Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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Shostakovich’s First Symphony by Pavel Filonov is on show at the V&A exhibition

Any attempt to root opera in a broader social, political and cultural context is to be welcomed. The leitmotiv (so to speak) of this new exhibition, staged in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, is the link between an opera and the city of its first performance. It starts with Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea in Venice in 1642, and ends with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Moscow in 1934.

In between, as we move across the centuries from London, to Vienna, to Milan, to Paris, and to Dresden, we hear snippets of music and look at scores, maps, musical instruments, pictures, busts and film clips.

The results are uneven. Watching a reconstruction of special effects in a London opera house is fun but you don’t learn much about the Handel opera itself. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (Vienna 1786) works better, since the plot of servants outwitting their master beautifully embodies the challenge to authority of the European Enlightenment. So too does Verdi’s Nabucco (Milan 1842), with its famous Hebrew slaves’ chorus which became the unofficial anthem of the Italian national movement.

One coupling of city and opera doesn’t conform to the exhibition’s theme. Wagner’s Tannhäuser is linked to Paris (where the opera had its French premiere). Dresden, where it had its true premiere, is reserved for Richard Strauss’s Salomé. Why? Because, I suspect, the organisers wanted both Tannhäuser and Salomé in order to feature some raunchy sex scenes. They try to dress this up by alluding to the changing position of women (so, rather unconvincingly, International Women’s Day gets dragged into Salomé).

And the exhibition plays safe — Wagner’s antisemitism, for example, doesn’t get a mention. Nor does the political ambiguity of music’s emotional power that allows the French Front National to harness the slaves’ chorus in Nabucco to reactionary ends. Personally, I would have liked the exhibition to feature the premiere of Brecht/Weill’s The Threepenny Opera — if only to suggest a radical subversion of the genre.

Arthur Ransome, reporting from Moscow in 1919 on his visit to the opera, noted the social change in the post-revolutionary audience. There had been, he wryly remarked, “a general transfer of brains from the gallery to the floor of the house. The same people who in the old days scraped kopecks and waited to get a good place near the ceiling now sat where formerly were the people who came here to digest their dinners.”

What gripped this cold and hungry audience in Samson and Delilah, this grandest of grand French operas by Camille Saint-Saëns, was the “poetry of revolution”. Samson’s revenge on his enemies by bringing the temple down on their heads, Ransome concluded, “gained enormously by being played by people every one of whom had seen something of the sort in real life”.

Opera can be ours.