Saturday 7 July 2012

Dr. Dee - ENO @ Coliseum

Clearly the intention behind Dr. Dee, with music written by Blur's Damon Albarn, is to bring in a new, younger audience.  But walking in, it's sad to see the number of empty seats in the theatre.  Later, it's more saddening to witness people walking out early.  It's a shame as, at times, this is a fascinating piece of theatre.  However, this is a difficult work that is neither suited to opera purists nor opera newcomers.

The Doctor in question is John Dee, a sixteenth century English mathematician, astrologer and alchemist who straddled the boundary between science and magic, spending his later years attempting to commune with angels.  Whilst he was trusted by the monarchy (asked to choose a suitable date for Queen Elizabeth I's coronation), many were suspicious of his work and claimed he practised sorcery.  This was only heightened when he met Edward Kelley, a 'scryer' or spirit medium.  Dee is thus a contentious figure in English history, who, in his own words, was "condemned as a Companion of Hellhounds, and a Caller, and Conjuror of wicked and damned spirits".

However, the narrative of Dr. Dee is so abstracted that it's almost impossible to engage with the character.  The plot follows Dee's life through a collection of loosely connected scenes, entitled from 'Knowledge' through 'Coronation', 'The Scryer' to eventual 'Oblivion'.  The theatrical style is a mix of genres: music, dance and physical theatre.  As such, it takes on a form similar to an Elizabethan masque.  The theatrics of the piece are clearly of paramount importance to director Rufus Norris, leaving the audience, for the most part, in the dark with an incoherent plot that lacks any sort of dramatic impetus.

That said, the inventive direction does contain some magical moments amongst its Renaissance imagery.  The 'Knowledge' section utilises books filled with reams of slinky-esque paper extensions that dance across the stage.  Later, larger versions are used as screens to hide swift changes of set.  Projections of mathematic formulae wriggle across the floor and along transparent screens with dizzying effect; dancers adorned with black masks move with alien motion; Queen Elizabeth is suspended in mid-air; and real life ravens flutter over the audience to book-end the production.  Despite this, dramatically Dr. Dee boils down to little more than a series of fascinating theatrical images.

Albarn's score is a mixed bag.  The orchestra is split between pit and a smaller on-stage ensemble that floats above the action.  The instrumentation incorporates different magical traditions - from sixteenth century instruments like the lute, organ and recorders to African drumming.  This could have made for an interesting period piece, but Albarn makes the bizarre decision to include modernisms - least of all himself.  On-stage, his presence and cockney-accent is jarring both musically and dramatically.  Conductor Stephen Higgins had a hard time keeping the disparate elements together.

Musically, this is a moodpiece on English melancholy, Albarn perhaps intended to represent a modern-day John Dowland.  Vocal melodies are often just single notes: chant-like yet lacking in invention.  The solo singing, borderline out of tune, juxtaposes period and modern styles and can't reach the usual standard of ENO.  With much of the singing performed by off-stage chorus, the vocals become more of a disembodied voice rather than an integral part of the drama.  The orchestra play monotonous music, in a similar vein to Philip Glass, creating a serene, though dreary, tranquility.  As with the direction, there are some magical moments - the mesmeric theorbo, richly harmonised chorales and Christopher Robson's embellished counter-tenor as Kelley especially. 

There's a strong argument that Dr. Dee doesn't belong on the operatic stage.  It is far removed from opera and is instead a piece that eludes classification - this is not a comforting piece of Mozart, for instance.  ENO are certainly making brave choices and striding into unknown territory.  Yet Dr. Dee fails on a musical and dramatic level to connect with its audience.  Instead, it is little more than an intriguing work by a rock star who, like Dee himself, is striving for a higher, unreachable plane.


Watch: Dr. Dee is performed at the Coliseum until Saturday 7th July.

Listen: The music of Dr. Dee is available to buy on CD.  You can also listen below on Spotify.