This review of the recent English National Opera production of Dr. Dee at the London Coliseum must begin with a disclaimer. I know nothing about the opera.* Zip. Nada. I’ve seen Amadeus. I love the Rufus Wainwright video for “April Fools” with all the opera heroines meeting their dramatic deaths. My most sustained operatic experiences, however, probably begin and end with Looney Tunes.
In many ways then this was a perfect introductory opera experience. Only running for eight performances, this two-hour long opera was short, spectacular, relatively accessible, and was operatic to the degree that Andrew Lloyd Weber’s works are—bending the generic and musical conventions to appeal to a broader audience, for good or bad. ENO’s mission statement emphasizes an interest in developing new works and engaging younger audiences, and promoting ‘breadth and diversity’ in its programming season.
As someone who studies the English Renaissance, I was especially interested in this particular opera as it covered the life of Dr. John Dee: mathematician, astrologer, alchemist, diviner, book collector, scholar, and angelic script translator. He decided Elizabeth’s coronation date and was the queen’s personal astrologer. Yet, his epistemophilia jeopardized his personal life: his family, his wealth, and his political standing, and he dies disgraced and in poverty. His mystical and sordid life may have influenced both Marlowe (Doctor Faustus) and Shakespeare (Prospero).
The opera attempts to capture key moments of Dee’s life as a series of tableaux, and those moments can be as lovely and light filled as a Vermeer or as demented as a Bosch. The important point here is that it is more fitting to compare these to paintings and not songs, because there is something always a bit static about the production. Even in its most choreographed and dynamic moments, it starts to resemble ballet and the vocals are not as pronounced as the visual.
Dr. Dee was originally commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and was composed by Damon Albarn. I have been a big Blur fan since high school and I have enjoyed the diversity of Albarn’s post-Blur projects—the apocalyptic, experimental, cartoon band the Gorillaz; the underrated The Good, the Bad, and the Queen; and his haunting and darkly humorous bluegrass tinged score for Ravenous (and I have only listed the projects I know well and can vouch for). Dr. Dee is not even his first foray into opera; he composed for Monkey: Journey to the West (2007). For those keeping a tally in the old Britpop Battle of the Bands, I think we can safely agree that when it comes to highbrow and experimentation Albarn destroys both Beatles-obsessed Gallagher brothers every time.
Albarn is not only the composer, but plays a pivotal role, acting as the narrative voice, sometimes Dee’s conscience or intellect, and he sits at the edge of his own set (a train car suspended at the mezzanine level). Albarn has a broad vocal range and his voice is sometimes plaintive & sometimes world-weary, perfect for this emotional range of this production. Albarn’s backing band includes contemporary rock sounds (electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards), Elizabethan instruments (reeds, recorders, viol, lute, and hurdy-gurdy), and Mamadou Diabate on the West African kora. The best tracks include “Apple Carts,” “The Moon Exalted,” and especially “The Marvelous Dream.” These songs, unfortunately, all occur in the first act, as does the most beautiful of the scenes and the most moving of the plot episodes.
I call to the dance, now the party begun
Alcohol, holiday, I’m a drug… strong
Levitating you’ve jumped around May queen
A time for revival … or maybe just the marvelous dream.
Before the play proper, the band plays their opening track and begins with ravens landing on the train car (they also fly back & close the show as well). Different Brits in period dress walk across the train car’s roof & then drop away (punk, Monty Python silly walker, ole timey cricket player, suffragette, periwigged fop, etc., etc.) to wind back the clock to Tudor England. This playful and decidedly English opening nicely sets the tone for this opera.
Rufus Norris, who has a keen eye for creating visually arresting vignettes, directs the production, but the opera lacks an overall coherence and narrative. The production is often chaotic with occasional beautiful and haunting moments of repose. Again, when thought of as a tableaux or masque, it all works and its greatest fault is its ambitious design.
Paul Hilton’s John Dee has a nice tenor and his voice replicates and complements that of Albarn’s, but (to use a musical jargon term) a more opera-ey version.* Hilton’s voice was especially lilting and lovely on the love song “Saturn.” There are some songs that harmonize and blend Albarn and Hilton’s voices, and a few times I needed to double-check (with my newly acquired opera glasses*) to see which man was singing. It should not be surprising that the two singers are somewhat interchangeable, as “Dee was a silent character in Manchester, “ Norris states with Albarn singing those parts.
Having Dee sing his own songs does make for a more complex, although still enigmatic, character. When Dee first sees his future wife, his love of reading as a child, and his rapture in solving a difficult algebraic problem are all captured beautifully by Hilton. It is in transition scenes (still beautifully constructed to show the passage of time) that we lose sight of Dee’s motivations, ambitions, and desires. In the most troubling scene of the play, Dee forces his beloved wife into bed with a scryer (basically, a guy who does séance stuff) because he believes angels have decreed it. Unfortunately, neither Norris’ direction nor Hilton’s acting can articulate his movement into this nadir. We can see the simpler emotions of fear and lust as conveyed by the compromised wife and the lecherous scryer, but Dee remains indecipherable during the seduction/rape.
In contrast to Hilton, is the very creepy countertenor of the villain/scryer Kelley, sung by Christopher Robson. Robson is a famous countertenor but his vocalization made all of my hair stand on end.* His voice is especially high without being quite a falsetto. On top of this, he looked like Uncle Fester with his shaved head and dark robes. It is difficult to understand how Hilton’s temperate Dee would ever succumb to Kelley’s claims of divinity and invite this complete creeper to live in his home with his lovely wife and young daughter. Kelley is equal parts Mephistopheles and Caliban to Dee’s Faust/Prospero, and Melanie Pappenheim (as the Spirit) is both angel and Ariel.
Pappenheim, with her shaved head, and clear and piercing soprano plays the Spirit (Dee’s guardian angel/ genius loci/ conscience) very well. Visually and vocally, she acts as foil to Robson’s Kelley, and she hovers protectively around Dee, ironically, providing the unseen angelic force that Dee wastes his life and loses his family attempting to contact. In one of the most visually stunning scenes, Pappenheim walks into the famous golden gown, scepter, and orb and becomes the young Elizabeth on her coronation day. Hoisted into the air, with her train reaching far below and becoming the scene’s curtains, Elizabeth is deified. In this same scene, there is also a beautiful masque where Dee first sees his wife, and Elizabeth literally oversees this intimate and sweet love scene.
Most of the other performers were consistent, but did not stand out. Only Steven Page as Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham was interesting, but more so for his domineering presence—eye patch, walking on stilts beneath his gown, and his “murder” of ravens/spies—than for his singing. Katrina Lindsay’s costuming is flawless and the set designs (large darkened stage with aforementioned train car in the background) by Paul Atkinson are fluid and lyrical–capturing the largest personal library in Europe, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Dee’s dining hall and study, and most, impressively, the infinity of the cosmos.
Dee’s decline is inevitable. He is Faust, Icarus, Lucifer, and any other Jungian archetype of the overreacher, but the second Act feels painful and convoluted. It lacks the sheer beauty of the Coronation scene, the wonderment of the Knowledge scene (where a young Dee discovers a love of books and reads voraciously until the books expand and grow into accordion sliding screens in a complete bibliophile porn scene), and the grandeur of the cosmos of the Empire scene. Once Kelley, arrives the opera becomes increasingly claustrophobic, confined to Dee’s home, his books destroyed and scattered, his family in ruins, his adulterous bed ultimately becoming his deathbed as well. If the opera fails on some levels, it is mostly because Albarn and Norris created an opera that is as ambitious and divinely inspired as their subject, Doctor John Dee.
*Please remember that this is my first opera experience.