Monkey: Journey to the West

The flagship event of the Manchester International Festival is an ambitious one: An opera with music by Damon Albarn, designs by Jamie Hewlett and direction by Chen Shi-Zheng entirely in Mandarin. The two-hour work involves a cast of 45-odd martial artists, acrobats and singers - and in the case of Fei Yang, who plays Monkey, often all three simultaneously.

The event is nothing short of spectacular. The opening sequence, with animations by Hewlett, which deals with Monkey's birth (hatched from a giant egg, which was expelled from a great stone) is perfectly coordinated with the live music. Later in the scene, which switches effortlessly to the live players, Monkey with other monkeys climbs up the bamboo trees - which is reminiscent of the scenes in Crouching Tiger and Flying Daggers, except that these people are really doing it.

The story, which many chimps will be familiar with, is a Chinese classic. Monkey is obsessed with seeking immortality and magical power, and travels over continents to find a teacher. He eventually finds Subodhi, a Taoist master, who teaches him how to fly on a magical cloud that can carry him on great distances, and the art of transforming himself into anything he wants.

He then dives into the Eastern Sea and finds the Old Dragon King to whom he boasts of his prowess and requests a weapon to equal his ability. The King gives him the magical iron rod, which can change from the size of a needle to the size of a mountain, and is so powerful it holds down the ocean floor.

Monkey travels to Heaven to demand recognition of his power, and gate crashes a birthday party for the Queen Mother of Heaven. Incensed that he was not invited along with gods and sages, he wreaks havoc - eating all of the heavenly peaches, each of which takes 9000 years to ripen and bestows an extra thousand years of life. He fights with all of the gods and sages, winning every battle, and proclaims himself a Great Sage Equal to Heaven. The Queen Mother of Heaven eventually pleads with the Great Buddha to step in to get the Monkey King under control. Monkey is imprisoned under the palm of Buddha.

Five hundred years later, the Buddha sends the goddess Guan Yin to find a believer to journey to India to bring the Holy Scriptures to China. She chooses Hsuang-tsang, a handsome, devout Buddhist monk and gives him the name Tripitaka after the Scriptures themselves. Guan Yin enlists Monkey to protect Tripitaka and they embark on their journey, finding Pigsy and Sandy on their way and offering them the chance of redemption in return for their service. They encounter many adventures and obstacles on their Journey to the West.

The text, which alternates between spoken word and song is delivered entirely in Mandarin, the inclusion of subtitles which are hard to read due to the heads of the people in front, help only a little. Surtitles wouldn't have worked here either, since the theatre has a huge amount of restricted-view seating. That aside the story is easy to follow, and it is often the case in opera, even those sung in English, that you cannot hear the words.

The sound-world is exotic and far from conventional. The orchestra consists of some western instruments - 2 violins, cello, trumpet, trombones, tuba and percussion - as well as instruments from China such as the Pipa, Zhongruan and Zheng, which are all string instruments. Damon Albarn also includes a substantial amount of electronics, including an Ondes Martenot (as used extensively by Jonny Greenwood), and keyboards. Also in the pit are 9 singers who contribute to the overall sound, often wordlessly. All of the music is amplified too, which adds a further dimension to the sound. The entire opera is held together by the young conductor André de Ridder, who can be seen cueing the singers on stage - often whilst they are suspended mid-air, mid-flight and mid-fight.

The music is a mixture of Ennio Morricone (particularly Farewell to Cheyenne, from Once Upon a Time in the West), Philip Glass (circa Koyaanisqatsi), and Tibetan Buddhist chant. Albarn manages also to avoid writing music that sounds Chinese, whilst simultaneously doing exactly that. His gift for melody and riff-making are also pleasingly evident here.

Taken as a whole, then, this opera does what opera should do at its best - it entirely captivates for the duration of the show. I was completely caught up in the story, the music, the animation and the action on stage. I couldn't help thinking though, whether this opera was successful because of the huge spectacle, and if the lavish production was stripped away it would be as impressive. It is certainly as big a production as those found at the Met in New York, or the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Rumour has it that the production will be transferred to London at some point. It moves to the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris from late September. I saw cinematographer Christopher Doyle after the show, perhaps he will be making a DVD of this run. Definitely worth seeing.