Opera is a unique type of art, as it combines two of them; theatre and music. It may sound a bit elitist, but the way it feels when, for example, Maria Callas sings (or should I say performs) “Casta Diva”, is fairly remarkable. You cannot help but be moved! This is why opera resonates deeply within me and it’s why when I heard that the V&A would do an exhibition about opera, I just thought it would be worth it. And it was! It most definitely was!
First of all, I have to say that the Victoria and Albert museum is a great place and you should visit it, given the chance! A majestic building with a lot of treasures inside and some exhibitions that have become London sensations! The Balenciaga one has certainly caught the eye of everyone here, but the one I went to (Opera: Passion, Power and Politics) is a very interesting one to say the least. The overarching theme is that opera, as any kind of art actually, is deeply embedded in the social, political and economic climate of the time it flourished. From the Venetian carnivals up to the Russian revolution, opera has influenced and has been influenced by the time.
The exhibition starts in a very exciting note, as just before you go in, you receive a headset that is your companion through the whole of the exhibition. On the audio guide, Sir Antonio Pappano, music conductor and director of the Royal Opera House, gives a great insight into important pieces of opera and the history behind them. First stop of the exhibition is its birth in Venice during Renaissance. The defining opera of the time is Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’inconorazione di Poppea”, because for the first time opera is defined by a historical moment, and not by liturgical texts and religious themes. Theatres in Venice were a part of the wealthy people’s lifestyles. In the 1600s, these wealthy Venetians needed to show off and opened performances to public during the Carnival season. This is the moment opera was born!
After Venice, the second room is all about London in the early 1700s. During Queen Anne’s reign, London enjoys much needed stability. Arts and the opera flourished, while the arrival of Handel changed the game completely with his Italian style opera. Covent Garden becomes the cultural centre of London and the heart of London’s artistic community and the Queen’s Teatre in Haymarket is the place to be. This is where Handel’s “Rinaldo” premiered and the famous Italian castrato Nicolini performed. In 1786, Vienna becomes the culture capital of Europe and it’s no wonder that the young Mozart was drawn to it, to its court and bustling salons. “Le nozze di Figaro” is an opera combining humour and different social backgrounds, which was the perfect example to showcase in the third room of the exhibition.
Covent Garden on the left and Le Nozze Di Figaro Ouverture on the right
After Vienna, this is the room I’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the exhibition! Milan and La Scala! This is such a huge part of the history of the opera in Europe and I think that one room is not enough to contain all the greatness that happened in these walls! Giuseppe Verdi’s talent is praised here and shines through and not only! The fact that he was considered a hero for many and a part of “Nabucco”, the so-called Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves or “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate”, still tugs the heartstrings of many, even in our times.
La Scala and Verdi in Milan and Paris Theatre Le Peletier
Paris in 1861, where the opera was the ultimate social occasion, is next. Princess Pauline von Metternich, the wife of the Austrian diplomat Richard von Metternich in the French court, was most influential in the introduction and support of Richard Wagner in the French life. Princess Pauline was a close friend of Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife and it is said that when “Tannhauser” opened in Paris the Emperor and Empress were there.
Dresden in 1900s and Richard Strauss come after Paris. A liberal city, with Freud’s influences and the beginning of the women’s movement take centre stage and Dresden becomes the ideal backdrop in featuring Strauss’ opera “Salome”. It was considered very provocative at the time, because of its erotic and murderous circumstances. The penultimate room is about the Russian revolution and Leningrant in 1934. “Lady Macbeth of Mitsensk” by Shostakovich is a shocking opera piece that made the Communist Party to denounce and censor the composer. Still though it shows that in the end opera, as a type of art, influences and is influenced by social life and politics.
Opera Salome and a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mitsensk
The exhibition managed to prove the point it set out to make with exciting results. A glimpse into the life of Venice in the 1600s up to the Russian revolution is an exciting trip through time and the European continent in general. Despite the hundreds of wars in between and times of poverty, famine, but also success and stability, Europe was the perfect ground that opera needed to grow. For anyone even slightly interested in opera and history, this is a must-see exhibition. It is on until the 25th of February, so you still have a little time left!