Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris bring their opera to the London Coliseum.
Nothing Albarn does can escape a reference to his early career as the frontman of Britpop band Blur. While their "battle" in the nineties with Oasis may well have been manufactured by the British music press, there were some key differences between the bands: while Blur were educated and bourgeois, Oasis were working class truants. However you feel about the two bands, its hard to imagine the Gallagher brothers creating an opera, let alone one about a mystical Elizabethan nerd (although the ménage à trois in the second act is a possibility).
The performance has many strong elements. First, the staging is truly exceptional. It is no surprise to learn that Albarn's mother was a theatrical set designer. It references both Elizabethan traditions by having musicians above the stage, and also the idea of the occult. It achieves the latter through a combination of techniques. For example, by projecting images onto different types of screens thereby occluding the action, and having the characters disappear and reappear in different poses as if by magic.
The music itself is much better than expected. In addition to Albarn and the musicians suspended above the stage, there are musicians in the orchestral pit creating a full sound. There are plenty of musical references to old English rhythms and tunes. On the performance side, Walsingham (Steven Page) is particularly strong whenever he is on stage.
The downside is the libretto, which is hard to follow, and as the opera is in English there are no surtitles. This may be a blessing as lyrics have never been Albarn's strong suit ("Woo-hoo!"), and you shouldn't need to understand the words to understand an opera anyways.
This leads to the biggest criticism of the production which is that it is very difficult to follow what is going on, even if you are familiar with John Dee and the history of Western esotericism. This is largely because telling the entire story of Dee's is too much for the opera format.
Consider the middle of the second act, where we see the domestic life of Dee, his wife, and his accomplice Kelley. Kelley is lusting after Dee's wife, and convinces Dee to convince her to have a threesome. They do this to disastrous consequence. Now, in a more conventional opera, these two and a half scenes would make up its entirety. We would understand the actions motivations of Don Dee much better. It would probably be a comedy.
In Dr Dee, however, Albarn and Norris are not only trying to tell a whole life story, but also to situate that story within the contexts of both Elizabethan and contemporary England. It''s very ambitious, and it''s done as well as it can be, but it's simply too much for the audience to take in and follow. After the opera, Dee remains as obscure and esoteric a figure as ever.
Dr Dee is at the London Coliseum until Saturday, July 7th. It's not cheap.