Cher Public

KIngdom of the blind

Cher public, you know that Rupert Christiansen is not someone with whom your doyenne often agrees, but this time he’s got it right. Of course, it’s hard to get anything wrong if you disagree with a click-whoring windbag like Norman Lebrecht.

  • redbear

    I think our leader should take some sensitivity training. In the early sixties, I attended a lecture of Arnold Toynbee. He talked of his memory of seeing Queen Victoria and spoke of the changes in his life. He then spoke of what us students would see in our lifetimes. The “Rise of China” left us in humorous disbelief and the “Rise of Women” seemed redundant. “They vote, they drive cars and have jobs. What?” Since then, these two journeys have dominated the last half century.
    Why are there so few women conductors? Women are still struggling with equality issues and, if you sound like someone who has not thought about this, you are at a disadvantage and will find yourself in a lonely camp with Operaassport. If the appearance of a women is critical for a 17-year-old Octavian why is not this an issue with Siegfried, also 17? For “composer’s intent,” see if you can find a photo of the original Siegfried.
    Pompous retrograde criticism has a long tradition in the UK. I found the flip, vulgar comments about Tara Erraught in the long tradition of undereducated, self-important windbag UK critics. His “apology” was even worse. I doubt that an American critic would take such a position. You should read what Anne Midgette and Jessica Duchen say about this fracas.

    • MontyNostry

      ” … undereducated, self-important windbag UK critics.”

      As opposed to failed press-release writers like Mr Tommasini?

      • manou

        My answer ended up overleaf:

        manou says:

        How long is the “tradition of undereducated, self-important windbag UK critics”? It seems only yesterday they were a passel of overeducated prats.

    • grimoaldo

      “If the appearance of a women is critical for a 17-year-old Octavian why is not this an issue with Siegfried, also 17? For “composer’s intent,” see if you can find a photo of the original Siegfried.”

      Earlier in the tradition of “pompous retrograde self-important windbag UK critics” --

      Bernard Shaw on the singers he saw in the early Bayreuth Ring cycles --
      “Some of the singers are mere animated beer casks, too lazy and conceited to practise the self-control and physical training that is expected as a matter of course from an acrobat, a jockey or a pugilist.”

      Ernest Newman on Lauritz Melchior as Siegfried -- “Think of the young Siegfried as Wagner imagined him, the incarnation of youthful health and beauty…and the recognise him in an amphora” ( Newman puts in a helpful footnote here, defining “amphora” as “a two-handled, big-bellied vessel, usually of clay,with a longish or shortish neck and a mouth proportioned to the size,sometimes resting firmly on a foot,but often ending in a blunt point”) “who looks and behaves like an overgrown Boy Scout, and gives the spectator the impression of a man whose mental development was arrested at the age of twelve and has been in custody ever since.”

      • grimoaldo

        Newman quote should say “recognise him in an amphora *Heldentenor*” etc.

  • Jack Jikes

    A stout, ludicrously-costumed mezzo was described as fat. Good!
    The photos tell all.
    Lebrecht’s analogies are ludicrous but ANYONE who takes Bourne’s ghastly “Swan Lake” with any seriousness is a fool. THAT work is rife with misogyny

  • manou

    How long is the “tradition of undereducated, self-important windbag UK critics”? It seems only yesterday they were a passel of overeducated prats.

    • MontyNostry

      Midgette’s cogent comments are by far the best thing I have read on the whole farrago.

    • manou

      Completely agree. And I shall be in Glyndebourne on Saturday to check the whole thing de visu.

