Saturday, March 31, 2018

Faust at the Lyric Opera

Chicago’s Lyric Opera has a striking new production of Faust, Gounod’s most popular opera whose story is loosely based on Goethe’s most famous play.  The Wikipedia entry for the latter asserts that it “is considered by many to be Goethe's magnum opus and the greatest work of German literature.”  The basic story is well-known – a disenchanted, aging philosopher named Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for his earthly transformation into a dashing and attractive young man, especially, but not exclusively, so he can pursue the beautiful young maiden Marguerite.  Many suffer tragic consequences. 

Faust debuted in Paris in 1859 and has become a world-wide favorite.  Created in the French grand opera tradition, like many others of its kind it is so long that many productions scale it back.  Thankfully, the ballet is often omitted entirely.  Faust offers some wonderful music in addition to its thought-provoking story line.  But although there is beautiful, flowing music in this opera, little of it seems to show up in compilations of favorite opera selections.  The tenor aria “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” is the only one I’ve frequently encountered.  

The Lyric production featured terrific singing from the leads and the usual great vocals from the chorus.   French tenor Benjamin Bernheim played Faust in his American debut, Ana Maria Martinez played Marguerite in her one appearance in this role (Ailyn Perez sang the role in the other performances), Christian Van Horne played Mephistopheles, and Edward Parks was Marguerite’s brother Valentin.  The sets, although somewhat abstract in parts, were for the most part interesting and relievedly period-appropriate.  Taking in the Lyric production in sight and sound was a delightful way to spend a few hours.

Faust has evoked some strong feelings.  Despite being French and spending time studying in Italy, Gounod fell under the spell of Wagner.  In the Lyric Opera Companion, Dale Harris writes that after the appearance of Faust “accusations of ‘Wagnerism’ were leveled against [Gounod].”  Harris quotes one British critic who “accused [Gounod] of being to all intents and purposes a German composer ... and too much after the manner of Wagner to please the lovers of unadulterated music.”   Joseph Wechsberg writes in his masterful The Opera that “Gounod’s Faust remains one of the most popular works in the repertory, but compared to Carmen it is second-rate salon music...  The critics hate Faust and the public loves it.” 

Many music lovers take a different view.  The Lyric offers that “the score ... simply bursts with memorable music. Marguerite’s Jewel Song, the Soldiers’ Chorus, the spectacular final trio — these and much more make Faust a sublime experience.”  And the public does love it.  At the Lyric, in the last 50 years Faust has been the tenth most frequently-produced opera in the Italian and French repertory, with its six productions second only to Carmen of those by French composers.  Boito’s treatment of the same story in his opera Mephistopheles seems well-regarded, if not more regarded, by critics but has not been as popular with the public, as illustrated by its only two Lyric productions in the past 50 years – both in the 1990s. 

The moral of the Faust story is immortal.  Although the notion of literally selling one’s soul to the devil make strike a great many today as fanciful, selling out one’s principles and honor for some temporal advantage is not, so the story has lasting relevance.  Such folly is all the more tragic when committed by someone old enough to know better, for truly there’s no fool like an old fool.

R Balsamo

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lincoln's Birthday

Today is the anniversary of the birth, in 1809, of Abraham Lincoln.  My small collection of books specifically on his life include the first edition of the one-volume edition of Carl Sandburg’s monumental six-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years;  Stephen B. Oates With Malice Toward None – A Life of Abraham Lincoln; the Library of America’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings; James McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution; Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg; and Jan Morris’s Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest.  Some of these I’ve read fully, and some in part. 

Interestingly, the only one I’ve hardly touched is perhaps the most famous of all – Sandburg’s biography.  I have a general bias toward more recent scholarship, and I’ve always been suspicious, unfairly no doubt, that Sandburg was too close in time to the actual man, and did not have the benefit of more fulsome scholarship and basic research yet to come.  But it’s on my long get-to list!

Among his many qualities was his sometimes-droll great sense of humor.  One example I enjoy, from Anthony Gross’s The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln

While walking along a dusty road in Illinois in his circuit days, Lincoln was overtaken by a stranger driving to town.  “Will you have the goodness to take my overcoat to town for me?” asked Lincoln.  “With pleasure, but how will you get it again?” came the response.  Lincoln promptly replied “Oh, very readily.  I intend to remain in it.”

R Balsamo

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Clinton Democrats, the FBI, & the Justice Department Caught in the Biggest Political Scandal in American History

By all appearances now, Hillary Clinton and the Democrat Party and their corrupt high-level operatives in the FBI and the Justice Department funded a pack of lies about Donald Trump’s supposed ties with Russia and dressed them up in an official-looking “dossier.”  They then used those lies to secure legal justification to spy on Trump and Republicans and promoted those lies through the liberal media to smear Trump during the 2016 election campaign.  Moreover, all indications are that the same senior FBI and Justice Department people who worked so hard to frame Trump were the same ones who colluded with the Clinton people to wrongly clear her of grossly illegal activity.  

This is the biggest political scandal in American history, all the more remarkable because many of the corrupt conspirators to this very day remain in senior positions in the FBI and the Justice Department.  Even now, they are allowed to obstruct justice by their Republican boss, the seemingly dazed and spineless Jeff Sessions, and his boss the Republican Donald Trump, remarkably the very object of the conspiracy.  What are Sessions and Trump thinking – that the FBI and the Justice Department don't report to them, and that they can do nothing about the Obama and Clinton partisan lawbreakers still apparently running those two federal organizations that are very much under their control?  I'm sure that never before in American history have such corrupt, subversive high-ranking federal officials been allowed to remain in office and continue their conspiracy by the very President who has been the object of their vicious malfeasance.  Breathtakingly remarkable.

R Balsamo

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Republican Tax Reform – Three and a Half Points

The Republican Congress and President Trump just passed a sweeping new tax reform law that significantly changes the American financial landscape.  This new law will strengthen American business competitiveness in world markets and will result in income tax reductions not just for companies but also for about 80% of taxpayers.

Three important points about this new tax reform law.

First, by lowering the United States corporate tax rate from one of the highest in the world to a competitive one, tax reform significantly improves American business competitiveness on the world markets.  This will result in higher corporate profits that will be passed along to shareholders and workers.  Already officials in other parts of the world are expressing deep concern about this substantially-improved American competitiveness, warning their countrymen that they must also now act to counter the American move lest they lose business and jobs to American companies.

Secondly, by greatly expanding the standard deduction tax reform will mean an estimated 80% of tax filers will be able to use the simple and quick easy form.  This really is tax simplification for a lot more people.

Finally, the tax reform bill substantially limits the deductibility of state and local income taxes on the federal tax calculation.  The ability to deduct state and local income taxes on the federal return amounts to a direct and grossly unfair subsidy to taxpayers in higher-tax states from taxpayers in lower-tax states.  The amount someone pays in federal income tax should not depend upon the state in which he or she lives.  Although some Republicans wanted the subsidy eliminated altogether, a compromise was reached that caps the state and local tax deduction to $10,000 per year.  Thus, a huge bump in tax fairness across America.

