Antonio Carlos Gomes: Il Guarany (1870)

Opera-Ballo in four acts. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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The opera with everything! Race relations, interracial love, colonialism, massive explosions involving huge amounts of TNT that blow up entire Portuguese castles in the Brazilian rainforest, yes, it is that one! It also has incredibly weird vocal casting: all but two of the nine soloists are either basses (4) or tenors (3). These are the baritone villain and the lone soprano everyone wants to possess for some reason. I had not intended on doing this opera, it just came to me today and it seemed foolish to not review it. This is also the first time I heard the opera from beginning to end.

Because I am finally writing about an opera set in Brazil, why not have colour set designs? The ones included at the end of each act are from the Museu Imperial in Rio de Janeiro.

SETTING: Rio de Janiero and surroundings, 1560. Everyone wants Cecilia, soprano daughter of the Portuguese Hidalgo Dom Antonio de Mariz (bass). Before the opera even begins she has been kidnapped by the cannibal Aimore tribe and rescued by Pery, the tenor chief of the Guarani tribe, who are apparently herbivorous. She is in love with this Guarani vegan but is betrothed against her will by her father to one Dom Alvaro (tenor). Meanwhile, the real villain of the piece is Gonzales (baritone) a Spaniard who wants both Cecilia and the mines her father owns for himself. Cecilia escapes Gonzales but gets captured by the Aimore (oh did I mention that they decide to attack the castle just when Gonzales attempts to kidnap Cecilia? yeah) whose chief Cacico, wants her for his bride (of course). They are rescued by the Portuguese (but not before being Pery captured and prepped for cooking by the Aimore). Pery converts to Christianity, and runs off to marry her with the consent of her father just before he blows up his castle in a last attempt at stopping Gonzales thus killing off everyone else in the cast. Thank goodness she doesn’t have any female competition, otherwise we might all be dead! But wait, there is more! The reason the Aimore keep attacking the Portuguese is to extract revenge for the slaying of one of their women by a Portuguese. Okay, so now that all of that has been splained, let us get into the music!

NOTE: This review is based on the 2007 production in Belem, Brazil.

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The overture *** starts off with one of the most recognizable fanfares in romantic era music (it returns at the very end of the opera and as a leitmotif for not Peri, the Guarani of the title, but for the Aimore, specifically their unnamed deity who apparently likes human cupcakes). This leitmotif is the most impressive thing, and it always makes me cry. The rest, apart from a few climaxes and what appear to be dances, until the rather iconic finale, consists of some start-stop string music.

ACT 1: On the grounds of the castle of Dom Antonio. (40 minutes)

9: Scorre il cacciator After a bass recitative which I could not find anywhere else we have a standard hunting chorus *. After a dialogue in which Dom Alvaro gets harassed by the Spaniards (a combination of whirlwind and pedestrian gestures from the orchestra), Dom Antonio comes on looking for Cecilia

18: Pery m’appella Pery introduces himself in a noble sortita *. Although Dom Antonio warmly welcomes him as a guest, the Spaniards snicker. Gomes does infuse nobility into the character of Pery from the beginning and this is probably the saving grace of the act.

21: Gentile di cuore Cecilia arrives to a retro, bel canto parody Polacca * of all things! It is cute, I actually like it more than some other people, but it is a silly, giddy item.

28: Ave Maria This begin an Italian opera, we must have our prayer to la Madonna! Unfortunately it turns into more of an excuse to demonstrate the vocal agility of Cecilia  and Dom Alvaro to minimal orchestral accompaniment and choral backing and I really do not get what others see in this number, at least when the vocals are included. A star for the trouble *.

31: Venga pur l’iniqua schiera An awfully serious but short stretta * allows everyone to leave the stage clear for Cecilia and Pery.

34: Sento una forza indomita The act ends in an at first furious duet ** in which Cecilia and Perl declare their love for each other. It dies down into pleasantries and even gets a little dreamy after the initial confrontation and continues from there to curtain.

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ACT 2: (50 minutes)

Scene 1: A clearing in the jungle.

2: Vanto io pur superba cuna After some dramatic running music and an equally dramatic recitative from Pery, we get a very tame aria from him *.

9: Serpe vil The three Spaniards come on plotting to kidnap Cecilia and get that mine from Dom Antonio as ransom. Pery overhears the wicked Spaniards but only Gonzales is not too frightened to confront him. The best part of this comes from Pery who gets one short but good tune *, the rest is actually rather ornery as he extracts an oath from Gonzales (which he does not keep) to leave Brazil in exchange for his life.

