Hamlet in HD

March 28, 2010

Ambroise Thomas’ opera returned to the Metropolitan this season after an absence of 115 years. Its reappearance was only the company’s 10th staging of the work. On March 27th the opera was telecast in HD. Hamlet is so far on the fringe of the repertoire that if it were a geographical location it would be Alice Springs. There’s a reason why it’s not often performed. It isn’t very good. The Met’s production provided the only valid justification for mounting it – a great singing actor in the title role.

Simon Keenlyside’s singing and acting gave the opera more than Thomas put it to it. In short a revelatory performance. His outburst at the end of the second act when he feigns madness after Claudius has confirmed his guilt in his brother’s (Hamlet’s father) murder was overpowering. If you were listening on the radio at least 90% of Keenlyside’s art was hidden.  Keenlyside drenched himself in blood red wine letting everyone know that he really knew what his uncle had been up to. Future audience’s are lucky that this wonderful portrayal  has been preserved. Musically and dramatically the ensemble which concludes this act is the best number in the opera, though it was hard to concentrate on anything or anyone but Hamlet.

But there’s only so much that one man can do. What was left was about three hours of well orchestrated and well conducted mostly mediocre music. The opera has a major part for the soprano, Ophélie. This part was intended for Natalie Dessay, but she was unable to make it. Her replacement was Marlis Petersen. The German soprano is best known for Lulu and Zerbinetta. Her assumption of this role on very short notice was very well received, but she’s really not the right singer for Ophélie. Furthermore, she struggled with her high notes during this performance and was off pitch through most of her first act duet with Hamlet.

Ophélie has a long mad scene in the fourth act. it’s almost as long as Lucia’s, but seemed longer. (The ballet which precedes the Mad Scene was not performed.) One critic has called the scene “floridly inconsequential”. There was a lot of lyric difficulty written into it without much reward for the listener.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Jennifer returned to the Met after a four year absence as Hamlet’s guilty mother. Brian Large’s close-ups were not kind to her. Vocally she easily filled the demands of her role, but it does not contain much of musical interest. James Morris, closing in on 900 Met performances, still has some voice left, though it’s not the mighty instrument of his best years. Their second act duet was vigorously performed.

Tenor Toby Spence was Laerte. He has a light voice that was not stressed by his role. This production marked his Met debut. The two grave diggers had a few bars of interesting music. Bass-baritone Richard Bernstein who has been singing small roles at the Met for almost 15 years was impressive as the first grave digger.

Louis Langrée is obviously committed to this work and he conducted it with precision and power. The Met orchestra as is now customary played brilliantly.

This production uses neither of the two endings written by Thomas. Keenlyside said in an interview during the sole intermission that the Met was using the ending written by Thomas for the first Covent Garden production of this opera; but he was mistaken. In that version the ghost does not reappear and Hamlet kills himself after killing the King. The French version ends with Hamlet alive and king. The Met uses a version devised in 1982 by Richard Bonynge which feature a return of the ghost and Hamlet’s death from a mortal wound from Laerte. He dies after killing the king. Hamlet has already dispatched Laerte.

Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser set the scene in the 19th century. Along with set designer Christian Fenouillat they dispensed with furniture except for a banquet table on which Hamlet went berserk as described above. Hamlet went barefoot in the first act; whether this was a result of a budget cut or had some arcane significance is uncertain – at least to me.

This change of time and Spartan decor worked fine as the opera has only a nominal connection with Shakespeare’s play. The only reason to do this opera other than as a vehicle for the great Keenlyside is that opera companies are desperate for new works. Because no living composer seems to be able to write an opera that people will spend hundreds of dollars to hear, the Met and other major houses resort to the past in the hope of finding a neglected masterpiece. What they typically discover is that neglect usually has a simple explanation.

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Our National Fugue State

March 27, 2010

If you opened an umbrella in Times Square you could say you covered New York

A sizable portion of the American political class seems to be mired in a prolonged fugue state (code 300.13). Their confusion has led them to the conviction that our nation’s well being will be served by a complex piece of new health legislation with so many unforeseeable ramifications that more permutations of its implementation are possible than there are elementary particles in the universe.