Of course, the disgraceful and outrageous special tax break specifically for hedge fund managers, the so-called "carried interest" loophole, was left untouched.  One can only imagine all the dollars those financiers drop into politicians' coffers.  But hey, nobody's perfect, and there's always next time. 

R Balsamo

Monday, December 11, 2017

Allenby and Trump Enter Jerusalem

One hundred years ago today the British World War One Near East offensive against the Ottoman Turks reached Jerusalem on its way north.  General Edmund Allenby famously dismounted and with his officers modestly entered the holy city on foot through the Jaffa Gate, the entry way of the pilgrims of past centuries.  During this military campaign Allenby commanded T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who was the British liaison to and motivator of the Arab desert fighters against their common enemy, the Turks.    

Allenby Entering Jerusalem on December 11, 1917
In one of those small but telling coincidences of history, President Donald Trump has just announced that the United States is formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which it is in fact, and will move the US embassy there.  This move comports with the previously-stated positions of Presidents William Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and also of the United States Senate, which in 1995 passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act by massive majorities in the Senate (93-5) and House (374-37) and which just this past June passed a resolution 90-0 reaffirming the American position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.  President Trump continues to move forward, in a show of strength that will improve the chances of peace, in stark contrast to his recent predecessors who were all talk and no action, and whose fecklessness only led to more strife in a part of the world where, in the end, one can only gain peace through strength.

R Balsamo

Friday, December 8, 2017

The National Football League Doubles Down on Its Ultraliberal, Social Justice Warrior Boss Goodell

There’s a rule that I’ll paraphrase:  all organizations not explicitly conservative or politically neutral, and not continually reinforced to be so, become liberal over time.  The National Football League is a case in point.

Last year, in a story on which I commented (link below), NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell slammed then-candidate Donald Trump over his alleged past behavior toward women.  Goodell was, at the same time, a supporter of candidate Hillary Clinton who for many years was the vicious smearer-in-chief of any and all women who came forward to credibly and contemporaneously accuse her husband of sexual assault and rape, accusations almost every honest person now believes.  In addition, Goodell presided over a group of football teams made up of a shocking number of players who had raped, assaulted, or otherwise terrorized women, and many of those players had received slap-on-the-wrist penalties from Goodell for such behavior.  In defending the NFL players who had beaten women, Goodell said “people do not understand the complexity of domestic violence.”  Perhaps in Goodell’s mind getting beaten up from time to time is just an occupational hazard of becoming a domestic partner of an NFL player that every women accepts going in.  Goodell seems to think that NFL players are very important people and deserve special allowances.  For their women, pay-to-play, so to speak.

Finally, last year Goodell supported the anti-police demonstrations instigated by now former player Colin Kaepernick, who, among other affronts, wore socks with cartoons depicting police as pigs.  This current NFL season, the widespread police-hating protests by NFL players during the pre-game national anthem has caused many fans to boycott the games.  Some stadiums have been half-empty this year. 

To appease the anti-police protesting players, particularly the many black players at the core of the movement, Goodell’s NFL has agreed to spend almost $100 million on “causes important to black communities.”  Read “Black Lives Matters,” the movement based on a lie that, by causing police to step back from aggressive enforcement, has directly caused the spike in deaths in the black neighborhoods of cities such as Chicago and Baltimore.  Reportedly this NFL money is coming out of funds previously earmarked for breast cancer and military veterans’ causes. 

Nevertheless, in the face of Goodell’s politicization of the NFL, his disastrous handling of the anti-police protesting, and his alienation of a large segment of the fan base, the NFL owners have just extended his contract.  The NFL owners want more Roger Goodell.  They are doubling down on the left-wing politicization of the league and anti-police protests, thinking fans won’t mind paying exorbitant ticket prices knowing they are helping to fund the anti-police Black Lives Matters protestors.  I cannot fathom the thinking of the NFL owners. 

My thoughts.  From now on, no more public funding, which was never right or sensible to begin with, of stadiums that are a huge free gift to already-rich team owners, enabling them to have all the more cash to donate to anti-police activists.  And high-time to revoke the unfair special exemption the NFL has long had from the nation’s anti-trust laws.  And now that everyone knows of the widespread tragedy of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among football players, it may be time for former players to sue the NFL owners out of existence.  They’ve known for a long time about the problem and have looked the other way.    

The NFL owners and players have sown the wind, and it’s now time they reaped the whirlwind. 

R Balsamo

Related link:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Pearl Fishers at the Lyric Opera

A mention of Bizet and one naturally thinks of the composer’s masterpiece Carmen, but he was not a one-hit wonder.  Ten years before that eventual favorite, in 1863 at the tender age of 24 he introduced Paris to a love story set on the island of Ceylon. 

A wandering adventurer arrives at a village of pearl fishermen and meets up with a long-lost friend.  Years ago they both loved the same woman, a priestess, but renounced that love to maintain their strong friendship.  Early in the story, before tensions develop, they sing one of the, if not the, most well-known and well-loved tenor-baritone duets in the Italian-French repertory – Au fond du temple saint.  I think the first version I ever heard was perhaps the most famous one of all, recorded in 1951 by tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill.

Then the priestess surprisingly reappears, under a pledge of chasteness, and conflict ensues.  The story is a relatively simple one, as opera goes, about love, loyalty, and honor.  And all along the way we are treated to sumptuous music and arresting visuals.  In addition to the famous duet already mentioned, of particular note are the wonderful soprano-tenor duet and soprano and tenor arias, and plentiful chorus singing, all a delight as our imagination is drawn to a faraway place and time.

This month the Lyric did a splendid job putting on this production.  The sets and lighting were very well-done, and those responsible deserve a special tip of the hat.  In fact the sets were perhaps the most colorful I've ever seen in an opera.  The singing was spectacular.  Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka was the priestess, American tenor Matthew Polenzani the fellow who wins the girl, and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien the odd man out.  The rest of the singers and especially the chorus were also terrific. 

This isn't ballet-saturated French Grand Opera, but Bizet was of that place so occasionally there was some dancing about, though it was generally uninteresting and ended just before it got annoying.

The Pearl Fishers was a flop when it premiered, standing it in good company with some other initial sleepers.  After an initial short run it was not revived in Bizet’s lifetime.  Well, those same Parisians pooh-poohed Berlioz’s masterpiece The Trojans that same year (the insightful Berlioz was perhaps the only music maven in Paris to have a good word to say about The Pearl Fishers).  The unfortunate Bizet went to his grave in his late 30s convinced that Carmen and The Pearl Fishers were both flops. 

