Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dame Joan Sutherland, 1926-2010

Any operatic soprano might consider it a dream come true to be known as the greatest singer of her time. But to pay that compliment to Joan Sutherland would be to do her an unforgivable injustice. She was not simply the best Lucia and Norma and Elvira and Amina and Maria Stuarda and Marguerite de Valois and Esclarmonde and Semiramide and Alcina of her day. On the basis of the recorded evidence, she was at least as good as anyone who sang those roles any time in the last hundred years. So it is by no means outrageous to suggest that Joan Sutherland did what she did better than anyone else ever has.

That's what makes those of us who got to hear her in person so grateful. She included all of us, just a bit, in the history she spent her career making. I posted a couple of Sutherland performances last year on her birthday. Here is another one--the final cabaletta from Bellini's La Sonnambula. The heroine Amina has just been cleared of suspicions that she is unfaithful to her fiance. (She walks in her sleep; make up the rest of the story yourself.) Here, assured of her happy ending, she gives voice to that mixture of joy and relief that any soprano experiences upon finding herself still alive at the end of the opera. She sings "Ah! non giunge uman pensiero al contento ond'io son piena." "Ah! human thought cannot comprehend the happiness that fills me." And listening to her, we feel pretty much the same way.

May you all live long enough to hear that trill at 1:55 sung by someone else as spectacularly as Sutherland sings it here. But don't get your hopes up.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rangers-Rays Series Tied at 2 Games Each

Philosophy must take over at this point. On its face, it's a disappointment to Texas Rangers fans to see their team drop two games in a row and blow a chance to close out the series at home. But here are three considerations that might present themselves to the fan who thinks about it a little more deeply.

Sweeping the Rays might have been a near occasion of the sin of pride. Narrowly winning  a hard-fought nerve-racker will make it easier for us to "walk humbly with our God."

Game 5 will give the Rays a second chance at the privilege and pleasure of seeing the great Cliff Lee in action.

A fifth game is necessary if we want to humiliate the Rays by winning the series from them on their home field.

Troublingly, it's the third consideration that appeals to me the most....

Monday, October 4, 2010

Babylonian Poetry, Anyone?

This is fairly geeky, I admit. But I find these recitations of ancient Babylonian poetry fascinating, and especially the passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I read in high school and which I encouraged my middle daughter to read for extra credit last year when she was studying ancient history. (Have I mentioned that we're home schoolers? Is there any need to now?)

By far the most fascinating character in Gilgamesh is the hero's friend Enkidu, a kind of Rousseauian noble savage whose gradual introduction to civilization--partly at the hands of a prostitute--makes up the poem's most dramatic and compelling plot element. I've never been entirely sure how to pronounce his name, although I've always suspected that the pronunciation I learned in high school--something like "Inky-Doo"--was neither linguistically accurate nor dignified-sounding enough for so admirable a character.

Turns out, based on these recitations, that the correct pronunciation may be en-KEE-doo, which sounds much better to me; and that the title character's name, which I always pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, is actually gil-GAH-mesh.

Live and learn.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Barack Obama and the BVM

What to make of this? On her recent visit to Spain, First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned that the President carries in his wallet a picture of Mary Help of Christians, one of the titles under which the Blessed Virgin is venerated by Catholics. She is the patroness of the Salesian Order.

Barack Obama is already under fire from religious right-wingers, some of whom have repeatedly questioned the President's credentials as a Christian and fostered suspicions that he might be a crypto-Muslim. If he turns out to be a crypto-Catholic instead, will Protestant fundamentalists consider that a step up or a step down?

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

"Whatever the true religion might be (if there even is one)," I used to say to myself back in my days of spiritual wandering, "then following it--in this world, at least--will have to set you apart as a pretty strange person." And so I looked into some pretty strange religions. But I eventually found the strangest of all, and that's one way I knew it was also the true one.

The great genius of Francis of Assisi is that he continually reminds us how strange--how "other-worldly"--authentic Christianity must be. If our faith fits comfortably and conveniently into the life we have decided to make for ourselves, then there's something wrong with it.

