Archive for October 2, 2017

The State of Catalonia

Posted in Politics with tags , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was appalled by the scenes of violence yesterday as police tried to stop voting in the `referendum’ on Catalonia. Here’s some footage from the BBC which clearly shows excessive use of force inside a polling station:

This is far from the worst example: elsewhere plastic bullets were fired at unarmed protesters. In all, about 900 people have been reported injured, though this claim is contested and  thankfully none of them – as far as I know – seriously.

Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the independence movement – and I’ll tell you what I think in a moment – there’s no question that the Spanish government has handled this issue very badly and in so doing has conceded a propaganda victory.  There was no need to use force to prevent the voting, as the  referendum was unlawful. The national government was undoubtedly in a difficult position, but I think it would have been far better just to let the vote go ahead in full knowledge that it had no constitutional validity. The referendum result (claimed to be about 90% for independence, on a turnout of just over 40%) means nothing even if you actually believe the numbers (which are doubtful). ‘Democracy’ means nothing without the rule of law. 

Nevertheless, it just may be that history will judge Sunday 1st October to be the day that Catalonian independence became inevitable not because of the vote per  se but because of the reaction to it.

Many seem to be either casting this as a battle between democracy and fascism, raising the spectre of Franco, or, even more absurdly, blaming all this on the European Union, ignoring the blame attached to the antics of the separatists. For a counter to the simple-minded propaganda emanating from the extremes of left and right, you might read this piece

Of course I’m just an ignorant foreigner and I encourage those with different opinions to express them through the comments box below.

The EU will of course not intervene in what is essentially an internal problem for Spain, but is right to call for a dialogue to begin quickly before things get any worse, as the Commission has made clear:

Under the Spanish Constitution, yesterday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal.

For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.

We also reiterate the legal position held by this Commission as well as by its predecessors. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union.

Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.

We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics. We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.

It was wrong to proceed with the referendum, but it was also wrong to use heavy-handed tactics to try to stop it going ahead. There is blame on both sides, and both sides need to get together to sort it out. I’m not optimistic that will happen immediately, but the only way to make peace is by talking to your opponents. Let’s hope that common sense prevails, if not immediately then perhaps eventually.

So what do I think about the case for Catalonian independence? Well, I’m not qualified to talk about the specific arguments, so I’ll keep to the generalities. Let me start with a bit of autobiography that might explain why I see things the way I do. I was born in Wallsend (on Tyneside) in the North East of England. My parents were both born just before World War II started, also in the area where I was born. Of my four grandparents, one was born in England, one in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland, and one in Wales. I always smile when I get to write my nationality on a form, because I put “United Kingdom”. Of course being born in England makes me English too, but I find that less defining than “UK” or “British” or even “Geordie”. To be honest, my ancestry means that  I generally find the whole concept of nationality fundamentally silly. I find nationalism silly too, except for those occasions – regrettably frequent nowadays – when nationalism takes on the guise of xenophobia. Then it is truly sinister. Nationalism is a tool by which unscrupulous individuals whip up hatred for political gain, regardless of the human consequences.

It may be apocryphal, but Albert Einstein is reported to have said “nationalism is an infantile disease”. The obvious way to cure it is to grow up and focus on fixing the real problems facing us instead of just waving flags, shouting slogans, and blaming others for our own failings. The reality is that we depend on each other too much for independence to have any meaning, let alone be desirable.

WNO Eugene Onegin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick review of my second opera of the new season at Welsh National Opera, Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which I saw on Friday evening. This Opera, based on a famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin continues this Autumn’s Russian theme, though it is very different in style from Khovanshchina which I saw last week.

The plot revolves around the eponynmous character Eugene Onegin who is dashing and handsome but also arrogant and self-centred. Young Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, and writes him an an impassioned love letter but he haughtily dismissed her advances, not least because she is a simple country girl. Onegin then decides to flirt with Olga, girlfriend of his best friend Lensky who, infuriated, challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky in the duel then, in remorse, Onegin travels abroad for many years (during which he grows his hair long but apparently doesn’t change his suit). He returns to St Petersburg and attends a posh shindig only to find Tatyana all grown up and the belle of the ball. Now that she has some social standing he now finds her desirable, but it turns out that she’s married (to a Prince no less). Though she still fancies him – Heaven knows why, as Onegin is not at all a likeable character – she puts loyalty before passion, and Onegin is left alone with his regrets.

Tchaikovsky’s music is very beautiful, with memorable arias and passages for the chorus. The most famous piece is, of course, the Polonaise that opens Act III. I have to admit that although I’ve heard this piece dozens of times I never knew how to dance the Polonaise before seeing this production. Here’s what it looks like (from a rather more opulent production):

This production has a conventional design and overall look, and is none the worse for that. It’s very much a piece about a particular time and place. Classic countryside settings are contrasted with beautiful ballroom scenes using a simple but effective staging involving a wall across the entire stage with a large rectangular gap in the centre. This aperture is used as a window, or a grand door for the interior scenes but also as a clever way to suggest outdoor settings. The only problem with this device is that it does restrict the stage area quite a bit, so the ballroom scenes look a bit cramped. Costumes are in period style, their rich colours complementing the rather simple staging. Onegin makes his first appearance in black, complete with a top hat, looking rather like an undertaker.

The Opera is in Three Acts, adding up to seven scenes in all. That makes for quite a few changes of scenery and two intervals or, as I call them, wine breaks. The kind of opera I like best of all is the kind with two intervals…

Nicholas Lester (baritone) was a fine Onegin in a role that’s challenging mainly because the character is so unsympathetic; he does get to sing some lovely music. Natalya Romaniw (soprano) sang and acted beautifully, her transformation from country girl to high society lady was very convincing. Miklós Sebestyén (bass-baritone) took the singing honours, though, with a stunning vocal performance that was very warmly received by the audience. It almost goes without saying that the WNO chorus were excellent, but I’ll say it anyway.

P.S. The house was pretty much full, by the way, which is good news. I just wish more people would turn up for the less familiar works!