Eventually the opera found its way into the repertory, but still today seems not highly regarded.  Apparently to the cognoscenti the libretto is not sophisticated enough and the score not complex enough – the opera is not as good as it sounds, they say, to borrow a phrase.  But after listening to the rich melodies while sitting in a darkened theater captivated by colorful sets, all an inviting stimulative to the imagination, I wonder – what do the experts really know?  Opera is too important to be left just to them.   

R Balsamo

An earlier related commentary:
Carmen at the Lyric Opera

Monday, October 23, 2017

Dropping in on Bang the Drum Slowly

This 1973 film tells the bittersweet story of a star major league baseball pitcher who protects and supports his less-talented and simple-minded friend and teammate who just learns he is dying from Hodgkin’s disease.  The title comes from a phrase in the song Streets of Laredo, a story about a dying young cowboy, and the haunting tune is a backdrop in the film.  Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro, unknowns at the time, give strong, understated performances, and Vincent Gardenia almost steals the show as the comically-frustrated manager who tries to find out the secret he knows the two men are hiding.  I enjoyed watching the film once again after so many years, getting absorbed in its slow rhythms, soft humor, and poignant moments.  In the movie world, this is one of those little gems that get lost in the glare from the big chunks of fool’s gold.

R Balsamo

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rigoletto at the Lyric Opera

Rigoletto was Verdi’s big comeback opera after the waning success of his earlier works, and it ushered in an especially productive time in his life.  Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and I Vespri Siciliani followed directly in this celebrated “middle period,” and constitute a remarkable quartet.  Rigoletto premiered March, 1851, at La Fenice in Venice when Verdi was 38 years old.

The story is set perhaps a few hundred years ago in northern Italy, centering on a widower, embittered by his hunchback deformity and empowered by his sharp, barbed tongue, who labors in degrading work as a court jester to a licentious Duke.  While he gets back at the courtiers who mock him by encouraging the Duke’s abuse of their wives and daughters, he fails in his efforts to protect his own young, beautiful, and naïve daughter from those very same predatory men. 

Parent-child relationships are not commonly the main focus in Italian opera, but they often are with Verdi.  His only two children died in infancy, and he lost his first wife soon after that.  He almost did not recover from those blows, but later he explored parents and children in his work.  In Rigoletto, a father-daughter relationship is central to the tragedy, and the complex father-son relationship in Sicilian Vespers and the very complex mother-son relationship in Trovatore also come quickly to mind. 

One theme of the opera is hubris, or what goes around comes around.  When confronted by an aristocrat who objects to the Duke’s violation of his daughter, Rigoletto mocks him and encourages the Duke to execute him.  The jester is shaken to the bone, however, when that aggrieved father places a curse on him.  The opera's original title, in fact, was La Maledizione – The Curse.  In Verdi’s time, a curse in such circumstances was for some a thing to be frightened of, and it comes to fruition when Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda herself is seduced and then violated by his employer the Duke.  Then the overprotected Gilda, filled with foolish, reckless, and thoughtless passion, sacrifices her life to save the Duke, whom she has already learned to be unfaithful to her, from an assassin hired by her father. 

Deception, and its tragic consequences, is another element of the story.  The jester hides his occupation from his daughter, while she hides her budding romance with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be the Duke.  The Duke deceives Gilda by pretending to be an impoverished student, and is himself deceived by the assassin’s accomplice and sister, who lures him into the trap.  The assassin attempts to deceive Rigoletto when he delivers the wrong body.    

The emotional range of Rigoletto is a key part of the opera’s impact.  His most touching music fills the tender moments between father and daughter, contrasting sharply with his harshness when singing to his courtier enemies and his terror when begging for the safe return of his abducted daughter.

The music of the characters is more intertwined than in many of Verdi’s past operas, with fewer set pieces easily segregated from the surrounding action and other characters.  Per Wikipedia: “Musicologist Julian Budden regards the opera as ‘revolutionary’: .... ‘the barriers between formal melody and recitative are down as never before.  In the whole opera, there is only one conventional double aria [...and there are...] no concerted act finales.’  Verdi used that same word – ‘revolutionary’ – in a letter to [librettist] Piave, [and in another letter Verdi wrote] ‘I conceived Rigoletto almost without arias, without finales but only an unending string of duets.’”

Of course, having said all that, one must acknowledge that one of the most recognizable arias in all of opera is the Duke’s La donna e mobile (in the singular, but better translated as “women are fickle”).  In fact, as the story goes, Verdi recognized that he tune was so catchy he feared that the opera’s cast would be humming it around Venice and reveal it before the premier, so he kept a tight lid on it until the first show.  The Duke has, in fact, not one but three arias, one other of which, Questa o quella, is also commonly heard.  But the real special music in Rigoletto is that between father and daughter.  

The set was in the budget-friendly, semi-abstract, minimalist style so common these days, but it had great visual impact and served to reinforce the theme of varying perspectives.  In this case, though, as is often the case, the single main set did not provide enough visual clue as to exactly where the action was taking place; was that scene in a palace, or on a street, or in an apartment?  Those in the audience familiar with the plot knew what was going on, but if prior study is a prerequisite for understanding and thus enjoyment, opera may struggle even more to expand its audience.        

The set notwithstanding, the Lyric hit a home run with this latest staging.  The singing was wonderful.  Baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role and tenor Matthew Polenzani as the rapacious Duke, both alums of the Lyric’s training center, were very strong in their roles.  Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede was also quite notable as the assassin’s accomplice Maddalena, who joins the main three in the opera’s celebrated quartet, beautifully sung in this production.

And then there’s one Rosa Feola, a young Italian soprano in her Lyric debut as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda.  Not since I saw future Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux pitch for the Cubs as an unknown rookie over three decades ago have I had such a strong “star is born” feeling.  I expect we’ll hear a great deal about this remarkable young performer in the years to come.

R Balsamo

Monday, September 25, 2017

Remembering The Scooter, at 100

When I was a boy I was a Boy Scout.  One day in the early 1960s when I was about 10 years old my scout troop held a special event, the only one of its kind I can remember.  In a local hall, a small rectangular-shaped brick building consisting on the inside of mostly one large room, there was a gathering featuring two former major league baseball players.  My father was an assistant scout leader and took me to the event after work that evening.  In the previous couple of years I had become a big fan of the White Sox, and to a lesser extent the Cubs, and I was learning the names of some former ballplayers.  But these two men were utterly unfamiliar to me.

It’s truly amazing what small details one can remember from so many years ago, while forgetting so many things of far greater importance.  We arrived late and sat in the back on the left side of the one middle aisle.  About 50 boys were there, Scouts themselves and probably some brothers and cousins, and a few scoutmaster dads.  One of the former players was speaking, and he had everyone’s attention.  He was talking about a baseball camp he ran for boys, and he showed lots of slides.  It looked and sounded like a great place, one I could only dream of attending.  I even remember that it was near Kansas City, that’s how big an impression it made on me at the time.  We missed the remarks of the first former player, but they couldn’t have been much because we weren’t very late and the second player was already talking.

