefistofele. He did make quite a splash in Faust, the Gounod version of the story, as a mellifluously toned, French-speaking Méphistophélès — more gentleman and cavalier than leering demon.

Ah, but the true test of a basso cantante is his ability to adapt the voice to the demands of the part. In this Siepi was supreme. He excelled in the acting department as well. One can imagine his prancing about half-naked on the stage, roaring up a storm and gesticulating wildly in the Prologue and Epilogue to Boito’s fantastic epic (see any of my previous posts, “Ecco il Mondo” — The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, concerning the genesis of Mefistofele). His Decca/London complete recording of the piece, under the baton of veteran conductor Tullio Serafin, with fellow Met colleagues Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, is a must-have classic, despite the boxy sound.

Siepi would be a hard act to follow even in the best of circumstances. That the 40-year-old American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, a Long Island native and 2018 recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, was engaged to recreate the role of Mefistofele in a revival of the campy Robert Carsen production (originally staged at San Francisco and revived there in 2013 with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov, along with tenor Ramón Vargas and soprano Patricia Racette), spoke volumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s trust in his abilities.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn

I’m not convinced that their faith was completely misplaced, mind you, but it does take a special kind of artist to pull off a flashy part such as this, especially one in which Old Scratch is adorned in flame-red coattails and slicked-back red hair and matching beard. From the publicity and stage photographs, however, Van Horn possesses the beefy build of a body-builder, with biceps to die for. That’s great if he were playing, say, Hercules or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Mefistofele? I look at it as casting overkill. Surely, Satan can get by without perfectly-formed pectorals. Still, I’m willing to give any singer their due, as long as they deliver the goods.

In that respect, Van Horn’s sound is more lyrical than cavernous. And, yes, he, too, is of the “basso cantante school” of singing, with a voice reminiscent of maestro Siepi’s. While Siepi was the most musical of creatures, but still capable (when called upon) of transmitting that sense of evil incarnate through purely vocal means, Van Horn hardly suggested the innate power and sweep implicit in Boito’s score. For instance, the Prologue went by with no mishaps, yet that flash of inspiration — the feeling that Mefistofele is the combative protagonist in this episodic retelling of the Faust legend — was missing from Van Horn’s portrayal.

The introductory air, “Ave, Signor!” (“Hail, Lord of Heaven”), was fine but no more, a perfunctory reading at best. And his later “Son lo Spirito che nega” (“I am the Spirit that denies”) went by the boards; it was over in a flash to little effect. Where were those bone-chilling “No’s” that frighten the very bejesus out of us? Those piercing whistle blasts (called for in the scoring and in the stage directions), so integral to the part, were weak and short-lasting as well. Too, Van Horn lacked the inky blackness, the plumbing of the bottomless depths that only the best bassos (among them Tancredi Pasero, Nazzareno de Angelis, Giulio Neri, as well as the aforementioned Pinza, Siepi, and Christoff; and, in our own time, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, and Ferruccio Furlanetto) could bring to His Satanic Majesty. I wonder what the Met’s own Štefan Kocán, who has sung Mefistofele elsewhere in Europe, could have done with this part….

The Witches’ Sabbath scene, with Mefistofele (Van Horn) enticing Faust (Michael Fabiano) to devilish delights

Audiences want to be scared out of their wits. That’s what devils do. We know they won’t win in the end, but it’s fun to think that they can. Mr. Christian went on to spew forth more bile and relish for one of the sulfur and brimstone sections of the opera, i.e. the Witches’ Sabbath in scene ii of Act II. Such displays gave him the heft and weight (and the benefit of the doubt) he had so far lacked. Most importantly, they may have placed Van Horn on the map as a singer on the rise. There’s still time, of course, for that to happen; and given more experience and (ahem) exposure in this role and others, Van Horn should continue to develop his skills even further. He’ll make one hell of a devil, that’s for sure.

“Come to Me, Faust!”

After 20 years of not hearing this opera on the Met Opera broadcasts (I was still living and working in Brazil at the time), it was great to hear this splendid score once more. Without top-of-the-line, first-rate singers, however, reviving Mefistofele can be a chore to plow through. We were lucky in that department.

Tenor Michael Fabiano’s vocal impersonation of the late Franco Corelli showed continued improvement as Faust. Fabiano phrases impeccably and demonstrates more care for note values (and noticeably less slurring of words) than Corelli did in his prime. Yet, the voice is still young (Michael is only 34), and the spinto mannerisms (he strained a bit at key moments) are still in their formative stage. To his credit, he forsakes the lachrymose quality that some tenors in this repertoire (I’m thinking of Beniamino Gigli here) have been all-too-prone to display in the past. More softness would have been welcome, especially as the older Faust. But his was as generously proportioned a portrayal as we are likely to get.

