Reviewed by Geraldine Beskin
Damon Albarn is a hugely successful and versatile musician. He is ambitious where his projects are concerned and immerses himself in a large number of them. So far, so typical of a creative man but when sincerity and scholarship are added to the mix, extraordinary things happen. Dr Dee The Opera is a classic example of that as the life and times of the Elizabethan polymath being set to music is not an obvious thing to do. Using classically trained voices and orchestra with World musicians, modern dress and Tudor costumes made this opera for modern minds and ears.
The use of the one quintessentially identifiably Elizabethan items, the ruff as a motif was inspired, as they transformed from neckwear to books to walls.The representation of Cardinal Wolsey growing and growing by giving him higher and higher boots and eventually, stilts, emphasised his political power as it grew. Queen Elizabeth's glory was demonstrated by her elevation to a monstrous height with a splendid gold dress that filled the stage and was truly dazzling. Kelley's falsetto voice kept him as an eerie and other worldly man. The complexities of the relationship between him and John Dee were most dramatically and disturbingly in the wife swapping scene.
The fierce, raging intellect of Dee was nowhere better demonstrated than the minutes long song about a mathematical equation that is surely also the hardest in any opera because of it's abstract content.
Dr Dee The Opera was produced as part of the Manchester Festival in 2011. The version that was at The Colosseum, London in 2012 was different in many ways. It seemed to have been 'focus grouped' too much and the passion of the piece was a little lacking. Both played to full houses and fans of the good Doctor were thrilled to have him acknowledged by such an important modern composer as Damon Albarn.
The CD Dr Dee the Opera is available and worth having. YouTube has a wonderful clip from Jules Holland Later with Damon Albarn singing one of the songs. This shows the depth of feeling he has for the subject and is more like a personal meditation than a performance.
Dee the navigator knew about America, perhaps it is time Hollywood knew of him.