Monkey – Journey to the West. A real persons review.

The reviews I read and heard of this opera made it sound groundbreaking and spectacular. As it was on in Manchester I thought it might be worth a look. Now I have been caught out before by unanimous praise (three television pundits once claimed that Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis was a masterpiece. I can only imagine they read a different book to the one I bought) but the reviews of Monkey were so consistent that I thought it was a safe bet.

My wife and I were sat near the front of the stage. The opening of the show was terrific. Nice use of animation blended cleverly with live action. The costumes and set design all looked wonderful. Okay, they got me, how were they going to keep me?

The first crack appeared with the sub titles which were projected below the level of the stage onto the stage wall. These proved difficult to read as everyone in front of us started to bob their heads trying to read the text. They also distracted from the action which was continuing at a pace on stage. Eventually I gave up trying to read the subtitles and just watched the action in ignorance of the story.

The music was nothing special. Maybe it was my Western ear but I could discern nothing memorable about the melodies. At least, there was the spectacle on stage.

The underwater scene was enchanting and kept me engaged. However I was either going to need some kind of story to involve me emotionally or the visuals were going to have to maintain their invention in each subsequent scene to retain my interest. Unfortunately, neither happened. I could feel myself drifting off into my own imagination as the clunky narrative stalled. The music was becoming grating at times and I longed for some rock n roll to kick in or at the very least some Chemical Brothers style sound sculpture.

The Spiderwoman scene revived my flagging interest. This was a feast for the eyes, beautifully and seductively choreographed. As I was watching this, I imagined how good opera could be if it were done properly – if all the other elements were in place; a powerful narrative, characters I cared about, contemporary music.., sex, drugs and rock n roll basically.

An impressive set of a giant Buddha brought the opera to a close. I was disappointed that the girls spinning the plates did not toss them into the air at the end to demonstrate that the plates were not tied to the sticks with a piece of string.

Ultimately, the opera was a series of visual tableaux performed by circus artists. Nothing wrong with that. Circus performers are highly skilled. But opera is supposed to be an art form and great art should be more than the sum of its parts. This was not.

Full marks to the creators for having a go, but what is wrong with all the reviewers? Are they fed cocaine before they see the show?

It was good in parts. Would I recommend it to others? Only if they were a Mandarin speaking, Buddhist scholar with a particular interest in the structure of classical Chinese music.

Otherwise, stick to Disney on ice.

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