Mefistofele (Christian Van Horn) goes over contractual matters with Faust (Michael Fabiano) (Photo: Met Opera)

I’ve mentioned before in these pages how Aureliano Pertile, an outstanding Italian tenor from a bygone era and one of Toscanini’s favorites, would “age” his voice perceptibly on record to give the impression of infirmity and decrepitude vis-à-vis the bass’s more agile accomplishments. Michael could take a lesson or two from Pertile’s way with the part. And speaking of the Devil, Van Horn made little of the Act II Garden Scene opposite Theodora Hanslowe’s droll Marta, which in the hands of a Treigle or a Ramey would have brought much-needed levity to a work that can seem ponderous to listeners.

As the opera progressed, Fabiano gained confidence and flexibility in the latter parts of the performance. He did not take the optional high C in his lively Act I duet with Satan (“Fin da stanotte nell’orgie ghiotte” – “From this night on in the orgies to come”). Nevertheless, things started to come together at this point, with both Michael and Van Horn giving it their all in the Brocken Scene, and Van Horn’s blasting of the airwaves with his powerful rendition of “Ecco il Mondo” (“Behold the World”). The only disappointment was in his handling of the all-purpose globe in the Devil’s hands: in this production, it’s a big balloon. The directions call for a glass or some sort of breakable object to splinter into a million pieces upon his throwing it to the ground. Here, there was no such smashing sound, which deprived the music of its climax.

As Margherita, the opera’s put upon heroine, Angela Meade displayed a purity of voice and acting means in the more emotional aspects of this role that is hard to find today. Both Acts II and III were made more pleasurable by her presence. It did wonders for Fabiano, too, who sounded more comfortable as the young and overwrought gentleman Faust (in his guise as Enrico, a young student) than as the elderly philosopher.

Margherita (Angela Meade) hears the amorous outpourings of Enrico, or Faust in disguise (Michael Fabiano) in Act II of  ‘Mefistofele’

Meade, too, laid bare her character’s soul in Margherita’s pathetic opening aria, “L’altra notte in fondo all’ mare” (“Last night, at the bottom of the sea”), in the Prison Scene, the equivalent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Gretchen-Faust section from the German author’s epic poem. This is the most heart-wrenching music that Boito ever composed, with its baleful woodwind and string introduction. Meade delivered the aria with indescribable pathos and control. The concluding section, “Spunta l’aurora” (“Dawn is rising”), is a paean to the coming verismo movement; it was written more than 20 years before Mascagni or Leoncavallo would bring that short-lived genre to musical life.

Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy (Elena in the opera) was fully up to the dramatic challenges of her recitation concerning the fall of that ancient city. Helen is a small role, but when done well can send sparks throughout the opera house. When the work was new, the same soprano who took on Margherita would also sing Helen. Nowadays, two different singers are employed, and understandably so, since Helen is a somewhat “heavier” role dramatically. One always gets the feeling, upon hearing this portion of the opera, that Boito cut too many corners in order to keep things moving, thus leaving this sequence with an air of incompleteness and haste.

Faust (Michael Fabiano) pitches some woo at Helen of Troy (Jennifer Check) in Act IV of ‘Mefistofele’

Not for nothing is Mefistofele known as a choral opera, and memorably so. In fact, in nearly every scene the chorus’ presence is felt as well as seen and heard (even offstage). Ira Siff, the Met’s Saturday radio commentator, alongside broadcast host Mary Jo Heath, agreed that the Met Opera Chorus puts in a “virtuosic” performance in this piece. He’s right on the money! The hellish Witches’ Sabbath sequence, as noted above, is a terrific illustration of this conception of the opera as kaleidoscopic in scope.

Along those same lines, there are few world-class orchestras capable of delivering the solidity and nuance required of this and other repertory items as only the Met Opera Orchestra can bring. Maestro Joseph Colaneri held things together quite well, refusing to let the sometimes raucous portions of Boito’s score (“Tiddy-fol-lol,” as Bernard Shaw would describe it) get out of hand; or to let Robert Carsen’s circus-like ambience dominate the proceedings.

The Epilogue is supposed to crown the whole affair off. Well…. About that….. Something was definitely lacking, possibly that vital spark, that flicker of light that gives life to a worthy subject. What’s with that tinny trumpet sound instead of the usual fanfare? There’s supposed to be a brass ensemble present to announce the coming of the Heavenly Host. Whatever! Although there was much applause at the opera’s conclusion, as a veteran of many — and I do mean MANY — productions of Mefistofele (including live recordings and YouTube extracts), I’ve had a much better sense of this work’s magnitude back at the good ole New York City Opera in its historic heyday than at the Met.

