Monkey: Journey to the West - Royal Opera House 23 July 2008
Is it really an opera? is the question that's been taxing many of the critics. Many of my neighbours in the Grand Tier on opening night seemed to think it was a gig at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Rolling in after the start time (it kicked off a full ten minutes late) drinks in hand, chatting, checking phones, clambering over the massed knees to wander out for a break whenever they felt like it. It won't wash at Don Giovanni, I tell you.
But to be fair on the middle-aged journalists and BBC types at the heart of this untoward lairiness, the enetertainment form closest to Monkey is the gig - the lavishly primped and choreographed Madonna-style stadium gig, that is.
There's a narrative of sorts - Monkey is, er, on a journey to the west, and he picks up friends and battles foes on his way there. But really it's just an excuse to link together a series of visually spectacular scenes, packed with pole climbers, plate spinners, unicyclists and acrobats.
Set, costume and lighting design are fabulous, like a video game sprung to life, and the full screen video links between scenes are near-seamless.
Whatever my reservations about the rest of the content, it was worth attending for the design alone, and I wasn't the only person who thought so - one of the biggest ovations at the end was given to the Starfish Lady, who did nothing but waft through the air on a wire in the world's greatest-ever starfish costume. Someone should book Jamie Hewlett for the next Ring cycle.
But it was hard to feel any emotional involvement with the characters, and only the stick-twirling, nut-scratching Monkey himself, played by Fei Yang, really came to life.
As for the others, I could gasp at the skills. But when you've seen one plate-spinner, really, you've seen them all.
In spite of a handful of great pop songs - all three of which can be heard on the Monkey MySpace page, here, the musical interest was frustratingly limited.
Damon Albarn seems to have invested his energies into devising fabulous textures - genuinely innovative combinations of eastern, western and electronic instruments that lay a jumble of influences - not just Chinese, but everything from jit to dubstep - over a pop base. But then he just stacks them up, endlessly repeated riffs with no structural or thematic development, not even any of those tiny incremental modifications that make Philip Glass's seemingly repetitive pieces mutate subtly and organically. It was all so promising, but ultimately no more than a soundtrack, with none of the narrative development or emotional resonance of opera.
Ironic then that every operatically-uninclined viewer I've spoken to says they're now tempted to try out a more traditional production at Covent Garden.
Here' s a brief video summary of the show, including production extracts: