A Times critic crosses the line of malice

A Times critic crosses the line of malice


norman lebrecht

September 17, 2014

Early this summer, a slew of middle-aged, male London critics lay into an Irish mezzo-soprano at Glyndebourne for being too fat. 

A leading English mezzo, Alice Coote, issued a stinging response on the dangers of judging a singer by body shape. Opera, she wrote, ‘will die if audiences have only average looking, average singing humans walking around in interesting ( or average) looking productions.’ Her challenge put critics on their mettle and was quoted in breakfast television studios from Moscow to New York.

Alice admitted at the time that she might be singled out for revenge by a disgruntled critic. That moment appears to have arrived.

alice coote xerxes


In this morning’s (London) Times Richard Morrison, one of the Glyndebourne fat pack, writes of Alice’s performance as Xerxes at English National Opera:

One thing makes this show impossible to recommend, and that is Alice Coote’s weird, almost unhinged performance in the title role. Xerxes is a perpetual loser, forever outwitted, but in the end he accepts his losses with good grace. Coote, however, plays him like some overblown Victorian tragedian emoting Lear. And her singing – full of ugly scoops, slow-ups and grossly indulgent embellishments – is like something dredged from another era, and not in a good way.

Richard’s apoplexy is running so high in this review that he commits a hapless tautology – Victorian tragedian… like something dredged from another era – a slip of the memory that is as ugly and unprofessional as anything the critic claimed to have heard.

He concludes:  Coote’s mezzo is still a great instrument, but I won’t hurry to hear her murder Handel again.

I think Richard has overstepped the mark. I was unable, due to a sudden family issue, to attend the opening night so I cannot offer a personal opinion on Alice Coote’s Xerxes. However, the first review appeared from Guy Damann in the Guardian newspaper. He writes:

The main draw of this umpteenth revival of ENO’s 1985 production, directed here by Michael Walling and conducted by Michael Hofstetter, is the casting of Alice Coote in the title role. Though by no means a natural Handelian, Coote recently released an impressive CD of Handel arias, and her full-bodied tone and tremendous vocal swagger work particularly well with a characterisation that plays the role as a cross between George I and Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim. The emperor’s blind sense of omnipotence translates well into the way Coote effortlessly wrests control away from the pit, slowing the orchestra – at times almost to a standstill – and the way she both inhabits the character as well as exceeds it, revelling in the electricity of her vocal presence. True, her voice was wearing out by the end of the evening, but her depiction of the despot’s reluctant enlightenment is both touching and profound.

Almost the exact opposite.

Guy had no axes to grind. Could it be that fat-pack Richard nurtured an unconscious malice for Alice?




  • Andy says:

    Alice Coote is one of the best British mezzo’s in years, and a true successor to Janet Baker. I was gutted that I won’t be able to make it down to London fir this Xerxes – but from having seen her on many previous occasions I have no doubt that the Grauniad review is a better reflection of how the evening goes!

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    This is dangerous territory. Does it mean that outspoken singers should now be afforded only fawning crits?

  • Erich says:

    No it doesn’t – but the ever-recurring problem seems to be that reviews appear to be increasingly ‘below the belt’. Whether this is encouraged by Arts Editors, wishing their scribes to over-polemicise in order to cause a stir or caused by the basic ignorance of critics themselves, I know not. How many critics have stood on a professional stage themselves, know how hard it is even to give a less than perfect performance and then know how hurtful it is to see oneself trashed in print with little hope of being able to respond?
    An earlier generation of critic, even when giving a less than favourable review, tended towards CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, from which an artist might benefit. Today, it is almost invariably DESTRUCTIVE.

    • lizbie says:

      I beg to differ. Certainly, there is plenty of destructive criticism out there, but nearly all of it is from newspaper critics, who, let’s face it, often only got where they are because they were someone’s son / grandson / niece etc. If you want constructive criticism, often from people with far greater knowledge of opera than most of the newspaper writers, then you need to look online.

      Compare, for example,most newspaper critics of Glyndebourne’s ‘Rosenkavalier’ with reviews of that production from ‘MusicOMH’ and ‘Whatsonstage.’ Revealing.

  • DLowe says:

    This seems very dubious. Mr Morrison may have made a professional mistake over the Glyndebourne business, but I do not believe he would be petty-minded enough for this to be a simple retaliation. Critics often have radically different tastes – Mr Damman’s feelings on acting may be substantially different to Mr Morrison’s, as potentially may be his tastes in singing. I hope he will at least exercise his right of reply

  • thekingontheviolin says:


    “Never pay any attention to what critics say, remember, a statue has never been put up in honour of a critic!”

  • Hasbeen says:

    Has anyone writing thus far actually seen the production/performance ?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Read carefully, doctor. Guy’s is the first review.

    • Neil McGowan says:

      Has anyone writing thus far actually seen the production/performance ?

      I was working at ENO when the production was new in the early 1980s 🙂 So I know it very well indeed. It’s one of Nicholas Hytner’s finest pieces of work – subtle humour, rigorous plot-lining, three-dimensional characters with believable motivation. Hytner worked-up the English translation himself, and preparation of the HIP performing score (which is published, by Faber Music) was done by Sir Charles Mackerras and Noel Davies. I hope it’s been lovingly revived, of course – but I have no idea if that is the case. I rather wish they would get on with new stagings, instead of wheeling out the old ones endlessly. Surely David McVicar or Tim Albery can’t be so very busy? Or perhaps NH now has enough time for fresh work at the Coli – having taken his shoes with him from the NT on departure?

      All considerations of physical appearance and acting aside, the Waterloo for any singer (whether counter-tenor or mezzo) in this role is the final aria, Crude furie. Even as written. it’s a punishing test of fioritura passagework in 16ths (semiquavers) – and then on the repeat, the soloist is expected to embellish the difficulties still further. (In fact a copy of “roulades” alleged to have been devised/sung by Senesino for the aria exists, and they’re enough to dampen the spirits of the most super-competent of singers). Of the several recordings of SERSE available, none of the singers really nails this aria – although Zazzo comes the closest. And as if singing this war-horse aria wasn’t already hard enough, it comes right at the end of an opera that lasts nigh-on four hours, when everyone (cast, orchestra, etc) is utterly knackered and wanting to go home to a hot bath and a glass of Highland Park.

      I really have the scantest regard for Morrison as a critic, and his opinions about music or musicians aren’t worth a groat. Splenetic twaddle is no substitute for acute observation and informed comment. Rupert Christiansen he is not. I haven’t heard Alice Coote in this role – but I empathise with her annoyance on being bothered by a little gnat like Morrison.

      • John says:

        Why would Senesino have devised anything for Crude fiurie? The role was written for Caffarelli and the opera was first performed a couple of years after Senesino had left England. He certainly never appeared in it.

        • Neil McGowan says:

          Indeed, that’s why I said these roulades were allegedly authored by Senesino. He was also a music-master, singing teacher, “composer”, and concert artiste – it’s quite possible that he might have sung the aria in concerts, or even inserted it into other operas (a contemporary fad, and the origin of the famous clash between Handel and Cuzzoni). Despite the rivalry between Handel and the “Opera Of The Nobility”, the latter had no problem in performing Handel’s music, if it suited them. Those were the days before royalty payments, of course 🙂

          Or perhaps he just published them to annoy Caffarelli, and show him “how it ought to be done”? 😉 It was, after all, an era dominated by star singers… composers took the back seat.

          Handel has won our hearts and admiration after centuries of worthy oratorio performances, of course. With no detriment to his marvellous work, it’s a pity that Porpora, Hasse, Telemann, Graun, Keiser and the others continue to eke a hearing in the redoubtable shadow of the great man.

          • John says:

            But Senesino had left England two years before Serse was composed and was virtually retired by the time it was… And the opera was not performed in Italy in either Handel’s or Senesino’s lifetime. The attribution is clearly nonsense

    • Nathan Silver says:

      You ask if anyone has actually been to the performance in question. My wife and I were at Xerxes on Monday 15 September, in the Stalls, row A. I’ve also been on the Olivier panel for opera. In our opinion the Guardian review was an accurate account of the fine performance we saw; the Times review was simply poison. I’ve long admired Alice Coote’s work which I’ve seen in performance many times, and on this occasion her Xerxes was commanding. Even some nit-picking about her slight fade at the end of her four hour performance would be hardly necessary to mention.

      There seems to be malice afoot with some critics these days– Martin Filler’s personal attack on Zaha Hadid in the New York Review of Books is another horrible example. I hope Zaha goes for him. Richard Morrison can probably avoid legal action, but to me his contemptible review shows his views are worthless.

  • John Borstlap says:

    This video shows a superb performance, with a superb voice… of a superb piece of music. Beautiful how greatness and delicacy can go together in both the music and performance

    Critique of performers is very easy: you can get away with almost everything, it will benefit or damage musicians’ career, but the critic disappears unscathed into historical oblivion. But some polemics would do the profession of music criticism good, given the shrinking of space in the media and the assumed indifference of the reading public. The current ‘crisis’ at the Vienna Opera is a good example… whatever the outcome, it will keep interest in the place going.

