I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy, here comes another one of those ‘Best of the Year’ surveys!” Well, not exactly.
My thoughts in compiling this list are more in line with taking an off-center approach to a much abused topic. By that, I mean to jot down my impressions, good, bad or indifferent, of films I happened to have enjoyed (or not) in the venues in which they were originally shown: the movie theater.
As readers of my blog are aware, movies have been a major preoccupation of mine for a number of years. And since nowadays most films can be viewed online or in the comfort of one’s home on a variety of platforms, I decided to give equal time to works that merit the wide-screen approach. That’s the way these films were meant to be seen — and that’s how I saw them.
Another reason I decided to make this list was simple: due to time constraints, I have been unable to write a longer analysis. However, I do hope to remedy that situation in the near future. Indeed, many of these works require, no, DEMAND, a full-length commentary on their own. For now, though, I believe this year-end wrap-up will serve the purpose.
The films are in chronological order by year. Happy 2018 everybody!
A Spanish gothic adaptation of Snow White, with hints of magical realism and the Grand Guignol, Blancanieves took me and everyone who watched it by total surprise and sheer delight. Much as I experienced with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when it was first shown in 2005, I found myself smiling all the way through while viewing this fabulous feature at the North Carolina Museum of Art — a most appropriate site for this work. For indeed, this is a definitive example of film art, a pièce de résistance and labor of love for Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger and his cast and crew. The wind was nearly taken out his sails, however, when Señor Berger was informed that his silent-film project would be overshadowed by Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011), which beat him to the punch by almost a year. Seen on its own terms, Blancanieves is the more challenging of the two for audiences unfamiliar with Spanish culture. Filmed in glorious black and white by cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, with an unforgettably haunting music score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, the plot takes a few liberties with the accustomed “happy ending” of most fairy tales, much to the film’s betterment. Set in and around Seville, Spain in the early 1920s — in particular, the bullfighting arena (with emphasis on Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s 19th-century Tauromaquia prints) — this revisionist retelling of Snow White (or “Blancanieves” in Spanish) tells the tale of little Carmen (Sofía Oria) and, as the young adult Carmen, Macarena García, the orphaned daughter of a once famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Through various plot contrivances and twists of fate, Carmen finds herself in the care of a troupe of wandering circus dwarfs, garnering fame through her travels as a female bullfighter. Of course, there’s a wicked stepmother, Encarna (played with lip-smacking glee by Maribel Verdú), and a perfidious henchman who doubles as her chauffeur (Pedro Ponce). Told through purely visual and musical terms, the film pays homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, with references to the silent-film oeuvre of Abel Gance (Napoleon, Le Roue) and Carl Theodor Dreyer, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc in Berger’s close-ups of the bizarre and the grotesque. The purposely ambiguous ending will have you scratching your head for days, but if you are attuned to the director’s vision it should satisfy the insatiable critic in all of us.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Pacific Rim, Mexican-born director-writer-producer Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget foray into the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world genre, has some captivating character studies, specifically the interactions between our hero, Raleigh Becket (British actor Charlie Hunnam), his literal sidekick Mako Mori (Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), and the straight-talking General Stacker (tough-as-nails Idris Elba), their mentor and savior. If the ravings of Godzilla and King Kong are the ultimate in prototypical movie monsters that love to level major cities around the globe, then the fantastic beasts of Pacific Rim will likely tickle your fancy. If not, then look elsewhere. Pacific Rim came out at time when a spate of dystopian pictures from World War Z, Oblivion, Battle: Los Angeles, The Avengers, and Edge of Tomorrow dominated the movie-going landscape. The gigantic sea monsters known as Kaijiu are indeed impressive, as is the interplay between secondary characters Dr. Newt Geiszler (a manic Charlie Day), the resentful Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), and black marketeer Hannibal Chau (the ever-reliable Ron Perlman, a Del Toro stalwart, in search of his missing shoe). In addition to which, the Jaegers, those humongous robotic machines built to combat the rampaging Kaijiu, are individually differentiated, if given less screen time than one would have liked. The story, however, has a “been there, seen that” aspect to it, with an ending that can be telescoped a mile away and that calls to mind Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Still, Del Toro’s affection for those monstrous adversaries is never in doubt, despite his characters’ penchant for indulging in stereotypical screen behavior, i.e., macho posturing. With that said, Charlie Hunnam has become (or tries to become) the Heath Ledger of his day. The walk, the talk, the attitude, the look, and feel of the late Australian-born Ledger are certainly “there” in spirit. What’s missing, at least from this angle, is Ledger’s obsession with establishing a real onscreen persona, quirky as many of them were. One a side note, the film’s score was composed by Ramin Djawadi, noted for his musical contributions to the popular Game of Thrones series on HBO, along with the cable channel’s Westworld.
The big, bad Japanese gorgon is back! He’s filled out somewhat, and that midriff has gotten a shade heftier with “age.” But he’s as fire-breathing mean as the old boy has always been. A fairly winning reboot of the old Toho Studios franchise (despite the cheesiness of their later product), this latest reincarnation of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (originally titled Gojira in 1954, which was retro-fitted in 1956 with scenes in American English starring Raymond Burr) holds up fairly well against the competition. Directed by British-born Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), the plot of this newest exercise in urban bashing extends the chaos to San Francisco, where U.S. Navy officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wages a one-man battle to save the city not only from Godzilla’s atomic-age belches but from some Rodan-like pterosaurs called “MUTOS.” The film starts off well, with a genuine air of mystery about it. For one, we learn the reason for those atomic bomb tests in the forties and fifties was to combat Godzilla’s growing menace. For another, the menace was never extinguished. Yikes! As Ford’s scientist father Joe Brody, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) acts rings around the other players. The intensity of his performance alone is what makes the first 20 minutes of the film so absorbing. The stunt guys in the monster suits are also believable enough, with some elaborate set pieces (i.e., Godzilla’s first entrance, the destruction and mayhem surrounding San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge) earning kudos for realism and seamless integration into the whole. However, some of the main characters undergo little development. For instance, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who served an essential function in the original Godzilla, can only stare blankly at the ensuing carnage. He’s there as a cynical nod to the Asian market. More’s the pity! The same goes for his assistant Dr. Graham, the usually capable Sally Hawkins, left to mutter pseudo-scientific bromides while the single-minded Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn, whose talents are wasted) ignores her and Serizawa’s warnings about the implementation of atomic weapons against the beasts. As you may have gathered, there are more than enough similarities between this picture and Pacific Rim (reviewed above) to warrant copyright infringement. We won’t go into that (and neither did the producers). Let’s say that when the focus is on the almighty Godzilla’s battles with the voracious MUTOS, all is well. There’s a side-story, too, about Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, and his little son, juxtaposed against the opening sequence involving the loss of Joe Brody’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Beyond that, you may enjoy this FX exercise in technological gobbledygook.
