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July 3, 2007 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

With Manchester Festival, England's second city bids for cultural spotlight.

Musical works based on a Rushdie novel and a Chinese legend offer mixed artistic results.
 
Bubble-gum buddha
(AP / Manchester International Festival)

Spider women
(AP / Manchester International Festival)


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By Mark Swed, Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, England — Ten bucks here will buy you a chilled summer street treat of mushy pea sorbet with candied bacon and mint syrup. Then it's off to the opera for some bubble-gum Buddhist Busby Berkeley acrobatics.

Second-city, easily overlooked, clearly insecure Manchester has just entered the festival racket.

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It's unlikely that this city will ever have the tourist appeal of such summer festival faves as Edinburgh, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence. Nor can it ever expect the cachet of the capital city festivals in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. Still, the Manchester International Festival 2007, which began Thursday and runs for 18 days, is trying very hard with 25 world premieres.

The festivities include opera, drama, concerts, literature, film, food, debates and art projects all over the place and all intended to culturally spice up the metropolis that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, communism and the computer but now is best known as a haven for sports and 24-hour party people.

Manchester's festival is claiming uniqueness by being devoted entirely to new work, but that definition is stretched. Festival director Alex Poots has a strong pop sensibility, and one wonders how much new material Kanye West had for his show Monday. The animated film version of Janácek's opera "The Cunning Little Vixen" has been out on DVD for some years; a screening of it will be paired with a new orchestral work for children by Colin Matthews.

More interesting is Poots' flair for mixing things up. He has sponsored a group show titled "Il Tempo del Postino," opening next week. Visual artists from around the world (Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson and Rirkrit Tiravanija among them) have been invited to produce time-based work lasting no longer than 15 minutes. The Royal Northern College of Music is supplying musicians, should they be needed. The "exhibition" will be held in Manchester's Opera House.

But mixing media takes more than flair, as Friday night's premiere demonstrated. The Hallé, Britain's oldest orchestra (and one of its best), presented Victoria Borisova-Ollas' "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" in Bridgewater Hall. Based on Salman Rushdie's 2000 novel, this is an 84-minute piece for large orchestra, two vocal soloists, narrator and film (by Mike Figgis of "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Time Code" fame). Mark Elder, the excellent Hallé music director, conducted.

The oratorio-like work was advertised as the largest British orchestral commission ever. And it seemed well timed to generate maximum attention for Manchester. The recent announcement of Rushdie's knighthood provoked a new round of Muslim threats against the novelist. And Friday turned out to be a day of terrorism fears.

Fortunately, the oratorio — or whatever it is — proved no big provocation politically. Security measures were apparently neither taken nor needed. Rushdie, thought to be lying low these days, was not expected to attend, but he did, conspicuous in dark suit, white shirt and tie among an otherwise casually dressed crowd. Unfortunately, "Ground" proved nothing much artistically either.

The story is a tragic tale about an Indian pop duo. The novel blossoms not through a far-fetched plot but through luxurious language and an incredibly rich sense of context. In it, the Orpheus myth takes on the heavy baggage of latter-day wanderlust and emigration.

Borisova-Ollas, a Russian composer living in Sweden, may know something about the émigré's plight, but she doesn't have the musical language to approach Rushdie's words. Relying on a pedestrian, plot-driven libretto by Edward Kemp, she produces inoffensive, expertly orchestrated action music. Mildly Minimalist figurations provide allusions to a pop beat. A so-so pop song is the score's big tune.

Figgis' half-hour film, shown in bits and pieces, offered images of an attractive Indian couple. Some of the vocal writing is elaborate, and the singers (Loré Lixenberg and James McOran-Campbell) were undaunted. Amplification made reverberant mushy pea sorbet of Alan Rickman's narration. Despite the ambitiousness of the project, only one performance was scheduled — and wisely so. "Ground" breaks no new ground, and the hall was half empty.

As for celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's sorbet, I couldn't sample any during my visit. There was none available, only less radical chocolate-wine slushicles, which didn't seem worth the money or the wait on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon. But that turned out to be a good thing. That evening, "Monkey: Journey to the West" — an opera composed by Damon Albarn and designed by Jamie Hewlett (the team that formed the cartoony rock band Gorillaz), directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a slew of astounding Chinese acrobats — supplied more than enough exotic eye and ear candy to induce sugar shock.

"Monkey" is no more innovative than "Ground," but it is a hit. The centerpiece of the festival, this extravaganza based on a beloved 16th century Chinese legend runs through Saturday at the Palace Theatre and is then scheduled to go to Paris and Berlin. Saturday night, the Palace was packed with an audience of popsters and children.

Albarn's score falls somewhere between rock opera and the kind of thing David Byrne has done for Robert Wilson. Lots of world instruments are cleverly used, although the amplification was loud and lousy. Albarn's peppy score is never less than agreeable. He doesn't forget his fans and leaves them with the kind of memorable tunes "Ground" desperately needed.

The legend concerns a crazy, hyperactive prankster monkey and his mission to achieve immortality, which entails, in part, getting the Buddha off his back. Monkey's gang includes a handsome young pure-as-the-driven-snow priest; a fat, drunken, smelly pig; and a cannibal with a heart of gold.

A villain called the White Skeleton Demon, spider women who do a remarkable dance on long silk swaths and a volcano that burns for hundreds of miles are some of the obstacles. Characters fly, whirl and bend in ways the body shouldn't.

The acrobatic martial arts are great. So is the acrobatic dancing. Terrific too are the singers imported from China. Hewlett's comic-book-style sets, costumes and animation somehow fit. Fei Yang's Monkey is a feat. And Chen puts it all together with a superb show business touch.

The director was previously responsible for the unforgettable staging of the Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion" that played at New York's Lincoln Center in 2001. He has been an inspired stager of Western operas (he's currently finishing a Monteverdi cycle) and more recently a filmmaker (his first feature, "Dark Matter," opens later this year), and he definitely has another feather in his cap.

Still, I wanted more. For all its dazzle, "Monkey" never rises above its comic-book roots — it's opera to be flipped through a time or two and then tossed. Manchester seems to be trying too hard — and at the same time not quite hard enough.

mark.swed@latimes.com




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