British history is certainly a dashing pageant, with its cavaliers and roundheads, its renaissance men and new romantics and its garter sashes dipped in kingfisher blue, thrown over countless brave, and some not so brave, monarchs and national heroes. But from Nelson to Victoria, from morris dancing to music hall, Britain’s chromatic tapestry of mythic figures and traditions all have one thing in common; they all fell over the side of good ship England, into the messy and crowded oblivion that is our nations past.
In a prim and pretty nutshell, that link is what lies behind Damon Albarn’s new English Opera, Dr Dee, which received its world premiere last week at the Palace Theatre, as part of Manchester’s increasingly renowned International Festival. In many ways English opera is a little like English sparkling wine, it is an acquired taste and the stuff from the continent is much better. Nonetheless Albarn’s attempt at reinvigorating our operatic lustre is accomplished and beautiful.
The story is admittedly hard to fathom and the lead character John Dee, an English mathematician, astrologer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth, is largely mute. Instead we are presented with an excellently constructed dream-like sequence of colourful scenes and sharp symbolism, the key events of Elizabeth I’s reign from coronation to armada, anchoring the plot.
The Elizabethan court is skilfully recreated. Elizabeth appears dressed in a nightgown and steps into her ready royal regalia, set up like a fairground cut-out, before being hoisted above the stage, orb and sceptre in hand, the untouchable Virgin Queen, ever-present, yet out of reach. Robert Dudley never stood a chance. The all seeing Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster in chief struts around the stage too, on stilts, little escaping his glaring eye.
Albarn plays the post-modernist minstrel, perched above the stage on a separate level, with a gang of gifted musicians playing medieval instruments, backed by the slightly under used BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. The music is traditionally English, folk filled and pretty and Albarn’s songs intermingle well with the libretto performed on the stage, offering perspective. The stand-out song “Apple Carts” is performed in the opening seconds of the opera and accompanies a parade of English characters from punk rocker to suffragette, from Horatio Nelson to city gent, as they sashay across the stage and drop backwards off a platform, shuffling into eternity, making for a particularly poignant spectacle, just one fine example of a sumptuous staging by director Rufus Norris.
The second half, which perhaps could benefit from a little more crafting, deals with Dee’s relationship with the rather roguish and incongruous Edward Kelley, who claimed he could communicate with angels, a subject which fascinated Dee. Kelley was a bit of a chancer, a bit of a slimy bastard, who told Dee that he had been in touch with “angels” and they had suggested, quite handily, that they share everything, including (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) their wives. Apparently, Dee went along with this and, in hindsight, quite rightly, quickly cottoned on to the fact that a dash of deception was at work and never spoke to Kelley again. Of course the comedic potential of this episode is not at all dwelt on in the performance. Thank God.
Many say that Dee was the first to conceive the notion of a “British Empire” with his advocacy of English expansion into the New World. This of course was during a time when our national characteristics were more swaggering than doubtful. We were a nation more sure of our importance and traditions, a cocksure attitude that would ultimately lead to the “Hurricanes, Spitfires and Tornadoes,” Albarn sings of here, darting through our skies, years of conflict, finally leading to our national collapse. However different we are now though, our roots are still traceable to an older England and Dr Dee is a fine celebration of our common heritage and a poignant reminder that we are only the latest link in a very long chain.
The opera closes with Albarn, the narrator, following the pattern of the suffragette and the Tommy before him, falling backwards into oblivion, his story complete. We are all but articles of our day, as Elizabeth I said, “All my possessions for a moment of time.”