Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Connoisseur Trap

    Can you know too much?
     Usually I'd say "No."
     Knowledge builds, expands, allows you to make connections and observations. To better understand this confusing whir of a world.
     There are exceptions.
     I just read the review, "Lyric Opera's 'La Traviata' fails to impress," written by my friend and colleague Andrew Patner, who found Wednesday's performance of the perennial Lyric favorite lacking.
     "With constant and unnecessary racing, tweaking, arbitrary accents and ritards, none from the score and none adding anything to Verdi's work," he writes, of the music.
     All of which flew past me. I am not an opera expert. I can't even tell you what above means, nor what a "ritard" is (from the Oxford: "with a gradual decrease of speed.") But I was at the same performance Andrew attended, and I thought it was outstanding, exquisite, particularly the singing of soprano, Marina Rebeka, who Andrew admitted was "physically-winning" (I'd say something closer to "statuesque and beautiful"). 
    But I'm not disagreeing with Andrew, in the sense that I think he's wrong. Just the opposite. I'm sure he's right. He must be. He's been analyzing this stuff for 30 years, in the Sun-Times and on WFMT, so he knows of what he speaks. 
     Rather, he was right in his frame of reference, drawing from his depth of knowledge. In his sphere, not only did he dislike this production, but didn't even approve of the Lyric staging "Traviata" in the first place. "The 14th in the nearly 60 years of Lyric's history," he notes.
     Is that a lot? Every five years? Given that I've seen the same opera twice in one week, it really isn't all that excessive, again, in my estimation. Later this season, the Lyric is  presenting Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," which I saw when the Lyric did it last in 2006. My reaction was: "Cool. More 'Fledermaus.'"
     Plus, I had never seen "La Traviata" before. That might be the key fact at work here. At least I don't remember seeing it. I have a recording, and have listened to it with continual pleasure. And must have at some point read the synopsis, when I wrote about the opera, because I was bringing 100 readers, who were also there Wednesday night. (They all loved it, gushing, like me, about the splendor and wonder of it. None of them mentioned the ritards).
      But we, unlike Andrew, were coming from a place of ignorance. When Violetta ... spoiler alert here ... leapt up from her death bed, strength and joy returning, for a moment I thought, "What? She lives? Oh good...." But it was just the burst of energy that sometimes comes just before the end, as anyone who has watched someone die knows. My wife wept.
    So I am not bringing a wealth of experience to this. Andrew is, and he is completely right in every regard (except regarding the set, but perhaps this is my pet peeve. The Lyric is in the same hard times we all are, and occasionally, in my view, exhibits what it calls minimalism but what I think of as mere austerity—the tiny witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel," the clumps of red tubing at stage left and stage right in "Parsifal." If you're going to have red tubing, there should be a whole lot of it). Nobody wants to see economical scenery.
    And we didn't, this time. Even before the curtain rose—a wall of lace lit in blue, revealing Violetta lounging on a chair, under a chandelier, dressing for a party. I was in the audience, thinking: "ooooo." 
    So maybe I'm just a cheap date. I was impressed before the curtain went up. Heck, I was impressed by the curtain.
    Is that bad? There is what I will call "The Connoisseur Trap." You are drawn to something because you love it, and you experience it and learn about it, and the years go by. Then one day, your standards are so high, they cut into your enjoyment of the thing that you supposedly love, because you expect so much you are constantly disappointed with the way it is done in our flawed, imperfect world.
      I'm not saying that is the case here with Andrew, whom I deeply respect. Maybe the opera was repetitive and sub-par and anyone with a half knowledge would snap his lorgnette shut in a huff. My son, 18, shrugged it off too, but he's in a shrugging off stage of life. 
    Me, I really loved it, thought it was the best production I've seen in years, and thought Marina Rebeka was fantastic—that might have skewed my judgment—and it would be ungallant of me to let Andrew toss money at her prone weeping form without removing my white glove and giving him a single slap in defense of her honor (And I suppose in defense of set designer Riccardo Hernandez's honor, too. I saw that curving Romanesque wall he constructed and thought: "Yes! Spare and minimal yet elegant and gorgeous. Finally.")
     Nearly 25 years ago, I was a nobody reporter (as opposed to a nobody columnist) still shaking the straw of Ohio out of my hair. I was sitting in the Billy Goat Tavern bitching about what a lousy agent I had who couldn't sell a book about college pranks, when Andrew Patner, a sophisticated Hyde Parker and Wall Street Journal reporter, who had one of the most powerful agents in New York City, David Black, handed him to me with the nonchalance you might tell a stranger the time.  So I don't question him lightly. In fact, I don't question him at all. He's correct. This is about me, defending obliviousness. It is not without value. I am an amateur in this realm, and grateful for it. I'd hope I never learn so much that something like Wednesday's "La Traviata" tastes sour in my mouth. Too much knowledge can be the forbidden apple; it drives you from the garden. And what fun is that? After the audience stood, clapping and cheering and "bravoing" and "bravaing,"  it puzzled me that they'd stop after just five minutes. I was ready to tear my seat cushion out and throw it at the stage, but knew that would be frowned upon.
    So anyway, I hope you—and Andrew—forgive me for wanting to clap just a little more.
    I never thought I'd say this: but sometimes ignorance is underrated. Ignorance can be bliss, to coin a phrase, and bliss is what I go to the opera to find.