Back then, the reigning Devil was Ramey. He lit up the stage as few Lucifers could. Christian Van Horn has a long operatic trek ahead of him if he is to reach that place where no bass has gone before. A good effort, I might add, but not the roof-raising one we have longed for. I’m sure there will be other times when Boito’s Devil comes a-calling. And when he does, you can be sure I’ll be there listening.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Caetano Veloso: Dark Times Are Coming for My Country

Brazil’s presidential runoff election is being held on Sunday, October 28. As a consequence of this historic event, today’s guest contributor, composer, singer, writer and political activist Caetano Veloso, published an article for THE NEW YORK TIMES Op-Ed page on October 24. In it, the singer-songwriter talks about the dark times ahead in Brazil if Jair Bolsonaro becomes president of the Republic. Below is a re-print of the article.

Singer, songwriter, author and political activist Caetano Veloso (Photo: newv2)

RIO DE JANEIRO — “Brazil is not for beginners,” Antonio Carlos Jobim used to say. Mr. Jobim, who wrote “The Girl from Ipanema,” was one of Brazil’s most important musicians, one [who] we can thank for the fact that music lovers everywhere have to think twice before pigeonholing Brazilian pop as “world music.”

When I told an American friend about the maestro’s line, he retorted, “No country is.” My American friend had a point. In some ways, perhaps Brazil isn’t so special.

Right now, my country is proving it’s a nation among others. Like other countries around the world, Brazil is facing a threat from the far right, a storm of populist conservatism. Our new political phenomenon, Jair Bolsonaro, who is expected to win the presidential election on Sunday, is a former army captain who admires Donald Trump but seems more like Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ strongman. Mr. Bolsonaro champions the unrestricted sale of firearms, proposes a presumption of self-defense if a policeman kills a “suspect” and declares that a dead son is preferable to a gay one.

If Mr. Bolsonaro wins the election, Brazilians can expect a wave of fear and hatred. Indeed, we’ve already seen blood. On Oct. 7, a Bolsonaro supporter stabbed my friend Moa do Katendê, a musician and capoeira master, over a political disagreement in the state of Bahia. His death left the city of Salvador in mourning and indignation.

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about the 1980s. I was making records and playing to sold-out crowds, but I knew what needed to change in my country. Back then, we Brazilians were fighting for free elections after some 20 years of military dictatorship. If someone had told me then that someday we would elect to the presidency people like Fernando Henrique Cardoso and then Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, it would have sounded like wishful thinking. Then it happened. Mr. Cardoso’s election in 1994 and then Mr. da Silva’s in 2002 carried huge symbolic weight. They showed that we were a democracy, and they changed the shape of our society by helping millions escape poverty. Brazilian society gained more self-respect.

Caetano at a concert on Copacabana Beach

But despite all the progress and the country’s apparent maturity, Brazil, the fourth-largest democracy in the world, is far from solid. Dark forces, from within and from without, now seem to be forcing us backward and down.

Political life here has been in decline for a while — starting with an economic slump, then a series of protests in 2013, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and a huge corruption scandal that put many politicians, including Mr. da Silva, in jail. Mr. Cardoso’s and Mr. da Silva’s parties were seriously wounded, and the far right found an opportunity.

Many artists, musicians, filmmakers and thinkers saw themselves in an environment where reactionary ideologues, who — through books, websites and news articles — have been denigrating any attempt to overcome inequality by linking socially progressive policies to a Venezuelan-type of nightmare, generating fear that minorities’ rights will erode religious and moral principles, or simply by indoctrinating people in brutality through the systematic use of derogatory language. The rise of Mr. Bolsonaro as a mythical figure fulfills the expectations created by that kind of intellectual attack. It’s not an exchange of arguments: Those who don’t believe in democracy work in insidious ways.

The major news outlets have tended to minimize the dangers, working in fact for Mr. Bolsonaro by describing the situation as a confrontation between two extremes: the Workers’ Party potentially leading us to a Communist authoritarian regime, while Mr. Bolsonaro would fight corruption and make the economy market friendly. Many in the mainstream press willfully ignore the fact that Mr. da Silva respected the democratic rules and that Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly defended the military dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, in August 2016, while casting his vote to impeach Ms. Rousseff, Mr. Bolsonaro made a public show of dedicating his action to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who ran a torture center in the 1970s.

As a public figure in Brazil, I have a duty to try to clarify these facts. I am an old man now, but I was young in the ’60s and ’70s, and I remember. So I have to speak out.

Gilberto Gil (l.) and Caetano in exile in London in the late 1960s

In the late ’60s, the military junta imprisoned and arrested many artists and intellectuals for their political beliefs. I was one of them, along with my friend and colleague Gilberto Gil.

