Palace Theatre, Manchester
Those already expressing qualms about next year's Cultural Olympiad should cheer up a little: some strange alchemy has been at work, conjuring up a truly original new opera that will launch the 2012 celebrations. Premiered at this year's Manchester international festival, Dr Dee is compelling, often delightful, sometimes challenging – and only occasionally slightly bonkers.
"Opera" is perhaps the wrong term here. Damon Albarn, that extraordinary musical chameleon, has followed the success of Monkey: Journey to the West, with a masque, appropriately in homage to a forgotten figure of the Elizabethan era, Dr John Dee – queen's confidant, cartographer, cryptographer, astronomer and mystic.
Albarn, whose musical imagination seems to know no bounds, revels in collaboration, whether fronting Blur or Gorillaz or travelling in Africa, recording and sampling its inspiring instrumentalists. He's eclectic yet sophisticated; fascinated by the limitless possibilities of sound. He also confesses to a fascination with the occult and questions of Englishness. "I'm not a monarchist. But I'm English. And I have an irrational emotion for my country," he said in a recent interview.
His preoccupations collide in the 1500s, when science and magic intermingled and questions of England's wider identity and ambition were taking root. Dr Dee, mathematician and astrologer (and possibly Shakespeare's model for Prospero), consulted the stars to fix the date of Elizabeth's coronation, devised new methods of navigation that would send fleets in search of empire and set out on an occult journey of his own to hear angelic voices, a quest that led to his downfall and disgrace as a wife-swapping magician.
Albarn has collaborated with director Rufus Norris, conductor André de Ridder and musical supervisor Stephen Higgins to create a series of gorgeous tableaux that draw upon Elizabethan theatre while making parallels with the age of our current Good Queen Bess. The coronation scene, for instance, where Elizabeth is suspended above the stage in swaths of gorgeous fabric, is accompanied by a song that directly alludes to the recent royal wedding.
The piece occupies three separate spheres in Paul Atkinson's design: the pit, realm of the BBC Philharmonic; the temporal stage, peopled with courtiers, mystics and manipulators; and the spiritual world above, where an onstage band of chamber organ, theorbo, viola de gamba, shawm, dulcian and crumhorn is immeasurably enriched by the harp-like Malian kora and the irresistible drumming of Afrobeat's co-creator, Tony Allen.
Sitting above to one side with his guitar is Archangel Albarn, singing a series of beautifully judged songs that comment on the action and the idea of Englishness. With Katrina Lindsay's intriguing costumes it's a thoroughly beguiling spectacle, suffused with a gloriously rich tonal score that nods towards but never merely imitates the music of the period.
Generously, Albarn gives his best vocal writing to other singers, most notably to countertenor Christopher Robson, as the deeply creepy, fraudulent mystic Kelley, who convinces Dee that to find salvation he must share his wife with him. Robson's crystalline, ethereal voice is matched in sheer beauty by the hauntingly lovely, vibrato-free soprano of Anna Dennis (Old Katherine). A core company of fine singers, dancers and actors takes on myriad roles and they have fun with an engaging opening procession of silent English characters, from Nelson to a mohican-haired punk.
Throughout, the action is wrapped and unwrapped in a series of ingenious paper screens that concertina back and forth, suggesting the apparently endless pages of Dr Dee's massive library. Not all of it works, though. In Act Two, the narrative unravels as Kelley goes into a series of wild, melodramatic trances. The music becomes muddy and laborious before regaining its former grandeur in a tremendous choral setpiece, "Tree of Beauty". And Albarn's presence as narrator and commentator is fundamentally problematic: it relegates the central role of Dr Dee to a dumbshow (apart from a virtuoso recital of mathematical formulae, which earned actor Bertie Carvel a deserved ovation).
No doubt the workshop collaboration that brought Dr Dee into being will continue to develop and improve it before the Olympiad starting gun is fired next June, but it already deserves a gold medal for sheer imagination and invention.
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