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Canard à l’anglaise

Rupert Christiansen (not pictured) writes, “…a right old mash-up of Meistersinger, confusing, contorting and complicating something which should communicate with radiant emotional and intellectual simplicity.” 

Now, understand, cher public, that Mr. Christiansen has every right to find Stefan Herheim‘s production of Meistersinger confused, contorted or even complicated: that’s part of his job as critic, after all, to react to the work. What really gets La Cieca’s goose (if you’ll forgive her mixing her poultry) is that wicked little word “should.”

Just as dear Queen Elizabeth I once admonished, “Must is not a word to be used to princes,” so La Cieca believes that “should” is not a proper sort of term to use around art, or more specifically, as a standard of judgment of the work of the interpretive artist. What she objects to is this sort of logical argument: “A good performance of Die Meistersinger should radiate emotional and intellectual simplicity. This performance did not radiate those qualities; therefor this is not a good performance of Die Meistersinger.”

That “should,” I think, makes the major premise suspect; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it falsifies the major premise altogether. Who, after all, says that “radiant emotional and intellectual simplicity” are the only qualities that Meistersinger should convey? For that matter, who says that every performance of Meistersinger must communicate the same set of emotional qualities? For a great work, a profound work, are there not a number of possible interpretations?

Now, I understand that Meistersinger is generally regarded as a “sunny” work, and I am not arguing that this interpretation is a bad one. What I am saying is that a “sunny” Meistersinger is only one possible Meistersinger, or, to put it another way, a “sunny” Meistersinger production expresses only certain qualities of the text. Other qualities will be seen more clearly in the light of a different interpretation.

Again, a critic is free to say that he didn’t think a production was effective, or amusing, or moving. What I don’t like is when a critic imposes either his own taste or received wisdom and declares that a production failed because it did not meet some artificial standard, whether of “simplicity” or any other quality he thinks should be present.


  • 1
    manou says:

    Don Carlo streamed from Salzburg NOW.!/don-carlo-verdi-salzburg-festival

    (Sorry this is OT)

  • 2
    La Cieca says:

    La Casa della Cieca is open for chat.

  • 3
    Feldmarschallin says:

    It says this program not available in your country :(

  • 4
    damekenneth says:

    I seem to remember our own Feldmarschallin loving this production, no? Having read many of her/his opinions in this form, I have found them intelligent and well-observed. Somehow they hold more weight with me at this point, though I cannot judge well having not seen the production.
    But I especially agree with La Cieca’s larger point that a preconceived notion of what a production is supposed to communicate is wrong-headed. Particularly in connection with an opera which inspires such complicated emotional responses -- and on many levels! -- it seems a reductionist point of view that the work “should communicate with radiant emotional and intellectual simplicity.”
    Lastly, having heard Gatti’s breathtaking reading of Parsifal 3 times in New York, it is very hard for me to imagine him conducting on auto-pilot. Perhaps he was down in the dumps, but?

  • 5
    phoenix says:

    Queen Elizabeth I as Eva? -- of course anything is possible.
    blast from the past -- this Eva looks like that Eva (on an even worse night):

  • 6
    Jurgen Werther says:

    Rupert Christiansen seems to be getting Opera Schmerz. Not only did he lay into Meistersinger but was less than enamoured with Don Carlo. In the case of the Wagner nothing seemed to please whereas in the Verdi at least the singing was OK even if the Stein production got it with both barrels. Can’t comment on the Meistersinger cos I couldn’t pick up the stream but the Don Carlo looks OK in a sort of generalised old style International Opera House sort of way. Nothing could really be worse than the Hytner currently doing the rounds.

    Anyway he’s off on his hols now so we will have to wait to see what he makes of the Herheim Les Vepres sicilliennes at ROH which i have to say is something I’ll gladly leave to true Opera Queens.

  • 7
    The_Kid says:

    “…..Just as dear Queen Elizabeth I once admonished, “Must is not a word to be used to princes,….”

    Yes, flourishing monarchies in all parts of the world show us just how valid her observations were.

    “…something which should communicate with radiant emotional and intellectual simplicity…” is a perfectly general comment IMHO, like “countries should not pass homophobic laws”, or ” one’s sense of shame should prevent one from taking pot-shots at activists”. It represents an ideal that is, alas, seldom followed in real life, but surely that is no reason to condemn the ideal itself? Unless, of course, one wants one’s productions to remain incommunicado, charged with a murky anti-intellectual complexity with a healthy dose of emotionlessness.

