Monday, April 29, 2013

Giulio Cesare or, the Queen of the Nile

Dessay and Daniels in Cesare - but which one's the queen?
April Fools' Day may have been the first of the month but it didn't matter for the Metropolitan Opera last Saturday, as it pulled off one of the great practical jokes of recent time on a capacity crowd in New York and a worldwide HD theater audience, with David McVicar's hoax "production" of Handel's Giulio Cesare.

The idea of doing a broad parody of Handel's most famous opera - turning it into a sex farce complete with cross-dressers, hokey dance scenes, and over-the-top arias that seemed as if they would never end - would have been a risky stunt in less capable hands, but McVicar and his talented cast executed the spoof brilliantly, with nary a wink nor nod to the knowing audience, most of whom were in on the joke from the opening curtain. Not since This Is Spinal Tap has a genre been mocked so mercilessly - and hilariously - as it was here.

Cesare was ripe from beginning to end with scenes so ridiculous that they obviously weren't meant to be taken seriously as actual opera.  Take, for example, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux, whose Tolomeo was a joy to behold, a remarkable performance of over-the-top effemininity made all the more effective through Dumaux’s insistence on playing it all straight (so to speak). Surely the idea of turning the bloodthirsty co-ruler of Egypt into a fruit-flavored sadomachostic drag queen, and then suggesting that he actually had a sexual interest in Pompey’s widow Cornelia (shrilly played by Patricia Bardon) would have been madness in the hands of a lesser production team, but the sheer ridiculousness of it all just added to the general gaiety of the night.

Tolomeo’s bitter rival to the throne, his sister Cleopatra, was played to the hilt by the afternoon’s star, soprano Natalie Dessay. Dessay has long been recognized as one of opera’s greatest actresses, and her willingness to spoof her own reputation with an all-singing, all-dancing interpretation of the teenage queen that seemed to have come right out of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” musical, with routines ranging from the Charleston to Bollywood-inspired schtick, was a risk from which lesser singers might have shied. Dessay, at least thirty years too old for the role, eshewed the use of any makeup that might have detracted from the impression she was actually playing Cleopatra's mother, and proved that in the generally stuffy world of opera, a diva willing to make an asp of herself is indeed a breath of fresh air.

Cleopatra’s love interest, Giulio Cesare himself, was the famed countertenor David Daniels. Up until the 1980s, the role of Caesar, written for the castrati of Handel’s time, had frequently been interpolated for high basses, providing a measure of authenticity for the work. That obviously would have been inappropriate in this case; thankfully, McVicar chose to go with the more modern practice of casting Caesar as a countertenor, and in the hands of Daniels, the military general became just another lovestruck boy. Daniels’ passionate make-out sessions with Dessay provided some of the biggest laughs of all.

We also shouldn’t overlook Alice Coote in the trouser role of Sesto, Pompey’s grieving son. The idea of Coote’s hermaphroditic Sesto vowing vengeance on the mincing Tolomeo would have been enough to keep anyone in stitches for the rest of the evening, were there not even more laughs in store.  And we must save a word for Rachid Ben Abdeslam, as Cleopatra's aide Nireno, obviously channeling Liberace's comedic talents in a flamingly flamboyant presence throughout.

The cast was ably led throughout by conductor Harry Bicket, perhaps today's premier interpreter of early music.  Baroque opera has gotten a bad rap through the centuries for its static staging and endless lyrical repeats (in which a single line is repeated as many as three or four times), making it rich for parody.  But by slowing the tempo even further, Bicket was able to produce exaggeratedly long set pieces - so long, in fact, that were this an actual opera many patrons probably would have fallen asleep.  This production, however, proved the old adage that nothing succeeds like excess.

Only base Guido Loconsolo, as Achillas, struck a sour note. His spot-on, realistic portrayal of Tolemo’s once-loyal aide turned traitor, was too grounded in reality to truly fit in, as if he were the only one of the cast not in on the joke. As it turned out, though, McVicar had an answer for that as well.

In an age when the world grows increasingly absurd, parody has become more and more difficult to pull off. Fortunately, McVicar’s crowning touch – that of bringing Tolemo and Achillas back from the dead to join in the chorus at the finale – surely removed any lingering doubt that this was a performance not to be taken seriously. After all, the alternative would be that the Metropolitan Opera was treating one of classical music’s greatest composers with utter disregard and contempt, mocking the story, the characters, and – most of all – the audience in a way that was both obscene and depraved, rendering the venerable Met as little more than a gay burlesque theater and Cesare a demented fantasy.

It would be so unthinkable, in fact, that only a madman would suggest that this performance was ever meant to be seen as anything other than this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. Indeed, it’s likely that the Met’s Giulio Cesare can look forward to a long life of midnight showings at independent movie theaters. And for fans of absurdist musical comedy, that’s the best news of all.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A new humanist theocracy?

I was raised in the reading of A Beka's wonderful history books about the United States, and the discussions of the Separatists, those who wanted a split from the Church of England, and the Strangers. It was a love of religious freedom that sent the Separatists on their way to the New World to settle nearly 400 years ago in the Plymouth Colony.

Now with the advancement of the homosexual agenda, including the systematic swiping of an entire region, I have this scary thought to consider:

Four hundred years ago, the Separatists left England over the fearsome arm of the Church of England, and a state-run church. Freedom of religion was the main goal, the ability to study God's Word, and being able to worship God. Now, in the same region, freedom of religion and speech are both being stripped, as homosexual activists have made it clear they want a humanist theocracy, where their agenda is the "gospel," and those opposing them are arrested and punished.

The Pilgrims, if they see what has happened today, would be very angry and wanting to escape the humanist theocracy that the sexual deviants have pushed on the nation, through the media and indoctrination of generations. They wanted to escape the state-run Church of England; now they are seeing a humanist agenda establishing a state religion, where the sexual deviants' agenda is law and freedom of speech and religion are eliminated by the state religion of humanism, which is controlled by the sexual deviants, with a President of the United States helping push the end of religious freedom and the push of a new state religion. While the First Amendment only bans Congress from establishing a state religion, today's modern humanist agenda is only glad using courts and state legislators to push a state religion where the state is a deity, and Christians are prohibited from any activity, from running ministries to help the needy, to adoption and foster care, and even teaching children a worldview opposed to the humanists.

Has the nation, especially in New England, fallen prey to a humanist order that is every bit as troubling as the Separatists 400 years ago leading them to leave England for the New World? The sellout to humanist ideas is the saddest thing we're seeing today. If Roger Williams saw what was happening, he would prohibit this humanist agenda.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The buzz that lingers

If you were like me growing up (and, as I always say, you should have been), you remember electric football - the game with the vibrating plastic men who never went where you wanted them to, instead congregating on the sidelines against the board's edge - or, even worse, running the wrong way into the opponent's end zone.

The Tudor game pictured at left was the second electric football game I ever had, and the first one to have real teams, instead of the generic red and white teams.  This one had the Cardinals and the Bears, and included spare holes in the end zones so you could move the goal posts from the goal line (where the pros had them at the time) to the back of the end zone, for the college version.  (Although why you'd want to use college rules for NFL teams was always a mystery to me.)  For me, the real fascination with the game lie in the externals - the simulated cardboard stadium, the design of the field, the helmet logos on the side of the board, and the different teams you could buy.  I had my share of games over the years, each one of them with its unique characteristics, and although none of them played very well, I loved them all just the same.  The games have long since disappeared from the household, but they've also disappeared from the stores, a victim mostly of our continuing obsession with the latest technology.  When you can recreate games and leagues with a computer, why bother with a three-dimensional game that doesn't work very well?

My interest in them has always remained, though (as hours of trolling around eBay would attest), and so I found this article (h/t Uni Watch) of great interest, telling us of efforts to revive the electric football industry.  I know I'm not alone in my affection for the game, as this book and website show, and I really hope Doug Strohm's efforts to get the NFL merchandising license pan out.  The games have improved over the years, and besides, there's something so - social about it all.  It's not sitting in front of the screen for hours; it's something you do with other people.  It's something you can be part of in ways other than simply pressing buttons.  And I wish them all the luck in succeeding.

