Confession: I’d rather go to a Gorillaz gig than sit through the Ring Cycle. Opera is an art form that continues to baffle this music lover, despite ardent efforts to address this handicap. Worse still, I prefer Malcolm McLaren’s 6-minute distillation of Madam Butterfly to the two acts intended by Puccini. Sorry. This might make me an idiot, but one would assume that it’s glib minded fools such as myself that the ENO is hoping to reach with hip collaborations such as Dr Dee
The production is the offspring off the Manchester International Festival, London 2012 Festival and ENO. Damon Alban, known to ageing indie kids as the lead singer from Blur is the undeniable box office draw. He’s proved creative mettle by fronting a cartoon concept band (Gorrilaz), showcasing African music and penning the score for Monkey: Journey to the West. It’s hard not to admire Albarn’s ambition and the intentions of everybody involved in this production, but the frustrating truth is that it’s unlikely to appeal to either Britpop lovers or opera aficionados.
The story of John Dee (1527-1609), the Elizabethan astrologer, courtier, occultist and mathematician is nothing less than sensational. It’s a magical riot, boasting royalty, trigonometry, sordid sex and in Dee, a character who effectively sells his soul in the hope of chatting to angels. Unfortunately, the historic and provocative narrative is somewhat lost in this production. Even armed with the synopsis, it was mostly a struggle to match the mise-en-scène with elements of the plot. Surtitles might have helped, but a commitment to storytelling would have really boosted the enlightenment.
Thankfully, the array of visuals and the musical cocktail proved intoxicating, if sometimes opaque. Paul Atkinson’s design and the projections from Fifty Nine Productions are often dazzling. “This is the language of heaven,” sings Dee (Paul Hilton) as a digital hallucination of the cosmos transmogrifies before him, yielding a jolly date for Elizabeth’s coronation.
Damon Albarn’s singing might trouble the purists, but somehow it haunts and delivers exactly the right note. The lyrics are clear, and the fragile, essentially British nature of his plaintive crooning works a treat. Albarn’s music, while rarely cheery is always beautiful, ranging from Renaissance madrigals to blasts of Afrobeat, while always maintaining an atmospheric sense of England.
Dr Dee’s greatest success is a confident refusal to be categorically defined. Expressive choreography from Steven Hoggett delivered a performance art pulse, operatic flourishes morphed into a cerebral folk gig, while there were moments of Cirque De Cryptography.
While often baffling, Dr Dee proves oddly gripping, lingering in the mind, strangely unforgettable. There’s a moral to this old tale which still applies, especially to those who seek to advise the powerful with their specialist knowledge. It’s an exciting gig, but you may lose your moral compass, you could lose your mind and in the end, nobody will thank you for it.