Photo from Dr Dee opera

Image © Richard Hubert Smith, borrowed from http://www.guardian.co.uk

During the introduction to Dr Dee, a series of English stereotypes parade along a balcony, including bowler-hatted banker, impressively-coiffed punk rocker, and Morris dancers. Oh no – was it going to be the worst kind of twee celebration of ‘Englishness’ dredged up in honour of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad? Fortunately, it was nothing of the kind. Structured in the form of an Elizabethan masque, the opera consists of a series of formalised tableaux based on incidents and themes from the life of Dr John Dee (probably best known as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I), and can be thought of in the tradition of the Portrait Opera, a visual and musical representation of one charismatic character – the closest ancestor perhaps being Satyagraha (Gandhi). Returning for a moment to the parade of Englishness, unless I somehow missed him, James Bond wasn’t in the team, which is a shame, as John Dee was actually the first spy to use the moniker 007. The scenes of Act 1 are based on key meetings with the people who influenced the giddy academic and social ascent of Dee’s early life: Tudor spymaster Walsingham, Elizabeth I, wife Jane, and self-proclaimed ‘skryer’ (or medium) and angel-whisperer Kelley. In Act 2, there is symmetry as these relationships all fall apart, and Dee descends again to ignominy and despair.

Damon Albarn’s collaborator for 2009’s Monkey: Journey to the East, Jamie Hewlett, was originally set to work on the visual side of Dr Dee, and I was disappointed to hear that he had pulled out – his designs for Monkey were absolutely stunning. However, this disappointment was misplaced, as the visual design elements (set designer Paul Atkinson and video designer Lysander Ashton)  here were superb. I have commented before on the brilliant use of light and projection for which ENO productions are becoming well-known, and lighting designer Paule Constable’s sterling work here was another example. While the sets were minimal and mostly monochrome, with little more than books, sheaves of paper, cloths and a few balloons (oh, and Albarn’s collective of musicians suspended in a familiar-looking wonky rectangular box, viewing all the action from above), the ingenious choreography of animated projections onto moving scenery turned this performance (directed by Rufus Norris) into something quite special. It’s something of a trope in TV dramas at the moment to superimpose scrolling symbols, diagrams, calculations and the like onto video, to represent the inner workings of a character’s thought processes (think Sherlock, for example), but I’m a sucker for multimodal visual representation of data, and it’s a trope I adore. How much, then, did I like seeing a live John Dee in the centre of the stage, pondering mathematics, code-breaking, navigation or astronomy, while calculations, Euclidean proofs, maps and cipher iterations radiated out from him to fill the whole proscenium? (What I could read of the maths and science even seemed to make actual sense, and the sly inclusion of a DNA molecule, electromagnetic fields and the London Tube map raised a few smiles.)

There was a dazzling variety in the styles of musicianship displayed on stage and in the pit, with a well-balanced mix of acoustic and amplified instruments and voices. Everything I heard gave the impression of intelligent, thoughtful musicians, fluent in multiple genres and comfortable blending their different aspects, admirably held together by conductor Stephen Higgins. Snatches of Coltrane-style riffs, for example, turn out to sound rather good on tenor recorder, with Ghanaian drums and the ENO’s string section accompanying. In this context the contrasting vocal characterisations of certain more traditionally operatic roles (e.g. Walsingham – gravitas-wielding baritone Steven Page and Kelley – charismatic countertenor Christopher Robson, both ENO regulars) with Dee’s incantatory Sprechstimme and Albarn’s own distinctive folk-pop narrative interludes simply added to the rich mix. Regarding the operatic voices, anyone singing with full vibrato on every note would have sounded completely out of place, but not a single singer did so (rare!), with Melanie Pappenheim (Elizabeth/Spirit) standing out particularly in her expressive phrasing and sensitive use of cold and warm tones. I’ve always found Albarn’s voice a pleasant one, and fortunately he made no ill-advised attempts to sing with historical pretensions, but, happily, did do that most un-rock’n’roll of things – sing in tune.

As is probably already clear, the music showed an extremely wide range of influences and stylistic elements, both historically and geographically – cross-genre in the very best sense of the term. It is not a new phenomenon for the songwriting members of successful pop or rock groups, once past the first flush of youth, to set their ambition to larger-scale, more complex works – operas, ballets, oratorios, film scores, or the good old concept album. Many of these are not very good, as the composers’ swollen heads contain insufficient respect for the unfamiliar genre or inclination for the necessary study to learn the craft; others are not very good due to an over-deference to the pop musician’s perception of the classical tradition that results merely in weak pastiche. (I don’t think I need to mention names.) This was neither; it was imaginative, intelligent, and clearly written by a composer who has taken his forays into ethnomusicology seriously (which reflects even better when one considers, for example, the cringe-making orientalisms shoehorned in by certain historical composing greats after encountering non-European music). I’ve admired Albarn’s songwriting for many years, particularly his knack of combining simple melodies with non-obvious chord changes to produce songs that sound both distinctive and instantly familiar. However, while his song interludes in Dr Dee were pleasant, it was the more experimental sections that I enjoyed the most. At the risk of sounding like a pontificating wine buff, along with the obvious drawings from Tudor, plainchant, Malian, English folk and indie traditions, I also got hints of John Coltrane, Kate Bush, Bulgarian chanting, and probably a hundred other things that have filtered through Albarn’s brain over the years. Some reviewers of the first run of this show, in Manchester earlier this year, complained about its work-in-progress state. Having not heard the earlier version, I would say that Act 1 was taut, fluent, and now polished to a shine, while Act 2 still retains some meandering lengthy passages where momentum is lost.

I dislike giving star ratings to performances, especially non-traditional ones, but it’s an Opera Britannia requirement to do so, and to compare it against other operas. My grade of 3 stars may seem stingy, given that I have said how very interesting I found the music and how inspired the visual design, but in a good opera performance I expect emotional engagement with the characters (probably involving tears at some point) and there to be times at which I am so engrossed in the scene that I forget where I am – and neither of these things happened. Of course, I felt disgust at the idea of Jane’s being coerced into sex with the creepy countertenor, and sadness at the thought of the vandalisation of England’s then-greatest scientific library; however, in the end, my connection to the events was an intellectual and sensory one, but not an emotional one. I may well still buy the album, though.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

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