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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Opera - Doctor Dee - Palace Theatre

Star rating 8/10

I readily admit that I was definitely on the side of Oasis in the 1990’s battle for the crown of Britpop, but it is hard not to wonder in awe at the seemingly never ending eclectic talents of Damon Albarn, which are now so far removed from his early offerings. His new English opera ‘Doctor Dee’ is part of the fabulous bi-annual Manchester International Festival, and is also a far cry from anything he has done before.

John Dee was a 16th century alchemist and astrologer, who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, whose life was allegedly the basis of Christopher Marlowe’s cautionary tale of dabbling with the devil, ‘Dr Faustus’. He also happened to found the world’s first public library in Manchester. This opera begins in dramatic style with a raven flying out of the audience onto the stage and cawing its way to the wings. Then a series of characters depicting time moving backwards to the time of Dee move across the stage and dramatically fall off onto what is, I sincerely hope, a nice soft mattress below offstage.

It is a complex story, which I cannot possibly claim to follow in any great detail. But this opera is such a feast for the eyes and ears that as long as you get the general gist of the story, then that hardly matters. Albarn is suspended above the stage for most of the time, conducting and leading proceedings with an impressive collection of musicians playing a combination of world and early music. Mixed with an orchestra in the pits below and it is truly a cacophony of wonderful sounds.

There is a lot of very impressive and original scene changing, and wonderful singing and dancing. Dee’s tale is a tragic one, and this story is not for those wanting either easy viewing or a happy ending. But it is a triumph for Damon Albarn, who much to my relief, managed to balance perfectly on his precarious platform above the stage, and in this production achieved a wonderful spectacle balanced with beautiful music, and a very interesting tale. This is a great evening’s entertainment, and a great start to what will hopefully again be a wonderful celebration in, and of, Manchester.

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