One day in winter, as St Francis was going with Brother Leo from
   Perugia to St Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the
   cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said
   to him: "Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor
   should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification,
   write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy." A
   little further on, St Francis called to him a second time: "O Brother
   Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should
   make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind,
   hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far
   greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that
   this would not be perfect joy." Shortly after, he cried out again: "O
   Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were
   versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had
   the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but
   likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this
   would not be perfect joy." After proceeding a few steps farther, he
   cried out again with a loud voice: "O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of
   God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if
   they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of
   all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if
   they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all
   fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of
   waters - write that this would not be perfect joy." Shortly after, he
   cried out again: "O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of
   preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write
   that this would not be perfect joy." Now when this manner of discourse
   had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within
   himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: "Father, I pray thee
   teach me wherein is perfect joy." St Francis answered: "If, when we
   shall arrive at St Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and
   trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger;
   if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily
   and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, We are two of the
   brethren', he should answer angrily, What ye say is not the truth; ye
   are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away
   the alms of the poor; begone I say'; if then he refuse to open to us,
   and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold
   and hunger till nightfall - then, if we accept such injustice, such
   cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and
   without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter
   really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus
   against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy. And if
   we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with
   oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, Begone,
   miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor
   sleep!' - and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with
   charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy. And if,
   urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and
   entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for
   the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming,
   These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they
   deserve'; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing
   us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us
   with the knots in the stick - if we bear all these injuries with
   patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which
   we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here,
   finally, is perfect joy. And now, brother, listen to the conclusion.
   Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ
   grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and
   accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury,
   discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory,
   seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the
   words of the Apostle, What hast thou that thou hast not received from
   God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst
   not received it?' But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may
   glory, because, as the Apostle says again, I will not glory save in the
   cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.' Amen." 

The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, Chapter 8

Tony Curtis R.I.P.

I was never particularly a fan of his, but I do like several of his movies--or maybe I should say "movies in which he appears." His big roles--the roles he no doubt was proudest of--are not among my favorites. His  portrayal of The Boston Strangler is among those "one-off" performances that movie stars sometimes turn in--a role that uniquely manages to make them look like real actors. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove. You know what I mean. And I may be the only person I know who doesn't think that Some Like It Hot is a really funny movie. (We all have our blind spots, I guess.)

But I would happily watch Spartacus any time--in spite of Dalton Trumbo's ham-handed and tendentious leftist-allegory screenplay. (Some stories are good enough to survive a bad telling.) And this weekend my 10-year-old sons and I will watch The Vikings--their favorite movie, and one of mine--in tribute to Mr. Curtis. Here's a great scene in which Curtis's character permits Ernest Borgnine's character an honorable Viking death (in a wolf pit). The scene is charged with dramatic irony because neither character knows that they are father and son.

And here is a very different sort of scene, from a movie I would know nothing about were my middle daughter not such a devoted Audrey Hepburn fan--Paris When It Sizzles. Hepburn plays a stenographer hired to help a screenwriter--William Holden--get a script done on time. She imagines each scene as Holden dictates it to her, adding her own suggestions as they go along. Tony Curtis agreed to make this cameo appearance in the movie because Holden--in real life--had had to check into the hospital following a drinking binge and George Axelrod, the producer, needed to keep the rest of the cast and the crew busy. Curtis does an expert job of skewering narcissistic "ac-TORS," himself included.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stealing Home

My daughter and I attended our last baseball game of the regular season last night. The Rangers did not win, but it was an exciting game nonetheless -- in part because Josh Hamilton was back in the outfield, diving for fly balls with the same abandon that put him on the DL for most of the month of September; and partly because of this thrilling bit of base running that tied the game for us in the bottom of the ninth.

It was the first time my daughter -- a new baseball fan this season -- had ever seen anyone steal home, and she was impressed. I'll have to show her that it can be even more impressive than that...regardless of what Yogi thought.