Photos courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago @Todd Rosenberg



  1. This is exactly right. When people ask me what my favorite novel is, I tell them: I read and teach novels for a living; I do not and cannot have a "favorite." I don't think in those terms any more. It takes huge work for me to take professor/critic/theorist/historian and put all of that shit aside and just read and enjoy something on its own terms. I tend to be a generous audience, liking things, but I actually don't even do that much of what I once loved the most(reading novels). So, along with ignorance being a form of bliss, be careful what you ask for! The more you get to do what you love, the less you might love it.

  2. A standing ovation usually means the crowd loved the performance, so you must have been among a sea of "ignorant" opera-goers. Perhaps Mr. Patner's criticisms will motivate changes for the better, but his review must have been a major disappointment, particularly to Ms. Rebeka, -- I feel badly for her.

  3. First, let me thank Neil for writing this (although he need not say so many nice things about me: I'm not going to bite him). We need more not less engagement with critics and about the arts in general.

    Second, let me congratulate Neil on a largely excellent column. I actually agree with much of what he says here and worry often if I might fall into the trap he identifies.

    Then, let me respond to just a few points. Perhaps I did not make part of what I was trying to get at clear enough. Perhaps I should not have used the word "ritard" (though, Neil, as you often write, how do we learn new words of we don't encounter them in the writing of others) if doing so was going to be off putting. But one of my points was not that only the "ignorant" would enjoy this performance but that I felt bad that when so much better conducting was available people would not know how this opera could have sounded so much more alive. I wasn't advocating for some arid, academic version or an unperformable Platonic ideal. I wanted *more* excitement, *more* tension -- and Verdi's own, not some that that the guy on the podium was trying to add, find, create.

    As for singers, there are always matters of taste that are not questions of right and wrong. It's interesting to note that the Tribune critic and I were in agreement on the soprano, but not wholly on the conductor while the online Chicago Classical Review writer and I agreed on the conductor and he thought Ms Rebeka was top-flight. So even the snooty know-it-alls couldn't agree on these two basic elements and did not break down along any obvious lines.

    I probably could have mentioned the shadow plays before each of the three acts. I guess I thought that things went downhill each time that scrim was lifted. Again, I do try to think whenI write or gab on the radio of people who have never been to a performance of a particular work or have never been to a live concert, opera, or stage play or who have perhaps never see or heard an opera or classical concert at all. We have all been those people and we all are those people for other genres of art and culture or other aspects of life.

  4. I love that Neil brings new people to the opera every year. I love enthusiasm and enthusiasts. My job, as I see it, is not at all to attack, but to evaluate both the performance and the experience. My point about frequency of performance was not that "La traviata" is performed to much -- it is, as Neil points out, among other things a particularly great first-time opera --but that if a new production or revival is planned, there needs to be plenty of oomph. What Riccardo Muti has demonstrated for Chicagoans over the last several years is not that Verdi performance is or should be elitist. It's that great performances of his music are like the difference between color and black and white, stereo and mono, the Grand Canyon and a picture of the Grand Canyon.

    I also agree that if one loses his or her love of something or of writing or speaking about it, it's time to move on to something else. I hope that that has not happened to me. Certainly at this point of doing this, among other things, for quite a while there are works or performers I prefer to see and others that I wish well but would rather someone else sat in the aisle seat. I'm sorry that Bill Savage finds himself doing less of what he once loved the most and hope he has found something else that excites him. Sandy K: I'm not sure generally what a standing ovation means these days. In the theatre they are far too automatic. The Lyric audience is pretty sophisticated -- in a good way. I noticed many people standing on opening night but also many people not.