The Martian (2015)
A middle-of-the-road, sci-fi adventure flick from director-producer Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, The Martian is about survival of the smartest and how a daily routine can keep you firmly grounded, even on as desolate a setting as Mars. Based on writer and ex-computer programmer Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, the film focuses on space explorer Mark Watney (Matt Damon), accidentally abandoned on the angry red planet by his fellow crewmates. A botanist by profession, Watney uses what knowledge he has of the field as a way to increase his chances for survival, while hoping against hope that his crewmates will be able to rescue him before water, food, and oxygen give out. Meanwhile back on Earth, politics and monied business interests are at constant loggerheads with each other, as well as concern for the rescue crew’s safety. Eventually, international cooperation and humanitarian needs take precedent in this ultimately engrossing drama. You will be surprised to learn that there are no bug-eyed monsters in space (at least, not in this reality-based depiction), nor are there villainous saboteurs lurking behind the scenes. Just your normal, everyday human beings caught up in the business of rescuing a fellow space traveler from disaster, amid hyperbolic discussions about whether a single, supposedly expendable life is truly worth saving. The film shares a similar storyline with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), with lots of tech talk and thousand-dollar words. There are also many fine performances, chief among them by Damon as the titular “Martian,” whose ingenuity and instincts for self-preservation are stressed almost to the breaking point. Too, there’s a war of wills between NASA director Teddy Sanders (an implacable Jeff Daniels) and mission director Mitch Henderson (one-track-minded Sean Bean), in addition to numerous character vignettes by Jessica Chastain as Commander Melissa Lewis, Kristen Wiig as NASA media director Annie Montrose, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor, Benedict Wong as director of the jet propulsion lab Bruce Ng, and Michael Peña as jocular mission pilot Rick Martinez. While botanist Watney is steadfast all the way through his ordeal, he does manage to lose his composure once he realizes the odds are stacked against him. His solution for preserving his sanity (and his own humanity) is in recording his feelings, hopes, struggles, and aspirations in video form. Of course, with such a big budget as $108 million at risk, director Scott could not afford to let his hero perish. This gives the movie an atmosphere of inevitability and, if you will, futility. We know that Watney will be rescued in the end; that all will be well and the world will be made whole again. Still, despite the obviousness of the film’s chosen direction, my favorite sequence, implausible as it may seem, occurs towards the end of this elaborate sci-fi production. Sitting alone on a campus bench, Watney wordlessly contemplates his past exploits before stepping into the lecture hall. The survivor of a mind-boggling experience, he is now a survival instructor, about to teach a class of astronaut recruits the dirty business of keeping oneself alive. When practically all of his recruits raise their hands with questions, I wanted to raise my hand, too. Perhaps a sequel will come out of this lone and uniquely satisfying episode.
If you knew what the rest of your life would be like before anyone else did; if you had insight into your loved ones’ future prospects and, knowing what you knew, would you change anything about the outcome — or want to? These are the underlying themes of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, his low-key answer to present-day, slam-bang science fiction. Based on writer Ted Chiang’s 1998 “The Story of Your Life,” taken from his larger collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer takes a tried-and-true formula — the presence on Earth of beings from another planet shake up man’s preconceived notions of superiority — and overlays it with both an intellectual and profoundly emotive core. The story is a simple one, though less straightforward than you would expect: Earth is invaded by twelve enigmatic, stone-shaped spacecraft which harbor seven-armed, octopus-like creatures the scientists have dubbed “heptapods.” Unable to converse with the aliens by ordinary means, the U.S. military, headed by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with its counterparts in eleven other nations, enlists the aid of linguistic expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Remmer) in an effort to comprehend the motives behind the visitation. The immediate by-product is skepticism on the military’s part. However, by dint of a series of hours-long learning sessions, Louise mounts a heroic effort at personal outreach. Soon, she is able to communicate with two of the aliens (whom she nicknames “Abbott” and “Costello”) via their pictographic non-linear language. Amy Adams’ shining portrayal of linguist Louise is a joy to behold. Her emotional catharsis throughout her journey helps the viewer comprehend the pain and suffering of one’s life in ways that become clear later on. Beautifully crafted and excellently acted, the film revels in a newfound appreciation for mutual cooperation between the sciences and language arts. It’s the triumph of reason, introspection, and empathy over force and armed might; of understanding the “other” through communication and language (“the foundation of civilization,” as Louise describes it), and of learning to view the passage of “time” in a totally different light. Archways, doorways, ceilings, and textures (along with strategically placed “flashbacks”) provide visual clues to the story’s definitive conclusion. Jóhann Jóhansson is credited with the percussive sound-scape. But the film is bookended by the superb use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” for string quartet, an oft-employed piece found in several recent features, among them at the end credits of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, where it is paired with a Dinah Washington song.
End of Part One
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Let’s Discuss It!
After Ken Avis’s introduction, Leo Lucini started the discussion off with a few words about the roots of Brazilian music, especially the native indigenous sources, mixed in with those of the country’s Portuguese colonizers, and, of course, the African slave influence. He went into a bit of the history of how the descendants of former slaves came together at a street corner named Praça Onze (“Square Eleven”), in Rio, and began to play the rudiments of choro, maxixe, and street samba. From there, later generations of Brazilians, i.e., Jobim, Vinicius, and, in Lucini’s opinion, the “founder” and pioneer of bossa nova, João Gilberto, had also banded together along the beachfront sections known as Ipanema and Copacabana.
Leo paused in his talk to give an active demonstration, involving sections of the audience, of the sounds that comprised the basic samba rhythm. This portion of the program went on a trifle longer than necessary; however, the point was made that samba encompassed a variety of contrasting elements that, together, created the music and rhythm which, when slowed down, gave way to what we know as bossa nova.
The next speaker was David Adler, who wrote the 2004 cover story for JazzTimes on the making of the album Jazz Samba. Most of David’s discussion was centered on his article, but the part that opened most of the audience’s eyes was the sidebar involving the so-called “Phantom Sessions” that allegedly took place prior to Jazz Samba being recorded. Basically, it was an October 1961 session with guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz with Getz’s working quartet at the time, including bassist John Neves and drummer Roy Haynes.
David actually talked to Haynes, who remembered being in the studio with Charlie Byrd before bossa nova became popular. David even sought out and spoke with knowledgeable individuals, several of whom were able to provide specific dates (October 24-26) for the sessions, although no tapes or supporting material was found. “So there is a Jazz Samba session that’s in the ether somewhere, and it is gone,” David concluded. “It doesn’t exist anymore.”
What David drew from this disclosure was the incontrovertible fact that bossa nova required artists who were exposed to the music, who knew it and were capable of playing it. This is where the drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt and bassist Keter Betts came in.
The talk transitioned over to Buddy and his experience with making the now-classic album. He admitted, quite candidly, that “it’s just my version of it, my interpretation of it. It is not pure bossa nova. It’s exactly what the [album] cover says it is. It’s Jazz Samba. It’s the first fusion album before they even started using the word ‘fusion.’ ”
Without realizing it, Buddy held the audience in the palm of his hand from the start. He remained calm and collected throughout the experience. And he showed a canny sense of humor and comic timing, too, when he regaled the crowd with this morsel: “We had no idea [the album] was going to be so successful. Keter Betts said months later, ‘You know that album we did?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, it got a Grammy.’ And what’s even funnier is, I was 24, and I said, ‘What’s a Grammy?’ I didn’t even know what a Grammy was!”
More controversially, Buddy equated the album’s popular success with, quite possibly, percussionist and second drummer Bill Reichenbach’s placing the emphasis on the rhythm of the songs (which Charlie Byrd selected) on beats two and four, something the “American public was used to hearing” and “could identify with.”
It was now multi-award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene’s turn to discuss his participation in the venture. Ed wasted no time in stressing the fact that a jazz combo, as much as a symphony orchestra, needs to be recorded in an acoustically agreeable environment, not in a “dead room.” It was the raison d’être for recording Jazz Samba at All Souls Unitarian Church in D.C.
True to his profession, Ed emphasized the technical aspects of sound recording, including his use at the time of vacuum tube circuitry, Ampex tape recorders, condensers, and mixers. More important than these was his insistence the musicians be comfortable playing with one another.
It was at that point that Ed turned to Buddy, who he hadn’t seen in over fifty years, and asked, “Were you guys comfortable on stage, playing together?” Buddy replied with a simple “Absolutely,” which he prefaced with “You made my drums sound better than they ever sounded.” This pleased Mr. Greene to no end, who confided to audience members the reason he left the record business, mainly because he got tired of doing guitar overdubs on albums for weeks on end. Again, the musicians had no one to relate to, which in his opinion made the business much too complicated, what with earphones and monitors and such. “It’s a miracle anything comes through at all.” He did say that he enjoyed the immediacy of television, which is where Ed had been thriving for the past several decades, prior to his passing in August 2017.