Scene 2: The Spanish encampment.

14: L’oro è un ente sì giocondo This ten minute long scene has two very good numbers (a relief after what has so far transpired). The first is a drinking chorus for the Spaniards ** as they think about (what else?) gold.

17: Senza tetto, senza cuna The second is a very Spanish sounding canzone for Gonzales ** with a very appropriate Spanish flare. He has no intention of leaving Brazil and plots to carry out his assault on Cecilia.

Scene 3: The bedroom of Cecilia.

26: C’era una volta un principe Cecilia reads herself a bedtime story **. It has a bit of whimsy to it that is worth looking out for, and it does require a certain dexterity with high notes. It concerns a sad prince who could not love, but then he meets a girl and now he can. It turns into her fantasizing about Pery. The second part, as she goes to sleep, is a little bit better.

41: A tu Gonzales?! Gonzales arrives and ends up fantasizing about Cecilia in waltz time for some reason. The build up to the duet, from when she wakes up, does not satisfy and the duet starts off slow. He tries to rape her, but is almost immediately stopped by Pery who shoots him with an arrow. Don Alvaro arrives giving the scene some sense of needed urgency *. This wakes up the whole house, servants enter, Dom Antonio confronts Gonzales.

44: Vedi quel volto livido Finally Pery arrives, explains what happened, and Gonzales is universally condemned in a grand ensemble **.

49: Vile indiano, trema! Trema! Then, suddenly, the Indian theme shows up in the woodwinds and brass as the Aimore attack the castle. A very brief ensemble ends the act as the men rush off to defend the castle **. As the Aimore come on it does get a bit more fun at least.

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ACT 3: The Aimore village. (47 minutes)

1: Aspra, crudel, terribile An opening chorus that is easy to overlook but which is actually rather good **. Their leader, Cacico, comes on and announces the capture of the daughter of the Portuguese leader. This is obviously Cecilia and Cacico is instantly attracted to her; she will not be on their dinner plates.

8: Giovinetta, nello sguardo The Cacico-Cecilia duet * starts with a very warm tune as he declares that she shall be his queen. Meanwhile, Pery has been captured by the Aimore. Cecilia decides to kiss up to Cacico in an attempt to save Pery.

14: Or bene, insano A duet develops which turns into a trio as the three square off **. It is decided that Pery will be eaten for the wedding breakfast.

18: The long ballet *, a quarter of an hour actually. The first section is bright and springy, the second more like a mime act. The third a bit more ferocious. The fourth is more flighty, in fact, it sounds a little like the Chicken Dance. The next recapitulates the Guarani theme before returning to Chicken Dance. On the other end Cacico brings in Cecilia, but then leaves her for some reason with Pery (because they are deciding what to do with him?).

34: Perché di meste lagrime Cecilia really wants to run away from this nightmare she is in. Even if they don’t eat her, she will have to live with them! She wants to save Pery, but does not know how, meanwhile he seems to have resigned himself to being dinner. Although Cecilia is overreacting *, Pery is under-reacting.

41: O Dio degli Aimorè Now, something that is actually excellent ***, a recapitulation of the Aimore theme (its first full blown outing since the overture) as Cacico prepares for the sacrifice (of Pery) to the unnamed deity of the Aimore. For once all the elements fall into place. Even Cecilia gets in on this. Then, in the last minute of the act, the Portuguese arrive and rescue Cecilia and Pery. However, Dom Alvaro is killed (because?).

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ACT 4: An underground vault in the castle of Dom Antonio. (27 minutes)

0: Being by far the shortest act, we now get the longest entr’acte which is orchestrally rather interesting **.

7, 8: In quest’ora suprema Gonzales conspires with his fellow Spaniards yet again to kidnap Cecilia and take the mines *. Apparently they are now allied with the Aimore. Meanwhile, they have been discovered by Dom Antonio who confronts them in a very long monologue which causes most of the men to relent. This is the Congiura, apparently famous, again I don’t get it. It is a nice bass aria, but the star at the top will have to make do.

15: Sul cupo torrente The Spaniards depart (for now) and Pery comes on requesting to marry Cecilia. Dom Antonio agrees only if Pery will be baptized and he baptizes him *.

22: Con te giurai di vivere Cecilia comes on, apparently the Aimore are everywhere. The only way to escape is to go with Pery (she is finally given his blessing to marry him). She at first does not want to leave if her father will die but eventually she sees there is no other way and resigns herself to fate after he orders them out. Just in time it turns out as the Spaniards return the same second and Dom Antonio ignites explosives that blow everything and everyone to kingdom come. The Aimore theme is blasted one last time by the orchestra like it is the end of Gotterdammerung. An effective finale ***.

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COMMENTS:

Okay, so the plot of this opera would be utterly stupid were it not so entertaining! It is the stuff of a pre-teen male afternoon adventure series (especially the third act which is pure spectacle) but with a very sensitive characterization of its hero, Pery, who is really one of the most noble men one ever encounters in any opera. This is probably because Gomes himself was of partial Guarani ancestry. The others are bit ridiculous. I know she is the only female character but why does everyone lust after Cecilia? Only her father doesn’t treat her like a sex pot! She even sees herself as a sex pot! But she really isn’t a sex pot. However, this is one of the few operas that has a positive interracial relationship at its core. Usually they end with someone murdering someone else, here the lovers are the only ones left alive at the end! Pery and Cecilia are in love even before the opera begins and their relationship is not a one-sided passive arrangement: Although he saves her earlier, Cecilia attempts to save Pery from being cannibalized, she also seems to cherish the world that he comes from (cannibal Aimore aside). Pery eventually converts to Catholicism for her. These two really actually care about each other, make sacrifices for each other, and even alter their entire lives in order to be together.

One other thing I liked was the contrasting rivalry between the Spanish and Portuguese. The Spanish are obviously the bad-guys who ally themselves with the cannibal monotheistic Aimore and the Portuguese are these nature loving explorers (exemplified by Cecilia in act one) who are friendly with the Guarani. There is oddly a lot of compassion coming from the Portuguese.

This production, and probably all available video performances of this opera, really do not take the material all that seriously and that harms the overall effect of the work. None of the productions are really that good, the 2007 performance from Belem just happened to be the longest and had the best sound and picture.

As for the music. I went in really hoping this was going to be great, and apart from the effective use of the world class Aimore theme, I was disappointed. The opera starts well and ends well, I can say that, but the two and a half hours in between are mostly rather boring, the plot is more interesting than almost any of the music, although there are some good pieces and the orchestration is professional and at times a little exotic. I honestly have to admit, what did Verdi see in Gomes because I am not seeing it. Sure there are some good bits, but nothing here adds up to breakthrough masterwork. There is also a lot of aping, the style is basically Verdian bel canto (particularly Ernani) with the role of Cecilia especially being in a Donizetti vein. And that is a great shame, because I expected so much more from this. This really could be a much better opera. In the end I actually got depressed over this because I really wanted it to be wonderful. Unfortunately a beta, with alpha patches.

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4 thoughts on “Antonio Carlos Gomes: Il Guarany (1870)

    1. What do you mean? This is an opera I really wished I could have given an alpha to. I even changed a couple of numbers in the last few minutes because I took a look at the Sofia 1995 production and although shorter, the cast seems to be a lot more engaged, especially the soprano. The change impacts the act 1 duet and the act 2 aria for Cecilia (I really liked how they added in that native doll to the bedroom scene, really cute and it deepens the relationship between Pery and Cecilia that she keeps this little toy around to remind herself of him). The scenery is much darker, however.

      Il Guarany is a really great story and I rather wished there were more multi-racial romances in opera that didn’t end with someone killing someone else (although that does happen here, but it isn’t the couple). Some of the music is great, others good, some of it (the attempted rape scene for instance) lacks a pulse and is problematic.

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      1. Who was underwhelmed, I mean. There are some fine things in the score – the big phrase in the overture stays with one – but a lot of the score is banal or old-fashioned (Donizetti and Bellini in the 1870s). Verdi and Liszt’s praise seemed exaggerated.

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      2. Yes, I have to agree there, the experience was ultimately underwhelming. It is not a bad opera, it is actually a good opera, just one expects with that overture and the exotic plot setting that it would be an amazing opera, and that it is not.

        Could Italian musical nostalgia have been a factor in its original success? Italians are an odd sort, we are racist against our own kind but have some outsider mimic us and we are big open arms! Maybe a Brazilian who liked to write like Bellini was enough? The exotica of Brazil must have been exciting as well.

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