Headshot of La Cieca

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Who criticizes the critics?

watching_the-watchmenSee, La Cieca thinks Brian Kellow is asking for trouble when, in the second paragraph of his analysis of last March’s Slatkinshchina, he admits, “I did not attend the March 29 opening-night performance of La Traviata, nor did I listen to it on Sirius Radio.”  

Because, you see, it’s hard to convincingly criticize the criticism (as Kellow does in the “current” Opera News, but don’t bother to check because it’s not online) without having heard the thing criticized.

BK goes on to rip Anthony Tommasini‘s coverage of Leonard Slatkin‘s ill-fated foray into Verdi, even going so far as to say that Tommasini’s review “[wound] up causing the withdrawal of a respected conductor.”

But as always it seems La Cieca’s on the wrong side of the argument, because she thought that the Slatkin review showed a welcome hint of snarky spine in Tommasini, who, for all his moistness over barihunks, is after all a well-trained and intelligent musician.

For once (or for rarely anyway) AT worked up a bit of righteous anger over what he saw as a massive artistic blunder. He didn’t explain it away by saying Slatkin had an off day, or maybe his old war wound was bothering him, or, you know, Traviata is such a rare and difficult gem that he deserves kudos for even making the attempt. No, Tommasini yelled “tripe” when tripe was served, to paraphrase one of those early sixties sitcoms La Cieca is talking about so much today.

Kellow does make one solid point, which is that Tommasini might have made “a point-for-point case for how [Slatkin] failed at various points in the evening,” that is,offering specific examples from the score of what went haywire and how. To attempt such an analysis in a daily paper would be folly, of course, even in the capacious pages of the Times. But blog space is cheap, and the NYT even has the advantage of multimedia capabilities.  They could have done a score animation, for example, demonstrating the same passage as led (differently but with equal validitiy) by a couple of recognized experts, as contrasted with the Slatkin stumbling.

Or, then again. As fond as La Cieca is of examples (ask any of her writers what her edits invariably ask for more of), there does come a point when, if only for reasons of convenience, the general reader wants to let the critic do the heavy lifting and then deliver a few carefully-chiseled adjectives to sum up: “is this worth my $200 or should I stay home and catch up on my Real Housewives?”

31 comments

  • Musetta says:

    I was there for the opening night. On several occasions, I had my back pinned to my chair in horror. I have been going to the Met since 1995, yet I had never heard the orchestra so out of sync with the singers. At once point the orchestra sounded so lost that I feared they might stop and retake a few bars. I was in the second row of the orchestra. Mind you, I have no formal musical training. Yes I grew up with music (my mother is a music teacher) and yes I do have a decent musical ear, but it’s a sorrow day when a tyro like me can sense such impending disaster. Tommasini was right on the money. This was a special day in the bad way.
    Interestingly, when I went home and listened to the recording, it did not sound nearly as bad as it did live.

  • Valmont says:

    The first problem is with Opera News in general -- it is essentially an in house publication, incorrigibly slanted toward showcasing all things Met.
    All Met reviews will be good, all artist features will highlight an upcoming Met Live in HD broadcast, and in the event that someone openly attacks the artistic virility of the organization, the editorial department will make the best argument they can that the Met was right in whatever snafu took place.

    • Musetta says:

      You’re very right, Valmont. But this is why we have cara Cieca. Truth must be told. I saw La Traviata three times this year, and I thought the opening night was Gheorghiu’s best. It’s really too bad that the performance was marred by the poor conducting.

    • Trappedinoperahell says:

      All Met reviews will be good, Valmont? You’re obviously not reading the same Opera News that I’m reading. All reviews are detailed, and reviewers clearly have the freedom to point out what’s wrong. They’re constantly criticizing productions, singers, etc. I actually find them to be pretty even-handed, surprisingly so for a house organ. The most blatantly tilted-to-the-house review I’ve read in Opera News wasn’t even of a Met performance; it was of Siegfried at L.A. Opera, seemingly written by the L.A. Opera’s publicity department.

    • iltenoredigrazia says:

      Valmont, I don’t agree with you with regard to Opera News. Until a few years ago, yes, it was a Guild publication that never said anything remotedly negative about the Met. Actually, it only started reviewing Met performances in the last decade or so. To my surprise, and pleasure, the Met reviews have been quite even-handed and many quite negative. Overall performances, productions and specific singers have been harshly criticized at times.

      In this specific case, ON dedicated an entire page to discuss/rehash a performance/incident that I’m sure everyone in the Met management would rather be forgotten. That by itself would have been unthinkable some twenty years ago.

      I read the Kellow article more as a commentary on what a reviewer says or doesn’t say, the influence of the blogs, etc. I for one agree with Kellow in wishing that reviewers were more specific and detailed and also agree with La Cieca that there’s something very wrong with a one-page article related to a performance that the author has not bothered to listen to.

      • rapt says:

        Opera News has reviewed Met performances starting at least as far back as the early 70s, under the editorship of Frank Merkling; he was proud of having introduced this feature, and the intended aim of objectivity, to the magazine.

