It’s fair to say that Lucy Worsley rarely aims for intellectual heights. Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera (BBC Two) was never going to appeal to the kind of opera lover whose perfect Saturday night was spent glued to the radio for a live show of the Met’s Götterdämmerung.
But exactly who this two-part study of the historical context of popular operas was aimed at has never been clear. Certainly no one whose nerves would rise at opera being described as “the greatest spectacle on Earth”, or the assumption that their only previous encounter with opera had been via the soundtracks of blockbuster movies or themes. of the World Cup. (“Nessun Dorma? It’s a soccer song, isn’t it?”)
For those who survived the patronizing introduction, there were moments to be enjoyed. Worsley’s central point was good: that many of the great operas were deeply political. And that much of their initial success lies in the subversive capture of the spirit of the places and times in which they were composed.
In that opening part, she skipped operas from Venice to Vienna, then to Milan – descending into their impressive costume departments along the way, as she does. We learned that Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea was not only “rascal” but also a way for the fiercely independent 17th century Venice to thumb its nose at Rome and the Catholic Church. She told us how Mozart’s treatment of nobles and servants as musical equals in The Marriage of Figaro was an act of “revolution”. And how Fidelio and Nabucco were responses to invasion and oppression, created to escape unsuspecting censors as vehicles of political challenge and resistance.