Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)
Opera Overtures and Preludes
Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra/Fabio Mechetti
rec. 2022, Sala Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Naxos 8.574409 [58]

Carlos Gomes’s name is generally unfamiliar today, even though, a century and a half ago, he was big news in the opera world.  The 1870 premiere of his opera Il Guarany proved an enormous success, enjoying 12 performances at La Scala, Milan, in its first season and a further 15 there the following year.  Having heard the work, Verdi himself described its composer as “a truly musical genius”.  However, although he thereafter enjoyed several more successes and an international reputation, over time Gomes fell victim, as do so many composers, to changing tastes.  Fully-staged productions of his work became a relatively rare occurrence – at least outside of South America – during most of the 20th century.  Even a high-profile CD release of Il Guarany, in a live 1994 performance from Oper der Stadt Bonn and with a cast headed by guest superstar Placido Domingo (Sony Classical S2K 66273), failed to revive much in the way of interest.

Carlos Gomes had been musically active from 1861until his death in 1896.  During those 35 years his most notable compositional focus was on full-scale operas – A noite do castelo (1861), Joana de Flandres (1862), Il Guarany (1870), Fosca (1873), Salvator Rosa (1874), Maria Tudor (1878), Lo schiavo (1889 – review, review) and Condor (1890).  The overtures or first Act preludes from each of them are included in this disc, thereby giving a pretty comprehensive overview of the composer’s career.  There are actually five other Gomes stage works, but even a completist like me can appreciate that there are good reasons for excluding each of them from this current survey.  Three are lighter pieces – a couple of musical comedies, Se sa minga (1867) and Nella Luna (1868) and an 1871 operetta Telégrafo eléctrico.  The fourth was Colombo (1892), a tale of Christopher Columbus that was actually marketed as a “choral symphonic poem” rather than an opera, presumably because of its short duration (a 2006 recording on the Bongiovanni label – GB2429 – comes in at only a little more than 63 minutes).  That leaves an opera, Os mosqueteiros do rei, that was begun in 1871 but, for some reason, never completed.

Gomes was, in some respects, very much a man of his place and time.  In cultural matters, the Empire of Brazil, ruled by a scion of the Portuguese royal house of Braganza, looked to contemporary Europe for its models.  Rio de Janeiro generally aped European fashions, trends and styles and, if occasionally adding a native flavour to the mix, did so within clearly recognisable bounds.  Gomes clearly felt comfortable in that faux-European milieu.  His operas exhibit a strikingly Italianate musical idiom – “bold, theatrical and strongly coloured” (Christopher Headington, Roy Westbrook and Terry Barfoot Opera: a history [London, 1991], p. 214) – that’s rather reminiscent of middle period Verdi and all but one of them were actually premiered in Italy.

Quite apart from the music itself, it is also worth stressing the point that Gomes’s stage works are surprisingly progressive in sentiment.  Especially notable in that respect is the condemnation of racial discrimination to be found in Il Guarany and Lo schiavo, his two operas set in 16th century Brazil.  The central character of Il Guarany is Pery, a heroic and noble-minded native Brazilian chieftain.  A musical embodiment of the philosophical and literary concept of the noble savage, he frustrates the plans of a rampaging gang of murderous Portuguese soldiers and, in so doing, overcomes racial and social taboos to win the heart of Cecilia, the colonial governor’s daughter.  Lo schiavo also features a native leader, Iberè, who opposes the oppressive colonists.  Ultimately he sacrifices his own life after saving those of the interracial lovers Ilarà and Américo, making the powerful points that true love will overcome prejudice and that, in the measure of a man, race is far less important than moral character. 

You might assume that such liberal sentiments were only to be expected in late 19th century works for the stage.  Who, after all, would have wanted to be seen siding with the baddies in that notably – if often hypocritically – moralistic era?  That, however, ignores the unique circumstances prevailing at that time in Brazil, where, after huge political turmoil, the full abolition of slavery only occurred in 1888.  In the 1870s and 1880s, when Gomes’s two “Brazilian” operas were staged, the whole issue of emancipation was a live and extremely divisive one.  Advocacy of freedom and social justice for all races – whether expressed in the political arena or in the opera house – was certainly not universally popular.  In using Il Guarany and Lo schiavo as vehicles to convey subliminal messages that there are good and bad men in every race and that skin colour is no automatic signifier of innate virtue, Gomes was therefore taking a courageous moral and political stand.  It must have been an equally brave decision to rub salt into the wounds of slavery’s supporters by mounting Lo schiavo’s 1889 world premiere in Rio de Janeiro, rather than in Italy.  Following a coup later that year that abolished the pro-abolitionist monarchy and installed a reactionary dictatorship, he nailed his colours firmly to the mast by refusing the new government’s request to compose a new republican national anthem – and was probably wise to leave Brazil for Europe shortly thereafter.  Carlos Gomes was, it seems, one of the good guys.

On the basis of this new CD, his music, too, can be pretty good.  The Il Guarany overture makes a fine opening to the programme.  The opera’s original 1870 performances had begun with a shorter prelude but, following that triumphant first run, Gomes composed this grander and more substantial piece for subsequent performances.  Confidently assertive, it opens with strikingly dramatic flourishes, before driving forcefully onwards.  Even after a more sentimental, flowing melody – the first of the “big tunes” which we will find a regular feature of Gomes’s overtures – emerges at 5:40 and is further developed from 6:50 onwards, the prevailing mood remains one of propulsive, exciting urgency.  Il Guarany’s overture is entirely at one with the rest of the opera and is, in its own right, an immediately appealing orchestral delight. 

