Palace Theatre, Manchester, July 1st
During the intermission of [a]Damon Albarn[/a]’s ‘English opera’, debuted tonight as the centerpiece of this year’s Manchester International Festival, [a]NME[/a] overhears a couple of the city’s assembled criterati on the steps of the Palace Theatre, discussing what they’ve just seen: “It’s very… impressionistic,” proffers the first, hopefully. “I haven’t got a bloody clue what’s going on, but I’m absolutely mesmerised,” admits the other, bluntly. Dr Dee, a loose-woven musical tableaux of scenes from the extraordinary life of Elizabethan alchemist, astronomer, necromancer, mathematician, wife-swapper and all-round rock star John Dee, is obviously not your average solo project. On paper, ‘Afro-pastoral folk opera’ might sound like pomposity of the sort in which [a]Sting[/a] usually engages, but while we could (correctly) describe it as an openly pretentious conceptual meditation on the nature of Englishness, why scare you off something that is so visually sumptuous and musically haunting?
Dee is a fascinating subject – he was one of Elizabeth I’s most trusted advisers, an early architect of the British Empire, the finest mind of his generation and, eventually, a poverty-stricken outcast – but his story is told in fragments, and unless you’re up on the history, his Wikipedia entry will be required reading.
[b]Bertie Carvel[/b], as Dee, plays him eerily mute for much of the show, leaving Albarn – perched above the stage with an acoustic guitar under his arm and a notebook he frantically scribbles at throughout – to fill in the blanks.
The songs are sombre, stark and beautiful, close in tone to [a]The Good, The Bad & The Queen[/a] – and though Albarn has said there’s no reason why someone else shouldn’t sing them, his voice and voyeuristic meta-presence is integral to the opera’s success. Indeed, watching him grin at a well-executed set-piece is as much a part of the show as the events unfolding onstage. The strange, esoteric visuals laid on by director Rufus Norris, meanwhile, complement the music perfectly. One stunningly realised scene sees Dee and his wife making love under the majestic spectre of Elizabeth herself, suspended overhead by flowing golden finery, while another finds him conversing with angels as Albarn conducts his band by dementedly pumping his fists. Even if you’re left wondering what it all means, you can’t help but doff your cap to the sheer spectacle of it all.
Dr Dee is unapologetically highbrow and difficult. There’s a cheap shot to be had about how Albarn is writing librettos on long-dead English polymaths while Liam fronts [a]Beady Eye[/a] – but what’s the point? The eccentric path of his solo career no longer bears meaningful comparison to any of his contemporaries. There will undoubtedly be those who wish he’d just get the old band back together again, but so long as his between-[a]Blur[/a] endeavours remain as wyrd and wonderful as this, we’re happy to go on waiting.