    Thanks again Neil for doing this and for linking to my full review. I will be cross-posting this on my end as well. You mention, too, that you brought your wife and 18-year-old son to the performance. But you also brought your younger son. I wish more people would bring their kids/whole families to the operas, concerts, dance. And when they do, go ahead and hash out everyone's reactions, whether over a fine wine, a PBR, or a 7-Up.

  5. Mr. Steinberg, I am one of the "connoisseurs" of whom you speak. I am happy that you enjoyed the performance. I agree with you that Ms. Rebeka sang well and is beautiful, although some who have heard more singers in the role of Violetta might unfairly compare her to other singers. Some of whom, in my opinion, might or might not be better, but most of whom should simply be described as "different". Different voices, different acting strengths, different interpretations.

    That being said, I cannot help but hope that you have the opportunity to see a truly well thought out, carefully considered, thoughtful production of La Traviata. It is a testament to the genius of the piece that it holds up under what I found to be superficial and derivative concept and direction.

    Again, please understand that I don't want to diminish your enjoyment of the production. Rather, it is that I hope someday you have the chance to see a production that goes beyond what this one offered. This production certainly did not fall into the trap of "concept productions" in which some whim of the director - usually at complete odds with the intent of the composer - in which the imposed and forced interpretation of the piece is the primary and only concern and all other aspects become unimportant. But even in the interview with the director, it was clear that she had given no in-depth, three dimensional thought to the characters. There were a great many interesting images, but I could find no clear, consistent line in the ideas presented, nor in the growth of the principal characters over the course of the opera.

    Even with all my criticisms of the production, my disappointment was not that the performance wasn't good. It was certainly good enough. But it was not so good that I would be excited to see it revived. I can forgive a production that fails. Not everything is going to be a spectacular success. But at a company with Lyric's history and resources, one should expect to see productions that take a real risk to present excellence in the art form.

  6. "anonymous" makes a parallel argument.

  7. This is Alex Ross, one of Andrew’s colleagues in the increasingly depopulated hamlet of music criticism. I'd like to address a few of your points.

    I do find your devaluation of knowledge and experience troubling. I doubt you’d say the same of, say, political journalists. If a longtime reporter points out the disparity between a politician’s rhetoric and reality, has he or she become too cynical? Aren't those people in Washington just trying their damnedest to do good stuff for the country? And what about those handsome, hard-working sports stars? Why all the constant carping at them on the radio? Sports is just good fun—does it matter who wins or loses? Ignorance is bliss!

    Yes, yes, we know; and we say the same about opera. It’s a serious art form and an expensive business, and it deserves to be covered with discerning eyes and ears. Of course, criticism will always be inexact; two knowledgeable listeners may come away with widely divergent assessments of a performance. But critics like Andrew stay around because they speak from experience and from the heart. Even if you disagree with them, you trust their consistency and their honesty.

    One claim I find especially unsettling: " day, your standards are so high, they cut into your enjoyment of the thing that you supposedly love..." There is too much mind- and soul-reading here for comfort. And I don’t like the undertow of groupthink: because you and many others enjoyed the performance so much, there must be something wrong with the one who didn’t. This is a trap of a different kind. Thankfully, opera has always invited dissent, and raging arguments have kept the art form vital for four hundred years.

    Critics are individuals, and we’re regularly going to find ourselves at odds with the crowd. Note that the dynamic can work in the opposite direction: I’ve sometimes found myself exulting in a performance to which others seem indifferent. Certainly, the happiest nights are those when we critics are carried away along with the rest of the audience—when we’re all grinning helplessly in the aisles, as when Christine Goerke unleashed beautiful thunder on the Met a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, it’s a peculiarly deep kind of enjoyment when your critical defenses fall away and you become one with the mass. If you think that Andrew has become immune to such joy, you need to spend more time with him!

