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"Dr Dee" by Damon Albarn & Rufus Norris, London Coliseum, June 27, 2012

"Dr Dee" by Damon Albarn & Rufus Norris, London Coliseum, June 27, 2012
John Mulvey

Do opera-goers have low boredom thresholds? It certainly seems that way watching the production of Damon Albarn’s “Dr Dee” at the English National Opera – or at least that director Rufus Norris assumes they do.

There are beds in perpetual motion, levitating queens, dazzling projected screes of Enochian code, spymasters on stilts, rapidly shifting tableaux between rustling walls of paper, hydraulics, winches, fire, balloons, planets in orbit, revolving spiral staircases, and, at the climax, three live crows, one of which goes rogue for a few orbits of the Coliseum, while the other two get into a fight above the heads of Albarn’s band.

I can’t pretend to know whether all this visual hyperactivity is the norm for opera, this neurotic obligation to provide a spectacle every couple of minutes or so (an almost parodically sniffy review in The Independent suggests not, while also chastising Albarn for his “dour little voice”). Couple of things, though: opera critics clearly have a lot more to write about than rock reviewers, mostly; and it all makes you wonder whether Norris felt he had to overcompensate for Albarn’s music.

I’ve already written at length about Albarn’s “Dr Dee”, or at least the recorded version of it, in this review. Live, much of it still sounds terrific, in spite of the distractions presented by Norris’ tricksy theatricals: a cavalcade of British stereotypes accompany the opening “Apple Carts”, scrolling backwards through time from the unpromising start of a pantomime punk.

After that, however, the action restricts itself to the Elizabethan period, leaving Albarn’s lyrics and quixotic band set-up (the masterful Tony Allen is barely employed for two hours, in what must be one of the odder and less physically demanding gigs of his career) to draw the occasional historical parallel. There was a lot of talk after the performance – echoed by that Independent review – about the story being hard to follow, even though Albarn recently told me that the narrative had been substantially tightened up since “Dr Dee” was performed in Manchester last summer.

Again, out of ignorance, I’m unsure how much opera-goers can typically divine of an opera’s plot without prior knowledge. A close listen to Albarn’s record and a decent grasp of Dee’s biography made it seem reasonably straightforward to me – it is tantalising to imagine quite how obtuse “Dr Dee” might have been had the original plan of using Alan Moore as librettist come to fruition.

What ultimately emerges is a sense that the trappings of notionally ‘high’ culture, the exaggerated theatricality and technical stunts, can be substantially crasser and more pandering than those of rock. Albarn is onstage throughout, mostly sat dangling on the edge of the band platform as a sort of self-effacing MC. The way he threads his subtle little songs, often beautifully underpinned by kora and lute, into a broader tapestry of operatic voices and full orchestrations, is, I think, really successful. A lot of the music in the production – especially in the second half - that doesn’t appear on the album tends toward full-blooded flurries in the vein of Phillip Glass, or the way Michael Nyman (an old Albarn collaborator, of course) turbocharged Purcell circa “The Draughtsman’s Contract”.

Some of the operatic narrations can be a little awkward, though the female singers, especially Victoria Couper and Melanie Pappenheim (who spends plenty of the first half dangling above the action as Queen Elizabeth) provide a surprisingly smooth complement to Albarn’s less tutored tones. The highlight, as on the record, comes in the most harmonious blending of the folkish and operatic sides, “The Moon Exalted”. Suitably enough, it soundtracks the coupling of Dee and his wife – and recurs, less serendipitously, for a fraught threesome incorporating the scryer Kelley in the second half.

An interesting evening, I guess, with some lovely music, but I’m floundering a bit to manage my “dour little” prejudices and rate this as a theatrical experience rather than as a concert with visuals. If anyone else sees the production, please let me know your thoughts. As an ambitious statement, does it beat bawling out “Park Life” to the nostalgists in Hyde Park?

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