Opera: Passion, Power and Politics tells its story through seven cities and the seven operatic premieres held there, beginning in 17th-century Venice and finishing in 20th-century St. Petersburg. These seven performances trace the social, political and cultural landmarks in European operatic history. A slick headset accompanies your journey with snippets of music that change to echo the objects around you.
Draft of part of Cherubino’s Act I aria ‘Non so più cosa son’ (K492, no. 6)Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756-1791)Autograph score, 1786 British Library, Zweig MS 57© British Library, London, UK Bridgeman Images
This sense of the unexpected is one of the exhibition’s strengths. Using the twists and turns of the new Sainsbury hall to shock and delight the viewer, curator Kate Bailey has exploited the space beautifully.
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics installation image, 27 September 2017. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Venetian goblets soon give way to the silver pots and pipes of the coffee house. It's 1711 and we’ve journeyed to London. There’s a real sock in the jaw crowd-pleaser in the shape of a full-size moving set from Handel’s Rinaldo. Undulating waves conceal and reveal the tips of mermaids' tails while a little ship with a shivering gold chain sails across the stage. It’s charming, and a bold demonstration of the visual stage effects that took London by storm in the early 1700s.
While there’s already been some grumbling about whether the choices of operas for each city were the right ones, the decision to explore London through Rinaldo, an Italian opera written by a German for an English audience, and the xenophobic furore it caused, seems suitably well-timed to us.
There are, however, some bum notes. In an attempt to highlight the many social and cultural aspects of each opera, the exhibition has resorted to slinging large ‘handwritten’ notes across the walls. The idea to pithily draw the viewer’s attention to overarching themes is a good one, but it could have been executed with more sensitivity.
There’s something quite unsettling about seeing Eva Gonzales’ oil painting, A Box at the Opera, 1849, with a massive white arrow and the phrase ‘To SEE and to BE SEEN’ sticking out the top of it. We get the message, and this gratuitous addition makes you feel like you're in a lecture that's trying too hard.
Eva Gonzalès (1849–83) Oil on canvas, c.1874 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Jean Guérard, 1927 © Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France Bridgeman Images
Yet the overall effect of the exhibition does more than enough to compensate for this ungainly explanatory glitch. Strauss's Salomé in 1905 Dresden is particularly wonderful. Exploring the thorny issue of ‘shifting perceptions of women’, we hear the haunting voices of some of the world’s best sopranos and see a blood-drenched Salomé dancing on a screen above a Freudian couch.
Visions of female sexuality abound, but these visions are authored and authorised by men. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from this tension and a breath-taking range of artefacts brings the turn of the century opera to life.
Where else could Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of the same subject lie in the same room as a first edition of Freud’s 1895 Studies on Hysteria, Salvador Dali’s costume designs for the opera, and the typewritten letter banning Mahler’s production in Vienna? That’s before we’ve even mentioned Strauss’s Salomé manuscript or the Versace stage costume perched atop the whole room. A rich tapestry of the opera’s influences and interpretations, this is the exhibition at its most impressive.
Costume design for The Executioner Salvador Dalí (1904-89) Ink on paper, 1949 Royal Opera House, London © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2017
Like its subject, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics weaves art, music, literature, and technology together to draw you into a majestically rich story.
With a whole BBC season dedicated to opera and plenty of interactive events and concerts on the way, this is a rare coming together of Britain’s best cultural players. Don't miss it and join the conversation #OperaPassion.
|What||Opera: Passion, Power and Politics|
South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL | MAP
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
30 Sep 17 – 25 Feb 18, 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM
|Website||Click here to book|