  • pernille says:

    BK’s article touched on Slatkin’s comments on his own blog. Slatkin set himself up for the whole sorry mess by naively ( I suppose) writing that he was unprepared. He must not have realized that blogs ( even self-centered ones) can have such a large audience. It seems to me the whole sorry episode is a lesson about blogs as much as music criticism.

  • Jay says:

    After last night’s Armide, I’d say La C is very charitable about La Fleming and Zimmerman. I bolted after the second act; although Fleming sounded better than during the May 1 broadcast, this production is more about prima donna narcissism and adulation and I couldnt bear another act of this claptrap. I’ll catch the last act only on the PBS HD summer reruns on Aug. 24.

    The direction was risible, the sets cheesy (when some soliders carried off Rinaldo, they accidentally hit one of the palm trees hanging by a wire and the tree spun around for quie awhile.

    I envied the sight dog who accompanied the operagoer across the aisle from me. The black lab got to sleep in the aisle during the first two acts.

    I’ll be interested to see what ON has to say about this travesty. I walked back to my hotel thinking that if grand opera suffers a (somewhat) premature death, productions such as the Met’s Armide will be partly responsible.

    Brownlee was top notch, but Fleming, as has been noted many times hereabouts, is not a bel canto singer (I did manage to endure her entire Lucrezia a few years ago, but it was a trial).

    Well, at least I got a copy of the newly released Lulu DVD and tonight hopefully things will be much better at the Met.

    • Haimes says:

      I was at the May 1st Armida and I can simply say that Renee could not perform. At times, you could not hear her. Her Bel Canto was terrible. The stars were clearly Brownlee and Banks. The sets were too abstract and made no sense at times. La Fleming should have bowed out. This was supposed to be highlight of the season! Shame on Gelb and the MET. They are putting on a reprise next year… more of the same. We are not renewing, but will pick individual operas as we please.

  • uwsinnyc says:

    Re: “All Met reviews will be good”
    Wouldn’t that be unethical?

    Opera News reviews tend in general to focus on the positive aspects, but they do not blankly praise all things MET.

  • PirateJenny says:

    OT -- but I feel like it’s a public service announcement. The 1978 Adriana Lecouvreur with Caballe, Carreras and Cossotto -- and Lopez Cobos conducting -- that Sirius is rotating this week is fan-freakin-tastic. So good it actually makes me happy I have heaps of boring spreadsheets to do while listening. I seriously had no idea it was such a good opera -- I thought it would be a snooze-fest of waiting for Poveri fiori.

    And at noon today there will be the 1960 Trovatore with Simionata.

  • uwsinnyc says:

    On another note, I’m sad that the MET season is coming to a close. There were duds along the way but also some lovely experiences. Most interesting to me was that it was the operas I expected to LEAST like that I ended up enjoying the most! (eg House of Dead, Nose, Lulu) and those that I was most looking forward to (Hoffman, Tosca) were hum drum.

  • iltenoredigrazia says:

    The end of the season is time for nominations for Met Tony’s, isn’t it?

    My thoughts:

    Best new production:
    The Nose
    From the House of the Dead

    Best revival:
    Lulu
    Boheme

    Best female singer singing role for the first time at the Met:
    Racette (Tosca)
    Netrebko (Hoffman)
    Damrau (Fille)
    Garanca (Carmen)
    Peterson (Lulu)

    Best male singer singing role for the first time at the Met:
    Mattei (From the House of the Dead)
    Calleja (Hoffman)
    Beczala (Boheme)
    Kauffman (Tosca)
    Brownlee (Armida)
    Keenlyside (Hamlet)

    I imagine some would also nominate Domingo in Simon and Urmana in Attila.

    These are just thoughts. My way to recap the season. Interesting how much easier to find specific singers who did well than overall productions or performances.

  • stinkbot7243 says:

    Sorry, La Cieca, but as much as Tommassini might be a “a well-trained and intelligent musician,” those qualities doth not an opera critic make. It’s remarkable to me that the critic for the NY Times can give Domingo’s incompetent wand-waving in this year’s Stiffelio a free-pass, while, for all intents and purposes, giving Slatkin a drubbing. I take the main purpose/point of Kellow’s article to mean that Tommassini was merely jumping-on the pile and beating up conductor who had already made the mistake of issuing something of a public mea culpa, rather than espousing a sound critical opinion about a performance, in and of itself.

    • richard says:

      Hmmm… that’s a good point. If AT were going to make a serious statement about conducting at the Met then certainly Domingo should have been critisized too.

      Why pick on Slatkin when Domingo watched while while the orchestra sections, chorus, and soloists all wandered around lost? I wouldn’t be able to say which was a worse job but both certainly lacked competancy.

      But was slatkin maybe an easy target because he’s a very infrequent visitor to the Met and therefore expendable while Placidunce is a huge, huge box office draw and we mustn’t disturb the cash flow, musn’t we? Even though Domingo’s career(s) should be over. He can no longer sing tenor, which is what he did with success, and he’s incompetant as a “baritone”, “conductor”, and “administrator”.