What’s on in London? The latest exhibition from the Victoria & Albert Museum, in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, is Opera: Passion, Power and Politics.
I had not visited the exhibition space in the new Sackler extension and entrance on the Exhibition Road side since it re-opened and was looking forward to seeing what it was like. The interiors are glossy and reflecting – black, white and grey with blonde wood stairs. This sits well with the new ‘courtyard’ outside, though I think that is a misnomer, this being more of an entrance space than a courtyard, that is, more of a place to pass through rather than to pass time in. I also wonder how well the interior will date. It is certainly big, however, and this size is used to good effect in the current exhibition.
I was also intrigued to see how this show tackled such a big and varied subject as opera. In fact, it does it well. It is structured around seven opera premieres, in seven European cities, from seventeenth century Venice and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione de Poppea (1643) up to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934) in Leningrad. Thus it charts the development of opera, from being the private entertainment of Italian Renaissance nobility e.g. with chamber operas like Monteverdi’s Orfeo, to a popular public art form which has spread around the world.
Poppea is recognised as probably the first of this new form and its premiere happens in Venice, a centre for culture and the arts. The exhibition includes Venetian objects and instruments from that period, together with clothes, maps, a score and portraits of Monteverdi. Italian opera quickly became exportable and we move to early eighteenth century London and Handel’s Rinaldo (1711). This, the first Italian language opera specifically written for the London stage, was first performed in the Queen’s Theatre Haymarket – there was no Royal Opera House at the time. The exhibition includes a large working re-creation of a Baroque stage, complete with special effects. It was fascinating to see how everything worked. Handel went on to dominate opera in England, though Rinaldo was his most popular opera in his lifetime.
Then to Vienna and the incomparable Mozart and The Marriage of Figaro(1786). Adapting Beaumarchais’ play Da Ponte and Mozart placed servants centre stage for the first time and showed them out-witting their masters, though many of the original’s overtly political speeches were removed altogether. Nonetheless this brings us to the political aspect of the show, with the meeting of the Estates General in 1789 and the beginning of the French Revolution. It is back to Italy however, to Verdi and Nabucco (1842) with its slaves’ chorus – Va Pensiero – which has been closely identified with Risorgimento Italy, for more politics. At Verdi’s funeral the crowd spontaneously burst into song, singing this famous chorus.
Politics of a different kind haunt the next composer featured. Wagner, with the premiere of Tannhauser (1861), in Paris not Berlin, for Wagner had fled that city because of his political activities there. As Hitler’s favourite composer Wagner is now associated with politics of a different sort and, until very recently, all Wagner works were banned in Israel. It is the musical innovation, dispensing with the clearly delineated aria and recitative format, and an entirely new approach to its story, with its psychosexual overtones, which is documented here. Exploration of sexuality features in the next opera, Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905), from the play by Oscar Wilde, premiered in Dresden. This shocked audiences just as much, if not more, than Tannhauser had. The final premiere is Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, which, though initially successful, was deemed unsuitable by Stalin and led to its composer’s disgrace. Although rehabilitated later in Stalin’s reign, he never composed another opera. Passion, power and politics indeed.
Exhibition goers are handed a music player and headphones as they enter the show and music accompanies you as you pass through the exhibition. If you’re new to opera this show is an ideal introduction. If you’re an opera lover of longstanding, you’ll enjoy the music and probably pick up some new facts too, there are plenty of snippets.
At £19 entry, this is not the cheapest on offer in London right now, but, with its lush and beautiful soundtrack, it’s probably one of the most immersive. It runs until 25th February 2018 and it well worth a visit. Below I include the Overture from The Marriage of Figaro, because it always lifts the spirits.