Sunday, April 24, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Was convinced to see a new movie, Eye in the Sky, about use of drones in third-world countries, featuring Helen Mirren as a British air force colonel hell-bent on taking out terrorists she's been tracking for several years. She runs into the need for clearance by higher-ups--civilians--both Americans and Brits, who are concerned to greater or lesser degrees about collateral killing of uninvolved civilians.

Performances are excellent--Alan Rickman's last playing the British general who has to meet with the Attorney General, the Foreign Ministry rep, and other high-level types, and Barkhad Abdi, who played the lead pirate in Captain Phillips, as an on-the-ground agent of the Brits. The scene in Somalia--where it was filmed--is classic third-world, with a sympathetic local's uninvolved presence near the house where the terrorists are meeting keeping everyone involved in deciding whether to order the drone strike on tenterhooks.

It is a thriller in that it keeps you on the edge of your seat. Rickman's voice is a treasure. Richard McCabe as the U.K. Attorney General seemed the perfect British bureaucrat. There also are good flash scenes with the British Foreign Secretary and U.S Secretary of State. 

The ethical issues are compelling as well. The participants mull how the likely death of a sympathetic local character matches up with the far greater number who would perish if the two suicide bombers at the meeting in Somalia escape the drone strike to commit their acts of terror in shopping malls. 

The whole experience makes you realize if you didn't already how you can be tracked so easily and so effectively. So all in all, this was both an entertaining and sobering film to see.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Opening Day in Cricket...er, Baseball

This is opening week in baseball--and I'm planning to be at Opening Day late Thursday afternoon in DC and perhaps attend the Orioles tonight (Weds) in Baltimore. Weather forecast is good for tonight, not so good for Thursday.

While waiting for the season to start, and as I happened to be in Sri Lanka on a consulting trip focused on improving caseflow management there, I was able to follow the major world cricket tournament then going on in India. The matches were carried on TV there and this cricket format--called T20--generally runs about 3 1/2 hours, which is very quick for cricket and may explain its increased popularity. West Indies, a great cricket power in the 1970s and 1980s, managed to oust home team India in the semis, and the always underrated English managed to muddle through and then trounced New Zealand in the other semi.

So here's the final--West Indies, which these days has lots of solid hitting (back in the old days they were also powerful bowlers, i.e., pitchers, with five men on their squad who looked and acted like Bob Gibson, the great St. Louis pitcher), versus England, with a bunch of guys who weren't great at anything but managed to win a lot during the tournament.

The setting: one of the classic cricket venues--Eden Gardens in Kolkata, nee Calcutta. Used to squeeze upwards of 200,000 in but figure that only could've happened if the home team had made it to the finals. They renovated the place a few years ago, and stated capacity went  down from 150,000 to 66,000. Whatever, the place was packed and they were screaming.


England was put in to bat first--in this match, West Indies won the coin toss and usually it's preferred to go last since you then know what total you need to catch up to win. The English are very workmanlike, they don't miss catches (for outs, or wickets as the term has it) and they're good at seizing opportunities. They have two men in the middle of their batting order who seem to do well together (remember, two are up at bat at one time, one at each end). With one of them doing very well, they managed to get at total of 155 runs, which is ok but not great. 
West Indies came in to bat and they started out terribly, losing three of their best hitters very quickly. One man came in and seemed to steady them, gradually building up runs but slowly (as if he were playing a five-day game). They tend to be carefree and hit away but here he was being cautious--very English, not West Indian! He stayed in for the rest of the match--no one else was great for W.I. but he had a few big hits and at the very end they were about 20 runs behind with 10 balls left to hit. This means they needed some big hits--which get you 4 or 6 runs each-- and they had not had many. 
So a new bowler comes in for England and pitches to a man who hadn't done much hitting and he sends a powerful shot over the boundary--equivalent of a home run; this gets him six runs.
Then he does it again on the next pitch!
Then he does it a third time on the next! This one ties the score.
And finally he does it yet once more, on the fourth straight pitch and they win! This was like ending a game by hitting four straight homers--and of course, it was a walk-off too!

