First night: Dr Dee, English National Opera, London

Albarn's divisive tale of an Elizabethan mathematician just doesn't add up

Michael Church
Wednesday 27 June 2012 01:05 BST

People who have bought Damon Albarn's new CD, and who didn't see his stage show last year, may be mystified by its title, because it gives no indication who Dr Dee is or was.

Dr John Dee was an astrologer, cartographer and mathematician at the court of Elizabeth I; he became drawn into the occult, studying the language of the angels with a crackpot scholar named Edward Kelley. As time went on he grew madder, and died in poverty and disgrace.

Why him now? Well, he plays neatly into the current Olympianism, since he was the inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which will loom large in Danny Boyle's forthcoming extravaganza. Albarn himself was invited to co-create (with director Rufus Norris) an opera about Dee, and – surprise, surprise – wrote himself into the piece.

And when the curtain rose, there he was, sharing the deck of an old-fashioned paddle-steamer with an unusual combination of musicians: the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, the Malian kora-player Mamadou Diabate, plus players on the viol and theorbo lute.

Damon sang one of his new Dr Dee songs – not very interesting, but it didn't last long – after which a shiny black crow settled on the roof of the steamer before being displaced by a punk guitarist.

Then, displacing each other in turn, came a Thirties cricketer, a suffragette, Florence Nightingale, Lord Nelson, Charles II – a charming form of time-travel to get us back to the hero in Elizabethan magician's garb.

As incarnated by the actor Paul Hilton, Dee quickly went into mathematician-mode, spouting theorems by the dozen while celestial diagrams were projected behind him.

Damon sang another song, also forgettable, and the stage became peopled with dancer-tumblers dressed up like crows who proceeded to fill it with concertina'd paper walls.

The singing was heavily amplified, but one couldn't make out any of the words; nor could one make much sense of the plot.

Elizabeth (sung by Melanie Pappenheim) was crowned in a very fetching tableau, then hoist aloft where she was left to dangle forgotten while the action moved on elsewhere. Kelley, sung by that fine counter-tenor Christopher Robson, was simply deranged from the start.

After the first 20 minutes things became totally impenetrable, with wall-to-wall special effects, helium balloons galore, and all kinds of shenanigans silhouetted, parish-hall style, by torchlight on curtains – pure am-dram.

But the saddest thing was the way Albarn blew his chances to do something original with the musicians at his disposal – both his chosen band, plus the full orchestra in the pit.

Meanwhile, he seemed happy enough delivering his own songs in his dour little voice (come back Rufus Wainwright), but these had a curious kind of limpness. It was sweet relief when the crow flew back, to be joined by two others, and we were allowed to go home.

And this was billed as "the Faustian tragedy of a great intellect"? Pull the other one.

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