Terrorism and Healthcare Reform

December 29, 2009

The recent attempt to blow up a US airplane as it was about to land in Detroit may not seem to have much connection to healthcare reform, but on reflection the relationship is proximate and interesting.  The would be underwear bomber was known to the federal bureaucrats charged with protecting us from what is now a decades long concerted effort at destabilizing the US by Muslim extremists.

This is the unifying strand (it’s more like a chain) that connects most of these attacks either thwarted or successful. The government knows that certain people are a threat but can’t bring itself to take preventative action. It knew about the 9/11 terrorists, it knew about Nidal Malik Hasan, it knew about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and yet it did nothing. Abdulmutallab was on a terror suspect list that contained 500,000 names. Janet Napolitano the feckless Homeland Secretary who can’t tell whether our anti-terrorist system works or not seems intimidated by a list with half a million names. I’m sure the government has trouble with this long a list. But look at what Google can do with a far greater one. I searched Google for Shakespeare and got this:

Googles's Shakespeare search

More than 50 million hits in 0.13 of a second. I’m sure Google would be glad to keep track of all the governments lists for far less money than the government spends to not be able to track potential bad guys. But the bureaucrats would rather die (or more accurately we die) than relinquish any part of the budget or control. They can’t keep track of anything while Google can scan the entire internet in less than a second.

The new security methods immediately put in place after the failed attack punish the victim rather than go after the villains. It swill soon be so onerous to fly, if it isn’t already, that the fragile airline industry will collapse. The proper solution is so dazzlingly obvious that the government’s failure to adopt it can only mean they’re blind; it’s to vigorously scrutinize those passenger who are virtually the sole candidates for terrorism They are young Muslim males (Muslim females will have to checked as well). Patting down 80 year old grandmothers from Iowa City and putting retired professors of medicine from Lubbock through a whole body scanner is more than a waste to time and treasure it’s a lethal expression of political correctness. Liberty for the terrorists seems more important than that of their potential victims.

We are so weakened by moral idiocy that 14 people are dead in Fort Hood because of a depolarized moral compass. When an assault victim tells the police that his assailant was a 30 year old white man the cops don’t line up 60 year old black women. But when it comes to airline screening we do.

Consider the recent flap about battlefield pregnancies. When a regional commander in Afghanistan ordered that women soldiers who get pregnant in a war zone and their impregninators be disciplined the resulting outcry from women senators and NOW caused the general to be overruled by his superior. He likely will never be again promoted because of the incident. Getting pregnant on the battlefield (no smirk intended) is not a good thing. We have an all volunteer army. There is such a thing as military discipline. The army runs by a different set of rules than does civilian society. The general was right and the overturning of his order weakens the military and out national security.

The barbarians are always at the gates and they always will be. Our seriousness at keeping them out is doubtful. If they get in all our precious rights which are invoked as an excuse for not preventing their entry will be swept away.

What’s all this got to do with healthcare? The same bureaucracy that is making a mess of “homeland security” will be even more in charge of medicine than it already is. How can anyone  think that a 2400 page bill, the contents of which are fully know to no one will extend care and reduce costs? The suspension of disbelief required would make Samuel Taylor Coleridge take even more opium.

If the government can’t manage something as vital as keeping our airplanes from being blown out of the sky how are the going to respond to the same grandmother from Iowa City’s request for a lumbar MRI because of chronic low back pain? Perhaps they’ll send her to the airport for a total body scan which doubtless will be easier to get than the MRI.

The healthcare reform (as in reform school) bill that congress seems determined to pass even if they pay with their professional lives will create scores (likely more than 100) of new bureaucracies and mandates. These will not reform, will not energize, will not make more efficient a system that badly need real reform. Costs will continue to rocket out of control and medical care will degrade. The deficit will reach Alpha Centauri and the bureaucrats will soon outnumber the patients. Our response to terrorism and to increased government control of our lives reflects a serious weakness of national will. The barbarians are still at the gates.

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Massachusetts Health Care Reform – What Does it Mean?

December 26, 2009

Massachusetts Health Care Reform — Near-Universal Coverage at What Cost? That’s the title of an article in the November 19th, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.The authors of the piece, Joel S Weissman, PhD. and JudyAnn Bigby, MD, work for the the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. You can read the article for yourself (it’s available to all), though it’s so vague that your not likely to take much away from it. Their last paragraph is of interest.

