Damon Albarn’s opera is dizzying and confusing but works if you are prepared to let reason give out and impression take over
The quest for knowledge — and the danger of placing it above reason, duty and love — is the theme at the heart of Damon Albarn and the director Rufus Norris’s opera on the life of the 16th century astronomer, cartographer and alchemist John Dee. It’s a confusing, dizzying work and it works if you are prepared to let reason give out and impression take over.
John Dee was a celebrated scholar, one of the first Englishmen to apply mathematics to astronomy. He chose the date for Elizabeth’s coronation, helped map the New World, proposed the creation of a British Empire and was lionised at court until falling under the influence of a sinister magician called Edward Kelley. I learnt this from reading the programme, which is lucky because it would be impossible to glean it from watching the opera. Dr Dee is worth persevering with, though, because as an experimental work and a visual spectacle, it is quite magical.
A raven — a real one — is the first actor on the stage, landing above a set featuring the musicians, which include the Nigerian legend, Tony Allen, on a set of custom-built drums, Arngeir Hauksson on an oversized lute called a theorbo, and Albarn, a shadowy presence throughout the performance, on guitar at the side of the stage. A series of English archetypes including a punk, a City gent, a suffragette and a pair of Puritans take us back through history until we arrive at Paul Hilton’s Dee, looking remarkably like Mick Fleetwood on the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours
The story unfolds principally through the use of a series of remarkable stage sets. Concertinas folding out of books and around the actors evoke the world of learning that Dee is immersed in.
Queen Elizabeth’s rise to the heavens in a golden gown represents both her coronation and her earthly power. Walsingham, the spymaster who first recruited Dee into the court of Elizabeth, becomes an ever more threatening figure as the doctor falls out of favour. Screens of astrological diagrams, becoming so complex they fall into chaos, describe Dee’s brilliance dissolving into madness.
There are moments when more standard operatic conventions take over. A scene with Dee and his wife, their relationship destroyed by Dee’s infatuation with Kelley, is beautiful; a gentle theorbo and kora accompaniment articulates the pathos of the moment. Equally moving is Dee on his deathbed, exiled and ridiculed with his library in tatters, watched over by his daughter, Katherine.
In the main, though, this is an unlikely melange that comes together, almost by accident rather than design. At the heart of the opera is an age-old theme: at what point does the ego poison the pursuit of knowledge? Albarn’s been a rock star for 20 years, so it’s a subject he will be familiar with. Dr Dee
is his attempt to tackle it.