Sunday, November 26, 2017

More on the Middle East

In the next few days we covered a lot of ground. Many, many ruins--there are an amazing number of national parks. Gamla, Tel Dan, Zippori, Beit Shearim--all either with amazing outlooks or significant ruins, including burial sites. Climbed the city on the hill, Safed (Tsfad), and managed there to see the Museum of Hungarian Jewry, since my maternal grandfather's family came from what was then Hungary (and now is Eastern Slovakia).

Tsfad is also an art center, with one street in particular lined with galleries filled with objects worth a look as well as plenty of opportunities to go turisto. It of course is best known as the centuries-old center of those who studied the Kabbalah. Seeing all the natural high spots and the excavated crusaders' castle at Akko (Acre), the Roman-era port at Caesarea, the steep incline of Haifa, and the view of the Sea of Galilee from the Golan Heights emphasized how much there is in addition to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv provides one of the most moving and amazing experiences I can recall. They were the advance guard of the Haganah that became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the museum moves you through the training of one group of young people and shows the conflicts in the years immediately preceding the War of Independence in 1948.

I spent some time at the genealogy section of the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, and found some entries that will be useful in my updating a family tree that was last fully worked up about twenty-two years ago. These included a great-aunt of my mother's, hitherto not known (at least to the previous preparers of the tree), for whom my mother may well have been named.

We also visited two of my second cousins, sisters who have lived in Israel for decades, one from before World War II and one some years after, coming from England. Some of their families were there, too, including a teacher of Hebrew and an El Al account manager, formerly a flight attendant. My cousin's late husband had been in the IDF and had had a career that was right out of Exodus, the novel.

Much about the trip was unexpected, including the cuisine. Israel salad--tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, chopped as in shopska in the Balkans and absolutely delightful--was often served for breakfast or at lunch at an outdoor cafe, accompanied by several small dishes, sometimes including falafel and schwarmer. There are now plenty of top-class restaurants, especially in Tel Aviv, but a fish restaurant there on the harbor was all that it should be.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Middle East--Part I

What surprised me most about Israel were the stones. Everywhere there are rocks, mostly big ones. Not just in Jerusalem, where you stare at the huge multi-ton stones that form the remains of the Western Wall.

It brought me back to grade school, when at assembly, they often read Biblical selections that would offend neither Christian nor Jew (there weren’t any other religions present back then.) So either we read a psalm or the part from Ecclesiastes about “A time for war and a time for peace…” Remember the line “A time to gather stones together and a time to cast away stones”? Now I finally know what that meant in a place where there are stones all over the place, and not just around ruins, of which there are a huge number.

We started out in Jordan, where we figured it made sense not to mention “the other place,” where we were heading in a day or two on the Royal Jordanian flight from Amman. Eileen was on a work assignment training people and meeting with officials and I turned up in time for the drive to Petra. In case you hadn’t heard, Petra is one of the more recently selected wonders of the world. It should have been one of the seven ancient wonders (of them, only the pyramids are still standing) but no one knew Petra existed since it was effectively “lost” for centuries.

It lives up to the build-up because you emerge from the Siq—the narrow entry canyon that gives you several kilometers of water systems and interesting markings to prepare you for the sight of the Treasury, the Greek-styled front carved into the red rock face of the mountain. There are other marvelous sights even if you don’t climb up torturous paths; and our runners and walkers should note that we walked the miles in and out of Petra without clambering aboard a horse, donkey, carriage, or camel, all of which were bidding for our custom.

We have squeezed a lot into eight days here in Israel. A day in West Jerusalem seeing the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem and a day in the Old City seeing the City of David, the Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Armenian Quarter, and the best falafel I’ve ever tasted from a stand near the Wall that should be named the Falafel King of the Kotel. And then we visited Eileen’s frum cousin and her daughter (who has nine children) in a seriously observant section of the city and amazingly, we emerged in good humor.

