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John Dee [Source: Wikipedia]
26 Jun 2012

Dr Dee, ENO

First staged at Manchester’s 2011 international festival, Dr Dee is a theatrical work based on the life of Renaissance cosmographer and charlatan, John Dee.

Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris: Dr Dee

John Dee: Paul Hilton; Katherine, Dee’s daughter: Anna Dennis; Kelley/Bishop: Christopher Robson; Walsingham: Steven Page; Elizabeth / Spirit: Melanie Pappenheim; Young Dee: Rebecca Sutherland; Young Katherine: Victoria Couper; Jane: Clemmie Sveaas. Musicians: Damon Albarn (vocals, guitar, harmonium); Ann Allen (reeds, recorders); Tony Allen (drums); Liam Byrne (viol); Mamadou diabate (kora); David Hatcher (reeds, recorders, viol); Arngeir Hauksson (lute, hurdy-gurdy); William Lyons (reeds, recorders); Mike Smith (keyboards). Co-creator/Composer: Damon Albarn. Co-creator/Director: Rufus Norris. Conductor: Stephen Higgins. Orchestra of English National Opera. Set Designer: Paul Atkinson. Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Video Designer: Lysander Ashton. Sound Designer: Paul Arditti.

Above: John Dee [Source: Wikipedia]


A polymath whose knowledge and skill brought him political and financial reward and renown, but whose over-reaching ambition and fascination with alchemy and the occult brought about his downfall, Dr Dee is a good choice of operatic subject — and, as a celebration of man’s creative powers and a warning of the dangers of hubris, a fitting subject also for the Cultural Olympiad.

The libretto is episodic, as we witness Dee’s early studies and book collecting, his commission to identify the most auspicious coronation date for Gloriana, his love affair with Jane, a lady-in-waiting at the court, and his first steps into occult practices as he attempts to translate the Enochian language — literally the language of the angels. While the basic scenarios are made clear, often by visual aspects and the staging of the scene, the specifics of action, character and relationship are not sufficiently defined, reducing the potential dramatic tension as Dee’s pride and ambition lead him ever closer to conflicts with his faith and love, and ultimately to a fatal fall from grace.

There is much stylisation of image and choreography, often engaging but sometimes repetitive. Birdsong provides a frame, an aural evocation of the pastoral. A wordless pageant of embodiments of England and Englishness, accompanied by Albarn’s lyrical if rather shapeless pop vocals, traverses the raised gantry which houses Albarn’s musicians: a Doc-Martined, crimson-Mohicaned 70s punk is followed by a bowler-hatter 50s gent; Emily Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Wellington give way to Morris Dancers, as we move deeper into the past, culminating with the appearance Dr Dee himself. Such strategies can serve as economical and effective focusing devices. But why does each character in turn fling him/herself backwards from the gantry, pantomime style? A nudge towards English self-deprecation and irony, perhaps? Several flags of St. George flutter at the far end of the gantry: they later transform into the billowing sails which carry Dr Dee on his overseas missions, but initially they look like optimistic relics from Euro 2012.

There is no doubting Albarn’s genuine engagement with the eclectic idioms and musical sources which are juxtaposed in the score. Easy pop blends into pastiche Renaissance dance and song; African rhythms interrupt folk-derived modality. 16th and 21st centuries are juxtaposed and integrated; and, it’s true to say that the movement between them is pretty seamless. But, unfortunately, this is not generally because of formal dexterity but rather because the only thing that really distinguishes the idioms is instrumental colour and the odd harmonic ‘tint’ -a brief false relation or a tierce de Picardie. The melodic and harmonic language is unvarying and limited: progressions are repetitive and fairly stable, melodic phrases narrow in compass and confined in contour. Rhythmic repetitions cast a minimalist hue over the various musical shades. The result is that there is little dynamic drive within the music itself, and the work relies on vibrant choreography and technical effects for its forward momentum.

The voices are amplified (probably necessarily so, given the size and nature of the accompanying forces), with the result that they lose some of their individual character, and seem rather disembodied. Although there is some confident, focused singing from Anna Dennis, Katherine (Dee’s daughter) and Steven Pagel as Walsingham, only Christopher Robson — as Dee’s dark nemesis, Bishop John Kelley — demonstrated the ability to use the voice with real dramatic impact, faintly recalling Benjamin’s Britten vengeful, other-worldly Oberon. Paul Hilton works hard and with some success to impose himself musically and dramatically upon the action.

Despite this rather negative account, I would not deny that there are some impressive visual motifs and virtuosic dramatic climaxes. The technical team have created some pyrotechnic wizardry of which Dr Dee would himself be proud: strikingly animated geometrical, algebraic and cosmographical light-shows which conjure up the mythical expanse and thrilling enchantment of the Doctor’s knowledge and creativity. Set-pieces are similarly imposing: Elizabeth I is raised aloft, her gleaming golden dress, an icon of the Golden Age, draped like a gilded curtain, embracing and inspiring her kingdom.

But, effective motifs are sometimes over-laboured. Thus the concertina-like books which superbly suggest Dee’s thirst and capacity for limitless knowledge, are born in flight by the ensemble and literally seem to dance around the stage in the opening scene; but the passage is overly long, the routines endlessly repeated, underpinned by similarly repetitive harmonic patterns, as the books become larger — screens, carpets, walls. The simple motif gains nothing from such elongation and magnification.

Albarn has explained that while he was happy with the Manchester performance, “It’s never a problem to reassess because we have never said, ‘This is it’. And if it doesn’t work we can return or go down another path…But it will never be finished. I would sincerely like to have it translated into French, that’s my next ambition.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with revisiting and revising, but it feels to me that this work, which was still evolving 10 days before the ENO first night, wanders down rather too many paths without having a clear sense of the final destination.

Claire Seymour

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