Returning to the panel discussion at the Strathmore, D.C. native Tom Cole was asked to provide, in response to Ken Avis’ prompt, some context for, as well as the impact of, the album on pop music during and after the 1960s. Turning the tables on the moderator, Tom inquired of the participants that although both instrumental and vocal music were listened to with equal interest, did any of them recall hearing Jazz Samba on the radio; and, if they did, how did they react to it?
Words to the Wise
Ed Greene was the first to interject, in that he still “hears the album on the radio. It’s an unmistakable sound. There’s something about it. The music was not only well played, superbly played. It’s a very sensual music. That’s really what that album’s about. And that’s the essence of bossa nova.” Leo Lucini confirmed Ed’s appraisal, adding “among other things.”
Buddy offered his own thoughts in that he was “pleased that it sounded good. Everything about it was okay, it was correct. I didn’t hear anything that I disliked. And I’m always listening to mistakes that I made. The worst thing about making any recording is that you have to listen to your mistakes over and over and forever.”
What ultimately came out of this phase of the discussion was that the American record-buying public was readily taken with Jazz Samba over earlier recordings that were issued (in some cases, a decade or so earlier), among them Brazilian music featuring guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bud Shank.
A brief question-and-answer session followed, wherein yours truly, who was present in the audience and listening attentively to what was being divulged, was asked by Buddy (thank you, my friend!) to comment on the influence of the movie Black Orpheus in popularizing bossa nova. Here’s the answer I gave the panel:
“Vinicius de Moraes and Jobim wrote the music for the original play, Orfeu da Conceição, which later was turned into a film by Marcel Camus, made in Rio. It included none of the music from the play, but all new music by Jobim, as well as music by Luiz Bonfá. That “The Morning of Carnival” and “Samba de Orfeu” were Bonfá’s music. Black Orpheus is a totally other story. It’s a film that really captured, visually and sonically, the imagination of Americans and pretty much the whole world — except at the time the native Brazilians.”
Although nobody asked me, I volunteered a story that I had read in journalist and writer Ruy Castro’s book, Chega de Saudade (a.k.a. Bossa Nova): “My comment is about Stan Getz, they said he was a great player because of his sound and everything. During the recording sessions of Getz-Gilberto, João Gilberto made a comment to Jobim about it. As Getz was blowing away, Gilberto told Jobim [and I was paraphrasing here], ‘Tell that moron to shut up, he’s playing too loud.’ Jobim saw Stan’s expression and he said, ‘He says he likes the way you play.’ And Getz, in response, said, ‘Funny, I don’t think that’s what he said.’ ”
I was pleased — no, thrilled — to hear that Brazil’s music, especially the soothing sounds of bossa nova, was still seducing audiences the way it had over half a century ago.
Looking back on the previous Friday night’s concert with Eliane Elias and Sergio Mendes, I was reminded of an elderly gentleman seated to my right. He had come into the Strathmore Music Center with the aid of a walker, so fragile and weak was his appearance. The man must have been in his eighties. He was accompanied by his wife, who looked about a decade younger.
As the music and vibes reached their peak, the man stood up and, to my astonishment, started jerking his arms around in time to the rhythm. He was hardly able to keep up with the music, but boy, was he having the time of his life! Fond memories of his younger and healthier self must have been on his mind.
Then it dawned on me. Bossa nova continues to charm the world. And based on what I witnessed that night, it never really gets old, does it?
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Haunted by the Past
It’s fair to say that the ghost of Maria Callas has haunted the Metropolitan Opera’s casting department for well over half a century. The Greek-American singer whose fiery temperament on and off the stage has passed into the realm of legend was a noted advocate of Italian bel canto, along with much of the verismo school. But no matter the musical genre, Callas left her mark on everything she touched, which is why she was known by the soubriquet La Divina, or “the Divine One.”
Squally, ear-splattering high notes aside, Callas (christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos) was nevertheless an artist through and through. Born in New York City, Callas lived, for a time, in Upper Manhattan, in the same general area as composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in. The family then took up residence in Astoria, Queens. After a time, Callas’ mother took her and her older sister to live in Athens, Greece, while both daughters were in their teens. Now, if you were deemed by fate to become a myth or a legend, where would you go to live?
We will deal more substantially with La Callas at a later time. Suffice it, then, to say that her interpretation of the title role in the Sicilian-born composer Vincenzo Bellini’s greatest creation, the opera Norma, has been all-encompassing. Even today, no opera house in the world would even think of mounting this masterpiece without taking Callas’ influence into account. The short time that she was with the Met, amid heated battles with General Manager Rudolf Bing, would mimic many of her own confrontations on stage with characters burdened by personal crises.
The possessor of enormous passions, Callas’ flame burned out too quickly and too soon. She passed away in Paris, in 1977, at age 53. While Bellini himself was short-lived (he died at age 34 in 1835), he left his mark on many composers who came after him, including Chopin, Donizetti, and Verdi.
Wagner, of all people, was an admirer of Bellini’s languorous melodic output. That long line and the unique way that Bellini had of embellishing a viable idea while incorporating it into a character’s musical fabric had an altogether deep and abiding sway on the German composer’s mind-set. We need only cite two examples from Wagner’s oeuvre to confirm that fact: the Act II ensemble from Tannhäuser; and Erik’s lovely cavatina in the third scene of The Flying Dutchman.
Norma, which premiered at La Scala on the day after Christmas in 1831, had its origins in Greek tragedy. A well-schooled pupil of classicism, as well as an incurable romantic, Bellini modeled his finished work on those of his illustrious predecessor, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (Alceste, the two Iphigenia operas), and on his contemporary Giovanni Simone Mayr (Medea in Corinto), along with Luigi Cherubini’s Medea and Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (“The Vestal Virgin”), both operas that were prominent in Callas’ repertoire.
Principally, the myth of the sorceress Medea is of major significance to the plot of Norma. As we know from classical literature, Medea helped the hero Jason and his Argonauts steal the fabled Golden Fleece. Jason’s reward, as it were, was marriage to Medea and his fathering of her two children. When the couple fled Colchis to Corinth, Jason eventually abandoned Medea for the charms of the beautiful Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. In retribution, Medea murdered not only Glauce and Creon, but also her sons by Jason!
In the opera, the Druid priestess Norma has had a secret liaison with Pollione, the Roman proconsul. The action takes place in ancient Gaul, which the Romans have conquered. The Druids, headed by Norma’s father, the high priest Oroveso, plan their own revenge against their Roman usurpers. The situation is further complicated by Pollione’s abandonment of Norma for the young priestess Adalgisa. Can you guess what happens next?
Instead of the expected infanticide, Norma spares Pollione’s children. She realizes, to her horror, that they are her children too! She tells us so, in the moving scena that begins Act II: “Ah, son miei figli, miei figli!” That melancholy, almost heart-breaking string introduction to this act clearly moved Tchaikovsky to weave a similar-sounding passage into the poet Lensky’s bleak lament from Act II of his opera Eugene Onegin, which opens with the line “Kuda, kuda, vi udalilis,” (“Where have you gone, oh golden days of my youth?”). Misery and melancholy, it seems, are universal sentiments.
There are many variations on the Medea theme, one of which, as related by the Greek poet Herodotus, has Medea flee Corinth and run straight into the arms of King Aegeus of Athens. He, too, drove the wily enchantress away when she tried to poison his mind against his son, Theseus, the fellow who grew up to slay the Minotaur.
In Norma, the priestess leaves her children in the care of Adalgisa, as the two join together in friendship in the glorious duet, “Mira, o Norma.” The opera ends tragically, however, as the vengeful Norma and her ex-lover Pollione, taken captive by the Druids as he was about to abduct Adalgisa from the temple, mount their own funeral pyre in a double sacrifice to the gods.
