Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows

July 08, 2012

from Dr. Dee at ENO
Damon Albarn is not the first British pop or rock star to venture into the world of musical theater, or opera if you must. He won’t be the last either, I wager, but he has shown some tenacity in the medium having provided music for at least two collaborations that have come to life at the Manchester International Festival and received subsequent stagings at English National Opera. The last of those Monkey Journey to the West was so successful, that Albarn teamed up with stage director Rufus Norris for a piece of his own inspiration, Dr. Dee, which just finished its run at ENO this week. While still a collaboration, Albarn had much more overall input into Dr. Dee. He is credited with the music and as “co-creator,” a title shared by Norris who is also the director.

You may have noticed the lack of a writing credit. I did as well, though I learned about it the hard way in actually seeing the show. On the good side, Albarn has an eye for interesting subject matter. Dr. Dee is about John Dee, a 17th-century mathematician and expert on the occult who was an advisor and political consultant at times to Queen Elizabeth I. The opera portrays a meteoric rise to power for Dee which is paired with the inevitable downfall. In the story, his troubles begin when he becomes increasingly involved in his real life project of deciphering the language of angels that was passed onto him through a medium, Edward Kelley. Kelley eventually tells Dee that an angels has demanded that Dee share his wife with him. In Dr. Dee, the court tires of his useless decoding work and he soon falls from favor. If all this sounds familiar, it should. The figure of the real life Dee is thought to have had some influence both on the figure of Marlowe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Neither Albarn nor Norris has quite those talents, though, and Dr. Dee falters both in its rather pedestrian musical score, and an overreliance on 20th-century clichés about faith and love. The music isn’t unpleasant, mind you. It’s a string of pop songs, many of which Albarn plays along on during the show tinged with Elizabethan musical instrumentation. There is very little padding between the songs making the show a bit less of an opera and a tad more of a musical theater piece. The songs are sung by Albarn as well as some members of the cast including Paul Hilton who sings John Dee and Christopher Robson who sings the role of Edward Kelley. I can’t say much more about the songs in that the acoustics of the show were plagued with the problems pop shows usually are. Amplification was used for all the sound, and in this setting, it meant voices were so distorted as to be indecipherable. For some inexplicable reason, the house which uses supertitles despite performing everything in English chose not to use them for Dr. Dee helping no one.

The strongest parts of the evening come from Norris’ sharply designed and directed staging. A large, stage length room resembling a meeting hall fills much of the stage when things begin. The room contains a band with period instruments as well as Albarn but before long the room elevates revealing a large space where Dee and his fellow Elizabethan’s will act out the depicted events. There is ample use of video to highlight Dee’s mathematical and supernatural work. The images sweep along in a pleasant way and there is clever use of large paper screens to escort players on and off stage in a manner reminiscent of Japanese theater. There are even live birds that fly from the theater balcony onto the stage at one point that created a lot of excitement.

But at the core, and despite it’s good looks, Dr. Dee is hollow. It attempts to dredge up drama from the rather banal conflict Dee feels about the idea of “sharing” his wife with Edward Kelley. And when its not doing this, the story feels more like filler than anything else. Of course, other British pop and rock acts have turned stranger and more esoteric music theater pieces into gold, so who's to say what Albarn might get to next or what Dr. Dee might look like over time. Now it just looks dull.

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