By the way, that game pictured on the Unforgettable Buzz website?  It was one of the great games ever made, a Tudor special edition for Super Bowl III, as the logo and the teams would indicate.  It was the first to be specially made with the Super Bowl logo and markings on the field, and it was the first game to feature an AFL team in white uniforms (previously, NFL teams came in both dark and white jerseys, but AFL teams were dark only).  I had this game, and although the Colts may have lost the real Super Bowl, in my version they beat the Jets every time.  Of course, I can't promise that I didn't help the players out a little from time to time...   

Friday, April 19, 2013

Retro TV Friday

The report that Disney Channel is reviving for a generation that hasn't played the game -- in fact it's been nearly 20 years since the format even aired in the States -- the game that legend says came from Burt Reynolds' living room and whose format is owned by the company.

"Welcome to the quick-draw game that everybody's playing -- it's Win, Lose, or Draw!"

In celebration of Disney's new revival of the teen format, let's look back at the show:

Pilot clip: 

A contestant's child posted this clip of their father playing (best known version, Bert Convy):

NBC Daytime version (Vicki Lawrence):

Robb Weller (the final season of the original):

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pat Summerall, R.I.P.

My favorite Pat Summarall moment was from the 1990 Super Bowl, back when I still watched the game.  The San Francisco 49ers were in the process of crushing the Denver Broncos - had, in fact, just scored twice early in the fourth quarter to make the score 55-10 (the eventual final), and as CBS prepared to go to commercial, Summerall summed it up as only he could.

"This," he said, "is just unfortunate."

That he didn't resort to hyperbole, trying to be clever or the coiner of a new phrase, tells you what you need to know about Summerall the broadcaster.   In the past, I've referred to announcers like Summerall (Curt Gowdy, Chris Schenkel) as "big-game" announcers, because the sound of their voices lent gravitas to the event they were broadcasting, but as I think about it I think one could add another description: "gentleman announcer."

This shouldn't be read as sexist, of course.  What I mean is that, like those other men, Pat Summerall was a gentleman in the way he broadcast a game.  There was no shouting or hyperventilating every time someone made a routine play, no attempt to make himself the center of attention - the broadcast wasn't about him, it was about the game.  He had a rich, smooth voice, was clear and spare with his words, and understated in his delivery.  He enjoyed great chemistry with his broadcast partners, notably Tom Brookshier, John Madden and Ken Venturi, and they all profited from working with him.  And he respected the viewers.

Pat Summerall was one of the first former athletes to make the successful transition to the broadcast booth.  He had been an NFL placekicker, most notably for the New York Football Giants, and it was supposedly through his kicking that George Allen Summerall earned the nickname "Pat," for Point After Touchdown.  After retirement he moved to the broadcast booth at CBS, first as a color commentator on NFL football (working with, among others, Chris Schenkel), then to lead NFL announcer in 1974, from which he would ultimately broadcast 16 Super Bowls.  Besides announcing live events, he was also the host (with Brookshier) of NFL Films' This Week in Pro Football, back when that show (along with Howard Cosell's Monday Night Football halftime show) was the main delivery method for highlights of the week's action.

Eventually, Summerall became lead broadcaster on all of CBS' major events, including the NBA, the Masters and the U.S. Open tennis championships.  (He even filled in once for the ailing Harry Carey on a Chicago Cubs game for WGN.)  It didn't matter that Summerall had never played professional tennis or golf or basketball; he had experts to provide the analysis.  His job was to be the professional broadcaster, and he did it as well as anyone.

Summerall and Madden moved to Fox in 1994 after the network won the NFC television rights from CBS, and that was good news for the NFL - but not so good for the rest of us, since Summarall's move meant he'd no longer be heard on those other signature events.  Nothing against Jim Nantz, but Pat Summerall never felt the need to turn the 18th hole at the Masters into a Hallmark Moment.