Cast Your Fate to the Winds
That long Bellinian line was in ample supply during the “Mira, o Norma” duet, especially during the cabaletta section. At the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Norma on December 16, 2017, conductor Joseph Colaneri pulled the main melody along in stop-and-go fashion — first slow, then fast, then slower, then faster still. But it failed at quickening the pulse, something no Norma production should be without. When the late Australian soprano Joan Sutherland (“La Stupenda”) performed this duet on a 1970 broadcast with her friend and colleague, mezzo Marilyn Horne, it brought down the house.
A guaranteed showstopper, it was nothing of the kind in this most recent of Met broadcasts. The number simply came and went without having accomplished what it set out to do. This is not to fault the singers, in this case soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Their pairing was indeed fortuitous, but it missed that timely spark of inspiration that any performance of the opera demands. What could have been the problem?
My theory, if I may be allowed to expand upon it, is that a pall had descended over the proceedings, due to the loss of James Levine. As indicated in my last post concerning Verdi’s Requiem (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/), the issue surrounding the dismissal of maestro Levine will haunt the company for years to come.
Unable even to speak his name on the air during one of the intermissions, General Manager Peter Gelb expressed the sadness of a company that has relied on Mr. Levine’s presence and guidance for over four decades. Whither thou goest now, Met Opera? Just as Norma had done, Levine had to be “sacrificed” to atone for past sins. The fate of the opera company, then, is in the public’s hands.
The “Callas” Mold Holds Firm
As for the specific artists involved in the performance, Angela Meade as Norma bravely ventured forth where most sopranos fear to tread. The thing she lacked most of all was that catch in the throat, that final touch of pathos that only Callas, and intermittently Spanish diva Montserrat Caballé, were capable of bringing to the part. In every other respect, though, Meade fulfilled the vocal requirements: her coloratura runs were expertly handled; highs and lows were perfectly judged; and loud and soft passages were negotiated with skill and dexterity.
But let’s be honest here: few sopranos today can live up to the challenge set by Callas. Ms. Meade’s predecessor in this new production (by David McVicar and Robert Jones), soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, came the closest to scoring a home run. Her Callas-like timbre easily sailed through the house, but, in the same manner as Meade, even she failed to fully capture the character’s essence. Perhaps it was a matter of enunciation of the text, to make it live and breathe as if it were part of one’s soul and being. Or perhaps both artists failed to absorb the life lessons necessary to make the part their own.
In my experience, and in the experience of listeners with memories of operas past, only Callas, as our modern-day exponent, could truly “live” the part in her inimitable fashion. In the two EMI/Angel studio recordings she left behind, the first from 1954 and the other from 1960, in stereo, listen to her rendition of “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”) — how reminiscent of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata it sounds — and the way Callas negotiates the notes around Felice Romani’s text; the total respect she conveys for the solemnity of the occasion where Norma calls upon the moon goddess for peace instead of war.
Move on, then, to Norma’s second act confrontation with Pollione. The ferocity with which Callas imbues the line, “In mia man alfin tu sei” (“Your life is finally in my hands”), is utterly frightening, especially as she hurls the word, “Giura!” (“Swear it!”), at her former lover. In the stereo remake, Callas is partnered with full-throated abandon by tenor Franco Corelli, who makes a worthy partner to this tigress, matching her decibel for decibel. This is what WQXR radio announcer George Jellinek once termed as “acting with the voice.” Callas had the innate ability of getting underneath the written text, at finding the hidden meaning behind what she was singing. This is the model to which all others must be compared.
In other roles, Jamie Barton sang Adalgisa with ample volume but veiled tone (at least, that’s how she came across on the radio). British bass Matthew Rose lent weight and solidity to Oroveso. But like the above artists, Rose had some notable competition in that his music has been sung by the finest bassos around, to include the mighty Italians Ezio Pinza and Tancredi Pasero, and the Bulgarian Boris Christoff, along with Met stalwart Cesare Siepi (vide that 1970 radio broadcast mentioned above).
The opening chorus and subsequent march tunes, as the Druids gather in force against their Roman captors, have been described as nothing more than Salvation Army music. Be that as it may, Verdi was much obliged to Bellini for this bandmaster’s approach to his score. You can find traces of Bellini’s choral writing in such early Verdi works as Nabucco, I Lombardi, and Ernani, up through Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino and the later Don Carlos and Aida.
As the duplicitous Pollione, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja held up his end in the ensembles. In his duets with Meade and Barton, however, he seemed too lightweight to take command. This Roman proconsul would wither at the drop of a hat if he had to confront the likes of a Maria Callas or a Rosa Ponselle. Plainly put, the role lies too low for him, some solid high notes excepted.
Again, I must go back to that 1970 broadcast, where Pollione was sung by the stylish but portly Carlo Bergonzi, not by nature a bel canto specialist or the possessor of a strong physical presence. At the time, I felt that Bergonzi was a good decade too late for the assignment. Still, he managed to modify his usual seamless approach by giving full value to the text, which carried him through to the end.
In that same 1970 broadcast of Norma, the podium master was Joan Sutherland’s husband, Sir Richard Bonynge. A conductor, vocal coach, and concert pianist in his own right, Bonynge was an early champion of the bel canto cause. An Australian by birth, he met and afterwards married Ms. Sutherland in the mid-1950s. Through his coaching, he was able to bring out the bel canto refinements in Dame Joan that made her a household name in the opera realm.
Bonynge employed his essentially pedantic conducting style to such places as Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Europe, as well as his native Australia. Along with Callas, Caballé, Bonynge, and Sutherland — and in league with Italian maestros Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin — the singers Giulietta Simionato, Luigi Alva, Leyla Gencer, Ebe Stignani, Fedora Barbieri, and Sesto Bruscantini, joined later by Teresa Berganza, Beverly Sills, Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti, and others brought flair and substance to the neglected works of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. It’s to them that we owe the revitalization of such obscure items as Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux, Armida, Il Pirata, Il Turco in Italia, L’Italiana in Algeri, and a crowd of others.
But without Callas spearheading the revival in the 1950s, there would be no bel canto tradition as we know it. While there has been a vast improvement in the techniques needed to perform these essential works, with singers (especially tenors) having upped the ante in ability and skill (thanks to such artists as Juan Diego Flórez, Javier Camarena, and Lawrence Brownlee, to name a few of today’s specialists), there is still much work to do in convincing audiences of the viability of bel canto in the modern world.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
To hear a great musical masterwork performed to perfection by master craftspeople is worth waiting for. Sometimes the effect can be overwhelming, and sometimes not. Anticipation can get the best of you, knowing that you are in for something out of the ordinary. Likewise, disappointment is around the corner if the outcome isn’t what you expected.
For example, could an unsuspecting Metropolitan Opera audience (and worldwide listeners tuned in to their radios) have known that during the Saturday intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth, performed on the afternoon of January 23, 1988, an elderly audience member would plunge to his death from the auditorium’s top balcony? No one could, until it actually happened. As a result, the rest of the performance was cancelled.
The fall would be ruled a suicide. Bantcho Bantchevsky, the 82-year-old man involved, had been a regular at the opera house for many seasons. In declining health and fortunes, and having suffered a recent heart ailment, Mr. Bantchevsky, who normally sat in the orchestra, decided to end his life in dramatic fashion.
Bantcho chose the time and the place as well as the method of his demise. But most of us are not so fortunate. Life has a way of choosing for us. And, more times than not, our choices are governed by unfolding events.
Nearly thirty years later, on the Saturday afternoon of December 2, 2017, the Met launched its 2017-2018 radio broadcast and Live in HD season with another Verdi masterwork, the Messa da Requiem, or Requiem Mass. (For the background to this towering and emotionally compelling piece, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-fab-four-of-opera-mozart-verdi-wagner-puccini-part-three/.)