Gilberto and I spent a week each in a dirty cell. Then, with no explanation, we were transferred to another military prison for two months. After that, four months of house arrest until, finally, exile, where we stayed for two and a half years. Other students, writers and journalists were imprisoned in the cells where we were, but none was tortured. During the night, though, we could hear people’s screams. They were either political prisoners who the military thought were linked to armed resistance groups or poor youngsters who were caught in thefts or drug selling. Those sounds have never left my mind.

Some say that Mr. Bolsonaro’s most brutal statements are just posturing. Indeed, he sounds very much like many ordinary Brazilians; he is openly demonstrating the superficial brutality many men think they have to hide. The number of women who vote for him is, in every poll, far smaller than the number of men. To govern Brazil, he will have to face the Congress, the Supreme Court and the fact that polls show that a greater majority than ever of Brazilians say democracy is the best political system of all.

I quoted Mr. Jobim’s line — “Brazil is not for beginners” — to bring a touch of funny color to my view of our hard times. The great composer was being ironic, but he spoke to a truth and underlined the peculiarities of our country, a gigantic country in the Southern Hemisphere, racially mixed, the only country with Portuguese as its official language in the Americas. I love Brazil and believe it can bring new colors to civilization; I believe most Brazilians love it, too.

Many people here say they are planning to live abroad if the captain wins. I never wanted to live in any country other than Brazil. And I don’t want to now. I was forced into exile once. It won’t happen again. I want my music, my presence, to be a permanent resistance to whatever anti-democratic feature may come out of a probable Bolsonaro government.

Copyright © 2018 by The New York Times

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, Act IV and Epilogue (Part Eight – Conclusion)

‘Mefistofele,’ Act IV: The Vale of Tempe Scene (in Las Vegas kitsch-style), from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo (2008)

Night of the Classical Sabbath

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—

[Faust kisses her] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!—

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

The above lines were taken from English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Oft quoted by aspiring thespians and used as a running gag in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Shakespeare in Love, the lines are spoken by the philosopher Faust upon meeting the fabled Helen of Troy from Antiquity.

The legend of Faust and his bargain with the Devil (actually, a wager between Lucifer and the Lord) have inspired many an artist throughout the centuries, most noteworthy among them the German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust, his own two-part study in verse, was the inspiration as well for a number of like-minded composers.

Gounod’s five-act Faust, the most memorable of the works transformed into operas based on Goethe’s poem, eliminated all mention of Helen of Troy; it concentrated instead on the love affair between the maiden Marguerite (called Gretchen in Goethe’s original) and the dashing young cavalier Faust. Berlioz, too, maintained a reasonable focus on the Faust-Marguerite love story in La Damnation de Faust, a symphonic poem for orchestra, soloists and chorus that is frequently staged as an opera.

Even earlier than either the Gounod or the Berlioz work is Robert Schumann’s oratorio-like Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a three-part choral and orchestral piece for eight solo voices. Later, Busoni, in a more eclectic, intellectually conceived design, gave the operatic world his version of Doktor Faust, which eliminated Marguerite entirely (the character is hinted at via the presence of her brother) in favor of metaphysics. Helen, too, is scarcely perceptible as a phantasmagoric vision.

Stage production from the Teatro Regio, Parma, of Robert Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’ (2008)

It was left, then, to the Italian Arrigo Boito to conjure up the voluptuous image of the Greek beauty Helen, stolen by Paris from her husband, the warlike Menelaus, which led to the decade-long siege of Troy (or Ilium, as it was also called) and to the city’s eventual fall and destruction. Although Boito’s Mefistofele, a cosmic interpretation of Goethe’s epic work and originally presented in two parts, was considered an abject failure at its 1868 La Scala premiere, it was later re-worked, re-written, and re-thought and given a triumphant remounting in 1875. Further revisions shaped it into the bombastic piece we know today.

What remained of the so-termed “Night of the Classical Sabbath” is a truncated, hardly awe-inspiring fourth act to follow the emotionally charged third. Tacked on to Mefistofele as more of an after-thought than a carefully constructed bridge between acts, it contrasts the romantic liaison of Faust and Margherita (who, you will recall, met her untimely demise in Act III) and the make-believe one of Faust and the regal Helen, who holds court by the River Pineios (or Peneus), named after the river god of ancient Thessaly. This act is also known as the Vale of Tempe sequence.

