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". I sympathised with the great communicator, as my own mind, cudgelled by so much crudity, was longing for unconsciousness.
The director David Freeman sets it all in a sandpit, which is where his productions of Monte verdi's Orfeo, Mozart's Così fan tutte and Philip Glass's Akhnaten also took place. Some of the mess-making recalls the rough theatre of the 1960s: paper screens are ripped, or spattered with gore. At the same time, computerised trickery gives the whole thing the look of a fuzzy video game, with digital armies materialising out of the sandhills and oil derricks spontaneously sprouting in the waste. The Libyan people meanwhile tunelessly chant the praises of their dry environment. "We are the dunes," they declare. "The sand is our land," they add. "The sand," they insist, "is in our blood." I suppose that's better than getting it in your intimate crevices, which happens when you go to the beach.
The pretension of the whole bogus enterprise is summed up in the work's subtitle. If Gaddafi truly were a mythic character, couldn't we be allowed to discover that for ourselves, rather than being told it in advance? A mythic hero ought to be malleable and metamorphic, posses sing a thousand faces. The Gaddafi impersonated by the diminutive Ramon Tikaram, handicapped by an ill-fitting wig and an even more awkward British accent, is utterly faceless. He spends much of the time with his head under a shawl, morosely meditating. At the end, his portrait is ripped from the wall, leaving an empty space where his features were, which suggests that he was never more than a projection of western fears - a caricature rather than a myth.
The finale shows that Savale and his collaborators can't tell the difference between mythopoeia and the trashy, temporary allure of celebrity. Gaddafi is now a pet of the western politicians who once denounced him as a mad dog; he relaunches himself in a natty shirt and a gilded cap (which perches precariously atop Tikaram's wig) and prepares for global exposure. "I'm talking Arab Pop Idol," he says, as his team of chor ines in battle fatigues repetitiously intones the praises of "Gaddafi Superstar".
The erstwhile monster has proved to be marketable. Forget this show's pious liberal blather about children killed in air raids and the American greed for oil: those who have assembled it are as cynical as Simon Cowell and - what's worse - as banal as Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"Gaddafi: a living myth" is at English National Opera, London WC2, until 16 September. Further info from: www.eno.org