This was not the first time the Met has performed Verdi’s opus. However, I do not recall a Saturday radio broadcast devoted exclusively to it — at least not lately. Nevertheless, the performance was dedicated, as all four of the sold-out performances were, to the memory of the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I recently wrote about (please see the following link to last week’s post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/and-the-curtain-slowly-falls-the-passing-of-classical-music-artists-in-2016-2017/).
The four soloists that headlined this showcase consisted of Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Chorus master Donald Palumbo was in charge of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and Music Director Emeritus James Levine led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, two of the finest ensembles to be found anywhere.
Starting off softly with the bowing of the cellos, the chorus enters along with the strings. It solemnly intones the first lines, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – “Grant them eternal rest, Lord.” A brief a cappella section follows; then, all four soloists enter. One by one, starting with the tenor, they proclaim the Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), which is the characteristic opening line of every Roman Catholic mass. Embellished to a degree by each of the singers, they are joined by the chorus in the concluding repetition of Kyrie eleison.
Suddenly, and without warning (the better to shock audiences into submission), pandemonium breaks out in the orchestra, a veritable Hell on earth: vigorous string movements collide with thunderous whacks on a gigantic bass drum; the blasting of the brass section (Tuba mirum spargens sonum – “The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound”), the chorus practically spitting out the words Dies Irae, dies illa — that fateful Day of Wrath when the heavenly trumpets shall sound and the earth cracks open; where the dead rise up with the living to face their Maker.
In this fiery recreation of the Last Judgment, Verdi summoned up every ounce of skill he had as a musical dramatist. Shades of his previous work, most notably Don Carlos and Aida, resound in the vocal and orchestral lines, along with hints of the masterpieces Otello and Falstaff to come. In the hands of an ensemble up to the task, this impressionable portion of the Requiem should knock the literal socks off us listeners.
I once experienced this feeling when, at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, yours truly was present at maestro Lorin Maazel’s farewell concert of this work with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. I can vouch for the hall’s celebrated acoustics. Indeed, every filigree of sound was clearly and discernibly audible. Those tremendous bass drum smacks shook the very foundation of the place. There was a general feeling of both awesome grandeur and respectful religiosity, as befit the occasion in question.
Few of these qualities emerged in James Levine’s cautious reading, although the Met Chorus shone brilliantly in its moments under the spotlight. The Met Opera Orchestra, too, remained as pliable and responsive as always, if slightly devoid of its customary sheen. None of those spine-tingling moments guaranteed to send a shudder down one’s back, or grab you by the collar, or shake the life-blood out of your system, manifested themselves in this performance. Sorry to say, it remained stubbornly earthbound.
With the exception of the veteran Furlanetto who, despite some noticeable strain on top, managed to inject pure terror into the haunting words of Mors supebit et natura (“Death and nature will be stupefied”) — a superb acting job, I might add — none of the other soloists approached this level of artistry. Both Stoyanova and Semenchuk came off better vocally than verbally in their individual numbers and duets, with many of their words getting lost in mushy projection. Antonenko, in his solo, Ingemisco tamquam reus (“I groan as a guilty man”), displayed a worrisome wobble every time he strayed into high-note territory.
Then again, the occasion was a somber one, and not the usual festive affair. Even before Hvorostovky’s passing, I mentioned the rather offbeat programming of the Requiem, done in contemplation of the Met Opera’s perilous financial condition.
Let me spell it out for anyone whose grasp of subtlety remains less than acute: to begin the radio broadcast season with a work honoring the deceased (in this case, the late Hvorostovsky, although Verdi dedicated the piece to famed author Alessandro Manzoni) is tantamount to admitting the inevitable: Are we paying tribute to a failing institution — that is, the Metropolitan Opera itself— and the dying art of opera? Are we about to embark on a series of cost-cutting measures (fed by ever-distressing news from our Congress) that will end with curtailment of any future opera seasons?
We await further news along this front.
What Goes Around Comes Around
The title of this post, “Quid sum miser,” is taken from one of the sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead, that is, the notoriously apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). It is first voiced by the mezzo in gently hushed tones. She is joined by the soprano and tenor as the solo transmogrifies into a trio. The full Latin text is given below:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
It translates to the following:
Then what am I, a wretch, to say?
To whom should I make my appeal?
When even the just are in need of mercy?
Later that same Saturday and throughout the following week, the news broke that longtime maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine — a revered figure in New York’s classical music circles, and beyond, for well on 45 years — had been accused more than three decades prior of the sexual abuse of several men when they were teenagers.
There have been rumors circulating to this effect for quite some time. Whether or not Met Opera management had anything to do with playing down the gravity of these charges, or whether maestro Levine, 74, (and, by implication, any of his “enablers”) will continue to deny these stories as unconfirmed accusations, the sad part is that only NOW such matters are being taken seriously and investigated. If there was the possibility of a crime being committed, then it must be ferreted out.
Consequently, the Met suspended maestro Levine for the rest of the season (he had been scheduled to conduct several more works there), leaving his continued association with the company in doubt. Health-wise, Levine has been in a debilitated physical state for a number of years now, due to numerous back injuries brought about by falls in or about his home. Because of his condition, a specially-constructed conductor’s podium, which rises from below the house’s orchestra pit, was set up for his specific use. What is to become of this contraption?
Along similar lines, New York Times’ classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a self-explanatory postmortem the other day titled “Should I Put Away My James Levine Recordings?” Good question! Do we stop listening to maestro Levine’s many excellent recorded mementos because of these latest developments? One can say the same about other artists in the entertainment and broadcast field (I will not get into the political arena).
Michael Smerkonish, CNN’s television presenter and talk-radio host, voiced similar concerns regarding the likes of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others. “Is it okay to enjoy the work of those accused of sexual misconduct?” he asked on the air. “Can we as consumers continue to enjoy the fruits of the labor of those who are now under a cloud of suspicion?”
The above-named men weren’t the only ones to have been charged with impropriety. Add to them the names of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Bryan Singer; from the past, we should also mention Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Puccini, Wagner, Diaghilev — the list is long and troubling. Although Smerconish mentioned some of these individuals, historically sexual abuse or misconduct, including within the Catholic Church, has been far too prevalent, and not only against women but against men and underage children, too.
“People in the public eye,” Smerconish went on to say, “tend to be larger than life by the definition, but when we hear the sordid details [of their abuse], what does it mean with our past relationships to their work? I’m having trouble making up my mind.” He’s not the only one!
What are we to say, wretches that we are, when faced with such revelations? To whom should we make our appeal? What does one do when even the just among us are in need of mercy?
As I mentioned at the outset, the expectation of something out of the ordinary can lead to disappointment. We do not choose the time of our demise. Events unfolding before us, often out of our control, make the choice for us. It’s a safe bet that maestro Levine will no longer conduct at the Met, or anyplace else.
In order to reconcile ourselves with our Maker, the church teaches us to confess our sins, to be contrite in our confession, and to go and sin no more. We are all fallible and in need of redemption. And we all fall short. This is the message of Verdi’s piece.
The Requiem concludes with this final prayer for deliverance:
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris judicare seclum per ignem.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved
When you will come to judge the world by fire.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
With the old year winding down and the new Metropolitan Opera broadcast season gearing up, let me pay tribute to some of the classical-music artists, singers, musicians, and craftspeople who have passed on to their heavenly reward. I have broken them out based on voice category or their specific field of endeavor:
Peter Allen (September 17, 1920 – October 8, 2016) was the Met Opera’s radio host for 29 seasons, starting in January 1975 after the company’s longtime announcer, Milton Cross, had suddenly passed away after 43 years of service. I remember both Cross and Allen, and between them there were lots and lots of opera talk, not to mention the knowledge imparted about those broadcast works. To me, Cross almost always came across as pompous and aloof, a byproduct of an earlier era of radio journalism. But with Allen (born Harold Levy in Toronto, Canada), there was a gentlemanly manner and easy affability about him, along with a natural Canadian reserve. A most erudite individual, Allen became a radio announcer upon graduation from Ohio State University, eventually moving to New York and serving as radio station WQXR’s classical-music announcer from 1947 until his retirement. He went on to earn a reputation of grace under fire, of composure and imperturbability in the midst of chaos. His smooth delivery and soothing conversational style were never grating or perturbing, a true professional in every way. And Allen absolutely adored opera. I will never forget how he delivered Tosca’s last line in Act III, just before she leapt to her death — conveyed to worldwide audiences in a most unassuming manner. With bite as well as no small degree of bemusement, Allen spoke the fabled words: “Scarpia, we meet before God!” You could almost see the announcer grinning behind his bespectacled bearing. Allen stepped down in September 2004 when Margaret Juntwait was chosen to replace him.
