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Dr Dee

English National Opera at the London Coliseum, July 4

By Flora Willson

 

This second operatic offering from Blur frontman and Gorillaz creator Damon Albarn is—among other things—a cultural product brought to us courtesy of London 2012. Clocking in at a little under two hours (including rehydration at half-time), Dr Dee is no Olympian endeavour on a grand operatic scale. But although the epithet ‘an English opera’ has disappeared since the work’s premiere at the 2011 Manchester International Festival, those seized by this summer’s patriotic fervour can rest easy. The opera’s protagonist—the 16th-century mathematician John Dee—was certainly English; the mysterious parade of characters with which the show began seemed English (an impressively mohawked punk, a suffragette, a bowler-hat-wearing, umbrella-swinging banker, a W.G. Grace lookalike); and, whatever one makes of his appearance here at ENO, Albarn’s own status as one of the lions of Britpop remains unquestioned. Yet, over and above all these flag-waving gestures, the point of Dr Dee was, alas, not at all clear. The two acts are structured around a series of short scenes taken from Dee’s life. He is dying at the start, and dead at the end, with the intervening action sketching defining moments in his career. This might seem logical enough, but in practice the drama charts a perilous course between imaginative coups de théâtre and scenes that are distractingly opaque. An example of the latter comes when, at the end of Act 1, flour suddenly rains down on the head of a screaming countertenor; a baffled return to the programme book informs us that the singer in question is a medium in communion with angels. Elsewhere, though, the director and ‘co-creator’ Rufus Norris produces much more successful effects, most often when placing the dramatic focus on the troupe of dancers rather than the vocal soloists. In one memorable visual stroke, Dee’s learned tomes provide dancing partners, playing concertina-like across the stage. At other times, video projections become part of a multi-layered stage picture: in one beautiful tableau, illuminated moons move in darkness around an animated diagram of planetary orbits.

And then, of course, there was the (generously amplified) music: scored for a motley collection of onstage drums, a Malian kora, various ‘period instruments’ and with occasional deluxe backing from the ENO Orchestra; sung by a handful of soloists and headed by prominent, spot-lit moments of minstrelsy from Albarn himself. Stylistically, the score offers a mélange of faux-plainsong (complete with heavy monastic reverb), pastiches of Baroque dance and diatonic-symphonic derivatives of modern film underscore. Bolstering it all was a rhythmic drive indebted to minimalism and, at its most original, strikingly colouristic orchestration. (You didn’t think a theorbo solo could be blistering? Think again.) Across this backdrop of ancient and modern musical idioms, all repurposed for the grunge generation, were flashes of solo song much closer to Albarn’s usual territory: gently melancholic folk-pop, hymns to modal mixture and close miking. This assembly of apparently incongruous idioms and performance styles seemed to provide a second layer of drama—a dialogue, if you will, between Albarn’s unmistakeable inflections, the Hilliard Ensemble-like chorus, and more or less operatically-trained soloists. The difficulty, though, was that an overarching sense of musical argument was as fugitive as a dramatic one.  If anything, the opera’s dominant stage personality was not the title character, but Albarn himself: a peculiar position for someone who, although part of the onstage band, took no part in the drama. Played and sung by the actor Paul Hilton, poor Dr Dee simply couldn’t compete—either with the subtleties of Albarn’s microphone-savvy voice or with the sheer operatic power wielded by others on stage. The best of the latter was Christopher Robson, who managed—against considerable odds—to deliver an impassioned, haunting performance as the flour-drenched medium. Among the other soloists, Steven Page’s Walsingham was the most forceful but tended towards the panto villain in vocal and dramatic delivery. Melanie Pappenheim’s vibrato-free Elizabeth I provided a suitably ethereal presence, in contrast to the full-bodied intensity of Anna Dennis as Dee’s daughter. Yet none of these singing styles could engender a sense of pathos around such fatally underdeveloped characters. Each potential dramatic climax was marked either by a disconcerting shift in focus from vocal drama to dance, or by the incursion of one of Albarn’s solo turns as master-narrator.

To be brief: if this was an opera, it was one lacking both a viable protagonist and any convincing narrative. Although not without its pleasures—visual ones in particular—little could erode the feeling, after two hours of confusion and constant change, that the show badly needed some grander sense of a dramatic whole. Admittedly, the slightly younger-than-usual, slightly more carefully, more casually dressed audience seemed generally to have enjoyed it. But did Albarn need an opera to charm the vintage-leather-clad middle classes? Just before its first ENO performance, Dr Dee was released as a studio album—a format that seems ideal for Albarn’s score; while Norris’s imaginative visuals would surely make a stunning sequence of arty music videos. Performance as a continuous operatic work did the piece few favours; yet the fact that Dr Dee was presented as ENO’s contribution to the ‘London 2012’ big top did the company fewer still. On the contrary, it suggested a depressing lack of managerial faith in opera’s power to attract broader cultural attention.

Cabbells 2012 B & C
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine