Palace Theatre, Manchester
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.
5th Jul 2007 - Tumblr4.5
Enthusiasticly directed sequence of unrelated musical set pieces.
31st Dec 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Yet another biggest-battle-yet, with more than a passing nod to BTTF2.
30th Dec 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Thoughtfully assembled montage doc.
30th Dec 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Decent origin story, with charm and some 90s nostalgia.
27th Dec 2019Read more 3 star reviews
The Rise of Skywalker
Freestyle bouillabaisse with all the ingredients, but no chef.
27th Dec 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Quintessential indie movie ...funded by Netflix. Great perfs, lovely camera work and solid direction.
22nd Dec 2019Read more 4 star reviews
Superior modern thriller. Smart script and accomplished direction.
15th Dec 2019Read more 4 star reviews
Long, slow, thoroughly enjoyable loose jam through Scorsese/DeNiro/Pacino/Pesci/Keitel’s greatest hits.
2nd Dec 2019Read more 4 star reviews
Batman via Scorsese, in impeccably art directed, neatly packaged origin story.
28th Nov 2019Read more 4 star reviews
Surprisingly strong sequel that gets going after a convoluted start.
24th Nov 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Casual drama from Clint Eastwood, with the man himself anchoring things through a charming turn.
16th Nov 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Luscious period drama. Beautifully put together - like Wolf Hall+.
3rd Nov 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Throw away Breaking Bad expansion piece with little tension or jeopardy.
13th Oct 2019Read more 2.5 star reviews
Stylish but incoherent Cheney biopic, hampered by another one-note turn from Bale.
5th Oct 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Mind numbingingly basic biopic, saved by the nostalgia for the music and moments.
5th Oct 2019Read more 2 star reviews
Interesting doc following the lives of 3 teens becoming adults, tied together by skateboarding.
28th Sep 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Painful, occasionally uplifting viewing with a grief stricken central performance.
28th Sep 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Into the Spider-Verse
Stylish, trippy concept animated superhero flick with some great moments.
21st Sep 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Young adult upgrade, with just enough Conchords humour to keep it enjoyable.
22nd Aug 2019Read more 2.5 star reviews
Decent Aussie surf drama, that nostalgically investigates the soul of surfing before losing its way a little.
14th Aug 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Somewhat unremarkable, but enjoyable music drama. Bit long.
13th Jul 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Predictably grim seaside coming-of-age indie. Decent enough, but you’ve seen it before
13th Jul 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Stylish sequel, hampered in places by some authentic 1960s pacing.
30th Jun 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Out-there kids fable with an old school Tim Burton vibe.
16th Jun 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Rock solid 90s style indie movie. Beautifully assembled at all levels.
31st May 2019Read more 4 star reviews
Fairly one-sided Police doc about the seemingly dislikeable trio.
7th May 2019Read more 2.5 star reviews
Decent, but slightly muddled parenting indie.
28th Apr 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Forgettable re-imagining of a not totally unforgettable Disney classic.
27th Apr 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Solid stop-motion animation that’s light on plot, but high on charm.
12th Apr 2019Read more 2.5 star reviews
Surprisingly stylish sequel that drops the ball in classic straight-to-VHS style halfway through.
6th Apr 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Opaque Alaskan thriller from Jeremy Saulnier, with little regard for convention.
1st Apr 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Low key indie spin on Rambo, as a father and daughter try and live off grid.
28th Mar 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Fun biopic that runs out of steam about when the band did.
25th Mar 2019Read more 3 star reviews
A diminished remake of Deadpool 1. Occasional LOLs.
25th Mar 2019Read more 2.5 star reviews
High concept sci-fi that stretches its concept a little thin.
19th Mar 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Unremarkable, cliche-ridden actioner. Utterly lacking in suspense.
17th Mar 2019Read more 2.5 star reviews
A disjointed patchwork of homages, nods and rip offs from dozens of other movies, with little to offer of its own.
11th Mar 2019Read more 2 star reviews
Laborious, high-concept alien horror. While the concept is good, the beats are all well telegraphed.
2nd Mar 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Witty, if a little obvious, post-meta rom-com.
1st Mar 2019Read more 3 star reviews
The Second Part
It’s literally a re-hash of all the themes of the first one with a few less jokes.
23rd Feb 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Slight, but sometime engaging iPhone feature.
26th Jan 2019Read more 3 star reviews
Decent modern spin on Mary Poppins. Bit uneven, but a nice soundtrack helps things along.
20th Jan 2019Read more 3.5 star reviews
Bog standard entry into The-Rock-action-movie genre. As much personality as a computer game.
3rd Jan 2019Read more 3 star reviews
This time it’s really, really serious. Seriously.
27th Dec 2018Read more 3 star reviews
It’s a musical ...but slick direction makes it just about bearable.
24th Dec 2018Read more 3 star reviews
Pop-culture bouillabaisse, hampered by numerous terrible accents.
24th Dec 2018Read more 3.5 star reviews
Pacey, emotional, old-fashioned indie pic. Beautifully observed.
15th Dec 2018Read more 4 star reviews
Surprisingly underwhelming biopic that doesn’t find its feet until 20m from the end.
24th Nov 2018Read more 3.5 star reviews
Utterly derivative / thoroughly enjoyable ‘Heat’ rip off.
21st Nov 2018Read more 3.5 star reviews