Sunday, August 27, 2006

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Sherlock and SandC

Last night I did my best Sherlockian impression. I gazed into the fire and considered all the material and circumstantial evidence. It turned out to be a one and a half pipe problem!

First I considered the evidence:

1) A writing network run on Ryze by two Indian, American/Indian nationals--both of whom work in the financial sector: one in India and one in America.

2) Said two people (both business oriented) begin a writing network on Ryze (a business networking group!)—apparently for the love of writing (art for art's sake!).

3) Leader of network, Pragya, seems to have little interest in literature and issues pertaining to literature--though she is well able to write factual material and business reports.

4) Co-originator of network, JJ, is undoubtedly a fellow with a deep love of literature.

5) Many of network's members are students based in US.

6) Ethical and moral righteousness of Americans and American positions are never to be doubted.

Suddenly the solution came to me: SandC is actually a front for helping Indian nationals who want to become American citizens! Two bankers got together--one based in Bangalore and the other in NJ--to earn some pocket money by advising Indians how to go about completing the process that would lead to American citizenship. While their (mostly crummy) poetry is critiqued, the essential business goes on behind the scenes. A writer's network seemed a particularly good idea as it could provide some indication of to what extent the would-be Americans had already imbibed the cultural mores of the new society. There was also the point that one of the co-founders, JJ, had a genuine and deep love of literature written in the English language--a fact that could be used to good advantage!

In the end, I guess there is nothing very reprehensible in all this--except perhaps passing themselves off as people who were essentially interested in literature. For my part, however, (the happy and unsuspecting mummer), I feel like I have possibly been used as a character who could give extra credence to the "front". In these circumstances, I intend in the future to do no more than make the odd post on uncontentious issues--in the hope that this will be enough to maintain the free advertisement for my stories on the site. If not, no matter.

Monday, August 21, 2006

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I HAD ACTUALLY GONE ALONG to the poetry reading because I was feeling fed up and alone. On Saturday afternoon they were meeting at Starways coffee house, upstairs. They would be reading their favorite poems, discussing them, and looking at The Merchant of Venice with an eye on the possibility of future performance. Everybody knew that it was really just a chance for Anil to get a lot of people to meet for coffee. Can you imagine anything more embarrassing than reading out poems in Starways, and then telling a lot of acquaintances and strangers why you like them? Remember too, that this was supposed to be for enjoyment! What an utterly crazy idea… Yet here I was, standing outside Starways on Saturday afternoon.

I walked into the coffee house, which was fairly busy downstairs, and over to the spiral staircase at the back which led to the upper floor. Even as I began to climb, I could hear a sonorous voice intoning some well-known lines.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more temperate and more lovely…”

It was Evangelina, as I knew, and again I had the strong sensation that I was in the wrong place. Did I really care why she’d chosen that poem and what it meant to her? Obviously, I didn’t.

I arrived just as Evangelina terminated the sonnet, and everyone seated at the two packed tables turned to greet me.

“Hi Peter, nice to see you. Glad you could make it.”

I mumbled something about the pleasure being all mine - and suddenly realized that the only reason that they were being so nice, was because they felt uneasy. All of the people present were colleagues and acquaintances. No one knew anyone else very well. You might say that we were all present on sufferance. It had been Anil’s idea to concoct this pointless exercise, and he was the ideal man for the job - he was pleasant with everyone, but not too close to anyone. Everyone was tangled in the strictures that he’d applied through inviting us in the first place. We had acknowledged our wish to come to a busy place, filled with strangers, in order to read poems aloud: poems that had personal and emotional meaning for us. We wanted to shed our skins, bore all the others present with our lost loves, lost opportunities, periods of great sadness and joy, and then wash it all down politely with a cup of tea or coffee. I began to think that I’d made a mistake.
Anil invited me to sit in the seat right next to him. It seemed that the completion of the sonnet had created a kind of lull and nobody appeared too eager to rush into the breach. Consequently, Anil turned his attention to me.

“Peter, you’ve arrived at just the right time. What did you have planned to read for us?”

I had actually planned to read some T.S Eliot, but all those staring blank faces convinced me that it would have been a futile exercise.

“I’d planned on reading some Bob Dylan,” I lied.

“Bob Dylan? Good. Good. One of his protest songs?”

“No. His song about democracy.”

Anil nodded his head enthusiastically, while the others looked on politely with a film of glassy boredom covering their eyes.

“Democracy, huh? Well, I’m sure that we all have very strong ideas about that concept. We’re all listening. Shoot!”

