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Women die a lot in opera. The upside of this is that they often die in very interesting ways, from Violetta's tubercolisis in La traviata to Cio-Cio-San's suicide in Madama Butterfly. Marina Abramović's Seven Deaths of Maria Callas examines a selection of these women's deaths through the lens of legendary singer Maria Callas's life. Seven singers perform in front of seven films on the ENO's stage-screen, their music matched to the massive videos directed by Abramović and performed by her and actor William Dafoe, while Abramović herself slumbers onstage as Maria Callas in dream-state. It is a wonderfully original format and very modern by operatic standards that delivers great impact and delightful emotions.

Photograph by Marco Anelli © 2019 Los Angeles, October/2019

Abramović's origins as a performance artist are not easily forgotten, and it's very much to the performance's benefit. It's a great reminder of just how effective really good symbolism can be: the metaphors are neither complex nor heavy handed, but are wonderfully concise and potent. Desdemona is suffocated under snakes as an allegory for the original sin, Carmen is dressed and slaughtered as a matador as a parable for tradition and violence, Tosca falls to her death atop a car a-la Evelyn Francis McHale as a damning apalogue for the destructiveness of love. This sort of symbolism can become very heavy, but Abramović has mastered the art of subtle yet simple analogies while given the audience amply space to relate their own thoughts to the images and sounds before them. It's simple, good stuff on a very big screen and works tremendously well.

The super slow-motion transforms moments that take seconds into minute-long films that are synced massively successfully to the arias. And yet the show hardly feels like the 90 minutes that it does take. Admiteddly, the final act, in which Abramović ritualises Callas' death in her Paris apartment in 1977, does drag on for a while, but the staging is adroit enough even then to keep you interested: there are seven paintings hung on the walls, and its a great joy to sit there and figure out which one represents which song. It's clever without being unpalatable, beautiful without being pretentious, a great achievement when considering both the medium and the message that Abramović has adopted.


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