    It seems that criticising the critic is a good thing, and may correct some all too subjective reactions.

    Assessing music, especially new music, is another matter – there, critics are exposed when their subject remains in the repertoire. Of course there is this very amusing tome that offers a collection of critic’s venom: Nicolas Slonimsky, “Lexicon of Musical Invective”, Norton 2000.

  • Jon says:

    I’m not sure that the reviews are the ‘exact opposite’ as Norman alleges. Guy Damman’s comments may be more subtle than Morrison’s but he makes many of the same points.

    Damman acknowledges that Alice Coote is not “a natural Handelian”, and her “full-bodied tone and tremendous vocal swagger” could equally be seen as “grossly indulgent embellishments” by others.

    Similarly he notes “the way Coote effortlessly wrests control away from the pit, slowing the orchestra – at times almost to a standstill”, which for Morrison translates as “slow-ups”. He also admits that “her voice was wearing out by the end of the evening”

    To me, it is clear that both are describing the same performance, but Damman is somewhat more forgiving of some apparent vocal problems and more accepting of Coote’s approach to the role. Both reviews make it clear that her performance is rather old-fashioned and doesn’t fit very well with current standards of Handelian singing

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is a misunderstanding that Historically Informed Performance (HIP) means that tragic expression or passion should be slimmed-down to structurally nice & neat lines. The baroque period tried to intensify expression in opera. The ‘Satz’ of the music is sufficient deliniation to keep romantic, 19th century excess at bay. The video here shown is, for that reason, a very good example of stylish period representation and great expression. Read the descriptions of opera performances in the 18th century…

  • Ducadiposa says:

    I agree with John Brostlap – baroque opera needs to be sung with the same commitment to text and expression as one would expect in opera from any era. Having just heard Coote in Handel’s Hercules only a few months ago I can say it was some of the most affecting singing I’ve ever heard in the opera house. She knows exactly how to focus her intention on the specific mood/affectation of each aria. Her vocal tone is rich and beautiful. Her command of fioratura is astonishing. Can’t imagine she would perform much differently than that in London. Clearly the first critic doesn’t buy her approach to this repertoire but I can tell you, audiences went crazy for it in Toronto this past May.

  • milka says:

    It is only an opinion and as such will
    be in the dust bin history of musical opinion before one can blink an eye .
    No matter who writes the review it reflects only one opinion good or bad,
    if enough agree you are a “great ” critic,if not ,you are demented or worse.Musical criticism for the most part means nothing. There are folk
    who write that Lang Lang is a great pianist and then there are the others,
    does it mean anything in the scheme of things …not one bit ..to believe that there is any authenticity in what an audience hears to-day is to be delusional. It is all “informed ” fake from the
    opening “A” leaving one opinion as
    good as the next .

  • JRHBLACK says:

    I’m a great admirer of Alice Coote’s work and was at the first night of Xerxes. Although she’s a fantastically compelling singer and stage animal, I have to say I didn’t think it was her finest hour. There were quite a lot of register breaks, she had to thin the tone to manage the coloratura, she went wrong at the start of Crude Furie and ran out of voice in the final cadenza….

  • Bob McPartland says:

    I was at the performance and I have to say Richard Morrison’s views are legitimate. I am a great fan of Ms Coote but this was not a good day at the office for her.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Was she ugly? Did she murder? Were these terms appropriate and professional?

      • Bob McPartland says:

        “Ugly scoops” is sadly fair.

        Murder is used in a colloquial way. Perhaps not advisable, but it does come immediately after he compliments her: “Coote’s mezzo is still a great instrument, but I won’t hurry to hear her murder Handel again” something you do not mention.

    • JRHBLACK says:

      Well, that’s two of us who were actually at the show who agree with The Times. Other commentators seem not to have been there, including Mr Lebrecht, so it would be interesting to hear from others who were….

  • Wiebke Göetjes says:

    “Could it be that fat-pack Richard nurtured an unconscious malice for Alice?”
    I am very sure that is the case, and you can change un-conscious to very-conscious too…
    This is what happens in opera frequently…unfortunately..

    • JRHBLACK says:

      I think probably not. Were you at the performance? I was, and, as another commentator has also posted, it wasn’t Ms Coote’s finest hour (or three and a half hours)….

  • Owzat says:

    Critics of course disagree often and the Morrison opinion I imagine is his alone, not influenced by sub-editors.
    But I have noted an increasingly negative line in his Times reviews. Sometimes he has seemed unnecessarily personal, sour and even nasty. This may be a case of revenge and if not, it looks like it. It seems to me that he goes to too many concerts and need a good, long break. Maybe that would give more exposure to the other (younger?) Times critics who are excellent, balanced and thoughtful as to the potential effects of their comments.