We are about to improve Medicare by taking $500 billion out of it. Reducing physician reimbursement by $200 billion dollars will also improve the program. Surely, no believes that these cuts will be implemented. Cynicism and delirium combined.  We are going to extend health insurance to tens of millions of additional people  while proclaiming that we will spend less money. Personal liberty will also increase – 16,000 new IRS agents will make sure of that. Our economy is said to be on the mend, so much so that Berkshire Hathaway’s and Proctor and Gamble’s cost of borrowing is now less than that of the United States government. Bond investors are now viewing Treasuries as riskier than a vast array of corporate debt. They’d rather own bonds backed by sales of toilet paper than the full faith and credit of the United States.

If you want a perspective on what animates many who would “reform” our medical system I recommend you read We Can Reduce US Health Care Costs by James E Dalen, MD, MPH in the current issue of the American Journal of Medicine. In brief, the article argues that central planning will solve all our healthcare problems. The record of central planning over the past century is ignored (or the author is ignorant of this record). He holds the Canadian medical system as an exemplar. The Canadian experience causes him to conclude that we could save  15% of our healthcare expenses by emulating our northern neighbor. I love this sentence: “The ultimate solution to our excessive health care costs is national health insurance: Medicare for all.” He then gives a reference – to whom? Himself. Say something often enough and it must be true. Pirandello wrote a play reminiscent of this thinking.

Dr Dalen wants to focus on preventative care by encouraging more physicians to enter primary care. He would do this by paying of loans for those who behave as he thinks best and by manipulating Medicare reimbursement to favor doctors in primary care specialties.

How many doctors do we need in each specialty? If we possess this knowledge it must be relevant to a decade or two hence because that’s how long it takes to redirect the output of doctors from training programs to practice. Our previous record of getting manpower needs right is not encouraging. You can make just as good a case for needing less doctors in the future as more and just as good a case for needing more specialists rather than less. Which is right? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else. Prediction is very hard, especially about the future – Yogi Berra.

Dr Dalen also thinks the drug companies make too much money. His solution? Price controls. Another tactic with a great track record. His last paragraph says it all: In summary, we must reduce the cost of health care in the US. We can do this by developing a health care system that emphasizes prevention rather than disease management. To do this we must encourage more physicians to be adult generalists and we must provide them with new skills. Furthermore, we must insure that all physicians have cost-effective practice patterns that avoid unnecessary tests and procedures and that all citizens adopt living wills. As a nation, we need to have better control over the cost of prescription drugs. Finally, at some point in the future, we should adopt a policy of national health insurance, Medicare for all.

Let’s look at Medicare – currently covering less than all. The 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion in today’s dollars! That is about seven times the size of the U.S. economy and 10 times the size of the outstanding national debt. Why would anyone think that Medicare serves as a good model for restructuring all of American medicine?  Medicare is in far worse shape than Social Security. If Medicare for the elderly is plunging the nation’s finances into a bottomless abyss of debt, throwing the rest of America into it can only improve our condition – at least Dr Dalen thinks so.

The knowledge required to effectively do as Dr Dalen and those who think like him desire is infinite. We can never know in advance the right price for a product independent of any market. We can never know in advance the manpower needs of any complicated endeavor, especially when these needs will be subject to changes in technology and circumstance that are not even imagined now.

Nobel prize winner in economics Gary Becker, succinctly summed up how congress could have acted had they not been driven to insanity by ideology rather than reason: Drafting a good bill would have been easy…. Health savings accounts could have been expanded. Consumers could have been permitted to purchase insurance across state lines, which would have increased competition among insurers. The tax deductibility of health-care spending could have been extended from employers to individuals, giving the same tax treatment to all consumers. And incentives could have been put in place to prompt consumers to pay a larger portion of their health-care costs out of their own pockets.

