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Dr Dee, An English Opera Reviewed: MIF 2011

Jonathan Schofield and a proper feast for the ears and eyes

Written by . Published on July 4th 2011.


Dr Dee, An English Opera Reviewed: MIF 2011

The Confidential MIF rating: 17.5/20

Originality 4/5; Performances (acting etc) 4/5; Audience delight: 3.5/5; Production 5/5.

Dee4
A lot of people were saying on the review visit, “This is great, but I don’t know what’s going on.” The Magic Flute is a classic opera by Mozart, the story starts like this: ‘Tamino, a handsome prince, is lost in a distant land and is being pursued by a serpent. He faints from fatigue and three attendants of the Queen of the Night appear and kill the serpent...”

Can you imagine trying to pick that plot line up?

Dee is the same and a little learning will go a long way. So, as a public service let's start this review with a bit of Dee history. Either way you should buy the programme if you're going and read the page on Dee.

John Dee, English Renaissance man, mathematician, spy, alchemist is always good material.

He's beloved of literary types such as Peter Ackroyd (click here) because he was complex and odd, and adored now by musical types such as Damon Albarn for his...er...mystical, complex, oddness: and by Manchester tour guides because he lived here for a bit. And was complex and odd.

A proper egghead with a voluminous love of mathematics, and a penchant for book learning, he got fed up with being chatted up by Queen Elizabeth's Court yet never getting any dosh so he turned to alchemy to make his own money - literally.

On the way he met a bad chap called Edward Kelley. Kelley convinced him he could communicate with the spirits - particularly one called Uriel - and lead Dee to deep levels of eternal knowledge. And probably fame and wealth too.


In one bizarre episode Kelley said to achieve fame, power, money, Dee had to share his beloved wife Jane - they'd married when he was 51 and she was 23. Some reports say Dee agreed, some say he didn't. Unsurprisingly this caused a break between Kelley and Dee.

Dee was given the position of Warden of Manchester in the 1590s, only for his wife Jane to get carried off by the plague in 1604. Heartbroken he resigned his position and went back to his house in Mortlake and died in poverty attended by his daughter Katherine. 

Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris cover much of this tragedy with great verve, humour, drama, farce and good tunes. I adored the piece. Compared with Rufus Wainwright's tedious Prima Donna at MIF 2009, this was a vigorous and pacey production that dazzled the eyes, charmed the ears, and zipped along right to the last, sad demise of Dee.

The love scene between Dee (actor Bertie Carvel) and Jane (Clemmie Sveaas), both topless was a vignette worthy of long contemplation. It took place under a vast rood-screen comprising Elizabeth I with skirts bellowing on each side, and the whole thing lit like a field of gold. Beautiful. It was accompanied by a lovely song. 

The music was a combination of Albarn's world music learnings, Renaissance instruments and instrumention, plus big orchestral numbers. Albarn was a Puck or Ariel character perched elf-like on stairs watching the scene below. His strong voice and clear intonation, added an English folksiness to the operatic performances of, in particular, Anna Dennis and Steven Page.

Arngeir Hauksson who played the lute is clearly a genius, and the BBC Philharmonic under Andre de Ridder were as tight as the top E string on a guitar. Wonderful stuff.

The character of Kelley, as played by Christopher Robson, was perhaps the sole jarring note. Clearly a master of the countertenor's ear-piercing art, his bald headed, fatman, too often strayed into silliness that wasn't funny, just awkward. He looked more like a eunoch in the Sultan's Harem in Istanbul rather than a lusty wife-swapping, dark arts dabbler. 

That aside, make time for a visit to Dr Dee. It's a feast of a piece. Dee embodied his time to perfection, the English Renaissance, when the pursuit of knowledge was re-awakened through the type of science we would recognise now, yet where the old superstitions still had influence and power. Albarn and Norris capture this wonderfully well. I might get another ticket, go again. 

By the way our Haunted Underworld tours on Manchester Confidential give you John Dee in the dark during his Manchester years. You can find out about them here.

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10 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

TimJuly 4th 2011.

Nah! It was confused and incoherent. No-one knew what was supposed to be going on! Not just me. Some lovely music and visuals can't compensate for the muddled narrative. Dr Dee himself remained a closed book, we learned next to nothing about the man. Disappointing.

FordJuly 4th 2011.

It's opera Tim, tell me a coherent, and not confusing opera. The point about Magic Flute the writer makes is right. Operas are a series of set pieces with songs. And occasionally a narrative breaks in. This was simply beautiful.

Robert MartinJuly 4th 2011.

I agree with Ford. I've never seen an opera that you didn't have to know about in advance to get the most out of. A bit of homework beforehand made the experience perfectly understandable.

TimJuly 4th 2011.

So let me get this straight, unlike films, books, plays, tv or any other art form, its ok if opera doesn't make sense because a) it looks nice and b) the music's alright too.??

Laura MaleyJuly 4th 2011.

Almost total lack of detailed narrative, but that didn't really hamper my enjoyment (more it frustrated me). Stunning visually and the music was terrific too.

Ron DevilJuly 4th 2011.

IT IS OPERA. Read up and find the detail of the story. Then sit back and enjoy the spectacle giving yourself little nods of conceited congratulationwhen you spot the references. This was terrific fun.

Robert DonaldJuly 6th 2011.

As with Tim, above, I found the 'Dr Dee' creation not a convincing whole. After seeing 'Monkey' which was absolutly brilliant in all its aspects- music, performances and design production, I was looking forward to this new work with great anticipation. Although the first half was clearly and brilliantly produced the second half , from its beginning, collapsed into incoherent, confusing and ineffective visual and vocal confusion. The progression towards the final 'moral' by Albarn was totally lost.
Even the most 'confused' operatic storyline should, and usually does, make sense in the end, with or without prior reading up or preparation.
Good effort but, for me this time- NO.

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