Opera, as cognoscenti know, is the ultimate form of creative expression. How better to explore this all-inclusive art form, which incorporates all others, than to explore it through a kaleidoscopic array of media? The Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibit “Opera: Passion, Power and Politics” makes a bold attempt to realize that goal without alienating the neophyte who might feel put off by the art form’s pall of obscurity and elitism. Structured as a kind of maze in the museum’s basement-level Sainsbury gallery, the self-guided tour leads the visitor through seven specially themed rooms, each dedicated to a “quintessential” work that marks a watershed in opera’s development, from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642) to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934), along with a presentation of the urban environment in which each opera premiered. An eighth and final room traces opera’s development over the past few decades and postulates that it may have a vibrant future. The exhibition’s stated purpose is to reveal “how operas are inextricably entwined with the social, political, and cultural landscape” of their societies and how opera “held a mirror to society and crossed borders to inspire audiences.”

In addition to the operas that bookend the exhibition’s chronological layout, the curatorial effort showcases Handel’s Rinaldo (1711, London), Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786, Vienna), Verdi’s Nabucco (1842, Milan), Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1861 version, Paris), and Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905, Dresden). The choice of operas for this introductory corpus of works is solid—I myself have taught all of them except Rinaldo in a university course called “An Introduction to the World of Opera.” But one might quibble about whether this particular progression is the most suitable for the fullest understanding of the art form. Rinaldo has academic importance as an early transitional work, but current repertoire trends vastly favor Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1725) for the ready accessibility of its subject (Everyone knows who Caesar and Cleopatra were, but who reads Torquato Tasso anymore?) and the lush distinctiveness of its music. Surely Wagner’s contribution to opera would have been served better by Tristan und Isolde (1865) than by Tannhäuser, an opera that discerning observers already considered “regressive” during the composer’s lifetime and therefore hardly the best exemplar of his oeuvre? It seemed odd to place Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk—which predates the Second World War—as the last fully studied work before drawing the public into a final room speculating on opera’s “future.” And even with this implicit suggestion that opera more or less stopped in the 1930s, the major selections on display in the “future” room include Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1976).

These operas can be called “modern,” yet all of them are forty years old or more. What would have been wrong with glances at John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (2000), or Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick (2010), except, perhaps, that they are all American? Even in the age of Brexit and a renewed Cold War, surely Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Philippe Fénelon, and Rodion Shchedrin count for something in opera’s more recent history. And what of Britain’s own Thomas Adès and Sir Harrison Birtwistle, both of whose works have been staged in heralded productions at the Royal Opera House and elsewhere? If the contributions of these composers seem feeble compared to those of the art form’s classic “greats,” it might have occurred to the curators that virtually all of opera’s standard repertoire dates from a prolonged era of Romantic sensibilities that publics still crave in the face of creative elites who have abandoned them everywhere except mainstream Hollywood.

An intriguing innovation of the self-guided tour automatically incorporates musical selections from each of the seven operas under study via a transponder, which is activated by movement and proximity to the relevant displays with no need for manual input. The visitor is thus serenaded with well-known selections while viewing musical instruments, men’s and women’s fashions, printed materials, visual art, and other period artifacts that illustrate the material and expressive culture surrounding each work’s creation. Video projections with musical analogues of varying size and sophistication display seminal scenes from recorded productions, most memorably including Salome’s triumphant but eerily philosophical apostrophe to John the Baptist’s severed head in the Royal Opera’s current production of her opera, which was revived in January 2018, and multiple interpretations of the lusty bacchanale that ushers in Venus’s scene in Tannhäuser.

Discussion of audience tastes and reactions barely registers beyond bland descriptions of generalized hopes.