We cannot spend ourself to wealth or health. Entitlement spending will soon consume 75% of the government’s spending. Inevitably we will have to raise taxes even more than we are already doing and cut spending, but not until financial disaster is palpably upon us and likely irreversible. Where will we start? I’d bet on the Defense Department. Our economy is headed for debtors prison as things stand now. What difference can a score or more trillion in debt make? With the exception of acts of God almost everything bad in human affairs stems from the sometimes heartfelt, but always incompletely reasoned, wish to improve our lot. Going broke in the name of fairness is not a good plan. Those who favor such a plan will never concede its failure not matter how wrong things go. They will continue to argue for more government involvement blaming what’s left of the private sector for the the failure of public programs while begging for more public spending. Get out your wheelbarrows.

If we can’t get JS Bach to write our fugue we’d better wake up. Wachet auf – a fantasia rather than a fugue but equally apt.

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Retinal Implants

March 25, 2010

Scientists have been working for some years to come up with the visual equivalent of the cochlear implant – a device which would restore vision to people who have gone blind because of retinal disease. While there are many diseases which would benefit from this advance, prominent among them are retinitis pigmentosa, a congenital disease, which gradually cause total blindness as the afflicted patient ages and macular degeneration. Computer chips are being studied which can send a signal to the optic nerve which the visual cortex can sense similarly to the way it interprets light under conditions of health.

Two approaches are currently under study. One places a computer chip on the retina. This technique has been around for several years and more is known about it than the newer approach discussed below. Its biggest problem is that it requires a camera and special glasses. This month the German company Retina Implant, AG announced very preliminary results using a digital chip placed beneath the retina. Experience with this device is limited, but it has the advantage of not requiring glasses or a camera. What seems almost certain is that before too much longer the combination of computer technology and medicine will restore sight to patients previously condemned to a life of blindness. But remember there’s still a way to go.

Below is the press release from Retina Implant and a story from the English edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel which describes both of the retinal implant technologies currently under investigation.

Subretinal Implant Restores Vision March 16, 2010

Der Spiegel English edition Digital Encounter

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The Cost of a Mammogram

March 24, 2010

The descent to health helplessness is illustrated  by mammography. Everyone had been in hysterics about whether health insurance, government or otherwise, will cover routine mammograms. Forget about whether the procedure is useful or not and focus on what it tells us about our loss of self reliance. The average cost of a mammogram is $102 – for the numerically challenged, that’s $51 a year if you get biennial testing. You’ll pay your dentist more for your semi-annual visit  to get your teeth examined and cleaned. A visit to the vet when your dog or cat gets sick will also set you back more than this amount. The dentist and the vet expect to be paid at the time they deliver their service. You’ll not be surprised by this expectation and you’ll pay.  So why is everyone up in arms about whether their insurance will cover something most people can afford? Work it out for yourself.

Note: If mammograms were entirely separated from medical insurance they would likely cost about $30 apiece.

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Recording of the Week: Macbeth

March 22, 2010


First performed in 1847, Verdi’s Macbeth took 112 years to reach New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Part of the interval was unavoidable as the house didn’t open until 1883. When the work finally did reach the Met the company made up as much as possible for they delay with a superlative production. Verdi’s 10th opera was the first to achieve the deep psychological penetration that characterized  his mature masterpieces. The opera focuses almost exclusively on literature’s most terrible twosome.

Leonard Warren in the last new role of his life met all the vocal and histrionic demands that Verdi typically placed on his leading baritones and which were multiplied above the usual in Macbeth. Macbeth goes from surprised to confused to murderous to hallucinatory to resigned all the while singing at the top of the baritone’s range. I was at the February 5, 1959 premiere at the Met. Warren was in glorious voice. Fortunately for posterity the greatest Verdi baritone of living memory recorded the complete opera along with rest of the cast from the first performance. This recording was made during the opera’s run in February. Warrens sound is a little more like velvet than the hard dark sound that typifies many Verdi baritones. This may explain his extraordinary top. The tessitura Verdi imposes on his baritones was no problem for this unforgettable singer. What you can’t discern from his recordings is the immense size of his voice which can only be compared to an organ.

