Number of performers: 16-18 actor/singers (all black). Number of stage musicians: seven (on guitar, cello, drums, bass, keyboard, percussion, and woodwind). Additional songs used: “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Este seu olhar” (“That Look of Yours”), “Água de beber” (“Water to Drink”), “A felicidade” (“Happiness”), “Chora coração” (“Cry, Dear Heart”), and “O morro não tem vez” (“The Hills Don’t Have a Chance”), among others.
All told, nearly 40 songs and assorted musical numbers were employed, to include the original Jobim scoring, for the September 2010 revival of Orfeu da Conceição by poet, performer and songwriter, Vinicius de Moraes, at the Canecão Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. It’s currently playing at HSBC Brasil in São Paulo through October 5th. From there it moves to Brasília, the nation’s capital, with further offerings in Goiânia and Porto Alegre, and ending its run in Curitiba at the end of October.
The original three-act work, which premiered in September 1956 at Rio’s Teatro Municipal (with sets by prize-winning architect Oscar Niemeyer), has been condensed into two. Paulo Jobim, composer Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim’s guitarist son, who was scheduled to play alongside cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, left the show before the opening due to previous commitments. His central spot, as the musician who plays Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos, was taken over by Jaime Alem.
Now simply called Orfeu, after the main protagonist (the producers dropped the da Conceição portion from the title), the show has exceeded everyone’s expectations in sparking renewed interest in a neglected masterpiece of Brazilian theater. There was renewed interest as well as in its youthful and energetic cast.
Lead actor Érico Bras, a native of Bahia and a member of OLODUM’s celebrated drum corps, had this to say about Orfeu, his breakout stage part: “He’s a seducer, a charmer. He strikes a chord on his guitar and the women fall all over him… For a guy like me, who comes from a band like OLODUM, it’s an opportunity to experiment in another line of work.”
Aline Nepomuceno, a fellow Bahian who plays the sweet and gentle Euridice, Orfeu’s love interest, thinks her character is a bit of a “tease, but in an innocent way. She lacks an explicit sensuality. Her relation to Orfeu is light and of a certain purity… It’s a heavy responsibility,” she acknowledged, “and I’m trying to stay focused. It’s a chance to show off my work, that I’m not just another pretty face from TV.”
Indeed, both actors are “veteran performers,” so to speak, of the big and small screens, having already appeared together in the TV series Ó Paí, Ó, with Bras having survived a brush with cinema stardom, playing a minor role in the movie Quincas Berro d’Água, based on the Jorge Amado novel.
A major departure from the original drama, i.e., the character known as The Poet (formerly Coryphaeus or “Leader of the Chorus”), played by actor/singer Wladimir Pinheiro, a Niterói native, is viewed as a stand-in for Vinicius himself. The chorus has been reduced to five singer/dancers, in wide-brim hats and lime-colored suits, who in this production represent The Poet’s (that is, Vinicius’) friends. Together, they help explain some of the stage action in truncated form (thus eliminating a good deal of exposition), in addition to “softening” some of the abrupt scene changes.
One of the criticisms leveled at the original work is that the action was too brisk for audiences to follow. “The reason for this,” according to director Aderbal Freire Filho, whose updates of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth inspired a goodly amount of controversy on their own, “may have been due to the play being written over a 10-year span.”
The first act was dashed off in one night in February 1942, the second and third acts between the years 1946 and 1948, when Vinicius had spent time in Hollywood, followed by a rewrite in 1952-53 (he lost the third act in transit to Paris), “which could have contributed to the brusqueness of the subsequent passages.”
Another problem is the style of language used. That may seem like a bogus issue, considering that flowery oratory was a fairly common practice at the time (the play was originally in verse form). Historically, Vinicius spent a large portion of his working life overseas, due to his conflicting career as a diplomat with the Brazilian Foreign Service. Consequently, he was not as familiar with carioca street lingo as he needed to be.
Realizing this, the poet enlisted the aid of others in adapting his play’s lofty literary language for contemporary audiences to enjoy. This resulted in his justly famous – and famously foresighted – injunction that
“All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors…The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play…should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.”
Still, according to director Aderbal, it was not always possible to escape the passage of time, or “the reference to the slums that exist today.” The changes he made, then, were not just for show. For example, the director introduces three bandits, who hold The Poet up at gunpoint. The bandits are later integrated into the story, taking on new roles in Act II.
“I did not create new characters, dialogues, scenes or conflicts within the text,” Aderbal explained. “I don’t call my work an adaptation; it’s different from what was done in the movies [referring to the two previous screen incarnations: the first, Black Orpheus, in 1959; the second, Orfeu, in 1999]. Originally, the play had a chorus and a leader. Here, the chorus becomes friends of The Poet, and the leader becomes The Poet. I introduced dialogues and scenes for these friends. A good deal of what The Poet speaks are lines that Vinicius wrote himself. I put in place songs and dialogue wherever the play allowed [me to]. They are interventions that compliment the original verses, but don’t necessarily modify them.”
