Opera at the V & A, a powerful political tool

Decor for “Il Vostro Maggio”, Chorus of the Mermaids, from Rinaldo by G.F. Handel

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is accustomed to surprising us with very imaginative exhibitions and I was very excited by my visit of « Opera, Passion and Power » conceived with the Royal Opera house. This new show is visited with head phones and could seem very didactic if it was not so cleverly designed.

The Viola da Gamba Musician, Bernardo Strozzi, 1630 – 40 © Photo Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin

How was Opera used for political power in 1642 in Venice where Monteverdi composed « L’incoronazione di Poppea », in London with Handel, in Vienna with Mozart….? Seven cities for seven composers, tell the story of Opera’s relation to political power all the way to Moscow with the censure of Shostakovitch’s “Lady Macbeth of Mstenk” in 1934.

Edgar Degas, The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera “Robert Le Diable”, 1876 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition is brilliantly staged and when progressing from one room to the other, one discovers paintings, objects, musical instruments, decors and costumes while listening to all of Europe’s most beautiful music. One doesn’t need to know anything about opera before entering this enchanted world. Children can concentrate on the decors, sophisticated visitors can read original scores. It is an all publics show.

Ensemble in ‘Spaceship’ at the dress rehearsal of Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass in collaboration with Robert Wilson, 2013, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. © Lawrence K. Ho/ Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The last room is dedicated to contemporary operas like “Einstein on the Beach” by Philip Glass and Bob Wilson, Britten’s « Peter Grimes » and George Benjamin’s « Writing on Skin ».

The way paintings and explanations mix on the walls is fun: William Marlow, Fresh warf, London Bridge, 1763

There are large pannels in every room explaining the librettos and the social background of the period with the king, emperor or president’s ambitions. For instance, under the reign of Queen Anne,  London emerged as a rich centre for trade and commerce. In 1711, Henry Purcell was able to develop an English style of opera which Handel took further with Italian style music.

Giovanni Baffo, Venitian harpsichord commissioned by the Strozzi family in Florence, 1574

In Paris, Wagner premiered “Tannhauser” in 1861 while Napoleon III was building the Opera house. Later in Dresden, Richard Strauss’s “Salome” was performed in 1905 and this leads to showing Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings painted earlier.

Aubrey Beardsley, Toilette de Salome II, 1894

What draws a lot of people to opera is the combination of visual, costumes and decors, and intellectual stories combined with the magic of music. Yet with Verdi, opera becomes popular and when you travel to Southern Italy in the summer,  it is common to hear operas performed on the village square. If nowadays opera has become an expensive and elitist medium, attending operas in movie theaters is a great Saturday night custom.

Louis-Emile Durandelle, The new Paris Opera, east side façade, 1867

This exhibition is like hearing many different operas and entering the magic world of music  for the price of a museum ticket. It takes place in the new Sainsbury wing of the V&A which is quite spectacular.  Do not miss it. (until February 25, Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

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2 Comments on “Opera at the V & A, a powerful political tool”

  1. Catherine Bernard

    Et moi je te lis depuis ispahan, bravo pour ces articles remarquablement détaillés et précis… mais si tu donnes une place prépondérante à Daniel pour Toulouse-Lautrec, peut-être Carsen méritait-il aussi d’être cité.. car sans fil conducteur et sans nombre de pièces originales qu’il a su trouver l’ exposition du V&A n’aurait pas eu un caractère aussi dramatique et juste historiquement…

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