Dr Dee Opera: Insipid, Uninspired, Boring and a Sham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Albarn/Norris, Dr Dee: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Stephen Higgins (conductor), Coliseum, London, 26.6.2012. (CC)

Katherine: Anna Dennis
Kelley / Bishop: Christopher Robson
Walsingham: Steven Page
Elizabeth I / Spirit: Melanie Pappenheim
Young Dee: Rebecca Sutherland
Young Katherine: Victoria Cooper
Jane: Clemmie Sveaas
Ensemble: Damon Albarn (vocals / guitar / harmonium), Anne Allen (reeds / recorders). Tony Allen (drums), Liam Byrne (viol), Mamadou Diabate (kora), David Hatcher (reeds / recorders / viols), Arngeir Hauksson (lute / hurdy-gurdy / William Lyons (reeds / recorders) & Mike Smith (keyboards)

Although for most people it seemed to be the figure of Damon Albarn (of Blur fame), for me it was the enigmatic figure of the Elizabethan polymath and mystic Dr John Dee that attracted me. Together with the psychic scryer Edward Kelly, he developed a system of ceremonial magic (or magick, if you prefer) that identified an actual language – and angelic script – that included secrets from the apocryphal Book of Enoch. We should be clear: we are a universe away from the fluffy angel magic of Doreen Virtue, a modern day chancer who has created a whole industry on purported communications with the angels. With Dee and Kelley, we enter a true occultist world, one where angels are no longer cuddly but can be fearsome, frightening figures of awesome power.

The best modern introduction to the system known as “Enochian” magic (or “magick” – there is quite a debate in current occultist circles as to which one should use) is by Steven Skinner and David Rankine, in The Practical Angel Magic of Dr John Dee’s Enochian Tables (published Golden Hoard Press). Both Skinner and Rankine are esoteric scholars, and the level of detail they include is uncanny (this goes for any of the books in their series of “Sourceworks in Ceremonial Magic”). In more recent times, it has been included in the workings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Enochian magic is amazingly complex, and of huge depth.

Which is more than can be said of ENO’s shameful sham of an evening. It is, quite simply, an insult to John Dee and Edward Kelley. Insipid, uninspired and frankly plain boring when it is not doing its utmost to irritate, Albarn and his partner in musical crime director Rufus Norris’ take on Dee makes one wonder why on earth ENO bothered to stage this when there are composers of real talent and vision around. Presumably Albarn has friends in high places – or ENO has cynically gone for bums on seats thanks to Albarn’s following. Certainly there were few spaces around the auditorium that I could see. The painful fact is that there was simply nothing memorable here musically, and the only saving grace was that the evening finished just after 9.30pm and so wasn’t too long. The scoring is intriguing, true, with an ensemble suspended high above the stage (it drops in height later) and an orchestra in the stalls. This ensemble, notably, includes Mamadou Diabate on kora. It also includes viols, lute and hurdy-gurdy. The programme makes reference to Albarn’s variety of expression and of links to Philip Glass. There is certainly an appearance of passages that are sub-Glassian, but we should lean heavily on the “sub” – they essentially prove that Glass’s formula is inimitable, even though when one listens to Glass it sounds as if copying him should be easy. Of course there are ballads, each of them as bland and instantly forgettable as the next, sung by a guitared Albarn. And then there is the Elizabethan pastiche, acceptable attempts to reference the music of the time of the opera’s setting, but again hardly memorable. There is a difference between being able to reference a wide variety of genres within a coherent and cogent mode of expression, and making a patchwork quilt out of whatever happens to capture one’s imagination at the time. Albarn has yet to realize this. Most of the time, the orchestra has little of interest to do.

Technically, all was well with plenty of effects, including projections courtesy of Fifty Nine Productions. (Remember the amazing diving scene in ENO’s Pearl Fishers? That was them!.) The stream of angel writing projected at one point (not mere scrawlings, as one critic has averred), too, reminds us of what a remarkable achievement Dee and Kelley produced.

Pity the poor singers who had to learn this. After seeing Dee on his deathbed at the outset, a series of tableaux traces Dee’s ascent to grace, his favoured place in the court of Elizabeth I and his ensuing fall from that grace (of course it is a woman’s fault – Jane, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting). Playing the part of Katherine, Dee’s daughter, Anna Dennis does her best to find depth and beauty in the score and the result is a character one can sympathise with. Steven Page is a mightily impressive Walsingham, while the otherworldy sounds of countertenor Christopher Robson as Kelley (and indeed the Bishop) were simply remarkable (and, if memory serves, just as impressive as his assumption of the title role of Glass’ Akhnaten back in the 1980s). Melanie Pappenheim excelled as Elizabeth. A great cast.

But there’s a fundamental problem. Albarn’s piece is nonsense and a complete waste of time. If I didn’t appreciate the importance of Dee and Kelley’s work so much, I’d simply call it a bad evening. But the fact is that it is an insult to Dee and his workings, reducing esoteric genius to the meaningless saccharine of the modern pop ballad coupled with bland borrowings from whomsoever takes the composer’s fancy. As such it represents a miscalculation on the part of English National Opera the like of which I have not previously seen. But let’s be generous. Let’s simply forget it ever happened and move on. ENO has so much to offer, as it has proven time and time again. In its quest for the new, for pushing boundaries, miscalculations are bound to occur, and this is certainly one of them. Surely at least some of the money from the tickets can be put towards proper opera by real composers. And to the gentleman on the front row of the dress circle, right in front of me, who recorded the whole thing on his mobile phone: (a) Shame on you! Have you never heard of copyright?; and (b) Why would you even bother anyway?

Colin Clarke