Some of the objects go a long way toward capturing the cultural milieu. Flamboyant Venetian couture and a collection of unfamiliar baroque instruments enhance one’s appreciation of Poppea. A functioning maquette of early eighteenth-century stage technology made Rinaldo come more vividly to life than attending a modern performance. The Marriage of Figaro room is adorned with a harpsichord that Mozart is thought to have played. Salome’s artifacts include Aubrey Beardsley’s stylized illustrations of the Oscar Wilde play on which the opera is very closely based and which stand as decadent art in their own right (I first encountered them on the walls of the decidedly immodest dance floor of St. Petersburg’s trendy Absinthe Club, back when Russia was still fun). A large-screen video of Shostakovich frenetically playing through one of the more vivid passages in Lady Macbeth’s score captured the raw energy of a vivacious early Soviet culture about to be crushed by Stalinism. Other curatorial choices turned out to be rather more dry. The portrait of Verdi’s confidant Count Andrea Maffei in the Nabucco room would probably have been better left in a dusty Italian museum dedicated to the Risorgimento. The otherwise evocative Salome room left me wondering whether I benefitted much from seeing a copy of Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria in a display case. Surely that work would have better suited a room dedicated to Strauss’s Elektra, whose subject’s fin-de-siècle repurposing was directly inspired by that once popularly diagnosed condition. Salome’s character is far too rooted in purposeful narcissism and cool, unapologetic amorality to merit the juxtaposition.

The exhibition’s attempt to weave opera into the surrounding “social, political, and cultural landscape” of the works presented, and to demonstrate that the art form “held a mirror to society,” posed daunting challenges to the curatorial team. For one thing, both objectives rest on the highly debatable assumption that opera, and culture generally, are or must be inseparable from politics. The approach starkly reflects the geriatric but nevertheless resilient Marxist orthodoxy still holding sway in the academic-industrial complex’s “cultural studies” division, an intellectually stunted milieu that anyone with an imagination should strive to avoid. The idea that opera is or could be primarily about entertainment briefly appears in the exhibition’s first room, dedicated to Monteverdi’s Poppea, but rarely emerges thereafter. Perhaps for that reason, discussion of audience tastes and reactions barely registers beyond bland descriptions of generalized hopes and expectations.

The exhibition’s theoretical grounding suffers alongside weak attempts to link opera to politics and society. Observations to that effect appear in the style of what a lazy undergraduate might perfunctorily take down in his notebook while nursing a hangover. Each room featured wall art that resembled old-fashioned blackboards, with key concepts noted in what would in those days have been white chalk. Perhaps inevitably, the history is often facile. Hence, according to the Marriage of Figaro room, we are meant to believe that the Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s reduction of censorship in the years prior to the premiere of Mozart’s opera was “encouraging freedom and social mobility.” While “freedom” was still an elusive concept in what remained a “despotism,” however “enlightened,” I am unaware of any evidence that easing censorship has ever resulted in “social mobility,” in Austria or any other realm. Surely it had more to do with such economic factors as the Emperor’s much more relevant abolition of serfdom, which the exhibition misses altogether. There is certainly more to Verdi’s Nabucco than a bulleted list of the three items “identity,” “politics,” and “exile,” the first two of which are so loaded in current parlance as to be meaningless in the absence of thorough elaboration. Does “identity” mean the “national” identities of the opera’s fearsomely opposed Hebrews and Babylonians? Does it mean the “identity” of Italians like Verdi, who were striving for national unity at the time the opera was written? Or does it refer to the personal identity of Abigaille, the central soprano character who was born a slave and raised a spoiled princess? Who knows? Likewise, Wagner’s Tannhäuser demands a deeper explanation than the exhibition’s cursorily sequenced themes of “sexuality and spirituality,” “personal struggle,” and “morality.” What do those concepts even mean anymore? And is our society really too jaded to talk about temptation and salvation, or self-sacrifice and ideal womanhood? I hope not. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk deserves more than the slapdash labels of “murder,” “passion,” and “bourgeois housewife,” if the landowning Izmailov family can really be considered “bourgeois” outside of Marxist oversimplifications.

The history is often facile.

Even the exhibition’s more serious passages describing the operas under study can leave a lackluster impression of its organizers’ grasp of history. Were the deadly, necrophilic motif of Salome and its searing implications for abnormal psychology really factors that “fed into women’s rights movements gathering momentum at the same time” as the opera’s premiere? Brave suffragettes who argued that women deserve equal rights because they are rational human beings who possess cognitive faculties equal to men’s would probably not have appreciated comparison to a mentally disordered teenage murderess or found their cause advanced very far by being labeled femmes fatales.

The V&A has made a determined plea for opera’s relevance as a lens for understanding cultural history. Visitors unfamiliar with the art form will learn a few basic concepts and become familiar with several core works of the standard repertoire. Enthusiasts may enjoy a broadened understanding of works they know well. Both would be better served by a more researched approach than the one this ambitious but problematic exhibition puts on.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 46
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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