Friday 29 June 2012

Dr Dee at ENO, or Pageantry is no Substitute for Heart (or indeed Score)

One of the mantras of ENO's Artistic Director John Berry has been his desire to get new audiences into the opera house (he has often seemed less concerned with retaining his old ones). As such the chance to stage a new 'opera' by former Blur frontman Damon Albarn must have seemed like the answer to his wildest dreams. For this member of the old ENO audience the evening raises two rather tricky questions: Whether it is a) an opera and b) deserving of a staging in one of London's two subsidised opera houses.

However, let us start with the positives. This is a show which looks stunning. Indeed “Dr Dee: A Pageant” would be a rather more appropriate advertisment than “Dr Dee: An Opera”. The flexible books enlarging to walls or imitating slinkies, the massed ships of the English fleet (though I was irresistibly reminded of Stephen Oliver and Tim Rice's Richard I setting off on crusade in Blondel to a much better tune), and the stereotyped English dancers throwing themselves backwards into the void were particular highlights...not to mention the gratuitious use of birds (feathered) at start and end.

The trouble is that visual sumptuousness will carry you only so far and regrettably everything else in this show sags. It isn't infuriating, it isn't badly done, it just isn't very interesting and it failed the key Dr Pollard test of making me care about the protagonists. In short, God save us from the mediocre.

Partly this is a problem of plot. As the title may suggest the show tells the tale of Dr Dee. Loosely. It's not bad material for an opera, but it is told episodically and mostly by Albarn and the chorus. Few of the characters are ever allowed to sing about anything at any length (and when they do sing their diction is mostly poor) so they cannot engage our emotions that way, and the structure of the episodes is not such as to develop much sense of drama or tension (the sudden appearance of the Scryer at the end of Act 1 was especially opaque). I was briefly moved by the courtship between Dr Dee and his future wife but it was all too fleeting.

Musically it reminded me of the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue gag (which I'm sure I've quoted before on this blog) about Andrew Lloyd Webber writing 'One song to the tune of the same song.' Some nice instrumentation and the ability to croon in a rather croaky way are not sufficient in themselves to constitute the musical portion of an opera (or indeed a musical come to that) - and I enjoy hearing some of his pop songs when they turn up on the radio. But in terms of the genre he is attempting to enter far too many other people have written better lyrics and set them to better music. To give just one example, I commend Paul Hilton on his diction in the patter number about bisecting squares and triangles to produce some kind of mathematical proof but Tom Lehrer and Flanders and Swann got to that kind of joke before and did it far better. It isn't just a matter of it being difficult to find the big tune but that Albarn and Norris are not capable of that art that the great opera composers have of writing a single phrase, setting those few words that tell you so much emotionally about the character. To take a modern operatic comparison there is nothing here to compare with that single telling phrase in Adams's Death of Klinghoffer - “I should have worn a hat.” It is also worth noting that the singers (apart from Albarn) do not come across as especially distinguished (Christopher Robson does have a long operatic career so either it was the writing or the miking).

Overall then this is a not unpleasing visual spectacle, it's generally tuneful and if you really like Albarn as an artist (that is you listen to whole albums of him at one sitting) you will probably quite enjoy it. But it is not a good introduction to opera because it isn't really one. If this was your first opera it would give you no way to know whether you might also like Handel or Purcell or Verdi or Strauss or Wagner or Britten or Adams. By all means let us make opera unstuffy, let us make the houses welcoming. Let us find ways to explain clearly what the artform is and how it works. But let us not pretend that everybody is going to or indeed should love opera. Let us encourage people to discover their position by exposure to true opera not such attempts at musically undistinguished cross-over.

Finally, this show does garner a new Where's Runnicles award:

The Dr Dee Award for Gratuitous Use of Birds (Feathered) is awarded to Rufus Norris and the Dr Dee production team.


The Wagnerian said...

As someone with a more than passing interest in both Dee and Albarn I would, alas, have to agree very much with your observations Finn. Indeed, I might add that I am bewildered as to how anyone could mange to make any work about Dee boring. But somehow this seems to be the case. And I am someone who can manage to listen to Albarn's albums - and most of his "projects" with relative ease.

Finn Pollard said...

@The Wagnerian - Thanks for your comments - especially interested given you are obviously more familiar with Albarn's other work than I. Did you see Monkey?

Christopher Robson said...

I won't comment much on your review. Being a professional singer for nearly 38 years now, I am happy to accept all points of view. I would like to just point you in the direction of the link below, which struck me as a very interesting take on the question of DR DEE as an opera. Interestingly enough, the original title when we premiered the piece in Manchester last year was "Dr Dee - an English Opera". Thank you for your comments above, always interesting to get the feedback even when one doesn't necessarily agree with the viewpoint.

Finn Pollard said...

@Christopher - thanks for taking the time to read the piece and for pointing me to the link in question which makes interesting reading. The work has clearly produced some divergent reactions and I'm quite aware that others have found more in the music than I.

The Wagnerian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Wagnerian said...

Sorry, deleted to make a clarification:

Monkey is a far different beast Finn - in my opinion. It is far closer to the Gorillaz "project" (as I believe Albarn has stated) than anything else. Thus musically it has a far different "foundation" and I feel that it works better. I think the fault with Dee is that Alan Moore left the project and the Albarn was left with something whose nature it feels he barely understood.

My issue with Albarn's Dr Dee is that it has somehow managed to make one of England's more interesting Elizabethans "boring". I think you might learn more (and find more of interest) about Dee from going the British Museum and viewing his "Scrying Mirror", etc

As you non doubt know, the idea for an opera based on Dr Dee was not Albarn and or Hewlett's but actually Alan Moore's - they, instead had originally, I believe, intended to create a Super Hero opera and approached Moore with this in mind. However, it was Moore who suggested Dee as a subject instead. This should probably come as little surprise to anyone that has followed Moore's previous musical works - or indeed his graphic novel output.

I might argue, that if one listens to Dee, I think the influence of Moores work as part of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels can be slightly detected - although Dee is alas far less "effective". But then those works are not operas.

To me, and of course as Christopher points out above these things are of personal taste, Dr Dee by Albarn and Norris is John Dee's "Magic Mirror" only, while I would suspect, had Moore remain involved, it would have been all of his artifacts that still exist and more.

Christopher: Thank you for the link and thoughtful comments. Alas for me it is not a matter of it's "operatic credentials" it is simply that it it "boring" and does not do justice to its subject matter

Finn Pollard said...

@The Wagnerian - Thanks for your very extensive and thoughtful comments which I read with interest. Was back at ENO for Billy Budd this evening so haven't managed to look at the Youtube links yet but will do so. Interesting that it was Moore's project originally - his dropping out might certainly explain some of the problems.

The Wagnerian said...

Indeed, perhaps more information than you might need Finn, but if you were feeling really "nerdy" track down a copy of "Strange Attractor" Vol 4 which features a 30 page "feature" written by Moore which includes part of the original libretto and his stage design concepts.

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