Review by Raphael Kohn
What is there to say about Marina Abramović’s ‘Opera Project’ 7 Deaths of Maria Callas that cannot be imagined simply by imagining what happens when one of the most famous performance artists of all times meets operatic performance? The result is quite staggering, a 90-minute multimedia concert-meets-film-meets-theatre project that astonishes, surprises, but above all else, confuses.
A two-parted performance, Abramović’s tribute to Callas is a whirlwind ride through some of Callas’ most iconic roles. The first part, dedicated to her 7 best-known performances, is an interesting blend of media, with stellar singers performing great arias of female roles which are performed before the character’s death. Films play in the background, and all the while, Abramović herself lies completely still on a bed.
So, quite the premise to explore. Yet for all her fame, Abramović’s live performance leaves very little for the memory – in lying so still for so long and doing so very little, her art is mainly performed through the filmed media, likely infuriating any patrons attending to see the master at work live. When she does emerge, she does very little apart from a few interesting motions, before departing for far too long and emerging again in an iconic gold robe. It’s not to say it’s badly done, or disappointing, but baffling more than anything else.
Her performance, or rather lack thereof, is underscored by the mighty ENO orchestra, conducted adequately by YoelGamzou, who play a mix of new music by Marko Nikodijevićand the famous arias. The arias – taken from some of the best known works in the opera canon – are exquisitely performed by the selected seven singers – Eri Nakamura, ElbenitaKajtazi, Nadine Benjamin, Karah Son, Aigul Akhmetshina, Sarah Tynan and Sophie Bevan – each of whom put their life and soul into their performances.
And screened behind are Abramović’s films, directed by Nabil Edlerkin. Almost entirely in slow motion, key moments from Callas’ life or from the operas themselves are played out in sublime high-definition, starring Abramović and Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe. These films are by far the visual star of the show, filmed on gorgeous sets and with true intelligence. Seeing Callas on her deathbed, falling off a building, fighting with her co-star using ropes and in many other situations, they offer interesting visual accompaniments.
Not only beautifully shot, they are also wonderfully performed for the most part, especially by co-star Dafoe whose remarkably expressive face and villainous roles in each film make him a truly chilling presence on screen. No stranger to playing evil roles on screen, Dafoe has an insidious, evil glint in his eye throughout most of the roles, matched only by Abramović’s mostly more calm and submissive response. Abramović shines most when she fights back, including in the fifth film which is truly quite mesmerising, but is often passive in the films, the victim of Dafoe’s taunts.
Yet these films feel detached at times, and for most patrons who may be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Callas’ career, completely unintelligible. They may look beautiful, and be visually interesting to watch, but without a clear narrative thread that makes it all make sense, it all feels too detached, and too confused. I have no doubt that dedicated Abramovićfans will be able to untangle her narrative knots and twists, but for me, it just did not come together.
The second part of the opera is the far shorter, and unfortunately less interesting, part. Abramović, alone on the bed, now in the Parisian apartment in which Callas died, walks around a bit while a voiceover narrates her actions, and then does very little else before leaving and returning dressed up in a fabulously sparkly outfit. And while it was great to see a performance artist like Abramović at work, I couldn’t help but wish for more to truly delve deep into Callas’ life and work. Abramović clearly knows the subject matter so well, that it was a shame for this part to have been so short when there was so much more that Abramović could have done.
I’m sure this opera wanted to do more with what it did, and there were moments where the themes of feminism and toxic masculinity did come through. But despite its running time, it still felt there were points unspoken, and ideas unfulfilled, that did not feel explored as much as they could have been. It is a splendid idea to invoke the spirit of one of opera’s finest singers through a tribute opera project, and one I sorely wish could have struck me more than it did.
7 Deaths of Maria Callas has now finished its run at the London Coliseum. For the rest of ENO’s season, visit https://www.eno.org/
Photos by Tristram Kenton