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 Bj√∂rling 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

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Muslim Migrants in SE Asia – Where Should They Go, & Can All the Worlds’ People Come to the United States?

The latest dust-up over the fate of a group of illegal migrants stranded in New Guinea living on Australian charity encapsulates the great challenge the Western world faces from migrants dissatisfied with their own countries who arrive as low-skilled, welfare-dependent, and often culturally-hostile uninvited guests.  

In the waning days of his presidency, after Trump was elected, Obama agreed to take a thousand or two Muslim migrants off Australia’s hands and bring them to the United States.  This arrangement has now come to the attention of President Trump, and he and probably most Americans are unclear why the United States, having in recent years already taken in more migrants than most any other country in the world, should take in still more, let alone those in Asia who are currently on an island near Muslim Indonesia.  The Australian government doesn’t want them but is stuck caring for them, so it was delighted that Obama, on his way out of office, offered them free tickets to the United States.  It’s no surprise that Trump, elected as much as anything else on his promise to tighten immigration and seal our porous borders, looks askance at this.  Australia knew full well not only that Obama was a lame duck when he agreed to take these migrants but also that this hushed-up transfer would be very unpopular with most Americans, so no tears for our friends down under.

The big-picture point here is that every person in the world disenchanted with his or her current country cannot migrate to the United States.  The United States simply does not have enough space or resources to care for everyone in the world who would like to come here.  The rest of the world must be made a better place in which to live, and although the United States undoubtedly will continue to help others toward that goal, as it most generously has in blood and treasure for over a hundred years, it is not capable of, nor morally responsible for, ensuring that all other countries of the world are acceptable places in which to live.      

R Balsamo 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Off the Bookshelf: Sloan’s My Years with General Motors

I’ll never get through the many books I’ve been saving up to read if I keep revisiting old favorites.  I’ve just finished my third time cruising through My Years with General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan, the man who steered General Motors into the giant, influential corporation it is today.  I bought my copy in May of 1995 and first read it then; I know that because I've used the folded receipt as a bookmark.  The book is partly a history of the General Motors company and partly a history of the early automobile industry.  It is also a case study on developing an organizational structure that can properly manage and lead a growing company, and evolve with it.

Sloan was a young MIT-educated engineer who in 1898 at the tender age of 23 seized a risky opportunity to take over a failing company that made bearings used in machinery.  He and a partner slowly built it up through hard work, attention to cost-effective manufacturing, technological advancement, and responsiveness to customers.  Eventually in 1916 he sold the company to the fledgling General Motors, which then was a holding company of a hodge-podge of automobile manufacturers and related parts producers patched together by wheeler-dealer Billy Durant.  At that point Sloan took the second big risk in his life, trading his large stake in his company for mostly stock in General Motors, whose future, especially given Durant’s inattention to sound business administration, was uncertain.  Sloan survived many trying times as a senior executive under Durant’s erratic leadership, given that almost all of his net worth was tied up in the company stock.  But Sloan’s high risk, high reward gamble paid off in time.  By the early 1920s Durant was deep in a financial crisis, and eventually Sloan emerged as the chief executive.  He righted the ship by further developing the management techniques which had made him a successful businessman, methods that became the foundation of modern business management.

Although there are some dry parts when Sloan gets to discussing organizational structure and finances, most of the book is a very engaging read for someone with a general interest in the history of the American automobile industry.  The narrative covers a wealth of topics from the early days of the automobile, including:  Durant’s wheeling and dealing from his original base in Buick to buy the group of automobile companies that would become GM; the engineering and manufacturing issues presented by resident engineering genius Charles Kettering’s attempt to develop a competitive air-cooled engine; the success of GM’s consumer-focused business model – “a car for every purse and purpose” – against Ford’s failed “any color as long as it’s black” approach; the development of leaded-gasoline and high-compression engines; GM’s groundbreaking role in the development of the diesel-electric motors that would supplant steam power in railroad locomotives; the company’s struggles to survive the Depression; the challenges of shifting to production of military vehicles and war materiel during the Second World War; and the styling revolution led by the legendary Harley Earl.        

My Years with General Motors seems to be regarded as one of the seminal books on business management.  In an introduction, business administration guru Peter Drucker calls it “a must read.”  The cover of my paperback edition quotes Bill Gates saying that Sloan’s book “is probably the best book to read if you want to read only one book about business.”  I certainly cannot gainsay this sentiment.  But I read the book mostly for its narrative history and stories of engineering challenges encountered and solved.  Sloan’s book is a great read even for non-MBA types interested in how the great vehicles of today came to pass.

R Balsamo