Friday, 23 May 2014

On 'critics', singers, and musical drama: the perils of this 'Rosenkavalier' debate

I have resisted writing anything here about the furore over the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier reviews and still wonder whether discretion might have been the better part of valour. There is probably not much more to say about those dreadful reviews themselves, but I should at least begin there, if only to make abundantly clear that I have no sympathy with the sentiments or their expression. (It should also be made clear that what I say about particular critics is about them, not about criticism at large; indeed, the noble craft or even art of informed criticism would seem to have very little in common with the shabby journalism of those responsible for this controversy.)

Rupert Christiansen acts according to form; what more do we expect from someone who claims that Così fan tutte is taken ‘too seriously’, its second act containing ‘some indifferent numbers’ and benefiting ‘from neat cuts’, and for whom Gawain elicited little more than philistine, uncomprehending reference to ‘ugly vocal writing’, and outrage that he did not receive preferential treatment at the Royal Opera House’s bar? Added to the usual lack of musical comprehension – has he ever displayed the slightest knowledge of a score, let alone of any ability to interpret or to analyse it? – comes the most ridiculous, indefensible sexism. There is no discussion to be had on that count. If he were simply pointing out an alleged on-stage incompatibility between Kate Royal’s Marschallin and Tara Erraught’s Octavian, then there would, on the face of it, be just as much justification in saying that the Marschallin was too thin or too tall, though he would doubtless have used more charming vocabulary: ‘lanky’ perhaps, or ‘malnourished’. Given that an excuse often employed for newspaper critics is that they now have such a limited number of words to use, why on earth would one waste so many on the matter of a singer’s ‘motherhood’, rather than perhaps saying something about how the LPO strings sounded? (This is Strauss, after all; surely the orchestral sound is of no little importance here.) That the singer may have mentioned having become a mother in an interview, given in an entirely different context, is supremely irrelevant. It has no bearing upon her performance as the Marschallin, and when words are at a premium, such reference is simply incomprehensible – at best, the language of Hello magazine and ‘lifestyle features’. As for the worst of the lot, Michael Church’s cretinous claim that ‘Der Rosenkavalier is a rather irritating farce’, a mediocre seven-year-old would have been shamed by the writing, let alone by the viciousness of his description of Erraught or the writer’s horrified clutching at pearls at the prospect of a touch of lesbianism. (A brief comparison of Church’s ‘review’ with that of Julius Korngold may be found here.)  Richard Morrison's attempt at an apology, explanation, or whatever it was, remains better off behind the Murdoch pay wall; it falls back, apparently without irony, upon the 1970s sitcom explanation: how can I be sexist? I really like women? Just ask the wife... One can almost hear the canned laughter. Most grievously, none of these writers has any light to shed on Strauss, Hofmannsthal, and their drama.

Enough of all that, though. I am yet to be convinced that we need to find a Centre for Christiansen Studies; his dismissal of anything that might even slightly challenge is probably now better met with silence. There are, I think, more serious matters, which may be in danger of going forgotten. First, and perhaps foremost, the claim now being bandied around that opera is ‘all about singing’, or that it is to some arbitrarily-selected percentage ‘about singing’ is ridiculous, indeed pernicious. Serious musical drama, be it Così, Gawain, or Rosenkavalier, is that. That is not, I repeat not, to say that physical appearance – or rather, views on physical appearance boorishly touted by ageing, white, middle-class, male critics – is of particular importance, still less that there is any case for making bullying remarks concerning such matters. We should also remember that much of the drama can and should be expressed through music; ‘drama’ in opera is not to be identified merely with the libretto and/or the staging. That said, there is a great deal more to it than singing alone; otherwise, opera would be an un-staged, wordless, a cappella madrigal. Clearly the relative importance of constituent parts – insofar as they may be separated at all – will vary, according to the work, the production, even to personal inclination. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but the last thing we want to do is to return to the days of ‘park and bark’, or indeed to minimise the extraordinary importance of the orchestra and conductor.

For one of the glories of opera, as with music more generally, yet perhaps even more extremely so, is the element of joint endeavour. There is far more to go wrong, of course, which is doubtless why one is far less likely to be disappointed by, say, an evening of chamber music at the Wigmore Hall than by a new production at Covent Garden. But when we think of great performances of Der Rosenkavalier, we think equally of Schwarzkopf and Karajan, of the Philharmonia and Ludwig, perhaps more of Carlos Kleiber even than his distinguished cast or Otto Schenk. At least I do. Others may differ, and indeed on other occasions, so may I, recalling immediately, for instance, Robert Carsen's production, and only then his – or Peter Schneider’s – Salzburg cast; but can we please move away from the claim that one incalculably important element of the drama is and always must be ‘more important’ than the others? It is disrespectful to a host of others, be they those working back-stage or the highly-skilled musicians who toil away in the orchestra pit. (What would Octavian and his silver rose be without Strauss’s harmonic and colouristic phantasmagoria, and the orchestra’s evocation thereof?) It is also, moreover, a deeply worrying sign of capitulation, even if this were not remotely the manner in which it was intended, to those forces wishing to turn their backs upon even the modest success houses have had in reinstating opera as a living, developing, questioning art-form, and to limit it to a kitsch museum of exhibits that never were. Above all, let it be the work and fine performances such as this that ultimately matter:

(with reference to the above, the performance I attended had Peter Schneider, not Semyon Bychkov, in the pit)