Contrary to the enthusiastic reception at the time, I left the 2017 installation at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum titled “Opera: Passion, Power and Politics” somewhat intrigued but hardly bowled over. The artifacts and visual slides that the exhibit included seemed familiar by and large; the mandatory headphones piped in recordings of performances and rehearsals that were curious but not fresh; the items that really entranced (such as the scale model theatre showing 18th Century stage workings) were few; and the selection of the seven operas that constituted the exhibit seemed idiosyncratic. It was well worth a visit, but I got little unique pleasure from it.
Not so the accompanying volume, edited by Kate Bailey and luxuriously published by V&A Publishing. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is a triumph, chock full of insights by performers, directors, academics, historians, stage designers, curators and others. The photos are mind-boggling and the artistic aim of the exhibit is much more clear than the exhibit itself.
Danielle De Niese writes a convincing and insightful essay about building the character of Monteverdi’s Poppea that is uniquely satisfying, and Wendy Heller’s essay “The Triumph of Poppea: Virtue, Vice and Song in the Venetian Republic” accomplishes exactly what the eager and inquiring student hopes to gain in brilliantly setting forth the urban society giving rise to the new art form of sung theatre.
Director Robert Carson colorfully depicts the challenges of staging Handel’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne in 2011, accompanied by arresting photos of Gideon Davey’s sets. Daniel Snowman explains why our acceptance of Handel as a successful and indeed disruptive artistic force is in fact incompletely informed, as English-language musical theatre typified by John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera actually gained far more popularity and forced Handel away from Italian opera and towards English language works, notably Messiah. Pen-and-ink sketches of sets for Arsinoe Queen of Cyprus by James Thornhill (1675-1734) offer a spectacular opportunity to witness the fundamental, aspiurational vision of designers during the height of the wing-drop era of stage design.
The section on Vienna and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is introduced by conductor Antonio Pappano and photos from the brilliant David McVicar production at Covent Garden. Recently fascinated by Vienna in the late 19th century, I learned a great deal in Nicolas Till’s essay on “Vienna and the Enlightenment,” capturing that exciting and evanescent moment in European culture when the royalty’s prerogatives began to make way for broadly popular – populist? – developments such as publicly accessible theatre, freemasonry, and the inevitable French Revolution.
The exhibit and book then move to the premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco in 1842 at La Scala, Milan – the first triumph of a lifetime of triumphs. Placido Domingo discusses the title role’s “tremendous emotional range” and other attributes of “a demanding task,” and Roger Parker offers an overview of Verdi’s tremendous impact not only on Italian opera but the development of the Italian nation, culminating in an old age marked by “the disjunction between massive public acclamation and an awareness on Verdi’s part that he was in cultural terms an increasingly isolated figure,” resulting in what Parker terms “strategic withdrawal: physically behind the walls of his villa in Sant’Agata; mentally into an image of himself as a rough, untutored man of the soil… Hence, his support for the canonization of ‘Va, pensiero’ as a kind of alternative national anthem.”
And so it goes through this terrific volume: Designer Michael Levine and Flora Wilson on the 1861 revival of Tannhauser in Paris; conductor Simone Young and Kate Bailey on Salome in Dresden in 1905; director Graham Vick and Elizabeth Wilson on the premiere of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Leningrad. All loaded with provocative and informative ideas and accompanied by beautifully reproduced objects d’art, posters and photos.
As in all such endeavors, one can quibble with choices. Was Wagner’s main contribution to the passion, power and politics of opera made in Paris with Tannhauser, or with the creation of the festival concept in the small village of Bayreuth, constructing a publicly-financed, privately-owned theatre with a concealed orchestra, auditorium lights that dimmed, seats without a center aisle, a front curtain that both rose and parted simultaneously, and house seating that was in a broad crescent shape rather than a horseshoe, prohibiting attenders from observing each other and requiring attention to the stage? And how does the cultural impact of opening night of Lady Macbeth in January 1934 compare to that of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in September 1935?
Here we have an exhibit at the V&A, since closed, that had limited appeal. But its aims are preserved, and its intellectual and artistic contributions magnified many-fold, in a book that I encourage all to obtain.