Down, down, down, like Orpheus entering the Underworld, visitors are taken down flights of wooden steps within black lacquered tunnelled handrails and exposed bright red joists above to the brand spanking new Sainsbury Gallery in the basement. The exhibition itself is even blacker and it takes a moment for the eyes to adjust. Once they do, it is apparent that this is a very ‘busy’ series of spaces, starting with Venice and focusing on Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, which, according to the scrawled graffiti captions is all about Death, Lust, Ambition and Decadence. Each section has its own graffito, with arrows, underlined words, quotes and links to other topics, such as other composers, wars, revolutions and dates. There are seven cities in all, the next being London and Handel’s Rinaldo, shockingly sung in Italian and heralding in European-inspired opera. Handel’s quote, ‘Love and war fighting in my heart, giving my will different directions to follow,’ is handwritten in white-out-of-black lettering above the exhibitry, which comprises paintings, prints, manuscripts, costumes, props, musical instruments, photographs, posters and playbills. The other captions are more like yellow street signs, which lend a graphic rigidity to the interpretation.
Mozart’s comic opera La Nozze di Figaro premiered in Vienna in 1786, adorned with the catchy caption “Egalitarianism, Mischief”. Throughout the exhibition, operatic excerpts are played through one’s headphones to supplement the display. Milan is represented by Verdi’s Nabucco, with the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (Va pensiero) becoming an unofficial national anthem for Italy after the events of the Risorgimento which led to unification in 1861. Oddly, Paris is represented by Wagner’s Tannhaüser, and not anything by Delibes, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Debussy or Offenbach. Dresden flags up Strauss’ Salome, and the displays feature many of the V&A’s own prints and books, including Aubrey Beardsley’s pen and ink illustrations done for Oscar Wilde’s version, and there are excerpts from a very gory production on a large screen, alongside sculpture by Rodin and others. The last city is St Petersburg and features Shostakovich’s avant-garde Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, with some rare posters and a painting of the composer by Pavel Filonov, as well as a film of him playing his fiendishly difficult score. The writing on the wall this time reads “Murder, Passion” and, somewhat mundanely, ”Bourgeois Housewife”. At the premiere in 1934 it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the audiences, but was then banned two years later under Stalinist political censorship.
The whole exhibition is reminiscent of one that was held in Paris in 1987 at La Grande Halle de la Villette called Cités-Cinés, which explored film-making from the early years to the present day, and utilised some eccentric projection techniques, which were à la mode 30 years ago. Things have moved on apace, and here the designers use the backs of stage flats and scenery as their screens, in a wrap-around setting, which gives the imagery a slightly annoying, fragmented appearance, but still has a powerful impact through sheer scale. This is a well-researched and academic exhibition put on in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, and will occupy and fascinate visitors and opera lovers for well over an hour.
V & A
Until 25 February 2018