The other key role is that of Lady Macbeth, the epitome of matrimonial poison. The Macbeths are usually thought to be childless. It’s hard to imagine having Mrs Macbeth as your mother, but there’s that odd passage in Shakespeare’s play where Lady Macbeth berates her uncertain husband about his hesitation in offing King Duncan: “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me – I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have to this.”

God in heaven! What a woman. Where is this babe suckled on venom? Who is its father? Verdi’s Lady M is of a piece with the Bard’s. The great composer notoriously said he wanted an “ugly” sound for her. Hence the Met’s casting of Maria Callas for the production. Unfortunately, Callas was KO’ed by Rudolf Bing before she could bring her impersonation to New York. Despite the operatic feuding things worked pretty well. The great Leonie Rysanek made her Met debut in the role and registered a triumph in the process.

Thirty two years old at the time of her debut and the making of this recording her voice was at its peak. It hadn’t evolved to the state of inspired screaming that was her top range as she aged. Her voice is rich and powerful. It’s not ugly though it conveys the evil force that Verdi wanted. Her work in the Sleepwalking Scene captures the complete moral degeneration that has destroyed the wicked Lady. This scene is an artistic achievement that marks Verdi’s arrival at the summit of operatic distinction.

The rest of the cast is superb. Jerome Hines who had the physical stature of an NBA player had a similar vocal height. The young Carlo Bergonzi gives a brilliant reading of “Ah, la paterna mano”. Which as beautiful as it is seems to have come from another opera.

Macbeth abounds in wonderful ensemble pieces. The conclusion of Act 2 and the great chorus “Patria oppressa” are two examples. Less often cited is the concertato that concludes Act 1. This show Verdi’s astounding ability to stitch dramatic frisson to melodic invention unsurpassed in music. The combination of the two is unmatched. As an aside, Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the two greatest melodists of all time were JS Bach and Verdi. Here is the end of Act 1 (Macbeth Act I finale) starting with the entrance of Banquo and Macduff just prior to the discovery of Duncan’s murder. The horror of the murder, the unaccompanied voices, and then the grand ensemble denote the greatest of masters.

Verdi always needs a great conductor. In this recording it gets a good one – Erich Leinsdorf. Leinsdorf was always solid and never inspiring. He made a big career out of being OK. The sound on this recording is below par even by 1959 standards. The loud passages often break up. It’s not bad enough to distract you from an exceptional performance of a great masterpiece.

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How to Disable Yahoo’s Theft of Firefox’s Open a New Tab

March 20, 2010

If you like puzzles you might try to figure this one out. If you install a Yahoo toolbar into Mozilla’s Firefox you’ll discover that it hijacks Firefox’s new tab page. If you click the new tab button on Firefox you should get a blank and untitled page. But once you’ve installed the Yahoo toolbar instead of a blank page you’ll find that a new tab defaults to Yahoo’s search page. This appears to be part of Firefox forever, until the end of recorded time, or at least until you figure out how to get rid of it.

You can disable the Yahoo toolbar – no luck. A new tab still goes to Yahoo search. You can uninstall the Yahoo toolbar. Nope, you’re still going to Yahoo search. You can uninstall anything on your computer that says “Yahoo” and the new tab button still goes to Yahoo search. You can search Google about this problem and you’re likely not to find how to rid Firefox of this annoying tic. You can search Yahoo and you still won’t get an answer. Both searches will reveal that other people are having this problem and that they don’t seem to be able to solve it.

I understand that this is not the Spanish Inquisition, nor all out thermonuclear war, nor bubonic plague, nor genital herpes – but it is a pain and a challenge. So if you’ve got this problem and are troubled by it, here’s how to get rid of it. First you can avoid it altogether by not installing Yahoo’s toolbar, but it often sneaks onto your browser as part of another installation.

Mozilla installs two versions of Firefox. Plain old Firefox and Firefox Safe Mode. You can find both versions by clicking the Start button, then click All Programs. Find the Mozilla Firefox folder. Click on it and you will see both versions of Firefox. Make sure that Firefox is closed before going any further. Click the Safe Mode icon. The following dialog box will appear. Do not confuse Firefox Safe Mode with Windows Safe Mode; they are two different things.

