Opera + Classical Music Features

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, Peter Kelleher)

This major exhibition, opening on September 30th, is the first to explore Opera on a grand scale – and what a scale it is, with the focus on seven operatic premieres in seven cities, all presented with judiciously chosen artefacts and expertly selected musical examples. Curated by Kate Bailey, with the collaboration of the Royal Opera House under the ever-enthusiastic guidance of Antonio Pappano, the exhibition neatly avoids either condescension to the uninitiated or obviousness to the expert.

The first to showcase the gallery’s splendid new wing, the grand scale of the exhibition, with Societe Generale as its major sponsor and Bowers & Wilkins as its Sound Partner, is evident from the moment you approach the entrance – you are handed headphones and a handset, and with these you stroll to the front of each of the seven ‘premieres’ and the final collection of 20th and 21st century works. As you gaze at the relevant exhibits, you listen to an extract from the work: it’s a brilliantly simple concept, and it succeeds not only because the sound reproduction is superb but because the pieces have been chosen so astutely and the singing is uniformly first class – given the exhibition’s provenance one would expect no less.

(Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, Peter Kelleher)

We begin in Venice, with Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea­¸and the wondrous duet ‘Pur ti miro’ in a specially made recording by Alice Coote and Danielle de Niese; if that doesn’t have any doubters hooked it will be surprising. Then it’s on to London and Handel’s Rinaldo, complete with all you wanted to know about castrati, followed by Vienna and Mozart – displays here include the piano played by Mozart on a visit to Prague – as with some of the other exhibits, this one has travelled for the first time.

Verdi’s Nabucco highlights not only the political connections with the Risorgimento, but the growing importance of the operatic chorus – the performance you’ll hear of ‘Va, Pensiero’ is an especially stirring one. Then it’s on to Paris via Tannhäuser, Dresden with Salome (and a particularly gruesome video) and lastly (of the seven city premieres) to St Petersburg for Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – exhibits of special note here include an autograph score.

The final room in the exhibition is given to showing how opera continues to take on new forms, and features works from Peter Grimes to Written on Skin. Not everyone will agree that, for example, Peter Grimes (or indeed Death in Venice or Billy Budd) is of lesser significance than the Shostakovich or similar in musical importance to Einstein on the Beach, but given the ‘Power’ remit one can see how the choices were made.

Alongside the exhibition there are a host of associated performances, including lunchtime concerts, an ‘Opera Weekender’ in November, performances by ‘Pop-up Opera,’ music from The Monteverdi Choir in December and many other events.

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