Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


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