    1. No, no, of course I'm not suggesting that Andrew is "immune to such joy" -- and I have had the pleasure of spending a good amount of time with him over the past 25 years -- we just had lunch not long ago, when we spent an hour chatting happily on his WFMT program. We actually spoke after Wednesday's performance, when he assured my son he is right to find the thing lacking. I think I showed him full respect while outlining my perspective. I'm an amateur who blundered into the opera house five years ago and am compelled, by the peculiar demands of my job, to conduct my education in public, not always a comfortable position. I'm not ashamed, because I think it makes it more accessible to people. Opera needs enthusiasts as much as it needs experts, and I don't think that being giddily engaged in opera leads us down the slippery path to excusing all well-intentioned political folly. I might not write about a particular opera because it has a rising young star, but the fact that the opera includes a horse catches my interest -- a horse? Where do they keep her? (in a stall fashioned out of a freight elevator). That's called, "Being who you are." For instance, I'd be less than candid if I didn't say that any chastisement I receive here is dwarfed by the thought: "Jesus, Alex Ross posted on my blog!" Naive? Sure. Midwestern? Naturally. At the risk of typecasting myself, I am the guy who took your colleague, Adam Gopnik, to Al's Italian Beef for dinner because, A: I like it; B: he'd never been there; C:. where am I supposed to take him, El Bulli? and, D: it was on our way to the airport. He loved it, by the way. Anyway, thanks for adding your thoughts to my blog. Classes up the joint.

  8. As well-meaning as Mr. Steinberg is, what he says is, unfortunately, what is wrong with opera (especially in Chicago) today. Coming to a performance with no frame of reference ..... never having seen the opera before or heard other singers in the various roles in various-size theaters and LOVING it is fine. That being said, Mr. Steinberg should realize that Lyric Opera of Chicago is a "A-House", which means that it should be presenting the finest productions and MORE importantly the FINEST singers there are. I won't begin to compare Ms. Rebeka to other Violettas of today or yesterday although I COULD. Enjoying and lauding a performance for what it is, is only ONE approach and I can sympathize. This is why, hopefully, newspapers don't let just anyone review performances. Critics are supposed to come to a performance with a visual and audio "history" in their minds. The danger in the, "I don't care WHAT the connoisseur says, I loved it and had a good time" attitude is that Lyric management then sees that the audience will literally STAND for anything and will continue to present productions by second and third-rate directors and designers whose limited operatic backgrounds don't allow them to bring anything of quality or depth to their work, and hire singers who do simply a fine job (with the exception of Mr. Calleja) and not a GREAT one. Lyric Opera of Chicago is NOT Fort Worth Opera or even Houston Opera and Chicago audiences should expect and demand more. If Lyric is changing from "La Scala West" to "Houston North", Chicago audiences are in big trouble. But then again, if these performances receive standing ovations, Chicago audiences will continue to get exactly what they deserve.

  9. What Alex said, in spades.

    I want to address the issue of "how often is too often" to perform an opera with a little analogy: if you had available only about 50 films, in rotation, would you be a happy movie viewer? This is unfortunately the general situation with opera in the US: the big four Mozart operas, the Rossini comedies, the five or six most popular Verdi operas, four Puccini, a few Donizetti, and so on are performed in endless rotation, with some seasoning from Wagner, Strauss, Janacek, Berg, and Gounod. This is a formula for killing an art form by making it a museum: audiences don't get to hear early and modern opera, or anything off the beaten track, nearly enough.

    1. What's wrong with experiencing what you like? I could go to the diner and order liver, which I don't like, in the hope that eventually I'll come to like it. Or I could get the Southwest salad I know and like, again and again. Believe me, Lyric subscribers feel plenty subjected to what I call the eat-your-peas part of the schedule. We do see it's important, though I'm going to my grave never sitting through Wozzeck again because once was plenty. I think our argument boils down to: is opera a pleasure or is it a duty? I err on the former, with a somber nod at the latter.

    2. I see no acknowledgement from you that Wozzeck is a pleasure for a significant part of the musical and operatic audience. I would also say: Wozzeck is a work you might come to like after more than one hearing - it takes some experience with an unfamiliar style to appreciate it, just as it might take some experience to appreciate, enjoy, and understand Indian classical music.

    3. Oh, and - of course my statement that an opera company should stage a wide variety of operas does not imply that any particular person needs to love or buy tickets to it all.

    4. Probably because I didn't know that Wozzeck is a pleasure for anybody. I just couldn't imagine it. Remember, I saw it 20 years ago, but the image is imprinted upon my brain. It's like Springfield -- downstate Illinois. I'm sure people go there and have fun. Heck, some even live there. But I've been to Springfield, and I'll be damned if I'm going back, except under duress.

    5. This surprises me - you cannot imagine a point of view other than your own? Is that true of other works of art as well?

      I assume the opposite: that it is possible for almost anyone to learn about, appreciate, and enjoy "difficult" works of art, whether they're Joyce's Ulysses, Tristan und Isolde, abstract expressionist art, or Wozzeck. This is part of a critic's job: to open the world for others.

    6. No of course not, let's not get caustic -- people have been so well behaved. It's an expression. I disliked Wozzeck so much it surprises me that people like it (a better phrase than "couldn't imagine," at least in that it denies you your tangent). That's why I think enthusiasm can be a better ambassador to "difficult" works. Critics tend to get on their high horse. I've written about loving "Tristan" without castigating those who find it long. I saw it twice when the Lyric last put it on.

    7. I'll be going to New York in the spring to see Levine's WOZZECK at the MET and have already made plans to bundle Neil into my luggage. We both like train travel so I'm sure he'll survive. Lisa, you are most welcome to join us!

    8. I'm sure Neil will fit in the carry-on, Andrew! I am, alas, going to skip this one; my NYC trip was for Frau. Next up is Birtwistle at 80 in London, assuming the stars align correctly. The tickets are cheap and I am buying them NOW.

  10. [Whoops, had additional thoughts.]

    Putting it another way: it also trains audiences to be conservative. For every run of "La Traviata," there's an "Ernani" or "Il Corsaro" you're not seeing (those are worthy early Verdi operas); for every "Barber of Seville," there's a "Mametto II"; for every Puccini opera, there are operas by Respighi, Zandonai, and other 20th c. Italians you're not hearing. If you don't get to hear these, how can you know whether you'd like them and whether they're worth staging?

    1. Thank you for that one!
      Why only two or three bel canto operas ad infinitum when there are literally thousands of others seldom performed? The ones I've heard are often as good as the ones we hear.
      Ditto every other school.
      There USED only to be four frequent Mozart operas -- actually, before World War I it was just Don G and Flute -- but now I believe it's six or seven. Not too many more in that particular vein, I'd say, but plenty of Gluck, and I've only heard ten of his 52.
      When I started opera going, the only Handel you heard was Messiah. Today, a dozen of his operas are constant visitors, and 20 more and half a dozen of the oratorios are frequent visitors. I want to hear the others.
      Why not give Saul some Christmas instead of Messiah? (It's a better drama, actually.)
      Or Judas Maccabeus, which is suitable to the season, unlike Messiah?

      Would you want them to play the same football game over and over, however excellent it was?

  11. I admire and seek out expertise. Being able to recall historical performances and to compare and contrast is invaluable. Outside of my field of concentration I don't have the inclination or ability to keep track of what is going on. The argument that one's knowledge is too expert is a point of view that I cannot entertain.

  12. I disagree with Andrew Patner completely, and we have attended the same performance, he was sitting just in front of me. I found this production of Traviata refreshing: too often Traviata is obviously older than Alfredo, she it weak, melancholy, starts dying basically in the first act. Here, we have a young and spirited beauty, it's easy to believe that tout de Paris is smitten with her. I would say that this production is best suited to the voice of the soprano Marina Rebekah. Her voice might not yet develop the darker, lower tones required for the last act, but, instead, she defies death and puts up a fight almost until the very end. The tenor Joseph Calleja was in a much better form in this role than his performance of Rodolfo in "La Boheme" last season. For starters, he sang in the right register. I loved his Alfredo, young, ardent and rash. Mr. Calleja avoided the annoying trait of so many tenors to endlessly hold high notes, his singing was fast, just like young impatient love. Quinn Kelsey, who portrait Germont, is a true Verdian baritone with a voice that is both powerful and supple, he conveyed the dignity and rigidity of a provincial gentleman very well. The orchestra sounded fantastic, loud enough to hear every beautiful nuance of the orchestration, yet subtle enough for the singers to be heard. When the singers deliver and when the orchestra sounds so well, and when it all comes together, it is all because of one man - the conductor. And I think Maestro Zanetti deserves all the credit here. As for Arin Arbus' staging, it was conventional, with no innovations, save the suggestive and brutal dancing in the third act. However, one gets tired of the minimalistic and convoluted productions that are all the rage at Salzburg. Sometimes, a solid conventional production looks like a winner.

