‘I’m not really an opera person,’ said my friend as we approached the entrance to the V&A’s new exhibition. It’s called Opera: Passion, Power and Politics so this did not bode well despite my enthusiasm for our preview visit…
The V&A have worked with the Royal Opera House to guide us through the story of opera from its earliest days to the present day. They somehow managed to whittle down the hundreds of fine operas to choose just 7 to tell this story and placed these in their cities of their premieres. We learn about these cities, what was happening at the time of the premiere and see and hear the featured operas.
Equipped with great quality headphones, we set off without buttons to push, the headphones automatically find the next piece of information or music for you as you explore the rooms.
We start in Venice in 1643 with the Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the first public opera, which broke new ground with its treatment of this historical event, weaving highly political and scandalous themes. So, opera got off to a good start and was the new multimedia genre of its day!
The staging of the exhibition mixes information and quotes on the wall in the form of chalkboards with costumes, instruments and videos of each opera. The decadent costumes of Venice tell their own tale.
London was featured in1711 as Handel took the city by storm with his opera Rinaldo, at a time when London was becoming a world power, with musical prowess to match. Here the exhibition allows us to peek behind the scene of a recreated Baroque theatre to show how ships seemed to cross the ocean and we can sit as if in the audience listening to scenes from this opera.
Mozart made a huge impact on Vienna with Le Nozze di Figaro which attacked the privilege of the aristocracy. A harpsichord of the time sits next to an original piece of Mozart’s draft score of an act 1 aria.
Here the costumes are much more sedate:
Next step is Milan in 1842 for Verdi’s Nabucco with its powerful chorus of the Hebrew slaves performed at a time when Italy is racked by its struggle for independence. Quotes from the opera demonstrate the parallels between the theatrical and political worlds.
Stauss’s Salome premiered in Dresden in 1905 is a bloody affair on the screen and is associated with the emergence of psycho-analysis with Freud-like couch taking pride of place in the centre of the room. Popular culture found this story fascinating and this room dives into erotic violence of this work.
Our 6th opera premiere and city is Wagner’s Paris version of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861. This opera has the strange combination of being one of the most extreme depictions of sex and yet being admired by Queen Victoria, even amused perhaps? The opera was not well received and Wagner withdrew it after just 3 performances such was the hostility. The opera survived, is much performed and has been influential on other artists, not least Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde.
Our final city is St Petersburg where Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk premiered in 1934. This was a new opera to me and the strong Soviet iconography was arresting. Unfortunately for Shostakovich, Stalin did not approve of the work so the opera disappeared and Shostakovitch struggled to survive as an artist in a totalitarian regime. This was highlighted by a recreation of his studio, with a film of his high-speed piano playing, that was cordoned off by diagonal red tape.
A final room showcases modern operas with photos of opera houses across the world, outside of the countries featured in the exhibition from Uzbekistan to Albania and Hanoi.
This exhibition is an immersive experience, with so much more to enjoy than I’ve been able to bring you here. And my friend, what was her verdict? She loved it, was entertained, informed and delighted by the staging of the whole event and the quality of the opera snippets as you walk around.
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on a the Victoria and Albert Museum until 25th February 2018. For more information check their website: www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/opera
Full disclosure: As a member of the V&A this preview was included in the annual fee.