Written by Blur singer Damon Albarn, directed by the award-winning Rufus Norris and "inspired" by graphic novel legend Alan Moore, the ENO's latest production Dr Dee should be be getting As all round.
The plot sees the eponymous Tudor academic fall in love, study every ology under the Sun and grow into a valuable Royal adviser of the first Queen Elizabeth before losing his job, his girl and his life. So far, so opera. What sets this story apart is the way that Albarn and co have taken operatic tradition as a start and created something a world away from traditional ENO fare.
The staging and set design deserve special mention. As well as having a pitful of classical musicians, Albarn and his backing band, some wielding period instruments, spend much of the show in full view on a mezzanine level. Queen Elizabeth sings most of her lines in midair, giant paper accordions are used for walls and a bed moves by itself around the stage while projections are used successfully to capture Dee's world of geometry, astronomy, astrology and advanced mathematics.
Although Dee spent much of his life calculating his position in relation to the stars and the earth around him, ironically the show's creators are lost when it comes to putting together a production effective enough to bring his tale to life. There is a poor marriage of live vocals and Albarn's downbeat soundtrack, the miked sound mutes the natural power and projection of the talented performers' voices and, overall, very little empathy is generated for the characters. Not even a silhouetted sex scene raises the temperature during a maudlin and plodding first half; the action after the interval lifts the mood and the stakes somewhat though never enough for us to terribly care what happens to Dee.
The impressionistic tableaux left the hardened operagoers and newbies we spoke to relatively clueless to the deeper meaning of each scene beyond described in the show notes. The story's humanity is lost in the over-produced audio and the acting required wouldn't even stretch Keanu Reeves. At best, this is ultimately a very pretty piece of musical theatre; at worst, a pretentious vanity project which will disappoint Blur fans and opera nuts alike.
If you want to know more about the show, there's a pre-performance talk tomorrow (Thursday 28 June) at 5.30-6.15pm, cost £5. Dr Dee continues on 28, 29 June & 4, 6, 7 July at 7.30pm plus 7 July at 2.30pm. Running time is two hours with a single interval. Ticket prices and availability can be found on the ENO website.