A few weeks ago (before becoming collectively hooked on the Olympics) we packed our binoculars, put on our wellies and waded over to Covent Garden to be transported to the eerie depths of Elizabethan England via Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee.
Co-created with director Rufus Norris as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Albarn’s latest musical offering got a gold-medal winning review from Team WR, especially Vicky, one of our Project Managers and dedicated Damon Albarn groupie…The curtain rose to allow two (real!) ravens to swoop down and perch on a musicians gallery suspended above the main stage. The gallery was the perfect showcase for Albarn and his band (including long time collaborator Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen) who remained a hovering presence throughout, gelling the production together musically and visually.
The story is focused on the mysterious figure of Dr John Dee; alchemist, astronomer, geographer, sage and advisor to Elizabeth I. A man none of the WR team had heard of before Wiki-ing him the afternoon before the performance, but who was credited with providing much of the intelligence that shaped the British Empire at the time. However, Dee’s insatiable intellect saw his interests spiral from the realms of science into magic, and an unhealthy obsession with the occult eventually became his downfall. His career and life ending tragically, shrouded in disgrace and sexual scandal. A good juicy tale for an opera!
Without the use of subtitles the plot was vague but just about clear enough to follow. Dee is chosen to chart a suitable coronation date for Elizabeth I, he rises in favour at court, but shortly after develops a relationship with occultist Edward Kelley – together they become increasingly obsessed with communing with angels, one of whom tells Kelley he really should sleep with Dee's wife. And so the downfall unfurls.
Without a strong plot, the performance was dramatically brought to life by the creativity and physicality of the staging. Real ravens were mimicked by crow-headed dancers, giant books like slinkies poured out knowledge and turned into concertina’d screens darting across the stage. These provided a place to hide shadowed scenes and illuminate animated projections – silhouettes, weird symbols,astrological data, messages from angels. The overall impression -intriguing, darkly energised and strangely beautiful.
Dr Dee was an ENO performance at The Coliseum