A room with a view: the set of Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, reviewed at The Metropolitan Opera in June 2022
[Photograph by the author; stage décor © by The Metropolitan Opera]
In Autumn 2007, New York’s Lincoln Center hosted a much-lauded Les Arts Florissants touring production of Stefano Landi’s pioneering opera Il sant’Alessio. Featuring an ensemble of acclaimed countertenors including Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cenčić, Xavier Sabata, and José Lemos, the production offered an extraordinary opportunity to hear a neglected work, performed by singers who were then rarely heard in North America.
I had the good fortune to attend the performance of Il sant’Alessio in Frederick P. Rose Hall on 29 October 2007. In the days thereafter, as I perused reviews of the production, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I read. Despite the existence of a studio recording by the same forces by whom Il sant’Alessio was performed in New York—Les Arts Florissants and William Christie—and the wide circulation of a Salzburger Festspiele broadcast with as noteworthy a singer as Edita Gruberová among the cast, a lack of familiarity with Landi’s music was expected, but the prevailing indifference to details of historically-informed performance practices evident in many critical assessments was maddening. His career has been primarily centered in Europe, but Christie is American, after all. Could his countrymen not spare the time required to assess his work with depth? Did so thoroughly prepared a production merit only generalities?
Contemplating these questions, I recalled the advice of an esteemed professor, academic advisor, and mentor, Dr. Charles Tisdale. ‘Joey,’ he once told me, ‘when you do not find scholarship of the quality that you expect, it is your responsibility to provide it.’ Dr. Tisdale was speaking of literary analysis of thematic links among Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, which would become the subject of my thesis, but the logic seemed no less applicable to music criticism. If my own musical training and sensibilities impelled the belief that performers deserve more informed analysis than they often receive in the mainstream press and from writers with wide followings but limited musical credentials, is it not my duty to add my voice to the critiquing chorus?
From this experience Voix des Arts was born. At the inception of my journey in writing criticism, I established as my foremost goal maintaining inviolable respect for artists and their endeavors. Artists make sacrifices of which audiences never know, often missing family occasions and milestones. Even in their weakest moments on stage, artists give of themselves in ways that those who have never performed before the public can only partially understand but which must always be valued and extolled.
As a writer, I perceive my most profound responsibility to be serving as an unwavering advocate for composers and librettists. Expressing whether I like or dislike a staging, a tempo, or a timbre is secondary to explicating performances’ fidelity to scores. Productions’ sights and sounds are subjective: tableaux and voices that enchant my eyes and ears repulses other observers. The principal questions that my reviews should answer therefore concern not the aesthetics of a performance, vital as they are, but the caliber of execution of music and words.
In my view, praising the positive aspects of a performance rather than reveling in condemning its deficiencies is not bias, as has sometimes been alleged, but celebration of music’s capacity to transcend adversity. Negativity pervades modern society but should not be welcomed in the Arts as a conduit for fleeting notoriety. There are absolutes, of course: a singer either emits the composer’s specified pitches or substitutes other tones, either by design or by mistake. This is relevant. All the same, singers are feeling, evolving beings. Perfection is an imperfect goal for even the most gifted singers. My goal is to evaluate the intentions behind the blemishes, encouraging artistic initiative whilst honestly documenting missteps.
I want singers to come to Voix des Arts with the expectation of reading earnest considerations of their work, knowing that every review is a safe haven in which their integrity is preserved. I want readers of all levels of musical knowledge to come to Voix des Arts with the expectation of reading reviews that recreate the visual, aural, and emotional experiences of performances without burdens of personal opinions, prejudices, and gossip. I unquestionably fail to achieve these aims more frequently than I would care to admit, but every error is committed with admiration.
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