When Mickey Owen finished talking about his baseball camp, the event came to a close.  Many boys left, for home and homework and chores, but many stayed and gathered around Owen up in front to hear more about his camp and to grab a brochure and maybe an autograph.  I started for Owen myself, but my dad stopped me and told me to head up front to the right side where the other former major leaguer was standing talking to a few dads.  I resisted.  The other guy was too small to have been much of a ballplayer, and he didn’t have a baseball camp.  But my father was strangely insistent, and since by then I would have been way in the back of the large group around Owen, I finally relented and we walked up front and said hello to the other ballplayer. 

Up close he still seemed small as baseball players went, as far as I could tell such a thing at age 10.  Although all the other boys were gathered around Owen, all but one of the few dads present were talking to the other player.  He greeted me warmly and gave me an autograph.  My dad and I stayed talking for a few minutes and then left for home.  I never did get close up to Mickey Owen and that’s as close as I ever got to his baseball camp.  But I did get to meet and get the autograph of a former player I later learned had been an American League Most Valuable Player.

The lesson here is that 10 year olds don’t know as much as their fathers.         

A Hall of Fame shortstop who played on seven New York Yankee world championship teams and still holds numerous records for shortstops in World Series play, Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto passed away in 2007 at the age of 89 and would have been 100 years old today.  Holy cow.

R Balsamo

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Fascist Roots of the American Left

Linked below is a brief interview of Dinesh D'Souza, who has just published a new book titled The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left

D'Souza points out that Nazism and fascism are political ideologies of the "left" and not of the "right."  In my opinion, positioning those ideologies on the “right” side of the political spectrum was driven years ago in part by communists, American fellow travelers, and American anti-anti-communists who sought to distance their politics from Nazi Germany after it attacked its former ally the Soviet Union.

Socialism ultimately requires authoritarianism to enforce its aims, which is control by unelected elites who ostensibly, but not fundamentally, pursue equality of outcomes while vigorously suppressing liberty.  Variants of socialism, such as Russian communism and German Nazism, can be distinguished, but they both were, and modern variants remain, fundamentally hostile to liberty and capitalism and quick to use violence to achieve their controlist aims. 

R Balsamo

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Illinois Democrats Choose More Decline and So Hike Taxes

Illinois Democrats, with the help of a few weak-kneed Republicans pressured and duped into joining them, just overrode the Republican governor’s veto to push through a massive, permanent income tax hike (for individuals, a 32% increase up to a shade shy of 5%).  Not many years ago, Democrats passed a temporary four-year massive (67% for individuals) income tax hike that they said would right the foundering ship that is Illinois finances.  To no one’s surprise, after the period of higher taxes Illinois was in a deeper financial hole than it was before all that additional tax revenue because the state’s profligate spending was never reduced.  Illinois doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.  The Democrat party formula is to spend recklessly on their constituency groups, and when the financial meltdown inevitable occurs pressure enough dim-witted Republicans into supporting a tax hike (Think of the kids!  What about the schools!); then repeat the cycle all over again. 

In the last 10-15 year, Illinois’ spending has zoomed while its population has shrunk.  Big dollars go to Medicaid and other social services that keeps dependents voting Democrat, and big dollars also go to current and retired government workers.  Illinois state workers are the highest paid, adjusted for cost-of-living, of any state in the nation, even before generous retirement benefits kick in.  (In 2016, there were 17,638 retired state and local workers whose annual pensions were over $99,000, with 15 over $348,000!)  And Illinois has far more units of government than any other state, and all of those townships and forest preserve districts and library boards and water reclamation districts have employees and expenses.  After all that spending, there’s not much cash left over for services for the regular people, otherwise known as the taxpayers.            

And those taxpayers are voting with their feet, as Illinois and Cook County (home of Chicago) lead the nation in population loss.  The Illinois tax base is eroding fast, and yet the Democrats have chosen to raise taxes rather than cut spending.  Higher taxes without spending reform will just accelerate the population exodus and the state’s financial decline. 

I have no sense of what the ultimate resolution will be for Illinois, which is arguably already in the direst financial straits of all the states even before this tax hike.  Like the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools System, Illinois is functionally bankrupt.  I blame chronic, excessive spending that increasingly benefits Democrat party constituencies rather than state residents as a whole, combined with chronic underfunding of pensions that appear overly-generous and based on increasingly over-market salaries.  Throw in the usual fraud and abuse, like pension-spiking, to the mix.  Although the nominal rate of the Illinois state income tax may seem not particularly high even at 5%, given the very high property and other taxes some analysts say Illinois residents have the highest overall tax burden in the United States.  Overspending and mal-spending continue seemingly unabated, and real pension reform remains a pipedream.

Increasingly, the political divide in Illinois is between those who benefit from the state and local government spending largesse, like current public employees, government pensioners, and welfare recipients, and those who foot the bill.  While the beneficiaries feed at the trough the bill-payers are getting fleeced, and increasingly they’re leaving for better pastures. 

R Balsamo 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Norma at the Lyric

The summer solstice is that discordant jolt when just as the warmth arrives daylight begins to shorten.  For opera buffs looking ahead to the next season it’s also a time to take one last look in the rear view mirror.  Patrons of the Lyric Opera are in the middle of a Bellini double-header treat – last season’s Norma, a highlight, and next season’s I Puritani.  Can’t gainsay that.

Composer Vincenzo Bellini is the pride of Sicily.  After his all-too-short life of 33 years, he was buried in the cathedral of his home town Catania, in the shadow of Mt. Aetna looking out on the Ionian Sea.  I regrettably missed visiting that church during my one time on the great island – I only came as close as the nearby airport.  Bellini wrote some wonderful melodies, and one can only wonder what more he would have written had he not died so young.

Norma is the story of a druid high-priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who faces a reckoning after her longstanding illicit, secret lover, the Roman military leader and enemy of her people with whom she has two young children, decides to decamp for Rome with a younger priestess, his new infatuation.  She had betrayed her religion and her people for him, and faces the consequences, moral and otherwise.  Eventually the Roman sees the error of his ways, but, since this is Italian tragic opera, after all, too late to save either of them.   

The music is spectacular, with the long-flowing melodies for which Bellini is famous.  The singing for the role of Norma, said to be very challenging, I find smooth and full of harmony with little of the unappealing (at least to me) vocal calisthenics common in opera at the time.  Maria Callas gets much credit for reviving so-called bel canto opera in the 1950s, and in fact she made her American debut singing Norma in Chicago at the Lyric in its inaugural 1954 season.  In the program guide, Lyric “dramaturg” Roger Pines quotes the late superstar soprano Joan Sutherland calling Norma “the pinnacle role,” and he writes that “there is no greater music for a soprano in the entire operatic repertoire.”

