Books and Arts; Opera Review; Damon Albarn’s new opera;
Star light, star bright;A meditation on England;
In 1572 a new star blazed through the sky. It was a cataclysmic event for scholars, who believed at the time that the universe was unchanging. From his home in Mortlake, now in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, John Dee gazed up through the still untainted night as his certainties slipped away.
Cartographer, cryptographer, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and imperialist (he came up with the idea of a “British empire”), Dee was a trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, even setting the date for her coronation. The appearance of the star was a pivotal moment in his life. It is also the turning point in “Dr Dee”, a new opera composed by Damon Albarn, frontman of the British pop bands Blur and Gorillaz. Dee’s desire to “know what was knowable in the world”, spurred by that star, leads him to occultism and, ultimately, to his downfall. Science was not so far from magic.
“Dr Dee” was commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, where it had its première last year, as well as the English National Opera, where it runs until July 7th, and the London 2012 Festival, of which it is part. First “cooked up” over eight weeks, “Dr Dee” has been polished since. The result is a spectacular production that combines Mr Albarn’s haunting music with dramatic staging and mesmerising video.
The notion of Englishness, and what has become of it, is at the heart of “Dr Dee”. The opera looks almost longingly at an age before England had reached its peak. The production sees a magnificent Queen Elizabeth I float above her realm (pictured). A great fleet flying the flag of St George sails across the stage. But “Dr Dee” does not dwell on these days of glory. Instead, it considers Dee from a 21st-century perspective. Mr Albarn and his troupe of musicians sit suspended above the proceedings, observing everything from the vantage of what Rufus Norris, the director, calls “a nation in decline”. This fine opera is both a celebration of England and a lament for a nation whose star is on the wane.