Dr Dee, Manchester International Festival, Palace Theatre

Thrills from Damon and the doctor
  • @pvall

There is a hole in the heart of Damon Albarn's new opera, Dr Dee. And it is a surprising one.

John Dee was one of the greatest minds of the Tudor era – a mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, philosopher, occultist, alchemist, courtier and spy. He cracked enemy codes for the Queen, advised how to defeat the Spanish Armada, and helped her explorers navigate the globe to create the British Empire, a term he invented.

In an age before science, religion and magic split he had England's biggest library, divided the natural world into species, pioneered the Gregorian calendar and became physician to Elizabeth I. Believing numbers were the key to knowledge, he began to hold seances with a dodgy medium called Edward Kelley to converse with angels and unlock the secrets of nature. He was the model for both Prospero and Dr Faustus.

Plenty to write about there, you'd have thought. And certainly Albarn and the director Rufus Norris have created something thrilling and visually stunning. Giant books cascade like the pleats of accordions in perpetual motion. A carapace of coronation robes rise to canopy the world. Projected line-drawings dissolve magically. Norris conjures the English fleet from a few billowing sails, flocks of doves from silk-twirling dancers, the pillaging of Dee's library with a massive fall of swirling papers, and an ominous flock of ravens like something from Hieronymus Bosch. The staging is mostly a triumph, but the opening dumb show and final song don't work.

There is a haunting minor melancholy about the music. The BBC Philharmonic plays Albarn's spare score alongside an on-stage band of lutes, viols and shawms with African harp and drums. It evokes the era without resorting to pastiche. The frail, strained voice of Albarn works well against the vibratoless purity of fine early music singing. Counter-tenor Christopher Robson is icily repellent as Kelley.

But in the end the piece does not properly tell us the story, reducing it to Kelley's psychological seduction of Dee and the rape of his wife. Bertie Carvel, as Dee, has almost no lines. This a masque with music, all symbols, hints and allusions. But it never makes us care about the hero. "England, sing for John Dee," Albarn concludes, but he gives us no reason why we should. These are rich components. What is missing is the alchemy to turn them into gold.

To 9 July (0844 847 2484)