As I suffered through two-thirds of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera last week I started honing a mental axe to use on music critics who go WOW over works that make me go HUH? This subject seems to have some currency, because Olivia Giovetti, in her excellent Operavore blog on the WQXR website, asks whether public opinion, as opposed to that expressed by music critics, should carry greater weight.
I could be really cynical about this and say my paying for a subscription series to the Met alone entitles me to a say, but I think it requires more than that. I’ve been a regular concert- and opera-goer since childhood, and I played several instruments during my school years. I can read a full orchestral score, and my musical interests have broadened in time, rather than narrowed. To put it briefly, Alban Berg’s Lulu holds no terrors for me, and in fact, I loved it from start to finish when I saw it at the Met a couple of seasons ago.
The New York critics have a tendency to promote works with great snob appeal. Let’s take Satyagraha, which depicts Gandhi’s years in South Africa, as an example. It’s sung in Sanskrit without subtitles; the audience is forced to rely on a Playbill synopsis and a curious insert printed to resemble a turn of the century newspaper. This last has “articles” with headers bearing the names of the opera’s acts and scenes; although I thought this was supplemental material, it wasn’t until the next day that I found out this was the actual libretto. On top of this, there’s Philip Glass’s music—pure ostinato. It was like watching a non-silent silent movie. While the physical production, with puppets and projections, was interesting, I wasn’t going to stay just for the scenery.
Critical raves over two other Met productions that come to mind also had me scratching my head. Janacek’s From the House of the Dead won nothing but superlatives, but as a Janacek fan, I really didn’t think it was all that. Yes, the performances were wonderful, but I didn’t find it to be in the same league as The Cunning Little Vixen or The Makropulos Case. I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again.
I could say the same for Britten’s Death in Venice (“You’ve read the book and seen the movie! Now hear the opera!”). I enjoyed the Met broadcast when this premiered in New York, but when I saw the revival several years later, it was a hard afternoon’s work. In fairness the performance began with one major strike against it—Philip Langridge, one of the finest singing actors I’ve ever seen, had to cancel the run of the opera and was replaced by Anthony Rolfe Johnson as von Aschenbach. In the opera von Aschenbach hardly ever leaves the stage; he’s spelled only by a baritone who sings seven small roles. Tadzio and his mother are played by dancers, and there are no female singers until the chorus appears well into the opera (Oddly enough you never miss the sound of a female voice in Britten’s Billy Budd, and it’s not just because it takes place on a man o’ war. The drama is so riveting that you’re locked into what’s before you–you never think of what may be absent.) Whoever sings von Aschenbach has to have charisma plus to hold the audience’s attention throughout the piece. Mr. Rolfe Johnson, while a good singer, didn’t fit the bill, which exposed the fact that in comparison to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, this work really isn’t among Britten’s best, though to read the critics, you would have thought this was a towering opus.
On the other hand, I loved Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy (critical pan), found a great deal to like in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, especially the Chinese theatrical techniques and instruments (another critical pan) and enjoyed Bartlett Sher’s 19th century stage-managed production of Le Comte Ory (you guessed it). And on yet another hand, with all their erudition, no critic that I read got that the miniature castle and knight appearing on stage during Act Three of the Met’s Tristan und Isolde look just like the itsy-bitsy Stonehenge from This Is Spinal Tap. PS—I giggled like a fool. So there.
The end result? Audience opinion should matter more than critical opinion. After all, there’s more of us than of them.