I coughed once. I coughed a second time. Actually, I was desperately trying to remember the relevant lines from ‘Infidels’. Finally, I thought I had it.

“Democracy don’t rule this world,
You’d better get that in your head.
This world is ruled by violence,
Though I guess that’s better left unsaid.”

There was a heavy silence after I’d finished intoning these words. Finally, Anil spoke.

“Good. Good. The idea that we don’t have true democracy: there is too much corruption and lies. I like it. I like it a lot!”

“Well, I don’t think that you’ve really got hold of it,” I replied slowly. “That’s really not it at all. I would say that Dylan is saying that democracy itself is a sham. Whatever political system may be professed, the reality is that victory always goes to the strongest. It’s not a moral equation. Whoever has the biggest guns will always win. Might is Right.”

“But that’s a very cynical point of view,” piped up a very plain and correct spinster, who had probably read something from Paradise Lost.

“Of course it is,” I replied. “But just because a truth is unpalatable, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the truth.”

Anil recommenced, but this time in an entirely different tone.

“Want to know something true? I’m really sorry that I invited a cynical asshole like you to our cozy meeting here. You just don’t get it. We’re not here to see how the world really is. We only want to feel ourselves superior to those people that make the life and death decisions. We’re not smarter than them, or stronger, or happier, but as long as someone like you doesn’t go spoiling things, we can at least delude ourselves that we’re more cultured. Do you get it now, asshole?”

Everybody seemed transfixed by Anil’s words and there was a moment of complete silence. Then there was a sudden roar of anger - and I knew that it had issued from my own throat.

I sprang to my feet, opened my palm, and dealt Anil a tremendous blow on the side of his head. He, in his turn, rose to his feet and let loose a roundhouse right that caught me nicely on the side of the jaw. We fell to the floor, fighting desperately, with all the other people in the room staring at us wildly.

“Give him one right in the nose for me, Anil,” came the spinster’s shrill voice, as we struggled and tumbled over the dirty floor.

Just as I received another tremendous right to the jaw, someone started vigorously shaking me and I began to float upwards, as if from a profound depth.

“Wake up! Wake up!” a familiar female voice was saying. “You’re dreaming.”

I blinked my heavy eyelids open to see my own dear wife bending over my bed with irritation etched across her features. She was in her dressing gown, and it was still dark outside.

“I was dreaming?”

“Yes, you asshole. Now, let’s talk some more about our divorce.”

Saturday, August 19, 2006

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A Letter From Thailand

After a couple of hours of drilling more than a hundred golf balls through (rainy season) space, using a seven iron in a process commonly referred to as "driving practice", my Thai friend invites me to come along to the funeral of his uncle.

It is a buddhist funeral and this is the second night that the body is on display in the temple (perhaps they would call it a "wake" in Ireland). The four monks in orange togas sit cross legged like--well, like little buddhas--and chant the prayers for the repose of the dead man's soul. His wife and family are present. This morning, his daughter just arrived in northern Thailand from Taipei where she lives and works. Although we cannot understand each other at all, she smiles and laughs with me and my friend translates a little. We take our leave of the family in order to salute the statue of buddha three times--and then my friend leads me forward to the casket of the defunct one on which one can read thought provoking words that have relevance to the adherents of all faiths--and even to those people who profess none at all:

"We come into the world with nothing and depart from it with nothing."

After paying our respects we sit down with the relatives and friends of the dear departed. My friend asks me if I would like to donate something to the monks for the recital of the prayers and I reply in the affirmative. This evening fifteen others will do the same. One hundred and twenty baht is divided into six envelopes with twenty baht in each. My friend informs me that when my name is called, I must go forward and bow to the buddha three times. After that one envelope is deposited in the buddha's bowl--and subsequently one each in the bowls of the four chanting monks. Finally, I drop a sixth in an empty chair for the lay leader of the prayer. We (my friend and I) are given a pot of water when all these procedures are completed and kneel down before the buddha. We are told to pour the water from the copper pot into a little bowl and, while doing so, think of our dear departed ones. The chants of the four monks--whose faces are now covered in simple masks--continue to intone the necessary prayers. Apparently this is the night when the defunct one is informed of his own death and of the need to leave the temple of his soul before it is cremated once and for all, the day after tomorrow.

The prayers have now finished for tonight and we partake of coffee and biscuits. There is idle chatter. My friend and I take our leave with many bows and smiles and head for his car parked some short distance away. My friend's wife stays behind longer in order to say extra prayers. As we drive away, those simple words are still resounding in my head like a compulsive mantra:

"We come into the world with nothing and depart from it with nothing."

