The diva and the dictator
For centuries, the medium of opera has been open to political interpretation, a theme brilliantly distilled in the V&A’S newest exhibition. Clive Aslet listens and learns
Clive Aslet explores what happens when opera meets politics
Surely the perfect exhibition to greet Tristram Hunt in his first year as V&A director is ‘Opera’. No other museum could mount such a show. And let’s not forget that Dr Hunt is a former MP. The show’s subtitle is ‘Passion, Power and Politics’, reflecting that it can be a highly political artform.
This observation may be unwelcome to the listener, who simply wants his ears to be seduced by beautiful music rather than being reminded that some of the meanings behind that music may be alien to his own political philosophy. All too often, this disconnect is addressed by directors who impose their own—perhaps inappropriate—ideas that are at odds with the nature of the piece.
Wagner suffers particularly from the contemporary cult of
Regietheater, in which the dirlacquered ector’s vision is held to be supreme and unchallengeable, even if it’s violently at odds with the composer’s stated intentions. The avant-garde ‘ring Cycle’ at Bayreuth, directed by Frank Castorf, is a pre-eminent example: it’s too incoherent to have an internal logic of its own that would trump Wagner’s.
Oh, for the happy nights of 1976, when the all-french team (startling in itself, in that bastion of German culture) led by conductor Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau put the work through a Marxist critique. It was rigorous, intelligent and worked. I don’t suppose Jeremy Corbyn was in the audience, but one could imagine it.
In recent decades, John Adams has addressed political themes in Nixon in China and Doctor
Atomic, although, this being the medium that it is, it was by con- densing the emotion of public events into human exchanges. Apart from Sebastian rivas’s obscure Allies, which depicts an ailing Margaret Thatcher meeting the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Iron Lady has not inspired the operatic harvest one might have expected from her personality and the dramas of her decade in office.
We shall have to see what composers make of Donald Trump, an operatic president if ever there was one. In the meantime, audiences will have to content themselves with an older repertoire, making the effort of imagination required to recapture the circumstances in which they were written.
This is the approach of the V&A’S show. The new space, created as part of the super-elegant exhibition road entrance and approached by a suave, black- staircase, is (for curators) a glorious void that can be filled in any way they wish. For ‘Opera’, it has been divided into six stations, each dedicated to a work and the city that witnessed its opening night. Visitors explore the material culture and theatre craft of the time, while listening to excerpts on headsets.
Forget the usual audio-guide level of reproduction: these are sophisticated pieces of kit. readers who may feel that the V&A erred too far towards populism with shows on David Bowie and Pink Floyd must now bless the decision to mount them as they pioneered the technology that makes ‘Opera’ such a delight.
After listening to the third-act sextet from The Marriage of
Figaro, Sir Anthony Pappano, music director of the royal
Opera, is heard deconstructing Cherubino’s first aria (Non so
più), the turmoil of a hormonally charged adolescent. This insight into the human story is accompanied by displays—and an excellent catalogue essay— describing the Enlightenment context in which the opera was written.
The Beaumarchais play of 1778, on which the opera was based, opened to such packed houses in Paris that some theatregoers were supposedly crushed to death. It’s easy to see the class tensions between the Count and his servants as a presage of the revolution that would break out 11 years later.
Vienna was a different place, however. When Mozart’s opera was first performed in 1786, Emperor Josef II was new to the throne and welcomed as a reformer; Beaumarchais’s sting had been drawn. The optimistic mood was dispelled all too soon, but the belief in human perfectibility lives on in the music.
In Handel’s London, Italian opera was, of its nature, political: a foreign import that was lampooned for its extravagant stage effects and flamboyant castrati. An idea of what those stage effects could be is given in a large model of a sea scene, with rolling waves, bobbing mermaids and full-sailed ships. Queen Anne lent her support: she appears inside a proscenium arch in a model made from wax and curled paper. Not that Handel’s extravagant stories could have been considered as anything other than fantastic.
Verdi’s plots were no less farfetched, but could express incen- diary passions. As the Year of Revolution, 1848, drew near, the conductor, Angelo Mariani, was reprimanded by the commissioner of Milan’s police for giving Nabucco what seemed an explosive charge, making the music ‘too obviously revolutionary and hostile to the Imperial government’.
Trouble with the censors explains why a story based on the Swedish Gustav III was changed into one concerning an English Earl, Riccardo, whose murder takes place in Boston.
Wagner was so implicated in the events of 1848 that he fled Dresden. Although his fortunes eventually recovered through the patronage of Ludwig II, he remained fiercely radical. Opera retained its edge into the 20th century: Stalin banned Shostakovich’s only opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the young composer was lucky not to be killed.
Today, opera is arguably an artform that retains a political edge, if only because excellence can’t be achieved without a degree of state funding for performances that only appeal to the few. Let us hope this exhibition helps broaden the audience. The astonishing variety of objects used to evoke the material culture of the age remind us that this museum is something of a Gesamt
kunstwerk in itself. ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ at the V&A, London SW7, runs until February 25, 2018, and includes operatic events plus Opera Weekender on November 10–12 (020–7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk/opera)
‘The Iron Lady has not inspired the operatic harvest one might have expected’
In recent years, it is rare that Wagner’s works—such as Tannhäuser (above and right)—are performed as the composer intended
Over the centuries, composers have fallen foul of shifting contemporary tastes as well as government interference—shostakovich was lucky to have survived Stalin (above)