Opera: Passion, Power and Politics
V&A, 13th November 2017
You can’t seem to navigate on t’Internet, (all right, the bit that isn’t hate, porn or celebrity, which doesn’t leave much), for confessionals from opera lovers telling you how they came to love the “queen”, or is it “king”, of art forms. Alongside this are guides on where to start and how to enjoy your first opera. All this tends to come with an undercurrent of pleading though. The rare opera reviews here from the Tourist always seem to start with a diatribe about how bad opera can sometime be. I have tried with limited success to convert the SO, MS, BD to the cause though BUD, given his admirable lust for life, has responded magnificently.
The fact is that opera can be hard work and that all of us inside the tent, by trying to appear welcoming and non-patronising, often come across as the exact opposite. Like evangelical Christians. The other problem is, despite what some of us want to believe (“it’s for everyone”, “you can pitch up in shorts”, “there’s tons of tunes”), there is always a proportion of the audience, especially at the ROH, who are there because they, (or someone else on their behalf), can afford it and not because they love it. And whisper it, some of it is unadulterated shite with preposterous plots, silly costumes, designers and directors craving kudos over interpretational vision, under-rehearsed divas who can sing for sure but can’t act and don’t care what happens beyond their arias. Yet when it works the “state of grace” you enter cannot be matched, even in my beloved “straight” theatre or from music alone.
It’s an utter mystery to me how this works for those who get off on Wagner (I’d rather have an enema), Verdi or Puccini but, as Aretha would have it, Doctor Feelgood has pitched up for me during Britten, Mozart and Monteverdi to name but a few.
So how were the curatorial boffins going to make this work. A minority art form, which may have a visual component but is primarily aural, which spans hundreds of years. Surprisingly well as it turns out. Through the simple device of picking a few specific works, premiered (though not the Wagner) in specific European cities in specific years, usually periods of immense social, political and economic change. And by not going in too deep. And with the use of those natty headphones which have worked so well since the ground-breaking David Bowie Is exhibition.
Now there are proper reviews bleating about what is “missing” in terms of composers and/or locations. Or saying the “wrong” works have been chosen. Or saying there isn’t enough musical content. Doh, it’s an exhibition not a performance and all this carping comes across “as I know better” elitism, the very thing this exhibition should eschew. For my money, given the obvious limitations. the team has done a terrific job in pulling together all manner of material and relating it to the contexts they have chosen to highlight.
You will get a sense of how the chosen operas reflect the societies from whence they came, the themes that each engaged with and the process of their creation and performance. All spiced up with lots to stimulate eye and brain. I accept that the soundtrack, with excerpts from the seven chosen operas, is a bit limiting but I didn’t care. I got to see lots of lovely objects, maps, paintings, scores, costumes, props, posters, programmes, models and instruments. I got some well chosen video footage of performance. I got a recreation of a set for Handel’s Rinaldo in booming London and of Shostakovich in his study banging away on his piano. I got all sorts of spurious feminist interpretations of Strauss’s still horribly ropey Salome in Dresden backed up with some dirty pictures from Kirchner. I got a sense of just how much ducking and diving Dmitry had to do to create his two premieres of Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in Leningrad. I saw why the Italians are proud of the boy Giuseppe V, here with the big chorused Nabucco in Milan. I could hear how Monteverdi changed the Western musical world, albeit all for the decadent few of La Serenissima. I could see and hear how the Enlightened Mozart and Da Ponte stuck two figures up to the Viennese elite. The exhibition even has a swing at equating Wagner’s dodgy Medieval comic book warriors with the genius rebellion of Manet. Yeah, right.
Now I admit sometimes the urge to capture the big picture, and the need to make exhibits relevant, leads to some overly imaginative treatments from the curators. I would also have liked a bit more hard information on the handful of post 1945 productions we were treated to at the end. The footage was all well and good, (and the selection suited me), but might have left the uninitiated a bit bemused. Which is a shame because, for my money, the stories, plots, acting, productions and ideas which contemporary operas encapsulate are far easier to stomach than some of the “classics”, and the music no more challenging than the soundtracks to many big budget cinema releases.
Still mustn’t grumble. This is another blinder from the V&A and the new gallery is nice and airy (I know it’s underground). It isn’t going to pack ’em in Pink Floyd style and I have to say that my attendance, admittedly on a weekday afternoon, only served to reduce the mean average age. If you have some interest in opera, and are not too snobby, you will definitely be rewarded. Perhaps more importantly I would say that, if you have any interest in European social, economic and cultural history, even if opera isn’t your bag, over the last 500 years, this is also for you. Which frankly should include everyone who goes through the doors of the V&A.
Right there’s my puff. Now can I have my Punk and Post Punk 1977 to 1985 exhibition please Mr V&A.