She kept her fans waiting for almost two hours, but when Madonna finally turned up on stage for her first ever performance in the Gulf in Abu Dhabi, it seemed all was forgiven as the 22,000 plus capacity du Arena ruptured with deafening screams on Sunday.
And five minutes into the opening sequence, it quickly became clear the controversial entertainer was in no mood to tone down her routine.
With gates opened at 7pm, the lights on stage finally dimmed at 10.40pm to the sound of chiming church bells as a large censer swung in the middle of the stage.
Dancers dressed in monk cloaks then appeared against the backdrop of a giant crucifix.
Madonna, 53, made her entrance in black tights wearing a crown and broke into Girl Gone Wild from her new album MDNA, also the name of the tour. Topless male dancers wearing high heels then joined her.
“It’s too damn hot,” she shouted at one point. “But we’re going to have fun any way.”
With temperatures touching 36° Celsius inside the newly refurbished arena, Madonna’s late arrival led to a few rounds of boos earlier in the evening as fans became impatient and as the crowd swelled around the stage. This reporter witnessed three different fights break out with fisticuffs being exchanged in one case.
She didn’t acknowledge the lateness, but asked the crowd if they were having fun. “You better be because we’re sweating our a**** off,” she joked.
Featuring a major production, with a massive transforming stage, the show was undoubtedly the biggest and most extravagant organiser Flash Entertainment has ever hosted.
tabloid! had earlier asked the company if Madonna would tone down her performance to suit cultural sensitivities in the Emirates. Flash did not want to comment.
It addressed the delay on Monday: “Like all major shows, door times and artist performances are carefully coordinated but in some cases, delays can occur that are beyond our control,” a spokesperson said. “Flash Entertainment acknowledges that there was a longer waiting time between the support act Benny Benassi and Madonna’s performance last night. [We] never published a time for Madonna’s performance.”
Besides featuring violent images of blood splattered on the screen during a performance of Revolver and Gang Bang, there were lots of religious iconographies, sexy dance moves and potentially contentious audio-visual content never before seen in a UAE public performance.
For many, the show exceeded all expectations.
“Amazing how I woke up this morning pretty fresh. Madonna gives me energy,” said Puerto Rican-American Adela Aveco. “The production was amazing, wish I’d splurged on [a] Golden Circle [ticket].”
American Abu Dhabi resident Sarah Omolewu said the show was great. “She had phenomenal energy and kept the crowds rocking the whole time. Looked fantastic for her age. I loved how she incorporated both old and new songs into the show. Flash also did a good job of organising and crowd control.”
The performance also featured Madonna’s 11-year-old son Rocco, from her marriage with British director Guy Ritchie. Her boyfriend Brahim Zaibat, 24, also made several appearances and danced with her alone for a version of her 1992 song Erotica. Madonna’s 15-year-old daughter, Lourdes, highly anticipated to join the dancers, did not make an appearance during the almost two-hour show.
“When I bought the album, it made me question if Madonna was still at the forefront. But this concert really proved she was. And the Lady Gaga bit was the icing on the cake,” said Bruce Jones, a Dubai resident from Canada.
Jones was referring to Madonna’s rendition of the Lady Gaga hit Born This Way, which she incorporated into her song Express Yourself. Critics have noted the similarities between the two songs and accused Gaga of copying. Madonna followed the mash-up with She’s Not Me, as an apparent dig at the much younger star.
“She kept us waiting, but it was worth the wait,” said Armando Raoul, 28, from Brazil. “But I think for those not familiar with the new album, MDNA, you wouldn’t know a lot of the songs.”
This was a popular opinion, especially among older guests who waited patiently for the classics.
Julia Stellington, 39, was with her four girlfriends at the show. “I was just expecting a few more of the really recognisable songs,” she said. “We wanted to have a Madonna sing-a-long. But she was still great and we wouldn’t have missed it.”
Mandii Atterman, 56, snapped up tickets in the seated grandstand but left before the show started. “It’s just getting a bit late,” she said. “I’m with my 78-year-old mother and we thought the show would start at 9pm, which is reasonable. It’s a bit late for us,” she laughed.
Penny Fee, an Australian, was with her friend Susie Wright, from the UK. “From 6.45pm we were queuing outside. Got in at nearly 8pm. It was dangerous because of the fences. How can you even enjoy it now? We’ve still got to get back to Dubai. It’s disorganised. From arrival to now it’s been fairly disastrous.”
Jayesh Vijay, a Dubai resident, was with two friends and was determined not to let the delays get him down. “I’m sure we’ll enjoy it when she’s on,” he said. “We’ve been to all the Flash concerts, Guns N’ Roses etc. This is the first time it’s so bad, and on a hot summer [night] too. From 6pm we’ve been here, and the queue for food and drink — never seen it like that. Still excited to see her.”
Reem, who only offered one name, said the performance was obviously targeted at a different crowd: “I think it was mostly for the younger audience she wants. And I think a lot of the older fans might have felt a little short-changed.”
Juliana Navaro, from the Philippines, was impressed with the costumes. “All the clothes were really nice, except maybe the last one, Celebration, where it looked a bit like a Beats headphone advertisement,” she said.
For Indian fan Anjana Deepak, who paid Dh1,095 to see the concert, it was worth every dirham.
“Her Drowned World tour is one of my favourite concerts ever and I would definitely tie tonight’s with that. It’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.”
With inputs by Natalie Long, tabloid! Editor and Kelly Crane, Senior Reporter