Opera’s more than voluptuous women belting out high notes – it’s also a masterclass in Europe’s social, political and cultural history. The V&A explores these aspects of opera – from its origins in Italy to its wildfire-like spread in Europe – through the lens of seven operatic debuts in seven different European cities spanning a period of 400 years. It’s time travel, opera-style.
Each premiere is set in a distinct section of the new Sainsbury gallery, which follows a circular route designed to make you feel as if you’re backstage. The exhibition begins in Venice in 1642, with the first opera ever publicly performed – Monteverdi’s ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’. It’s a scandalous libretto and the embodiment of a very liberal yet vanity-obsessed society. There are elaborate red velvet courtesan outfits on display along with Renaissance-style paintings and some very unusual string instruments.
From Venice, the exhibit moves to London in 1711 where Handel’s ‘Rinaldo’ caused a stir for being performed in Italian, and it’s here that opera is showcased as the place where art, music, design and theatre collide – in a maelstrom of passion, dazzling costumes and spine-tingling castratos.
The piano that Mozart performed ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ on in 1787 is on display in the Vienna section. It’s a real highlight, together with his account of opera’s prevalence in Viennese society and the high fashion worn by guests at the concert. The premiere of Strauss’s politically and sexually charged opera ‘Salome’ in 1905 is the featured debut from Dresden. It’s shown alongside artworks from the Die Brücke movement to reflect new liberal cultural views and the increasing popularity of Expressionism.
There are set designs, sketches, costumes and sculptures in this exhibition and there’s a lot of information to process through the intermittent falsettos in your headphones. But overall, it achieves its goal of contextualising opera. The only remaining question is which (if any) opera debut will be able to reflect Europe in the twenty-first century.