They actually had two balls left that they didn't need (and to recall the famous cricket phrase, both batsmen were "not out"--that is, left standing at the end--).
As you can imagine, the West Indians went crazy--for most of the match, it looked like they would lose but the commentators kept saying that these guys could explode at any time--so they did, at just the right time! Thrilling finish!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Spain's Hold on Our Outlook

Today's New York Times had two major articles devoted to the Spanish Civil War. To me, this merely demonstrates that this regional conflict of the late '30s (1936-39) still plays a major part in the way we think about politics, war, government, and yes, lost causes. The first piece was a review of Adam Hochschild's new book, Spain in Our Hearts, which explores how we still must reckon with the influence of this particular conflict.

As the reviewer, Dwight Garner, notes, just on the artistic side, this war produced two of the greatest works of literature: Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and George Orwell's memoir, Homage to Catalonia.  The Spanish Civil War, of course, was where Orwell must have acquired his deep hatred of both Fascism and Communism. He fought for the Loyalists (Republicans), who, when not fighting the Nationalists, Franco's side backed by Hitler and Mussolini, were resisting being dominated by their major supporters, Stalin's Comintern. Orwell was no sunshine soldier: he suffered injuries in combat in Spain that likely helped shorten his life.

But if there is any magnificent and totally sobering artistic legacy of this war, it is, of course, Picasso's incredible huge mural, Guernica, depicting the carpet-bombing of a Spanish city by Franco's forces, but perhaps the most all-encompassing depiction of the horrors of war. This was produced by surely the preeminent painter of the 20th Century, who also sympathized all his life with the Communists, despite the wealth his art provided him, probably because he never forgot that the Communists supported the democratic government when no other great powers, not Britain, France, or the U.S., came to its aid. Not only would he not return to his native Spain while Franco ruled, but he kept Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in  New York until Spain eventually returned to democracy after Franco's death.

Thus there has always been something highly romantic about the brave volunteers who went to Spain on their own dime and put their lives in danger on behalf of an idea, that of the world's powers, only the Soviet Union was supporting. The Americans formed the American Lincoln Brigade, and last year, the last veteran of that noble cadre, died at age 100. Today he was memorialized by none other than John McCain in the Times, who respected Dwight Berg, who never renounced his Communism, for fighting for what he believed in on the side of the good guys in Spain.

It was good to see McCain behaving again like the maverick he was until he toed the party line to get himself nominated for President by the Republicans in 2008. In the 1950s, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade vets were not treated so kindly by Lincoln's GOP. The McCarthyites hounded them as Communists, whether or not they were such and, more important, whether or not it mattered in terms of their fighting in Spain. Many of them ended up fighting the Stalinists as fervently as they waged war against Franco.

The reason the memory of this unsplendid little war will never die was best expressed, perhaps, by Albert Camus, from whose words Hochschild took the title of his book: 
"Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded."

Sunday, March 6, 2016

La Favorite

It had been several years since I had last attended the Washington Concert Opera, a group that performs operatic rarities in concert format (the singers stand in front of the orchestra with their parts on music stands, with the chorus behind the orchestra) at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. In the past, I've seen wonderful performances by this group, including the great Bellini opera, Norma, which has since been fully staged by the Washington National Opera.

This performance featured Donizetti's La Favorite, which I had not previously heard in any form. It is traditional opera, not comedy, and was written for the Paris Opera after Donizetti had left Naples. He had been writing an opera on a similar theme there but grew disgusted with the censorship he was encountering. The controversy likely related to the title character, who is the mistress of the King of Spain. The king's maintaining this relationship results in the opera in the Pope's threatening to excommunicate the king.

The opera became popular in Paris and has been performed there more than 600 times at the Opera. But it has languished somewhat in the 20th and 21st centuries, possibly because the soprano's role is really meant for a mezzo, and except for Carmen, most operas don't feature leading roles for mezzos. This situation resulted from the "relationship" between the intendant of the Paris Opera and a leading soprano, whose voice was more in the mezzo range, and who did not, not surprisingly, want to sing trills or coloratura at all.

Thus the opera has no significant coloratura or trills, unlike Donizetti's most famous pieces, Lucia di Lammermoor and L'Elisir d'Amore.  Donizetti was the last of the great bel canto composers, who emphasized this kind of :beautiful singing" and he turned out something like 60 or 70 operas -- the exact number is unclear because, Broadway-style, he cannibalized some scores to create others.

The opera had some very enjoyable arias for mezzo, tenor, and bass. The bass was John Relyea, who is known and a superb singer, with a lovely deep tone. The soprano was Kate Lindsey, an up-and-coming soprano, who did full justice to her role. The tenor was younger, Roderick Bills, and improved markedly as he warmed up.

