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Doctor Dee

Last month, I was lucky enough to catch “Doctor Dee, an English Opera”, as part of the Manchester International Festival. And I have to say, I had a jolly good time. I may as well review it, as it will also be of next year’s Olympic celebrations.

It was a good night out. The production was superb. The set and costumes where as marvellous as you’d expect from a piece set in the Elizabethan era (you’ll believe that the Gloriana can fly), and the music was of the quality you’d expect from Albarn. The actors played their roles with conviction and grace, and everyone who sang had remarkable talent. Many of the key scenes are remarkable and wonderful. (Especially a particularly occult scene which would make any production of The Tempest green with envy) However, it still fell flat in a number of places, simply because, the story of John Dee, as presented, was more tragic than it was compelling.

Dee is a fascinating historical figure, who, though many know the name, few know much about. His biography is a fascinating one, full of conspiracy, scandal, bravery, genius and the occult. So why does John Dee The Opera fail to be exciting?

(c)Norris and Albarn

An amazing production, let down by a story more tragic than it is compelling

Well, partially, it’s because the story the Opera is telling isn’t about Dee, but about the spirituality of England. The production takes pains to take us back in time, to explain to us the way things are in Elizabethan England, and then fails to explore the setting fully. Rather, it asks us to consider how spiritual England is. And frankly, it does this in a pretty half-assed way. One moment it’s asking us why all the churches are empty, the next it’s asking us to witness the fall of a once brilliant man, brought low by hubris.

Apparently, when the opera was in development, they asked Alan Moore to contribute. Moore suggested that they base the opera around Dee, and began work on the project. Predictably, however, Moore threw his toys out the pram during the early stages of the production. Genius he may be, but also infamously difficult to work with. (The full story can be found  here.)  Moore’s influence can be barely felt on the work, but just a touch seems to be enough here. Too much, and I suspect it would have been inaccessible to the majority of the audience, and as it was, many where scratching their heads.

Is it any good? Yes, it is. The songs are great, the production excellent and Albarn and crew are on top form. But if you’re expecting it to be about one of England finest occult minds, you’ll be disappointed.

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Categories: Opera, Reviews
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