Tuesday, May 28, 2019

In Advance of D-Day

We spent yesterday rediscovering D-Day in Normandy a week ahead of the 75th anniversary celebrations. The sheer audacity of the operation comes clearer from the vista of Utah Beach, our first stop on the visit and the most successful aspect of the U.S. attack on June 6, 1944.

The many memorials and stories reminded me of Gettysburg, the pivotal battle in an earlier war. So many individuals contributed to the success of the assault, and everyone, in those wonderful pre-social media days, kept their mouths closed long enough for the surprise critical to the amphibious surge's working. 

It also is stirring to visit St. Mere Eglise, the nearby village which still reveres the two American airborne divisions that freed the place from the Germans. The amazing story of the paratrooper who got caught on the church spire is still commemorated by a figure and parachute cloth atop the steeple. 

These were the days when we all pulled together: "the last good war" as it was often labelled. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died a few days after the landing of a heart attack, was the only general to actually lead his unit from the landing craft onto the beach and onward. He had despised and opposed FDR, who returned the dislike, largely because TR Jr. apparently felt that as Teddy's oldest son, he deserved to be the family's favorite. Interestingly, Teddy had gotten on warmly with FDR, as both admired each other's abilities. But TR Jr. went out a hero and did the right thing: when his unit's landing craft landed 1.5 km away from the target site, he immediately adapted the plans and helped ensure the success at Utah.

You can feel the anticipation of next week's celebration, minus the crowds and the road closures and all the security for the big names who will be here then. The memorials enable you to remember that this battle hinged on everyone doing his part. The man from Nebraska who designed the landing craft in New Orleans and managed to convince the Navy to buy it made a bundle and later lost it all--he's remembered on a memorial, as are the engineers who lost their lives clearing the way for the troops through mined waters.

Somehow the U.S., Britain, and Canada managed to function as a team to pull this off. Montgomery and Patton, inevitably at loggerheads later, both contributed, as did so many others, from generals to privates. Roosevelt chose well with Eisenhower, who kept this alliance together and even managed to handle Churchill, who saw himself as a grand strategist.

In our current world, the experience of seeing where D-Day happened is invigorating. Things can go right and governments can work together and accomplish great things when their leaders are capable, as they were then. Some day we may see their like again.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Oslo Redux

We went to see the play Oslo which was presented here in  D.C. by Round House Theater at the Lansburgh downtown, the older home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I'd seen the play in New York and have appended my comments then from this space below this entry. Eileen needed to see the show especially because of its focus on mediation technique.

The cast here played well, although I felt the production lacked the sharpness of the Lincoln Center version. Everyone had fewer hard edges: for example, the Israeli official who is first sent in response to the demand for an upgraded presence came onto the Beaumont stage in a black leather jacket and exemplified the image of the tough character replacing the two accommodating academics who had initiated the discussions with the PLO finance minister and another high-level Palestinian. Here, he seemed like a usual pleasant diplomatic type. I also thought the leading man, the Norwegian academic-think tank leader who gets this all started, was played a bit too hammily.

But the play still packs a punch and is always worth seeing. There are few plays other than the classics that I could stand seeing more than once, but this proved to be one of them.

Here's my comments in this space a couple of years ago in April 2017:


Managed to get to see the remarkable play, Oslo, at the Vivian Beaumont, Lincoln Center, when in New York last weekend. I had heard of two of the leads, Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, before but not much and not anything about the others in this excellent ensemble cast. The play is based on how two Norwegians with foreign policy backgrounds initiated and facilitated the talks between Israelis and Palestinians that led to the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

Mays plays a policy think-tank head who has met leading Palestinians and Israelis through his contacts in the foreign policy world. One is the finance minister of the P.L.O. and the other is a right-hand man of Shimon Peres, the legendary Israeli politician who was described upon his death last year as the last of the Israeli founders.

He manages, with the help of his wife, an official in the Norwegian foreign ministry, to bring these Israelis and Palestinians to Norway to meet. (Later, when they warm to each other, they agree that it was a shame they had ended up meeting in Norway: "It's so cold!"). But his approach proves successful: he places the men in a room together and does not join them to facilitate, mediate, or try to drive a bargain. Instead, he wants them to speak directly to the other and he makes sure they are plied with superb local cooking
It works. There are further meetings and eventually, Israel upgrades its representative and finally, a Washington lawyer is brought in to ice the deal in precise terms that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, will approve. Although it all seems likely to collapse at any moment, all persevere and the Oslo Accords are signed off by both sides, in Washington, despite the steady dismissal of the American efforts to broker a deal through traditional interventionist tactics.

The performances and the play are both top-notch. It is a thrilling experience to see this play which captures why this unusual event occurred. At the end, each character states what happened to him or her after the Accords were agreed to, and many had unfortunate ends. So did the Accords, rendered mostly ineffective when Israel's government turned to the right after the rightist assassination of Rabin.

Aside from its dramatic power, the play and its performers convince you of what might have been.

There's Always Tosca

Last week at the Washington National Opera's dress rehearsal of its new production of Puccini's Tosca,  I realized why this story turned out to be perfect for opera while it comes up short as a play, which it originally started out as.  The events in the plot are so out-sized as to be over the top for anything less than opera. But they are also perfect as a backdrop to some glorious singing.

Washington Opera put together a nice production with a cast of good singers who haven't been heard here before. Keri Alkema was a good Floria Tosca, the diva of the title. She's even a graduate of the opera's Young Artists Training program. This is one of those rare operas where the soprano plays an opera star--I think Andrea Lecouvrer is an quite lesser-known other example. Riccardo Massi, making his debut with the company, was a solid-voiced Cavaradossi, the tenor and her lover. 

Veteran Alan Held, who specializes in all kinds of operatic villains, having sung Hagen in Wagner's Goetterdaemerrung, plays a properly evil Scarpia. I had not remembered how big his part was. Held started out a bit low-powered but rose to the demands of the role in the crucial second act.

Everyone else is at a secondary level, including Wei Wu as the Sacristan, a traditional role for the indulgent over-acting that Puccini seems to expect from some oif his roles.

Tosca is famous for Puccini's use of chords, especially the dark ones that always symbolize Scarpia's presence or looming nearness. I've always regarded it as significantly different from Puccini's other major works, such as Boheme and Butterfly, because of the chords and the sheer drama, or perhaps more accurately, melodrama.

However, it provides wonderful occasions for good singers: Tosca's famed vissi d'arte ("I have lived for art")in the second act before she plunges the knife into Scarpia and Cavaradossi's e lucevan le stelle ("the stars were shining") in the last act, which offers the tenor a chance to shine in his recollection of his meeting Tosca. 

My favorite memory of this opera is seeing a clip in a video bio of Maria Callas after she sings vissi d'arte and murders Scarpia, when she lights the candles and places them around him, creating a bier, and in so very formal fashion, walks off with her dignity intact. When it's done well, this is a delightful operatic experience, and it was done well at this dress rehearsal, led by conductor Speranza Scappucci.,

Friday, May 3, 2019

Philadelphia Story

I worked one summer for a law firm in Philadelphia and I've been going there all my life to visit family and friends, but it seems as if I don't get there all that often. Philly is a city which does not ballyhoo its pluses. The classic way they refer to their great institutions--The Orchestra, The Art Museum, The University--is one indication of the reluctance they have to boast about any of these. In addition, in the past few decades, it has become a top-notch restaurant town. 

Last weekend, we spent part of Saturday there, starting with a visit to the Art Museum, which had assembled its Impressionist collection into one major exhibit. Since the collection is first-rate, it was a wonderful show: plenty of renowned French Impressionists along with some who are not so famous but superb. It was what I sometimes call as "British Museum show," where a museum puts together an exhibit by taking objects from its own collections, or especially, from its storerooms. 

Some years ago, I went there to see what was labelled "a small Vermeer" that was lent to the museum for a few months. It was shown in one of the museum's galleries of Dutch paintings and the only indication that this was something special in that small gallery was the number of visitors gathered in front of the Vermeer. When his "The Milkmaid" was lent to the Met museum a few years ago, the Met took a slightly different approach. They exhibited the painting with related ones by contemporaries, and then accompanied it with a chart showing a photo or reproduction of every Vermeer extant in the world--about 32, I believe--and a note indicating where each painting was located.

We dined at a new restaurant called Libertine which was excellent and a few blocks from the Kimmel Center, where the concert was. The menu was imaginative and they even had a pre-theatre special. We shared the four desserts that came with our specials. They too were special and I doubt we would have ordered them had they not been included. 

The concert featured Schumann's Piano Concerto and Beethoven's Eroica symphony. Opening the program was the overture from Weber's Der Freischutz. I thought The Orchestra played well, very sharp and clear. I learned the next day from a review in the Inquirer that the encore that the pianist, Jonathan Biss, had played was a well-known (though not to me) short piece by Schumann. Both the critic and the audience loved it. The critic found some fine points in the performance where he felt the musicians should work on.

We lucked out in that a guest conductor cancelled so we heard the Orchestra's music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conduct. The audience clearly loves him, and he seemed very much on target during the concert. To my surprise, I liked the Schumann more than the Beethoven. I guess I really enjoy the 7th and the 9th the most. The Weber was enjoyable, as his overtures always are and have thus been on musical programs always, unlike his operas, which only now are being revived here.

There was so much we didn't get to do. We missed a good exhibit at the Penn Museum, where the archaeological contents are drawn from the many fascinating objects brought back by the many expeditions sponsored by the museum. I'm not sure whether the Phillies were in town but they now have a powerhouse lineup; we wouldn't have had time to go, anyway. There's the Barnes and the Rodin and the National Museum of American Jewish History, too. And seeing basketball in one of the best halls for it: Penn's Palestra.

And then there are my favorite old haunts: Bassett's ice cream in the Reading Terminal Market, one of the cheese-steak emporia in South Philly, Smokey Joes's--the classic Penn bar now way out on 40th St. to which Penn has now extended, Fairmount Park. We passed the places I remember on South Broad--the old Academy of Music, the Bellevue, and the Union League, where I was taken to lunch when I worked at the law firm and when I mostly believed they would throw me out when they found out I was a Democrat.