When Opera Critics Attack

My Two Fav Barihunks
Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Sherrill Milnes

Opera is about passion.  It seethes with passion. It is human drama, usually the very worst of human behavior, sung so beautifully, the listener doesn’t really care if the plot is a little screwy and the characters are something from a horror movie.  Done right, it just doesn’t matter.  All that matters is the beauty of the music.  If the singers happen to know a little something about acting it helps.  If the baritones look like Sherrill Milnes, Simon Keenlyside, or Dmitri Hvorostovsky, then, that just makes it better.  If not, so what?

If done right, you sigh over the magnificence of a Milnes Giovanni.  You want to step in and save Simon’s Giovanni.  He just needs a good woman.  Every time I watched Milnes do Scarpia, I always thought that Tosca was such a fool.  Just let them shoot the tenor and run off with the baritone.  Then there is Dmitri’s de Luna.  When you see him by the body of Leonora, it’s heart-breaking.  Yet another idiot soprano would rather die than (sigh) be required to submit to the hunky baritone.

Sherrill Milnes’ Jack Rance was like watching yet another version of Wyatt Earp.  It’s the one opera where you have it all.  “Wyatt Earp”, cowboys, Indians, outlaws, the wild west, gunslinging, and a woman betting her virtue on a hand of poker.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  It’s got it all, except for an odd Cartwright or two.  You watch the poker game, wondering why any woman in her right mind would want to lose to Milnes’ Jack Rance.  But, once again…. the stupid soprano would rather have the dumb tenor.

That’s the beautiful passion of opera.  That’s why you go to the blasted opera in the first place. It’s not the tenor, they’re a dime a dozen.  Sopranos are boring.  It’s for the baritones!  That’s where the passion in opera is – in the baritone voice.  It’s like watching Captain James T. Kirk if he could sing, or James Bond.  It’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones, all rolled into one hunky actor (okay, so he’s my fave).

The problem is, though, that the critics like the glamor of the sopranos and the absurdity of the tenors.  You rarely find a critic willing to be brave enough to wax poetic about a baritone.  Oh, they say how nice they sound, and are very quick to shred if something isn’t perfect, but their gushing lyrical kudos go to the damn tenors and sopranos.

Let’s face it, if Wyatt Earp could sing, he would have been a baritone.  Then again, I was told he had a voice like a fog horn, so, maybe we better nix that one.  But – he did love his opera.  His favorite was Traviata.  I was once able to go through a collection of the programs that he kept, along with the ticket stubs.  On the front of one, from a performance in LA, was a comment about other performances he had seen.  I’ve been trying to discover if he was in San Francisco the night before the earthquake.  If he was, you can bet he was there, watching Caruso in Carmen.

Once upon a time, The Pink Flamingo detested opera.  It was a kid thing, brought on by a being exposed to one of those teenage prodigies everyone thought was so wonderful.  Why aren’t you doing something like this?  Dear Bonnie is so talented.  Until Dear Bonnie, I thought opera was great.  Then I hated it.

The year was 1978.  My sister, best friend, and I were sharing a townhouse apartment in Atlanta.  Our mothers told us we were going with them to see the Metropolitan Opera on tour.  I balked.  If I did not go, I would be required to give up my three new outfits.

One minute into Cavalleria Rusticana and I was hooked.  My mother was gracious in victory.  I went back the next night to see La Favorita. I could not get another ticket until the Saturday matinee of Don Giovanni.

There are moments when our lives changed.  Mine exploded that afternoon.  There HE was, Sherrill Milnes, in all his glory as Don Giovanni.

I discovered baritones.

Baritones are the ultimate expression of manliness, maleness, hunkiness, barihunkness, and vocal perfection. Yes, I will willingly admit I became a Sherrill Milnes groupie.  I have no earthly idea how many times I saw him do Don Giovanni.  I do know he finally told me he wasn’t signing another photo for me because I had enough to wall paper my bathroom.