    • Leontynes Weave

      It’s interesting that this conversation has devolved into a voice vs theatre discussion, when having heard Erraught in Avery Fisher at a Tucker Gala I was less than impressed. I will say that if the physical appearance of a woman is described in such a crass manner it should go for the lads as well, hence some of the outrage over sexism. In any event Erraught has become something of a champion of “voice” fans of opera somewhat by accident I think, but speaking more generally I firmly agree with Coote and Lebrecht. The dramatic element in opera is primarily experienced through the singing. It does not mean they just stand and sing, they have to express also. There are hundreds of magnificently nuanced performances on Youtube with singers barely moving followed by the audience going clinically insane. People seem to have equated “opera is about singing” with “standing and making nice tones with no dramatic intent.” But no great opera singers do that and they never have. Do people forget that vocal lines have dramatic weight? If a singer can execute the music properly, in their voices with a properly balanced tone and mean the words as they sing them they are already about 90% of the way there, and this generally reads much more in a theatre than whatever psychological trauma one tries to unearth to relate to a character in an acoustic setting while singing. Instead we have seen the rise of more physically attractive “stars” who seem to be mediocre singers when compared to the greats, though they do seem to have mastered the art of acting like they’re acting. Jonas Kaufmann’s voice has precious little squillo and doesn’t have much presence in large halls. But didn’t he just brood so well as Werther and Faust? Anna Netrebko’s voice is monochromatic, generally uncontrolled above the staff and she has no coloratura. Meh. She’s such a sex symbol and she has that “x” factor, right? I hate to partake in some of the hyperbole that has been thrown around since this “controversy” began, but to me picking lesser singers because of their appearance or even mentioning it in a manner that suggests that the singing is not paramount sounds like the death of great opera.

      When we think of the greatest opera singers of the recorded era, there are some of them who were dashing or beautiful (Corelli, Callas, Wunderlich, Shirley Verrett, Kraus, etc.) and some of them were just average looking. But I’d really hate to think we could have missed out on Kirsten Flagstad because she looked matronly or on Gigli because he had a potbelly. To that end I don’t think anyone is seriously advocating that singers stand in dark theaters and sing a capalla to let audiences revel in the glory of the human voice, but is it really that controversial to assert that singing is the nucleus of the art form? If a woman looks like a model and sings like Kirsten Flagstad, no one is suggesting that she be turned away. But is it really so outrageous to say that if she doesn’t look exactly like what the libretto say but sings the part exquisitely she should get priority over a lesser singer who is more physically attractive or “looks the part?” The idea that people are too impatient to appreciate opera for what it is (people expressing themselves through singing in an acoustic theatrical environment) despite the superficial appearances of the performers shows a profound disdain for the intelligence of those who consume this art form. I have shown videos to countless “lay people” of great singers from the 60s and earlier and they don’t say “man those people should act more.” They say “man those people could fucking sing.” Is that not the thing that makes opera what it is?

      • MontyNostry

        It is dangerous to agree with Lebrecht about anything, but particularly when it comes to his views on opera. Despite having written a book about goings-on at Covent Garden, he has never shown any particular appreciation for the medium, and generally, unless he is on his Mahler hobbyhorse, his journalism is more about music as a social phenomenon (ie source of gossip and scandal) than as an art form. Guai!

        • MontyNostry

          That apart, what you say is very valid, Leontynes Weave (and I love your moniker).

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      I agree with most of Midgette’s column, but I 100% endorse that gif! Such a dream boat.

      Anyway, what’s missing from the conversation is that there should be different leeway for different roles. When it comes to Lucia the music is compelling enough that some productions might want to showcase a brilliant voice (should one appear) in a more turgid production. I took my mother to a turgid Lucia at Baltimore with a brilliant coloratura who I never heard again, and we all had a great time (she was waifish thin, but that’s neither here nor there).

      But Octavian? In the duets and trios he’s great, and there’s all kinds of lyric moments, but doesn’t it all kind of blend together at a certain point. Marschillan and Sophie are both more vocally compelling, if the later’s text is blah upon blah. And even if not thin, why must Octavian not be muscular? And why can’t we do an empire waist, a cute cinch or something the big girls do on Ru Paul’s drag race to sexy up a fuller figured lady and then design the direction (if not the production) around that. Come to think, a Rosenkavalier where Octavian was played by a woman playing a drag queen, very Victor/Victoria, has anyone done it?!?

      • Henry Holland

        Has any company tried to cast Octavian with a tenor? A countertenor?

        • Buster

          Unlikely, but the 1926 silent movie has a man playing Octavian. A very handsome one too.

          I find it difficult to judge this Octavian based on pictures alone. Here is one of my favorite singers in the role, who, on stage, was a ffabulous Octavian, but looks atypical in a frozen state:

          http://www.omm.de/veranstaltungen/musiktheater20092010/bilder/K-der-rosenkavalier-wa1.jpg

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          The opening of the ne Malmö production has an athletic young man as Octavian -- really fabulous.

    • Nicely done!

    • Well, she certainly thinks highly of critics, that’s for sure!

