March 5th, 2007

Florentine Opera, Verdi, “Macbeth”

On Sunday, February 25, we braved the foul weather to take in the new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Florentine. It was just a short skate downtown for us, but the real adventure was experienced by Georgie’s friend Kate, who was coming from Madison, and called us about 10AM to tell us that the first two Badger buses (her usual means of intercity transportation) had been canceled due to the weather, which left her with an option of a noon bus expected to get into Milwaukee at 2PM, which was going to make catching a 2:30 curtain rather dodgy. Then, she called back to say that there was an 11:00AM Greyhound and she would be taking that. The “Dog” got in at 1:15 (25 minutes later than scheduled) which left us plenty of time to get to Uhline Hall on time.

The performance was well worth the effort. Baritone Frederick Burchinal is a veteran of the title role and has sung it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He showed a comprehensive mastery of the role in all respects. He was ably supported by soprano Cynthia Lawrence as Lady Macbeth, Stefan Szkafarowsky as a bearish and likeable Banquo, the Florentine Opera Chorus as the Witches, and the Milwaukee Symphony, ably lead by Maestro Joseph Rescigno, celebrating his 25th year with the Florentine. Jorge Lopez-Yanez sang well in the tenor role of Macduff, but acted rather woodenly. Admittedly, his music, especially in the key scene where he learns of the massacre of his family, does not give great scope for emoting.

“Macbeth” is one of Verdi’s earlier operas, his first big hit (“Nabucco” was a success in Italy but not so much outside it) and the first of his three Shakespeare adaptations. It is therefore not surprising that there are some false notes. Some of the transition music, such as after Banquo’s murder, seems unwontedly cheerful, and, as noted, Macduff’s big scene lacks vocal highlights that the Verdi of ‘Rigoletto’ or ‘Otello’ would not have omitted. On the other hand, there are some interesting inclusions: Verdi makes Lady Macbeth an enthusiastic co-conspirator in the planned murder of Banquo and his son, instead of taking direction from Macbeth as in Shakespeare. This makes her villainy more all of a piece, but then her decline into madness (in the very well-done and dramatic sleepwalking scene) seems rather abrupt. However, Verdi’s expansion on Macbeth’s soliloquy after the death of his wife, works very well and adds depth—Macbeth, now alone and surrounded by enemies, realizes that he will be remembered as a tyrant with “no friendly epitaph.”

The staging was very spare, with a canted turntable taking up half the stage, sliding panels defining the rear, and a copse of bare sticks representing various woods. I disagreed with the local paper critic on the costuming: the rented set was rather generically medieval (more Sir Walter Scott than “Braveheart,”) but I did not think it clashed badly with the sets.

All in all, a very fine, powerful production with very little to quibble at. We enjoyed it all the way through.

Burrahobbits, Peter Dickenson, “The Kin”

The Burrahobbits fantasy book group met February 28 to discuss Peter Dickinson’s “The Kin”. This work by the prolific author is composed of four stories (originally published as four books) about the adventures of the “Moonhawks”, a clan of people at the dawn of human culture and language. The books were written for the Young Adult market, so the protagonists are a small group of young people who become separated from their clan while trekking to new territory after being displaced by a hostile tribe. Whether the main story is fantasy (as opposed to speculation) is debatable, although there do seem to be definite instances of “First Ones” (tutelary animal spirits) speaking through the people or sending true visions. Each chapter of “real world” action is accompanied by a portion of the Kin’s mythology, commencing with the birth of People into the world, and including some hero tales and the story of the first warfare.

The Kin survive drought, volcanic eruption, flood, marauding lions and crocodiles, and enemy raiders by dint of ingenuity, guts, and the occasional vision, though not without losses. The nice thing about these stories is that the leaps of invention are quite reasonable. For example, a deadfall trap used to catch “rats” for food is extrapolated into a larger version intended to deal with a man-eating lion. One of the things we found quite interesting was how little it took to establish a technology, or a culture. When the book opens the Kin’s tools are limited to digging sticks, knapped stone cutters, and the all-important fire log, which allows the Kin to keep and transport fire. They use hollow gourds to carry water, but have no strings or straps, so anything that has to be carried has to be carried in hand. Though contact with other people they meet in their wanderings, they acquire the use of other tools, such as fishing spears. We found it quite interesting that although most of the other people the Kin meet are pre-verbal, they tend to have skills and cultural development that are the equal of, if not in some ways superior to, those of The Kin.

It is not a thrilling book, but it is an interesting and engaging reflection on what it is to be human. It is also cleverly written, since Dickinson manages to use a restricted vocabulary for the Kin’s language without being dull or repetitious. (A humorous note: I predict this is the longest book you will read that has no mention whatever of what someone is wearing or not wearing, since the concept of clothing does not exist in this milieu any more than airplanes or automobiles do--). Enjoyable light reading for adults and possible thought-provocation fodder for advanced children able to deal with concepts of death and battle.

