Friday, October 26, 2012

Il Trovatore 2012

I heard Il Tovatore last night at the Mett. It delivered passion as an Italian opera, especially Verdi, always should but doesn’t.  Guanqun Yu, a Chinese soprano most of us have never heard or even heard of before, sang Leonora, and she set the tone.  From the very fist appearance in the palace garden, singing “Tacea la notte placida,” her voice rang commandingly.  It was not only beautiful in itself and beautifully modulated, but it was also deeply felt, and she got better and better, especially in duets.  The excitement was all the greater since it was a new voice.  Two male leads, Vassallo as Il Conte di Luna and Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Manrico were good too.  It is perhaps in relation to Leonora’s passion that Dolora Zajick's Azucena was somewhat toned down in the effect of horror in her recounting of the burning stake.  I recall I was more moved by Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto.  I hope to catch Stephanie Blythe as Azucena later in the season.  I like this David McVicar production and the set by Charles Edwards featuring over fifty steep, narrow steps along a wall.  I always worry if Ferrando will safely come down and up again.  Morris Robinson, despite his weight, made some 30 steps back up to the landing quite nimbly.  It is a versatile set that, revolving, makes different scenes.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Killing is Killing

Killing is killing, I insist.  Killing is killing -- by hand, with a weapon, or dropping bombs. Killing is killing, lawful or unlawful.  Or, is killing lawful unless it is considered unlawful?  Or, conversely, is killing unlawful except in those cases where it is sanctioned by law? 

The dictionary definition of “murder” is “unlawful killing,” which suggests that killing can be lawful in certain cases, and it is not hard to think of generally accepted instances of lawful killing: slaughter of enemies in a battlefield, execution of condemned criminals, and killing in self-defense.  Justification in these instances is a sanction set by certain human authority, and to that extent it is arbitrary; killing is lawful or unlawful depending on the rules set by human law.

The Sixth Commandment states, “Thou shalt not kill,” without fine prints. Yet Christians and Jews alike exercised killing through history as did other believers.  Biblical commentators thus debate that the commandment most likely should be understood to mean, “Thou shalt not murder.”  We are instructed that the term in the Greek text was “φονεύω/phoneuó“ which meant both “to kill” and “to murder,” and so the English translation could go either way.  The Hebrew text, we are told, also uses the word ”ratzákh/רצח” which had a broader meaning covering both “kill“ and “murder.”

Killing is deliberate when it is premeditated and malicious -- another definition of “murder.”  Is killing then justifiable unless it is deliberate and malicious?  Or are we to understand that killing is deliberate and malicious unless deemed lawfully justifiable?  We come back to the same two questions.  What constitutes the exception -- lawful killing or unlawful killing?

Lawful killing is an annoyingly slippery concept, however.  Law is not absolute.  If capital punishment is lawful, criminals are justly executed; when it is abolished, execution is no longer just.  An enemy a combatant is intent on slaying lawfully ceases to be one a moment after the truce, and then it will be unjust to kill the same individual who had been an enemy but no longer.  At the war’s end the battling foes become innocent citizens if not friends.  If a man in self-defense shoots another and kills him prematurely at the perceived threat on the understandable assumption that he will be killed if he delayed his action, is the killing justified, or is it justified only after being injured first but alive enough to act in defense as it is possible if he had been attacked by a knife, say, rather than a hand gun?  In dueling, when it was legally practiced, killing was justified in the name of honor. Is killing justified when exercised in defense of the family honor to avenge the killing suffered by a member of the family generations earlier in the hand of the killer in the rival family?  Is killing in a crime of passion ever permissible?   Killing of a human being in a ritual sacrifice was practiced in some cultures in the past.  Suicide, considered honorable in one culture, as in the ritual harakiri, is unjustifiable killing in the sense of taking a human life. As to when killing is lawful or unlawful, justifiable or unjustifiable, the distinction fluctuates.  But in one respect it is clear.

It is noteworthy that the person killed in most killings deemed justifiable is seen to be not only dangerous but despicable and therefore deserve to die.  Intruders are vile, criminals are wicked, the enemy in a combat is foul and by extension all the members of the enemy tribe or nation are considered evil even in recognition of innocence of most of them as individuals; they are only unfortunate victims even if inescapably.  “You dirty cur,” a knight shouts as he pierces his lance in the breast of his combatant.  Conquerors treat the natives of the land of their conquest as subhuman and don’t have qualms about annihilating them. Captives in a war are often treated as being less than human, enslaved or imprisoned.  In a religious war, the opponents are infidels who are morally inferior or even depraved; zealots are eager to see non-believers demolished.  So, in genocides, atrocities are committed in the belief that the victims en masse are destined to be decimated.  It requires a sense of superiority over the potential victim to be able to accomplish the slaying of another human being.  Killing easily seems justifiable when it is done to those judged to be inferior as a being.  But if we truly respect a human life, no killing is conceivably justifiable.  Killing, in whatever form, is immoral, lawful or unlawful. 

Killing seen in this light is an extension of aggression, often an escalated action done reciprocally in response to another aggression; and aggression is an exercise of power fueled by anger.  If one killing induces another in revenge, it might be said in reverse that every killing is motivated by another and therefore inevitable and to that extent justified.  But if the initial killing is damned, so are the succeeding killings it caused.  In short, anger leads to aggression, and aggression to hostility and violence; and, violence in excess results in the willful destruction of goods and lives.  

If anger is contained, there will be less killing.  Yet, in most known societies, anger sadly is condoned, if within limits, and, so, fighting in defense of one’s ground, property, and life is glorified as bravery. Those who fail or are unwilling to fight are disdained as cowards even when they refuse to fight on principle rather from the lack of physical prowess.  Boys are often taught to fight to assert themselves; they are egged on to smack, smite, slug, and strike, to knock down and win by physical force with a show of strength, that this is bravery and righteousness. Resorting to violence to resolve a conflict is seen as moral strength even though, deplorably, it can easily accelerate to killing.   So, there will be no end to killing in the human race until it learns to manage anger better and cultivate tolerance and compassion from childhood instead of show of force as a manly virtue.  But that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, and tragically killing will go on.