Sunday, 15 October 2017

Historical context: Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera

Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera
Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera
Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera is a two part television series in which the historian takes a look at eight seminal moments in opera history. (Part One was shown on BBC 2 on Saturday 14 October 2017). Linked to the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, Worsley takes the same structure, looking at operas in the context of the city where they were premiered (except for Puccini's La Boheme where she considers the city where it is set). So eight operas and six cities: Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Venice), Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (Vienna), Beethoven's Fidelio (Vienna) and Verdi's Nabucco (Milan) in the first episode, Bizet's Carmen (Paris), Puccini's La Boheme (Paris), Wagner's Ring Cycle (Bayreuth) and Richard Strauss's Salome (Dresden) in the second.

Worsley is a cultural historian (but, as we found at  Q&A at the preview showing of the programme, she is also a musician), so this is opera from a cultural perspective with remarkable details of the society in which the operas were premiered. But music is not ignored, and Antonio Pappano takes the viewer through some key moments in the operas being considered, and why the pieces work as they do.
For each of the operas in the first episode, Worsley not only explained the story but brought out the cultural references too. In each case, there was something revolutionary about the opera in question and what it said about society.

But, being Lucy Worsley this was also fun. She dressed up as characters from the operas, and explained plots jokily but then segued into remarkable cultural references. A lot of the detail I knew, some I didn't, but Worsley made it all fresh and highlighted the sense of opera arising out of and commenting on society.  What the programme did is make the viewer understand quite how opera was woven into the fabric of 17th, 18th and 19th century society in a way that it is not today.

There were copious illustration, Glyndebourne's L'incoronazione di Poppea with Danielle de Niese and Alice Coote, Covent Garden's Le nozze di Figaro, the Met's Fidelio and Covent Garden's Nabucco (with Placido Domingo). Danielle de Niese also popped up to explain something of the revolution in operatic performance in the 17th century. She also sang a brief duet with Worsley, who also joined in with a street rendition of 'Se vuol ballare' from Le nozze di Figaro, and finished the whole episode by joining the inhabitants of the Casa Verdi for a touching rendition of 'Va pensiero' from Nabucco.

Antonio Pappano, talking at the piano about the music, was engaging and charismatic. I have to confess to finding him an acquired taste. But you have to admire both his gift for making sense of music for the non-musical and the way the programme neatly blended Pappano, Worsley and scenes from the operas.

The programme appeared on BBC 2 and should certainly get a lot of people curious about the world of opera. The first episode is no available on BBC iPlayer, the second episode is broadcast on 21 October.

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