Review: Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee, The Coliseum

There is no denying that Damon Albarn is the Renaissance Man on contemporary British music. He has spanned more genres than you could shake a stick at, taking in indie pop with Blur, virtual hip-hop with Gorrillaz, alt-rock with the Good the Bad and the Queen and African rhythms with his 2002 album Mali Music.

The musician and composer has also dabbled in musical theatre, putting on the phenomenal Monkey: Journey to the West at the O2 in 2008 but the current ENO production of Dr Dee at the Coliseum, part of the London 2012 festival, is his first foray into full-blown opera and, I’m sorry to say, he is only partially successful.

Rufus Norris’s staging is utterly spectacular and in one particularly effective scene John Dee’s thirst for knowledge is evoked as books cascade and concertina around him as he grows from boy to man.

Stunning projections of planets and equations portray Dee’s genius as a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and ultimately chart his downward spiral into the occult.

Albarn’s music is nice enough and his narration punctuates the operatic singing of the characters well but the narrative is difficult to follow, not least because it’s hard to understand what anyone is actually saying, and a thorough reading of the synopsis before the performance starts is highly recommended.

The characters themselves are flat and it’s difficult to empathise with Dee through his rise and fall, even as he lies on his deathbed, mourned only by Albarn.

What a relief, then, that Albarn’s two new releases with Blur last week are such crackers; it bodes well for the band’s performance at the Olympic closing concert in Hyde Park.