This week has seen the opening of Damon Albarn's 'Dr Dee' at the ENO and the reviews of both the production and the album seem somewhat mixed. This is actually a revised version - it was first staged at the Manchester festival last year - in its first extended run, with performances at the Coliseum until the 7th of July.
In some ways it is really no surprise that there are differing views, as this is an unusual experiment, combining a pop musician with a pit orchestra and other elements of 'classical opera'. It seems that opinion is divided on what to refer to it as: is it an opera or musical theatre, and where does the album fit in? As a result how you view 'conventional' opera, pop music in general, and Doman Albarn's style are all significant factors in how you will view the production. That reviewers' opinions affect what they write is obvious to a certain extent, but productions like this tend to bring prejudices and tastes to the fore. While some (such as Kieron Quirke and Rupert Christiansen) value the creativity and artistry of the staging, others thought it the opera was indistinct, that any good numbers were let down by other poor songs. Michael Church in particular felt that Albarn 'blew his chances to do something original with the musicians at his disposal'.
On the other hand, there are some common themes: most reviewers criticised the lack of drama and a cohesive, intelligible narrative, which was not helped by the lack of surtitles (which are standard in the vast majority of ENO productions). There also seemed to be other production issues, such as inaudible vocals (which are amplified - demonstrating the enormous skill and technical ability required for opera singers to be heard over a full orchestra), although these may get ironed out.
Despite the criticism I think the ENO should be applauded for trying to do something new and different with opera. It's also not really a surprise that the album which has also been released isn't an unqualified succes - this production is clearly built around visual as much as audible elements, so a potential lack of variety and cohesion is not surprising.
If you like Damon Albarn's voice and style, have an appetite for something new, and don't mind feeling left a bit out of the loop while watching then it seems like Dr Dee might be for you.
Edward Seckerson (thumbs up)
Michael Church (2/5 stars)
Andrew Clements (3/5 stars)
Rupert Christiansen (4/5 stars)
Kieron Quirke (4/5 stars)
Franco Milazzo (thumbs down)
BBC (album not production):
Martin Aston (thumbs up)
NME (album not production):
Eddie Smack (5/10)
The Scotsman (album not production):
Fiona Shepherd (4/5 stars)
Cherwell (album not production):
Samuel Parsons (thumbs down)