Stopped off in Be’ersheva to catch up with Grace Erdmann, teaching English in an elementary school, who gave us yet another view of life in the Holy Land. Then on to Masada—don’t even ask if we took the cable car, because we did—which is a spectacular sight along with the sadly diminished Dead Sea, victim of the country’s vicious version of privatization. Couldn’t give away the secret of the En Gedi synagogue’s warning from 2000 years ago, although it likely was the perfume they made to mask the smell of the dead.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arena's Pajama Game

A lecturer on Broadway musicals recently observed that Broadway wasn't sure about The Pajama Game when the original production was coming to town in 1954. No one could recall a musical focused on labor relations. With songs including "Hey There," "Hernando's Hideaway," and "There Once Was a Man," the show ran for more than two years and has been revived over the years.

Last night at D.C.'s Arena Stage, the production was good, with strong voices and excellent dancers. Minor complaint for me was the high volume of the obvious amplification: not only was it annoying but it shows that in the years since the musical stage has introduced amplification, there now is no shame whatsoever in making it obvious. The orchestra, mostly hidden under the stage-in-the-round, was too loud as well.

But more important, does the show hold up? It was based on a novel by Richard Bissell called 7 1/2 Cents, and prepared for Broadway by some real pros--George Abbott and Jerome Robbins directing, Bob Fosse was choreographer, John Raitt--fresh from Carousel--was the male lead, paired with the Broadway regular, Janis Paige, and the veteran trouper Eddie Foy Jr. in the "older man" role of the time-study guy, Hines, who even gets to tap dance. Among the dance corps were the young Peter Gennaro and yes, Shirley MacLaine.

The show was stolen, however, by the great dancer Carol Haney, and seeing how her part was nicely played last night by Nancy Anderson, I can see how the part lends itself to over-the-top performances. As an added lagniappe, Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie on Broadway in A Chorus Line, turned in a fine showing in a supporting dramatic role.

But does the show hold up? Mostly. The show is not at all a propaganda vehicle for the labor movement, much as that movement might need one now. There are some outdated lines and characterizations but on the whole, the show is still fun and modestly meaningful. There are more than the usual improbabilities in some of the romantic development, but again, you get more than two hours (2 1/2 hours running time) of good singing and dancing, and yes, even a soupcon of acting.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Enjoying Jule Styne

Having some more free time, I'm able to indulge in daytime lectures on subjects in which I've always been interested, such as theatrical history. Yesterday I went to a program in Bethesda on the Broadway composer Jule Styne. Just for openers, he wrote the music for Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Bells Are Ringing. Born in London with immigrant parents who took him to Chicago when he was eight, he was a prodigy and could have gone on as a pianist. 

Instead, he liked popular music, so after writing some songs, he went to Hollywood where he wrote a lot of songs, many with Sammy Cahn, including "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and "Three Coins in the Fountain" for the picture of the same name, for which he won his Oscar.

On Broadway, he  began with High Button Shoes, with Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray, and then wrote "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" for Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. His "additional music" for Peter Pan included two wonderful numbers: "Captain Hook's Waltz" and "Neverland"--watching a video of Mary Martin singing "Neverland" was one of those golden moments of showbiz.

Then there were some greats: "The Party's Over" sung by Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing and "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "People" by the one and only Funny Girl,  La Streisand. I remember walking out of the theater after seeing that one and hearing an elderly lady comment to her companion, "She's funny but she's not Fanny." 

The lecturer--another lawyer gone right--didn't stop to mention Say, Darling, which was a clever show I remember seeing, which was the breakthrough show for the young Robert Morse. It was a show taken from a memoir of Richard Bissell, who wrote 7 1/2 Cents, the source book for The Pajama Game, now being revived here at Arena in D.C.

Nor did I recall a standard, "Make Someone Happy", from another Phil Silvers show, Do Re Mi. But probably his top show of all was Gypsy, and it was such a pleasure seeing Ethel Merman sing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" when she was 76 and gone forever a few months later. There was also an audio of her doing the inimitable "Rose's Turn." Alas, we also had to watch Rosalind Russell, whose husband bought her the part as a price of his investment in the show, try to do "Small World" and "Funny."