The opera begins and ends in the monastery that the tenor is first joining, but then leaves when he is entranced by seeing a beautiful "angel", i.e., woman, in church. He is invited by her to her palace but she does not disclose that she is the mistress to the king. The young man is somewhat clueless since he is spirited off the island where this palace stands upon word that the king is arriving.

The father superior of the monastery turns up at the court to threaten the king with excommunication per a papal bull if the king does not give up his adulterous relationship. The libretto also threatens that the nation's churches would be closed under an interdict. Kings were not about to resist these thunderbolts from the Bishop of Rome, so the king is delighted when the young man, who has received a military commission by intervention of the mistress, wins a major battle and saves the king's throne.

The king now offers the mistress--sans identifying her as such--to the young man, now the triumphant general. All seems fine, as the young man is also given a title as a marquis. But in the hour before the rapidly-scheduled wedding, the chorus of courtiers (a la Rigoletto's "vile race of courtiers") taunts the young man with his prospective loss of honor should he proceed with this marriage.

He decides his honor is more vital than his love, so he takes off to rejoin the monastery, she follows him, and the tragic ending follows.

Ridiculous operatic plot but some delightful music and fine singing. After Eve Queler revived the opera some years ago in New York, the Met picked it up and cast Shirley Verrett, Sherrill Milnes, and Alfredo Kraus in its production, which sounds formidable. My conclusion was that hearing it in concert version was amazingly appropriate; little would have been added by full staging.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Greatest Founder

It seemed like a large number of those attending the sold-out performance of Hamilton on Broadway that I saw the other day were very familiar with the score from listening to the CD which I hadn't had a chance to hear before seeing the show. But as with perhaps some others in the audience at the Richard Rodgers Theater (nee the 46th St. Theater--with a long history of staging great musicals), I had read Ron Chernow's masterful biography from which the show was drawn.

And yes, I thought the show as excellent and exciting as everyone else whose opinion on it I've seen also felt. It's a marvel. Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken Hamilton's outstanding yet surprisingly rarely chronicled career and made it a highly accessible and entertaining history program. Until Chernow turned out his massive and fascinating work, there actually was no extant significant biography of the man on the ten-dollar bill. (And long may he stay on it--put a woman on one of the others.)

Before I go into the history, let me note that the show works perfectly. The lyrics are clever, the personalities--Washington, Burr, Lafayette, Jefferson, Madison, the Schuyler sisters (Hamilton's wife Eliza and her brilliant sister, Angelica)--are depicted with perception. The show moves effectively and quickly, as if George Abbott were still alive and directing. The cast is wonderfully athletic in its dancing and movement.

Simply put, Hamilton in his brief life and short political career had more impact on what the United States would become than any of the other founders. At the end of the show, even his great opponent Jefferson tells the audience that Hamilton's financial plan was so masterful that he, Jefferson, was unable when he became President, to undo it: "and I tried!" he added.

Not only did Hamilton get his financial plan accepted--as the show describes, by dealing away the location of D.C. the capital to the South--but with his huge energy and industry, he organized the Treasury Department as the center of government. When the first Cabinet was formed, Jefferson, the Secretary of State, was off in Europe; Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, was an old comrade of Washington's placed in his post to keep the army under control; and the Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, was the new government's lawyer--he had no department (there wouldn't be a Justice Dept. until 1870) and wanted none.

So Hamilton put everything necessary, the customs service, all the tax offices, in Treasury, similar to the way Treasury is the chief department in the British government. Much of this structure persisted for the next 200 years. The Coast Guard was in Treasury during peacetime until 9/11 brought us the Homeland Security Department, for better or worse. The same was true of the Secret Service, which has suffered scandal after scandal since it left Treasury.

He was a roaring flame destined to burn brightly but briefly. As the song in the show puts it, he was GW's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and managed to get a command right at the end, when the Americans linked with the French to win the final battle at Yorktown. Then as Treasury Secretary, he organized the whole government. 

His writing ability--he wrote fast and furiously, naturally--was his making and his undoing but he always took to his pen in any challenging situation, including exposure of his infidelity. Unlike our most accomplished intellectual President, J.Q. Adams, Hamilton was perfectly happy practicing law and he did well at the bar in those isolated times when he could focus on rebuilding his always shaky personal financial profile. Most of the time, he was too ensconced in public service to focus on making money.