Outside the booth, Summerall fought a long and ultimately successful battle against alcoholism.  In 2004 he underwent a liver transplant, and he had other assorted health concerns over the past couple of decades.  He was the longtime commercial spokesman for True Value Hardware, which meant that even non-sports fans probably recognized his voice. 

Pat Summerall died on Tuesday at the age of 82, and the more I think about it, the more I like that description "gentleman announcer."  I certainly like it for Pat Summerall - one of the very last of an era we'll likely not see (or hear) again.  

This piece originally appeared on our sister site, It's About TV.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Humanism's charge

The charge of the postmodern humanist movement has clearly shown its targets are those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and those who study it. The sad state of affairs continue, and we must push hard to turn back Satan's charge.

Any organisation with a Biblical worldview, such as the American Family Association and the Family Research Council, are now caled "hate groups" in the Department of Social Engineering, Special Rights Division (fka the military). When "Army Values" are that of humanists, where sin is acceptable but God's Word is not, those new values imposed by Shepard-Byrd and Public Law 111-321 has turned the "military" into a pathetic ballroom dance, the cluster foxtrot has gone awry. Hoping to hear a full investigation into this.

Our well-esteemed Catholic colleague Rick Santorum (whose son attends The Federal Feminazi Academy of South Carolina*) has a speech scheduled at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan that administrators wanted to cancel because of his worldview (remember that sexual deviancy activist Dan Savage turned his name into a type of X-rated material in a cybersquatting maneuvre designed to turn voters off him -- hasn't won elections since that happened). After pressure mounted, they had to allow him to speak there. Once again there is the New Tolerance push against a worldview built around the Bible.

And one more piece of New Tolerance stupidity. Washington State is run by King County. The rest of the state does not matter, and we saw it when "marriage" laws were changed to advance the humanist agenda. When Arlene's Flowers in Richland, WA, on the other side of the state (southeastern Washington) as compared to King County on the west, declined to do flowers for a fake "wedding" ceremony in violation of the majority of the nation (but is legal in that state) of sexual deviants, state officials have decided that the florist needs to be taken down for violating special rights laws, and likely Shepard-Byrd, which makes it a federal hate crime.

Is the forced acceptance of sin making it impossible to trust God anymore?

* The School Formerly Known as The Citadel, as it is often referenced by conservatives in our state following the Clinton Administration's successful defeat of men's only schools, while women's only schools are prominent.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

We can be heroes

A few years ago - well, almost seven, to be exact - I wrote about one of the novels that made a seminal impact on the youthful Hadley - Walter F. Murphy's The Vicar of Christ. It's a book that holds up surprisingly well today, as does this review. Considering the novel's protagonist - a man who is elected pope and takes the name Francis I - I though it might also still be of interest.

I've linked a couple of times in past weeks to James Bowman's site, where he's been discussing a series of movies he's presented, entitled "The American Movie Hero." Bowman presents three architypes of movie heroes: the virtuous hero (Gary Cooper, John Wayne), the "cool" hero (Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen), and the cartoon hero (Harrison Ford, in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

It's difficult to craft a good story without a hero of some type, even if's only an anti-hero. Show me a flawed story, whether movie, show or book, and I'd suggest one of the major problems is the lack of a hero. Bowman doesn't presume to discuss all types of heroes, and therefore I'd suggest the existence of another: the doomed hero.

The doomed hero encompasses elements of all three types listed above. He probably comes closest to the virtuous hero, the one who fights for an ideal; who, as Bowman says, sees "the work that needs to be done," and this is perhaps the defining characteristic of the doomed hero. However, the doomed hero can also share elements of the cool hero in the sense of fatalism and world-weariness that accompanies his mission, which can include a moral ambiguity about his work. It's more difficult to see the similarities with the comic, or larger than life, hero, although the doomed hero often appears in works of an epic, larger than life, scale.