Jule Styne had some of the best collaborators in the business, too. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were with him for many of his best shows, beginning with Bells Are Ringing, and Stephen Sondheim did the lyrics for Gypsy. He really was one of the best.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Another Immersion in 'Ulysses'

Those of us who find the work of James Joyce continually fascinating are not put off by Joyce's own listing of the four greatest writers: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Joyce. I'm again taking a Ulysses course, this one at our Politics and Prose bookstore taught by Chris Griffin, an Irish former teacher of Irish literature at George Washington Univ.

There's always more to be found in this novel, often heralded as the greatest of the 20th century. I have more of a feeling for many of the places after the initial trip in June to Ireland where I was able to enjoy Bloomsday, June 16, and see many of the settings of famous scenes in the novel. Incidental comments in the class add to the appreciation: for example, that Joyce felt that Gabriel Conroy, the main character in his story, "The Dead", in Dubliners, was who Joyce felt he would have become had he remained in Ireland.

The comments meant for the first-timers to the book also help. The first three chapters are centered on Stephen Dedalus, who represents Joyce himself at the age of 22 and was the leading character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although he has yet to produce any work of art. He is highly intellectual, however, so many of the allusions are to Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas; when we get to Chapter 4 and meet Leopold Bloom, Joyce's everyman, the allusions are just as likely to focus on then-popular songs--Joyce himself was a tenor who sang with John McCormick.

I learned so much about Joyce and his life from reading Brenda Maddox's magnificent biography of his wife, Nora. Joyce, like some other geniuses, did believe the world owed him a living and he lived high when he could, usually on other people's money. Years ago we stayed in a Kensington house in London we rented from the nephew of Harriet Shaw Weaver, an English lady who spent a great deal of her fortune supporting Joyce.

Joyce, however, was true to Nora over the years of both privation and success. He did not have an easy life as both his children probably suffered from his over-involvement in trying to direct their lives. Nora worked mightily to keep the traveling household together and Joyce's siblings were often drafted to support him, both with money and in many other ways. His brother Stanislaus's memoir was properly entitled My Brother's Keeper.

I always learn something from the class sessions and the book of annotations to Ulysses. There's a reference to Ferrando, an operatic character. I assumed it was to the tenor in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, a leading role. But I was mistaken. This Ferrando is the captain of the Count di Luna's guard in Verdi's Il Trovatore, and while not a leading character, his aria, to which Stephen refers, tells the whole back-story of the opera. 

What's fascinating about this incredible novel is that if you think you see some allusion or reference, it is definitely meant to be there. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Talking Baseball

Baseball deserves to be the great American game. Certainly this is not because of any inspired leadership. Those in charge of the administration of the game have done much to diminish it, beginning with the designated hitter. Of course, their offenses against the public good tend to pale when compared with the NFL owners. 

But there is a beauty to baseball when played at the postseason level, where you have really good teams and strategy becomes crucial. Individual and team performances reach heights rarely seen during routine games during the season. And this year in the first round, we've had the chance to enjoy an amazing range of venues. From the eccentric Fenway Park to the classic Wrigley Field to always majestic, even the new version, Yankee Stadium, to now-seasoned Dodger Stadium, and then to good new parks like Jacobs Field in Cleveland and Nationals Park here in DC.

Games are tight, scoring frequently is low, errors count much more, and October weather may be totally inappropriate--note the more-than-drizzle in Chicago yesterday. Another sin by baseball is refusing to stop games when it clearly is raining. The game is not meant to be played on slippery grass; two throws by pitchers to first went awry, purely because of the wet field.

Some players rise to the occasion: Bryce Harper and Michael A. Taylor of the Nats come through with crucial, unanticipated homers; Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs delivers a succession of two-out, two-strike hits. Stephen Strasburg pitches better--extraordinarily well--when not fully recovered from illness than some days earlier where in his sixth inning, he allowed the game to start to slip away. Dusty Baker ensured the disaster by bringing in Sammy Solis, who promptly gave away the critical runs.

Teams, too: the Yankees were unheralded, often maligned during the season for lacking the obvious all-stars we have grown to expect: no Ruths, Gehrigs, DiMaggios, Mantles. But they came in, lost the first two games, and surprised a Cleveland club that most had predicted to win the World Series. 