In Massachusetts, achieving near-universal coverage was the right first step, providing thousands of residents with access to care and protection against financial uncertainty due to medical bills. Now, tackling costs has risen to the top of the agenda. As we move toward national health care reform, we must balance individuals’ needs for high-quality care with the obligation to be socially and fiscally responsible.

What do you think the translation of this bit of bureaucratic code-speak into simple English is?

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Merry Christmas

December 25, 2009

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Hoffmann’s Epilogue

December 24, 2009

As promised, here are five different versions of the conclusion of Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffmann. They are presented in chronological order. The first is taken from the 1948 recording of the opera under Andre Cluytens. Hoffmann Epilogue – Cluytens Jobin. This is a French production and my favorite. The Hoffmann was the French-Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin. Though Canadian, Jobin studied in Paris and was thoroughly imbued in the traditions of French opera. In this ending the drunk poet is addressed by his muse played by a French actress. Compare the way she (René Faure) reads her lines to the butchered French of some of the versions below. Jobin is a terrific Hoffmann. His voice is a rich spinto with a bright top. He sang at the Met from 1940 to 1950. He appeared almost entirely in French operas. He gave a final performance with the Met in Toronto in 1957. Rudolph Bing did not renew his contract when he took over the Met. After the Muse’s speech he (Hoffmann not Bing) reprises an earlier melody and collapses in a drunken stupor; a brief chorus closes the opera.

In the Met’s 1955 production of Hoffmann there is no muse in the epilogue, in fact there’s not much of anything in it. The passionate outburst  that’s sung by Jobin above and Domingo and Shicoff below is omitted. After a brief chorus the opera ends. The production which I saw was brilliant, but the epilogue was disappointment. The abbreviated conclusion is surprising as Pierre Monteux, likely the greatest French conductor of the last century, was behind the baton. Hoffmann Tales of Hoffmann Met 1955 finale.

The next version is from the 1976 Chicago staging. Placido Domingo at the absolute peak of his powers is a wonderful Hoffman. The Muse is a specter compared to the French version above. After her lines Domingo closes the opera in a blaze of tenorial glory. Domingo The Tales of Hoffman Epilogue 1976.

Neil Shicoff sang Hoffmann at the Met in 1988. This reading of the epilogue is similar to that of Domingo. Shicoff’s voice is not as beautiful or full as Domngo’s and he overacts a bit, but it’s still a credible performance. Hoffmann Epilogue Met 88 Shicoff.

Because Offenbach left the epilogue unfinished or even unwritten in the main. The Met in it’s current mounting felt no compunction about writing essentially a new ending. It’s not bad, but it’s totally unlike the four others that I’ve cited here. They even bring back the Kleinzach song from the prologue. There’s no muse. Where they got the final, and quite lovely, ensemble from is a mystery to me. Even so this epilogue is pretty good. Calleja’s sound doesn’t measure up to the earlier Hoffmans presented here; it’s thinner and flutters too much. But the ending, nonetheless, has a melancholy charm to it. Hoffmann Finale Met 2009.

I’m sure you can find more endings to Offenbach’s posthumous piece. Great as the opera is it will never have a definitive version. All I can say with certainty is that had its composer lived to see it onstage he would have changed a lot of it, practical man of the theater that he was.

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Rachele Gilmore Makes Remarkable Met Debut

December 23, 2009

In the grand tradition of a star is born and the show must go on young American soprano Rachele Gilmore made an unscheduled debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera tonight as Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes Hoffman. She was given only three hour’s notice that Kathleen Kim was ill and that she was up. She was so up that she hit several high Gs and an A-flat above high C. There was considerable discussion as to whether that was the highest note ever sung at the Met. Regardless, it was a remarkable performance.There were runs and trills all taken miles above the staff.  She was in Mado Robin territory. She even managed to keep her tone from going shrill. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it – an exceptional talent. Here is her big aria; listen for yourself. Tales of Hoffmann – Doll Song

Obviously, a debut like this one doesn’t happen very often. It certainly is going to fill her engagement book for quite a while. It will  be fun to see what happens to this young singer. The future is hers to grab. Roberta Peters made a great career at the Met after a similar start.

According to her web site, she “received her Bachelor’s of Music from Indiana University and continued with Graduate studies at Boston University. She was a member of the Young Artist Programs of Glimmerglass Opera (for two seasons), Florida Grand Opera, and Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Center.”

Here’s a video of Gilmore singing the same aria in a recital earlier this year.

If you want to here what the lower half of Ms Gilmore’s voice sounds like listen to this. Gilmore – Orff

Here’s a video of the Met performance. The sound is not as good as the clip above.