I eventually ended up with season tickets for the Met.  For over ten years, I would fly up to NYC at least once a month in the winter, and catch an opera.  I approached it like going to a baseball game.  I cheered, whistled, and booed.  There was a performance Milnes did in Ft. Lauderdale where I spent the entire time bitching about the conductor.  Yes, when the performance was over, I stood up and booed him.  The following day, in the Palm Beach Post, I was listed as a knowledgeable opera fan who had season tickets to the Met.  The critic used my quotes about the conductor, who did a horrible job.

Opera fans are like baseball fans.  We remember.  We are opinionated, remember productions, keep track of stats, and can give you a running commentary on productions past.  We cheer and we boo.  We have a tendency to loath critics, who have a tendency not to be all that knowledgeable. Most critics are frustrated singer who never made it.  Consequently, they can be full of bile, vicious, opinionated, and ultimately horribly ignorant.   They are so full of themselves and their own opinions that they don’t pay attention to the world around them.  They don’t research the situation, or understand a performer.

I must admit Simon Keenlyside is my favorite Giovanni.

Something that really annoys me is this constant harping on the way someone sings a piece of music. These people shred it.  I know good music, and I know what is good and what isn’t.  What I find remarkable is a performance I would find cringe-worthy, a critic will wax poetic about.  What I wax poetic about, critics might not even be able to tolerate.  Most of the time these people live to vomit words, and not much else.

You read a comment, where so and so took to long with this song, or their French wasn’t exact.  Or maybe they didn’t get this phrase perfect.  Someone breathed at the wrong time.  My retort, when encountering these people is “Oh, you can do better?”

Opera is a very difficult art.  It is more exacting than theater, Broadway, movies, or television.  In movies and television there is more than one take.  In serious theater, one needs learn the moves and the play.  In song and dance there are the moves, the lines, and the music.  To be successful in opera one must know theater.  The same craft involved in classical theater is in opera.  One must act.  And, one must learn one’s lines – in music.  Not only in music, but usually in a different language.  That language must be pronounced correctly.  It must be acted, and every single note must be sung exactly and precisely.   Where once, the reputation for standing around in a robe, holding a spear, wearing a helmet with horns was the norm, no longer.  To be successful in opera, one must be a singing actor.  In order to do a role like Rigoletto, a baritone must be required to stoop, to be crippled, for up to an hour at a time, onstage, and sing.

Milnes as MacBeth

It is not a career for the faint of heart.

There are some who require a singer be filled with passion for their music.  To someone who demands that, I say bunk.  They don’t know much about opera.  Opera, properly sung, must be precise, almost clinical in that precision.  Anyone who says they go to opera for passion doesn’t know opera.  You go to hear piano for passion. You don’t listen to an opera for passion in a person’s voice.   Passion is emotional.  In emotion, the precision and clinical lose.

Opera is almost a science.  For every role there is a history, a resume, and a tradition. It is done just so.  It is exact.  If it is not exact the voices on stage do not properly blend.  You go for passion and emotion and hit the wrong notes and ruin the entire performance.

You get booed.

The best performances are those where every voice is exact.

I’ve always wanted to take on critics.  Until the era of the internet and blogging, the average person was powerless.  No more.  I would not even be writing this if I had not seen an absolutely deplorable review of a recital my current favorite baritone, and worthy successor to the great Sherrill Milnes, Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave last week.

I’ve always thought that a person reviewing anything, should know what they review.  It doesn’t matter if it is a book, art, or music.  You should know what you are doing.  When I review a book, I try to brush up on the subject and lean a little about the author and the subject before writing the review.

In several of the criticisms of Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recital at Wigmor Hall in London, two of the critics complained about the fact the used a music stand with the score on it. They never bothered to check on You Tube, to see if there were clips from his previous recital.  There are.  He did not use a music stand.

Opera is a heck of a lot like baseball, like pitching.  If a pitcher gets rattled, it is  up to the catcher to calm him down enough to get three outs, or get the relief pitcher warm.  Opera singers, even the very best of them get rattled.  I’ve even seen Milnes when he was rattled.   We all do.   For a singer who rarely resorts to using a music stand, if I were a critic, I would want to know why.  I will guarantee that something happened to disturb his composure.  A good critic would want to know why.  I would.

