Brazilian characters clash in Italianate opera Story: Action-packed libretto presents hero as a noble savage in star-crossed lovers' cliffhanger.

November 03, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC MxA

Carlos Gomes' "Il Guarany" created a sensation when it was first performed at Milan's La Scala in 1870. The 34-year-old Gomes was hailed as the "Verdi of Brazil" and the great composer himself called "Il Guarany" a "work of true musical genius."

Gomes (1836-1896), the son of a village bandmaster, had the good fortune to grow up in Brazil just as that huge country -- ZTC which had established its independence from Portugal in 1821 -- was beginning to try to forge its own cultural identity.

Gomes was already an established composer when Pedro II, Brazil's enlightened ruler, sent him in 1864 to study at the celebrated Milan Conservatory. It must have been during that time, or shortly thereafter, that the homesick Gomes decided to fashion an opera from the Brazilian author Jose Martiniano de Alencar's popular romantic novel, "O Guarani." The novel presented the Brazilian Indian as a noble savage, betrayed and conquered by Europeans, but emerging triumphant through innate virtue and intelligence. The Guarani of Alencar are not very far from the Mohicans of James Fenimore Cooper.

While it was written by a Brazilian about Brazil, one looks in vain for Brazilian elements. "Il Guarany" is purely an Italian opera, and its Brazilian setting signifies little more than its kinship to several other operas of the time that were set in fashionably exotic places, among them Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine," Verdi's "Aida" and Bizet's "Les Pecheurs des Perles."

Like a Hollywood serial

In the action-packed libretto, Pery, the chief of the good Guarani tribe, is something like a character from an old Hollywood serial. He keeps getting into one impossible situation after another -- only to escape each time by means of his strength, cunning or knowledge of every tree in the jungle.

He single-handedly defeats the evil Spanish adventurer Gonzales and his henchmen. When he is captured by the cannibalistic Aimore tribe and their evil chief, Cacico, he secretly takes poison so that, after he is roasted and feasted upon, the entire tribe will be poisoned and die. (Of course, this never becomes necessary because Pery saves himself at the last moment and knows which tree in the forest produces the antidote to the poison he's taken.)

But "Il Guarany" is primarily the Romeo and Juliet story -- only with more melodramatic situations and a happy ending. Pery repeatedly saves Cecilia (the daughter of Don Antonio, the local Portuguese lord) from being raped, first by the evil Aimore, then by the vile Gonzales and then again by the Aimore.

In the opera's last act, Pery converts to Christianity, thus obtaining Don Antonio's blessing for marriage to Cecilia. He runs off with his beloved while everyone else perishes in a fiery finale as extravagantly catastrophic as those of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" or Wagner's "Gotterdammerung."

The opera owes a good deal to the melodramatic and sensational theatricalism of Meyerbeer, but Gomes' superb music sometimes reaches an almost Verdian quality. His tunes are memorable; his harmonization of them is often subtle; there are terrific parts for a coloratura soprano, a heroic-sounding tenor, a flexible baritone of the Macbeth-Iago variety and a warm sonorous basso; and the ensembles, particularly those involving the chorus, are often magnificent.

Although Gomes never achieved another success on the order of "Il Guarany," it remained a staple of the repertory until its almost fairy-tale-like romanticism was made unfashionable by the coming of operatic verismo, with its emphasis upon contemporary settings and lower-class subjects. Except in Brazil, where it is revered as the national opera, "Il Guarani" eventually passed from obscurity into oblivion.

It was last performed in the United States 112 years ago during the Metropolitan Opera's first season.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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