It’s a recurring theme, of course, nowadays: everyone has an opinion, and there are more and more places to express them, so what’s the point of professional critics? In Edinburgh, it will shortly be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that goes for the reviews too, where there are now so many outlets - from established local and national newspapers and magazine titles to freesheets and others that spring up overnight just for the festival - that the audience for some shows seems to be comprised only of reviewers.
But maybe it is precisely because of this onslaught of opinion that reliable, trusted, professional guides are more necessary than ever.
And the thought occurs to me again because the Independent (whose chief executive is Ivan Fallon) has today run a two-page feature by one Ivan Fallon on his experiences of seeing the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the first time, in the Mariinsky production that has just visited Covent Garden. (This isn’t, incidentally, the first time that he has exercised his executive power to write about the arts: as I previously pointed out here, he previously reviewed both the Stratford opening of the David Tennant Hamlet for the paper, and its subsequent transfer - with understudy Edward Bennett - to London).
Yes, he admits, “I had seen various parts of the Ring of course”, and he proceeds to list them: “Die Walkure a couple of times, once at the ENO in English, and a bad Götterdämmerung many years ago.” He tells us, too, “I had seen other Wagners too - Tristan at Glyndebourne, Tännhauser at the Met, Die Meistersinger in Covent Garden. But to be frank, I had never quite got Wagner.”
Yet his musical friends, he says, “have always said that Wagner is the nearest equivalent opera has to Shakespeare, a giant who dwarfs everyone else with the possible exception of Mozart.” For many years he insists that “like most moderate opera lovers, I have always wanted to see a complete Ring cycle.”
And now he has, what insight does he have to share with us? That he disagrees with the critics. “Outside the Opera House, the critics are already in full swing. The Telegraph carries a piece asking is it ‘the worst Ring in history?’ The Times says it is ‘slapdash’, justified by a few minor hitches such as Fafner’s apron falling down, and a technician slipping on with a drill to fix the lights. The Standard finds it ‘mundane’ while our own Independent critic mutters about the tiredness of both the orchestra and its conductor.”
But Mr Fallon goes on to say, “I am no critic, and see it all very differently, as does the little group of us who have bonded in our admiration for Gergiev and the orchestra over these four days. We thought Gergiev superb, and the orchestra sublime. After the first night, the set and the glitches were buried by an avalanche of majestic music, played by one of the best orchestras I have heard, under a conductor who never flagged for a second, making it an experience I will forever treasure.”
Not to undermine the evident pleasure he took in experiencing the Ring for the first time, but that’s exactly the point: he has no yardstick against which to compare it. I’d rather read his critic, Michael Church - who reviewed it here and also wrote a compelling, complementary [blog] on the production’s shortcomings here — and knows something of the history of which he writes.
And I think it’s also revealing that while Fallon claims to have long wanted to see the complete Ring, it’s taken him so long to do so. (Covent Garden, as Church pointed out, did its own cycle just two years ago, with Bryn Terfel and John Tomlinson alternating as Wotan). Fallon is no youngster, either: he’s 65. So he’s had plenty of opportunities before now to see it.
Of course, there are gaps in all of our cultural knowledge. I envy anyone the joy of discovering, for the first time, a great work of art. (Seeing my umpteenth production of Sondheim’s Company a few months ago at the Union Theatre, I thought how lucky my partner was to be seeing it for the first time). But you would never expect a critic who has never experienced the Ring Cycle before to review it; nor would you want to read what he has to say.
The same thing goes for theatre critics. We all have to start somewhere, I know, but it takes time to build up the knowledge and experience of seeing multiple productions of the great plays and musicals.
And yes, we can all blunder, too - we’re all human and therefore fallible - but how is it possible to take a critic seriously who can claim, as one Sunday reviewer did on the weekend, of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of A Streecar Named Desire, that “The production, essentially faithful to Tennessee Williams’ original play, has some visual intelligent twists which give the story an even greater resonance: Stella is, for instance, haunted by the ghost of her first husband who committed suicide. In a scene of raw intensity, she sees him kissing another man and looks away in despair. It is a short scene that explains a great deal, and certainly fits in comfortably with Williams’ psyche.”
Unfortunately, of course, it is Blanche, not Stella, who is haunted by the ghost of her husband (and although it’s her first husband, it’s also her only husband, so the distinction isn’t necessary). The same critic once speculated on whether Laurence Olivier would, nowadays, be allowed to black up to play Iago. And it’s that kind of clumsy writing and editing that also continues to put the nail in the coffin of professional criticism, too: if critics can’t get the basic facts right, what’s the point of them at all?