Neville Marriner (April 15, 1924 – October 2, 2016) and Georges Prêtre (August 14, 1924 – January 4, 2017) had overlapping podium careers. Born four months apart (Marriner in the United Kingdom, Prêtre in France), they both started playing jazz at an early age. In addition to being an accomplished violinist, Marriner studied at the Royal College of Music in London, while Prêtre, who preferred the trumpet, took up the conducting art at the Paris Conservatory. Prêtre led his first opera at Marseilles in 1946. The work was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, which he recorded in 1962 with tenor Jon Vickers, mezzo Rita Gorr and baritone Ernest Blanc. Not necessarily an opera conductor but known primarily for his founding of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (a chamber ensemble at its start), Marriner achieved worldwide fame and recognition with the soundtrack to director Miloš Forman’s 1984 film of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. Throughout the years, Marriner’s Mozart recordings with the Academy of St. Martin’s won numerous Grammy Awards and other distinctions. Prêtre continued to work with various orchestras throughout his lengthy career. Fans of soprano Maria Callas will recall his podium presence for her various comeback concerts and recital albums, including an EMI/Angel Records stereo remake of Tosca featuring her frequent onstage co-star Tito Gobbi and tenor Carlos Bergonzi; and a marvelously atmospheric reading of Bizet’s Carmen (which Callas never sang on the stage) with the late Nicolai Gedda (see below).
Jeffrey Tate (April 28, 1943 – June 2, 2017) was a physician by training (he was an eye specialist at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London) before becoming a musician. Tate overcame two childhood ailments, congenital spina bifida and kyphosis (curvature of the spine), to devote full-time to medicine, although he remained undecided about a career for some time. He eventually abandoned medicine for music around 1970-71, studying at the London Opera Centre and then at Covent Garden. Some of his early conducting mentors were Georg Solti, Colin Davis, and Josef Krips. A chance meeting with conductor and avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez led to Tate’s appointment as Boulez’s assistant at the 1976 centennial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was later offered a position in Cologne, where after much cajoling he was persuaded to conduct Carmen in Sweden. This led to further engagements throughout Europe, conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Tate made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1980, leading a revival of Alban Berg’s Lulu, a historic production which included the restored third act. Primarily a conductor of the classical repertoire — he was chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra since 2009 — Tate spent much of his time in the opera houses of Europe and England and giving concerts, especially in Germany where he made his home. He passed away of a heart attack at an orchestra rehearsal at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy.
Gigliola Frazzoni (February 22, 1923 – December 3, 2016) was born in Bologna. She studied with former diva Blanche Marchesi and, according to Frazzoni’s Official Website, made her professional debut on October 4, 1947 in the minor role of Samaritana in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. Frazzoni was a lyric soprano with a strong dramatic flair that endeared her to Italian audiences. Because of her fear of flying, Frazzoni’s career was limited to the European Continent, specifically to Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, and Egypt. Although it limited her exposure abroad (she made few studio recordings), Frazzoni can still be heard as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West in a live 1956 transmission from La Scala, alongside colleagues Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi, and conductor Antonino Votto. Radio commentator Ira Siff’s review of the recording for Opera News emphasized that “Frazzoni’s Minnie fairly leaps out of the speakers; her fragility, courage, longing and despair tug at the heart of the listener.” Americans never got to hear the singer in her prime. However, this recorded memento of her art remains a testament to the fire and viability of Italian verismo from one of its chief proponents.
Roberta Peters (May 4, 1930 – January 18, 2017), Patrice Munsel (May 14, 1925 – August 4, 2016), and Brenda Lewis (March 2, 1921 – September 16, 2017) all made their Metropolitan Opera and/or professional debuts within a few years of each other. Brenda Lewis (born Birdie Solomon), the oldest of the group, first appeared as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Philadelphia Opera in 1941. She became a mainstay at the New York City Opera for 22 seasons (from 1945-1967), while her Met Opera debut took place on January 24, 1952 as Musetta in La Bohème, opposite Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão. A versatile artist encompassing a wide range of styles and vocal demands, Lewis made her mark in two important American works, Marc Blitzstein’s Regina and especially Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, as well as in musical theater (Call Me Madam, Kiss Me, Kate, and Annie Get Your Gun). Patrice Munsel (née Munsil), the second oldest, was the youngest singer ever to have debuted at the Met, taking on the coloratura part of Philine in Thomas’ Mignon at age 18, on December 4, 1943, when most teenagers of the time were graduating high school. Munsel was a popular crossover artist, enjoying a fulfilling second career in musical comedy, along with television forays and Broadway road-show outings of Mame and Applause. Her final appearance with the Met was in Offenbach’s La Périchole on January 28, 1958. In addition to her stage appearances, Munsel also enjoyed a fulfilling nightclub career singing show tunes. Peters (real name Peterman), the youngest of the three, debuted at the Met on November 17, 1950, as a substitute Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She was two years older than Munsel at her debut. In all, Peters’ career at the Met lasted a total 34 seasons, with her final performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto occurring on April 12, 1985. It was an early Rigoletto performance with a handsome young baritone named Robert Merrill that caught Peters’ eye as well her ear. They were married in 1952, but the union did not last: they realized they were much too young at the time. “I think I fell in love with his voice,” she later recalled, “not with the man.” However, Peters and Merrill remained close friends for many years thereafter. One of the baritone’s frequent collaborators, tenor Jan Peerce, introduced Peters to voice coach William Herman, who was also Patrice Munsel’s teacher. Another colleague and close friend of Merrill’s, tenor Richard Tucker, who often played the Duke of Mantua to Peters’ Gilda, sang alongside the soprano in 1967 at the start of the Israeli Six-Day War.
Géori Boué (October 16, 1918 – January 5, 2017), born Georgette, was a French lyric soprano of wide-ranging roles during the pre- and postwar years, beginning with her debut at the Capitole de Toulouse as the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Boué became familiar to French and Western European audiences with her assumption of Gounod’s rarely heard Mireille, Massenet’s Manon, Charpentier’s Louise, Micaela in Carmen, Debussy’s Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, and copious others. She toured the major centers of Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, and Germany, often appearing in tandem with her husband, the French baritone Roger Bourdin, in such works as The Tales of Hoffmann (Antonia and Dr. Miracle), the aforementioned Pelléas (Mélisande and Golaud), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (Tatyana and Onegin), and Gounod’s Faust (Marguérite and Valentin). She was particularly memorable in Offenbach’s operettas, among them La Belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.
Roberta Knie (May 13, 1938 – March 16, 2017) was a dramatic soprano especially adept in the works of Wagner. Born in Oklahoma, Knie spent time in London and in Germany with famed tenor Max Lorenz. Her professional debut occurred in Germany in 1964 as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. She became a member of the Vienna State Opera in the early 1970s and made her Bayreuth debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1974. Her first stab at Isolde came a year later in a Wieland Wagner production of Tristan und Isolde at Ravenna. Plagued by recurring illnesses (viral pneumonia, a detached retina, colon cancer) and disagreements with producer-directors, Knie’s singing career ended in 1991. It was supplemented by a teaching career that began in earnest in 1996; and, in 2004, as an artist in residence in the Voice and Opera Department of Temple University. Her Met debut was in 1976 as Chrysothemis in Strauss’ Elektra. Knie bore a striking resemblance to Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who shared similar Wagnerian repertory. Curiously, due to Knie’s frequent battles with director Patrice Chéreau during the run of Bayreuth’s centennial Ring production, she was replaced by Dame Gwyneth.
