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Review: Marina Abramovic Summons Maria Callas in ‘7 Deaths’

Review: Marina Abramovic Summons Maria Callas in ‘7 Deaths’
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Review: Marina Abramovic Summons Maria Callas in ‘7 Deaths’

Review: Marina Abramovic Summons Maria Callas in ‘7 Deaths’

MUNICH – In Leos Carax’s new film, “Annette,” the husband and wife played by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard are portrayed in reverse terms. As a comedian, he kills every night; as an opera star, she dies.

It is of course a reductive vision of opera. But the alignment of the art form and the disappearance persists in the popular imagination and guides “7 deaths of Maria Callas”. Dramatically flawed from a project by performance artist Marina Abramovic, it was performed in front of its largest audience in person to date at the Bavarian State Opera here, after a very broadcast and live broadcast. restricted last year. He’s bound for Paris and Athens in September, then Berlin and Naples – and who knows where else, with Abramovic’s stardom behind him.

“7 Deaths” is a reunion of divas in which Callas is summoned through a series of tunes for which she was notable. She is then inhabited on stage and in short films – summoning a spirit that Abramovic says is always very present with us.

She’s right. Callas died in 1977, but continues to live in an ever-dense stream of albums, art books and, yes, hologram concerts. She was known even to audiences beyond opera as tabloid fodder, especially because of her affair with Aristotle Onassis – a love triangle involving Jacqueline Kennedy, his eventual wife. But her pop stardom emerged from the fact that she was an indelible artist, who helped resurrect the bel canto repertoire in the 20th century with a stunning stage presence. Even when she was silent, she evoked his entire face, strikingly expressive with just a small wave of her hand. Her voice failed her too soon, but she embodied the aria “Tosca” “Vissi d’arte”: “I lived for art”.

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This voice caught the attention of a young Abramovic, who said he heard Callas for the first time on the radio when she was 14 in Yugoslavia. Since then, she’s been haunted by their similarities: They share astrological signs, toxic relationships with their mothers, and, she told The New York Times last year, “this incredible intensity in emotions, that she can be fragile and strong at the same time. time.”

In this interview, Abramovic noted one key difference: how they reacted when they lost the love of their life. Callas, in her opinion, died of a broken heart – a heart attack, to be exact – but Abramovic, so broken that she stopped eating or drinking, ultimately survived by returning to work.

All of that context on “7 Deaths” is clearer than the work itself, in which Callas is never present enough to convincingly mingle with Abramovic, who eclipses the great diva throughout. This is the insurmountable flaw of the project, and the main reason why it has no place in an opera.

“7 deaths” is best experienced in person; the spatial audio design and the immersive big-screen movie element made its 95-minute runtime a cinch on Tuesday, compared to last year’s tedious livestream. But its use of live performers relegates them to a simple soundtrack, while erasing Callas from its own history.

It could have been more satisfying as a set of video installations, something like Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto”. If Abramovic’s tribute was accompanied by legendary Callas recordings, the goal of joining and scrambling the divas might be more naturally achieved. Instead, “7 Deaths”, directed by Abramovic starring Lynsey Peisinger, never quite touches on real-life drama in its succession of arias and films, then its dreamy recreation of Callas’ last moments in his Paris apartment. .

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The play features new music, by Marko Nikodijevic – skillfully conducted, as well as opera excerpts, by Yoel Gamzou. The opening begins with haunting bells and slippery melodies whose glissandos make them distant memories of untraceable tunes. Behind a canvas, Abramovic remains motionless in a bed under dim lighting; not since Tilda Swinton has an artist who gets off so easily with sleep as with performance.

Then, swirling clouds are projected onto the canvas – a recurring, sticky “visual intermezzo,” as it’s called in the credits – and a maid walks in. She is the first of seven singers who dress identically and whose arias follow introductions in the form of poetic texts pre-recorded by Abramovic.

The characters are never named, but opera lovers will recognize them instantly: Violetta Valéry from “La Traviata” (Emily Pogorelc); Desdemona from “Otello” (Leah Hawkins); Cio-Cio-San from “Madama Butterfly” (Kiandra Howarth); and the title protagonists of “Tosca” (Selene Zanetti), “Carmen” (Samantha Hankey), “Lucia di Lammermoor” (Rosa Feola) and “Norma” (Lauren Fagan).

Their stage appearances are an insult to the singers, who feel like an interchangeable and anonymous musical accompaniment to the short films – though Lucia de Feola was defiantly present, a performance that captured the emotional strength and vocal acrobatics of the role, even stripped of its dramatic context.

A spotlight stays on sleeping Abramovic throughout, as behind her the shorts – with her and a play Willem Dafoe, and directed by Nabil Elderkin – provide not reflections on Callas but (on a superficial level) the tunes themselves. themselves, and (on a more thoughtful) nature of the lyrical artifice.

In their embrace of excess, these videos flirt with the wink camp. As Abramovic falls from a skyscraper in slow motion, inspired by “Tosca”, his huge earrings dance weightlessly; when Dafoe wraps thick snakes around her neck to strangle her like Desdemona, their swaying bodies smear her lipstick. His Carmen is a dazzled matador, while in the movie “Norma” she and Dafoe swap gender roles, with him in a sparkly dress and Marlene Dietrich’s penciled eyebrows.

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Little, if anything, is said here about Callas, but after the seventh aria, Nikodijevic’s music returns – now rumbling and tumultuous, with singers and instrumentalists perched in the theater boxes – as the scene changes in his apartment on the day of his death. It’s realistic but suggests a place beyond, the window opening not to a streetscape but to a pale blue void.

In this long coda, Abramovic’s pre-recorded voice both gives him cues for movement on stage and imagines Callas’s final thoughts in a collage of non-sequiturs resembling a scene of madness. She contemplates her luxurious bedding, “Ari” Onassis, her gay friends (Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Zeffirelli, Leonard Bernstein). Then, at one point, she walks out a door. The chambermaids come in, dispassionately clean the room, and drape black cloth over the furniture.

One of them lingers, opens a turntable and drops the needle on a “Casta Diva” record. The sound is hoarse, but a distinct voice is heard: Callas, for the first time. Abramovic returns to the stage, in a sparkling gold dress, and mimics the performance – a hand outstretched, a downcast gaze. The two divas finally unite, too late.

7 deaths of Maria Callas

Performed Tuesday at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

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