Cher Public

Comparisons are odious

romeo-pattiA colleague’s review of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette has reminded me that one thing that is killing opera is the practice of critics’ comparing the singers they heard last night to dead or retired artists they either remember for their distant youth or else on record decades ago.

  • southerndoc1

    “at the second performance the final curtain refused to descend, whereupon Mme. Patti awoke laughing from the sleep of death, walked down to the footlights and sang “Home, Sweet Home,” whereupon Romeo Ravelli sat up in his tomb, rubbed his eyes, and marveled greatly”

  • Rob NYNY

    Gosh, that would never happen here.

  • I’ve said this before. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with keeping a historical perspective on things. Comparisons can be useful. The problem, as I see it, is when dead or retired singers are used as a stick with which to beat active singers.That serves no purpose. And when one finds it in reviews, I think it tends to come from a place of critical laziness. Rather than assessing a singer on his/her own merits, the critic finds it easier to just toss off a line like “Singer A was good but didn’t erase memories of Singer X”. That tells me nothing about the performance of Singer A or Singer X.

    • Pirelli

      I think it’s possibly valid to do it when it’s a review of a new cast in an existing production -- especially given the assumption that said production was tailored to the specific talents of the original singers, and now we’re seeing what a new cast brings to it (or doesn’t). But that general kind of “soprano X is no Callas” routine is, I agree, both lazy and crass. And not informative.

    • Armerjacquino

      Yes. It’s our old friend *constructive* criticism that’s needed here. Saying ‘Mme X doesn’t pay as much attention to the dynamics as Callas famously did in this part’ might actually be of some use, but we don’t ever seem to get that: just ‘She’s no Nilsson/ Price/ Tebaldi’ or whatever, which is no help to the singer and only serves to irritate anyone else who may have been born too late.

      The most egregious version of it for me, however, is the pretence that leading singers of today would have struggled thirty years ago: what a friend of mine and I, in tribute to one such ridiculous claim, call ‘Renee Fleming Comprimaria Syndrome’. Apart from being yet another irritant to people who weren’t born, it’s a completely intellectually spurious argument because it’s so reliant on hypotheticals that it’s utterly disprovable one way or another.

      • In fact, there are times when I think the opposite could be true. Singers of yesteryear might not be able to fulfill the staging demands or sing the entire role if some of the routine cuts were opened.

      • steveac10

        There is also the analogous “Mary Curtis Verna would be a star today syndrome”, when truth be told, there are always singers with lovely, well schooled voices completely appropriate to their fach who attain nothing more than perfectly respectable careers and would probably achieve nothing more in any era because they lack the “it” factor. See also: John Alexander, Hei-Kyung Hong, Lucine Amara, Rosalind Elias and Mignon Dunn.

        • I am going to stay out of this. NO ONE says Mary Curtis Verna would be a “star” today. Any one who heard her would say she had a full fledged, well handled spinto voice, a grasp of the style required by what she sang and the language in which she sang it and the skill to be effective over an evening. A “star” is something else. There have been many outstanding musicians including singers who for whatever reason did not become “stars”. Some achieved a degree of professional success, and some achieved less than that. Mary C-V had a respectable but short career. It’s true she had much more competition then than she would have now. But life ain’t fair. I have not heard an Aida as good as hers live in an opera house in a long time. But not even that would make her a “star” were she to reappear today in her prime.

          Standards HAVE been defined down for thirty years and as marginal as opera was “back then” it is more marginal now. I’m not aware many people care at all in any way. And the few who do care to a degree reflect abundant ignorance in too many cases and that includes reviewers. But that has nothing to do with Mary C-V or the singers like her. There is no law that she would be recognized as more important today than she was in her own time. Similarly, outstanding regional singers I’ve heard (several baritones for example) are infinitely better than Lucic and Domingo but don’t have the luck or promotion needed to get those chances frequently. No one riots in the street because a howling mediocrity and an arrant fraud are occupied frequently in roles they do badly. So long as they and a couple of other lousy people suck the oxygen out of the big opportunities, more talented people must settle for secondary status. The fools that cheer the lousy and the very few who are influential in the vastly diminished art press and know nothing, simply affirm how philistine, dumb and distracted this culture has become.

          That has nothing to do with records (many, many queer fetishes on records were only regional successes and some weren’t notably successful at all — although their records sound good). As to memories, well if you don’t have any, or are twelve, poor you.

  • Luvtennis

    I agree that it is usually unfair and sometimes mean-spirited to engage in the game of singer x stinks because they are not as pleasing to me as singer y who sang the role in the past. That said, it can be fair, if not particularly helpful, to say that singer x is inadequate and I know this because the demands of the role can be met because singer y did in the past. Check out this video.

    But I would point out that opera is not the only human endeavor subject to odious comparisons. Athletes, dancers, and furniture makers suffer from the same syndrome.

    But paid critics should know better.

    JJ’s point is well-taken.