Dr Dee. Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris

English National Opera. London

An opera? An event? A Pop Concert? Who can tell? Certainly an extraordinary evening. First staged at the Manchester festival last year and now completely rewritten and thought about forits London debut.

Dr Dee was a mysterious character in the age of Elizabeth 1st. A mathematician, an astrology, a philosopher and generally thought of as a magician, in the 16th century all these jobswent under the heading of magician. Dr Dee went from being the Queen’s favourite to ending up abandoned and in poverty, though he kept his head on, in those days quite an achievement for an elderly seemingly dotty would be alchemist.

This work, called an opera, seems more like an Elizabethan masque, a series of tableaux with complicated decoration.The work opens with a large, real bird, a crow or a jackdaw, or was it a raven, zooming down from the flies to land on the roof of a hut full of people playing lutes. The bird then quietly walks off into the wings and the action starts

Lets begin with the decoration of the masque: the video skills in the theatre today are amazing, sheets of lightening, flying clouds rushing towards one, perspectives zooming in and out, waves to make one sea sick and in thiscase mathematical formulae as wellto pain the brain, all so skillfully done. Cinema now seems to be standard for stage design. Not sure it is always the answer but in the complex andconvoluted world of Dr Dee it works well.

Next the story, the narrative; and here the problems start; it is impossible to have a clue as to what is going on. Usually there are sur titles, even above English language productions, so at least the text is readable and the action can be followed. In Dr Deethe sound is over amplified, don’t forget this is what a friend calls Baroque Rock, I presume they assume everyone in the audience is deaf from having their iPod turned too high for years, so noise a plenty but we can we hear the words? We can’t. It wasn’t until I got home and could read the programme that I had the slightest idea of what was happening, albeit everything looked very pretty on stage.

The music, well I am not an expert on the pop world of music but this did seem all rather dragging and ponderous, sort of limping Pink Floyd, [whose music I like alot,] on a wet day. Damon Albarn is responsible and indeed sings most of the voice parts sitting high up on a shelf above the stage. Can’t think I will be downloading the songs, if indeed any of the songs can actually be identified, themusic rumbles on without beginning or end. I may be the wronggeneration for this stuff.

The performers are all adequate, nay; they are good as might be expected from this stylish company. As it was so hard to tell who anyone is supposed to be and where they fit the story giving you their names is somewhat pointless.

The opera concludes with six of the big black birds swooping down from the upper gallery onto the stage, where, much to the amusement of the audience, one bird attempts to shag another. Then they all squawk and stride off. One of the best curtains ever, even if not all meant.

In Britain there is a real hunger for opera, country house venues are scattered throughout this year’s sodden landscape. Pubs give performances of La Boheme, androoms in private houses are turned into studio theatres presenting Figaro.But whereare the new works to quench the thirst of this enthusiasm? Where are our Rossini’s, Verdis and Mozarts? Yes, there are new operas; you can always get a seat half price at the last minute at these productions. Where are the stories to reduce you to tears in Act 2? Where are the melodies like Mozart’s baker’s boy who whistled the new tunes the morning after the first night of Figaro whilstdelivering themaestro’s croissants? Musicals arenot the realanswer, musically too simple, stories too soap opera.

So hats off to English National Opera for giving both time and space to staging Dr Dee. The pop world must be encouraged in this art and the sometimes stodgy classical music mafia should give them all the help they can to understand the complexities of grand opera. Dr Dee is an excellent start,just a pity it isn’t more exciting with either its music or its libretto.

Polly Hope. London