Live Music + Gig Reviews

Antony And The Johnsons @ Opera House, Manchester

3 July 2009

Antony And The Johnsons

Antony And The Johnsons

Antony Hegarty walks onto the stage and cuts a dashing figure in a long, flowing white robe. He stands alone and fragile behind a white veil curtain; the stage is in mist and largely bereft. There’s no sign yet of the Johnsons or the Manchester Camerata.

But this isn’t a solo or acoustic performance. As Antony tenderly offers songs from the his latest album, The Crying Light, and the sound of a full orchestra envelops this grand auditorium, there’s a sense of Hegarty purposefully detaching himself from the audience. What are we not allowed to see? What is the big surprise?

The attentive Opera House audience sits transfixed during a show that unfurls as a series of revelations. Curtains drop one by one, revealing more and more of an astonishing set arranged by respected lighting designers Paul Normandale and Chris Levine.

Though this isn’t a particularly lavish production. Befitting the delicate music on which it is based, the entire show is a perfect representation of understated elegance and unaffected beauty. A further curtain raises and the focal point of the set reveals itself.

An illuminated crystal shape hangs above Antony’s head. The rest of the stage is largely darkened. He explains its relevance with a typically charming coyness: “These beautiful crystals can be found in the centre of dark mountains, yet somehow they still hold an inner luminosity.” The lonely, luminous figure of Hegarty and the overhanging crystal are the show’s only constants. A setlist that consists of songs from all three of Antony And The Johnsons’ studio albums entrances the audience, but it is the ever-changing stage aesthetics that leave the greatest impression.

At one juncture, Hegarty stands behind a laser that shines a green beam from a light gantry towards the stage floor. As the laser slowly glides across the stage, like some torture instrument from Dr No, it’s reflected by an uneven surface that bounces light across the theatre like an inverted mirrorball. Given its very nature, Hegarty’s music needs little atmospheric enhancement, but these flashes of creative genius are the perfect accompaniment to the sparsity of the music.

After further curtain raises, the audience is finally able to see the Camerata in all its glory. Composer Nico Muhly‘s arrangements allow the orchestra to embellish the latest album’s pared-down arrangements, offering the hushed crowd respectful renditions that help The Crying Light to come alive. The album’s most poignant moments are the set’s highlights. Another World, Dust & Water and Everglade cut through the silence of the audience like icy guillotines.

The on-stage fireworks continue to stun. During Another World, the entire set gleams white before being lit by a cosmos of floating red stars. A blue neon bar appears during the next track. It looks inconspicuous enough, but looking away from it reveals an image somehow concealed within it. Its irresistible hypnosis draws the gaze throughout the song.

Although Antony’s voice sounds perhaps a little strained, the cumulative effect of sounds, sights and the intensity of the Opera House’s atmosphere prove more than compensation. Standing alone, Antony Hegarty may be a fragile thing, but the strength of his emotions shine as brightly as the crystal that illuminates the stage.

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More on Antony And The Johnsons
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