Gaddafi: A Living Myth

Review by Polly Hope

English National Opera. London. Autumn 2006

When is an opera not an opera? No one has ever been able to define exactly where opera slips into musical, which slips into rave or happening. Not that any borders matter. One friend's definition is that it 's opera if it makes you cry. He could have a point for certainly Gaddafi brought no tears to my eyes.

Gaddafi is, I suppose a good try. A politically correct effort to involve the non-opera going people in a production. For starters I am never quite sure that heroes should be made out of Bad Men, and bad men who are still alive, even if they have given up building nukes.

Gaddafi: A Living Myth is a hip-hop work so it is unique in being the first opera without any singing. Just rap, a shouted text of weak rhyming couplets by Shan Kahn and music by Asian Dub, a foundation without a named composer, against a largely pre-recorded sound track by the same lot, while the ENO orchestra do their best to be heard above the clamour. Arabic harmonies are there and, when they can be heard, are the best part.

Then there is no real story, just a run through of Gaddafi's life story from bloodthirsty incident to bloodthirsty incident. Nixon shows up, in a bad light of course, and Blair ditto. It is all so predictable.

Ramon Tikaram's portrayal of Gaddafi is amazing; perhaps he has been working as his double for years? The dancing female guards with their long wigs and guns at their hips are scary. The sets by Es Devlin are pretty marvellous, lots of paper which gets torn up a lot as cars drive through it and all the while vast projections dazzle.

David Freeman, as always, gets as much into the production as is possible. A Libyan is hanged on stage, bombs fall, and Gaddafi's daughter is killed. Like Jesus Christ Gaddafi sits in the desert and contemplates and all the while the noise thunders. It is relentlessly exhausting.

A mass of public money has been found for this production but despite the action the work falls between rock concert and community happening. Certainly isn't an opera, no characters or story. I doubt it is a rock concert as the music isn't up to scratch. I think it is one of those productions that is fun for the performers and everyone feels good because of crossing ethnic boundaries. Three years in preparation and still the theatre isn't full. It would be so good if such a major house could find an opera that crossed the chasm from grand opera to rock concert. After all Verdi was popular music in his day and musicals just don't quite fill the gulch.

Gaddafi is understandably a necessary try but it fails through pretentiousness and lack of a story, dramatic tension, and even some singing would help a lot in an opera house.