Carol Neblett (February 1, 1946 – November 23, 2017) was a shining star in the operatic firmament. With her stunning good looks and impressive stage deportment — not to mention her lithe figure — Neblett attracted immediate attention from the start. That she had a voice to match made her a much sought-after artist. Another early starter, Neblett made her professional bow in 1964 at age 18 in Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore (“Laud to the Nativity of the Lord”). Known for “her charming, often sensual portrayals of comic characters and dramatic heroines,” Carol was married to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. One of her favorite roles was Tosca, which she sang over 400 times (in her estimation), including performances at the Chicago Lyric with Luciano Pavarotti. Neblett also appeared as Puccini’s other forthright heroine Minnie in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden with Plácido Domingo (she later recorded the role with Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and conductor Zubin Mehta). Her New York City Opera debut came in 1969 as Musetta, a natural fit for her sparkling personality. That same year she took on the challenge of both Margherita and Elena (Helen of Troy) in Tito Capobianco’s production of Mefistofele, with Norman Treigle as the Devil. Neblett also took part in a revival of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea (1973), the title role in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1973), and the Frank Corsaro staging of an overlooked masterwork, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), with tenor John Alexander. She went on to record the role of Marietta/Marie in that opera for RCA Victor with René Kollo. But her biggest claim to fame was a production of Massenet’s Thais in New Orleans, wherein she appeared in the buff. Her Met Opera career was launched in 1979 with the role of Senta in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s disastrous The Flying Dutchman production. Recovering from that debacle, Neblett spent ten seasons at the Met, singing Musetta, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Alice Ford in Falstaff, and, of course, Tosca. A bout with alcoholism in the 1990s led to major career challenges, which she managed to overcome by taking up teaching at Chapman University in Southern California.
Nicolai Gedda (July 11, 1925 – January 8, 2017). Not only did Gedda have a long, outstanding stage and recording career, but he was also long-lived in number of years. Born Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda (pronounced “Yedda”) in Sweden to dirt poor parents, the young Gedda was raised by his father’s sister and her Russian husband. It was from his step-father that he gained fluency in several foreign languages, along with a healthy respect for music from all genres. While working as a bank teller, one of Gedda’s customers recommended a voice teacher to improve his chances at a musical career. This led to a brief period of study and his formal debut in 1952 as Chapelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, a part that boasted a high D at his entrance. Gedda’s incredible facility with high notes, in addition to his language ability, opened the doors to a successful career in lyric and bel canto roles. Mozart was on the menu for several seasons, including the roles of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Tamino in The Magic Flute. EMI impresario Walter Legge and his wife, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, heard the versatile singer at the Royal Opera of Stockholm, and in due course a long-term contract was signed. Subsequently, Gedda became an exclusive EMI/Angel Records artist for the bulk of his career. This included a well received recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (as the Pretender Dmitri), alongside Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. A steady diet of opera, operetta, and light opera roles followed, many with Schwarzkopf as his leading lady and conducted by a who’s who of legendary maestros, i.e. Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kunz, Otto Ackermann, Thomas Beecham, Lovro von Matačić, Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini, André Cluytens, Josef Krips, and others. Before the days of the Three Tenors, Gedda was the most recorded male classical-vocal artist to have released opera LPs. His Met debut occurred on November 1, 1957 in Gounod’s Faust, a role he twice recorded. For all intents and purposes, the Met became his home base, but he allowed himself sufficient leeway to appear all over Europe. Some of his many roles included the aforementioned Don Ottavio, the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, Don José in Carmen, Des Grieux in Manon, Roméo, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Gherman in The Queen of Spades, Danilo in Lehár’s The Merry Widow, and Anatol in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in which he was praised for his exceptionally fine English enunciation. Although he had a tendency to sharpness above the staff, Gedda was an extremely reliable artist who always delivered the goods. In his Opera News obit, Peter G. Davis wrote that while “Gedda never generated the hysterical fan response of, say, Franco Corelli … few left his finely nuanced, vocally secure, emotionally generous performances feeling cheated.”
Johan Botha (August 19, 1965 – September 8, 2016) was sadly cut down in the prime of his life by cancer. The South African tenor was known for his “gloriously large voice and physique,” according to The Telegraph. Indeed, that over-sized frame was both a hindrance and a help to his career as a heroic tenor. Luckily for fans, the barrel-chested Botha was one of the few modern interpreters of Wagner who could get through a full evening’s worth of Walther von Stolzing’s “Morning Song” or Tannhäuser’s grueling third-act “Rome Narrative” without running out of fuel. Impressive as those accomplishments were, incredibly Botha began his singing career as a bass-baritone! He grew up in a farming community not far from Johannesburg. During his military service (1983-85), Botha was urged to join the choir. It was there that his singing talents were brought to light, although he could hit those high notes from early youth. To ease the tension of military life, he took up percussion and the guitar as a member of the military jazz band. Around 1986 or 1987, his voice changed as he “started moving up into a higher register.” His professional debut came in 1989 in Johannesburg singing Max in a production of Der Freischütz. Heard by Norbert Balatsch, the chorus master for the Bayreuth Festival, he was engaged as part of the chorus. A few seasons later, in 1995, he appeared at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, singing Pinkerton in Robert Wilson’s controversial production of Madama Butterfly. Botha then took up residency in Vienna where, in 2003, he was made a Kammersänger by the Vienna State Opera. His Met debut took place in 1997 as Canio in Pagliacci. He would go on to sing more than 80 performances of 10 roles in over 20 years with the company. Among his assignments were Radamès in Aida, Otello, Calàf in Turandot, Walther in Die Meistersinger (excellently done!), and a staggering interpretation of Tannhäuser, which to my mind was his finest achievement. Earlier, Botha took part in an unusual 2002 production of Puccini’s Turandot. Directed by David Pountney for the Vienna State Opera, this was the first performance of the newly revised third act composed by Luciano Berio. Mysterious and modern-sounding, this new ending did not convince listeners or critics of its viability. Despite the hoopla surrounding the event, Botha’s contribution was cleanly and assuredly delivered. The production has been preserved on DVD/Blu-ray Disc for the curious-minded among us. Botha’s size became a barrier for some, but with his characteristic good humor the tenor took the criticism in stride, fueled by a firm religious conviction that all would be right.
Barry Busse (August 18, 1946 – May 15, 2017) and Manfred Jung (July 9, 1940 – April 14, 2017) were near contemporaries who passed away within a month of each other. Their repertoires coincided from time to time, but Busse and Jung were basically vocal opposites. Born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Busse received his BA in Music from Oberlin College, a Master’s in Music from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Master’s in Education from Walsh University. He started out as a baritone, winning the coveted George London Award, but switched to tenor in 1977, singing in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in Houston. He was often compared to Canadian powerhouse Jon Vickers, not only in looks but in voice and acting chops. Both Vickers and Busse sang the role of Britten’s Peter Grimes in that self-titled work, as well as Canio in Pagliacci, Wagner’s Parsifal, Siegmund in Die Walküre, and Don José in Carmen. Busse helped to extend the boundaries of the dramatic tenor repertoire by performing in numerous modern works, many of them world and/or American premieres, i.e. in Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco (1971), Conrad Susa’s Transformations (1973), Thea Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1980), and David Lang’s Modern Painters (1995) and Nosferatu. Manfred Jung was a German Heldentenor who performed in Wagner’s operas all over the world. Having started out in life as an electrician and lighting technician, Jung then studied music in Cologne where he went on to sing lyric tenor roles in Mozart operas. He made his Bayreuth Festival debut in 1967 singing the part of Arindal in Wagner’s Die Feen (“The Fairies”), the composer’s very first stage creation. From there, Jung put in guest appearances at the Salzburg Easter Festival under Herbert von Karajan and at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. He is perhaps best known to American audiences for having participated in the 1976 centennial production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth under Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. The revival in 1980 (shown on German TV and broadcast to American audiences via Public Television), where Jung sang the hero Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are the ones most viewers will remember. Jung earned the distinction of having sung every one of Wagner’s tenor roles. His tone may have been a tad underpowered for these two massive works (in this author’s opinion), but his wondrous acting talent opposite Donald McIntyre’s world-weary Wanderer, Heinz Zednik’s crafty Mime, and Gwyneth Jones’ womanly Brünnhilde, was anything but mediocre. In 1981, he made both his Vienna State Opera and Metropolitan Opera debuts.