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Tales of Hoffmann in HD

December 20, 2009

Bart Sher’s new production of Offenbach’s masterpiece was broadcast today (December 19, 2009)  in HD. Sher’s mounting of Rossini’s Barber a couple seasons back was very successful. This time around wasn’t as fortunate. His problem was that everything was almost invisible. His scenes were dark, darker, and darkest. When you could see what was going on it was because the action was in a spotlight. His concept was that everything was in Hoffmann’s mind – hence the odd mix of costumes and scenery. Nothing wrong with that provided you could see what was happening. The setting of the opera could just as well been Carlsbad Caverns as Luther’s Tavern, etc.

His next conceit was that the story was Kafkaesque. The staging which had a lot of nondescript junk strewn about seemed more like a touring company setting of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher than Kafka. The production wasn’t bad, it just lacked the brilliance that Offenbach’s magical score deserves. Speaking of magic, Sher took all of it out. This was most telling the the Antonia episode where there was no picture come to life nor anything miraculous about Dr Miracle. What saved the day was the generally excellent level of the performers. The Venetian scene seemed more like a New Orleans cat house realized by a Las Vegas hotel than it did a scene in 18th century Venice. There obviously were a lot of strange things going on in Hoffmann’s mind.

Because Offenbach died before Hoffmann could be staged nobody knows exactly how it should be presented. Every time I see it, it’s done differently. The current Met production has the Antonia scene as the second act while the Venetian scene is the third. Because I’m used to the reverse order I prefer it, but it’s likely that Offenbach wanted it done the way the Met is doing it this time around.

This production was originally slated for a much different cast than the one that was actually used. Joseph Calleja replaced Rolando Villazon who is suffering from a vocal crisis. Alan Held replaced Rene Papé as the four villains, Anna Netrebko decided not to sing all the female leads, Ekaterina Gubanova replaced Netrebko in Act 3, while Kathleen Kim sang Olympia in the first act. Kate Lindsey took over for Elina Garanča who replaced Angela Gheorghiu in Carmen. Got all that straight? Sounds like Casey Stengel is running the Met rather than the Mets. Despite all the substitution the Met got the right cast onstage.

Calleja had never sung Hoffmann before this run. This demanding role can be sung by either lyric or spinto tenors. Richard Tucker, Placido Domingo, and Neil Schicoff all had great success as Hoffmann. But so did Alfredo Krauss and Fernando de la Mora who both had much lighter voices. Calleja’s voice is still a puzzle. It is bright, musical, sweet, and has a secure top. Surprisingly he omitted the optional, but usual, high note in the first act. What I find troubling is the rapid vibrato that still affects his singing. I think he still hasn’t found the right focus for his voice. If he can rid himself of this vibrato which affects everything he does he could turn out to be a great singer. At 31 he’s still got a little time to fix this annoying mannerism. The tenor seems to have put on a lot of weight recently. Obesity is an occupational disorder of tenors. Nevertheless his acting was convincing as was his vocal portrayal of the conflicted hero.

Maestro James Levine has opened many cuts in the score or rather has inserted music typically not heard. The part of Nicklaus has been expanded so that it is a central part of the opera. Sher has made her an accomplice of the four villains. She’s trying to pry Hoffmann away from his physical lovers and towards his muse – her. Kate Lindsey’s impersonation was sinister. Her voice was under good control and continued to impress. This is a fine young artist.

Alan Held has played Hoffmann’s nemesis on many occasions. He was threatening and sang well enough though he’s not capable of the vocal strength that Papé would have brought or that James Morris has offered in the past. He also omitted the customary high note at the end of “Scintille diamant”.  Alan Oke brought more energy than is usual to the four comprimario roles.

Netrebko was wise to forgo any attempt at singing all three of Hoffmann’s loves. She’s not Joan Sutherland and she’d have come to grief in the first act. Korean born soprano Kathleen Kim was so far into the stratosphere in Olympia’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” that the Met’s oxygen masks deployed. Her next engagement at the Met is a Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. The ease with which she dispatched the Doll’s Song indicates that she’ll have no trouble with “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”. Her voice is slender, agile, and can negotiate notes several tones above high C.  She’s clearly a singer on the rise. She not only sounded like a doll, she really looked like one.

