I'm not really happy about doing this, as our favortie critic of record has surely written other reviews more problematic than his take on A-Trag. Obviously the man has a right to his opinions, but too much of this is just a lazy attempt to pass off pigeonholing the work as an excuse for a review.
If I could have one critical tic banshied from all discussion of new music, it would be the insinuation that a work of art is cheap because it is pleasant to listen to: "would not be out of place in a Broadway theater...the Met was playing it safe...embraces opera as a populist art form...neo-Romantic idiom...easier on the ears.... Many composers with greater musical originality...too eager to please...film-scorish flourishes."
First of all, I don't know which Broadway T is attending, but it ain't the one down the street, where music like this has only existed as perhaps a reference point in Stephen Sondheim's head. Yet by dropping those insidious little hints he effectively torpedoes the entire thing as some kind of cop-out. And its a disservice to his readers as well, who are forced to question whether they've really seen "art" or just a "show." But T gets his, confirming his aesthetic creds as too good for this sort of thing before he even starts the reviewing.
So what should Picker do if he wants to stop pandering to the masses and write a real opera, T? Of course, he must be more adventurous just like these other guys: "John Adams (in "Doctor Atomic"), Thomas Adès (in "The Tempest") and Poul Ruders (in "The Handmaid's Tale") have pushed at the boundaries of the genre." Damn it! Never enough adventure in this fake-out new music that actually just "hews to melodramatic and operatic conventions."
But telling composers that they must push boundaries is a maybe little "generic and superficial" don't you think? Can you give him anything more specific? I see, he needs to summon "his modernist vocabulary, closer to the idiom of his days as a young serialist." Good we have you around to tell him to put down the Verdi he's been copying from and toe the line for serialism.
Despite all this, it sounds like T had a pretty good time, though. If not quite an artist, T assures us Picker is a fine sort of opera craftsperson: "undeniable skill...you almost always sense his controlling hand at work...holds your attention and conveys the story...Mr. Picker's know-how about the theater...it works as an opera, you could say." Oh sure, the music, libretto and narrative may combine to create an effective dramatic experience, but that doesn't really have so much to do with being a legitimate opera, now does it?
Hence this winner: "Yet the music, though lushly lyrical and tinged with pungent chromatic harmonies, seems beholden to the dramatic moment, not inspired on its own terms." I mean, you said that to say what?
Look. I don't begrudge him giving it a mediocre review, or not thinking the music is that interesting or fully developed enough. But that's not really what people will walk away from this review with. Instead, they just get the tired old tired cliches that 1) new music which doesn't satisfy some elusive quality of pushing boundaries isn't legitimate and 2) the fact that something works as an effective musical drama has little to do with it being a respectable opera, i.e., you don't know what opera is, but don't assume its when you enjoy yourself in an opera house. If there's going to be a vital contemporary opera scene, I think its safe to say that facile critical reaction like this won't help.