  13. Thank you, Lisa Hirsch, for joining in! Folks looking for lively, insightful, and informed writing on opera and other subjects should follow the link at her name to her superb Bay Area based weblog, "Iron Tongue of Midnight"!

    As for "Unknown," you may or may not have been at the performance, you may or may not have been sitting just behind me (if you were, thank you very much for moving your walking stick from my seat back, I appreciate it), you may or may not be associated with Lyric or the production. I don't know and I can't engage with an unidentified person. But I am glad that you enjoyed everything about the performance. Happiness is a good thing.

  14. I'm with Andrew regarding anonymous comments. If you can't even sign your name to your thoughts, how much value could they have? That of course might be the hardened opinion of someone who sells his thoughts frozen on a stick. But still, nobody is urging violent revolution here. Particularly the "he was sitting right in front of me" remark -- I'm not sure what that's supposed to imply. Something vaguely disreputable. The person behind me is always unwrapping something that sounds like a Christmas present, but is probably a mint, and I don't go skulking around his blog, implying vague criticisms.

  15. Beyond beautifully put, Neil. Thanks!

  16. I do apologize for posting without introducing myself, I have tried try to log in under my Google account but it did not work. My name is Fiona, and my association with the Lyric Opera of Chicago is limited to attending their performances. And even though sometimes I feel that I need a help of a walking stick when navigating the Opera's aisles in my four inch heels, I have, so far, managed without one. There was no "vague criticism" in my comments, only an attempt at an articulated praise of the singers who were rather pointedly criticized by Mr Patner in his original review.
    But, there is one something that Mr. Patner and I agree upon: happiness is a good thing, and I am happy that so many have opined about an opera production, and with such spirit.

  17. LOVING this whole ongoing conversation. That is all.

  18. Thank you, Fiona, and appreciated. We are agreed on this exchange! But the woman sitting behind me had a walking stick/handled cane and had placed it on my seat back until she kindly moved it. I was in Orchestra K2 and K4, Aisle 4. Perhaps the person sitting in front of you actually was in agreement with you! ;-)

  19. The series at Steinberg's blog was a great exchange although I do wonder at Opera aficionados who need walking sticks and wear 4" heels!

    More to the point, what I sensed was a difference in levels of expectation and experience among the various posters. I recall two experiences vividly in my artistic attendance. My first exposure to the CSO was pure serendipity. I was walking past Orchestra Hall and noticed that Respighi's "Pines of Rome" was being performed that evening. I had heard recordings of the piece and liked it; it's easy to like! I marched up to the ticket window and got a really great lower balcony seat in the days when all performances regularly sold out. I was blown out my seat by this venerable old show-piece but I can't tell you whether it was a mediocre, average or great performance. I had no benchmark since it was my first time ever attending a live orchestra concert at the CSO level. It was life-changing, however. (Kenneth Jean conducted, to give you some perspective on time.)

    On yet another occasion I was in Amsterdam with a free afternoon so I plunked down a few guilders and went to the Rijksmuseum. Everyone has seen images of the painting commonly called "The Night Watch," right? Of course they have. But rounding a corner in a gallery and coming face-to-face with the original work is an experience I will never forget, as much mind-blowing as the Respighi at the CSO.

    I know of the depth that you (Patner) have and have also read Ross's "The Rest Is Noise." Clearly both Patner and Ross live in an artistic world much different from most of us. My point here is that an individual's appreciation or evaluation of a particular artistic endeavour is a function both of the emotive impact of the work plus the prior experience of the observer. Thus all evaluations, regardless of disparity, are in some sense correct. We can also safely assume for most audience members who continue to attend and appreciate an art form that their appreciation and evaluation will change over time.

    Where does that leave me regarding arts criticism? Just this: I will, of course, continue to have strong opinions about what pleases me and what doesn't. But I'm also grateful for the Andrew Patners, Alex Rosses, and Lisa Hirsches of the world who tend to stimulate my own artistic growth and judgement. Artistic criticism plays a valuable role in the lives of both performers and audience members but should be taken for what they are: expert insights that are also fallible. There have been some really notorious critical faux pax over the centuries, but we needn't dwell on those here. What counts is the significant contributions made by all who write about the arts to everyman's enjoyment.


