Opera: Passion, Power and Politics
Highlights from the Monteverdi Trilogy
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
Victoria & Albert Museum. 15 December 2017
As part of the V&A’s Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition, the Monteverdi Choir returned to the site of their very first concert, 50 years ago in the museum’s Raphael Cartoon gallery to conclude their 2017 tour of Monteverdi’s three operas with a concert of extracts from all three. In the tradition of the V&A’s ‘Friday Lates’, they started at 6.30 with a series of Promenade Performances given in different galleries of the museum, starting with the L’Orfeo Overture performed from the gallery of the Grand Entrance before moving to the adjoining Medieval & Renaissance galleries for Duo seraphim, performed from the three projecting balconies. The audience was then shepherded through the massive Hertogenbosch choir screen for from two extracts from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, a flash-mob style Coro di Feaci and Ulysses’s Dormo ancora sung by Furio Zanasi in the Renaissance chapel originally in Florence’s Santa Chiara church.
We then shuffled en-masse back through the screen towards the entrance to the Buddhism in Asia gallery for the Act 3 Coro in cielo/Coro marittimo sung from the gallery and floor level before finishing at the South Asia room. Just outside the entrance, we heard a lesson in love and death (Chi voi che m’innamori) from the Sela morale e spituale, with its lively Hoggi, hoggi refrain (pictured below, to the apparent disinterest of Shiva’s Sacred Bull Calf, Nandi).
Somehow the musicians of the English Baroque Soloists managed to get themselves from one site to another before the wandering crowd arrived, their leader Kati Debretzeni pictured below in front of the image of Durga as Mahisasuramardin, whose eight arms wield sacred weapons against the forces of evil. Durga represents the female energy of the god Shiva, here depicted in her ferocious form as “the slayer of the shape-shifting demon Mahisasura”. The perambulation ended with Puclhra es with sopranos Francesca Boncopagni and Silvia Frigato, accompanied by Kinga Gáborjáni, viola da gamba, and Gwyneth Wentink, harp.
The formal concert in the Raphael Cartoon gallery seemed to be principally intended for supporters and friends of the Monteverdi stable, with less than a quarter of the seats made available to the public. Although 100 standing tickets were available on the day, very few seem to have been taken up. John Eliot Gardiner introduced extracts from the three operas that they have been touring throughout the Monteverdi 450th anniversary year, L’Orfeo. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea. This was the only London performance of the tour, which had seen fully staged performances in several countries. This concert performance involved a degree of acting and costume, notably from Furio Zanasi and Robert Burt as the two soldiers, and the impressive countertenor Reginald Mobley as the bearded nurse Arnalta, both from Poppea. Krystian Adam excelled in the opening sequence as Orfeo, as did soprano Francesca Boncompagni as Euridice and Poppea
The exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is in the new basement exhibition space under the recently completed Exhibition Road extension to the V&A. In conjunction with the Royal Opera House, a series of seven operas are featured, set within the social and historical contexts of seven cities and seven opera premieres, starting with Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Venice. Moving on through London, Vienna, Milan, Paris, Dresden and Leningrad, we hear extracts respectively from Rinaldo, Figaro, Nabucco, Tannhäuser, Salome, and Lady Macbeth of Mtensk before a final space depicting opera presentations to the present day. Everybody is given headphones, of the rather curious type that amplify your own footsteps. As you move from space to space, and, often, from object to object, a different track is played,. It took some effort to avoid being whisked into a different musical world just by moving a few steps.
Each opera had a storyboard display, outlining the plot, the musical style, performance details, and the age of the composer at the time. Amongst the larger displays were a mock-up of a baroque theatre stage, complete with working special effects, in the London Rinaldo section, and a video wall showing 150 Italian opera house interiors.
The more lurid, erotic and sensational aspects are stressed, notably in the Salome section with a video of David McVicar’s recent, and soon to be repeated, ROH production, (opposite Kirchner’s Die Brücke group nudes) and screenings of a contemporary performance of Tannhäuser at the Venusberg where the dancers seem to have forgotten to wear any clothes.
It is difficult to work out just who this exhibition is aimed at. Arguably rather slight for knowledgeable opera lovers (although the social history should be of interest), it is also possibly rather too complex for potential newcomers to opera. Despite the ‘bums on seats’ (or should it be ‘posteriors on cushions’) aspect of the Royal Opera House’s sponsorship, there is little to dispel the privilege and class aspects of opera going. But it does open up the complex world of music and social life throughout history, a tale that does not only apply to operatic side of musical life.