In Depth

Tosca in Abu Dhabi – a culture vulture’s trip to the UAE capital

Abu Dhabi is bidding to be the artistic hub of the Middle East – can it deliver?


The capital of the United Arab Emirates is sometimes dismissed as lacklustre compared to nearby Dubai, but it’s buzzing when I visit. The city is simultaneously holding the 16th Abu Dhabi Festival and the Special Olympics - all during the UAE’s ‘Year of Tolerance’.

Following the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the city is sweating away to become the artistic hub of the Middle East.

With more than 100 events in 25 venues, the Abu Dhabi Festival was hosting 543 international artists from 17 participating countries. The rich fare on offer included comedy, music, literature and theatre - including a grandiose production of Puccini’s Tosca starring Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.

In the days leading up to Tosca, we visited some of the city’s other cultural and architectural wonders to rev up for the main event.

We started by taking in European landscape paintings from Lichtenstein that were displayed at the Manarat Al Saadiyat. These make up one of the oldest and most important private collections in Europe. There is much pride locally that it has arrived here.

We also visited the NYUAD gallery, which was hosting an exhibition by Swiss artist Zimoun, who uses immersive sculptures that produce sound and movement. It’s a visceral experience: analogue motors are connected to functional objects, such as wooden sticks and cardboard boxes. The exhibition also has humility that is refreshing in a city of brash hotels and brassy citadels. 

But it would be rude to not visit the grander venues. In the Presidential Palace, where vast white domes and colossal chandeliers dominate the Great Hall, the splendour made me feel like a king but the scale made me feel like an ant. If golden bling is your thing, then this 150-hectare site is your mecca.  

Food servings in Abu Dhabi are enormous too - even for a vegan visitor. Over successive Levantine feasts at the Intercontinental and Jumeirah hotels, we went full mezze.

The table was quickly weighed down with food: hummus, falafel, vegetable stew, and vine leaves were joined by tahini, fattoush salad, baba ganoush, aubergine, and fried potato, all accompanied by heaps of delicious, freshly-baked pitta.

Just as we felt that we were making progress, yet more delectable plates arrived, served with trademark UAE hospitality. I was eventually allowed to stagger away, exhausted but overjoyed.

The stunning visuals of Abu Dhabi cannot be denied. It is a modern, slick and grand city with gleaming skyscrapers, broad boulevards, ostentatious palaces, manicured golden beaches and lines of palm trees. My hotel, the Bab Al Qasr, is a copper-coated, twin-towered stunner with a grand, high-ceilinged lobby. 

It is all so very striking, but when you compare modern Abu Dhabi to ancient Middle Eastern cities, its spirit and soul can feel elusive. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, however, overflows with both.

Accurately named – it is one of the most breathtakingly grand buildings I’ve ever seen - the holy site has 82 marble domes of various sizes and minarets up to 351ft high atop a vast compound which can accommodate 40,000 worshippers.

As we approached in the car, the sun just setting over the stunning domes, my knees began to wobble just looking at it.

The Mosque is helpfully equipped with sign-posted photo stops where visitors can stop for a pouting picture. People passed their phones to others and asked them to snap them. It felt incongruent.

But when the call to prayer began, the atmosphere transformed. From selfie-central, the scene suddenly became as tranquil as the water pools that surround the building. The focus had shifted from Instagram to Islam in a matter of seconds - that imperious combination of music and divinity had won.

The following evening, music was victorious when we rolled up at the iconic Emirates Palace to watch Tosca. The Emirates Palace is a seven-star luxury hotel with an exterior as stately as it comes in the city. The inside is also dripping with grandeur, even by Abu Dhabi standards.

The public areas are cavernous and we kept stopping to gawk at the glory of it all. All is golden - the bar even sells cappuccinos with gold leaf. But it just about stays on the right side of garish.

The sonically thrilling production was a triumph. The orchestra and choir were present on the stage, while large screens at the back showed images of Rome in the early 1800s, giving the leads plenty to compete with for the audience’s attention - but just you try and rob Bryn Terfel of the spotlight.

The Welsh baritone prowled around the stage like an operatic King Kong, imperious as Scarpia in this thrilling production of Puccini’s masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Kristine Opolais was convincing as Tosca, nailing the emotional dynamics of the character, while her co-star Vittorio Grigolo was magnetism defined, exhibiting a virility that thrilled the audience at the Palace.

Abu Dhabi is a city searching for an identity beyond its celebrated wealth and glamour. With nearby Dubai cornering the market for the party crowd, Abu Dhabi is smart to aim for the culture vultures.

However, its mission to become the artistic heart of the Middle East has one obvious obstacle. The city might be have branded 2019 its ‘Year of Tolerance’, but the fact remains that homosexuality is illegal, punishable by a lengthy prison sentence.

How can an LGBT artist feel safe or even respected here? Judging by the responses, and in some cases the lack of responses, that I got when I posed this question, the festival organisers and other locals have a way to address this elephant in the room.

Abu Dhabi undoubtedly has the venues, the beauty, the space and the energy to host a vibrant international arts festival. If it can sincerely open its arms to all, it could become a cultural force to be reckoned with.

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