To the editors:
While reading Dennis Polkow's recent review of Lyric Opera's production of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier [October 6], I was reminded of a letter which the German composer Max Reger once sent to a critic who had unfavorably reviewed his music. The letter said, in part, "I am sitting in the smallest room in the house. Your review is in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me."
Mr. Polkow's comments regarding certain musical aspects of Lyric's production are suspect. He says that there are some spots, especially in act two, where the tempo drags. Where these spots are, I cannot imagine. Surely Mr. Polkow couldn't be referring to the Presentation of the Rose scene near the beginning of the act. This scene is an awkward moment--two young people who are supposed to be socially attached to different characters suddenly find themselves attracted to each other. A quicker tempo would undermine the poignancy of the moment. Mr. Polkow certainly couldn't have found the subsequent scenes depicting the Baron's boorish behavior and his wounding by Octavian to be slow--the tempo always clips along here. This leaves the final scene of the act, where the Baron licks his wounds and gets a deceptive letter from Octavian. At this point, there is a waltz which Mr. Polkow does point out as dragging. But this tune, intended to characterize the Baron and mock the traditional Viennese waltz, is meant to be played slower than in a dance hall--it is serving drama, not dance. Strauss even made a reference to the "sentimental Viennese glissando" at this point in the printed score. Other performances of the waltz (such as Leonard Bernstein's 1974 recording for CBS) are even slower.
As regards Mr. Polkow's deprecating reference to Anna Tomowa-Sintow (who plays the Marschallin) as a "has-been": Ms. Tomowa-Sintow may not be literally as young as the character whom she is depicting, but her voice is certainly still clear, full, and fresh, not strained. Besides which, calling her a "has-been" sinks beneath criticism--be it legitimate or not--to sheer rudeness. Concerning Kathleen Battle's light voice--which Mr. Polkow considers too small for a Strauss opera--not every Strauss role is intended for an iron-lunged Salome. Ms. Battle's voice is entirely appropriate for her portrayal of fifteen-year-old Sophie.
Mr. Polkow criticizes the sets as "tacky," citing the plants painted on the walls of Faninal's house in the second act. What he fails to realize is that Faninal is nouveau riche, or, more accurately, noveau noblesse. Being the tacky, nouveau noblesse type who would promise his daughter to an oaf just because of that oaf's title and money, Faninal is also tacky enough to paint foliage on his walls, instead of getting real plants. In fact, he even has painted birds on his walls.
If Mr. Polkow had noticed these birds, he might have better understood the entire decorative scheme. But he couldn't have seen them, as he never attended a Lyric performance of Rosenkavalier, despite what his article would have you believe.
You see, Mr. Polkow says he was intrigued by Anne Sofie von Otter's short, spiked blond hair (Ms. von Otter plays the role of Octavian). He was also surprised that her hair wasn't darkened for the show. Actually, it was darkened, as well as waved--as seen in the photograph accompanying Mr. Polkow's review. The spiky blond coif is never used in this production (although it was visible in the October 1 Arts supplement to the Sunday Tribune).
For Mr. Polkow to pass insulting judgements on art which he doesn't understand is bad enough. The fact that he has done so without even attending the performance in question, while trying to fool his readers into thinking otherwise, is beneath contempt. It breaks every rule of ethics in journalism and raises serious questions about Mr. Polkow's worth as a writer for such a widely read and respected newspaper as the Reader.
By the way, in a review of a performance by the Chicago String Ensemble in the same issue, Mr. Polkow calls the last movement of Gustav Holst's Saint Paul's Suite a fugue. In fact, the last movement of said suite is a passacaglia, a form far removed from that of the fugue. Of course, considering Mr. Polkow's other mistakes, his failure to understand basic musical forms is understandable, if inexcusable for a music critic. But then again, perhaps the confusion arose because he wasn't at that concert either.