This time around Norma was performed and sung beautifully by Chicago native soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who appeared recently at the Met in the three Donizetti “queen” operas.  At the Lyric she was joined by, among others, Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, her conflicted rival in love, and by Russell Thomas as the unfaithful Roman proconsul Pollione.  Radvanovsky’s repertory includes Verdi’s I vespri siciliani; Lyric patrons can only hope.

As for the production, the sets and direction frequently let the audience down, unfortunately a not uncommon problem in opera these days.  Part of opera is visual, so a good set that can help convey the story and stimulate the imagination greatly enhances the experience, while one that is bland, or anachronistic, or confuses the narrative detracts.  The entire Norma set was a single scene, visually interesting in the abstract, but not one representative of Roman Gaul.  I doubt there would be a structure with 60 foot high thick, decorative wooden columns supporting a large indoor space in rural, sylvan Gaul.  And the entire opera was staged in this drab-gray "space," despite some of the scenes taking place in the forest or in a hidden hut deep in the woods.  Well, in the program guide the director says he was visually inspired by … wait for it … Game of Thrones, so that explains that.  That’s relevance, the holy grail of many a hip post-modern director.  But this was a multi-partner co-production, so there’s lot of responsibility spread around.  I appreciate and value imagination, but within the confines of the narrative. 

Some years ago when back in Chicago, Radvanovsky would stop by for delightful chats about opera with the incomparable Milt Rosenberg on his storied late-evening radio show Extension 720; I caught at least one of those programs, and more if memory serves.  I miss that show very much, but that’s another story. 

R Balsamo

Monday, June 26, 2017

American Doughboys Land in France to Join the Madness of World War One, 100 Years On

One hundred years ago today the first American troops landed in France to fight with the Allies in the Great War, as it was later called.  The Yanks were “coming, over there,” as everyone stateside would soon be singing.

They found madness, wrapped in carnage, dripping in disillusionment.  In World War One alone, says a Wikipedia entry, 17 million soldiers and civilians died from wounds and disease, including over one hundred thousand Americans.  And in the Second World War, a direct continuation of the unfinished First, many times more than that would suffer and perish.   

In his masterful treatment The First World War, historian John Keegan writes:  “…the First World War is a mystery.  Its origins are mysterious.  So is its course.  Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?  Why … did the combatants persist in their military effort … and eventually commit the totality of their young manhood [and much of their civilian populations, I would add here] to mutual and pointless slaughter? …. How did the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, find the resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in [the war’s] purpose?” 

We have film.  We can see the pompous, murderously-incompetent, half-decrepit generals and the effete, smarmy, oily politicos all parading about in herky-jerky motion, full of themselves, festooned like peacocks with their gaudy European plumes and sashes, leading the world into war for their own petty, obscure, and erratic purposes.  It was all so absurd, so comical if not so unspeakably sad, so utterly infuriating, so unimaginably tragic. 

After almost three years of this madness, revealed to the world in newspapers, in film, in photographs, and in letters, in June of 1917 the Americans crossed an ocean to join in. 

R Balsamo

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Trump Rescues America from the “Paris” Global-Grifter Great Climate Con

In taking a big step toward fulfilling a core campaign promise to improve American business competitiveness and the jobs that flow from that, President Donald Trump last week withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement.  Despite frequent and widespread intentionally-misleading references to that accord as a “treaty,” it is nothing of the sort as it was never affirmed by the Senate as a treaty but rather was simply Obama’s personal commitment.  Donald Trump is a different president with different commitments. 

The whole tale of this Paris accord serves as an especially emblematic example of the underhanded way foreign governments have been taking advantage of the United States, retarding its competitiveness while sucking up American money, supported by the American Democrat Party.  The United States has been the Europe’s cash cow for 70 years, effectively subsidizing their welfare state while they ignore their NATO financial obligations.

The supposed purpose of the accord is to address global warming.  To start with, I remain unconvinced that man-caused global warming is real.  Earth’s climate is always changing.  Not long ago in geologic terms we have had a Little Ice Age, and in fact some observers believe that the earth is coming out of a long-term relatively cool period.  The important, bottom line is that science means skepticism and requires hypotheses to be proven with methodology and data honestly obtained, shared, and reproduced.  However, many global warming believers have not behaved like scientists but rather like religious fanatics, shouting down skeptics, at best ostracizing them and at worst threatening to imprison them for climate change “denialism” (e.g., Robert Kennedy Jr.).  As to climate “facts,” there is evidence of widespread fraud and dishonesty in the climate “science” community regarding measuring and reporting data.  And finally, the elitists who preach the global warming gospel themselves do not behave as if they really believe it (e.g.:  global warming high-priest Al Gore’s Saudi oil-money mega-million dollar payoff for opposing cheap American fossil fuel energy; his many mansions with the energy footprint of mid-sized American towns; and his international jet-setting in private planes with other rich, preening climate hypocrites like Leonardo DiCaprio).     

Now to the Paris climate accord.  The best summary of the issue that I have seen comes from Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who made the following key points via twitter [the emphases in italics are mine]: 
  • The accord failed a year before Paris, in 2014 in Lima, when the world abandoned the pretense of reaching a firm climate agreement.  Instead, [the revised accord] established a new process where each country chooses whatever voluntary commitment it wants, [and] all are automatically accepted.
  • The Paris conference itself was largely a collation and stapling exercise.  Of course they reached an "agreement."
  • But this agreement came at the expense of acknowledging or addressing the actual tradeoff at the heart of climate policy: Developing countries need to build a lot of fossil-fuel infrastructure to develop as quickly as possible; doing so locks in emissions.  If you don't want them to build fossil-fuel infrastructure, you have to tell them to develop more slowly.  They're not interested in that.
  • Unsurprisingly, these developing countries made Paris commitments to continue with business as usual. And then everyone applauded.
  • But the individual commitments made in Paris, and thus their sum, do not depart from the trajectory the world was already on.  Strangely, climate activists seemed enthusiastic – almost as if they cared more about the optics of agreements than climate action.
  • Further, President Obama, did make an aggressive commitment on behalf of the United States. This created a terrible dynamic.  Reviewing progress each year, countries with weak commitments would be applauded for "success," [but the United States would] be chastised for falling behind.
  • This is now happening: "China, India to Reach Climate Goals Years Early, as U.S. Likely to Fall Far Short"
  • Why would the United States remain party to such an agreement?  There has been little argument that we should do it for "the climate."  Instead, the [argument for the “agreement”] seems to be that if a debating society exists, one must attend.  Weak pledges and noncompliance are OK, just not honesty.

The important take-away from this overview is that to the insider globalist bureaucrats the Paris accord really isn’t about the climate.  As the saying goes, follow the money.

On June 1, Trump announced his decision to withdraw from Obama’s commitment; from the Wall Street Journal (link):  

Mr. Trump, framing his decision mostly in economic and political terms, pointed to the agreement’s lesser requirements for the world’s other leading carbon emitters, China and India.  He voiced his concern for protecting the environment and eschewed any reiteration of his past claims that climate change isn’t real, but he said his decision is rooted in protecting the country’s interests.  “This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage” over the U.S., the GOP president said.

After Trump announced that he was not renewing Obama’s personal pledge (again, personal since the US commitment was never a treaty), the reaction from the left wing, both foreign and domestic, was fast and furious.  Even some weak-kneed, dopey nominal Republicans like Mitt Romney had a harsh word.  Many accord supporters referred to it as a “treaty” (e.g.: Bill Clinton; some American national news organizations) that the United States “cannot just get out of” (European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker).  But they lie.  They know full well that it is not a binding treaty and that all they had was an Obama personal pledge and nothing more.

So what’s going on?  Why the vehemence?  Well, we must ask cui bono? – who stood to benefit from Obama’s “aggressive” pledge to the Paris accord, and just what did that pledge consist of?  For one thing, it consisted of an Obama promise to shovel, for starters, $3 billion in American taxpayer money to some international climate group to promote renewable energy in the world.  The New York Times reports that Obama has already transferred $1 billion to the United Nations “Green Climate Fund.”  (And the three biggest global polluters – China, India, and Russia – have so far contributed nothing.)  Who controls and disburses all that money – unelected globalist elitists, no doubt, with gargantuan expense accounts.  And who would stand to make mega-bucks from all that additional spending on alternative energy projects – none other, for example, than big-time Democrat donor and Obama pal Tom Steyer, who’s made a fortune in alternative energy off government contracts funneled to him by Democrats.  Steyer, seeing this gravy train cut off, unsurprisingly did not take Tramp’s withdrawal very well, calling it “a traitorous act of war against the American people." 

Moreover, the Paris accord contained restraints on manufacturing that impeded American competitiveness.  One European auto executive lamented that if his American manufacturing competitors were not held back in their energy use by this accord then he would need his government to compensate for the heightened American competitiveness.  Here’s what the Paris Accord has meant for American business, from a horse’s mouth (link):  

"The regrettable announcement by the USA makes it inevitable that Europe must facilitate a cost efficient and economically feasible climate policy to remain internationally competitive," Matthias Wissmann, president of the German auto industry lobby group VDA, said in a statement on Friday [June 2].

"The preservation of our competitive position is the precondition for successful climate protection.  This correlation is often underestimated," Wissmann said, adding that the decision by the Unites States was disappointing.  The VDA said electricity and energy prices are already higher in Germany than in the United States, putting Germany at a disadvantage[Emphasis mine]

Another European bureaucrat worries that without all the American money to support the accord, presumably meaning, in no small part, money for the high salaries, swanky hotels, and fancy meals for bureaucrats like himself, he is “unsure about its future.”  And so it goes.

Every reasonable person wants to do all that is necessary to sensibly and efficaciously promote and maintain the cleanest environment possible somewhere short of having all humans commit suicide.  Clean air and clean water are essential and must be responsibly protected.  But ginning up global warming hysteria based on fudged data and biased models – whose implications and predictions have repeatedly failed to materialize – is a con, driven partly by faith-based neo-religious frenzy, partly by hypocritical moral preening, and partly by nefarious profiteering.

This Paris climate accord is part of that big con, as globalists seek to reduce American competitiveness while grabbing a mountain of American cash for themselves, all in the name of addressing the global warming hysteria they themselves have created.  In this hustle they are aided and abetted by many American Democrats who see themselves less a part of America than as part of a global elite entitled to live the high life off the backs of the tax-paying, hard-working benighted rubes in the country whose traditional values they disdain.     

R Balsamo

Commentaries by Oren Cass on this subject:

The most recent:  We’ll Never Have Paris: The climate change agreement was designed as a feel-good, do-nothing program –

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Battle of Midway, 75 Years On

Lt. Commander John C. Waldron
Today is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, in which the American navy defeated a superior Japanese force and turned the trajectory of World War Two in the Pacific. 

After their strategic loss at the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier in May, 1942, the Japanese were determined to win a decisive victory over the Americans in one final, massive naval engagement.  Their hope was that the Americans would sue for peace after the destruction of the naval force that served to protect their west coast from invasion.  The Japanese plan was to invade Midway Island, which lies at the far end of the Hawaiian Island chain, over one thousand miles west of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Rather than concentrate their forces, the Japanese, fortunately for the Americans, divided them into multiple prongs of attack.  The spearhead, and most important part, was a strike force of four aircraft carriers and some escort ships that provided the guns to defend against air attack.  Those Japanese carriers did not benefit from the considerable additional defensive firepower the Japanese could have deployed around them had they not split their forces.  The American naval force, the heart of which consisted of the aircraft carriers Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise, knew via superior intelligence the overall arrangement of the Japanese strike forces but not their location.  The Americans took a position to the northeast of Midway and waited for the Japanese to arrive.  The American air forces on Midway Island itself took part in the battle and served, in a sense, as a fourth carrier, although their planes were not as effective as those carrier-based.  The battle, once begun, turned on many factors, including American personal initiative and some good fortune in timing. 

A pivotal element of the battle was the courageous role played by a small squadron of the effectively-obsolete, slow and cumbersome Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and the history-changing personal initiative displayed by its commander John Waldron of South Dakota.  From Wikipedia:

[On] June 4, the 15 Douglas TBD-1 Devastators of [squadron] VT-8 launched from Hornet's flight deck in search of the enemy.  Before takeoff, [Lieutenant Commander John Charles] Waldron, [VT-8’s commander,] had a dispute with the Hornet's Commander, Air Group, Stanhope C. Ring, and Hornet CO Marc Mitscher about where the Japanese carriers would be found.  Despite having a contact report showing the Japanese southwest of Hornet, Mitscher and Ring ordered the flight to take a course due west, in the hopes of spotting a possible trailing group of carriers.  Waldron argued for a course based on the contact report, but was overruled. Once in the air, Waldron attempted to take control of the Hornet strike group by radio.  Failing that, he soon split his squadron off and led his unit directly to the Japanese carrier group.  Leading the first [American] carrier planes to approach the Japanese carriers [in the entire battle,] Waldron was grimly aware of the lack of fighter protection [as those fighters had run out of fuel,] but true to his plan of attack committed Torpedo 8 [squadron] to battle.  Without fighter escort, underpowered, with limited defensive armament, and forced by the unreliability of their own torpedoes to fly low and slow directly at their targets, the Hornet torpedo planes received the undivided attention of the enemy's … Zero fighters.  All 15 planes were shot down.  Of the 30 men who set out that morning, only one – [pilot] Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. – survived.  

Their sacrifice, however, had not been in vain.  Torpedo 8 had drawn down the fighter cover over the Japanese carriers, and also forced the carriers to maneuver radically, delaying the aircraft relaunching to which the Japanese were committed.  After further separate attacks by the remaining [later-arriving] two torpedo squadrons over the next hour, Japanese fighter cover and air defense coordination had become focused on low-altitude defense.  This left the Japanese carriers exposed to the late-arriving SBD Dauntless dive bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise, which attacked from high altitude.  The dive bombers fatally damaged three of the four Japanese carriers, changing the course of the battle.

American dive bombers returned early the next day to sink the fourth Japanese carrier, but not before that carrier sent off waves of its own planes that attacked and severely damaged the American carrier Yorktown, which was soon thereafter sunk by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.  Having lost all four carriers of their strike force, the Japanese turned back toward Japan.  It was a great though costly American victory.

Ensign Gay, whose plane was the first of his squadron to take off from the Hornet that morning of battle, continued to serve after Midway.  From Wikipedia:

Gay [later] took part in the Guadalcanal Campaign with Torpedo Squadron 11, and he later became a Navy flight instructor.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation for his actions in combat at Midway. He was also later awarded the Air Medal.  After World War II, he spent over 30 years as a pilot for Trans-World Airlines.  He often lectured on his Midway experiences, and authored the book Sole Survivor.…  [In] 1994, Gay died of a heart attack [at age 77]….  His body was cremated and his ashes spread at the place that his squadron had launched its ill-fated attack.

Churchill’s words after the Battle of El Alamein are just as apposite for Midway and the Pacific War – “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."  The pivotal Battle of Midway, 75 years ago today.

R Balsamo

Related link:
El Alamein at 70 –“The End of the Beginning"

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Battle of the Coral Sea, 75 Years On

Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber
These few days, May 3-8, mark the 75th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of the Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia, in which the American military, for the first time since the outbreak of the war with Japan five months earlier, checked the Japanese advance in the South Pacific.  It was the first major engagement for American forces since the attack at Pearl Harbor.  Although considered a naval battle, for the first time in history the opposing warships never saw one another or even fired on one another – all the attacking was done by airplanes.

In the Solomon Island chain far northeast of Australia, the Japanese had advanced further south and had just invaded Tulagi with the intention of building an airbase there (and they would soon expand onto the larger, neighboring island of Guadalcanal).  From there land-based Japanese airplanes could attack supply and troop ships traveling from the United States to Australia.  Having broken the Japanese naval code, the American Navy knew that a Japanese fleet was planning to enter the Coral Sea, protected on its flanks by airbases on Tulagi and the north coast of New Guinea, and invade the southern coast of New Guinea at Port Moresby, just north of Australia.  If successful, the Japanese would have a base close to Australia from which they could stage air attacks and even an invasion.

The American Navy responded by sending a force of its own.  American carrier-based planes first attacked the Japanese ships around Tulagi.  Then the two fleets engaged in a fierce, running air battle.  The American attack planes were the well-regarded Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber and the effectively-obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber; some large, land-based American B-17 bombers, flying out of Australia, also took part.  The American fighter was the Grumman F4F Wildcat.  The fleets initially had such trouble finding each other that later one American admiral called it “the most confused battle area in world history.”  The Americans inflicted heavy damage, but suffered the same as well, including the devastating loss of the Lexington, then one of only a handful of aircraft carriers in the entire American Navy.  The Lexington, converted from the hull of a battlecruiser, was slower and less-maneuverable than the purpose-built Yorktown, the other American carrier in the battle.
The USS Lexington under attack at the Battle of the Coral Sea (from Wikipedia)
In a weighing of ships, planes, and men lost, it was a tactical victory for the Japanese.  But after a feint by the American carriers Hornet and Enterprise, which had arrived in the Coral Sea just after the battle, it was the Japanese who withdrew and abandoned the invasion of the southern coast of New Guinea.  So in the end the slugging match was a significant strategic American victory.  Though badly damaged, the Yorktown was able to limp off to Pearl Harbor and be trussed up in a flurry of repairs, just in time to sail off and help win, a month later, the tide-turning great Battle of Midway.

R Balsamo

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Carmen at the Lyric Opera

Carmen resounds once again at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I was fortunate to take it all in last week.  The opera is the final and most popular work of French composer Georges Bizet, and the most famous of all French operas.  Bizet’s only other commonly-known work is the opera The Pearl Fishers, known primarily for its marvelous tenor-baritone duet Au fond du temple saint, the first version of which I think I ever heard is the famous one by tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill.  Going back-to-back on Bizet, the Lyric has The Pearl Fishers on next season’s schedule.

Carmen of course tells the tragic story of the bold, seductive gypsy temptress who drives the beguiled Spanish soldier Don Jose into abandoning his duty and his gentle, innocent hometown sweetheart.  Don Jose falls hard for Carmen despite her telling him, quite openly, that she is an unfaithful lover, and when she eventually leaves him for the dashing toreador Escamillo tragedy ensues.  We see through vivid action and marvelous music how passion can be the road to ruin.

But despite all the wonderful music, so evocative of the Spanish setting, the realistic subject matter and the immorality of the main characters did not initially endear the opera to Parisian audiences.  Bizet died suddenly at age 36 just a few months after Carmen’s premier in 1875, and we are left wondering if disappointment played a part.  But Carmen has become one of the world’s favorites.  In his extensive review of the art form titled The Opera, Joseph Wechsberg highlights Carmen as “a perfect opera.”  It anticipates the Italian verismo form, which portrayed the everyday life, often brutish, of everyday people made of real flesh and blood.  The enticing Act 1 habanera, Carmen’s lusty number that snares Don Jose, is perhaps the most recognizable scene in the opera; an indication of its popularity is its appearance in the movie Going My Way, where famed mezzo Rise Stevens gives a spirited performance at the Metropolitan while watched in the wings by Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley.  Carmen’s rhythmic Act 2 seguidilla puts the finishing touches on Don Jose’s enchantment.  I’m not sure, but I may have first heard the rousing Toreador song in a Looney Tunes cartoon.  Then there is the great Act 2 tenor aria known as the Flower song for the bright red rose through which Carmen had selected Don Jose as her next lover, and Micaela’s Act 3 heart-felt pleading aria to Don Jose elicited enthusiastic applause at the performance I attended.  The Prelude and the Interlude are wonderful, and popular, orchestral pieces, and were performed very well by the Lyric’s orchestra.
The mood was set from the start of this production with the vivid, lush blood-red curtain that caught everyone’s attention as we took our seats.  The set though was a minimalist one, so common these days, but given that limitation it was surprisingly creative and effective.  The relatively brief ballet numbers added zest to the performance; of particular note was the exceptionally-creative and visually-arresting dance opening in Act 4 in which flowing dresses were used as bull-fighting capes against a flaming red background – the performance elicited an approving gasp from the audience.  The one disappointment, a small one, was the insertion of a distracting, writhing sideline ballet sequence between a shirtless man with a bull-head hat and a toreador in Act 4 while Don Jose and Carmen were having their final confrontation.  Sometimes, even in opera, less is more.     

The music is, of course, spectacular and we come to hear it all.  Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili was in fine voice in her Lyric debut as Carmen, although I thought she could have acted more seductively in her movements.  She has sung the role of Carmen at the Metropolitan, and The New Criterion music critic Jay Nordlinger wrote of her “big, glowing, smoky voice” in a 2012 performance.  American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was strong as the callow and hapless Don Jose.  He recently appeared last fall at the Lyric as Aeneas in Berlioz’s grand opera masterpiece The Trojans and did a great job in that role.  Nordlinger caught Jovanovich a few years ago at the Met in Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and wrote of him:  “I always knew him as a solid and appealing lyric singer [but] I had no idea he could pull off [this role].  Jovanovich was like a young Marlon Brandon. And he could sing: freshly and ruggedly, easily and commandingly.”

Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto was warmly received as the innocent Micaela, who contrasts sharply with the bold, alluring Carmen.  Lyric Opera Ryan Center alums/members, Americans all, were strong in their roles:  Christian Van Horn as the toreador Escamillo, Bradley Smoak as Don Jose’s superior officer Zuniga, and Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes.  The Lyric chorus, including a talented group of kids, was terrific, as usual.

As is so unfortunately common in opera these days, the director changed the setting of the story in order to insert some sort of additional meaning or send some personal political message.  Rather than write his own opera, he hijacked someone else’s.  In this case, director Rob Ashford moved the story from early 19th Century traditional Spain to the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War – so instead of bright, traditional Spanish dress we get many performers plainly clothed in drab colors.  But the greater offense was the director’s transmogrifying the men with whom Don Jose takes up after his desertion from smugglers to revolutionaries fighting for “liberty.”  In an interview in the program, the director gives his reason – “The [Spanish Civil] war was often described as Fascism vs. Democracy – so it seemed a good parallel for the opera.”  Unfortunately director Ashford is completely unfamiliar with the relevant history despite opining on it.  In the Spanish Civil War, the “revolutionaries” were the traditionalists, commonly characterized as fascists, who were supported by Nazi Germany; that side was fighting communists and anarchists, loyal to the radical socialist government, who were supported by Communist Soviet Union.  There were horrible atrocities on both sides, and neither side was remotely fighting for “democracy” or “liberty.”  A modest proposal is that opera directors stick to operas as written and stay away from subjects about which they are unfamiliar.  The Lyric has a dramaturg on staff, but it needs an historian as well.

I first saw Carmen at the Lyric in the early 1980s, with Placido Domingo as Don Jose.  Quite coincidentally, just one week earlier also at the Lyric we attended a wonderful concert headlined by the now 76 year-old Domingo.  I had forgotten the exact year of that earlier Carmen, but the concert’s program informed me that it was 1984.  I’m fortunate to have seen Domingo at both ends of his remarkable career.

Carmen has permeated popular culture.  There are some non-traditional appearances of the opera’s story and music that I particularly enjoy.  In 1984 pop music star Malcolm McLaren released an album of pop adaptations of some well-known opera selections, and his riff on Carmen and the Habanera is quite entertaining.  The creative Oscar Hammerstein II transposed Carmen’s story and lyrics to the early 1950s in the American South and Chicago in the film Carmen Jones, which featured an all-black cast with Dorothy Dandridge in the title role.  Finally, the British duo Opera Babes sing a wonderful duet with words put to the Carmen Interlude, an enchanting piece of music; they have performed some of their entertaining repertory, including the piece from Carmen I would like to think, at the Los Angeles Opera House with none other than Placido Domingo.

R Balsamo

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Left-wing Media Howls About Trump Press Conferences

After eight years of Obama calling only on lap-dog liberal and ultra-liberal media outlets, after his actually trying to exclude Fox News from the White House Press Corps, and after his repeated bashing of private citizen Rush Limbaugh by name, and then after the mainstream liberal media’s continual smearing of Trump with Fake News such as, for example, that he was a frequenter of Russian prostitutes and is the incarnation of Hitler, the left-wing media is now cataplectic that at press conferences Trump is calling on non-left-wing news and commentary media outlets! 

How dare Trump not call exclusively on left-wing media outlets!  The end of the First Amendment! cries one pseudo-journalist, who displays his pathetic ignorance of what the First Amendment actually means.

The days of just three liberal national TV news networks and the New York Times filtering their way all the news Americans would see are long over, and it’s about time.  Their monopoly on the news is over. 

Looking back, the left-wing media’s infatuation and “slobbering love affair” with Obama was so bad that books have been written about it, and we were spurred to mock it in this post:

R Balsamo

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trump Democrats Were There To See All Along

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the conventional wisdom among the liberal punditry is that his election was a stunning “surprise” that hardly anyone saw coming.  Those experts were shocked by Trump’s strength among blue collar voters, who swung the election his way.  It was a close election in many critical states, to be sure, but Trump’s strength not only among blue collar workers but also among blacks and Hispanics was no surprise to anyone paying attention without political blinders on. 

In January, 2016, the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union speech focused neither on Republican proposals nor on Democrat missteps but rather on stopping Trump.  At that point he was the early frontrunner in the Republican nomination process.  Trump’s anti-illegal-immigration stance was extremely threatening to the established elites of both parties, including Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House.  In response to the Republican elite’s anti-Trump barrage, on January 14, 2016, almost 10 months before the election, I posted this comment on this blog:

Open borders to basically any and all immigrants, a point we seem to be halfway to already, would for generations depress wages, already stagnant, for low- and medium-skilled workers in the United States.  Trump’s opposition to open borders and calls for tighter controls on immigration explains his strong support among blue collar workers, traditionally Democrats, even among blacks and Hispanics who understand the deleterious impact more immigration will have on their jobs and wages.  The Democrats want open borders to gain more Democrat voters, and they figure the workers who support them blindly will stay blind.  The Republican party elites, funded by business interests, want open borders to access a bottomless cup of cheap labor.  The American workers get screwed and they’re rightfully “angry” about that.  Those “Reagan Democrats” who now see clearly what's going on want to return to the Republican Party, but Paul Ryan and the elites of Republican Party don’t want them.  They’d rather have Hillary Clinton, corrupt to the bone, with open borders and cheap labor.  Republican elites would be happy to “pay to play” with Hillary – they think they can make a lot of money with her and her crowd; with Donald Trump and the “angry voices” of his supporters, not so much. 

Trump’s electoral strength should not have come as a surprise to anyone in touch with America.  It only took open eyes to notice and open ears to listen to the people struggling from the effects of open borders that have flooded this country with cheap labor and from the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage foreign countries.

R Balsamo