Spring blossoms, a new Rossini opera, and good news re ISIS

by Rob Tiller

It’s been a tough winter, and I’ve been on the lookout for forsythia and daffodils, our early declarants that winter is done. I spotted a few on Saturday, and on Sunday I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where there were blooms and buds, and I took these pictures. Happy spring! _DSC8519_edited-1

Actually, Diane pointed out the first daffodils, when I picked her up to take her to North Hills Cinema to see the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. As usual, Diane had vetted the reviews, and filled me in on the major points. This was the first ever production by the Met of this 1819 work, and was the result in part of a campaign by its star, mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

I’ve never seen a Rossini opera I didn’t like, and I liked this one, too. The story concerns competing lovers against a background of Scottish clans battling the king. The vocal pyrotechnics that are characteristic of the bel canto style were carried to an extreme in this work, and the principal singers were all virtuosos up to the challenge. I was awed by Juan Diego Florez and John Osborn as the dueling tenors, and also by mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm. As Elena, Joyce DiDonata had charisma and amazing vocal agility, though I was bothered by her tendency to sing sharp. Conductor Michele Mariotti was young, good-looking, and completely a master of this style.

As Diane and I compared notes afterwards, we agreed there were some odd moments. Who were those kneeling men with blue faces? What were those metal poles in the battle camp? Why did the cloudy horizon cover only half the background? Even with belief well suspended, the plot has some bumpy parts. But we loved the music, and the production worked.

There was more news of mayhem in the Middle East this week, as seems to be true most weeks. This is an area of the world that I do not feel a great affinity for. I’m sure there are some good and interesting people there, but their countries have lots of history, culture, and conflicts I never learned much about.

I don’t think I’m unusual in any of this. Those political leaders with the greatest interest in showing deep knowledge of the Middle East to promote their preferred programs, such as war, almost never say anything non-obvious. This makes me tend to believe that despite our massive intelligence programs, we still have little understanding of the drivers of Middle East conflict. This is serious, because we cannot have a reasonable plan for solving a problem we do not understand.

We generally default to the belief that violent actors all hate all Americans and are primarily concerned with destroying it. But even with the limited information we get from daily journalism, we should know that things are a lot more nuanced than that. The Sunnis hate the Shiites, this kind of Sunnis hate that kind of Sunnis, and moderates hate the Jihadists. Some Jihadists want to wreak worldwide havoc, and others want to build a fundamentalist Islamic state (which is ISIS’s declared objective). And as always, there are people driven primarily by love of power and greed.

In the NY Times this morning, there was a story about how Al Qaeda came to have a lot of money from the CIA. The main story concerned an Afghan hostage situation, but it also discussed how the CIA delivered large bags of cash to then-President Hamid Karzai, in amounts up to $1 million per bag, for him to use to bribe others as he saw fit. Is this not outrageous? Surely we stopped this practice after the odious Karzai left? Well, the report today said … “The cash [is] still coming in . . . .”

Having gone many years without anything like an existential threat from a Jihadist group from the Middle East, you’d think we might be ready to put that behind us and focus on things that are much more serious threats. But the appearance of ISIS has reignited old fears and restarted the drumbeat of war.

We learned some new things about the war against ISIS this week. Iran is fighting them hard, and with some success. This puts the US in the impossible position of trying to fight ISIS without effectively supporting declared enemies Iran and Bashar al-Assad. We also learned that ISIS is not only losing some battles, but losing some supporters, because of increasing corruption and cruelty. I was glad to hear it, for I wish the homicidal fanatics of ISIS nothing but ill.

But none of this alters my view that this is not our war. I still do not understand why we would sacrifice the life of a single American young person in a fight against them, unless they become an actual threat to us. The countries ISIS now threatens or worries are not our good friends. This is not a situation we understand or can solve.