  • 8
    Talk of the Town says:

    I can’t wait to see this production. But I have no quibble with the word “should”. One of the major functions of a critic is to express an opinion.

    He could have said “In my opinion, Meistersinger … should …”, but in a piece of journalistic criticism I take that as read.

    If a critic is going to offer any view of the success of a performance, instead of just a summary of facts, he or she is going to need to evaluate the performance based on some criteria or other.

    As Christiansen has laid out those parameters at the outset, I can better understand his overall view of the success of the performance and gauge whether what he sees as negatives would be negatives for me.

    If I don’t need simplicity from this opera, then I can disregard his lukewarm review and go see the show. If I do seek simplicity, his comments are helpful in making a decision to spend my entertainment time on other pursuits.

    It’s like reading the dining critic tell me that “a good steak should be thick, and this one was juicy but thin”. Helpful information whether I care about steak thickness or not.

    (Having got this far, I do pause to concede that a particularly influential critic could cause restaurants to stop offering thin steaks, or opera houses to stop offering intellectually complex productions of Wagner. That would be a shame.)

    There is a school of thought, of which La Cieca perhaps forms a part, that says the critic should simply identify the directors goal for the production and then assess whether the production met the director’s goal in forming his or her view. I think the critic should do that too. But I don’t mind if the critic ALSO says “I liked it [or didn’t like it] for X reasons”, even if those reasons are contrary to the “concept” of the production. In fact, I welcome it.

    If a critic tells me “this opera was boring”, I may avoid the production. If the critic tells me “all baroque operas are boring and this one was no exception”, I may still rely on the critic’s comments about the vocalists, but I will know not to put too much stock in the evaluation of dullness. All critics have biases and I am happy to have as many of them as possible set out for me to see.

    • 8.1
      La Cieca says:

      My issue with the “should” is that it tells me the critic has checked some of his critical skills at the door to the theater. He’s missing (or deliberately suppressing) a certain capacity for surprise; in this case, the ability to be surprised by the revelation of a hitherto unexamined meaning of the work.

      And I think that this kind of revelation is about the most powerful experience one can have at the performance of a classic text, the sense that now, suddenly, you see something in that text that had been hidden to you before.

      I think revelation is going to be hard to achieve for a critic who goes into the theater with too rigid a sense of what he is about to see should be, especially if that expectation has been reinforced by habit. The standard interpretation of Meistersinger is something along the lines of “radiant emotional and intellectual simplicity,” so it’s going to take a certain amount of extra effort for someone who’s seen a lot of performances of this opera to make the leap to “but it could also mean something completely different from what I’ve always until now thought it must mean.”

      Christiansen’s “should” to me sounds like he couldn’t or didn’t make that extra effort: rather, it wasn’t what he was expecting to see, and so he just turned off, stopped trying to understand. That wouldn’t be so big an issue in the lay operagoer: I mean, you pay for your ticket and you take in the experience any way you like. But a critic is supposed to be working the whole time he’s at the performance, investigating and examining. It doesn’t sound like Christiansen was doing that.

      Please understand that this is not about Christiansen’s not liking the production, but rather about what I perceive as his dismissing the production thoughtlessly: it was supposed to be this, but it wasn’t this, so why do I have to sit through this crap?

      • 8.1.1
        Talk of the Town says:

        Ah, I see. Yes, every time a critic reviews a Regie production and describes it as a series of meaningless images disconnected from the opera and each other, I wonder: Did the critic fail to understand the production because of a lack of honest effort to do so, lack of relevant background knowledge, or because the director failed to communicate his or her message in an accessible way? Or is there no theme after all? Very frustrating unless the critic takes some care in explaining how he or she approached the piece and what he or she did afterwards to ensure that he or she hadn’t missed something.

  • 9
    manou says:

    Very interesting to read the comments -- maybe they were not up when La Cieca first posted this.

  • 10
    metapindar says:

    I’m late to this party, but it seems to me that there are two kinds of duty latent in a critic’s “should”: a duty to the creators, and a duty to the critic’s expectations. It’s fair to dismiss the latter duty as irrelevant, but harder to dismiss the former. Personally, I celebrate innovation in staging, but I’d like directors and designers to keep the creators’ intentions--somehow--in view; it’s problematic when the director seems to have created another show altogether, a staging that’s simply running concurrently with, or competing with, the opera.