Review: Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera on BBC Two

I was originally going to publish this preview of Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera last week.

But, when a BBC bod asked me to have a think and publish nearer to broadcast, I changed my plans.

I also screwed my nose up a bit. Well actually, I threw my arms up in the air and screamed ‘how dare they dictate to me when to publish x, y and z. Tsk.’

Their reasoning wasn’t clear. Was it that they thought more people were likely to watch the programme based on my recommendation? Or was it they feared I’d be damning and do them and it a disservice?

I find it unlikely they thought the former. My hunch is the latter.

That might be because there’s a lot of Worsley-bashing that goes on whenever Lucy is on-screen.

It’s not fair. It’s not nice. It’s not becoming.

It might also be because the BBC’s opera season is a bit of big deal – two years in the making, and a precious thing in the eyes of the partner organisations who have birthed it and the accompanying V&A exhibition too.

Where this two-part series is concerned, those with a preference for carping from the sidelines can sod off. Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera isn’t really made for them – the lifelong aficionados. It’s really made for people like me and for those who have preconceptions about the genre.

Worsley is the strongest element in what is a richly illustrated but fairly light-touch socio-political contextualisation of the operatic genre.

Lucy – a self-confessed opera novice – draws an indomitable spirit of discovery.

Her willingness to participate in unexpectedly entertaining synopses of the operas discussed is endearing and makes the messages conveyed more likely to stick. A more digitally-savvy person would have commissioned the production company to make these bite-size synopses available on social media – a bit of a missed opportunity there. Seeing her eat a big cake used as an illustration of the political map of Europe is as entertaining as any good comic Opera by Mozart.

There are some look-away moments – a painfully contrived scene where Lucy passes some people in the street who break into a rendition of a Mozart aria – but that’s largely down to direction and scriptwriting, neither of which Worsley is credited for.

Similarly, and rather predictably, it is the token operatic expert – the otherwise adorable Antonio Pappano – who doesn’t especially work well talking directly to camera. When reading a script he comes across a little glossy and over-rehearsed.

The irony here is that what this series achieves and the way it achieves it is exactly the fodder the snobs and self-aggrandisers will use to criticise it. The series seeks to introduce a genre to a cynical but persuadable audience. It’s not intended for those who love Opera already.

If you’ve never watched an opera before, or have and left the auditorium wondering why you even bothered, this will go a long way to persuade you to attend, or tempt you back.

If you’re already thinking of reasons why this programme is a terrible idea before you’ve even watched it, then you’ll be seething when I tell you they’ve saved the last 100 years of opera history for (in all likelihood) a second ‘series’.

Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera is on Saturday 14 and 21 October at 9pm on BBC Two, and available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after that.

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