A man walks out and sits down. He begins to riff on an acordion. Other musicians come on stage with their instruments– a bass, a violin. The percussionist sits down at the drums. A white digital piano–a miniature baby grand, stands downstage in the corner. What next?
Having only seen one Brazilian musical before (a revival of Chiquinha Gonzaga’s FORROBODÓ last year in Rio de Janeiro), I really did not know what to expect from POUR ELISE–other than some kind of rendition of Beethoven’s masterpiece, FÜR ELISE, some time during the play. FÜR ELISE is a favorite piece given to any young pianist, and is easily recognized by most classical trained musicians. For sure it evokes romance and longing and all of the drama that we think of when we think of Beethoven.
Cláudio Goldman, the composer of this musical, weaves the musical leitmotiv, based on Beethoven’s piece, into a tightly knit narrative based on his grandparents’ lives. Elise is a singer and Sbig a pianist. They meet in Poland before World War 2 and later in Brazil, where they are united. Elise is Sbig’s true love. Throughout the musical, we hear some of opera’s top hits. They are performed either with the original lyrics in Italian, or with Portuguese adaptations which fit the storyline.
Although the opera excerpts do work in this story, it is funny to experience them because they invoke the originals, and the contrasts with Sbig and Elise are not quite what those composers had in mind. For example, the Duke in RIGOLETTO, who sings ‘La donna é mobile¨is a carefree playboy who loves seducing women. The Don Giovanni of ¨La ci darem la mano¨ in DON GIOVANNI, shamelessly brags about being the worse cad in opera who has ravished hundreds of innocent damsels across Spain. Zerlina, with whom he sings the duet, is a naive country girl he is bent on having. Considering that Sbig is never portrayed as a ladies man, it is ironic (and almost ridiculous) that he invokes these characters. In addition, ¨La donna é mobile¨ is used when Elise dumps him and returns to her husband. He is the victim in this case, not the woman. Elise is portrayed as a worldly woman and she is the one who is married and having an affair with Sbig. The ¨ Brindisi¨ (Libiamo) from La Traviata is also sung in POUR ELISE, as well as the enigmatic Gynomopedie by Satie, another ‘greatest hit’ of Western art music . Goldman adds Portuguese lyrics to this, which he sings quite poignantly.
The play is very tongue in cheek and you just cannot take it seriously. Elise is portrayed as an absolute caricature until the very end, when she is dying. All of a sudden she becomes a real person. This is an interesting dramatic choice. Is the rest of her performance/characterization, just a memory, therefore the stylization–is it her parting that is so precious and heartbreaking for Sbig, that the way Elise is presented must be transformed to drive the point home?
In addition to this musical montage, there are projections onto a screen, which serve as backdrop, set and character. Visions of war, as well as clips and/or references to films such as CASABLANCA, SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK are made. If you know these movies and the operas, this musical is a lot of fun. The older Sbig, breaks the 4th wall and speaks to the audience as narrator, recounting his past. Cláudio Goldman plays the younger Sbig, and he shows remarkable versatility with the opera selections and the more popular music of the show.
If one is not that familiar with the music, POUR ELISE provides a ‘taste’ of opera without the grandiosity of a full orchestra, stratospheric high notes (all the soprano’s parts are transposed down), ears being pinned back by the sound (it is all artificially amplified) or 3-4 hours trying to understand a foreign language.
Kudos to Mr. Goldman and Flavio de Souza for blending the erudite and popular, and serving it up in one hour full of laughs, yet with reverence for the immigrant and Jewish experience.
See POUR ELISE: Um amor inesquecível at Teatro Folha at Shopping Higienópolis. http://patiohigienopolis.com.br/teatro/78-pour-elise