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.