In the volume Opera on Record 3 (edited by Alan Blyth), music critic and contributor John Higgins proposed that “the music of the fourth act [of Mefistofele] is never included in selections of highlights from the opera, and it could possibly be considered optional in a stage performance, in much the same way as the Walpurgisnacht Ballet in Gounod’s Faust” (coincidentally, as part of a very long Act IV of that work). Well, we needn’t go that far. While it’s true that audiences are eager to get on to the rousing conclusion, I am of the opinion that Boito’s Act IV makes for a palatable lead-in to what comes after.

However, Higgins went on to claim that “the Vale of Tempe Act also poses the problem of whether to cast a second soprano as Elena (Helen) or whether to treat her as another facet of Margherita.” Surely, there was a financial consideration involved in this suggestion. In most live productions of Mefistofele, the part of Elena is normally taken by a second artist (as in San Francisco Opera’s 2013 revival with soprano Marina Harris). It makes perfect sense, too, to cast the same singer as both Elena and Margherita, provided she has the goods to mold separate and distinct characterizations. Elena’s tessitura is not as vocally demanding or as emotionally taxing (or rewarding) as that of Margherita’s. Still, either way will work given that both roles are clearly differentiated on stage.

As the act opens, the audience hears a barcarolle-like musical theme amid harp-plucked textures that call to mind (and that listeners may rightly compare to) the more famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s unfinished The Tales of Hoffmann. Elena and the mezzo-soprano portraying Pantalis blend their voices together in an ethereal number, “La luna immobile innonda l’etere …. Canta” (“The motionless moon bathes the still ether … Sing on”). The two women give pause from their moonlight boat ride as Faust, from a distance, calls out Helen of Troy’s name repeatedly, each time in varying octaves (“Elena, Elena, Elena, Elena”) — the last of which rises in anticipation of his meeting with the legendary figure.

Faust (Ramon Vargas) greets Helen of Troy (Marina Harris) in San Francisco’s 2013 production of ‘Mefistofele’

This number is similar in execution to the opening of the third act Witches’ Sabbath scene at the hellish Brocken Mountain (“Folletto, folletto, velloce, leggier”). Here, though, familiarity breeds contempt. Surely, Boito could have found a more trenchant musical representation, though in truth the calmness and serenity of this sequence (including a delightful minuet in the Boccherini mode) boosts the languid nature of the plot. Furthermore, the change in tone and mood is palpable, and clashes markedly with the rest of the opera. Listeners should take this episode for what it is: a pleasant diversion, even a brief respite, before the big finale.

Mefistofele has brought Faust to this ancient locale so the philosopher can forget his remorse at how the pitiable Margherita met her tragic fate. Faust will taste of mythical love, but the overly-respectable ambience and decorum leave Mefistofele cold and bored: He much prefers the harsh scents of the Brocken (the Hell he does!). With the entrance of dancing nymphs and such, Mefistofele momentarily takes his leave.

Helen enters and, in an intensely dramatic delivery (“Notte cupa, truce, senza fine, funebre!” – “Oh night, dark and grim, endless, funereal!”), she recalls the terrible time that Troy was sacked. The very air reverberated with the echoes of clashing shields, thundering chariots, and whining catapults; the very ground turned red with blood. The gods, enraged, rained down fire and fury upon the city. The gigantic shadows of the invading Greeks were cast against the flaming walls of Troy, until a deathly silence was all that was left. One of Boito’s many additions to the score, it’s a shame this declamatory piece has never been recorded on anyone’s recital disc. It can be quite effective in performance.

Helen of Troy (Angel Joy Blue) relives the terrible night of the sacking of Troy

Just then, Helen’s nymphs turn to see a stranger slowly approaching. Who is this splendid hero? Why, it’s the gallant Faust, decked out in all his finery (he’s dressed, according to the libretto, as a fifteenth-century knight). He prostrates himself before Helen and declares his undying love. Various assorted sirens and fauns, along with Pantalis, Nereus, and the curiously aroused Mefistofele accompany Faust as he pitches his woo at the receptive queen (“Forma ideal purissima” – “Purest and ideal form of beauty”).

Tormented at first by her recollection of that horrible night, Helen opens her heart to this handsome fellow. The two join their voices in a rapturous ensemble, beginning with their mutual declaration of love (“T’amo, t’amo, t’amo, t’amo”) to the same tune as Faust’s earlier repeated entreaties of her name. Together, the couple and the assembled participants engage in a powerful concertato (“Ah! Amore! Misterio, celeste, profondo!” – “Ah, Love, mysterious, heavenly, profound!”), the main melody of which will recur near the end of the Epilogue where Mefistofele urges the dying Faust to once again listen to the song of love (“Odi il canto d’amor!”).

