Thursday, July 24, 2008

Journey to the West

This classic Chinese text’s title is pretty confusing to Westerners – the tale tells of a journey from China to India, both countries very far to the east of us. Calling India ‘the west’ just feels wrong, but of course to the Chinese it is quite simple fact.

Personally, I blame Diocletian’s division of the Roman Empire into “East” and “West” in AD285. To us Europeans, the East will always begin in the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
Heavens it’s been a while since I was last at the Royal Opera – to my shame, my last visit was pre-rebuild/extension, which puts it at least 8 years ago!

- But I was there last night for the London premiere of Damon Albarn’s, Jamie Hewlett’s and Chen Shi-Zheng’s opera Monkey: Journey to the West. It’s fabulous – the Floral Hall is a fantastic ‘see and be seen’ sort of space, and the terrace overlooking Covent Garden piazza and central London’s roofscape is just lovely for a snack or drink pre-performance, especially in the evening sun; the terrace catches soothing evening breezes. The Opera house was decorated monkey-style for the event, and was serving monkey cocktails. The capacity crowd was really buzzing with anticipation.

The opera itself is visually spectacular and very beautiful; brilliantly conceived by Jamie Hewlett. Chen Shi-Zheng directs the cast of thousands with amazing control – the focus on the story is sharp despite a cast of thousands doing absolutely stunning things – awesome acrobatics, aerial ballet, exciting kung-fu fights etc etc. It’s actually so complicated it’s remarkable the whole thing went off without a single apparent mistake.

Damon Albarn’s music is gorgeous; individually the numbers are very beautiful. However, as opera one can’t compare it to Verdi or Wagner – it’s fairly episodic, and there isn’t an arc of musical development over the full piece. However, I’m still looking forward to the CD being released.

I have to mention Fey Yang as the Monkey King – he was absolutely magnificent; endearingly cheeky, yet acrobatic and superb at the fighting (in character). An incredible performance, giving out 100% energy from beginning to end.

The three co-creators came on stage at the end of a well-deserved standing ovation.

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