  • Laura says:

    About a year ago, when the Gramophone was taken over there was a big slew of “yay”, because apparently that and other media outlets music critics have for years been fawning all over the industry, in some cases allegedly, paid to butter up and positively review otherwise mediocre performances on record in order to generate better sales.

    Thing is, this perspective is absolute bull. I’ve been reading Gramophone for 24 years and aside from a few notable deaths, the writers are largely unchanged, the tone and direction of reviews absolutely consistent (comparative always) and the only notable difference is the disappearance of pleasantries such as the Jazz and musicals columns that used to appear in some issues. The idea that music criticism was being tolerant of an increasingly bland industry is a myth.

    The result is, though, that many critics now come down harder on performances and performers. The culture of placing people in the public eye on a gauntlet, to be rubbished, ridiculed and abused, and internet troll culture, has only added to the barely suppressed vitriol you read in some grumpy reviews. That they have had the leisure, privilege and years of maturity to have enjoyed many of the best performances ever to compare those now with does not help. The “shock factor” of some directors and designers adds to the sense of offense. The net result is that the individual performer now can expect not to be showered with roses a la Milan, but a verbal rugby tackle.

    I suspect music criticism will disappear entirely from mainstream print media within 2 years. Nobody wants to read such barrages of negativity. Opera will not die, and hopefully there is a few good years in Coote yet, but the critics who pen such self-serving nonsense will be unemployed before the end of the decade.

  • Adrian Powter says:

    I speak as a colleague of Alice’s as I’m singing Elviro in this revival. Truly, when you hear her in full flight it’s a joy to behold. This review stood alone in its condemnation, I haven’t read another bad one yet and they’re nearly all in now, including online articles. If you can’t make it to a performance then be consoled as it’s being recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3. You will then be able to judge with your own ears who gave the best opinion or if Mr Morrison’s words were merely a personal attack.

    • lizbie says:

      Excuse me, but the phrase ‘they’re nearly all in now, including online articles’ kind of implies that website reviews are later than print ones, which is not the case. In general, the ‘next day’ reviews come from websites, mainly ‘Whatsonstage’ / ‘The Arts Desk’ / ‘MusicOMH’ and it is the papers which are later – Morrison’s review appeared days after some of the online ones. And the ‘Guardian’ review was not the first, as the original post states. I think the first newspaper review was probably in the ‘Telegraph.’

      • Adrian Powter says:

        For goodness sake, does it matter what chronological order reviews come out in? I honestly couldn’t care less. What a ridiculous, pointless, irritating response when all I was trying to do was support my colleague. If you have nothing better to say then say nothing at all.

        • lizbie says:

          No need to get steamed up! I was responding to what read like a sense of online reviews coming in late. It does matter, in fact – what is the point, for example, of a review which is a week after the 1st night? Useful if it’s erudite, but how many are?

          Congratulations on your Elviro, BTW. You are part of a very strong cast.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        You’re splitting hairs, Ms Bie. Morrison’s was among the first reviews to appear in print but it did not go online til much later (and behind firewall) because the Times doesn’t think many will pay to read its arts reviews.

        • lizbie says:

          Not really. You stated that the G’s was ‘the first review’ which it was not. BTW, don’t people pay to buy the ‘Times?’

  • JAMA11 says:

    The reviews are not “exact opposites.” They are actually quite complementary to one another, with one simply being a more sour and negative take on the same thing written about with (somewhat faint) praise in the other. Newsflash, this happens all the time. Norman, I would think you would be above lashing out at critics with whom you already have something of a beef, particularly over a production you haven’t even seen.

  • john humphreys says:

    ‘Miss….. gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall last night…why?’ I’ve never been able to track down the paper (or the reviewer) of this peremptory put down. Any clues?

  • Richard Cumming-Bruce says:

    I’m afraid this largely echoes my feelings. I was also at the first night and am a great fan of Alice Coote. I think she has a lovely voice and she’s a very committed performer. I’ve seen her give mesmerisingly brilliant performances, in particular as the Prince in Cendrillon and Sesto in Clemenza di Tito.

    But to me, she started slowly on Monday, didn’t seem especially at ease in the musical idiom, and only rarely moved me or had the intensity that I associate with her. I certainly wasn’t uplifted or enlightened in the way that I was so memorably by Ann Murray in the same production a few years ago .

    I wouldn’t put it as Richard Morrison did; and I still admire – and will buy tickets whenever Alice Coote is on parade in London: but I do see some what Morrison was on about, and I’d give him the credit of believing that this was an honest review, rather than an exercise in “getting even”.