Most of all, when watching or reading about the doomed hero, there is the sense on the part of the witness that "this isn't going to turn out well." Think of Maximus, the character portrayed by Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Not only is there a sense of foreboding about Maximus throughout the film, that although he's certain to triumph he's also going to pay a heavy price, there's also the feeling that this is as it should be, that there really isn't any other way it could happen. The doomed hero meets this with a sense of resignation - the resignation that you see in Steve McQueen's face in The Towering Inferno, as his character, Fire Chief O'Hallorhan, heads back into the burning building in a last effort to save the lives of those trapped inside. The expression on McQueen's face (through which McQueen usually did his best acting) tells you that he doesn't expect to come out of this building alive, and it's perhaps more a testimonial to McQueen's star power than anything else that he somewhat surprisingly survives his mission, rescuing those inside to boot.

This has been perhaps a somewhat roundabout introduction to Declan Walsh, the doomed hero of Walter Murphy's 1978 novel The Vicar of Christ, a book that probably should be better known than it is. We know he's doomed before the story even starts, really: in a brief introduction, the unnamed narrator explains that he's on a mission to write the biography of the martyred Walsh, who died as Pope Francesco I. So, having been told in the opening pages that our hero dies, we are immediately plunged backward into the remarkable story of Walsh's life: a Korean War hero and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Chief Justice of the United States and, finally, Vicar of Christ.

If all this sounds a little like just a too much for one lifetime (not to mention straining the credulity of the reader; even a favorable reviewer called it "preposterous"), there's good reason. I'd read the book myself one summer during my college years, afterward discussing it with a professor who enjoyed discussing that type of thing, and making this very point. Of course, he shrugged in response - after all, the story wasn't really about realism. It was about the epic, mythological hero. Were the adventures of Ulysses, Beowulf and Arthur any more realistic? It was big book for the reader to get lost in (over 600 pages), a bigger-than-life story that reminded one that life itself, in fact, is bigger than life.

The Vicar of Christ tells this epic story through the eyes of four people who knew Walsh well – a fellow soldier in Korea, a Supreme Court associate justice, the Cardinal who spearheads Walsh’s election as Pope (the book’s longest section), and, as a type of coda, the journalist who provides the inside story of (the now) Francesco’s final days. In doing so, Murphy tells us as much about the narrators, who appear and reappear through Walsh’s life, as he does about Walsh. Their distinctive voices, their (at times) compelling stories, their frequently contradictory opinions of characters they each come in contact with, and their insights into the enigmatic Walsh/Francesco all serve to weave the disparate threads of the story together. We know Walsh as they did, but in the end it’s unlikely that we know him any better then they did, for Murphy as author only lets us see Walsh through their eyes, giving us as much knowledge as he does them.

Murphy, given the chance to provide us with easy answers about Walsh, declines the opportunity and leaves the task to us. Occasionally one of the narrators will provide us with insight that another narrator lacks, but ultimately we’re left to guess about Walsh as much as they do. And while it’s clear that we’re meant to admire Walsh, it’s not at all clear that we’re supposed to understand him.

Murphy is never blind to Walsh’s faults. In an effective use of the narrative form, Walsh’s actions – good and bad – are always given to us as seen through the eyes of others, denying Walsh the opportunity (common to so many fictional characters) to provide a self-serving explanation. (When we do hear those explanations, they’re filtered through the translations of the narrators, further separating Walsh from the reader.)

As to those faults, they are a mixture of the objective (adultery, arrogance, crudity) and the subjective (a liberal Catholicism that will not rest easily with many more orthodox Catholics, though ultimately it does not get in the way of the story). But if great men have great faults, they frequently also have great virtues as well. A towering intellect, a driving ambition, an inner confidence that helps to hide an uncertainty self-knowledge, and an uncertain growth that (depending on your own reading of Walsh) either leads him far away from his old self, or brings him to the fulfillment of his destiny – these are the traits that Murphy uses to confirm his verdict of Declan Walsh/Pope Francesco I as a great, if flawed, man.

It’s always been a wonder to me that The Vicar of Christ, which was published in the heyday of the television miniseries, was not made into one. Its truly epic scale that covers all of the American passions – politics, religion, war, justice, lust – made the story a natural, and I’d thought that at one time I’d read of the story being optioned; alas, however, nothing apparently ever came of it.

So what, ultimately, do we make of Walter Murphy’s The Vicar of Christ? Doubtless it represents many things to many different readers – a hoary relic, the last gasp of a fading liberal Catholicism; a reminder, through the mists of time, of the legendary hero-warrior; a story, uniquely American, of ambition and accomplishment; or perhaps a universal story, that of triumph and tragedy, loss and redemption. At the very least it presents us with a doomed hero that would have done Wagner proud, a man sacrificed on the pyre of his own beliefs. Was he martyred for the faith, or stopped from destroying it? Or could it perhaps be both? That is one of the many mysteries the reader encounters, mysteries likely to be mulled over in the mind for some time to come. Not everyone will like it, or agree with it. Some may be bored with it. Fewer, in all likelihood, will quickly forget it.

One thing is for certain, however. As the college professor told me those many years ago, it is a modern demonstration of the power of myth, the need for heroes, the drama of life. And life itself requires some suspension of ordinary, mortal belief, doesn’t it? For even the most ordinary of lives is so full of miracles that, were we to write about it in simple truth, nobody would believe it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher, R.I.P.

Margaret Thatcher was next to Churchill, the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. She was, next to Ronald Reagan, the greatest leader of my lifetime.

That first statement is arguable, though I think just barely.  The second is true without a doubt.  Margaret Thatcher died today at age 87; she'd been in poor health for some time, and one knew the end was coming, but it was still a shock to read about it this morning.  Thatcher was a woman of her convictions - rare among politicians of her era, virtually extinct among politicians today.  She sought not only to govern, but to overturn a system which appeared beyond salvation.  It is difficult today to appreciate just how broken things were in Britain when she took over; they were far different when she left office.  Some will say that her changes were for the worse; I beg to disagree.

They called her the "Iron Lady," and she took it as a compliment.  She was the anti-Oprah, a woman who governed based on principle rather than emotion, who was concerned with doing what she thought was right rather than trying to make people "feel good."  In fact, I doubt very much that she ever asked any of her cabinet ministers how they "felt" about things.  "What do you think?" she would have been more likely to say.  She and Reagan were ideological soul mates and, along with Pope John Paul II, made up a triumvirate that helped bring down Communism. They were larger than life, and that is most assuredly a rarity in this day and age.

Being larger than life has its downsides, however, one that all three share to one extent or another.  It is one thing to transform a nation, a cause, a movement; it is another thing to be a transformational leader.  Reagan and Thatcher shared the problem of succession within their parties; just as Reagan was followed by the weak George H.W. Bush and then the Democrat Bill Clinton, Thatcher was succeeded by the weak John Major and then the disastrous Tony Blair.  The Republicans' stock remains low today because it's seen not as the party of Reagan but of George W. Bush; the Conservatives are led not by a Thatcherite but by David Cameron, who may lead the party to extinction the way he's going.  Only JPII had a successor who built upon his legacy, but with the transition from Benedict XVI to Francis only God knows where the Church will wind up.

I've always said it was a privilege to have lived in Reagan's time, and the same can be said for Thatcher.  Would that there were leaders today - even leaders with whom I don't agree - who were so firm in their beliefs, who actually believed in something other than which way the public opinion polls were blowing.  You might not have liked the lady, but you knew where she stood.  And, more often than not, for the opposition she stood over their defeated bodies.  Put bluntly, she had more balls than any one of them.

At the 1980 Conservative Party conference, Thatcher confronted those who urged her to make a "U-turn" in her policies given the outspoken opposition of the Labour and Liberal parties. She replied, "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the 'U-turn', I have only one thing to say: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."   That is as fine, and true, an epitaph as anyone could ask for.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

He Is Risen!

Resurrection, by Raffaellino del Garbo.
Originally for the church of the Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto

Those who have read Our Word over the years understand our enjoyment of sacred music, and we have always enjoyed serious sacred music, and we've spurned away from the man-centred music that has sadly come to dominate in our churches thanks to Oregon Catholic Press, GIA, Vivendi, Sony/ATV (the Michael Jackson Family Trust and Sony), and Warner Music Group.

For this Easter, we celebrate Christ's resurrection with Beethoven's Mount of Olives.
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