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Of the two sides of Madonna revealed on her latest album Rebel Heart— one a lachrymose balladeer pleading “Just hold me while I cry my eyes out”, the other an imperious sex-crazed queen snarling “Go hard or go home” — which would predominate at the O2 Arena?
The phalanx of men kneeling on the stage in Game of Thrones warrior garb at the start, each holding a cross and bowing as they awaited her entrance, was a hint of what to expect. And so it proved, with Madonna descending from on high in a suspended cage, singing the blaring dance track “Iconic” with unblinking iciness, wearing a red outfit with black fake fur lining that gave her the look of a ninja-trained tsarina.
What followed was a display of superstar invincibility. It was a U-turn of sorts, ending the efforts that Madonna has made in middle age to craft a more sympathetic, human character for herself, as with Rebel Heart’s weepy ballads. That campaign reached an inadvertent nadir at the Brit Awards earlier this year, when a botched attempt to remove a cape caused the dazed singer to be dragged down a staircase. Tonight’s show, at the very same venue, found her coming to her senses. Fallibility is for civilians.
The two-and-a-quarter-hour concert was incident-packed and superbly executed. High production values palliated the regal ticket prices the singer charges. Her choreography with 17 backing dancers was expertly detailed, from the Japanese-themed moves that added lethal grace to the crude snarl of “Bitch, I’m Madonna” to a sacrilegious pole-dancing nuns routine in “Holy Water”: salacious but impeccably timed, like the Las Vegas theatrics that the show so successfully mines.
The highlight was “Music”, set as a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical, with the backing band neatly switching between jazz and thumping beats, and Madonna in a sparkly flapper’s minidress interrupting the song to perform a witty burlesque routine. Self-pitying tear-jerkers were recast as acts of resilience, such as “Heartbreak City”, which ended with the singer pushing a villainous man off the top of a spiral staircase with the diva’s cry of “You abandoned me!” The model was the indomitable Edith Piaf, to whom Madonna paid tribute with a boldly warbled version of “La Vie en rose”.
Old hits were imaginatively overhauled. “Burning Up”, from her 1983 debut, an early example of her unabashed nature (“I have no shame!”), became a wild rocker, Madonna on her knees pretending to shred a guitar. “Material Girl” was rebooted as hard-edged electro. A straight rendition of “Like a Prayer” followed an emotional but defiant speech about Aids: “We shall overcome!” So, in a different context, she did tonight. The Rebel Heart tour turns a muddled album into a spectacular show of strength.