The exhibition chosen to open the new Sainsbury Gallery at the V&A may not be the obvious choice, but when you step into this immersive exhibition you understand the great potential of the space. It takes you through centuries of opera by focusing in on specific productions and the cities in which they were premiered, fitting the art form into its wider historical context and demonstrating that it is not just a product of the time, but also a catalyst for change.
We begin in seventeenth century Venice with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and end with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in Mtensk in Leningrad and the impact of Stalinist suppression, stopping along the way in decadent Paris and battle-torn Milan. Each section has a distinct look to it that sets the location and feel of the subject. In Handel’s London we are treated to a working replica of a Baroque stage, in Milan there are signs of war but also a display by Matthias Schaller of 150 of Italy’s opera houses, reminding us just what an integral role opera plays in their culture.
There are treasures aplenty – costume designs by Dali, a Rodin sculpture of John the Baptist’s head in the Salome section, and a Degas to name but a few. The Degas is accompanied by a caption explaining why the ballet traditionally appears in Act Three – it was the custom for male patrons to take advantage of the dancers before sauntering into the auditorium after the interval. When an opera decided to put the ballet in Act One there was outrage. Snippets such as these give a more intimate glance behind the scenes of the opera.
On entering, visitors are handed what initially appears to be an audio guide but proves to be a beautiful soundscape that automatically changes according to where you are in the exhibition. This combined with the expertly designed space leads you to feel transported through time and place as you travel through the history of opera. Even if you’re not much of an opera fan there’s plenty to get your teeth stuck into here. Quite pricey at £21 a ticket, but absolutely worth every penny.
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on until 25 February 2018. For more details, visit the V&A website.