It begins in total darkness, and it is hard to discern whether the crystal clear audio, including that unmistakable vibrato, flooding London’s Royal Opera House is being meticulously performed or whether it is in fact pre-recorded. Antony Hegarty’s Swanlights show, originally commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, aspires to be more than merely a gig. It is carefully staged, opulent-sounding music that deserves an appropriate environment, something London’s beautiful and grand Royal Opera House more than provides (although those who last saw Antony in London at the Hammersmith Apollo may have balked at the £100 asking price for top stalls seats).
It could also be debated as to whether this show is all that novel an experience. The strange, languid (and patience-testing) bird dancing that serves as a modest prelude will be familiar from Antony’s previous UK shows. Whilst it is wonderful to hear him accompanied by that most versatile of ensembles, the Britten Sinfonia (as at home with the music of Jaga Jazzist as with that of Britten himself), last year’s album Cut The World already offered a glimpse of how his mini-melodramas of gender transcendence and natural beauty would work in this kind of setting. Then there’s that by now familiar, melancholy, pained take on Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love that still does not quite work.
Nevertheless, Chris Levine’s peculiar set design and Paul Normandale’s excellent laser light show went some way in creating an otherworldly, hypnotic atmosphere. The mood drifts through a compelling range of colours and sensations, producing a sort of artistic synaesthesia. Interestingly, this helps highlight some of the neglected corners of Antony’s musical catalogue – Dust And Water, which sounded a little fussy and overthought on record, now seems renewed in this context.
This is a show of disguises and big reveals, beginning in mystery before eventually exploding into full beauty. It is some time before Antony’s towering figure can be seen, albeit initially as a mere silhouette. This works well as the show begins with some of his more opaque, challenging material (Rapture and Christina’s Farm), before eventually blossoming with a perhaps too-overwhelming rendition of For Today I Am A Boy. By this stage, Antony, dressed in flowing white robes, is bathed in a glowing white light. As a performer, he moves slowly but gracefully, and is simulaneously vulnerable and commanding.
There are dependably beautiful performances of Another World and Everglade, but the show only really bursts into full life in its home straight, with a breathtaking version of I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy. Here, the lighting is at its most intense and dazzling, making the most of the poised, purposeful silences in the song, and a shadowy figure can be seen behind the rear stage curtain. The long delayed reveal is that this is conductor and orchestra. The latter stages of the show are remarkable, featuring a tremendous Cut The World and that ever-uncomfortable juxtaposition of pain and euphoria in Cripple And The Starfish.
Swanlights is a show that demands patience and attention. Even with this kept in mind, it may work better as a musical performance than it does as a multimedia stage show or piece of performance art. It is carefully planned and rehearsed and well executed, but somehow feels a little cold and detached for much of its duration, in spite of the melodramatic nature of Antony’s songs. It also, as Antony’s band shows have now been doing for some time, largely ignores I Am A Bird Now, still surely his most admired album and the artistic statement that made his name here in the UK. This seems a shame, even if the songs, largely drawn from The Crying Light and Swanlights seem to cohere very well together.