He was the only one of the Founders who was an immigrant from the Caribbean who arrived with nothing. Possibly because he had no inheritance and had seen slavery in the islands, he was the only one who from the beginning opposed slavery in the U.S. But most important, in his recognition that America's future lay in industry and commerce, not Jefferson's yeoman farmers, he had a clearer vision of what the country would become. Not always good for everyone, but in terms of perception--right on the money.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sweat -- Great drama

Went to see Lynn Nottage's play Sweat at the Arena here in DC today. Nottage won the drama Pulitzer for a play called Ruined, which I have not seen. Sweat is a superb drama, which I hope makes it to New York. It was a co-production of Arena and the Oregon Shakespeare Company in Ashland, where the original production occurred last year.

The story is bleak: set in Reading, Pa., in 2000 and 2008, it shows how workers in a plant are squeezed by management intent on moving the plant to Mexico as facilitated by NAFTA. Within this context, one character earns a promotion from being on the line to a supervisory white-collar position. As the situation turns grimmer, the workers begin to fight among themselves and nothing turns out well for any of them.

Much of the play takes place in the local bar to which they all repair after work. The bartender is also an industrial casualty: he was injured in the plant and forced out on disability after many years spent working there. 

Some of the ending is telegraphed in the opening scene but there remains plenty of anticipation and some suspense as to how the story reaches that conclusion. The writing is good and it captures the way workers in factories approach their situation. In one sense, their characters explain by their lines why this group of Americans feels they have been totally run over and ignored by the power structure and thus turn to candidates like Trump and Sanders whom they feel may just do something for the forgotten people.

Most of the cast is the same as appeared in the Oregon theater premiere last year. They are uniformly excellent and perhaps that is owed to Kate Whoriskey's direction. This play made me recall those dramas that tried to show how working people feel and behave, plays like Miller's Death of a Salesman and  Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. This one is in a league with them--it may not be quite as overwhelming in impact but it is mighty powerful.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight was released in 1965 and filmed then and in the preceding year. It's just been re-released, in limited distribution, and we saw it yesterday at the Landmark E Street.  As one might expect with anything put together and presented by Orson Welles, it just could be the best picture I'll see this year.

Welles adapted his script from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts One and Two; there's apparently not one line in it that isn't taken from the original.  (He even credits Shakespeare's source: Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles.) He had played Falstaff on stage as a young man--for no one has had such an incredible career in theatre as Welles had, all before he reached the advanced age of 25.

Everything works. The tavern scenes are bawdy and blowzy and full of dancing and carrying-on of all sorts. The great battle scene of Shrewsbury, where Prince Hal proves his mettle by taking on the great Hotspur Percy, is long but perfectly shot.  The rest of the cast is fantastic: from John Gielgud as old King Henry IV to Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, the "Hostess" to Jeanne Moreau as Doll, Falstaff's most intimate friend.  A young Keith Baxter is fine as Prince Hal. Welles even found Alan Webb, a marvelous old English actor who played the father to Hal Holbrook's son in I Never Sang for My Father, to depict Justice Shallow, Shakespeare's greatest joke on the judiciary.

It all fits together perfectly. You come to appreciate Falstaff in all his glory and sleaze. He's his own greatest salesman and con man and celebrant, yet you see his quickness despite his huge size, his ability to recognize immediately what the situation is and how to confront it, even when Hal, crowned Henry V, disowns him. For it was with Hal as much as Justice Shallow, who gets to say the line, that Falstaff surely often heard the chimes at midnight. And yes, it's in black-and-white, which is absolutely smashing for this production.

As with all of Shakespeare, every so often a very famous line sort of jumps out and hits you in the face.  But mostly, you are entranced by Welles' performance: his facial expressions, always his fabulous baritone voice, and his always knowing what his character would do under any and all circumstances.  Falstaff thus is so much more than a Shakespearean clown or jester; though that is what Shakespeare was focused on when by popular demand he brought him back in The Merry Wives of Windsor. And even so, Verdi made a marvelous opera out of this play that Shakespeare clearly wrote to profit from his character Falstaff's popularity. 

He had a view of how to live life to the fullest and you feel that even if Henry V has moved on from him, he will always carry some part of "sweet, wise, loving Jack" with him, when in Henry V he must turn to convincing a princess who doesn't understand English--Katherine of France--to marry him.