NY reviews of the Met are like ‘collaborationists greeting an occupying force’

NY reviews of the Met are like ‘collaborationists greeting an occupying force’


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2018

Joe Horowitz has filleted some wonderful quotes in his Wall Street Journal review of Conrad L Osborne’s magisterial new survey of the present state of opera in America.

We like this one, in particular:

The penultimate chapter of Opera as Opera is a 25-page set piece reviewing one of the Met’s most admired productions of recent seasons: Borodin’s Prince Igor as reconstituted in 2014 by the director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Mr. Osborne: “[It] sold out the house and generated an astoundingly acquiescent critical . . . response of a sort you’d expect from collaborationists greeting an occupying force. . . . That this takedown of a production and sadsack performance should stir not a whiff of dissent, not a scrap of controversy, is a mark of a dead artform.”

It would be a shame if this killed Osborne’s chances of a review in the New York Times.

Read on here.


  • Caravaggio says:

    “Mr. Osborne dedicates some 34 pages to the decline of operatic conducting and orchestral playing, highlighting James Levine’s recently terminated Metropolitan Opera tenure. How Mr. Levine and his orchestra acquired such a commanding reputation is a question that deserves a book of its own. That Mr. Levine inherited an ­erratic pit ensemble, and fixed it, is undeniable. But the gifted Met orchestra of today lacks presence, depth of tone, kinetic energy.”


    • Mark says:

      Without Levine, maybe. But I remember plenty of performances, both at the Met and Carnegie Hall, where orchestral playing with little short of perfection.

        • Ms.Melody says:

          The orchestra’s playing post Levine has been less cohesive, less expressive and in general, more generic. If the musicians did not change, than it must have been he , who should not be named, to bring about the sublime sound. I will never forget Meistersingers performance that I attended in 2014. It was a revelation. Levine turned the Met orchestra into a world class ensemble and , sadly ,the playing and the singing level has been on a steady decline.

          • Mark says:

            I heard the Meistersinger with Levine conducting twice – 2007 (if memory serves me right) and 2014. Both were sublime.

          • Yes Addison says:

            The Met Orchestra has declined, but Levine’s performances in the 2010s were as good as ever? This is an opinion you’re entitled to, but it’s an eccentric one.

            Orchestras have personnel turnover through the years in any circumstance, as players leave, retire, die. So it isn’t the same orchestra as in 2000, literally. I suspect the stress of trying to follow Levine was a factor for some seeking work elsewhere, as his progressive condition did what such things do, and he showed no sign of stepping down. It was a divisive issue within the orchestra, as revealed in Times articles going back many years now.

            For myself, it’s been a while since I thought Levine was a strong asset to any operatic performance. I don’t claim to have heard everything he’s done, and I skipped the Meistersingers (I detest that production, and it wasn’t as well cast as it had been in the past). However, I’ve thought his range of the present decade has been from satisfactory (Zauberflöte, Nabucco, Idomeneo) to leaden (Don Pasquale, Fledermaus, Falstaff) to just barely holding it together (Tannhäuser, the nadir). I was relieved he was detached from Lulu and Rosenkavalier.

  • JoBe says:

    Well, the rendition of the Polovtsian Dances, as they can bee seen on the Met’s own website (https://www.metopera.org/season/on-demand/opera/?upc=811357017180), isn’t bad at all. But that particular piece may be so well known that even an arthritic arthropod could conduct it!

  • David Shengold says:

    I am reading Mr. Osborne’s book with great interest, jumping around. I already saw the IGOR chapter. It is evident that by “reviews” he largely means THE NEW YORK TIMES and THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. In actual fact I saw several reviews of the PRINCE IGOR that took exception to aspects of the production, edition and casting, including those by Martin Bernhemer in THE FINANCIAL TIMES, Marina Harss in THE NATION, David Patrick Stearns for WOXR, John Allison in OPERA and Justin Davidson in NEW YORK.

    I also *wrote* two such, for OPERNWELT and the French OPÉRA MAGAZINE.

    Granted none of these gets the central circulation that the NYT does, but we are not quite to Vichy conditions yet, however it may shatter Received SD Wisdom.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    The hyperbolic headlining of Mr Horowitz is matched only by the campaign of SD against the MET in general and Gelb in particular. Both are in many ways irrationally overstated, not to say overwrought.

    • Caravaggio says:

      Re-citing for emphasis

      “But the gifted Met orchestra of today lacks presence, depth of tone, kinetic energy.”

      And let’s not get started on what passes for singers.

      • Sharon says:

        I can’t speak for the background of the reviewers but most of the audience at the Met probably, like myself, has a limited musical background. Remember, although this audience is older they still have been raised on rock and roll which has been around for over 60 years so anything would sound polished by comparison.

        As a nurse what I would consider good nursing care, such as medication accuracy or how certain types of physical assessments are done, which the patient or family does not understand or may be hidden behind the scenes, is not what a patient or family sees as good nursing care. They would probably look at superficial things to judge the quality of the care such as cleanliness or bedside manner.

        I am not saying that what the patient or family sees is unimportant but it is not the totality of what makes up good nursing care.