This ensemble, as previously mentioned in Part Six of this series (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera-part-six-second-intermission/), shares many similarities with a comparable one in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The lovers’ voices rise higher and higher, until at the ensemble’s climax the gathering begins to disperse. Helen tells Faust that Arcadia lies just beyond a peaceful valley. And that is where they will live forever, declares the ardent knight. They continue to exchange terms of endearment as the curtain slowly falls to a tremulous theme in the strings, the same one that opened the act.

“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful”: The Death of Faust

A long and languorous postlude sets the scene for the celebrated Epilogue. It is here that librettist and musician Boito finally attained the Olympian heights he had so long desired. As one writer derisively put it, “Attempting too much, he accomplished too little.” That may be a fair analysis of the Mefistofele project as a whole. But whether you agree with this assessment or not, certainly the Epilogue brings the heady drama to a stirring close in a most satisfactory way. Boito has taken the listener on Faust’s journey of enlightenment. “From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven,” wrote Goethe. Did Boito achieve his purpose? We think so.

We are back in Faust’s laboratory, where the philosopher and the Devil first struck their fiendish bargain. Faust is old now, having lived his life twice over. He’s tasted both the passion (and the despair) of mortal love, as well as experienced an amorous fling with a legendary figure. Faust sold his soul for an extended period of physical pleasure, yet even in advanced age he has yet to see that vision of loveliness where he must pose that fateful declaration.

And true to form, the observant Mefistofele reminds him of this. “You have lusted,” Satan bellows, “indulged yourself and lusted anew, but still you have not bid the fleeting moment to ‘Stay, thou art so fair!’ ” Faust concurs with this evaluation. Indeed, he’s known the real and the ideal, the love of a fair maiden and the heart of a goddess, but what of them? The real (“il Real fu dolore”) only brought him suffering, and the ideal was but a dream (“e l’Ideal fu sogno”).

‘Mefistofele’ – Baden-Baden 2016 – The Epilogue with Charles Castronovo (Faust)

At this point, Faust launches into one of the most beautiful and dreamlike tenor arias in the entire Italian repertoire: “Giunto sul passo estremo, della più estrema età” (“Having reached the final step of extreme old age”). He awakens from his trance to find a peaceful world, one of an immense expanse; one where life has a purpose, and one where he can give life to a fruitful people. Mefistofele, in an aside, is concerned that his prize is slipping from his grasp. The Devil means to seek out his heart’s desire — a desperation move at best.

The philosopher continues to apostrophize despite the dire situation: his one desire is that his people and their flocks, their houses, fields and cities, will rise up by the thousands to live under a cogent set of laws. Dream on, Herr Faust, dream on! A wary Lucifer urges himself to be on the alert. Seeing that his victim has become obsessed, at this late stage, with doing good works, Mefistofele primes himself for battle with the Heavenly Host.

Unlike the Vale of Tempe section, there are multiple recorded extracts of both “Dai campi,” the first-act tenor aria, and the elegiac “Giunto sul passo.” According to Opera on Record 3, the best of the early acoustic and/or electric batches were those by the Italians Giuseppe Anselmi, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Aureliano Pertile, and Giovanni Zenatello. For those wanting a more modern-sounding style, Luciano Pavarotti’s recitals can’t be beat. And from the complete albums, Plácido Domingo’s two sets (recorded in 1974 for EMI/Angel and 1989 for Sony Classical, respectively) are excellent mementos of the Spanish tenor’s art.

As Faust concludes his reverie, suddenly a radiant glow appears in the distance. Faust hears a heavenly hymn and rejoices in the “august rays of such a dawn.” But the Devil sees through the light. “Good now reveals itself to him!” he spouts. “Tempter, beware! Tempter, beware!”

The “End of Life” sequence from Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ (Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 2008)

Trumpets sound from every corner of the theater. Their fanfare hails the arrival of the Heavenly Host. Spreading his cloak on the ground, Mefistofele orders Faust to fly through the air with him one last time. Perhaps he can entice the good doctor away for further madcap adventures. But as the trumpets grow louder, the Celestial Choir, the harbinger of the coming Heavenly Host, rises above the din. It too grows louder and louder, repeating a wordless “Ah!”

Now in extreme distress, Mefistofele calls out the doctor’s name in vain: “Faust! Faust! Faust!” Each time he does, it is more desperate and anxious than the previous cry. And the music has taken us back to the start of the opera: “Ave Signor, degli angeli, dei santi, delle sfere…” – “Hail, Lord of the Angels, and All of the Saints, and All of the Spheres ….” It’s a remarkable moment, certainly one of the most invigorating climaxes in all opera. The voices grow noisier and more clamorous, until they drop to barely a whisper for the “Ave Signor.”

