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

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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)

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