The Mandarin-sing opera Monkey: Journey to the West (photos, poster)launched the inaugurating Manchester International Festival on 28 June. Besides a good review by BBC’s Newnight Review, the show has also received wide praises from British press.

The Times’s Richard Morrison gave full mark to the production and performance:

The organisers of Manchester’s new International Festival promised to give the city a cultural jamboree unlike any other in the world – 25 premieres, no less. If they all hit the spot like this opening show, the world will come flocking to Manchester.

Billed as “Damon Albarn’s opera”, the enchanting Monkey: Journey to the West is no closer to opera (at least as understood in the West) than it is to circus, dance, mime or a martial arts movie. Indeed, few of the 45-strong Chinese cast do any singing.

But genre distinctions don’t really matter. Brilliantly masterminded by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng – and with live action dovetailed into fantastical cartoons by Jamie Hewlett, the visual brains behind Gorillaz, Albarn’s “virtual” band – Monkey is simply a piece of music theatre of the most spectacular kind.

Based on a 16th-century Chinese fable not unlike The Wizard of Oz, it tells of a magical journey to India by the Monkey King (a stroppy ape, portrayed with winning verve by Fei Yang) and a bunch of disparate companions to collect sacred Buddhist scrolls and rescue China from moral decline.

Rupert Christiansen on the Telegraph was equally excited:

But I simply wasn’t prepared for the extraordinary treat that Albarn has concocted with the director Chen Shi-Zheng, dramatist David Greenspan and designer Jamie Hewlett, the brilliant graphic artist responsible for the Gorillaz imagery. Monkey: Journey to the West is simply enchanting, imbued with a charm, vitality and splendour that outdoes anything you’ll see or hear in the West End, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Although the Guardian’s Alfred Hickling was less enthusiastic:

But though the stunts are breathtaking, the musical and dramatic development is fairly inert. Albarn has certainly extended himself, encompassing a melange of Chinese percussion and esoteric electronica. Yet surprisingly for someone with his melodic gift, there are no arias or even much in the way of a memorable tune.

Ultimately, Monkey is a cartoon opera much as Gorillaz is a cartoon band, which makes it difficult to empathise with the characters. Fei Yang, in the title role, is an astonishing acrobat and penetrating singer; yet these superhuman abilities only serve to make him seem even more alien and remote.