    • Jack Jikes

      James Jordan is right -- La Midgette is, physically, the has-to-be Octavian in a finer-world scenario.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      She makes the point I’ve tried to articulate a couple of times -- that whatever they all say about the singing and its quality, had it been better they might have been less preoccupied with the other aspects.

  • MontyNostry

    By the way, Lebrecht -- having whipped up the Taragate frenzy -- was later plugging photos of the Glyndebourne production, available at a modest charge from the Lebrecht Photo Library. Strange, that … Market forces, eh?

  • oedipe

    Meanwhile…

    Rossini’s Tancredi at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées shows that, provided one has a costume designer with good taste, a large singer doesn’t HAVE to look ridiculous or unconvincing in a role.

    Do you recognize the singer who interprets Tancredi here?

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BoB81PBIQAAVBqO.jpg:large

    http://culturebox.francetvinfo.fr/sites/default/files/assets/images/2014/05/tan_2.jpg

    Incidentally, I haven’t come across any rude remark about the looks of this Tancredi in French reviews.

    • Batty Masetto

      Terrific costume design, etc. But you also have to allow that the singer in question is a splendid actor and a master of transformation. The critics seem more divided about Erraught’s abilities in that regard.

      • oedipe

        True. But this goes to show that talking about large and/or short singers in the abstract is as meaningless as talking about traditional versus regie productions in the abstract.

        BTW, I just saw Tancredi tonight and I thought she was pretty amazing!

        • PushedUpMezzo

          Another great singer who we don’t see much in the U.K. in opera -- only, I think, in two Falstaffs (one being coincidentally a Richard Jones Glyndebourne production). Probably also a great Gluck Orfeo, but unlikely she’ll get a staged production. Remember the clutched pearls when today’s poll-winner Ms Blythe did that role at the Met. But in the event I think she won most people over. Rather a pertinent TT review of that performance here, even if one could quibble with some of the vocabulary (“big-boned physique”).

          http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/31/arts/music/31blyt.html?_r=0

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            Lemieux has done Vivaldi’s Oralando in concert at the Barbican too, which is the one occasion on which I saw her. I didn’t enjoy her because I thought she was horribly vulgar -- I really felt she crossed a line in the mad scene. I also have her duet recital disc with Gauvin and think there that the voice comes across as rather unfocused and undistinguished with nothing much to get excited about. But if she is ever engaged by the ROH again I’d be curious to go along, since I keep reading so many positive things about her.

            • oedipe

              I agree that in concerts (the few that I have seen with her) Lemieux has a tendency to overdo it, to try to be too cute. A baroqueux bad habit, maybe? But as Tancredi she was very restrained, anything but vulgar. And she was incredibly convincing and natural as a man. I confess it came as a big surprise, knowing her stage persona from previous roles.

              The opera is given in a version with very few cuts. It is beautiful, but drags on at times. And the very weak libretto is no help. I wouldn’t have minded some cuts, actually. But I thought the singing was mostly on a very high level. Antonino Siragusa (another name that’s quasi unknown in the Anglo world) and Josè Maria Lo Monaco were excellent, and Patrizia Ciofi (who isn’t everyone’s cuppa) was highly musical and committed. Enrique Mazzola’s conducting was superb, as usual.

              The production -which transposes the action to modern times in some small country in the throes of civil war (Lebanon? The Balkans?)- is elegant and nice to look at; it could even work, but the director fails to go all the way. The characters are very static, they just stand where they’ve been told to stand, and sing.

              There will be a live broadcast on France Musique on May, 31. Worth listening to.

            • Krunoslav

              M-NL has it in her to be wonderful and even tasteful, but i have been disappointed by the chesting and stylistically uneven singing she has offered both live and on disc in the last 3-4 years. Glad to know she can pull it together.

            • Hippolyte

              Ciofi posted some photos of the Tancredi bows on Facebook and I did a double-take. Was Michael Spyres the Argirio--surely he must be in London rehearsing Cellini at the ENO. Then I read a review on ForumOpera and was pleased to know I wasn’t the only one:

              “Ce Tancredi existe aussi scéniquement, crédible dans son complet gris ou sa tenue d’officier avec cette barbiche rousse qui le fait ressembler à Michael Spyres.”

            • Batty Masetto

              I have to love any singer who can show this kind of histrionic range while also singing well:

              And she also comes up with an adorable surprise for the last act of that Falstaff.

