A Petite History of the Critical Review and Recent Perspectives about the Met Opera Season

James Jordan

Fabulous and Renown Opera Critic and Aficionado, James Jorden

It’s always interesting to read various reviews about opera performances and even more interesting to see the contrasting opinions of different reviewers.  The Critical Review has been a subject of controversy and yet an aspect of historical record in the music world since the mid 1800s when Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann began reviewing concerts.  More related to my own area of Italian Opera in Verdi and Puccini’s time, critical reviews became part of the historically legacy of the period, and composers like Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito were two who remained fervently devoted to the accurate retelling of a musical event.

Hector Berlioz     Robert Schumann

Where the Metropolitan Opera is concerned, of note the leading opera house in North America, the “Big Three” news sources that are looked  to for critical reviews are:  The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Observer.  External to this, I believe that the Washington Post is the next most highly considered.  Why these papers?  It’s not just that these are based in New York and so they are devoted to what exciting events are taking place at their hometown opera house, it’s because of the critics who write the reviews.  The most prominent being:  Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, Vivienne Schweitzer of the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times and New York Observer, James Jorden of the New York Post and New York Observer, Alex Ross of the New Yorker Magazine, and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

Amilcare Ponchielli

Amilcare Ponchielli

Arrigo Boito

 Arrigo Boito

What is controversial about the opera review is that it relies heavily on the musical and historical knowledge of the reviewer but also their own personal tastes and so when you’re seeking an understanding of what went on in a performance, it’s probably a good idea to consult more than one review just to balance out the varying opinions.  Reviewers are human beings and like us, they have personal preferences.  Each one has their own manner of reviewing, their own language of discussion, their own syntax, their own flavour–if you will, and the art of opera singing and performance has been linked to these diverse tastes both in the past and today.

My inspiration to talk about reviewing was James Jorden’s recent article in the New York Observer, and while I could have chosen any of the above mentioned critics because they are all wonderful, I chose Mr. Jorden’s review because I personally like his style and the honesty with which he relays his opinions, which I find to be based on a fervent knowledge of singing, historical performance practice, and just plain love of this art.  It is in no offence to any other critic.  Mr. Jorden reviewed the recent events that transpired in the Met’s opening week and I found his assessment refreshing and honest.  Please read his review below by clicking the link.

My own personal opinion on the occurrences of the past week (which has nothing to do with Mr. Jorden’s article or his own opinion) is this:  I think that the problem with opera singing today, and I’m not perfect by any means as a singer (but I sure try to stay close to what is authentic from a historical standpoint), is that we sometimes lose track of what the vocal fachs were when these operas were written and the kinds of voices that were meant to sing them.  It’s very obvious in today’s current climate that voices are not being produced like the voices of the past, especially where intelligibility of the text is concerned, or rather more, attention to the vowel.  When I listen to singers like Mafalda Favero or Tito Schipa, or Caruso even, EVERY word is understood without having the score in front of your face, rather than the fluttering and sustaining of lines via a quick vibrato rather than on the vowel, sul fiato that is more prominent today.  In my opinion, several performances have become unintelligible. Callas used to say, “Speak the text…go around and speak it everywhere.” Ponselle, used to hum everything in the front of her masque in perfectly placed position, and then she would explode that sound into ravishing colour on stage.  What did Callas mean when she said, “speak it?”  She did not mean trill it out and just keep fluttering away on a line that is disengaged from a vowel.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think opera has a message and that message is in the story, in the word, enveloped by a beautiful voice that vibrates like a perfectly tuned violin.  To me, it is the expression of that text that is the heart’s blood of opera.  I just wish that this was a greater priority today.

And huge huge respect to Maestro Levine whose return to the podium brought tears to my eyes.  From the first two chords of Cosi Fan Tutte, one heard the Met Orchestra of old.  He is a master and knows how to steer that beast of an orchestra like an expert.  We have missed him and I’m so happy for his return and continued good health.  Bravi tutti, singers, conductors, and critics alike.


“Onegin’s Opening Night: Anna, Norma, and a Giant Nose: Protesters Stole the Opening Night of Onegin…But No One Can Take the Met Away From James Levine” by James Jorden (New York Observer)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Absolutelly right miss Mary Lou.I remember another Callas interview when she said:”do what the composer said you to do,he had already think what he want,just sing….”

  2. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think opera has a message and that message is in the story, in the word, enveloped by a beautiful voice that vibrates like a perfectly tuned violin. To me, it is the expression of that text that is the heart’s blood of opera. I just wish that this was a greater priority today”


    I really have almost no interest in the stories of most operas, although I have read them.

    What I do is LISTEN to the sounds and noises and allow my
    body to react to it. Really, for all I care, most operas could be sixteen
    hours of reading the telephone book, the yellow pages included, of
    Malta, over and over again.

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