sat 18/11/2017

Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera, BBC Two review - there's anti-elitism, and there's infantilism | reviews, news & interviews

Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera, BBC Two review - there's anti-elitism, and there's infantilism

Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera, BBC Two review - there's anti-elitism, and there's infantilism

The poshies' art form explained by use of the dressing-up box and the toy box

Lucy Worsley: an incurable mania for dressing upBBC/Reef Television Limited/Ian Salvage

The first thing to say about Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera (BBC Two) is that it is laser-aimed at those who have not enjoyed many nights at the opera. Enjoyed in the sense of attended; also, probably, in the sense of enjoyed. Anyone who is a regular at the Garden, or keeps a plaid rug permanently pegged out by the Glyndebourne ha-ha, or is a life member of the Netrebko claque, approach if you dare, but with smelling salts to hand.

Television occasionally feels it must demystify opera for the masses who subsidise it, strip away that elitist veneer and lay bare an elemental core. Harry Enfield did one such series for Channel 4. No doubt there’ll be more. Why are they commissioned? Lest we ever forget, the current DG at the Beeb was formerly i/c at the Royal Opera House, though only in the loopy world of W1A would anyone have commissioned this to suck up to Tony. The series, discreetly pegged to the V&A's new opera exhibition, is no doubt part of the BBC's admirable mission to make the arts as big as the news. But when presenters of the brand-new televised Front Row risibly confess to avoiding theatre because they’ve got tender posteriors or nippers to tuck up, a series evaluating the relevance and allure of theatre seems the more urgent obligation.

Worsley was the obvious presenter for this gig, having demonstrated on her TV CV a yen for prancing around grand houses, a talent for crunching history into tabloid bites, and an incurable mania for dressing up. As usual she comes at things proprietorially. Her argument here is that the great operas grew out of the fertile soil of the society around them. The four works submitted for exegesis (“my operas”) were The Coronation of Poppea (which, she said, is all about sex), The Marriage of Figaro (class), Fidelio (politics) and Nabucco (national identity).

She began, as any introduction to opera contractually must, with Pavarotti whopping out that football song. The travel budget took her to Venice, Vienna and Milan. Italophile snobs (guilty) had to suffer the consequences of her decision to bypass a session with the possibly chimerical BBC Pronunciation Unit: thus Montiverdi, incoggniti (though she got that one right the second time).

Worsley's unblushing commitment to total immersion found her duetting with Danielle de Niese  “Ooh that was sexy,” she purred, as if star-rating her own contribution  and singing along, with flagrant disregard for tuning, with a couple of Mozart nerds on a Viennese street. A Viennese cake with a map for icing was co-opted to explain European geopolitics and the strata of Hapsburg society. To unpack the plots, she dived into either the dressing-up box or the toy box. She got herself up as all the main players in Figaro for a split-screen sequence which yielded the indelible sight of Worsley blowing kisses at herself, perhaps even ironically. The characters of Beethoven and Verdi’s operas were presented as cardboard figurines. “Here is Nabucco himself, wearing rather a fetching apron. He’s a baddie.” Napoleon’s adventures across Europe were similarly explained with toy cavaliers manoeuvred around a map by Worsley accessing, without much difficulty, her inner tot. 

This mode of presentation is cheap, and it’s cheerful. But however much perfectly good sense is smuggled in among the fun and games, there comes a point when a surfeit of infantilisation mocks the intelligence of even Worsley’s most purblind fanbase. Antonio Pappano’s exegesis of key musical moments, which he seemed not to have prepared very far in advance, poshed things up a bit, but didn’t quite belong in the same programme. He was particularly passionate about Nabucco’s final plea for forgiveness. “Of course it take a great performer to pull this off,” he added. Happily there was a clip of Placido Domingo doing just that, though no caption to tell viewers who he was.

The most moving moment was reserved for the finale when a chorus of Italian singers, now retired to an old people’s home in Milan, sang “Va pensiero” and intoxicating music was blessedly able to speak for itself. The rest is bathos.

@JasperRees

A split-screen sequence yielded the indelible sight of Worsley blowing kisses at herself, perhaps even ironically

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

Share this article

Comments

As usual, this tiresome woman gives the kiss of death to any programme.

I feel you are being far too kind in this review. This is a copy of my reaction on Facebook a few days ago, Please can the BBC find someone else to front every history/arts programme. I am fed up with Lucy Worsley and her jolly hockey sticks approach, and for God’s sake stop her dressing up in period costume.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters