Last Friday night saw the world première of The New Prince, the second opera by American composer Mohammed Fairouz. Commissioned by Dutch National Opera, this new work was programmed as part of the 2017 edition of the Opera Forward Festival that aims at promoting new initiatives and new artists in opera. Directed by Lotte de Beer, it is very entertaining production:  a colourful, dizzyingly fast-paced  revue, dotted with touches of dark humour.

The opera centres around the character of Niccolò Macchiavelli. The Renaissance politician and writer is projected 500 years forward to the year 2032, where he is challenged to write an updated version of his bestseller Il principe (The Prince). In order to be brought up to speed with more recent events, the Florentine is assigned a co-author in the person of Henry Kissinger. With the help of this champion of Realpolitik, Machiavelli proceeds to update his “the aim justifies the means” philosophy and gives advice to President Wu Virtu of the mega state of Amerasiopa, whose rule is being threatened. As Wu Virtu watches and comments from his presidential box, Machiavelli and Kissinger present the first chapter of The New Prince. “Why princes should beware of revolutions”, illustrating the rise and fall of world leaders with characters like Savonarola, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and the more recent example of Tahrir Square. “History does not always progress, points Kissinger, it recurs”.

The second chapter warns that rulers should “suppress (or hide) their human urges” and is illustrated by Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds (apparently the first sex scandal involving a prominent American politician at the end of the 18th century) and Bill Clinton’s with Monica Lewinsky. The third chapter, “Why princes must avoid collisions of civilisation” presents the destructive violence that world leaders appropriate in order to assert their power. The scene depicts Osama Bin Laden and Dick Cheney after the destruction of the World Trade Center. The Amerasiopian people’s opposition to Wu Virtu is about to topple him. The president throws Macchiavelli into the crowd, as the Medici had done in 16th-century Florence. Macchiavelli retires into the solitary life of a writer.

The libretto, by journalist David Ignatius, is in verse and strangely conventional. Its structure is reminiscent of The Tales of Hoffmann, with its three disconnected chapters between a prologue and a finale. The mythical character of Fortuna (Karin Strobos) recalls Hoffmann’s Muse. Characters enter the stage, introduce themselves in a theatrically old-fashioned manner (President Wu’s entrance: “Wu Virtu is my name, Strength is what I claim…”) but there is no time for them to develop: they are quickly sketched in for a few sentences, sometimes a quote (“I did not have sexual relations with this woman” sings Bill Clinton), before being replaced by others.

Mohammed Fairouz's score sounds just as eclectic as the libretto. There is an elegiac Kyrie eleison in the prologue, the sound of the pulsating strings coming from the Residentie Orkest recalls John Adams at times. The use of actors, rather than opera singers, in certain roles (most noticeably a suitably dry-sounding Barbara Walsh as Hillary Clinton and the tongue-in-the-cheek Marc Kudisch as Kissinger) emphasizes the Broadway character of some of the parts. Although this diversity works well theatrically, I find it an odd choice, as the parts of Fortuna, Wu Virtu (Simon Lim) and Niccolò Macchiavelli especially reveal Mr Fairouz’s innate qualities in writing for the voice. With his handsome timbre, baritone Joshua Hopkins as Macchiavelli gets to sing the most lyrical pages at the beginning and end of the opera.

The fast pace with which events spanning five centuries unravel, and the hordes of characters who enter and exit, appears to be something director Lotte de Beer thrives on. She stages the piece as a very colourful revue, complete with Broadway-style illuminated stairway. Action unfolds at an almost dizzying speed. Changes of sets and movements of crowds on stage are brilliantly choreographed. Thankfully perhaps, in a work which was presumably in great part already written prior to last November elections, there is only a fleeting allusion to Trumpism in the staging that does not hijack the rest of the political commentary. There is a lot of humour too, that ranges from openly Monty-Pythonesque when Hamilton (Paulo Szot) has intercourse with his mistress Maria Reynolds (Nora Fischer), to toe-curlingly dark in the duet between Bin Laden (George Abud) and Dick Cheney (Paulo Szot). It is an extremely entertaining show, captivating throughout and visually spectacular.