Tom Sutcliffe on the critics


My first encounter with a real critic was in my first Lent Term at Hurstpierpoint College in the Remove Form. I entered the Weston Speech Prize competition, which was judged by a teacher from another school. One read an unseen prose text, and recited a poem or speech from a play. The judge at the end accounted for the winners he’d chosen for each year level. At Hurst, judgements each year I entered were quite rude from different judges, only the last one a friendlier female. We might win, but still had plenty to learn and no reason to get stuck up. Still, I won the prize four years running, each year I was there.

Being critical in not a popular social act. ‘Why do you always have to criticize,’ I seem to remember being told by fellow schoolboys—which was them criticizing me of course. But accepting what one finds or is expected to enjoy is not in fact being civilized—though uttering criticism is certainly not held to be in good taste. The trouble is people know how (and when) to be enthusiastic or fed up with sporting performances. But they are much less clear in their minds about quality when it comes to acting or singing or playing an instrument. To be a critic is to be someone who knows what performance ought to be, or who responds to a new creation in a way that is developing from how earlier new experiences were absorbed or enjoyed. One is claiming implicitly to be part of that now unpopular phenomenon of whom (in Gove-speak) we have had enough: laying claim to expertise and also to taste and judgement.

It is amazing how sometimes a critic will reveal absence of prior experience. How can somebody have got so far without ever seeing La Bohème, one wonders. How can they have the effrontery to claim they can both hold an opinion and broadcast it? Opinions are not just consumer choices, which everybody has to make. They are weighed and balanced, or should be if offered by professionals. At this time we certainly do need critics, new critics with fresh views about what matters in a performance. Unfortunately for music, little space is being devoted to the criticism of classical music in live performance by artists of genius, which can help promote it and bring it in reach of readers. The critic can subtly convey what may be gained from the experience, and how that at best can be transfiguring. The basis of all criticism of the live performing arts is a sense of the decorum that attaches to performance, which can endow energy and bring alive what is a product of inspiration of almost divine quality. All art forms demand one to be totally engaged—yes, that is absolutely what matters looking at a great painting.

Sad to say, the operas I have been seeing at this start of the new season have been a depressingly mixed blessing. English National Opera has currently no artistic director, though Daniel Kramer (who was that) has been back directing Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus. The CEO is Stuart Murphy from Sky television who knows absolutely nothing about opera. In fact there is a real dearth of expertise at the Coliseum. And the just-announced replacement for Kramer, Annilese Miskimmon, who has at least run a number of small Irish and Scandinavian companies, has no background in opera ENO-style in English in a vast theatre. Orpheus in the Underworld is probably one of the worst and unfunniest stagings there has ever been in ENO’s history—directed by Emma Rice who briefly and ingloriously ran Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. She has rewritten the text and destroyed the premise on which Offenbach’s potentially joyous and ironical entertainment rests. Gluck’s beautiful music for Orpheus and Euridice needs only three singers with lovely voices and we got two on the first night, which was not bad. But it is poorly directed by the fine Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor who confines the chorus to the orchestra pit and substitutes his appealing abstract choreography for the modest narrative that the opera requires—Furies, Elysian Fields, you know the sort of thing. So not much enlightenment.

My advice is Covent Garden or nothing at present. Both the first two productions, Agrippina staged by Barrie Kosky and Don Pasquale staged by Damiano Michieletto, were very well cast and pleasing. Bryn Terfel was wonderful and believable in the title role, and the trio mounting the opposition to his marital unreasonableness were all very fine singers. But the choices of new productions and directors at both London’s houses seem to me at present to be completely stop-gap. ENO is reviving Miller’s Mikado—a classic that has been around since the early 1980s. And Covent Garden is going in for fashionable German directors not without talent in some cases of course. But we subsidize opera so we have a chance of doing it our own way. Instead we are importing because we no longer have any ensemble companies with performers on long-term contracts and the chance for everybody to really learn their trade. As with our politics and constitution, we need reform!