            • oedipe

              YES! The first thought I had when I saw Lemieux come on stage was: Michael Spyres’ twin brother!

            • Hippolyte

              I’ll be curious to hear the Tancredi broadcast because I haven’t like much of anything I’ve heard Lemeiux sing for the past few years--the DVD of Orlando Furioso is ridiculously over-the-top and ugly. I’m also not encouraged by the news that she’s scheduled to sing Azucena in the new Trovatore at this summer’s Salzburg Festival.

  • La Valkyrietta

    Midgette is very reasonable, but I very much look forward to manou’s review, and hope there is one.

    No matter what the scale said, I would love to have seen the Only Maria in Aida. She did give importance to appearance, she needed the chin for expression, she said, and lost weight.

    Whether singing, silent, or screaming, Leonie was a treat to have on stage, regardless of the production.

    I loved Jonas in Werther and this thread has gotten me to think, what about if he had been a hundred or more pounds heavier, but sang and acted as he did in March? Would he have been as effective in the role? His appearance certainly was congruous with the role. A fatso Werther? This is one of these hypothetical considerations, probably of no use. Anyway, I think I would have liked him as much, but perhaps my eyes would have concentrated more on the face expressions than on the silhouette. Which proves to me that appearance does make a difference but not an essential difference, other things considered.

  • manou

    Hugo Shirley has had the benefit of a later deadline and tweets:

    Hugo Shirley ?@hugojeshirley 2h

    Right, well, here’s my review of the @glyndebourne Rosenkavalier http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts/opera/9211971/a-rosenkavalier-without-a-heart-isnt-much-of-a-rosenkavalier-at-all/

    Excerpt:

    “Royal’s Marschallin is sung with poise and plenty of beautiful tone, if not enough creaminess and volume, but could this cold, predatory Marschallin really care about this Octavian, or, indeed, anyone? It’s a question whose answer is further complicated by the fact that the only concession to Erraught’s playing a trouser role is, well, the trousers, plus some sideburns hiding under distinctly feminine long hair. The Irish mezzo sings with unstintingly vibrant, forthright tone, but in a production where both Royal and Gheorghiu look the part so immaculately, her unandrogynous, diminutive Octavian is notably unconvincing.”

    • MontyNostry

      The poor chap is probably now going to have to suffer slings and arrows whatever.

    • No Expert

      So was Erraught too big or too small?

  • redbear

    This all unfolds during a time when this issue has been in the front burner. When some male conductors get the question “Why are there so few women conductors?” they have not thought about a good answer and their off the cuff response lands them in the slums of Twitterville. To salvage something of their reputation, they usually try to “explain with more nuance” what they mean. This recently happened to a bright youngish composer and head of the Paris Conservatory and to former “rising star” conductor at Liverpool. If you say the failure is in “womanhood” you sound like an idiot are you likely are one.
    Women, now in the majority, are sick and tired of the measurable double-standard in judging their performance and writers who have not thought about this are showing their age and lack of social awareness.
    There is another issue. If you go to the opera and the production is not what you expect, you can say the production is wrong or you can think about what is all means. All over the world, in theater, music, art and opera, artists are trying to reimagine opera. This is a regular feature in European opera productions now. Some of it works and much of it doesn’t but anyone going to opera there should expect a new perspective. If you send a bloated ego to report this, he might want to see something he is familiar with and reject the new out of hand. This love for “tradition” in opera is not in any way conducive to growth and change and, in fact, is the albatross around opera’s neck.

  • La Valkyrietta

    manou,

    Hugo Shirley says,

    “The Irish mezzo sings with unstintingly vibrant, forthright tone, but in a production where both Royal and Gheorghiu look the part so immaculately, her unandrogynous, diminutive Octavian is notably unconvincing. Perhaps that was the point, just another part of the way Jones constantly controls the characters’ emotions, framing them in ironies and artificialities beyond those created by Hofmannsthal and Strauss.”

    Perhaps on Saturday you might think further on why such Octavian, and how he fits on the trio at the end. Some people (not me) see Rosenkavalier just for the Italian tenor and the trio :).