A third problem concerns the original songs. Except for the pop standard, “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), known in the U.S. as “Someone to Light Up My Life,” recorded by a variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, the other songs are, in the view of some critics, “minor works in comparison to what came later,” and “are not representative of the best of Vinicius and Tom Jobim.” This is strictly a matter of opinion – and not a universally held one, at that.
From the musical side of things, arranger/musician Jaques Morelenbaum, who worked closely with Jobim in his Banda Nova days (from the late eighties to the mid-nineties), comments about the insertion of additional material: “There is nothing preserved in record form or on video of the original staging or spoken words; but we imagined that in a production of at minimum two hours duration there was bound to be other music used that could have been lost over time. We rescued the numbers ‘Euridice’s Theme,’ an instrumental theme that Tom wrote for the show for which no lyrics exist, and ‘Dama Negra’s Theme’ [played, for the first time, since the 1956 premiere], a piece that has never been recorded.”
“Vinicius was looking for a composer to write some songs for his play,” added Aderbal, “so that’s how he got to meet Tom. They could have done the work and never bumped into each other again. Today, however, we know that from there they went on to form one the most important partnerships in the history of Brazilian music… Besides the songs ‘Happiness,’ ‘Someone to Light Up My Life,’ and ‘Lamento no morro’ (‘Lament on the Hill’), we included songs that were written afterwards, such as ‘Chora coração,’ which fits especially well into one of the scenes [i.e., after Euridice is killed]. Others seemed as if they were created just for this staging, almost as if they were an extension of the original play.”
Alem and Morelenbaum were alert to the possibilities, and astute enough to look at the original score; after which they decided to present Jobim’s music exactly as written, albeit for a reduced ensemble of players instead of a 35-piece orchestra. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia: Jaques’ father, instrumentalist Henrique Morelenbaum, played in the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra the night of the Rio premiere.)
The sets by Marcos Flaksman are arranged in minimalist fashion. In the center are stacks of boxes – displayed one on top of the other – resembling the shantytown, or favela, that the story takes place in. There are staircases on both sides, symbolic of the steps that lead from one shack to the other, and from one mountaintop community to another.
The seven musicians are grouped to the left of the playing area, with the guitar prominent in the center. Chairs are arranged along the back and to the right, in which The Poet, the chorus, and the other participants sit and wait for their turn to speak (this is somewhat reminiscent of the classic staging for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town).
According to producer Gil Lopes, “I wanted to restage Orfeu not only for me, but for newer generations [of Brazilians], so they could get in touch with this national classic of dramaturgy. There was a sense of urgency in bringing Orfeu back, now that Brazil, in these times, is in the midst of consolidation, both socially and economically.”
Lopes goes on to note that, “Brazil is passing through a time of affirmation. The premiere of Orfeu comes at just the right moment to stimulate this path…Orfeu is absolutely relevant [to today], not only for telling a story that defines who we are, but also in bringing the songs of Tom Jobim, consecrated the world over, that represent the best of what Brazilian music has produced.”
Preparations for the current revival (the first since Haroldo Costa, the original Orfeu, undertook a production in 1996-97) took two and a half months, with rehearsals lasting up to seven hours a day. Aderbal Freire Filho decided not to interfere, except minimally, with the nucleus of the original plot [the love of Orfeu for his Euridice]: “Everything revolves around the central story,” he insisted, “and along its margins, as a framework for the piece.”
He preserved the natural classicism of Vinicius’ text, while taking the bard’s own reference to his play as “a poem in the form of theater in which the author is profoundly present” quite literally. This is where the idea for The Poet came in: “He is the ideal poet, eternal,” Aderbal claimed, “a name that represents all poets, who represent the art of poetry itself.” Because of this, Aderbal decided that “The Poet should speak Vinicius’ own [lines of ] poetry, many of which are as well known to Brazilians as his music.”
Orfeu returns to the stage at a time when many of Rio and São Paulo’s theaters are preoccupied with musical productions from Broadway and London’s West End.
“Instead of being intimidating,” producer Lopes claims, “this reality is a motivating force; it gives more impetus for us to show what is ours. The presence of foreign musicals indicates that the time is ripe to invest in a national production of the same genre. In this instance, there is no more opportune time than to present Orfeu, the greatest of Brazilian musicals, the most illustrious product of our national culture: the encounter of Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim.”
COMPILED FROM THE FOLLOWING SOURCES:
· “Orfeu: tragédia afro-brasileira com astros baianos,” September 6, 2010, www.geledes.org.br.
· Luiz Felipe Reis, “Pérola Negra: Saiba como será a montagem de Aderbal Freire-Filho para Orfeu,” O Globo, September 7, 2010.
· Luciana Azevedo, “Sob direção de Aderbal Freire-Filho, musical Orfeu estreia no Canecão,” O Jornal Fluminense, http://jornal.ofluminense.com.br, September 9, 2010.
· “Orfeu ganha canções de Tom e Vinicius feitas após 1.a montagem,” Cruzeiro on-line magazine, September 6, 2010.
Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.
© Josmar F. Lopes 2009