Richard Downes reviews English National Opera’s London premiere of renaissance man Damon Albarn’s visionary new opera ‘Dr Dee’ at the Coliseum, directed by Rufus Norris and presented as a part of the London 2012 Festival.
The performance opens with a short parade of English, historical stereotypes from punk to puritan via the suffragettes, to take us back to the day of Dr John Dee's death in 1608.
We find him examining what makes him who he is, looking hard at his achievements and the source of his doom. Whether we are aware of it or not we are affected by our work and times, whether those influences be hedonists, bankers and politicians at the Ministry of Silly Walks or Rights Fighters.
Back to Dee’s time, forward his time, to arrive back in our time. What a stunning spectacle is made of it in this opera of song, drama, folk themes, dance, hydraulics and electronics. The show is a veritable feast. Time is a metaphor used to transport us between worlds, used to rotate and understand the wheel of life, times to celebrate, to reflect on, to beware.
Operatic voices engage us in righteous revival during a storm of religious persecution. Dee is able to transcend belief. His work is a search for knowledge, founded in mathematics but transformed by astrology and other magical disciplines. Heretical ideas are allowed for he has status. He is given access to the court and advises the barren Queen Elizabeth I, in time devising ideas of empire through which to counter the growth of Catholic Spain, which threatens us again today through economic instability.
Dee is caught in time between science and magic. He scries with a crystal ball, water, obsidian tablets, plates; holds his own book of shadows, calls on spirits, talks to angels, forecasts the future, yet more scientifically; designs, invents, discovers. He is strong. His desire is to learn and to leave a font of knowledge through the creation of a library.
From out of the magic sphere appear the words: "Divine knowledge shall be thine John Dee". Dee is able to sustain, to balance until his preferred scryer, Edward Kelley, mischievously misappropriates his power to deceive. It is here that doom surfaces and suddenly Dee is frail, ailing, walking with a stick. Brief consideration is given in song to what was good, what should have been taken forward. We are invited to consider the ‘poetry of unity’ as The Dancing King now leaves us all in the "green fields of recession".
And so it is in this short parable that I see the passing of time, where we have assumed the stereotype of activist, advocate for change; where we have taken to the streets, with song, chants and invocation. We have witnessed some success. Moving out of dark institutional care systems doled out by state and charity to an enlightened time of rights. Recent reflections have told us to beware a return to darker days.
We are right to fight, but is easy to align ourselves against the cuts, forgetting to say in a much louder tenor what we are for. What we want. When we want it. We must sort this out now; remember we are both a movement based on people and ideas whose current persecution is wrong; the deaths we face are wrong, but tomorrow remains with the potential for yet another Golden Dawn.
We must recalculate, like Dee, where we are going, how we know we are there when we get there; what it is in the poetry of our own unity that we cherish and dream of? What we want to achieve? Not simply what we are against.
You can see a short documentary about the making of Damon's Albarn's New Opera 'Doctor Dee' from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGQlqtiHxvQ
Damon Albarn‘s album ‘Dr Dee’ is available from