By Conrad, Peter
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 135, No. 4810
From Monteverdi's Nero to Verdi's Attila, opera has a long line of strutting, frothing, lethally ill-tempered tyrants. In principle, there's no reason why the succession shouldn't extend to include Muammar al-Gaddafi. His antics are innately operatic. He pours forth ideological harangues that are as crazily impassioned as arias, and cavorts across the desert in filmy garments with a choral troop of female bodyguards to keep him company. He is a creature of whim who--at least according to Ronald Reagan--planted bombs on planes or in Berlin bars to ventilate his pique.
The subject being so promising, why then has Asian Dub Foundation's Gaddafi: a living myth, which English National Opera has unwisely fostered, turned out to be such a loud, lewd, nasty mess? The composer Steve Chandra Savale has defensively declared that "opera just means 'the works'". He is right about the meaning of the Italian word, but wrong about the spirit of the enterprise. Opera means the union of music and drama, and what the insulted brain experiences at the London Coliseum is grimly unmusical and lamely anti-dramatic.
To describe its style, Asian Dub Foundation deploys a blitz of hyphens and slashes, hurriedly splicing worlds together: its rhythms are "raga-jungle", its bass is "indo-dub", its guitars are "sitar-inspired", its lyrics are "fast-chat", and the whole battering amalgam adds up to a "punk/electronica hybrid". The punctuation marks are symptoms of a gabbled promiscuity that produces the sonic equivalent of a dog's dinner. The ENO orchestra, crassly amplified, is allowed a few moments of second-hand symphonic lament. Otherwise, an Egyptian band wails and swirls, while the synthesised bass administers a protracted beating to the head. Eternities of electronic booming go nowhere, then end suddenly, as if the plug had been pulled. When the mikes falter, as they often do, the rappers on stage--who declaim but never sing--are reduced to mouthing as plaintively as goldfish trapped behind glass.
If this is fusion, give me fission any time.
Instead of drama, we are treated to animated agitprop. Dates flashed above the proscenium march us through the highlights of Gaddafi's career: hero worship of Nasser, demonisation by Reagan, tea in a tent with the smirking, cravenly conciliatory Tony Blair. "Breaking news!" cries a journalist, who phones in despatches as newspaper headlines narrate the overthrow of the monarchy or the stand-off with the American fleet. Characters leadenly recite revolutionary dictums or hurl slogans at each other. "Freedom Socialism Unity," shout Gaddafi's followers. "CIA MI6 Mossad," yells one of his henchmen. "Mobil Texaco Exxon Shell," screams an oil executive. "Vietnam Iran Afghanistan," howls Reagan, who also gets to deliver one of the work's most flatly inept rhyming couplets: when aides psychoanalyse Gaddafi, he complains that "All this hocus-pocus/Don't sharpen my focus". …