Opera: Passion, Power and Politics review – a game-changing spectacular show | Music

This vast and exhilarating exhibition explores and celebrates opera’s often confrontational history, its grandeur, beauty and occasional excess, and, above all, its ability to probe the depths of the human psyche, both individual and collective. Mounted by the V&A in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be. Seven operas are examined in the context both of their composer’s lives and the cities and countries in which they were originally performed – the exception being the 1861 Paris version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. A final room brings us up to date with a survey of operas mostly premiered since 1945.



Installation inspired by the original stage directions of Rinaldo, Handel’s 1711 opera. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

The experience is essentially immersive. We walk through the exhibition – the first in the new Sainsbury Gallery – with headphones as a hi-tech sound system plays a constantly shifting musical or spoken commentary on what we see. We begin with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643) in the pleasure-loving Venetian Republic, and the opera’s final duet, with its suggestively twining voices, accompanies us as we pass paintings of gamblers and courtesans provocatively holding open their skirts. In Handel’s London, a mercantile city that viewed opera primarily as an import that demanded lavish stagings, we find a working replica of a baroque theatre, and hear Rinaldo’s mermaids singing as we watch a ship pitching through a storm at sea before the clouds part and it reaches safety.

Multiple narratives gradually emerge and converge. Opera has always been at the political cutting edge. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro embraces the values of Enlightenment Vienna in its attack on aristocratic codes of privilege and licence. A passage from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1758 Letter to D’Alembert on the Theatre is daubed on the…

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