Gomes’s mastery of much darker colours is apparent in the overture to Maria Tudor, a musically appropriately reflection of that queen’s unhappy and troubled reign.  An opening characterised by relentless turmoil and turbulence is succeeded by a passage (2:03 – 3:19) that, albeit rather more constrained, conveys in its own way a mood that’s just as uneasy and unsettling.  Far from bringing some welcome light into the darkness, the overture’s second half (3:32 onwards) presents and further develops the opera’s sombre March of the condemned men before an emotional resolution, redolent of religiosity, eventually arrives to bring the overture to an end. 

The prelude to the first Act of Condor simply aims to establish a general atmosphere rather than to present an integrated medley of themes from the opera as, for instance, Il Guarany had done.  Its mood is altogether dramatic, though a delicately scored episode that’s surprisingly fairy-balletic in tone (2:29 – 3:23) brings a little lighter relief.  Condor’s Act 3 nocturne makes a far stronger impression.  Beginning and ending with a gentle melody for the oboe, its central section is a real discovery, with a gorgeously indulgent tune given over to the full orchestra.  It’s an orchestral lollipop of the sort that Beecham might well have relished. 

Even if the following two tracks bring us music that is somewhat less ambitious in scope, they are certainly pleasant and interesting to hear, as well as usefully broadening our appreciation of Gomes’s oeuvre.   The Fosca overture is notably concise.  At less than six minutes long, it alternates dramatic declamatory passages with others of great delicacy and incorporates a flowing and immediately appealing melody for the cellos (3:56 – 4:35) that one can easily imagine being the hit of an evening’s performance.  The attractive prelude to the early Joana de Flandres that follows proves to be less self-consciously intense, relatively straightforward and with a more immediate appeal.  Gomes presents its “big tune” relatively early (1:30 – 2:20) but otherwise the piece exhibits a little less drama and somewhat more jauntiness than we’ve otherwise encountered in his scores so far. 

Rather more complex is the overture to Salvator Rosa.  Once again we find dramatic episodes alternating, often very rapidly but always very effectively, with others of some delicacy.  As well as the passages that we have come by now to expect and that direct our attention to a strongly-conceived yet simply-deployed melody (3:47 – 4:10 and 5:16 – 5:41), Gomes inserts a little local colour in the form of occasional nods at appropriately Neapolitan rhythms.  He also indulges rather gleefully in stereotypical passages of battle music that include simulated cannon fire that’s effected by some sturdy whacks on a prominent bass drum. 

More drums are to be found in the threatening, melodramatic passages of the prelude to A noite do castelo, the earliest and shortest of the pieces on this discEven at that stage of his career, Gomes possessed the knack of coming up with a potential “big tune” (1:50 – 3:20) and on this occasion, almost, I suspect, for want of anything else to do, the tyro composer milks it for all it’s worth.  This is, I’m afraid, the piece that struggles most to establish much in the way of an individual identity and I found it the least interesting of those presented here. 

The final two tracks, both featuring music taken from the opera Lo schiavo, are, however, among the most enjoyable on the disc.  The prelude to Act 1 is very reminiscent of Condor’s Act 3 nocturne that we encountered earlier and it is interesting to note that the two operas from which they derive were composed in successive years.  Once again an oboe introduces the piece and brings it to an end, while the central section showcases another rather beautiful melody for the full orchestra.  It may not quite be up there with Condor’s nocturnein sheer memorability, but it’s a close run thing.  Under its title Alvorada (“dawn”), the final track, the prelude to Lo schiavo’s fourth Act, is, sometimes heard as a stand-alone piece and is one of Gomes’s best-known compositions.  Beginning very quietly and gradually increasing in dramatic intensity and sheer volume, it depicts a graphic sequence that encompasses, according to the composer himself, the muffled sound of the sea, the first light of dawn, warlike horns from an Indian camp, distant fanfares from a Portuguese fleet, birdsong, sunrise and a final climactic musical reference to the coming end of slavery.  André Cardoso’s very useful booklet notes – on which I have gratefully relied for much of the background information in this review – make great claims for Alvorada, suggesting that it “takes on another dimension… in the composer’s output as a whole, since it is the closest he came to writing a symphonic poem”.  Be that as it may, it emerges as an accomplished and very attractive piece of writing that certainly deserves to be better known outside of Brazil itself where, Mr Cardosa informs us, it has “established itself as one of the most famous and well-loved orchestral works of the 19th-century… repertoire”.

As presented on this disc – one of the enterprising and thought-provoking Naxos Music of Brazil series – Carlos Gomes’s operatic overtures and preludes prove well worthy of attention.  Some, it is true, are more inventive, original and even tuneful than others, but all are well constructed and effective and none outstays its welcome.  All of them are, moreover, executed with enthusiasm, skill and flair by conductor Fabio Mechetti and the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, a band which has, in recent years, garnered some positive reviews from my MusicWeb colleagues.  Richard Hanlon, for instance, considered it “an impressive orchestral unit”, while, reviewing a disc of orchestral works by Alberto Nepomuceno, Rob Barnett thought that “Only in relation to the last ounce of sumptuous string tone is there any cause to crib. Otherwise this orchestra give the music its full measure of stir and soul”.  I heartily echo my colleagues’ sentiments.  Well recorded in a venue that reproduces the orchestra both warmly and clearly, the rarely-encountered repertoire on this welcome new release is certainly worth investigation.

Rob Maynard

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Il Guarany (1870) overture
Maria Tudor (1878) – Act 1 prelude
Condor (1890) – Act 1 prelude
Condor (1890) – Act 3 nocturne
Fosca (1873) – overture
Joana de Flandres (1862) – Act 1 prelude
Salvator Rosa (1874) – overture
A noite do castelo (1861) – Act 1 prelude
Lo schiavo (1889) – Act 1 prelude
Lo schiavo (1889) – Act 4 prelude Alvorada