Fathers & Sons, review of La Traviata

Simon Keenlyside as Giorgio Germont and Liparit Avetisyan as Alfredo Germont, photo by Catherine Ashmore

Fathers & Sons, review of La Traviata

La Traviata, opera in three acts, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, conducted by Daniel Oren, directed by Richard Eyre, a further revival of the 1994 production, Royal Opera, 17th December 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, distinguishes between hedonism, living for pleasure, and eudaemonism, living in accordance with wisdom and virtue. Witness Violetta (played by soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz), conflicted and torn. In Sempre libera degg’i, she advocates a life of pleasure. But in the opening scene of La Traviata, something of a bacchanalian affair, she tells Alfredo that she has never loved or been loved but that she fantasised about an ideal lover. Alfredo, in his aria Un di, felice, eterea, acknowledgethat love, the “heartbeat of the universe”, entails both pleasure and pain. Violetta is evidently ambivalent about emotional dependence.

La Traviata is replete with the crowd pleasing arias and duets characteristic of bel canto. Warwick Thompson refers to the “cruel coloratura demands of [the aria] Sempre libera” (‘Why is champagne not mentioned‘, Official Programme). But after an understandably nervous start, Ms Bassenz warmed up and her vocal pyrotechnics were rewarded by a prolonged ovation at the end of Act 1. Liparit Avetisyan, as Alfredo, graciously accepted being upstaged. Continue reading

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ENDNOTES, December 2019

Michala Petri

ENDNOTES, December 2019

Danish and Faroese recorder concertos; piano music from Leipzig, performed by Eleanor Meynell, reviewed by Stuart Millson 

Recorded in the Musikkens Hus, Aalborg, Denmark, with an acoustic of all-embracing warmth, yet with the tiniest detail clearly registering, and engineered to capture every level of the soloist’s involvement, is an engrossing trio of contemporary Danish and Faroese recorder concertos – specially chosen by the OUR label, an enterprise which seeks to turn the obscure into the mainstream.

The composers featured in this collection may well be new names for most British listeners: Thomas Koppel (1944-2006); Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932) and Sunlief Rasmussen (b. 1961). According to the biographical notes presented in the CD booklet, the composers assembled generally represent a break with what may broadly be described as the naturalistic, romantic Scandinavian era of music, as embodied by Sibelius or Nielsen. Thomas Koppel, for example, was a composer motivated by concerns about the dispossessed – although his Moonchild’s Dream creates nevertheless an unexpectedly ethereal, watery atmosphere – a Nordic nocturne of lyricism and gentleness. Meanwhile, Holmgreen and Rasmussen offer a more “jagged” sound, perhaps closer to the symphonic works of Uuno Klami (1900-61) which exists somewhere in between the most austere Nielsen and the harder edges and angles of the avant garde. Continue reading

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Vasilli Grossman, Pilgrim and Prophet

Vasilii Grossman, 1945

Vasilii Grossman, Pilgrim and Prophet

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations (Jeremiah: 1:5)

Editorial note: over the weekend of the 30th November – 1st December 2019, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-part adaptation of Vasilii Grossman’s novel For a Just Cause based on a translated version which was published earlier this year under the title of Stalingrad. Historian Frank Ellis, a regular contributor to the Quarterly Review, author of the first English-language and pioneering study of Grossman (Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic, 1994), will be reviewing both the translation and radio adaptation of For a Just Cause in due course. Meanwhile, as a tribute to one of Russia’s greatest writers, we publish Dr Frank Ellis’s review of the BBC’s earlier adaption of Grossman’s Life and Fate which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over the period of the 18th September 2011 – 25th September 2011. 


Having completed Life and Fate (1980 & 1988) in 1960, Vasilii Grossman naively believed that a novel in which he had freely drawn parallels between National-Socialist Germany and the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist Soviet Union could actually be published in the post-Stalin state. Whereas Grossman and his earlier novel, For a Just Cause (1952) had been subjected to a well organised campaign of public vilification in the state-controlled media, ten years later, Soviet functionaries moved against Grossman with stealth and secrecy.  Three KGB officers were dispatched to arrest the novel and to seize all copies of the manuscript. Grossman tried everything to secure its release from the clutches of the KGB.   He wrote a personal appeal to Khrushchev and in a meeting with Mikhail Suslov, the Communist Party’s chief ideologue, Grossman was informed that publication of Life and Fate was out of the question; that it was a far more dangerous book than Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957). Publication, Grossman was told, might be possible in another two hundred years or so. At least one copy of the manuscript did escape the clutches of the KGB. Smuggled out of the Soviet Union, this Russian text was published in Switzerland in 1980. Eight years later, marking the high point of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign, the first Soviet edition of Life and Fate was published. A year later, Grossman’s freedom essay, Everything Flows (1970 & 1989), the demolition of the Lenin cult, was also published in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately Grossman did not live to experience his rehabilitation. Three years after the arrest of Life and Fate, with no obvious hope that the novel would be returned to him or ever published, Grossman, a Soviet unperson, died. Continue reading

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Moor is Less

Gregory Kunde as Otello and Ermonela Jaho as Desdemona, photo by Catherine Ashmore

 Moor is Less

Otello, dramma lirico in four acts, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, revival of the 2017 production directed by Keith Warner, Royal Opera House, Monday 9 December 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In ‘Making Shakespeare Sing’, American composer Matthew Aucoin considers the ‘fraught alchemy’ whereby a play is turned into an opera. Some elements, as he observes, “will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognisable dimensions”. For Aucoin, Verdi’s Otello is that “exceedingly rare breed…a masterpiece based on a masterpiece”.