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Rossini on DVD

I have recently spent some time in London and I took the opportunity to buy some little known operas of Rossini on DVD. Perhaps I should say 'little played', rather than 'little known.' The overture to 'William Tell' is a concert hall favorite, but the the opera itself, at more than three and a half hours in length, is rarely played.

'Guglielmo Tell' was the last opera ever written by the composer and was conceived on the grand scale, ballet music included, for the Paris opera stage. Its huge scale and conception has meant that it has never been played frequently on the stage. Furthermore, it posseses many of the same flaws that can be observed in Meyerbeer's operas: static set piece arias, little attention to dramatic progression and girls dressed up as boys (in this case Tell's son). Nevertheless, this recording of the 1988-89 La Scala production, conducted by Riccardo Muti, has many strong points. Even when Rossini was composing under difficult circumstances (as here), his own love and understanding of the dramatic was still, inevitably, retained. In the dramatically and musically splendid 'leitmotiv' for the odious Gessler, there is more than a suggestion of Wagner, while the famous 'shooting of the arrow from Tell's son's head scene' is truly dramatic.

Rossini, of course, was really most at home in the early part of his career in Italy, when he had success after success as 'Il Tedeschino' or 'the little German' (a title he earned through his love of German music--particularly that of Mozart). This is reflected in Decca's 'La Cenerentola', with Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. The production was recorded at the Houston Opera, with Bruno Campanella conducting, Raul Gimenez as Don Ramiro, Enzo Dara as Don Magnifico and Alessandro Corbelli as Dandini. It is a perfect cast and even the vocal fireworks of 'la Bartoli' cannot hide the dramatic certainty and musical excellence of the other members of the cast. In my opinion, 'La Cenerentola' is at least the equal of 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia', and this is a fact that is slowly being recognised. I would go further and state that Rossini wrote at least three great comic masterpieces in the Italian language ( there is another written in French) and the third of this delightful triumvirate is 'L'Italiana in Algeri', or 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. In a later article, I intend to comment on new DVDs of this sparkling piece and also of 'The Barber of Seville', with Gino Quillico in the title role.

* * * * * * * *

I have decided to strike while the iron is hot and review the other two Rossini DVDs I boughtin London, before the experience begins to fade from my mind.

For Twenty-nine pounds ninety nine pence (about sixty US dollars), I bought a box set of two famous productions from the late nineteen- eighties: 'L'Italiana in Algeri' conducted by Ralph Weikert in Schwetzingen, with the German mezzo-soprano, Doris Soffel in the title role and 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia', also from the 1988 Schwetzingen Festpiele, conducted by Gabriele Ferro and with the American singer, Gino Quilico as Figaro.

Let's begin with 'L'Italiana in Algeri.' This is a very underrated opera buffa and it clearly shows the dramatic and musical skill of the twenty-one year old composer. Yes, it is cynical and cruel at times and one can certainly imagine the young composer sneering at the foolish and boorish Mustafa, along with his character, Lindoro--but in spite of that, it is a slick and exhilirating ride. The end of the first act is an ensemble 'tour de force' which is worthy of concluding any ordinary opera buffa--and in fact there is a slight sense of anti climax when the second act begins. However, after a short time, the comic and musical pace picks up again to send us careering to the grotesquely comic, but quite brilliant finish. Doris Soffel makes a fine Isabella and Nuccia Focile an appropriately obedient Turkish wife. American tenor, Robert Gambill succeeds in capturing the necessary 'serious levity' as Lindoro. All in all, this is a quite delicious production with gorgeous costumes from Mauro Pagano-- and any unbiased listener/observer may well decide that when it is as superbly performed, as it is here, 'L'Italiana in Algeri' is at least on a par with 'Figaro' and 'La Cenerentola.'

The second DVD in this box set also comes from the Schwetzingen Festival of 1988. Gino Quilico is a suitably 'braggodocio' barber of Seville, while a very youthful Cecilia Bartoli provides the necessary coloratura fireworks as Rosina. Musical director, Gabriele Ferro, keeps a tight grip of this well known masterpiece (performed here inside the famous Zurich Opera House) and all the characters and singers pull their weight to make this interpretation a truly sparkling one.

In conclusion, I need to say that with DVDs of this quality now on the market, it is surely only a matter of time before exclusively audio recordings of opera become extinct.