Brings back 1954--when I first learned about baseball--and the greatest Cleveland team, one which won a then-record 111 games (out of 154) with possibly the finest pitching staff ever assembled: Feller, Lemon, Early Wynn, Mossi and Narleski--fell in four straight to the rag-tag New York Giants. Leo Durocher got the most out of a bunch of non-Hall of Famers, plus--yes, there's always a catch: The Catch--Willie Mays.

These Yankees prevailed despite their manager, Joe Girardi, who seemed to make mistake after mistake. The Nats may or may not break their fifth-game barrier tonight, but the seemingly brilliant maneuvering of Cubs' manager Joe Maddon in Game 4 backfired with the Michael A. Taylor home run off Wade Davis, while Dusty Baker's apparently mindless sticking with Ryan Madson despite what seemed to be a lacklustre performance turned out well.

So many maxims fall by the wayside. Good pitching beats good hitting. Yes...usually. Even the video replay review of challenged  close plays by a team in New York proved its worth: the base umpire called Ryan Zimmerman safely back on first after the second of two rare Jon Lester pickoff throws. Yet once anyone looked at the video, Zim was clearly tagged and out before he touched the bag.

My knees resent the constant standing in the seats during the playoffs. Yet this is only one more instance of how the excitement of the postseason permeates the baseball world. We begin with a week of multiple games and then it starts to narrow down. There will be great catches, throws, pitches, and hits. Mistakes will be made. Strategies will be exposed as deficient.  But all the hoopla and commercialism in the end is overriden by the thrills and fabulous plays.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Wonderful 'Hoffmann'

I have a particular affection for Les Contes d'Hoffmann, the great Offenbach opera based on the weird tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman, the German Romantic who also wrote the story on which The Nutcracker is based. It is a long opera but all its parts are delightful. The title character falls in love with three unlikely ladies: a doll, a sickly singer, and a courtesan. Each love (and act) ends in disaster. There's also a prologue and epilogue, set in a tavern where Hoffmann waits his latest charmer, a diva named Stella singing in the opera house upstairs.

The opera not only has had many productions in many places, but even exists in many different versions. This is because Offenbach left it unfinished. In recent years, Acts II and III have been reversed, and this switch has even been accepted by the sometimes stodgy Met. Now the Venice act comes last--with its multiple shoiwpiece arias and duets--the famed Barcarolle which opens and closes the act, the Love Duet between Hoffmann and Giulietta, Schlemil's rollicking song--now sung by Hoffmann at the Met, and the villain's , in this act, Dappertutto's, great bass aria, Scintille Diamant.

The Met's production, which had its first performance this season last week on the second night of the season, is eight years old and was created by Bartlett Sher, who has been highly successful on Broadway, with the fine revival of South Pacific as well as several other hits. But his Hoffmann is not a great production--it has lots of the kind of weird, strange characteristics of many edgy European opera productions without the freshness that those shows often possess.

Nevertheless, to me, it was a roaring success because I heard possibly the best singing of this opera I have ever enjoyed. Vittorio Grigolo was a marvelous Hoffmann, singing clearly and beautifully with full emotion, yet not giving way to any ornaments that would detract from the characterization. Ornaments were left to Erin Morley in the coloratura role of Olympia, the doll with whom Hoffman falls in love. The other two lovers were played by Anita Hartig and Oksana Volkova, who also had lovely voices. Geraldine Chauvet had the trouser role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann's reliable friend and travelling partner, who becomes his Muse in the epilogue. She was marvelous but the staging did have her wandering around during many scenes for seemingly no good reason.

Laurent Naouri played the four villains with excellent style and Christophe Mortagne overacted as the four servants, but his gesturing was well within the normal wide range allowed the performer of these roles.

As it was as good a performance in terms of singing that I had ever experienced, it can only be compared to the CD I have of Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland (doing all the heroines), which is about as good as it gets. The great Gabriel Bacquier did the villains and it made me realize how good both he and Naouri were because their native French comes through so well.

There did not appear to be a Times review of this production but last week it was mentioned prominently in an article about the rise of singing and the voice to preeminent roles in today's opera scene, as contrasted with the emphasis on productions, staging, and story that dominated for some time, often under the appellation "regietheater". This singing was the kind that stays with you, especially for the wonderful music in Hoffmann.