Netrebko appeared as both Stella and Antonia. There’s not much to do with the former character except look glamorous which she did. As Antonia she started with a restrained (it was almost thrown away) rendition of “Elle a fui, la tourterelle”, but by the end of the act she had thrown herself (literally onto a piano) into the part. Her portrayal of the young girl who sings herself to death was quite moving. Her voice has deepened and is now very lush. With her great looks and velvet sound I suspect more Puccini is before her.  She is a little thinner than when she last appeared on these telecasts, but still hasn’t rid herself of all her post-partum poundage. Netrebko’s florid gyrations behind Deborah Voight while the latter was trying to conduct an interview before the start of the third act was a priceless diva moment. Even Diva Voight remarked “Diva.”

Ekaterina Gubanova sang well as the the courtesan Giulietta though she looked too matronly for the part. The part’s not big enough to get a full idea of what she can do.

Because Offenbach did not complete all of the third act and the epilogue, one hears different music with each new production of Hoffmann. Ernest Guiraud did a fine job finishing the work. The great concertato near the end of the third act is his, though based on Offenbach’s tunes. This time Maestro Levine found an ending to the piece that I’ve never heard before. Its an ensemble that leaves Hoffmann all to his typewriter. Next week I’ll post a collection of different endings to Hoffman. You can decide which you like the best.

Offenbach’s only opera is a supreme masterpiece even if no definitive version of it exists. Levine got all the beauty and pathos out of this unique work. Given the vocal, choral, and orchestral forces he had the opera triumphed despite an indifferent staging.

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Aureliano Pertile

December 12, 2009

Aureliano Pertile was born in 1885 in Montagnana near Padua. Interestingly, Giovanni Martinelli was born in the same town in the same year. Pertile’s career was mainly based at La Scala where he had the reputation as Toscanini’s favorite tenor, though the great maestro did not ask him to sing at the prima of Turandot. I’m not sure why; his voice was perfect for Calaf.

Martinelli was, of course a fixture at the Met. Pertile sang only one season in New York which during the 20s was blessed with an overabundance of great tenors. All things considered, I think Milan got the better of the deal.

His New York career was limited to 15 appearances at the Met between Dec 1, 1921 and  January 26, 1922. His debut coincided with Maria Jeritza’s first Met appearance as Tosca. He got lost in the stir caused by her memorable performance. The New York critics were lukewarm about Pertile. Several thought his high notes were white. Reading his reviews make me wonder if the New Yorkers were hearing the same singer who was so highly thought of in Milan. Regardless, he never returned.

Pertile’s voice was large and to some not appealing. It was very big and had a dark baritone-like timbre.  What made him a great singer was his musicality. This was a tenor who sang Donizetti and Bellini and the spinto Verdi parts as well as the dramatic Otello. Regardless of what he sang, at his zenith, he phrased beautifully and spun out a smooth and lyrical vocal line.

Listen to Pertile’s 1925 recording of the Improvviso from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. This is an aria that spinto tenors typically belt out. If they are Richard Tucker or Mario Del Monaco the effect is irresistible. But with Pertile we get all the fire and power of his great successors combined with sensitivity and emotion. This is a great reading of this showstopper.

Pertile was at his best in the big Verdi parts. He had sufficient subtlety to temper the very large sound he had easily under control. Don Alvaro in La Forza Del Destino could have been written for him. O tu che in seno agli angeli was recorded without the great recitative that precedes it. Pertile’s reading is at the top of the short list of great interpretations of Verdi’s inspired aria. An equally great Verdi aria is Quando le sere al placido. Boito was driven almost to the limits of ecstasy by it.

Pertile was equally comfortable with Puccini. His rendition of Donna non vidi mai from Manon Lescaut is notable for the ease he has with the tune’s high tessitura. He had the perfect vocal apparatus for Dick Johnson from La Fanciulla del West, but he never recorded either of the score’s two tenor arias.

Pertile as Lohengrin

Italian tenors who wander into Wagner usually light on Lohengrin. Pertile was no exception. He recorded In fernem Land in Italian (Da Voi Lonton). It sounds better in Italian than in German as it does when it’s sung by an Italian tenor who has a firm middle range and who can manage the legato phrasing it demands.

The last example of Pertile’s singing I’ll add is the concluding duet from Andrea Chenier – Vicino a te. The rich voiced soprano is Margaret Sheridan. The Irish singer was a star at Covent Garden and La Scala at about the same time Pertile was at his peak.

After his retirement from the opera house, Pertile gave concert performances for a few years. After he completely ceased singing he taught until his death in 1952. His memory endures both through the numerous recordings he left and because of his association with Toscanini. His voice and style gives us a deep insight into what the 20th century’s most important opera conductor  thought the ideal tenor was.

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