How to Write about a Terrible Performance

Last week, the world of cultural journalism saw something very rare: a truly, relentlessly negative review that was more about being a serious review than about the self-satisfied rhetorical brilliance of a reviewer showing off.

Critic James Jorden, in the New York Observer, reviewed the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow, which premiered at the company’s New Year’s Eve gala and runs with the current cast through the end of January. (Not that you’ll find yourself wanting to see it after reading Jorden’s analysis.) The popular Live in HD worldwide broadcast of the operetta took place January 17.

What I mean when I call Jorden’s review “legitimate” is that he took the performance seriously, approached it with knowledge and experience, and sensitively analyzed the failings, identifying what went wrong and how it might have been done differently, thus successfully. The show apparently is so bad that Jorden wrote a serious, sober, thoughtful review that still included the words “ghastly” and “disastrous.”

Don’t get me wrong, an excessively cruel review that is more focused on a display of a writer’s showy cleverness can be thrilling, wonderful and exquisitely fun to read. But that approach takes the whole enterprise out of the realm of the legitimate review to a level of gleeful comedy writing, with only the flimsiest claim to the journalistic craft of reviewing as analysis, guidance and advice.

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The primary recent example of a, let’s call it, less-than-legitimate review—but which is brilliant and could not be more fun to read—is Pete Wells’ poetic series of questions “to” Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant in The New York Times from November of 2012. Well’s clearly didn’t go into the endeavor intending to give the restaurant a fair shake (that’s not a criticism of Wells; it’s utterly understandable), and the “review” he produced is pure rhetorical spectacle. A sample of some choice turns of phrase:

Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex?

 

[W]hen we hear the words Donkey Sauce, which part of the donkey are we supposed to think about?

 

Is the entire restaurant a very expensive piece of conceptual art? Is the shapeless, structureless baked alaska that droops and slumps and collapses while you eat it, or don’t eat it, supposed to be a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane?

In the realm of the theatrical and cinematic arts, the title for most gleefully poisonous critical flair belongs to John Simon—usually great fun, except when he occasionally tips into outright bigotry, which ruins the fun. An erudite and professional critic who is certainly capable of serious reviewing, he has a famous mean streak that quickly gets ad hominem and smug, but always demonstrating a way with words. A 2003 New York magazine review of the Broadway show Wicked begins,

Two of the producers of the musical Wicked bear the name Platt, which (in German) means flat, and one the name Stone, which (in English) means heavy. Why not also one called Long, although it is too much to ask for one called Boring, all of which apply to the show.

The blog The Ascetic Sensualists has helpfully compiled a list of “Sixteen bitchy comments from John Simon’s Movies Into Film: Criticism 1967-1970” for your reading entertainment. And if you can’t get enough, you can watch archival video from ABC of Simon raking, of all things, the Star Wars trilogy over the coals during a 1983 debate with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, presided over by Ted Koppel. I couldn’t make that up.

Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in The Merry Widow Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera

Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in The Merry Widow
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera

When I hear a review is “devastating” or “savage” or some other melodramatic, ominous adjective, Wells and Simon are what I expect. Fun all around (except for the subject of the review, I guess). I was struck by Jorden’s review of The Merry Widow because he seems to have hated the show close to as much as Wells hated Fieri’s establishment and Simon hated Wicked, but he still remained specific and constructive. It’s also clever, sharp and well-written, just not petulant and self-indulgent.

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Jorden doesn’t blame the operetta itself, but rather this particular production. He freely acknowledges that it’s a light work, intended to be little more than frothy and pretty. But that’s little more, not no more:

[T]he reason for the failure of this show at the Met is that everyone involved overlooked the slight but appealing psychological underpinning of the work in favor of slathered-on frills and frivolity.

Frivolity, though, that Jorden never actually enjoyed.

The Merry Widow’s star is certified opera royalty: soprano Renée Fleming. She is a successful, supremely talented, charismatic artist. At least, usually. Jorden declares Fleming “miscast in every conceivable way,” from tone quality to temperament to characterization to dancing. But Jorden notes that Fleming is a leading exponent of “really glorious singing;” it’s just that the music for her role as the merry widow does not suit her voice, which everyone involved ought to have known from before the beginning. What stands out here is that Jorden comes off as reasonable, even rigorously fair, despite the flirtation with hyperbole (“miscast in every conceivable way”).

After critiquing Fleming, Jorden moves on, devastatingly, by saying, “It’s not like she was shown up by the rest of the cast, though.” He was disappointed, to varying degrees, by opera singers Nathan Gunn and Alek Shrader and by moonlighting Broadway star Kelli O’Hara. (He does praise veteran baritone Thomas Allen in a small part.)

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It is refreshing to read almost any negative review—start paying attention; they’re surprisingly uncommon—and as delightful as it might be to read a clever rhetorical temper tantrum about a bad opera production, Jorden fills an important critical role with reviews like this one. He also wrote some of the wisest, most sensitive analyses of (what’s wrong with) The Met’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle here and here; I’ve singled out his sharp critical voice before.

As his alter-ego, calling herself La Cieca, Jorden is the doyenne of an opera gossip blog called Parterre Box, of which I am a devoted fan. While Jorden’s review at the Observer is fair, restrained and professional, La Cieca took things in a more fun, Wells- and Simon-like direction. When sharing the Observer review on Parterre Box, the post is called “Floperetta,” and is one word long (aside from the link): “Ghastly!” Not quite done, a few days later, La Cieca published another post, joking that finally there is a convenient way to explain the role of a dramaturg:

Briefly, a dramaturg is the person hired by an opera company to make sure that things like the The Merry Widow don’t happen. I think we can all agree that this is an extremely important duty, and that, by extension, the Met desperately needs someone who can perform it.

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