“Amazing Grace”

On the 3rd, we went out to see “Amazing Grace,” the new movie about the crusade to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, the leading Parliamentary voice of the Abolitionist movement. As the film opens, Wilberforce is tired, sick, and discouraged at his continued failure to overcome the entrenched, moneyed interests’ insistence that continuation of the slave trade was necessary to the continuation of the Empire. His friends Sir Charles and Lady Middleton take him for what we would now call a “spa holiday” to take the waters at Bath, and to set him up to meet Barbara Spooner, as a prospective wife. In the movie, neither one of them takes to this ‘blind date’ introduction well at all, and it appears to be some time before the two actually get together. (In real life, Wilberforce proposed to Spooner within two weeks of meeting her, and they were married within the following month.) The film does take some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purposes, but in the main is honest with the dynamics of the highly charged debate. I was a bit disappointed that we only saw minutes of debates in the House of Commons, but it was not on oratorical brilliance that the cause of Abolition eventually prevailed. Instead, we are shown the construction of one of the first popular movements for social reform. Indeed, many of the tactics, such as letter-writing campaigns, which are now over-familiar to us, had their first effective use in these times. Books were written, socially conscious young women were persuaded to boycott slave-produced sugar (nowadays we would hear about using only “fair-trade” sugar--), and “mass media.” At one time, the wall of nearly every pub in England sported a diagram of a slave ship’s holds showing the manner the wretched cargo was crammed in. We see the intricacies of Parliamentary maneuvering from old (distracting or diverting opposing members away from key votes) to newer, such as hiding purposeful legislation in an otherwise long, dull bill (a tactic still in use today). We also saw the use of all-too common counter tactics: as Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbach) says, in wartime (with France) “Opposition becomes sedition,”—something else we still hear today. (Cf: Ann Coulter, “Treason”, et al.)

Spooner (Romola Garai) does indeed marry Wilberforce and becomes the helpmeet he needs to help him and his cause succeed when the tide of public opinion begins to turn, although Wilberforce’s health remained poor. Wilberforce and William Pitt (the Younger) were indeed friends at Cambridge, and Pitt was certainly a factor in Wilberforce’s decision to enter politics, though it is probably doubtful he exercised the kind of influence shown in the film, which, if it were so, would make the Abolitionist movement far more beholden to Pitt than is usually acknowledged. There are a few liberties with the parliamentary record, also: Wilberforce’s first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 was soundly defeated, but garnered 88 votes to 163, far more than the sixteen favorable votes portrayed in the film. It is, however, true that when the Abolition Bill, which had already passed the House of Lords, was approved by Commons in 1807, there were only sixteen dissenters.

Nevertheless, the movie is a good solid story and tells its tale with great moral truth. Gruffudd and company are ably supported by a distinguished cast, including Michael Gambon as the weary realpolitiker Charles James Fox, Bill Paterson as the treacherous Lord Dundas, Ciaran Hinds as Lord Tarleton, fellow for Liverpool and Wilberforce’s chief antagonist, and Albert Finney as John Newton, reformed slave-ship captain, clergyman, and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It was also a pleasure to see Rufus Sewell, who has lately been playing smooth-faced villains, bring his slightly mad manner and fey looks to the role of the radical Thomas Clarkson.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “Amazing Grace” was “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen” as I over heard one of the audience say afterward, it is a thoroughly good, engaging movie with a highly moral and inspiring point. Recommended for all ages that can comprehend the intricacies of the ideas.

Note: Since September 11, 2001, "Amazing Grace" has been dreadfully over done in this country, especially as a funeral dirge. Mercifully, we only hear the tune twice during the film, once when Wilberforce sings it, and once at the very end.

On Liberalism

Seeing "Amazing Grace" reminded me that every good idea of modern times (and probably before that) was someone's liberal idea at first. The founding of this country was perhaps the greatest liberal experiment in history. Abolition of slavery, "universal" sufferage (followed by female sufferage), prevention of cruelty to animals, wage and hour laws, workplace safety laws, food and drug regulation, Social Security, and any number of other effective, helpful social welfare programs first came to light as a gleam in some Liberal reformer's eye. Of course there have been bad and unsuccessful ideas as well--Prohibition for one. I would like to be able to say that all these things are taken for granted these days, but it is not so. There are those, who call themselves "Conservatives" who attempt to argue that in effect, we should be going back to the days of laissez-faire capitalism when robber barons did as they liked weilding the untrammled power of their fortunes, oppressive social control ruled everything else from the pulpits, and foreign policy would be a mixture of Isolationism when it came to anyone else meddling in our affairs, and jingoism when we wished to meddle in anyone else's. One of the chief tactics of these Reactionaries, these false Conservatives, has been to try to make "Liberal" a dirty word cognate to "traitor," and, unfortunately, Liberals have been letting them get away with it all too much.

The fact is that both liberal and conservative forces have a place in a healthy political system. It is the task of Liberals to bring new ideas to the table; to ask, "is there a better way?"; and to devise new systems and institutions for the good of all. It is the legimate task of the Conservatives to protect those institutions that are working well, and to challenge and test ideas to see if they are worthy. it is no part of honest dealing on either side either to propose change just for the sake of change, or to oppose change just because it is new. This is what we must teach.

The Liberals have been guilty of being too nice; we have been willing to follow rules of civil debate, to acknowlege points when made, and to fairly weigh the substance of arguements. This has put the Liberal side at a disadvantage against a foe that admits of no compromise (this has also become a bad word--), refuses to acknowlege virtue in anything from a liberal source, and espouses a scorched earth style of debate. We must accept that there are some ideas which are just plain bad, dangerous, and actively harmful to civilized life, and, that, without supressing free speech, or stooping to the politics of "personal destruction," these pernicious ideas must be opposed as strongly as possible whenever and whereever they appear. Among these are any that promote or accept racial inequality or sexual inequality; "junk science", including anti-Evolution and other 'faith-based' alternatives to well-established scientific knowlege; and those tending to promote dicatorial powers of government, whether in wartime or otherwise. And, most of all, the idea that any one who does not agree with you is against you, that they are the enemy, and they and their ideas are to be driven out.

I admit it is a somewhat paradoxical crusade; however, part of the essence of liberalism is some tolerance for ambiguity--.