sat 20/09/2014

Dr Dee, English National Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Dr Dee, English National Opera

An operatic celebration of England that's as intelligent as it is entertaining

Gloriana: Elizabeth I (Melanie Pappenheim) watches over her peopleRichard Hubert Smith

Riding the same wave of affectionate, riotously melancholic Englishness which carried Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem to success, Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee is dark enough to delight even the most cynical of Jubilee naysayers, gorgeous enough in its national pageantry to crown the cultural celebrations of this landmark year.

Originally seen at last year’s Manchester International Festival (a reliable promise of good things). the show has been reworked for its Coliseum staging, and if the result is little clearer in its hallucinatory narrative, its confusion remains as compelling, as black-magical as ever.

Multimedia tableaux reinvent books as coiling, cascading spirals of pages that encircle and oppress Dee

The Elizabethan polymath Dr John Dee – alchemist, physicist, courtier and philosopher – is a figure as beloved of artists as conspiracy theorists, and in his latest incarnation here (in the rangy, restless form of Paul Hilton) we find another dream-vision of his troubled psyche.

While the synopsis might divide the opera into discrete sections – “Knowledge”, “Power”, “Empire” – charting the rise and devastating fall of its hero, the action strays through the material with associative whimsy, chronological rationality drowned in a clamour of images and musical fragments. The loose-fitting dramatic form is held together almost entirely by Rufus Norris’s ingenious staging.

There’s more than a touch of the physical creativity of Complicite here, as Norris marshals an ensemble of dancing, singing actors through multimedia tableaux that reinvent books as coiling, cascading spirals of pages that encircle and oppress Dee, produce a tender shadow-dance for the lovemaking of Dee and his wife, and offer a fantastical image of Elizabeth I suspended in mid-air, trailing golden skirts hanging like curtains to the floor. The doubts and darknesses that haunt Dee become ravens, rendered with jerky vividness by dancers and latterly (in the evening’s final coup de théâtre ) by three live birds, whose cackling arrival on the Coliseum stage from the balcony offers a bathetic eulogy to the great man.

Perching like some disaffected troubadour on the edge of the stage is Albarn himself, crooning out his delicate folk-inflected ballads

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Saw this production on June

Saw this production on June 26. Visually captivating, an absolute gem of creativity. My friend Steve and I were unfamiliar with the story of John Dee but managed to have a remarkably insightful discussion of the portrayal of his life on the train back to St Albans after the performance -see it.

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