Click the Disable all add-on as is shown above. Then click Make Changes and restart. What Yahoo has done is to add an invisible add-on. Since you can’t see it when you look at your Firefox add-ons (under tools/add-ons) and plug-ins, you can’t disable it. Thus you have to disable all of them to get rid of the noxious intrusion. Why a reputable firm like Yahoo would do something usually associated bad guy hackers is hard to fathom. It may be a mark of their desperate financial condition. Anyway, when you next start Firefox all of your add-ons are disabled, but they’re not gone. Go to tools/Add-ons and enable the plug-ins and extensions that you want. You’ve likely accumulated a whole bunch that you don’t need or want. This will give you the chance to use only those add-ons you really need.

Even if you don’t have this problem, that it exists is another demonstration that you should not trust anyone but your mother. She’s the only one in the universe who really has your best interests at heart even if you don’t recognize that she’s right when she tells you what to do. Always listen to Mom. And stay away from Yahoo.

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Be Careful Buying From ProFlowers

March 16, 2010

Recently I ordered flowers from ProFlowers.com – apparently a major player in the flower business. The flowers duly arrived and were as described by the vendor. Somewhere along the line I got an email from ProFlowers asking if I wanted a discount on future orders. Not seeing any cost to doing so I clicked yes. If there was a cost displayed I missed it. I got the following email in response to my not well thought out click:

Your Preferred Buyers PassSM membership is now active!:

Please print this letter for your records!

Congratulations! Your Preferred Buyers PassSM membership is now active. As a valued member, you’ll enjoy access to special saving and resources for nearly every aspect of your home and everyday life. Here is Your ProFlowers GiftCode, worth $15 towards a future ProFlowers purchase.

To use your gift code:

  1. Go to: ProFlowers.com/Rewards
  2. Enter this code at checkout: XXXXXXXX
  3. The expiration for this promotional code is 3/31/2010

Now to begin enjoying your benefits immediately just go to www.PreferredBuyersPass.com

Your Membership ID: XXXXXX

Your Password: XXXXXX

Preferred Buyers PassSM is designed to help you save time and money, while you and your family enjoy exclusive savings and access to benefits like:

  • Discounts on shopping, home decorating and home improvement
  • Cash-Back on dining, movies, music, cell phones and satellite television
  • 24-hour access to a home resource center for assistance and referrals, security, product information and more
  • Bonus Magazine offer to Redbook, Smart Money, Veranda or Esquire

Make sure to print and keep this letter for your records!

Thank you for activating your Preferred Buyers PassSM 30 day trial membership!

Sincerely,

Samantha Blake, Membership Director

customerservice@encoremarketing.com

ProFlowers Gift Code Terms and Conditions: No cash value. No cash back upon redemption or at any other time. Only valid in connection with ProFlowers.com product orders made online at www.proflowers.com or via telephone at 1-800-580-2913. Not Valid in conjunction with other offers or discounts. Proflowers is not responsible for lost or stolen gift codes. Any attempted redemption not consistent with these terms and conditions will render the gift code null and void. Void where prohibited by law.

Encore Marketing International (EMI) is the offerer and administrator of
Preferred Buyers PassSM.

The email appeared innocent and I forgot about it. At least until my credit card bill arrived. A charge for $14.95 to the credit of Encore MKTG  Preferred Buyers Pass was on it. Encore obviously got my credit card number from ProFlowers. A little digging took me to this site: complaintsboard.com

If you read a bit on this site you’ll find that people have been inadvertently signing up for a service (what service I’m not sure) they don’t want for the past two years. You’ll also find that ProFlowers is well aware of what’s going on. I’m responsible for what I click on, but I didn’t realize that I had signed on for a $14.95 monthly charge when I accepted ProFlowers offer of future discounts. I should have been more attentive to what I was doing, but as I said above I don’t recall seeing anything about a charge of any kind. My credit card company has reversed the charge and blocked future ones from Encore MKTG. You might consider all of the above before doing business with ProFlowers. Obviously, I’m going to stay away from them.

Put “ProFlowers scam” into Google and see what turns up.
Caveat emptor.

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