Friday, July 13, 2012

Getting down with Dr Dee

Last Saturday evening we went to the opera. That's not a sentence I write very often! We went to the last night of Damon Albarn's Dr Dee at the ENO. And what a splendid evening it was.

Albarn, one of the most creative voices in modern music, has written a glorious and intriguing suite of songs about the weird and mysterious Dr John Dee, a founding fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, astronomer, astrologer, mystic and the man who planned Elizabeth I's coronation.

It was a dazzling show (I'm not sure it's an opera; more a concept album with opera singers singing some of the parts), wonderfully staged, making the most creative use of lights that I've ever seen in a theatre. The stage set was almost bare, scenery such as it was (a table, a bed, a few scientific instruments) came and went behind large curving cardboard books. It was illuminated (literally) by lights that created Dee's mathematical equations and horoscopes. The scene where he plotted the best day for Elizabeth's coronation was a dazzling amalgam of dancers with illuminated orbs coming into alignment behind the gauze curtain on which the lights drew the charts Dee worked on.

The song cycle contains some of Albarn's most haunting melodies and intriguing lyrics. It is a reflection on Englishness - Dee is credited with having invented the idea of a British empire to counter the might of Spain, a scene evocatively brought to life in the show with music and dancers holding the rigged masts of the ships that saw off the Armada. But is also a reflection on ambition and mortality, on the frailty of relationships and the fleeting nature of fame.

So I recommend the album but am hoping that a DVD of the show becomes available or at least a CD with all the songs featured on the night and not just the selection that appears on the album (lovely though that is). I would say 'go and see it' but I can't because it's finished its run and isn't scheduled to return any time soon.

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