photo source: Parlophone Records
By Sophie Mirzaian
I have been a bit upset with the world of opera lately. Just a few weeks ago, I went to experience Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” I was utterly disappointed and left at intermission, after an hour and forty minutes. In fact, the singers were so uninteresting with their small voices and poor Italian that I had more fun watching the harpsichord player mouth all the words as she swayed along to the music.
If professional classical musicians and opera singers fail to captivate audiences, I don’t see how Englishman Damon Albarn expects to with his newly released recording of “Dr. Dee,” a sort of folksy modern opera composed alongside Rufus Norris, which played for a week as part of a festival in Manchester, England last year.
When I think of “opera,” neither “England” nor “Damon Albarn” come to mind. I think of the Italians (namely Donizetti, Verdi, Ponchielli, and Puccini), the Germans (Strauss and Wagner) and the French Bizet’s “Carmen,” all with beautiful sets and singers hitting impossible notes and taking the audience on an emotional musical ride.
But “Dr. Dee” is something very different. It doesn’t even claim to be a rock opera like The Who’s brilliant “Tommy.” Damon Albarn has wrongly and conceitedly assumed that he can do anything he wants with whatever genre he pleases.
The album begins with four minutes of dreadful sound, and this continues into the second track—you couldn’t pay me enough to set aside my own pride and call these arias; they’re simply not arias—but really this one, “Apple Cart,” is quite nice. The melody is subtle, with an underlying eeriness, and Albarn’s voice nicely accompanies the guitar.
It doesn’t remind me of any classical music, but it does sound very much like “Tasseoma-ncy” by the Canadian duo Ghost Bees.
However, there is a problem in this song that occurs time and time again throughout the album: the lyrics don’t seem significant or important.
This song is simply about apple carts being set on fire. But somehow, even with that, the listener is almost optimistic that this thing, whatever it is, may not turn out to be so terrible after all.
The topic of the opera is also a bit unorthodox. It tells the story of John Dee (whose character does not sing at all), a mathematician, scientist, and philosopher of the court of Elizabeth I, yet the “story” is hardly anything more than disconnected lyrics attempted to be strung together by music reminiscent of the Elizabethan age. Albarn used instruments like the viola da gamba, shawm, dulcian, crumhorn, recorder, lute, and the African kora.
Occasionally, the music impressed me. The classical guitar (“The Moon Exalted,” “Moon (Interlude),” “Cathedrals”) is dulcet and melodic, and although it is not operatic, it has a beauty of its own.
Then come tracks like “Temptation Comes in the Afternoon,” perhaps the most annoying piece I’ve ever heard. The man who sings the last half reminds me of the “berries and cream” Starburst guy. Some parts of the second half of the album are such a cacophonous, muddled mess that I don’t think Damon Albarn should be allowed to make music like this anymore.
The only thing I have to thank Albarn for, besides his one decent but still somewhat forgettable track “Apple Cart,” is making this “opera” short—48 minutes while classical operas are often three or four hours long—but really, if he’d skipped the pretensions, he’d have cut the album in half at least.
Overall, “Dr. Dee” is sometimes interesting and sometimes inane, but never opera.