A Machi­avel­lian dis­play

Cun­ning, art­ful and de­vi­ous, this topi­cal dis­cus­sion on the state of mankind brings in some his­tor­i­cal masters and di­vas to tell a very mod­ern tale – and a fore­bod­ing note for the fu­ture if his­tory re­peats, says Rob Gar­ratt

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Imag­ine if Nic­colò Machi­avelli was fast-for­warded from Re­nais­sance Florence, into the near- fu­ture of the 21st cen­tury. Imag­ine, now, that the proto-po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist rewrote his still- dom­i­nant tract The Prince, 500 years after its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion, in 2032. Then imag­ine who he might call on to bring the book’s med­i­ta­tions on power and du­plic­ity up to date.

The scene is now set for The New Prince, the dizzy­ingly am­bi­tious and bit­ingly topi­cal new opera from Emi­rati com­poser Mo­hammed Fairouz, which cel­e­brated its world pre­miere with a stand­ing ova­tion at Am­s­ter­dam’s Stadss­chouw­burg on Fri­day in a big-bud­get pro­duc­tion by the Dutch Na­tional Opera.

We meet Machi­avelli in 1513 – dis­graced, ex­iled, in blood­stained rags – and are quickly re­minded of his key teach­ings.

“And worst of all,” bel­lows bari­tone Joshua Hop­kins in the lead role, “I said that if we must choose / Be­tween be­ing feared and loved / We should choose to be feared.”

After this brief pe­riod pro­logue, Fairouz’s schol­arly score tele­ports us a half-mil­len­nium into the fu­ture, ac­cel­er­at­ing through the ages – a mil­i­tary march re­call­ing the Napoleonic wars morphs into an or­dered baroque coun­ter­point, be­fore can­ter­ing through the 20th cen­tury via Glas­sian os­ti­natos into the in­ter­net age. Li­bret­tist David Ig­natius awakes the over­whelmed Machi­avelli in 2032, where he is swiftly suited, booted, and sat down to meet his cut-throat 21st cen­tury pub­lisher, For­tuna, skil­fully voiced by so­prano Karin Stro­bos. This clas­sic muse de­mands an an­niver­sary re­write of The Prince – a 3D holo­gram edi­tion, nat­u­rally – but with, she bites, “bank­able names”.

With all that his­tory to catch up on, a ghost writer is re­quired, and in a puff United States ad­viser Henry Kissinger ap­pears as “scribe and jester” – cheek­ily ren­dered by Marc Kud­isch – the first in a role- call of his­tor­i­cal real-life names to suc­ceed each other on­stage. In lit­tle time at all, a tongue- in- cheek dance se­quence will see Hil­lary Clin­ton Would that things change or they will re­main the same and Don­ald Trump fight­ing over a blow-up globe of the world.

But while there are fre­quent au­di­ence tit­ters, The New Prince is the black­est of come­dies. As Machi­avelli soon learns, the stakes have raised con­sid­er­ably in the pass­ing cen­turies – his pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ers, the princes of war­ring Re­nais­sance-era citys­tates, are small fry com­pared to his pa­tron of 2032.

Pres­i­dent Wu Virtu is leader of the play­fully dubbed “Amera­siopia”, an enor­mous “meta-king­dom” stretch­ing across North Amer­ica, Europe and Asia, ruled from the “tri- cap­i­tals” of Mi­ami, Dubai and Shang­hai, now dubbed New Columbia and the scene of our play.

This myth­i­cal land is in­voked by a sym­met­ri­cal set of two sixnote melody lines rep­re­sent­ing the or­dered two-way traf­fic of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, while the UAE na­tional an­them can be fleet­ingly de­tected, in a brass line un­der Wu’s in­tro­duc­tion. Si­mon Lim hams it up as the play­boy politi­cian Wu, a fic­tional but imag­in­able com­pos­ite whose pre­cious rule faces the fall­out of a post-glob­alised age of com­pet­ing ide­olo­gies, lim­ited re­sources and crip­pling cli­mate change.

Machi­avelli and Kissinger, how­ever, are here to help – con­jur­ing on­stage his­tor­i­cal revo­lu­tions, scan­dals and tragedies to teach Wu a wor­thy les­son, each im­pres­sively ren­dered by Lotte de Beer’s sharp stage di­rec­tion.

Hav­ing fled the Nazis in his teens and pi­o­neered Amer­i­can re­la­tions with China in the 1970s, Kissinger is per­fectly placed to in­tro­duce cameos of Hitler and Mao, whose world-cleans­ing de­sire chimes wor­ry­ingly with Trump-era iso­la­tion­ism rhetoric. “His­tory does not al­ways progress, it re­curs,” Kissinger warns.

Next we stop in Tahrir Square to wit­ness the full-cir­cle se­ries of po­lit­i­cal up­heavals that have rocked Egypt be­fore things shift, out­ra­geously, to the White House be­d­room of Bill Clin­ton. Surely con­ceived, if not tweaked, long be­fore last year’s elec­tions, Hil­lary Clin­ton is rep­re­sented as both a sub­ject of hope and hope­less­ness. Machi­avelli is a fan, he de­clares the wife’s cold heart, “more pre­cious than a di­a­mond”.

Through­out Wu sits off­stage in a VIP opera box, munch­ing crisps and play­ing on his phone, not buy­ing a word he’s sold.

The bold­est mo­ment of this de­cid­edly bold work might be the sight of de­ceased Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and former US vice pres­i­dent Dick Cheney – in­tro­duced as “two men alike in rage and fear” – singing the same in­ter­wo­ven words, fol­low­ing a solemn in­vo­ca­tion of the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror at­tacks.

The mes­sage here is Wu’s fi­nal les­son – ag­gres­sion met with ag­gres­sion is a zero-sum game, and a clash of civil­i­sa­tions is the great­est pos­si­ble threat to the fu­ture of mankind.

The New Prince is surely one of the most am­bi­tious, high-pro­file artis­tic state­ments to emerge from an Emi­rati artist, yet it re­mains a shame that so few of the peo­ple who call the UAE home will ex­pe­ri­ence the opera in Am­s­ter­dam. Hopes will rightly be ig­nited for a run at Dubai Opera.

rgar­ratt@then­ational.ae

Cour­tesy Marco Borggreve

The New Prince, the dizzy­ingly am­bi­tious and bit­ingly topi­cal new opera from Emi­rati com­poser Mo­hammed Fairouz, cel­e­brated its world pre­miere with a stand­ing ova­tion in Am­s­ter­dam.

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