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 that the location — Ramat Gan Stadium, mere miles from any number of religious landmarks and hotly contested territories that have embroiled the region in war and struggle for thousands of years — was appropriate. But by the same token, you could just as easily label the theatrics, which included blood splattered on a giant video screen, Nazi insignia and a gun pointing in the direction of the audience, as being in poor taste.
Such was the constant contradiction of Madonna’s MDNA tour kickoff, which was originally slated for two nights at the 41,000-capacity stadium (the first was canceled so the singer could fit in another day of rehearsal) where her previous international trek, Sticky & Sweet, 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. People of all walks of life, we’re all sons and daughters of the universe and human beings. We all bleed the same color. We all want to love and be loved. It’s easy to say, ‘I want peace,’ it’s another thing to do it. … No conflict can ever be resolved by causing pain to another human being.”
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), a gospel choir and two slackline walkers. In fact, before she even hit the stage (45 minutes later than scheduled), fans already had gotten wind of a few of the tricks she had up her sleeve — namely, a seamless mash-up of her 1989 hit “Express Yourself” with Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” which the self-anointed queen called “reductive” when asked about the two songs’ similarities in January. It seems Madge, who bookended that performance with a chant of “she’s not me,” will get the last word.
And deservedly so. With three decades of superstardom under her belt, Madonna has pretty much perfected the art of mass entertainment with a hint of scandal. So it should come as 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. After all, this is a woman who, in 2004, adopted the Hebrew name Esther as a show of her faith to the mystic practices of Kabbalah. But how all that religious iconography ties into numbers like “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 the aforementioned “Express Yourself” got a nearly complete performance, while “Like a Prayer” was a nearly spot-on reprise of Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show performance from earlier this year. “Holiday,” “Ray of Light,” “Music,” and “Into the Groove,” meanwhile, were relegated to mere seconds on the scratchy turn of the radio dial, a fitting 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? With the exception of her hardcore followers, the hundreds of thousands who bought MDNA during week one and helped it secure the coveted top spot on the Billboard album chart, it’s likely that it did, but that’s not to say that they weren’t all entertained. Ever the perfectionist, a spry Madonna leapfrogged from set to dazzling set — a hotel room, cathedral, candy shop — strapping on a guitar for “I Don’t Give a” (leads were taken by Monte Pittman, who contentiously parted ways with Adam Lambert in 2011), rubberbanding her body with gravity-defying tightrope moves and high-fiving the loyalists assembled in a mosh pit-like 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; the latter is featured along with M.I.A. on the cheery recent single “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”
And to her credit, Madonna’s vocals, like her physique, were also in tip-top shape. Unlike many of today’s multiplatinum pop acts (your Britney Spears or Rihanna), the performance employed only minimal lip-synching, 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 with the vitality of a singer at the top of her game.
It stood in stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone vibe exhibited during the rest of the show and, in that sense, was a welcome reprieve. Then again, a comment Madonna made early on — “I’m going straight to hell; I have a lot of friends there” — let the world know exactly where her head is at these days: a very dark place, but one that’s thoroughly enjoyable.
Girl Gone Wild
Papa Don’t Preach
I Don’t Give a *
Give Me All Your Luvin’
Turn Up the Radio
Open Your Heart
The Erotic Candy Shop
Like a Virgin Waltz
I’m a Sinner
Like a Prayer