Antony and the Johnsons, Royal Opera House, London – review

Let’s try an easy way into this: Antony did his cover of “Crazy in Love”. Yes, Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”. With a harp plucking at the rhythm, a clarinet oozing the grace notes, his vocal a supple, ethereal warble. The orchestra was unseen. Accent lights flickered about the singer with the long, goth-black hair. Clad in a floor-length messianic smock, he’d come as a reincarnated, slightly trimmer Mama Cass. A love divine, then, all loves excelling.

It was the sixth song in the London premiere of Swanlights, an elaborate staging of Antony and the Johnsons tracks, originally commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Britten Sinfonia under Rob Moose, one of the arrangers along with Nico Muhly and Maxim Moston, proved an attentive foil for these opulent pop arias. Antony might be far from conventionally religious – “I’m not a Christian,” he has said, “but I am prepared to worship Jesus if she’s a girl” – yet the performances here were surely alternative spirituals, dwelling on the mystery of having been created.

The show opened with a dancer making increasingly avian movements – a nod both to the 2005 album I Am a Bird Now and to Antony, self-described as transgender, evading obvious categories. Initially the star was concealed by a mesh curtain. Green laser fractals in gossamer veils, designed by Chris Levine, beguiled us. Later, they would be an indoor aurora borealis, brushing the ceiling. Carl Robertshaw’s set involved tin-foil space junk suspended above Antony’s head, as if Cornelia Parker had exploded a satellite with the help of primary-school kids. I’ve no idea what it meant, but then Antony once declared: “My creativity has always been a way to interface with the things I don’t understand.”

Gospel honed in a tranny club, his singing voice can be profoundly blue yet joy-stricken. An ecstatic orotund sob, it’s an intercessor to what Antony calls “Another World”, but I couldn’t always travel with him. The first quarter or so was mesmerising but “Everglade” broke the spell, toppling into hallo-trees, hallo-sky eco-tweeness. With the burnished groove of “Swanlights”, enchantment was restored for most of the remainder.

At times, Antony drifted round like an insomniac in search of his slippers (at one point, I feared he was going to adopt the downward dog yoga position). He was best when he stood still, adding to the contemplative, almost prayerful ambience that may have been the concert’s lasting gift.

There were more songs after “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy”, and the orchestra was revealed at the last, but this felt like the climax. Antony crooned the refrain “Are you a boy or a girl?” with histrionic intensity, but the answer isn’t necessarily straightforward. Ambiguous, unresolved, yearning – the question hung in the air like the memory of this fantastical night.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.