This might be the definition of niche – an occasional critic writing about a critic being defended by other critics – but if you’ve swum into these waters by choice, chances are that critics’ judgements are something with which you have some dealings. My mind still turns over the rights and wrongs of passing judgement on the work of far more talented people, though less these days than when I was writing regularly for International Record Review. I was careful, partly because I wanted to do the job well and partly because I didn’t really want to risk being mean. Just once, I submitted a review that had a really quite harsh line in it. I emailed the editor before it went to print, and she agreed. We took it out. The thing was, what I said wasn’t wrong, and I suspect the only reason I took out the offending sentence was because there’s a bit of me that doesn’t want to be disliked.
So, my natural filter meant I never received an angry response from a performer. My interest is piqued, though, when other people do. David Nice (a friend of this blog, I like to think) found his judgement labelled “wrong-headed” and “stupid” in the comments on his Arts Desk review of Ryan Wigglesworth’s opera The Winter’s Tale, by celebrated tenor Mark Padmore. Padmore wasn’t even in the show; his tirade seems to have been prompted by singerly solidarity with the cast and crew of the opera. Thing is, David hadn’t even been that harsh. He gave the show 4 stars, for goodness sake. This is about as harsh as the review ever gets:
“The real test was going to be whether Wigglesworth could conjure a different world for Hermione's and Leontes's teenage daughter as Bohemian shepherdess and her wooing by a disguised Prince Florizel. He doesn't, in terms of musical language, even if the sounds are more ethereal. Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory (pictured below with the ENO Chorus) charm with very limited material; I suppose it's a mercy we don't get a "hey nonny nonny" divertissement, but this is where a popular, mood-sensitive composer like Joby Talbot, in his music for the Royal Ballet's fitfully very effective take on The Winter's Tale, can give us all the relief we need.”
Too much for Padmore, who railed:
“Having seen the dress rehearsal and the opening night and having talked with the cast who love and value this piece, I was hoping for a responsible and thoughtful review from a website whose purpose is presumably to celebrate and promote the arts. Unfortunately this has not happened and DN has chosen to display only his prejudice and debatable skill as a hatchet jobber. Perhaps I should expect no better from a critic who described me as a 'pipsqueak English Cathedral tenor' in a review of a concert I had not even sung in - but I do expect better.”
A few of things in that extract (from a longer comment, itself a response to a plea from fellow-Arts Desker Alexandra Coghlan for a little more below-the-line respect) catch my eye. There’s something rather odd about the idea that the backstage enthusiasm of the cast should inform the critic’s judgement – this attempt to move the critical goal posts rather reminds me of Melissa McCarthy’s deliciously deranged SNL Sean Spicer yelling “Print that – that’s your story!” There’s the even odder idea that celebrating the arts means never saying anything’s bad. And the second part reveals previous between these two. I’m sure I too would dislike receiving the appellation “pipsqueak”, but there’s no real context here and this kind of dirty laundry doesn’t address any of the perceived failings of the review at hand.
Now, I do have varying degrees of real-life and digital acquaintance with David Nice and his defenders Alexandra Coghlan and, further down the comments, Mark Valencia. The closest I’ve ever got to Mark Padmore was passing him on the stairs at a previous place of employment. I do feel closer to the chastised critic than the wounded artist, though I certainly appreciate the anguish a negative notice must cause a performer or even their friend. But I’m somewhat befuddled by the logic behind this kind of blistering attack on a critic who wasn’t even that negative anyway. Padmore’s display is rambling and splenetic when it could have been thoughtful and still robustly defensive of a work he clearly values. In the end, this is another example of what happens when an artiste responds with a rage on, and an important reminder that the mud you sling online usually ends up on your own face.