It is not easy to visit an opera unbiased when it is presented as a stunning piece of contemporary social criticism. Especially if it evokes such totally opposite reactions. The one calls The New Prince ‘an opera in the vein of our time’ (Mischa Spel, NRC), the other awards it ‘a fat insufficient’ (Erik Voermans, Het Parool). A subsequent critic demands more ‘textual stratification and less musical clichés’ (Peter van der Lint, Trouw). Yet another calls it a ‘spectacle opera’ that leaves nothing to our imagination (Henri Drost, Theaterkrant).
Let’s start at the beginning. The Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz (1985) was commissioned for The New Prince by the Opera Festival Forward. David Ignatius, a columnist for The New York Times supplied the libretto. He based it on Il Principe, a book by Niccolò Machiavelli, published in 1532, in which he describes the machinations of power.
Ignatius presents Machiavelli as a living person, who is called to the rescue by pop-star president Wu Virtu. It is 2032 and Virtu leads the empire Amerasiopia, yet his position wavers. He is modelled after Kim Jong-un, the current ruler of North Korea. Avidly chewing gum he looks down on the scene from the mayor’s lodge of the Amsterdam City Theatre. The South Korean bass Simon Lim has the perfect arrogant stance and a good voice, but his English is barely comprehensible.
Bored, he watches how Machiavelli (the very convincing baritone Joshua Hopkins) dishes out the do’s and especially don’ts of a successful ruler. Aided by co-author Henry Kissinger (nicely smug interpretation of Marc Kudisch) he is working on a new version of Il Principe. His patron is Lady Fortuna (a highly pregnant, bossy Karin Strobos), who also acts as principal of his axioms. A colourful parade of dictators – from Savonarola to Hitler and from Mao Tse-Tung to Mubarak – illustrates ‘why princes must guard themselves against revolution’.
Explicit sex scenes – including Bill Clinton with cigar and Monica Lewinsky (a randy Nora Fischer) – show that a ruler must curb his primitive urges. Also, a ‘clash of civilizations’ should be avoided. Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney descend a grand staircase singing, each stressing their own right. Wu Virtu is only moderately interested in Machiavelli’s lessons. Yet when his people revolt, he cunningly knows how to shift their anger on him. Bruised and beaten Machiavelli decides to withdraw into his writing life, together with Fortuna.
Undramatic libretto, bombardment of images
Director Lotte de Beer pairs the abundance of – one-dimensional – characters and events with a bombardment of images. It looks spectacular, with dazzlingly fast costume changes and dramatic scenery. De Beer adds one additional reference to current events to the totally undramatic and pretentious libretto: Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton fighting over a globe. When he brutishly pulls this from her hands a chorus appears behind him, wearing Trump masks. Indeed, nothing is left to our imagination.
The opera is not helped by the music of Fairouz, played rather sloppily by the Hague Philharmonic under the baton of Steven Sloane. The score is one big, bombastic pastiche. Carl Orff, Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, American folk music, Italian bel canto, Gregorian chant, jazz, everything passes by. Thought it’s catchy, and the pounding rhythms are contagious, it lacks character and challenge. Too slick for opera, too unpolished for musical.
In short, also a fat insufficient from me.