MIF review: Damon Albarn's Dr Dee
Damon Albarn returns to Manchester International Festival with his first opera since 2007’s well received Monkey. Mark Powell is uplifted by its simple staging and captivating music.
There’s a little coup de théâtre right at the top of Dr Dee that catches the still-rustling crowd slightly off guard, immediately laying waste to the maxim ‘never work with children or animals’.
Elsewhere, we witness tiny glitches from less obvious sources – snagged costumes, nudged props – but nothing that couldn’t be chalked up to opening night jitters. Nothing, in fact, that comes close to overshadowing a work that, in a strangely uplifting way, veers from the sublime to the ridiculous with almost every scene.
“Albarn’s compositions are things of exquisite and ethereal beauty. He delivers a handful of ballads that could easily have sneaked on to various Blur albums.”
Inevitably, all ears are focused on co-creator/composer Damon Albarn. All eyes, too: in stark contrast to his cloaked presence during MIF 2007’s Monkey: Journey To The West, he perches on a lofty hydraulic platform, looking not unlike the fishing moon-boy from the Dreamworks logo.
His compositions are, almost without exception, things of exquisite and ethereal beauty. Flanked by a flawless coterie of musicians teasing period melodies from arcane instruments, he delivers a handful of ballads that, vocally, could easily have sneaked on to the final third of various Blur albums.
But the mordant, folky libretto breaks wholly new ground for Albarn, and he treads it with admirable dexterity even when ‘air conducting’ with enough gusto to visibly shake the entire rig.
Visually, too, the piece is arresting. Frantic Assembly’s exuberant movement direction is freed up by a minimal set on which walls of concertinaed paper are dragged endlessly about by shadowy, balletic raven figures.
In fact the sensory focus of the piece is so acute that you’ll frequently drift from the efficient but curiously muted cast – indeed, Dee himself, played by a stalwart if vaguely stoic Bertie Carvel, barely opens his mouth.
Page seven of the official programme asks the question ‘Who was John Dee?’, and you’d be wise to know beforehand. Because, of all the questions posed by this pleasingly unusual – as it proves MIF events should be – experiment in pop opera storytelling, that’s pretty much the only one it neglects to answer.
Dr Dee: An English Opera continues at The Palace Theatre, Manchester, until July 9 (not July 4). mif.co.uk