Whose side is the critic on?
In her very negative review in The New Republic of New York City Ballet's premiere of Ocean's Kingdom, with score by Paul McCartney, dance critic Jennifer Homans unfavorably compared the ballet to the "gorgeous new production" of Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena just premiered next door at the Metropolitan Opera. Homans was excited not just about the production, but about the excitement it has created. "There were queues to get into the Met, queues to watch the show on huge HD screens set up in the Lincoln Center plaza and at Times Square, and no doubt there will be queues when the production is beamed to movie theaters across the country."
Funny thing is, the music critics have been pretty sour about the new Anna Bolena. The New York Times's Anthony Tommasini, after offering measured praise, followed with criticism. "Yet [star Anna] Netrebko’s Anna and the overall performance of the opera were not what they could have been." For the Washington Post's Anne Midgette, the production "added up to an evening that represented what too many members of the glittering opening-night crowd probably expect of opera: something long, dull and not very believable, with a lot of gesticulation and, under it all, some pretty music." Most negative was Midgette's husband, blogger Greg Sandow, who slammed the new Anna Bolena as "a dud...More or less misconceived from start to finish."
Of course, critics are permitted to disagree, just like anyone else. But what struck me was not just the difference in the opinions here, but the difference in their viewpoints.
Tommasini, Midgette and Sandow are all opera lovers, each with a special affection for the bel canto ("beautiful singing") style of which Anna Bolena is a great example. "It might be my favorite kind of music," wrote Sandow. So, they bring considerable expertise of the form to their reviews, which one might hope and expect from any critic in any field. But they bring something else, too: a passionate belief in how it should be done. It was probably this kind of passion that led them to become music critics in the first place. And woe betide the performer who goes against what the passionate critic wants in his or her favorite art form.
Homans, on the other hand, is a dance critic, not a music critic. She approached the new Anna as an opera fan, not as a super-knowledgeable specialist. And she was swept up in the excitement of the event, which she reported as a fabulous occasion and great success.
So let me ask you this, dear reader and listener: Which way of viewing a work of art more closely resembles your own, that of the critic, or that of the fan? And who do you think was more on your side when reporting the Anna Bolena premiere, Jennifer Homans or the critical law firm of Tommasini, Midgette and Sandow?
P.S. The Met's Anna Bolena can be seen live in HD in area theaters on October 15 (encore on November 2) and will be broadcast on Saturday, February 4 at 1:00 on WFCR. Each of the operas in the upcoming Met broadcast season, which starts on December 3 with Handel's Rodelinda, will be broadast on WFCR starting at 1:00, regardless of when they actually get under way in the opera house.