In a final outburst of insolence, Mefistofele cries out to Faust: “Hear the song of love! Come drink the blood from the sirens’ breast!” It’s the theme of Faust and Helen of Troy’s amorous declaration. In some productions, signs of a homoerotic relationship between the Tempter and the tempted are openly implied. At New York City Opera’s famed Tito Capobiano production, Mefistofele all-but embraced the hallucinating Faust to prevent him from fleeing his clutches. Topping that, both bass-baritone Norman Treigle and basso Samuel Ramey, his successor in the part, would writhe on the floor in agony over Faust’s impending salvation.

At last, Faust utters the dreaded words: “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (“Arrestati, sei bello!”). “Look away!” Mefistofele roars in disapproval. “Look away!” – “Torci il guardo, torci il guardo!” But it is too late. Clasping the Bible to his bosom, Faust cries out to God and Satan that “The Gospel is my bulwark!” He reaches up to high C. (Note to audience members: Say a silent prayer that the tenor doesn’t crack on that pivotal note!) The cherubim chime in, accompanied by the Celestial Choir. Falling to his knees, Faust, much like the condemned Margherita, prays for his deliverance from this mocking demon. “Lead me not into temptation!”

Repeating his entreaties to “Stay, grant me eternity,” and in the ensuing ruckus of the competing choirs of angels, cherubim, and seraphim, Faust gives up his soul and expires. At the same time, Mefistofele is pelted (according to the original stage instructions) with a shower of roses, which also descend over Faust’s lifeless body. Most productions ignore this directive, but one can imagine the effect it would have if some director had the courage to try it. What we usually get is a patented light show, or, in some productions, a freeze-frame of the action.

Nevertheless, the Celestial Choir hails the Lord’s victory over evil (and Faust’s personal victory over adversity) with a long-sustained final note. The impressive trumpet fanfares, heard at the beginning of the opera, conclude the Epilogue with a stunningly climactic explosion of sound.

The last solo voice to be heard, however, is that of Mefistofele himself. Thrusting an angry fist into the air, the Devil tosses his wrath to the four winds. “The Lord triumphs, but the reprobate whistles! Eh! Eh!” It sounds even stronger in Italian: “Trionfa il Signor, ma il reprobo fischia! Eh! Eh!” Putting his fingers to his lips, Satan blows those ear-piercing screeches at God, but to no avail.

Open to Interpretation

‘Mefistofele’ from Baden-Baden 2016: Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) tears out the pages of the Holy Bible in the rousing finale

In the Epilogue to the Met Opera’s revival of Mefistofele, Satan is literally carried away on the shoulders of masked choristers. He thrashes and shouts over the cries of the chorus. For a different take, two variants on the standard ending are available online. They can be viewed and enjoyed on YouTube: one, from the 2008 Teatro Massimo of Palermo production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (tenor Mario del Monaco’s son), features Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role, with Giuseppe Filianoti as Faust; the other, a 2016 Philipp Himmelmann production for Munich’s Baden-Baden theater, stars an electric combination of Erwin Schrott as Mefisto and Charles Castronovo as the youngish Faust.

The Teatro Massimo presentation concludes as it began, with an end of life vision of a long, concentric-circled tunnel that leads to a bluish light at its center. In the Prologue, Mefistofele slowly crawls out from this wormhole-like aperture as if it were a birth canal. When he reaches center stage, the Devil picks up an armchair and threatens the light with it. This motion is carried over into the Epilogue, but in reverse order. After Faust’s “Giunto sul passo” air, the doctor retrieves the torn pages of his Bible and clasps them to his chest. This is his salvation. In a last-ditch effort to change Faust’s mind, Mefistofele hungrily embraces the old man but is driven away by the voices of the unseen chorus. As the music reaches its apex, he picks up that same armchair (on which an elderly Faust has sat) and, for the last time, threatens the choir with it in the same manner as before.

Incidentally, Filianoti is especially poignant in his rendering of Faust’s one chance at recovery. The voice, cracking with emotion, mimics that of an aged philosopher, not that of youthful tenor in his prime. How the listener may take this approach, which I find much truer to the drama, is a matter of taste. I, for one, liked it. Not to be outdone, Furlanetto pulls out all the stops. His deep, resonant bass rings out firmly in this scene. Plush is the term I would use to describe his vocal apparatus, if only slightly past its prime. His acting is even better; one can sense the desperation as Mefisto struggles to stay ahead of the game, despite his realization that all is lost.

In the presentation from Baden-Baden, Erwin Schrott’s sturdy bass-baritone, while resounding strongly  on the soundtrack, is not nearly as plush as his colleague’s. His is a leaner, less full-toned instrument than Furlanetto’s true bass grounding. While it fails to plumb the depths of the part, Schrott’s acting is in a different league entirely. This is based on director Himmelmann’s conception of the Devil as a hipster, and on Schrott’s own view of the character as a sexy beast in a butch haircut. The swagger, the self-confidence, and the total identification with the master manipulator fit Schrott’s physical and vocal attributes well.

