Damon Albarn’s second journey into opera – following Monkey: Journey to the West – draws on the life of Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and alchemist – and a figure of fascination for many writers and artists – for inspiration.
Co-authored with Rufus Norris the opera explores John Dee’s life chronologically, though thematically it feels closest in spirit to Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, with its meditations upon aspects of the life of Gandhi. Dee, as played by Paul Hilton, is presented here as a man with an incredible thirst for knowledge, one that leads him to amass one of the largest libraries in Europe; he is enlisted by Elizabeth I as an adviser before finally entering into a Faustian-style pact in order to acquire the superhuman understanding that he so desires.
On a visual level the production is incredibly impressive; in the opening moments a raven swoops across the auditorium down onto the stage. As Dr Dee creates his epic library, the stage is filled with books whose pages concertina outwards so that the resulting army of shelves acquires a life of its own. When Dee explains a mathematical point, images of the Periodic Table, a DNA double helix, and even a London Underground map, appear on a screen behind him. The might and majesty of the Elizabethan Golden Age is depicted by suspending the Queen high above the stage, with her golden robes flowing to the ground, and having English flags glide around the stage like ships.
The main strength of Albarn’s score lies in its variety: he combines Elizabethan, African and more conventional orchestral instruments, and Albarn himself frequently plays the guitar on stage. Although his voice is not operatic in nature, its sheer grit and spirit has its own power. Alongside this, there are Elizabethan folk-style melodies and passages that allow the voices of Melanie Pappenheim – as Elizabeth I – Christopher Robson, as the occultist Edward Kelley, and Anna Dennis, as Dee’s daughter Katherine, to soar in turn. Each voice is skilfully amplified so that the sound is not distorted, and yet the voice still possesses a vibrant, metallic edge.
There are times when the score starts to feel insubstantial. Though there are powerful moments, both dramatically and musically, these are interspersed with moments when the music goes off the boil; as a result the pacing of the piece sags. The second act suffers more from this than the first because it contains less narrative progression as Dee is left to wallow in, and suffer the consequences of, his Faustian-style obsession – thematic ground already well travelled in opera.
The ending, during which Katherine sings to Dee on his deathbed, supported by the chorus, is one of the most potent musically and emotionally, but it’s undermined slightly by Albarn’s own voice, which isn’t quite up the task in hand.
The production is visually rich and has moments of real dramatic power but the score falters in places and the piece as a whole displays a tendency towards cliché. The life and mind of Dr Dee remain closed off, locked up.