        Likewise, the audience which cannot read music and probably does not under the elements of melody and harmony, much less tone and pitch, would judge a performance by the superficial sound and sight, not by the criteria that a professional classically trained orchestral musician would use.

        The purpose of the review in a general publication is so the reader can determine if he/she wants to see the performance. Therefore, reviewers in general publications, whether or not they themselves have a classical background, have to review the performance with the background and tastes of the general audience in mind.

  • Eusebius says:

    “Reviewers in general publications … have to review the performance with the background and tastes of the general audience in mind.“ Really? They have to?

    If someone is granted widely-distributed print exposure and financial renumeration for his/her artistic views, insights and perspectives, should we not expect the result to reflect a more informed background and a more finely honed sense of taste than that of an average member of the audience? Would you prefer to base your expectations on random posting in a blog rather than the professional observations of someone who makes a living from studying, attending and comparing as many performances as possible?

    Cleanliness is probably not at all superficial in providing expert nursing care. Bedside manner may seem superficial to a professional, but it may be able to contribute to making a patient feel better. However, I would like to be assisted by a nurse who has more “background and taste” than that of “the general audience.”

    • Bruce says:

      I think what Sharon meant is that they have to write with the background and taste of their readers in mind, in order to be understood by said readers — not that they should be as ignorant as their audience.

      To continue with your nursing analogy, caring about (not only caring for ) the patient includes helping them understand what’s going on. If it’s time to install an IV line, the nurse isn’t going to say “show me your median antecubital vein and we’ll see if it’s suitable. Well, let’s see it. No? OK, then let’s have a look at your dorsal venous network. Please pronate your left hand.” And so on. No, they would explain that they’re going to use the vein on the inside of your elbow, and if that isn’t going to work, the veins on the back of your hand. Does not knowing the names of all their veins make your patient (who may be a lawyer or an architect) stupid? Because, I mean, that’s super basic stuff that you have to know before you even apply to nursing school. Duhhhhh.

      You have to speak (and write) to your audience, including speaking “down” to them without condescension, if their training does not match yours. The “taste” you can partly assume, since anyone reading a review of an opera performance is probably interested in opera even if they don’t understand the technicalities of singing technique or compositional method. It’s kind of like being a good nurse.

  • Save the MET says:

    Osborne’s book is mostly opinion and conjecture. Let’s take for example his statement about Gergiev’s Mariinsky orchestra in the pit versus the MET in the pit is entirely inaccurate except when it comes to Russian music. His orchestra playing Wagner’s Ring Cycle a few years back was nothing short of pathetic, the singers even worse. The MET orchestra may not be as spectacular as the Mariinsky in Russian music, but they do a damn fine job for a non-Russian orchestra. By the way, a decade or so ago, I experienced the same thing with the Bolshoi Orchestra at Avery Fisher, when they played an entire German romantic concert like drunken off pitch roosters, but when it came to Russian encores, they were glorious and in their element. Mravinsky who could pull a German sound out of a Russian orchestra is long dead.

    • Mark says:

      The Bolshoi did indeed have a great string section (until the 1980s when all the best musicians emigrated en masse). But the woodwinds and the brass were well below the level of the top Western orchestras, despite the presence of a few standouts, like the late trumpeter Timofei Dokshitzer.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      I agree 80%.

      Where I disagree is that I heard the Bolshoi orchestra at Avery Fisher as well, but in Russian music – The Tsar’s Bride under Rozhdestvensky, no less. The conductor was their saving grace, because the orchestra and the ensemble were substandard.

      Likewise, the Mariinsky theater had a residency a decade or so ago at the Kennedy Center. Can’t remember one single performance that was memorable. The ones that were at an acceptable level were indeed in Russian music, Khovanshchina for instance.

      Actually, I take it back. There were a number of memorable performances. Memorably bad, to be more specific. And even in Russian music: War and Peace for example. But nothing was as bad as Il Viaggio a Reims. The Met, even at its worst, is not as bad.

      Met may have, perhaps more than a few problems. But I will take the Met any day over any Russian ensemble.

      • Ms.Melody says:

        Bolshoi and Kirov (now again Mariinsky) theatres poached talent from smaller cities for years. The orchestras never (IMHO) achieved the level of the Met under Levine, or Philadelphia or Chicago, except for Russian repertoire.Most of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky soloists( again, poached from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics) are singing at the Met and the performances are often memorably bad.
        Having gone to the Met for over 40 years I note with great sadness the general decline in both singing and orchestral playing, not to mention production values.

  • luigi nonono says:

    It’s all b.s. to me, and the Met Orchestra might have played together under Levin, but without color, feeling, character. I find it unbelievable that they were as bad as described before he took over. I don’t believe anything critics write, and it’s a shame their words are allowed to serve as a historical record. Listening to lots of music does not make you an expert. Just look at the ridiculous pieces Alex Ross writes.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The standards of playing by all orchestras was generally worse fifty years ago. At least in the technical aspects. Musicians are mostly much better trained now than in the past. Even if they now sound much more similar to each other. So I don’t find it too much of a stretch to say that the orchestra improved under Levine. I just don’t believe he had that much to do with the improvement.