Sunday, 5 November 2017

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

Opera Passion, Power and Politics installation - baroque theatre for Handel's Rinaldo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Opera Passion, Power and Politics installation - baroque theatre for Handel's Rinaldo
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics has rather daringly been chosen to inaugurate the new exhibition hall at the museum. Opera is not the easiest of arts to confine to an exhibition, but the show takes a cross-arts view of its subject, bringing in the sociological, political and cultural contexts. The show is very much designed to leverage the museum's collections, the strong theatre museum collection as well as the wider holdings in art and design.


Bodice of a theatre costume c.1750 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Bodice of a theatre costume c.1750
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
So we are presented with a black box, with seven zones around a central area. Each zone takes a city and an opera, explaining both what is significant about the opera and why it arose from the cultural and social context. There are installations, pictures, objects, manuscripts, printed books, musical objects and more, the black walls are used for slogans and diagrams which highlight the salient points of the operas. And there is music too. Not only videos, but an aural sound-track, listened to via headphones.

This is keyed to your location. At its best this means we can look at a display about the singer Anna Renzi, the first Ottavia in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, including her first contract and hear Anne Sofie von Otter singing Ottavia's 'Addio Roma' from the opera. But at its worst the keying of music to physical location means that a couple of steps across the exhibition space can make you lurch from one recording to another in a disturbingly disorientating manner.

Inevitably the way the exhibition is constructed is rather contrived, but there is no doubting that the premieres of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea in Venice, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna, and Verdi's Nabucco in Milan are all striking combinations of musical and social crux points. Similarly perhaps with Handel's Rinaldo in London, Richard Strauss' Salome in Dresden and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Leningrad, but the French premiere of Wagner's Tannhäuser in Paris is more of a fudge and it seems remarkable that there is no French opera in the exhibition. Rinaldo is hardly Handel's most ground-breaking opera, but as the first Italian opera written specifically for London it holds its place, and similarly Verdi's Nabucco is hardly that composer's greatest opera, but it was his first major success and the amazing after-life of 'Va pensiero' is highly significant.
Gertrud Eysoldt as Salome in Max Reinhardt's staging of Oscar Wilde's Salome, Unknown artist, 1903 ©KHM-Museumsverband, Theatermuseum Vienna.jpg
Gertrud Eysoldt as Salome in Max Reinhardt's staging of
Oscar Wilde's Salome, Unknown artist, 1903
©KHM-Museumsverband, Theatermuseum Vienna
The objects used to evoke the cultural climate make very seductive viewing, luxury objects in Venice with Bernardo Strozzi's pictures; Tiepolo sketches and Sir James Thornhill's set designs in London, not to mention the Italian baroque theatre costumes (not strictly English, but a precious relic of the period) the final picture of Mozart done from life, the piano he played in Prague and fashionable dress of Mozart's period (a dress the Countess might have worn in real live accompanied by Kiri te Kanawa singing the Countess's 'Porgi amor' from Le nozze di Figaro); costume designs for an 1853 production of Verdi's Nabucco, and photo of the Italian patriot Garibaldi; the Empress Eugenie's dress, photographs of Haussman's re-building of Paris in progress and Degas' scene from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable; Early photographs (1880-1903) of the Semper Oper in Dresden, Aubrey Beardsley illustrations to Oscar Wilde's Salome, photographs from the premiere Max Reinhardt's staging of Wilde's play and a rare Dali design for the Peter Brook production of Salome at Covent Garden; set models from the original production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk along with photographs of the production, newsreel of Shostakovich working and a reconstruction of his study, and an array of Soviet posters.

Opera Passion, Power  and Politics installation - Fratelli d'Italia (2005-2016) by Matthias Schaller (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Opera Passion, Power  and Politics
Fratelli d'Italia (2005-2016) by Matthias Schaller
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The copious selection of manuscripts and rare printed books ranges from the earliest surviving manuscript of L'incoronazione di Poppea, copied in part by Cavalli's wife, to a directing score of Salome with Richard Strauss's notes.

There were also a series of installations, the most striking being a quarter size stage with baroque sets and machinery, based on the stage directions for the opening of Act Two of Handel's Rinaldo, which played the scene whilst the music played. This really did capture the theatrical essence of the Baroque theatre. I am not sure that the installation of 125 contemporary photographs of Italian theatres, Fratelli d'Italia (2005-2016) by Matthias Schaller, quite captured the theatrical essence of Verdi's opera, but the settings for the Wagner, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich were all similarly highly theatrical.

A batch of videos all played the same scene, the Venusberg from Wagner's Tannhäuser, but in different productions; this was fascinating for an aficionado but I am not sure what it told a newcomer. With both the Verdi and Wagner operas I felt that we could have done with something like the holographic theatre which is used in the Richard-Wagner-Stätten in Graupa, near Dresden (see my review) to create scenes from the operas based on the original stage directions.

At the centre of the exhibition there was an installation displaying videos of seven further 20th century and contemporary operas. I caught Peter Grimes on the Beach from Aldeburgh, Poulenc's Carmelites in the Robert Carsen production and Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, but the scenes passed by too quickly so that the 'Salve Regina' from Poulenc's opera all to soon segued in the Philip Glass.

As an opera aficionado I enjoyed the exhibition, the chance to see so many rare and precious objects associated with the creation of these major operas. And where nothing exists, the curators have been highly imaginative in their side-long glances, but it is remarkable what they have managed to find.

Opera Passion, Power  and Politics installation - Leningrad / Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Opera Passion, Power  and Politics installation - Leningrad / Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
However, I am uncertain quite how much the exhibition would say to someone not so familiar with the art-form, but the exhibition's richly multi-layered, cross-arts, cross cultural approach would surely involve everyone at some level.

I saw the exhibition twice, the first time at a regular opening near the beginning of the run, and the second at a special private view for bloggers and others in social media. The second tour was the most satisfactory, because there were only a few of us; this is an exhibition which requires a great deal of patience when it is busy if you are going to get the best out of it.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 25 February 2018
In collaboration with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Curator - Kate Bailey, Senior Curator, Design and Scenography, Theatre & Performance at the V&A.
Music director - Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera
Artistic director - Robert Carsen
Exhibition design - Curious Space
Video design - Fray
Lighting design - Paule Constable
Sound design - David Sheppard
Graphic design - Socio design
There is a full programme of events including recitals and operas, running alongside the exhibition, see the exhibition website for details.
Friday 10 November to Sunday 12 November is a special Opera Weekender with a weekend of talks screenings and workshops across the museum
Elsewhere on this blog:

  • The Ear of the Huguenots: Paul van Nevel & the Huelgas Ensemble - CD review
  • Eclectic journey: Guy Johnston's Tecchler's Cello - CD review
  • Musically satisfying: Mozart's Don Giovanni from HeadFirst Productions - opera review
  • Viscerally engaging: Conductor Finnegan Downie Dear introduces Shadwell Opera's production of Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse - interview
  • Viola da gamba delight: Robert Smith in Telemann's newly discovered fantasias - Cd review
  • Beyond Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos of Roger Sacheverell Coke - CD review
  • Picture Perfect: Rameau's Pygmalion at BREMF - opera review
  • BREMF 2017: Plainsong to Polyphony - Concert review
  • Virtuosic piano preludes: Erik Lotichius' Anaitiralax - Cd review
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