Monday, September 11, 2006

Myth Conception

Opera it ain’t. But it contains marvels of staging; tech doesn’t get any higher. It is Gaddafi: A Living Myth, given a short run by English National Opera in the London Coliseum (last performances this Friday and Saturday). If you are interested in multi-media of a quite extraordinary expertise and are prepared to submit to undistinguished music that is a mixture of rock and swoopy strings apeing near-Eastern style plus a documentary about Gaddafi which will inform you a lot and bore you a little, then get to the Coli while there’s time. So, if it isn’t opera, why is English National Opera putting it on (at vast expense, will we ever know how much?)? For the sake of novelty, getting backsides on seats including perhaps some ethnic groups who may not care for Puccini or Mozart?

The new offering is of episodes from the life of the Libyan dictator, tyrant, liberator, supporter of terrorism; yet a man that has done his country good, who has earned the commendation of Nelson Mandela and the bombs of America. There is little singing, the story being told (mostly shouted) in couplets, sometimes rhyming, banal often. Shan Khan is credited with the libretto, Steve Chandra Savale with conception and some lyrics. Fatima sings occasionally and there are snappy choruses for soldiers and armed women who do gymnastics. Asian Dub and Diaspora (seven players with electrical instruments) provided the accompaniment as well as a small orchestra in the pit.

Scene one: a group of peasants in the foreground with a backcloth depicting a landscape of a desert. Suddenly the backcloth, by some device of film or whatever, sprouts an attacking army with soldiers, guns, tanks; the apparently one-dimensional backcloth erupts, spouting blood convincingly….. quite frightening. Later on a car breaks through the backcloth; later still the famous green tent, a big one, is erected in a matter of seconds.

Ronald Regan, King Idris, Gadaffi family members, the military are in the cast, headed by TV star Ramon Tikaram as a lookalike Colonel G. in a suitably charismatic portrayal. Mr Blair makes an appearance – and a surprisingly punctual exit! – towards the end. Meanwhile we have, for over two hours, seen much of the myth: the deposition of King Idris, the seizing and maintenance of power lasting nearly thirty years, the determination to spread the Green Book/Koran worldwide, American wrath, war, terrorism, P.C. Fletcher, comic opera uniforms, a spell in the desert and the famous green tent; Gaddafi was a canny choice, considering the many facets of this living myth.

But there is no heart to this portrait, maybe there is no heart to Gaddafi and that is what is lacking here. Even the high tech brilliant staging by David Freeman cannot compensate for the hollowness of the enterprise. The audience roared its approval at the close but I think many of us (especially opera goers) were bored. It is sad that one of London’s two opera houses has put on a show in which music is an also-ran. As with many a film or documentary, you might notice the music only if it were not there. Gaddafi is presumably a one-off: will Covent Garden see it as a challenge to produce something in the same genre? Another living myth perhaps – Castro?

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