  20. What a fascinating exchange of ideas! I now regret my email to Mr. Patner in which I couldn't understand his dislike of this Traviata. Now I do understand. Mona

  21. Let me begin by saying how happy I was to see Andrew back in print in the Sun-Times. Chicago needs what he brings to the conversation about the arts in this city.

    I would like to make several points:

    Very few journalists who do music criticism are professional musicians or musicologists. What then to make of criticism that takes issue with a conductor's tempi, etc., as if the critic has a better understanding of those things than the conductor does? Surely Maestro Zanetti knows the score of La traviata better than a newspaper's music critic. Maybe his interpretation is not the same as Muti's and you prefer Muti - fair enough. But excellent musicians can differ in their approach to a piece. I have two recordings of the Mahler 6th - one conducted by George Szell, one by Pierre Boulez. Szell does the first movement, marked allegro energico, ma non troppo, in 17 minutes , 45 seconds; Boulez in 23 minutes, 6 seconds. Who is right? Is that even the question? Fidelity to the score isn't an end in itself, but rather a means to an end - a means to achieving what the composer had in mind. I would be more persuaded if a critic explained why doing something a certain way makes a difference, e.g., "failure to slow down sufficiently at this point loses the effect Verdi wanted, which was . . . , see Philip Gossett . . . "

    It's too bad that newspapers reduce a critical review to a tepid recommendation, e.g., ”slightly recommended." I imagine the takeaway from such a recommendation is all too often, "don't go see it." That's the wrong reaction. There have been many productions over the years that I did not like, but I'm still glad I saw them.

    I have seen every Lyric production since 1975. I've seen eight Lyric Traviatas. Why go to another one? Primarily to hear the voices. I cannot remember anything about the tempi in Lyric's 1975 Traviata, but I still hear Ileana Cortubas in my head. From this latest one, I expect I will remember the amazing ability of Ms. Rebeka to sing runs with perfect intonation, like a clarinet going up and down the scale. Also the beautiful blend of the voices. Some voices seem to have a special affinity in duets: Jussi Bj√∂rling and Robert Merrill; Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. In this production, there was something about the quality of Quinn Kelsey’s and Marina Rebeka's voices that combined in a most beautiful way.

    If you want to see unusual repertoire, rarities, etc., instead of the standard stuff, show Lyric the money. New York City Opera is now history. We don't want that to happen in Chicago. So we have to have the Tosca's and Zauberflöte's to pay for The Midsummer Marriage's and Bel Canto's. And it's not as if Tosca is castor oil - a good one can fill Lyric's coffers and still thrill the most jaded opera goer.

    I don't understand the condescension about Houston. I flew there last April to see its new Tristan, a coproduction with Covent Garden (Houston UK?). The astounding Nina Stemme sang Isolde. Would that we had her in the Lyric lineup.

  22. Some words from a beginner.

    I finally saw La Traviata last night. After having read the reviews before attending, I expected to love Calleja's performance, be ok with Rebeka's, and be mildly disappointed with the staging and conducting.

    But after being so pleasantly surprised by the entire production, I did a search to see if I missed something in the reviews. This is how I end up so late in this wonderful exchange. So that readers can give appropriate consideration to my words, I'm fairly new to opera and don't know enough to challenge the words of anyone here. I do have a rather long-term and intense passion for other kinds of music, and I appreciate criticism and also understand how my tastes can differ from those of the critics; and that’s not wrong.

    Calleja was, as usual, amazing. His voice pleasing and strong, his acting outstanding, and his presence unquestionably worthy of any stage in the world. Rebeka blew me away. Strong, on key, passionate, and (showing my ignorance here by not knowing the right words for what I’m describing) the way her voice transitions from note to note – is both somehow accurate yet soft. That richness of her voice isn’t lost as she makes (what sounds like to me) rather difficult transitions. Great diction, too. Technically accurate sopranos can sometimes leave me cold, but she kept it warm, while not too loose.

    Rebeka’s performance brought to mind Radvanovski as Aida at Lyric. I felt like I could have had Radvanovski’s voice for dessert. To my beginner’s ear, it sounded like she’s still developing her diction and her technical abilities, but could one day be the best. I forgave the few shortcomings for the richness and warmth of her voice. I remember my impression of her singing was exactly opposite to Panther’s in that regard. That’s ok, he’s right and I’m wrong. But it illustrates how we can come to understand and appreciate even our differences with critics. I felt Rebeka’s performance last night had all that warmth, but also the technical proficiency.