    • manou

      Thanks for the assignment LaVal -- I shall try not to disappoint you.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Dame Kiri was interviewed on BBC R4’s Today programme at 7.30am today (she was on the line from Auckland) -- she didn’t address the points terribly well, but she did describe it as a ‘costume shocker’ and said that if she’d been presented with such a wig at the first costume rehearsal, she’d have thrown it on the floor and stamped on it (I’m sure she meant by that that she would have had a discussion with the creative team and worked with them to find an acceptable compromise).

    • turings

      Nothing gets a discussion started like stamping on your colleagues’ work.

      Here’s the Telegraph’s write-up of it. Not sure I’ve ever read so much of the Telegraph in a week.

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/10848873/Dame-Kiri-Te-Kanawa-blames-Glyndebourne-costumes-for-sexism-row.html

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        We’re all going to be over our 20 free articles per month limit in no time, and won’t be able to read the next time La Cieca objects so one of Rupert’s pieces.

        • PushedUpMezzo

          That’s what the Telegraph would love -- hordes of opinionated international paying subscribers. Of course they could always hire La Cieca.

  • Troppo Primavera

    Dame Kiri makes a good point.The costume and wig are disasters.A young inexperienced singer working with a brilliant director like Richard Jones is unlikely to question his design choices.But it is often apparent in his productions that he has a predeliction for making singers look grotesque.I’m thinking of Banks in Hoffmann,Dalayman in Lady Macbeth,among many.He should take responsibility.A very good costume designer can make anyone look good.When the enormously fat Rita Hunter sang Brunnhilde at the coliseum,she looked fine,because her dress was flattering and she was barefoot.The director knew that a fat person barefoot has a naturalness and a very different plastique than a fat person stomping about in shoes.Think Eaglen in The Ring at the Met.Actors in the theatre are much more canny about how they present themselves than most singers.Tara should take that hideous costume to the wardrobe with a big pair of scissors and show that she means business.

    • PushedUpMezzo

      So of course the Telegraph chooses an archive picture of one of Dame Kiri’s more questionable outfits. She does make some fair comments, and, as a colleague and mentor of young singers, obviously knows the effect of these perjorative comments on them. Wonder what she made of the Marschallin’s shower scene.

      • Grane

        Yikes! Kiri should know from costume disasters. remember that Court Jester outfit she wore to sing at the Royal Wedding?

    • MontyNostry

      You’re right about Banks in that lackadaisical ENO Hoffmann (I’d actually forgotten I’d seen it, though the singing was OK, more than OK in Georgia Jarman’s case). He actually was so badly costumed, wigged and made up that you hardly noticed he was there. He was just featureless.

    • Often admonished

      But it is often apparent in his productions that he has a predeliction for making singers look grotesque.

      Yep, he likes them down at his level.

      • oedipe

        Just bad taste, perhaps?

        • MontyNostry

          More ageing enfant terrible, I feel, who’s stuck in a profitable rut.

          • Often admonished

            You chaps are just too kind.

  • grimoaldo

    Yes, te Kanawa maybe could have vetoed a wig and costume because she was a star, a young beginner could not do that without getting a reputation for being “diffcult”.
    Worst I ever saw was Damrau’s wig and costumes in the La Scala Traviata, she seriously should have thrown a diva hissy fit and refused to wear those.

  • redbear

    Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR’s Deceptive Cadence took a look at recent writings of the “Ugly Five” UK critics. She wanted to see what they had to say about fat male singers. Result, no surprise.
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/
    The two responses so far rom the ugly five can be summarized as “Fuck off!” or “Shut up and listen, sonny, you might just learn something!” As Scotland considers breaking away from the “United” Kingdom, this kind of institutional old-school arrogance is not pretty or democratic. Next Prince Phillip will be reviewing opera.

  • Ocean_Europa

    Rupert is right.

    The level of self-righteous vitriol espoused by the overly-emotional blogosphere, the majority of whom have clearly neither seen the production in question nor, by the sound of it, much opera in general, is repugnant. The fact that they continue to take cheap personal shots betrays the full intellectual vacuousness of their discourse.

    Unlike most commentators, I was at the performance in question, and though I very much enjoyed Ms. Erraught’s performance, I understand the criticism which it attracted. I might not entirely agree, but I respect its validity as within the purview of the critic. It has nothing to do with sexism but rather a singer’s credibility with respect to a particular characterisation. One may disagree with this judgment, but please, leave out the intellectual dishonesty and moral paucity of venting one’s disagreement by means of emotionally charged, ad hominem attacks