When we consider Otello in conjunction with its source, “…what is gained and what is lost” becomes apparent .” (New York Review of Books, Dec 19, 2019, vol. LXVI, number 20). Although Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito generally kept to Shakespeare’s plot, the opera only commences when Otello arrives in Cyprus, after a storm. Act 1 of Shakespeare’s play is elided and significant contextual material concerning Venetian mores is thereby lost. Continue reading

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Silence is Golden

Leo Dixon as Tadzio, photo by Catherine Ashmore

Silence is Golden

Death in Venice, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Death in Venice; opera in two acts (17 scenes), music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the novella by Thomas Mann, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Royal Opera Chorus conducted by Richard Farnes, new production directed by David McVicar, Royal Opera House, 21st November 2019

On a visit to Venice in 1905, during an outbreak of cholera, Thomas Mann reportedly had a disturbing “… encounter with unimaginable beauty…”, in the form of a handsome boy (PopMatters, Chadwick Jenkins). As for Benjamin Britten’s “passionate attachments to adolescents…”, commentators disagree whether the composer molested any of the “thin-as-a-board juveniles” that according to W H Auden, Britten favoured (Philip Hensher, The Guardian, 7 February 2013). Paul Kildea, author of Benjamin Britten: A Life (2013) thinks he did not but in Benjamin Britten (2013), Igor Toronyi-Lalic claims that he did.

In ‘The Libretto’, Myfanwy Piper explains how Britten solved the problem of depicting Tadzio and his family in the opera, given that in Thomas Mann’s novella, Aschenbach never speaks to them. Indeed, as Claire Seymour observes, “…there is almost no dialogue in Mann’s novella…” (‘The Unspeakable Beauty’, Official Programme). Britten, according to Piper, made the aforementioned characters dancers, as “…only dancers can express the trivialities and pleasures of human behaviour without speech”. In Death in Venice (1971), Luchino Visconti dealt with this conundrum differently. There are long passages in this film without dialogue but the director considered “…the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 as the narrator…” Continue reading

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Make English Great Again

Donald Trump Jr. & Kimberly Guilfoyle

Make English Great Again

Ilana Mercer holds the line

Beefcake Donald Trump Jr. and bimbo Kimberly Guilfoyle were on stage at UCLA to promote the president’s son’s “book,” when they were jeered by dissident Deplorables for shutting down the Question-and-Answer segment. “Book” here is in quotations to denote “so-called,” because the staple, ghost-written, political pablum, penned by ambitious political flotsam, relates to literacy as H. L. Mencken relates to conformity—i.e. not at all.

Predictably, Guilfoyle opted out of the conversational give-and-take demanded by her man’s hecklers, and went straight for the groin: “I bet you engage in online dating, because you’re impressing no one here to get a date in person.” Why “predictably”? Well, a supple mind may not be one of Guilfoyle’s assets.

Kimberley’s cerebral alacrity was seldom showcased when seated in Fox News’ legs chair. During one of her last televised appearances on “The Five,” a Fox News daytime show, Guilfoyle protested that, “the U.S. has already reduced its [toxic] ‘admissions’ enough.” Herewith, Guilfoyle, verbatim, in her own words: “So, we can keep doing what we’re doing. We can keep reducing our admissions. …” To Make English Great Again, you reduce emissions, not “admissions.” Continue reading

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Yes, Intelligence Matters

Yes, Intelligence Matters

by Frank Ellis

Robert Hutchinson, German Foreign Intelligence from Hitler’s War to the Cold War: Flawed Assumptions and Faulty Analysis, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence Kansas, 2019, notes, bibliography, index, pp. vii-x + pp.1-247, ISBN 978-0-7006-2757-8

According to Hutchinson, ‘the most significant fatal flaw in the German intelligence services’ reporting during the war was a protracted inability to see the world as it actually was’.[1] This is an enduring philosophical problem in its own right but in practical assessment terms one that was hardly confined to the German intelligence services. Consider the following examples. Between 1918 and May 1940 the Germans pioneered a technological and doctrinal revolution in military affairs. The British and French failure to grasp what the German had achieved  – there was no shortage of evidence – constituted a monumental intelligence failure and pointed to the fact that the British and French Armies were institutionally mismanaged and unprepared for modern war. Anglo-French diplomacy was almost as bad, caught out by the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939. In May 1940, Anglo-French forces were taken by surprise when the Germans sent massed armoured formations through the Ardennes (and did it again in 1944). The French compounded this intelligence failure by refusing to take seriously air reconnaissance reports showing that the Germans were massing in the south (on the Maas). Obsessed by the north, and that this had to be the German Schwerpunkt, French commanders ignored reports to the contrary because they did not fit in with their preconceptions about how the Germans would deploy their forces.

