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The return of Gomes’s wicked woman

Joanna de Flandres [Joanna of Flanders], an opera forgotten for 140 years, is recovered in two projects

Reproduction Royal Joanna: a detail of a Belgian tapestry of 1703 shows the personageReproduction

It was as if posterity wanted to punish the medieval wickedness of Joanna of Flanders, the woman who disowned her father so as not to lose her crown and her lover. The opera that Carlos Gomes wrote about her in 1863 – and, in a way, it was his passport for studying in Italy, – was left by the composer in Brazil before he left for Europe, and it suffered 140 years of being totally forgotten, never staged again since its turbulent debut in Rio de Janeiro. Many went so far as to regard it as lost, which it never was.

“The end of a triumphiasco!” Gomes jotted down on the last page of his score, unwittingly foreseeing the future. But now the terrible wench is back again and in a double dose. A professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Lenita Waldige Mendes Nogueira, has just complied the full version of Joanna of Flanders, a task that was concluded with support from FAPESP, at the same time that two other researchers, Achille Picchi, from São Paulo State University (Unesp), and conductor Fábio Gomes de Oliveira, also finished their full edition of Gomes’s opera, with the support of Unisys and the State Secretariat for Culture.

The detail is that neither knew of the work of the other. “It was a surprise. But, just as there are several editions of a symphony by Beethoven, for example, there is no harm in our having these two compilations of Joanna,” says Lenita. After all, there were decades of absence. In fact, the score was as the disposal of interested parties, in microfilm form, in the collections of the National Library (act I) and at the Music School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (from act II to act IV).

“We do not know why they are in separate archives, but this must have confused the researchers who declared it lost,” the professor explains. Be that as it may, there is no more excuse for orchestras and conductors not to, once again, revive Gomes’s second opera, written (like the previous one, A Noite do Castelo [The Night at the Castle], of 1861), from a libretto in Portuguese by Salvador de Mendonça for the National Opera, which tried to stimulate the genre in the Portuguese language. Joanna was the swan song for the nationalist musical project of José Amat, the creator of this institution.

The story, though, is not one of the most tropical: Joanna’s father, Baudouin, the count of Flanders, disappeared in the Crusades. The lass takes power and falls in love with a troubadour, Raul, and marries him. The moment the lad is about to be proclaimed the new lord of Flanders, Baudouin reappears. Not wanting to lose power and her lover, Joanna calls him an impostor and puts him in prison. Raul, repentant, tries to convince her to release her father, and ends up stabbing her. Baudouin goes free, greeted by the multitude, and arrive in time only to see his daughter dead and the “son-in-law” kill himself before his eyes. Curtain.

“Gomes was bold to put to music a drama on an evil woman like Joanna, something unprecedented for that time. He took a liking to it and later did several other operas with difficult women, like Fosca,” Lenita observes. “Musically, the work is also an advance on A Noite do Castelo and already shows traces of what Gomes was to be later,” she notes. “Although linked to esthetics that even at the time were rather out of date, there are some very good moments, some fine choruses, and orchestration that is more advanced and less linked to ditties, which was what was to be noted in his earlier creations.”

There is much of Donizetti and Bellini, composers whom Gomes then admired, in the score of Joanna. “But,” musicologist Luiz Heitor Correa de Azevedo observes, “the melody in this opera, without having any concern for following the footsteps of hallowed models, has some moments of abandon, which leaves the Mediterranean skies for the ardor of the tropics and evokes, imprecisely, anything that is very close to us.”

Exchange of offenses
For Lenita, Joanna de Flandres, a proof of Gomes’s desire to overcome his technical limits, suffers a bit from the composer’s boldness. “The score is very uneven. Act I is very long, almost half the whole opera, with enormous duets. Oddly enough, in the following acts, as if he wanted to compensate for this size or was feeling tired with the score, the action moves very quickly. The protagonist’s death is extremely short. In all this, there still may be missing an opening for the opera, perhaps lost. A little before the debut, the composer and the opera’s producers swapped offenses in letters that were published in the newspapers.

“I appeal to the loyalty that distinguishes Mr. Nicolai (the conductor of the 1863 production), for him to declare before the public at which point the score of my opera suffers his corrections, cuts and additions, which were not indicated by me, or were suggested merely for necessity of execution,” Gomes let fly, enraged with the pace of the production, the lack of singers, the unpreparedness of the orchestra, and the alterations made to his score. He was furious even with the delay by the librettist in sending him the text for him to put it to music.

Difficult temperament
The polemic, fascinating, shows the precarious situation of the musical scene in Rio those days and Gomes’s difficult temperament, which was to be put to the test several times, with the indifference of the theaters with regard to his operas, even Il Guarany, which made its debut at the Scala, in Milan, in 1870. The producers went so far, without success, as to organize a claque to boo the debut of Joanna and to destroy the composer. On 15th September 1863, at last, it was staged, in the presence of the emperor. In the following year, Gomes was to embark for Europe.

Without, however, taking the score with him. “I believe he knew that there would be no interest in a play in Portuguese in Italy, and he perhaps regarded it as a work that was unworthy of the glorious future that he hoped he would have,” the professor reckons. Here, what really counted was the talent of the musician. There was a decree of the Rio de Janeiro Music Conservatory that established as a function of conductors “to propose to the government, every five years, the name of some pupil or artist who has distinguished himself for his transcendent talent, so as to be sent to Europe to perfect himself in music.” It was with the opera that the composer won the right to study abroad, and not some benefaction by Pedro II. The lass’s wickedness was the good fortune of the lad from Campinas.

The project
Restoration of the opera Joanna de Flandres by Carlos Gomes (nº 01/07227-3); Modality Regular research benefit line; Coordinator
Lenita Waldige Mendes Nogueira – Arts Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp); Investiment R$ 23,894.00