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.
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.
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.
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 ».
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.
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.
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.
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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