Dr Dee, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2012Posted on 27 June 2012
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. So says Hamlet in the words of Shakespeare, who died eight years after that extraordinary Englishman, John Dee (1527–1608), whom he may have used as a model for Prospero in The Tempest.
Part of the inspiration for this opera, according to Adrian Mourby’s essay in the programme, was the question of who was the greatest dead Englishman, and the answer was John Dee. Mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and polymath, he was a sort of Faust-like character who wanted to go beyond human knowledge and communicate with angels. This led to his downfall because he came to trust the clever, flamboyant, scheming liar Edward Kelley, who would help him uncover the Enochian language of heaven. Kelley became Dee’s regular scryer (medium and crystal gazer), inveigled his way into the household and claimed that an angel commanded that he sleep with Dee’s wife.
Dee had earlier been recruited by Francis Walsingham, head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in particular to advise on an auspicious date for the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth. But Kelley was seriously distrusted by those around Walsingham, and Dee’s influence at court waned. He died in straitened circumstances, and this opera starts and ends with the bedridden Dee being cared for by his daughter, Katherine.
In the meantime we are treated to ingenious theatrical effects that convey the image of a man of tireless energy exploring the secrets of nature. Dee was well-known on the continent of Europe as an expert of Euclid, and the proof he gives on stage is just like those found in the Hellenistic world. In Euclidean geometry Dee was in touch with the ultimate, its theorems as valid now as they ever were, but not so with astronomy. We are treated to a wonderful view of the moon and planets forming geometric patterns as they revolve around the earth, a geocentric view of the universe propounded by Ptolemy in his famous Almagest. This was the basis for all astronomy until the seventeenth century when use of the telescope finally convinced Galileo and others that the planets had moons and orbited the sun. Yet Dee himself, and Walsingham, may have known of the telescope earlier, since a sixteenth century English design existed that would have been a closely guarded secret for the Navy Royal.
Dee’s books we see by the hundreds, and books are opened out as concertinas that grow in size and serve as screens. Early in the second half, people and objects appear from behind these screens as they are dragged across stage, and then another screen converts them into line drawings that decompose before our eyes. These stunning visual effects are very clever.
For most of the first half, all is well, with Paul Hilton entirely convincing as John Dee, Anna Dennis as his daughter Katherine, Clemmie Sveaas as Dee’s young wife Jane, and Steven Page giving a fine portrayal of Walsingham. But then counter-tenor Christopher Robson appears as Kelley, and Dee pursues a path towards his Faust-like error. Walsingham grows in size and the human ravens of his entourage take on a more menacing mien. Towards the end real ravens appear, flying across the auditorium and returning obediently to the upper level of the stage.
That upper level is where the orchestra sat for most of the opera, a reminder if any were needed of the habit in Elizabethan theatre of having the musicians at a higher level. Costumes are Elizabethan, and this extraordinary creation by Damon Albarn and director Rufus Norris is a sight not to be missed. The music by Damon Albarn, conducted and supervised by Stephen Higgins, mixes a twenty-first century popular style with musical ideas from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In putting on this imaginative show the ENO is offering opera to a wide audience, and my only complaint is that they have abandoned their usual practice of providing surtitles. It was not always easy to understand the words, particularly the utterances of Edward Kelley, but the synopsis in the programme expressed everything with excellent clarity — so be sure to buy a programme.
Performances continue until July 7 — for details click here.