Monkey: Journey to the West (XL Recordings)

cd_monkey.jpgIf you’re an anime or manga fan, you are probably familiar with one of the many versions of the story.







Monkey: Journey to the West is an opera created by Chinese director Chen Shi-zheng, the British musician Damon Albarn and the British artist Jamie Hewlett; the latter two are co-creators of the virtual band Gorillaz. The stage premiere of Monkey at the Manchester International Festival in June 2007 received positive notices, as did the U.S. premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston this past May. Now, the music from the opera is available on CD from XL Recordings.

If you’re an anime or manga fan, you are probably familiar with one of the many versions of the story first told in the novel Journey to the West, written in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en. It tells how the monk Xuan Zang (also know as Tripitaka), accompanied by several disciples, traveled from China to India to bring back copies of the Buddhist sutras (scriptures). Journey to the West been treated in numerous live action films and television series as well, and elements of the story can be found in everything from the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Yang to the Playstation game Monkey Magic.

Of Xuan Zang’s disciples, the Monkey King Sun Wu Kong has proven the most popular, and he’s the central character in this opera as well. The libretto begins with Monkey’s miraculous birth (he was hatched from a stone egg) and follows him through various early scrapes (Monkey is a trickster and a troublemaker) until he’s allowed to accompany Tripitaka on his journey. Monkey proves to be an invaluable member of the party as he rescues the others from, among things, the White Skeleton Demon and Princess Iron Fan. Happily, they complete the journey, Xuan Zang acquires the sutras, and Monkey is forgiven his previous misdeeds and made Buddha Victorious in Strife.

Judging by reviews, the stage productions of Monkey (described by its creators as a "circus opera") must have been stunning. The companies included over 50 Chinese acrobats and martial experts as well as the singers, and music was provided by a large orchestra made up of traditional Chinese and Western instruments, electronics and a few wildcards including a glass harmonica and the Klaxophone, which utilizes 12 car horns.

A key question for the CD of a stage production is how satisfying the experience of hearing the music is without the benefit of seeing the work performed. The answer in the case of Monkey is "not all that satisfying"; most of the music is pleasant in an eclectic electronic sort of way, but it’s like listening to the soundtrack of a movie you haven’t seen in a language you don’t understand. Of course if you’re fluent in Chinese the last comment doesn’t apply to you, and if you’ve seen the opera the last two comments don’t apply.

The music to Monkey is not particularly memorable; most of it sounds like background to something else, and by itself it’s just not that interesting. There are a few catchy tunes, including the pop ballad "The Living Sea," but most of the selections don’t work without the context of the stage production. Still, there are some interesting tracks, and who knows, maybe we’ll get to see the full opera some day. This show requires a big production, which would be perfect for the Muny stage. Paul Blake, are you listening? | Sarah Boslaugh

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