Wednesday 7 October 2020

Reviving Villa Lobos' Floresta do Amazonas

Poster for the 1959 film, Green Mansions

Heitor Villa Lobos' Floresta do Amazonas (Forest of the Amazon) is fascinating yet frustrating. The work started off as a film score to the 1959 film Green Mansions, directed by Mel Ferrer and based on William Henry Hudson's book of the same name. The film, which is set in the Amazon, starred Audrey Hepburn (who was married to Ferrer at the time) and Anthony Perkins. But Villa Lobos (who was 70 at the time he wrote the score) was new to making Hollywood films and in the end most of his score was jettisoned. Villa Lobos then adapted it as a sort of symphony. It is his final major work, yet extremely little known partly because the performing materials remained in manuscript and there seemed to be no definitive edition.

Recently, the Academia Brasileira de Música revised and edited the material, and the conductor Simone Menezes worked with them to create a Suite for Symphony Orchestra and soprano formed by the best music parts for a concert version for a “normal” symphony orchestra and soprano. Now there is a chance to hear this as Menezes will be conducting the suite in concert at the Philharmonie de Paris next year (10/4/2021) with the combined forces of Orchestre de l'Opéra de Rouen Normandie and Orchestre Régional de Normandie, plus soprano Camilla Titinger, with a concert this year on the orchestras' home ground at Rouen's Theatre des Arts on Saturday 17 October 2020. The concert will also include parts of Philip Glass' Aguas da Amazonas and will feature photographs by Sebastiao Selgado.

The new suite is in 11 movements (4 of them with soprano), and Simone Menezes describes the soprano pieces as amazing. These have been recorded separately, but in the real context of the full work they are astonishing. Menezes calls the work an eloquent composition, but also simple and direct, a work of genius. The whole work is rhapsodic, something for which Villa Lobos has been criticised, but this is music which has grown out of Argentinian soil, so as Menezes comments, we can hardly expect sonata form! Something of the work's primitivism might evoke Stravinsky, but the orchestration had a significant effect on Olivier Messiaen who mentioned Villa-Lobos' influence over Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony.

Villa Lobos said that his works were letters written for posterity, and for Simone Menezes Floresta do Amazonas is a letter we must read.

Further information from the Orchestre Régional de Normandie website, and the Philharmonie de Paris website.

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