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Monday, 11 July 2011

Damon Albarn's Dr Dee: An English Opera reviewed

Last Thursday evening I attended a performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, of Damon Albarn's new opera "Dr Dee: An English Opera". I was planning on writing a review of the opera for Dangerous Minds but have decided to put it here instead because, in all honesty, it is just not interesting enough.

"Dr Dee" concerns the story of Dr John Dee, an obscure but legendary English mathematician, cartographer and supposed mystic. Dee was a central figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth, was influential on the formation of the British navy, drew maps to the New World (America) that helped the navy become kings of the seas, and ended his life in destitute exile in Manchester trying to convene with angels after sharing his wife in a bizarre love triangle.

Sounds exciting, eh? Well, this is where the problem lies. Albarn's opera strips all the excitement out of this incredible story. What should have been a story with a global reach and truly epic proportions just ended up being a dragged out tale of a man going mad in a room. With no real explanation as to why. There was no real mention of the navy or his role in it, and you would never have known that Dee's lifetime saw some incredible changes to science and man's knowledge of the world in which we live.

Though some of the stage direction was impressive (Queen Elizabeth, attached to huge golden capes, was raised in the air and floated above the stage) it was also aimless and added little to the story (and there Liz hung for the best part of half an hour, not moving, uttering a word, adding to the story or having any real relevance).
Sets were blocked off by large, moving scrolls of paper, which was a nice touch, and some projected animations worked well, especially at the one point in which we were given a peak inside Dee's magick-obsessed brain. But it just wasn't enough to save the deep flaws in the production.

My main problem was the story. A disjointed, impressionistic look at Dee's life is not really what is called for when most of the audience does not know the main protagonist and the incredible things that happened to him. A tighter narrative focus would have helped this production no end - if I did not know who Dee was before attending I would not have left any the wiser. And that's not a good thing, considering the material Albarn had to work with. And an interesting point brought up by a friend of mine is that Dee didn't sing. In an opera about his own life?

The music, while not bad, is also not particularly great, and belies the fact that apparently this opera only went into production two weeks before it opened. Most follows a ploddingly predictable folk-based structure, with not enough use made of the choir or the orchestra, and in fairness Albarn's voice is just not strong enough for this kind of thing. A good pop star he may be, but Nick Drake he ain't. In all I felt like "Dr Dee: An English Opera" was a massively missed opportunity, and I still await definitive re-telling of this fascinating character's life.

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