Marina Abramovic, the grande dame of performance art, lies motionless in bed and assumes the role of the legendary opera singer Maria Callas on a video screen. Again and again Abramovic dies as Callas in different roles. According to her, the artist feels a special bond with the opera diva, but i 7 Death of Maria Callas the promise of these two big names is not fulfilled in Carré.
This is largely due to the fact that the performance stands or falls with the level of the live music. Abramovic could easily have used Callas’ recordings, but chose to combine live opera with video. Since the premiere in 2020 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, traveling 7 deaths through Europe with another occupation. The married couple Abramovic and the actor Willem Dafoe, her opponent on the screen, are the constant factor.
Of course, no living artist can match Callas, but hardly any of these singers, dressed identically as dowdy maids, are even at least ready for iconic roles like Norma or Tosca. Most arias fail due to poor technique and dull interpretation, with two exceptions.
The role of Madama Butterfly is too heavy for her voice type, but nevertheless Olga Kulchynska sings very well in it Un bel dì, vedremo. (This is not Butterfly’s suicide aria, because Abramovic has not only selected music from death scenes.) Nina Minasyan is the only one who manages to show what an operatic voice can produce. For her fantastic madness aria from Lucia di Lammermoor the hall breaks the concentrated silence with enthusiastic applause.
The singers are certainly not helped by the conductor Yoel Gamzou, who commits hundreds of crimes against the opera with his wild gestures. Now he brings the Dutch orchestra Ludwig to an abrupt halt, then suddenly presses the accelerator again. His random fiddling with tempi drives me crazy. He smashes Puccini’s melodies with a meat mallet and he chops up Bellini’s.
Gamzou is more controlled in the new music by Marko Nikodijevic, who strings the six arias together. In the overture, Nikodijevic creates echoes of Verdi with a death blow la traviata and mournful woodwinds a dreamy, mournful atmosphere. The pounding interludes between the arias accompany video images of ominous clouds and Abramovic’s reflective voiceovers and are enhanced by effective weather and wind sounds.
With her long black hair, almond eyes and full lips, Abramovic looks a lot like Callas. This performance opera is clearly a love letter to the singer as a myth and as a woman, but the scenes filmed, ranging from the conventional to the bizarre, are not all convincing.
The tug-of-war between Dafoe and Abramovic in Bizet’s is downright ridiculous Carmen and priestess Norma sprints onto the pyre next to Dafoe in a sparkly dress and feminine makeup. The scene with the murdered Lucia continuing to smash glassware and mirrors in her wedding dress goes on too long. Visually impressive, but completely devoid of emotion, is the spectacle of the jealous Otello wrapping Desdemona in deadly snakes.
The irresistible beauty of a diva death shows Abramovic best in the role of Tosca – she jumps from a skyscraper and floats gracefully downwards. Most moving is her butterfly, who commits suicide after a nuclear holocaust by ripping a protective suit off her body.
The video images are aesthetic meditations on female operatic roles. The performance is really only about Callas in the seventh scene, when Abramovic gets out of bed to portray the singer’s death. Callas stands lonely and depressed in the Paris apartment where she died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 53.
Abramovic gives her a more theatrical death. Assisted by the women of the Nederlands Kamerkoor, Callas succumbs to heartbreak caused by the wealthy Aristotle Onassis, who left her for Jackie Kennedy. This final chapter would also be interesting as a standalone performance piece, but it is not enough to save the performance.
7 Death of Maria Callas
By Marina Abramovic. With the Ludwig Orchestra and the Dutch Chamber Choir.
4/11, Royal Theater Carré, Amsterdam.