Fact is, they say, stranger than fiction. Damon Albarn’s latest foray onto the operatic stage certainly makes strange the true-life story of Elizabethan intellectual and philosopher John Dee. With Albarn overseeing the altercations between Elizabethan realms and forbidden mystical realms, not to mention numerous giant expanding books, Dr Dee, his latest project from on high, shapes up as theatrically stunning but musically uneven.
Dr Dee shows impressive vision. It is spectacularly choreographed and both witty and inventive in its use of the stage. Much of the credit for this must surely go to maverick director Rufus Norris, whose imagination seems to be an infinite resource. From the flies is suspended an open-fronted box that spans the width of the stage and moves up and down. Inside sit an ensemble of acoustic musicians, including Albarn with his guitar, microphone and trademark husky voice. They rise to literally oversee the action below, as John Dee’s place in the Elizabethan world and his sinister fall from grace are played out below. One wonders why the Coliseum did not make use of its subtitling facility, which would have made the surreal, slickly sewn together evening easier to digest. This said, the dream-like nature of the production required one to get lost in what was happening to effectively achieve the leap of disbelief into Albarn’s made-up world.
The plot trespasses on the Faustus tale, with good reason; Dee (played here by Paul Hilton) is believed by some to be the inspiration for Marlowe’s Dr Faustus himself. At the beginning he is on his deathbed, having fallen from high status in Elizabethan court to poverty and disgrace, all due to his involvement in the dark arts of Kelley (Christopher Robson). Even his wife is sacrificed to Kelley so that he can allow these pursuits to take him over. As the story of his life unfolds, his extraordinary intellectual powers are represented by some mathematical verbal fireworks by Hilton, accompanied by whizzing graphics in Da Vinci-style script.
In everything is a cinematic boldness. The beginning, for example, has the stylishness of a movie’s opening title sequence. First, a raven, symbol of death, flies from the Circle onto the stage (this also happens at the end). Next, English figures from King George III to the punk era parade across the top of the suspended box, pausing at the end to fall off backwards and disappear from view. In the first stages of Dee’s life, dance and props lead the way. Books open into long concertinas, growing bigger and more overwhelming as Dee’s knowledge also expands. This motif remains for the rest of the opera, figuratively and literally overcoming most of the characters on stage.
Among the most memorable are the successive scenes where the still favoured Dr Dee is asked to determine the optimum date for Elizabeth I’s coronation, and the development of the Elizabethan Golden Age, when Elizabeth is suspended mid air while her giant golden cloak fills the stage. As for the heady projected graphics – which ENO has been incorporating increasingly into its productions – they are likely to divide audience opinion. There is a lot about ‘England’ here, from flags to the historical elements, as if Albarn is reviving and exploring ghosts of the country’s past with a grotesque fascination for its dark underbelly.
The problem with Dr Dee is that the musical experience is often overpowered. The music is often atmospheric – particularly in quieter moments, such as Kelley’s spooky countertenor wail – but it fails to sustain an identity or a pace that is either as complex or as rich as the visual sequences. Stephen Higgins’ orchestra in the pit labour in vain to catch our attention. At climactic moments, Albarn borrows heavily from John Adams’ style of rhythmic repetition, which does not blend with the rest of the score. At the other end of the scale chronologically speaking, period Elizabethan instruments including recorders, viols and a hurdy-gurdy are wasted in the vast spectrum of sounds. There are snippets of 16th-century-style ensemble writing, but these do not grow into any substantial musical thread. As a series of tableaux it works visually, but it feels like a string of musical ideas rather than a coherent fabric. Paul Hilton sings relatively little as John Dee himself, but has strong presence on stage throughout and acts and speaks brilliantly. Robson is on horribly good form as the evil scryer Kelley, who looks into blackened mirrors to talk with angels and seems convincingly in the grip of insanity. The chorus perform with energy both as singers and dancers.
The aim of Dr Dee is to weave the past and the present into a sort of meditation on human nature’s powers, vulnerabilities, and our place in time. Overall, it succeeds. It’s fascinating to watch, and innovative in its willingness to combine musical elements which would never normally mix. Dr Dee has already run in Manchester, a year ago, but has stayed fresh for London. It has all the spectacle of a West End musical, the vocal quality and profundity of opera, and the precision choreography of dance. Still it remains genreless, which need not be a bad thing. Brilliantly acted and constantly surprising, it remains an immersive and original achievement.
Inspired by the mystical world of John Dee – the 16th-century mathematician, astrologer, courtier and spy – this new opera recounts the Faustian tragedy of a soaring intellect brought low by a counterfeit Mephistopheles.
Part meditation on the idea of Englishness, part lament for a lost spirituality, Dr Dee takes the form of a modern Elizabethan masque, featuring an alchemical mix of classical and pop vocals with contemporary orchestral music and 16th-century period instruments. Damon Albarn himself will also perform live as the troubadour-narrator.
A breathtaking series of visually stunning tableaux spanning five centuries of English history and the three realms of earth, heaven and hell, Doctor Dee is directed by the multi-award-winning Rufus Norris with his usual virtuosic flare.
A co-production with Manchester International Festival and London 2012 Festival.
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
Duration: 2 hours
Paul Hilton and Christopher Robson © Richard Hubert Smith
Damon Albarn, Steven Page, John Hilton, Melanie Pappenheim © Richard Hubert Smith
Christopher Robson, Clemmie Sveaas, Paul Hilton © Richard Hubert Smith
Paul Hilton, Melanie Pappenheim, Christopher Robson © Richard Hubert Smith