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28 October 2017

Through seven works in seven cities, how Europe bared its soul through opera

The V&A's exhibition is not only a celebration, but a cause for celebration. 

By Simon Callow

This lively exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is part of a current wave of events in various media promoting opera. I’m not sure what has provoked this wave, or why it should be happening just now, but “Opera: Passion, Power and Politics” is splendid on many counts – not only a celebration but a cause for celebration.

The V&A has lately undergone a remarkable regeneration, symbolised by its witty new entrance on Exhibition Road, much of it paid for by the recklessly generous Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik. The entrance, with its clever perspectives and unexpected staircases, leads directly to the capacious Sainsbury Gallery, whose first exhibition this is.

The V&A has a long, intermittently glorious tradition of mounting special events. Greybeards such as myself will recollect the 1969 show “Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination”, which took the idea of exhibitions to a new plane. The first thing you encountered was a model of the theatre in which Berlioz first saw Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The viewer was placed in the gods, exactly where the young composer was, and saw from that vertiginous height the tiny figure of the actress playing Juliet, Harriet Smithson, voiced by Maggie Smith. You were put inside Berlioz’s head and experienced the impact on him of the wild, unconstrained passion of the English dramatist, like nothing he had ever heard or seen.

The V&A is, in essence, a design museum, but there are few areas of life untouched by design, least of all the theatre. And from the beginning of the 20th century, the museum has harboured a large collection of theatrical artefacts, which eventually flew the coop and became the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. That museum was subsumed back into the V&A in 2007 and lost its clear profile, but the current event is a huge leap towards the sort of fully imagined exhibition that so shook us all with Berlioz. The V&A has worked in close partnership with the Royal Opera House (ROH); engaging with a live company, it takes on some of its character, putting the emphasis on the theatre rather than the museum.

Kasper Holten, the former director of productions at the ROH, sensibly disclaims any attempt at a comprehensive survey of opera. What is on offer instead is a statement of opera’s importance, its relevance, its centrality to the culture. It can be seen, writes Holten, as “the expression of Europe’s soul”. Tristram Hunt, the V&A’s director, goes further in the exhibition catalogue: opera, he writes, is “the soundtrack to Europe’s history”. And so the show has focused on significant moments in the history of opera and significant moments in the cities where they took place.

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It is a tale of seven cities – Venice, London, Vienna, Paris, Milan, Dresden, Leningrad – and seven operas premiered there. Boldly, these are not the most famous or most popular, or indeed greatest in the repertoire: no Carmen, no La Bohème, no Aida, no Ring Cycle. They are not even all crucial in the development of the form. But each appeared at a particular crux in history, impinging on and illuminating its times – and are only to be fully understood in the light of those times. It’s quite a complicated notion, but it makes for an enjoyable exhibition.

The combination of technology and design is witty and beguiling. The use of headphones, not for a guided tour but to supply the relevant music, is a huge plus: the Diaghilev exhibition at this address in 2010 was marred by a cacophony of different music – as you encountered photographs of the future impresario as a youth at home with his family in Perm in Russia, you already heard The Rite of Spring blaring away.

Here, as one steps into the Venetian sequence, one is immersed in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, which, by some Bluetooth miracle, gives way to Handel’s Rinaldo as one enters 18th-century London. But the first thing that greets your eyes is that most theatrical of devices: a gauze, which can be transparent or solid according to how it is lit, invisible one moment and a brick wall the next. Beyond it are maps and paintings of 17th-century Venice, exquisitely coloured blown glass, inlaid woodwork and – fittingly for an opera that concerns a prostitute – a courtesan’s dress with its removable front panel, revealing her platform shoes: more trompe l’oeil. There is also a large model of a baroque theatre with its sliding panels, its painted waves, its bobbing boats, its flying nymphs. This is how the exhibition works: not exactly immersive, nor linear, but rather a series of elegant, beautifully placed lumber rooms of associations, all of which repay leisured contemplation.

Eighteenth-century London is very well evoked, with savage anti-opera cartoons by Hogarth, costumes and wigs of the period and a vivid account of popular xenophobia, from the moment when the city was becoming the most populous in the world, a magnet for fortune-hunting foreigners of every kind (including Handel, surely the single most productive immigrant ever).

The Viennese section, centring on The Marriage of Figaro, contains two items that will stop any music lover’s heart: a forte­piano on which Mozart  played and the sublime portrait, endlessly reproduced but here in the original, of him by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange, which has the feeling of being a speaking likeness. This is one of the purposes of an exhibition of this kind – to expose the relics. I stood in front of the Lange portrait for 15 minutes, while the finale of Figaro’s Act II played in a filmed extract from a production by Giorgio Strehler – an odd choice, dull in design and performance, no enticement at all to an operatic tyro.

Verdi and Milan are represented by Nabucco – cue the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”. The composer’s emblematic status in the reunification of Italy perfectly expresses the theme of the exhibition – that opera and history are as closely connected as it is possible to be – though Verdi went on to write many greater operas.

Wagner and Paris are oddly paired. Wagner knew nothing but failure there, and the version of Tannhäuser that he created for the Paris Opera was withdrawn after three performances, largely because of the behaviour of the Jockey Club, which engineered a disruption of the performance, incensed that there was no ballet in Act II (the club’s members generally liked to take out their favourite ballerinas for a night on the town).

Photographs of the building of the Opera are breathtaking, however. A side-by-side account of half a dozen different stagings of the same scene from Wagner’s opera is illuminating, and there’s a magnificent copy of André Gill’s cartoon for the magazine L’Eclipse, in which the composer is seen hammering a quaver into an enormous ear as blood gushes out. No one could claim that opera is fuddy-duddy. The emotions it stirs up, for and against, are quite alarming.

With Strauss’s Salome, the exhibition comes into its own – surrounding a film performance of the final scene with a mass of related materials concerning Dresden (the only German city that had the courage to stage the opera for its 1905 debut). There’s psychiatric and feminist literature on the figure of Salome, Aubrey Beardsley prints, expressionist paintings by the Die Brücke artists, and an astounding design by Salvador Dalí for the production at Covent Garden by Peter Brook.

Similarly arresting is the section on Shostakovich’s constructivist opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which makes one agree with the director Graham Vick’s assertion that the most exciting place on Earth – for a brief moment in time – was post-Revolutionary Russia, “where every rule, every assumption, was questioned and redefined”. And Shostakovich and his opera were  among the first to get it in the neck.

The final section is curiously affecting – a film survey of opera and opera houses across the world in our own times, covering a vast range of human life and history. The film is projected across the walls, some of which are untreated pieces of theatrical scenery, and sometimes playing on the faces of the visitors to the V&A. This seemed like a metaphor of  the reach of opera, its new directness, its aliveness – never more alive than today.

The exhibition is essential viewing, though I have doubts about its coherence. It gives opera a context but doesn’t quite tell us what it is. In both matter and manner, however, it is stimulating and sometimes very moving. The usual question arises as to who exactly it is for, but it transcends that. Anyone interested in theatre, in opera and in history, as well as connoisseurs of museums, should make a beeline for it. 

Opera: Power, Passion and Politics” runs until 25 February 2018 at the Victoria and Albert Museum

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia