Sunday, July 10, 2011
#MIF11: Doctor Dee
Doctor Dee was a grand, blazing spectacle. On that level it was extraordinarily successful; it was good fun to watch. The staging, sets and costumes were ingenious and beautiful. From the opening moments, when Scooby the raven flew from the back of the hall for his star turn, you felt that this was going to be something really different. And it was. The way that projections were used, the cunning tricks with books, paper and balloons, the choreography and the curving beaked raven masks... it was mesmerising, in the way that watching a series of beautiful, evocative tableaux can be hypnotic.
But once you'd had your fill of spectacle, there wasn't much else on offer. For me, Doctor Dee failed on the most basic level: as a story. It lacked heart. It lacked developed characters and anything resembling a proper narrative. (Albarn has apparently said it's closer to masque than an opera, which may be an effort to excuse the lack of narrative structure, but the masque isn't a form that we know much about these days so that doesn't really mean anything to me.)
I was beyond excited to see this. It's hard to imagine a more interesting subject for an opera than Dee, who I'd read lots of mysterious things about over the years. The man was supposedly the model for both Faust and Prospero, and seems to be the closest thing to an actual magician we've ever had.
Yet with all that Dee supposedly did and was, the best they could come up with was a vague interaction with the court of Elizabeth, some noodling about with scrying bowls and blindfolds, with it all culminating in the wife swapping incident that we're supposed to believe was his downfall? Sorry, but I need more than that to work with. It felt half-baked; rushed and under-researched, and as if it was missing an experienced writer's guiding hand. I can't help but wonder how different it might have been if Alan Moore hadn't left the project early on. If reports that Moore was the one who had the idea to do an opera about Dee are true (and it certainly sounds like the kind of subject he'd pick) then his participation would have been fairly essential to the whole thing coming off well.
One of the most crushing errors of judgment here has to do with the way Dee himself is presented. He never sings, which makes him a curiously inert presence on stage. Albarn sings Dee's part (sort of) and also that of a narrator at the same time, perched above the actors like a leather-jacketed angel. The effect gives us the impression that Dee is not someone who does things, as such a powerful and illustrious man must have been, but is someone that things happen to. He's one of the weakest characters in a pretty nebulous and weak bunch; only Walsingham (in tremendously cool stilts) and unearthly-voiced medium Edward Kelley make any impression at all. But all are secondary to Albarn, who opens and closes things and is at the forefront even when he's not in the spotlight, somehow.
I have a lot of time for Damon Albarn. I like his music and he always seems like a good guy in interviews. I'm not even going to take issue with his "Englishness" obsession, which I don't really get. But I mostly wished he would have butted out a bit more here. I suppose that wouldn't necessarily appeal to the same audience, would it? His fans want to see him. But the ENO is hardly a backing band. They did astonishingly well with what they were given. The music for Doctor Dee reminded me a lot of what I'd heard of The Good, The Bad and The Queen; mournful and plonky but charming in a vague sort of way. It had a few soaring moments, but the music didn't feel very connected to what was happening on stage. The lyrics Albarn sang seemed foggy and remote from the story they were meant to be amplifying. Rather than clarifying or commenting on the action, they somehow abstracted things further.
So, I didn't like it. It must be pointed out that I seemed to be in the minority. Most of the audience was on their feet cheering themselves hoarse at the end. Go figure. For me it was a triumph of style for sure, but not so much on the substance. And you need both.