Tim Ashley at the Guardian wrote:

“…Rachmaninov’s songs are essentially amorous, and the seeming spontaneity of Hvorostovsky’s delivery has always fitted well with his heart-throb image. On this occasion, however, skin-tight trousers and a few bits of bling gave the impression of slightly over-cultivated glamour. And he used a score for music that on previous occasions he has performed from memory. His voice was in good shape, and there were some exceptional insights. But passion loses its directness, I’m afraid, when expressed by someone whose eyes are frequently straying to their music stand. Hvorostovsky has made much more of an impact in Rachmaninov on previous occasions….During the interval, Hvorostovsky exchanged his designer dinner jacket for a simple black shirt. His use of a score proved less intrusive in a work that is essentially meditative. A direct examination of the relationship between the artist and the state that equates the idea of personal immortality with the judgments of posterity, the cycle has a declamatory quality far removed from Hvorostovsky’s usual lyricism. But he delivered it with a furious intensity that did much to compensate for the evening’s awkward first half.”…”

Instead, Hvorostovsky was castigated for using music.  It detracted from the passion of the music.

Lord help the stupid.

He was singing from his album of Rachmaninov.  Rachmaninov Romances may be one of the most magnificent vocal recitals every released.  The music is hauntingly sad.  I find it very difficult to listen to at one time, preferring to mix the music on a playlist.  The scope of the music is so tragic and so sad, it is heartbreaking. It is that beautiful.  Very few of these songs have ever been recorded.

 “…It’s all about the singing here, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky seldom fails to deliver; his is a truly great voice, thunderous in power yet capable of long-held pianissimi, and he knows exactly how to manage his audience. One might ask for a little more subtlety at times, but this isn’t exactly subtle music; rather, it is full-blown Romanticism and Russian gloom, all unrequited love and existential doubt….”

It’s critics like Evan Dickerson who give their kind a bad name.  I’ve read his reviews before this. He has a music degree, ergo he knows all there is to know about music.  In other words – he couldn’t make it any other way but as a critic.  Critics like that are the most obnoxious, like petty little bantam roosters, trying to impress with their size.

What he wrote comes out like verbal garbage.

“..It was a further pity then that Hvorostovsky’s approach did not seek to make more of his chosen repertoire. His famed vocal technique was secure as ever, his tone was constantly robust and his diction precise, but song delivery needs more than just those qualities. What was needed was for the passionate feeling behind the words to spring forth impulsively and not to remain caught between printed page and the singer’s intermittent eye contact with his audience. Only rarely did Hvorostovsky willingly keep the volume much below a mezzo-forte, notably in “Lilacs”, showing as with the recital two years ago that his innate urge for showmanship can run at odds with the requirements of an intimate recital acoustic such as Wigmore Hall, that allow inferences to have impact. An increasingly obvious tendency to aspirate when drawing breath further marred his natural ability to phrase with ease. On balance Ivari Ilja’s accompaniments were purposeful if a little lacking in delicacy, though in “By the gates of a holy temple”, for example, his playing neatly underlined the text’s sense of seething narrative….”

Then there is this:

Classical Source
Peter Reed

It’s fascinating how people look at things.  Some of the comments are a bit bitchy.  Then again, true opera fans are a very picky, bitchy lot. That’s the beauty of the game.  I only wish when at an opera we could eat popcorn, hiss, boo, make nasty remarks, and stand up and cheer.  Wait – I do all of that, minus the popcorn.

This is the ULTIMATE expression of why Opera is Grand and Milnes is Magnificent! Sure, Placi is in it, but baritones are all that matter.  I have never been able to understand why Tosca always chose the stupid tenor when she could have Scarpia!  This is probably my very favorite operatic scene there is.

I love this stuff! You can’t beat a man in a Regency period costume. This is what opera is all about, sex & violence sung well.  Now that Milnes has retired Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the leading Verdi Baritone there is.  Sondra Radvonosky is one of the few sopranos I can tolerate.

The story – he wants her, she’s in love with his brother, who is in prison, to be executed.  She offers to marry him to save the other guy (tenor).  So she takes poison.  Stupid woman.  Keep the baritone and dump the tenor.  She dies, the tenor dies, and the baritone is for once, left standing.  You just don’t get any grander than this.