Tom Sutcliffe considers opera as museum and performance

Just as a “coffee table book” is designed to be looked through and not really read, so the V&A’s great Opera exhibition (with the not very persuasive come-on subtitle Passion, Power and Politics) is little more than a promotional gesture on behalf of international opera as potentially experienced at Covent Garden. For 20 years there was a Theatre Museum next door to the Royal Opera House, which closed in 2008 because our government would not take it seriously, and money simply ran out for a public institution only 20 years old. Since then the V&A has reverted to being the main home for theatre collections. Kasper Holten – ousted opera director at Covent Garden – has written the clotted introduction to this exhibition’s expensive catalogue. An introduction to the first work on which the exhibition focusses, Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, is by Gus Christie of Glyndebourne’s wife Danielle de Niese – with the addition of an alluring pin-up photo in role. She does ring true in a highly subjective way.

There are objects and paintings of some interest as one walks through the confusing lay-out based on a selection of seven great non-English operas from Monteverdi to Shostakovich (only Handel’s Rinaldo having a London origin, and nothing by Britten). But little of what is on show is especially relevant to the actual theatrical experience of a living viable artform which in the UK we have seldom taken seriously. No proper mention of Lilian Baylis’s Sadler’s Wells company nor of the Carl Rosa (a touring opera performing in English, founded by a Hamburg musician in 1873, which took opera at cheap ticket prices around the provinces as well as sometimes at Covent Garden, and lasted until killed off by the Arts Council in 1960). No compelling recognition of how singer ensembles, designers, directors and librettists have mattered as well as conductors and composers in the theatricalisation of this art form.

Frankly the peculiar travelogue-like bits of history on which the text and choice of display objects are based have almost nothing to do with operatic theatre as it actually is and has been. Productions are made with maquettes of sets as well as drawings, all of which can be very interesting. Performance fashions and styles have been changing like crazy in the last 80 years  The focus here on so few inadequately representative works was, I guess, meant to be easier for novices and newcomers, since those who have any degree of interest will already know most of what is being made of it all. But very little here brings the fascination and compelling nature of opera thrillingly alive the way opera really is.

I resisted the headphones almost all other visitors were wearing, but I can believe that to enjoy this V&A exhibition at length the provided extracts of recordings by current stars will enhance the experience. However, none of the bundle being offered makes opera more real as it is – and real live as it has to be.  (Relays in cinemas are much like watching DVDs in your home, with the emphasis on performers’ faces.) And this V&A exhibition’s tickets are not cheap. Sponsors’ money would have been much better applied to real opera, rather than to what seem to reflect the vanity and pretensions of the country’s best-off, high-priced opera providers. Considering how persuasive an introducer of operatic music, Antonio Pappano, (the Royal Opera’s long-term music director) can be on radio and in the flesh, the incompetently edited and commissioned texts of the heavy catalogue (in weight and prose), continually miss their appropriate targets. What’s on show is mostly very secondary at best.

Semiramide is Rossini’s last Italian opera seria, with much beautiful music and a narrative based on a Voltaire tragedy, that feels about as complicated, improbable and lacking in genuine emotion as some minor and forgettable Handel operas. Tragedy and enlightenment do not hang together well – after all, in an improving and more understanding world they should not happen, so you should not need to be too upset. The piece has not been revived at Covent Garden for 130 years. It takes time to get going and the title role is not sympathetic. But Joyce DiDonato as the monstrous Babylonian queen, has everything needed by way of vocal colour and facility to grip one’s attention and provide great pleasure. Teamed with the ripe Italian mezzo of Daniela Barcellona as her top general, the resolution of the story in a swelling and long duet late in the final act is one of the most ravishing and fabulously sung Rossini arias that I have been lucky to hear. Both artists are decent actors but not seriously compelling. The rest of the cast were very accomplished, especially Lawrence Brownlee as the Indian King Idreno and Konu Kim as Captain of the Guard. When Michele Pertusi as the Prince Assur (a descendant of Baal) was taken ill after the first act, Mirco Palazzi took over with tremendous panache.

David Alden’s production, created with much the same line-up in Munich earlier in the year, is solid, unpretentious in approach and effective – though I thought Paul Steinberg’s sets very sub-fusc compared with Buki Shiff’s beautiful costumes for DiDonato, Brownlee and Jacquelyn Stucker’s Princess Azema (another descendant of Baal, with a very pretty timbre). For Pappano conducting, this was ideal territory for his well-honed instincts about pace, colour, and above all lyricism. For David Alden, who has done so much fine work at the Coliseum and in Munich, getting on to the current Royal Opera menu with more in the pipeline is about time.