MDNA World Tour
For a show that was originally billed as a "Concert for Peace," the opening night of Madonna's world tour in Tel Aviv, Israel, featured a disproportionate amount of violence. Wielding a (presumably) fake AK-47 followed by a revolver, the pop superstar sang of shooting her lover dead in the show's first act, in between acrobatic moves that had her disarming masked bandits and killing them at close range. One might be tempted to think the location -- Ramat Gan Stadium, mere miles from any number of religious landmarks and hotly contested territories that have embroiled the region in war for thousands of years -- was appropriate. But you could just as easily label the theatrics, including blood splattered on a screen and Nazi insignia, as being in poor taste.
Such was the contradiction of Madonna's MDNA Tour kickoff, originally slated for two nights at the 41,000-capacity Ramat Gan (the first was canceled so the singer could fit in another day of rehearsal), where her Sticky & Sweet tour ended in 2009. "I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a special and important reason," the singer told the sold-out crowd. "You can't be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world."
Madonna's comments were greeted with cheers, thanks in no small part to the pure spectacle that was her two-hour show, complete with eight wardrobe changes (including a Gaultier-designed update of her iconic cone bra), 22 dancers (including one Rocco Ritchie) and a gospel choir. In fact, before she hit the stage, fans had gotten wind of a few tricks she had up her sleeve -- namely, a mashup of her 1989 hit "Express Yourself" with Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" (which the self-anointed queen has called "reductive"). It seems Madge, who bookended that performance with a chant of "She's not me," will get the last word.
And deservedly so. Madonna has perfected the art of creating mass entertainment with a hint of scandal. So it is no surprise, even in the holy land, that her show would open with a giant cross, the clang of a church bell and cloaked clergymen. But how all that religious iconography ties into numbers such as "Girl Gone Wild" and "Gang Bang," both off her latest album, MDNA, is less clear.
And therein lies the problem with the MDNA tour, which relies heavily on songs from Madonna's new album and features mostly snippets of her biggest hits. On the set list, only "Papa Don't Preach," "Vogue," "Open Your Heart," "Hung Up" and "Express Yourself" got nearly complete performances, while "Like a Prayer" was severely abbreviated. "Holiday," "Ray of Light," "Music" and "Into the Groove" meanwhile, were relegated to mere seconds during the intro to "Turn Up the Radio," one of eight songs from MDNA, including "I'm Addicted," "I'm a Sinner" and "Masterpiece," the latter from her 2011 film W.E.
Did the song selection disappoint fans? It's likely, but that's not to say they weren't entertained. Ever the perfectionist, a spry Madonna leapfrogged from set to dazzling set -- a hotel room, a cathedral, a candy shop -- strapping on a guitar for "I Don't Give A," rubber-banding her body with gravity-defying tightrope moves and high-fiving the loyalists assembled in a mosh-pitlike enclosure in front of the stage. Constantly crisscrossing the massive structure, she took barely a couple of breathers during portions that showcased guest spots (via video) by the likes of Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj.
To her credit, Madonna's vocals, like her physique, were in tip-top shape. Unlike many of today's multiplatinum pop acts, the performance employed minimal lip-syncing, most evident during the closing number "Celebration." Indeed, the show's highlight was a dramatically slowed-down rendition of one of her biggest hits, "Like a Virgin," which Madonna delivered in waltz form while slinking on the floor, letting her voice fill the ginormous open-air space.
It stood in stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone vibe during the rest of the show and was a welcome reprieve. Then again, a comment made early on by Madonna -- "I'm going straight to hell; I have a lot of friends there" -- let the world know exactly where her head is these days: a very dark place, but one that's thoroughly enjoyable.
Venue: Ramat Gan Stadium, Tel Aviv, Israel (Thursday, May 31)