In the Far East, the British  showed themselves to be just as wilfully indifferent to possibilities other than those they envisaged by taking no account of the possibility that the Japanese would use the route that they did to attack Singapore. The Abwehr enjoyed considerable success with the so-called Englandspiel in which British agents were captured and executed in the German-occupied Netherlands. The disaster of Operation Market-Garden, the Allied airborne landings in September 1944, underscores, once again, the danger of senior officers and politicians ignoring evidence. When the intelligence officer at British 1 Airborne Corps, Major Brian Urquhart, informed his superiors that air reconnaissance flights had identified German armoured formations in the area of Arnhem – not what General Browning 1 Airborne Corps commander wanted to hear – he was sent on medical leave. And what of the total surprise achieved by the Japanese carrier-based strike force at Pearl Harbour? Continue reading

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Multiculturalism gives Whites the Elbow

William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea

Multiculturalism gives Whites the Elbow

by Ilana Mercer

America is “a society that is and always has been multiethnic and polyglot,” burbled David Frum, in a 2016 exposition. It’s a refrain repeated by centrists like David French, by lefties and by faux rightists. Such dissembling about America having always been multicultural is no more than post hoc justification for turning the country into a veritable Tower of Babel.

Early America’s colonies were founded by Englishmen in periwigs, speaking different English dialects. They were joined by Irish, Scottish, French, Dutch, German and Swedish Christians, who quickly adopted English as lingua franca. Not even the woke Wikipedia denies that “Nearly all colonies and, later, states in the United States, were settled by migration from” one colony to another, with “foreign immigration” generally playing “a minor role after the first initial settlements.” In other words, population growth was organic, a result of the settlers themselves multiplying and being fruitful, not of a flood of immigrants.

This so-called “multiethnic” dispensation saw early Americans publicly debate and come to a broad agreement on some highly complex, abstract matters of political philosophy, an impossibility today. The colonial community had to be tight to arrive at the Articles of Confederation, followed by the Constitution. Continue reading

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Silver Scream

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life, Old Age, credit Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute

Silver Scream

Bill Hartley, on the retirement-community racket

On a busy urban road near where I live stand a pair of heavy duty iron gates set into a high brick wall. This defensive perimeter has the feel of an institution but closer inspection reveals it is a gated, retirement complex. People who acquire an apartment in such places (never a mere flat) are buying not just a home but a lifestyle. They are heavily advertised and clearly this is a buoyant market. Although this type of development isn’t specifically sheltered accommodation for the infirm or vulnerable, once it has you in its clutches it might as well be since it operates on the assumption that by 55 (often the lower limit for getting in) your outlook changes, though as one inmate sorry resident points out in a promotional video, ‘you can come and go as you want’. However nicely put, there is an overarching sense of decline and inevitable dependency.

Paradoxically, the advertising often features hale and hearty couples, slim and trim, the sort you might see on television stopping at one of those leisure hotels or on a European river cruise. The reality, though, is somewhat different. Residents tend to be homely old ladies. Locational advantages are often talked up by the residents; nearby coffee shops or the proximity of a railway station. A bit like day release really. Continue reading

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Night Moves

Tuuli Takala as Queen of the Night, photo by Tristram Kenton

Night Moves

Die Zauberflöte, singspiel in two acts; music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Leo Hussain, 6th revival of director David McVicar’s 2003 production, revival director Bárbara Lluch, Royal Opera, 1st November 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Reinhold Hanisch recalls a conversation that he had with Hitler, on the bread line in Vienna. Citing Die Zauberflöte, Hanisch suggested that Mozart was a much greater composer than Wagner. Hitler flew into a rage. He considered Mozart’s work superficial and sentimental.

Imbued as it is with humanistic, nay Masonic, ideals of peace, progress, reason and love, Hitler evidently detested Die Zauberflöte. The character of the Queen of the Night, bent on murder and revenge, was more in line with his social-Darwinist thinking. Yet, paradoxically, there are anticipations of The Ring in Mozart’s late masterpiece. Its hero Tamino, who contends with a giant serpent, prefigures Siegfried. The Queen’s Three Ladies, brilliantly performed on this occasion by Kiandra Howarth, Hongni Wu and Nadine Weissmann, likewise, bring to mind the Rhine Maidens. And for Alberich, read Monostatos (Rodell Rosel, suitably sinister). Indicatively, a production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, at Strasbourg, is one of director David McVicar’s credits. Continue reading

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