John Del Carlo (September 21, 1951 – November 2, 2016) and Enzo Dara (October 13, 1938 – August 25, 2017) specialized in the bel canto and opera buffa realm. A hometown San Francisco boy, Del Carlo was enrolled in the Merola Program where he learned his craft. He was a regular at the city’s War Memorial Opera House, where he sang many of his money roles — among them Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love, Don Magnifico and Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and other comic parts. He made a specialty out of characters that included the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit and Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Falstaff in Verdi’s eponymously titled opera. Certainly his towering 6’ 6” height lent stature to these overlooked assignments. He appeared all over Europe and the U.S, and even sang the leading Wagner roles for a time, until he found his true niche in comedy. He famously sang Kothner in Die Meistersinger for then-Met Opera music director James Levine. According to Del Carlo’s obituary in Opera News, “When he finished his audition, Levine said, ‘Bravo, John. Where have you been?’” He made his debut in the part on January 14, 1993 and enjoyed a 21-season career there. Enzo Dara’s career crisscrossed with that of Del Carlo’s: both artists sang pretty much the same buffo repertoire. The difference in his case was that Dara, older than his American colleague by 13 years, was born and bred in Mantua, which gave him an advantage in authentic Italian culture and pronunciation. He worked as a journalist for a time before switching careers. His professional debut came in 1960 as Colline in La Bohème. Dara’s gift for rapid-fire vocal patter and comic timing was leavened by his exceptionally clear diction and sterling musicianship. Indeed, Dara sang with the best of the lot, including Samuel Ramey, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Hermann Prey, Leo Nucci, Teresa Berganza, Alessandro Corbelli, and a host of others. Dara sang 41 performances at the Met of his signature Dr. Bartolo.
Frank Corsaro (December 22, 1924 – November 11, 2017). Along with director Tito Capobianco, conductor Julius Rudel, soprano Beverly Sills, and bass-baritone Norman Treigle, Corsaro was one of the most influential artists associated with the New York City Opera in its heyday. Born Francesco Andrea Corsaro in New York City (actually, on a boat in New York Harbor “that was bringing his immigrant parents from Argentina”), the future Actor’s Studio alumnus and Broadway and NYCO stage director graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, with a short stint in between at Immaculata High School in Manhattan. He attended City College and the Yale Drama School, where his production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit paved the way in 1947 for the Off-Broadway movement. From 1950, and between the years 1988 to 1995, Corsaro studied at and directed workshops at the Actor’s Studio, along with serving as its artistic director. He appeared on Broadway as an actor in the 1950s; he also started directing plays, many of which starred such luminaries as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters, and Bette Davis. It was Julius Rudel who gave him his City Opera break when Corsaro was asked to direct Floyd’s Susannah in 1958. His drive for authenticity, his inborn rapport with singers and performers, and ability to get to the heart of any opera or play, served him well throughout his years at the company. One of his adherents, baritone Richard Stilwell, remarked in Opera News that “Corsaro had an amazing combination of musical knowledge and theatrical expertise” that opened his eyes “to what opera could be — a special art form in which words, music and theatrical prowess contributed equally to create stirring drama.” That Corsaro did! I was privy to several of his insightful productions, the first of which was a 1975 Faust with Samuel Ramey as Méphistophélès, Kenneth Riegel as Faust, and Carol Bayard as Marguérite. Corsaro brought out Gounod’s dark humor (Faust’s laboratory, in eerie imitation of Leonardo Da Vinci, was littered with cadavers, one of which was Mephisto himself!), as well as the pervasiveness of evil in the everyday world (Act III began with a bone-chilling recreation of a Satanic Black Mass). Another was his modern take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, wherein Pinkerton’s naval buddies and their sweethearts were a boisterous presence at the teenage Cio-Cio-San’s wedding. Still another was his tradition-breaking La Traviata, where Alfredo (a very young Plácido Domingo) carried off the consumptive Violetta around the stage in his arms as they sang the third act duet, “Parigi o cara.” This was preceded in Act I by that notoriously long pause between the chorus’ departure and Violetta’s reflection before her aria, “Ah, fors’è lui,” beginning with the line “È strano.” How dare Corsaro interrupt the opera’s forward momentum with this ridiculous silence! But it worked! The performance I saw was a 1974 revival of the 1966 production that featured the fragile and waif-like Violetta of Patricia Brooks and the angry, menacing Giorgio Germont of Dominic Cossa, both veterans of the original. Corsaro’s only directorial misfire, in my recollection, was an ill-conceived Manon Lescaut done-in by over-ambition and miscasting. His other NYCO projects included Pelléas at Mélisande (a big hit with the hippies!), Leoš Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case and The Cunning Little Vixen, Bizet’s Carmen (which I also happened to catch), and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Ronald Chase. In 1987, Corsaro joined the staff of the Juilliard School’s American Opera Center.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (October 16, 1962 – November 22, 2017). One of the truly great Verdi singers of his generation, Hvorostovsky (“Dima” to his friends and fellow associates) was born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia — a heavily industrialized area of Siberia. He battled alcoholism and gang participation in his youth. He left behind the squalor of his hometown for an international career in opera. Gifted with a smoldering stage presence, a masculine voice, and a shock of prematurely gray-turned-silver hair which he wore as a badge of honor, Dmitri was the epitome of class and style (no doubt his 6’ 4” frame had something to do with it). I heard his supple tones in many a Met performance, both live and on records, and on DVD/Blu-ray. With his super-human breath control, nobody could sing Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, in Verdi’s Don Carlo the way he could. Take, for example, Rodrigo’s death scene with its matchless legato and long-lined expressiveness. An equally fine elder Germont in La Traviata, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, Hvorostovsky excelled in Russian roles: Tchaikovsky’s haughty title character in Eugene Onegin, his Met debut role (1995) as Yeletsky in the same composer’s The Queen of Spades (aka Pique Dame), and his heart-on-sleeve portrayal of the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s historical novel. His moving death scene, accompanied by the youthful Anna Netrebko as Natasha Rostova, did not leave a dry eye in the house. He was a surprise winner of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, barely beating out Welshman Bryn Terfel for the honor. Hvorostovsky’s passing of brain cancer was a tragic loss. It reminded me of two other giants of the baritone repertoire: American-born Leonard Warren, who died on stage at the Old Met during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; and the suave Italian master Ettore Bastianini, who died at 45 of throat cancer. It is fitting, then, that the Metropolitan Opera’s first broadcast of the 2017-2018 season of Verdi’s Requiem should be dedicated to the memory of this beloved artist.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
(Many thanks to Opera News, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Opera Wire, and other publications for providing background information and informative notes)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!
When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”
Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.
Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.
But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”
If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.
The Way of the Cross
From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.
Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.
In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.
There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.
In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.
The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.
The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.
At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?
Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.
The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.
The Center of Attention
We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).
Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.
As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.
Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.
From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.
Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.
The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.
The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.
In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.
Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.
A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes