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"