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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Opera Criticism, can one believe the New York Times any longer?

The New York City Opera staged it's first performance of the year this past Sunday.  They rented the old Jonathan Miller La Traviata production from Glimmermerglass for the occasion.  A traditional and popular Verdi opera, with many seats underwritten for a mere $25.00 and performed at BAM one would think it would be a home run.  However, there are two major problems, one, the patrons who purchased their tickets at regular prices are not amused and feel betrayed by the Company and second, the two largest New york City papers' reviews read like polar opposites. Anthony Tommasini, the Chief Critic of the New York Times thought the performance important enough that he should cover it and not send a staff critic; the motivation is why?  Tommasini's opera criticism over the past 4-5 years has become the subject of snickers in many fachs of the New York opera cognoscenti.  His reviews have been sharply contrasted by any number of critics and tend to be overtly kind.  It appears as if Tommasini, or his editors are concerned a New York Times review might put an opera company out of business if he wrote his true, unvarnished opinion.  Two of his best writers, Anne Midgette and Alex Ross have left over the past few years for bigger jobs, but both were known to be highly opinionated in their criticism.  The contrast is, the Times has no problem writing scathing reviews of Broadway shows, or films, so why is opera handled differently. This scenario has repeated itself time and time again and in my mind the all too kind Tommasini review of the 2009 Bondy Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera stands as a beaconing benchmark to my point.  The link below, while not overly kind, is the kindest review anyone gave this dog of a production.

Mr. Tommasini's 2009 NY Times Tosca Review

A group of contrasting reviews:

Martin Bernheimer's review in the Financial Times
Mr. Bernheimer's review of the Bondy Tosca, Financial Times

Justin Davidson's review in New York Magazine.
Mr. Davidson's Review of Bondy Tosca, New York Magazine

Mark Swed's review in the Los Angeles Times
Mr. Swed's review of the Bondy Tosca , Los Angeles Times

Alex Ross's review in the New Yorker Magazine.
Mr. Ross's review of the Bondy Tosca. New Yorker Magazine

Mike Silverman's review in the Huffington Post
Mr. Silverman's review of the Bondy Tosca, Huffington Post

James Jorden's review in the New York Post
James Jorden's review of the Bondy Tosca, New York Post

I could fill this article with many examples of the The New York Times soft pedaling opera reviews throughout the Gelb years, while other critics gave what appears to be unvarnished assessments.  Martin Bernheimer of the Financial Times is an example of a critic who often provides contrasting assessments to Mr. Tommasini's reviews.  Tommasini recently went so far as to write an "almost" expose of Gelb's tenure at the MET, but does not quite finish the job.  While he starts out on the proper footing, bringing our attention to the high rate of failure of new productions at the MET, he never quite seals the deal at the end of the article, soft peddling the premise of the article at the end.   It is almost as if he were put up to write an article by The Times editors and he starts the article and then thinks the better of it and tap dances to the end. Gelb's filling the house at about 50% these days and with his big budget performances, like the $16.0 million dollar Ring Cycle, that's a huge problem.  Donors can only fill the shortfalls for so long, butts in seats are the hallmark of a thriving theatrical operation.

Mr. Tommasini 11-25-11 article on the Gelb tenure to date

Which brings us to today.  Mr. Tommasini chose to attend the NYCO La Traviata himself and write the review which was released this morning.  It is a glowing review for the production and the NYCO, based upon Tommasini's review, one should race over with  $25.00's cash and buy a ticket, or two.  However, once again there are major contrasts in reviews and this one could not be more glaring.  James Jorden saw the same production as Tommasini and wrote a review which is so polar opposite that one could not imagine both critics saw the same production on the same day.  Now, I spoke last night with an individual, an opera professional who had attended the performance.  This individual is very pro NYCO and wants them to succeed when many of his stature would prefer for them to fold and go away.  He described this production and cast as boring, with minimal choristers, a scaled down orchestra and dingy sets.  I e-mailed him the reviews this morning and he said that Jorden's review is the proper review.

The question is, which critic do you believe?  Certainly a critic who is not giving their true opinion based upon politics is not doing the public any favors. I would venture to say with knowledgeable critics like Bernheimer, Jorden and Ross out there willing to call the balls and strikes on opera performances, former readers of New York Times opera criticism are going elsewhere for their information.  It is time to stop the politics and call a dog a dog.

Mr. Tommasini's review of the NYCO La Traviata, New York Times

Mr. Jorden's review of the NYCO La Traviata, New York Post

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