    I absolutely loved the staging. The technique referred to as “shadow plays” at the beginning of each act were used to great effect; a visual bonus for the audience that didn’t distract too much from Verdi’s emotional mood-setting musical preludes,. They worked well together, and I thought they were worthy of mention in any review. And the sets themselves were beautiful. The exception to me was the giant photograph (or whatever it was) at the beginning of Act Two. However, when this was raised, we were rewarded with a shockingly spare yet beautiful scene, which only looked better with the fantastic costumes, puppets and dancing within.

    After the final curtain, I commented to my wife that the music was so beautiful and I would have been happy hearing it as a stand-alone symphonic piece. The pacing was perfect, the playing exceptional, and the conductor’s emphasis outstanding.

    In summary, I appreciate the musical criticism from those more experienced and knowledgeable than I am, but at the same time agree with Steinberg. This was a fantastic production and a wonderful opera. Those in the audience appeared to appreciate it as much as I did.

    Next up, The Magic Flute at The Met. I'm such a bubble-gum opera lover, which is so unlike the rest of my musical tastes. Maybe that will change as I hear more.

  23. Another comment is not needed, but I'll add one anyway. I saw the final performance on Friday...I've seen 11 since 1966 at Lyric, and a few elsewhere. Not the greatest staging, but not worst either. Violetta would not have lived in a palace, where many productions seem to place her, but Alfredo would not have dumped her on the floor when she was next to a bed.
    But thats minor stuff for me. I'm stuck on opera being about the singing, and I was not disappointed.Calleja and Kellsy's performances were excellent. Ms Rebeka's was outstanding...maybe the most perfectly executed vocal performance of the role I have ever heard. ( that includes Caballe , Fleming and many others). She will grow in stage presence, but I didn't find that lacking.
    Brian S. have a good ear for voices. Though Radvanosky ( who I think is #1) is voice is not really like Rebeka's,they both have unique and distinctive sounds.
    A critic, who can attend more performances than most of us and as it is their profession give more thought to it, should be valued for their opinions. But you have to make up your own mind.
    Years ago claudia Cassidy panned a Violetta (Celestina Casapietra, who shoe referred to as Heavenly little miss Stone house) who I thought was quite passable. Another cricic praised Elena Obratovas's singing of de Falla songs, which were very ordinary, and panned her Rachmaninoff songs, which I remember to this day. A fellow long time opera goer told me he hated a performance which I loved , and that the singer was flat (not).
    Read the reviews, but form your own opinion.
    P.S. It's tough going at first Mr. Stienberg, but given a chance you may find that Wozzeck is intensely moving.

  24. Connoisseurship is a form of mastery, and while it's not the same thing, it does connote a higher degree of familiarity with the subject matter. This familiarity extends in two directions, in a sense: broadly, and deeply. Breadth of experience--hearing the same piece many times, hearing many other pieces like it, or even not like it--really opens your ears (as Charles Ives once said, politically incorrectly: "Use your ears like a man!"). Depth of experience--becoming familiar with and focusing on everything from music theory to history to staging and the styles of individual performers--really opens your mind to what the artwork is doing.

    Most of the point of connoisseurship is to heighten one's own enjoyment/appreciation of the thing being considered. When someone uses their connoisseurship to write about music, I don't believe that should be taken as an attempt to proselytize readers who might have less familiarity; instead, those readers can use that writing as another part of their education (and it might be valuable or worthless for that purpose--they can take it or leave it). Engaging the critic in exchanges such as those above is a worthwhile thing, because in order to formulate your thoughts in response you have to absorb at least some of what your counterpart was saying; so this is, strangely enough, a further advance in your own connoisseurship.

    Every connoisseur started as a neophyte. There is a lot of joy in experiencing and learning things for the first time, and it is quite practical to remain at that level--many do, and it works for them. One thing I will say for connoisseurship is that as your experience broadens and deepens, you start hearing things a little differently--there are more connections with other things you've experienced.

    Wozzeck is a tough one even for many experienced listeners. For a 20th century piece that will grab you despite the dissonance, try Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw"--there's a good performance with Hermann Prey on YouTube (just search "A Survivor from Warsaw").

    Rest in peace, Andrew Patner.

  25. Wow! Like peeking through a time portal and glimpsing a long lost world.



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