Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Strange Politics

Heather MacDonald has some mighty weird ideas, I must say. Previously slagged here while talking past Greg Sandow - okay, I wasn't very happy with either of them - she's now making some utterly bizarre claims based on reading Anthony Tommasini, Zachary Woolfe, and James Jorden's reviews of the new Met production of Don Giovanni. Let's start with this:
The struggle over Don Giovanni’s soul in Mozart’s opera is hardly more dramatic than the battle over the future direction of the Met. On one side is a press corps determined to push Met general manager Peter Gelb into conformity with European opera houses, where narcissistic updatings of opera plots are now de rigueur.
Huh? I read all three of those reviews. Each reviewer found the physical production dull (yet another set that looks like the Hollywood Squares set, as Zerbinetta pointed out) and the cast direction nothing to write home about.

Here's Tommasini on updating:
But Mr. Gelb has pledged to bring the best in contemporary theatrical achievement to the Met. This does not mean that every production should be updated. Whatever its merits, though, Mr. Grandage’s “Don Giovanni” is not as striking, insightful and vivid as the sexy, modern production that Christopher Alden created for New York City Opera in 2009 (though who knows when or where audiences will see the Alden version again, now that City Opera is nomadic). 
That's hardly a call for setting the opera in a urinal or Chinese restaurant or whatever MacDonald is afraid of. All he's saying is that Gelb is falling down a bit in bringing in the "best inc ontemporary theatrical achievement" and that he's seen more striking, vivid, and insightful productions.

Here's JJ:
Maybe [the singers] were demoralized by Grandage’s production, an unimaginative slab of faux-finish walls and limp period costumes in tones of taupe and dun. The stage action recycled so much antique shtick you’d think it was a revival -- except that word implies something that was actually once alive.
"Antique schtick" = "give us something that wasn't old when Gustav Mahler conducted Don Giovanni back in 1910 or so."

The result is a traditional production without the traditions that have made this opera so beloved: energy, detail, and honest feeling. Things were almost certainly thrown off-balance by the last-minute substitution of Peter Mattei for Mariusz Kwiecien, who underwent back surgery, in the title role. But Mr. Mattei performs ably, and the production’s problems, seen at the second performance on Monday, are too pervasive to be explained away by even a major cast change.
He goes on to critique a set that jams much of the action too close to the lip of the stage - which is also a problem with the problematic Lepage Ring that the Met is currently rolling out - and dull interactions among the characters.

The New York critics’ response to this nobly conceived production is emblematic of the most powerful political program in opera today. 
There's simply no way that an honest commentator can read a call for Regie into these reviews, or make the claim that the three reviewers are somehow enemies of traditionally staged opera. There are no "threats of ongoing critical assault" except against dullness. I have to wonder if the conservative MacDonald is upset because Woolfe  brings up the failure of the production to deal with the crucial class differences that motivate much of the action of the opera.

Oh, wait, here's MacDonald again
But the most hilarious aspect of the vendetta against the Grandage Don Giovanni is the critics’ double standards. After sniffing that the production is “disastrously dull, a non-event,” Zachary Woolfe complained in the New York Observer that it “ends up ignoring class almost entirely.” This is the same Woolfe, a regular freelancer for the Times, who wrote a 2,000-plus-word love letter to Gerard Mortier in July, calling this leading perpetrator of Regietheater “one of the most celebrated and bravest impresarios of our time, with provocative glory trailing him from Frankfurt to Brussels, from Salzburg to Paris.” Mortier virtually insists that opera settings be updated to modern times. But no modern setting can possibly preserve the class distinctions of the ancien regime;
I, for one, would love a little more Regie in American opera productions, but I'm not holding my breath - especially since there is no call for Regie in the three reviews that MacDonald is so down on.

Heather, honey, calm down and reread those reviews.

I have to laugh at the idea that these three are somehow pressuring Gelb to bring on the Regie, not to mention the implication that they might be in cahoots. (Maybe I'm misreading MacDonald on that, of course, but she's working mighty hard to construct a Regie straw man to knock down.) Oh wait - here's more MacDonald:
The agenda here is clear: the New York critics are aping the European press playbook to engineer a European-style takeover of the American opera stage. Only the Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson took the Met’s Don Giovanni on its own terms, praising it for its “clear theatrical and musical point of view,” which, “combined with the excellent, committed cast, made for an illuminating and absorbing evening.”
And more MacDonald:
The battle over Peter Gelb’s professional soul is still very much ongoing. It’s supremely difficult for an arts administrator to stand up to the kind of pressure now being exerted on him, even if he wants to. Audiences and donors, however, can offer some counterweight to the critics through the power of the purse.
Really? Peter Gelb, with a million-dollar salary and the weight of the Met board behind him, might find it difficult to stand up to a few bad reviews? It's nice that MacDonald thinks critics are so powerful. I wish we were!

AND furthermore....

At the MCANA meeting in June, I sat on a panel that included TT and Anne Midgette (read about it here, where Mike at Civic Center is far too kind to me).

TT led off, and part way through his ten minutes, he made a passing comment about "opera bloggers who hate me." I really wish I'd had the presence of mind, when my turn came up, to say this:
Tony, I'm so sorry I hurt your feelings when I criticized your overuse of "purist"....oh, wait. Maybe you meant Parterre Box?
Because it's just a little difficult to imagine TT in bed with JJ and the denizens of Parterre Box.

[Personal to Tony: if you're that bugged by opera bloggers who hate you, stop reading them. It's that simple.]


calimac said...

I vote for giving more operas in concert presentations and thereby avoiding the whole stupid issue.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...


Yes, that is a solution I'd vote for as well.

Also just out of curiosity:

Which side do you have a bit more sympathy for on this 'stupid' issue?

calimac said...

95%, if that few, of "contemporary" productions are pretentious self-indulgent crap that clashes with the music and performance, while the worst a "traditional" one can be is boring. When you've got a good contemporary one, and there are good ones, let me know. I'm not waiting by the phone.