Contrasting this production’s Epilogue with that of the Teatro Massimo, in Baden-Baden the Devil is the one who tears out the pages of the Holy Bible, not Faust. He ends up ripping the book in two and throwing it to the ground. Faust, sung ever-so-delicately by Castronovo, barely takes notice. Instead, he gives the audience its money’s worth with a gorgeously timed, gently laced rumination on “Giunto sul passo.” He strains at the highest notes, however, which slightly mars and disrupts the vocal line. All in all, his is much tamer and less compelling version of Faust’s vision than Filianoti’s more verismo-based account.

As to the powerful conclusion, I much prefer Furlanetto’s handling of the close. In Schrott’s interpretation, the Devil loses himself in a string of chintzy tinsel strips suspended from the stage’s ceiling. Swishing his arms back and forth along the strips, Schrott appears to be lost backstage while swirling in and out of view. Meanwhile, Castronovo stands front and center as the curtains slowly close in on him. I, too, was lost as to the meaning of all this, but no matter.

Erwin Schrott (as Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (as Faust): The Devil gets lost in Tinsel Town

Both performances are available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. If you’re looking for a change of pace while waiting for the Met Opera’s December revival of Mefistofele; if you’re curious to learn how our mania for old warhorses can be tailored to fit freshly-minted Las Vegas kitsch, either the stylistically challenging Palermo production or the later Baden-Baden version should fill that bill quite nicely. Fortunately, the singing in both productions is top-notch. They can be safely recommended with only minor reservations.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

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

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on a grand scale, where pageantry took precedence over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass repetitive performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, leisurely pastorals, mighty choruses, florid solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was a little after this time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin. While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the overly lavish costumes they and Ms. Blythe were given to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova’ — Preface to Life

The Fat Lady Sings!

Life is not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it.

My soon-to-be-finished book, Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, and the stories within it were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever-fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in the country of my birth.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome (which I pray it has not become) but as a series of challenges in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet website. Why challenging? Because, as it became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would be spent on the task of researching, studying, and analyzing the subject beforehand. While this is a regular, everyday part of most professional writing assignments, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema. But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America, at any rate, movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — “and never the twain shall meet.” This has been the time-tested thought pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a healthy curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern for these same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — never had I felt that these seemingly independent activities should be divorced from one another, not by any means. This led directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnectedness with, and close identification of, individuals and groups with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had a vast and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these areas, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” entertainment should be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of class, color, and origin, or their economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was referred to at one point as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious sentiments off the map of our subconscious.

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

Jair Rodrigues, “Deixa Isso Para La”

  • listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, ever-joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso para lá” (“Leave that to the side”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music;

 

  • remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, knowing I was Brazilian, quite innocently inquired as to how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded warily); he went on to mention a former top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by someone called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the scenic virtues of the film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus might be;

 

  • seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known to the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

 

  • getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was present), at my first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculously lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

 

  • hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será” (from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), reached the top of the worldwide charts; this was also my initial exposure to the Brazilian martial art and dance form known as capoeira;

 

  • experiencing my first — and most likely last — Carnival dance party in February 1979, inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I have ever had the misfortune to obtain after four non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

 

  • finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the São Paulo back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, piping away in fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about this album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about;

Grande Otelo

  • catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished It’s All True epic;

 

  • having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population fifteen million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the start of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

 

  • making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

Susana Moraes

  • placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to the late filmmaker Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his favorite partner Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count through the years of the number of individuals I’ve come into close contact with as a result of my writings. These and other noteworthy episodes aside, I sincerely feel that this maiden literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture. Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout, and can be found on almost every page: from native-born artists studying opera abroad, to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores; from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces, to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters; from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors, to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants; and many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multi-faceted and multi-racial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately about and what I aspired to recreate with the writing of this book.

As a consequence, I have scrupulously tried to capture the flavor of these various events, hence the longwinded subtitle A Personal & Cultural History of Opera, Pop, Soccer, Cinema & Musical Theater in the Land of Carnival & Samba. As any writer will tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not present to experience it, is a supreme challenge to anyone’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multi-culturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous undertaking? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous significance to me in augmenting my sometimes myopic perception of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, and modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, shows, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office Network of Brazil; and my fifty+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, cultural, and/or cinematic events. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in this text.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, along with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first time any South American nation has been accorded that prestigious honor. A book covering this wide swath of Brazilian culture would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be. It is to be hoped that my efforts were not in vain. ☼

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes