An Alchemist Reaches Out Across Centuries
An Alchemist Reaches Out Across CenturiesMANCHESTER, England — What’s a rock songwriter — Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz — doing composing an opera about an Elizabethan alchemist? The best answer might be: conjuring.
“Dr Dee: An English Opera,” created by Mr. Albarn and its director, Rufus Norris, had its premiere on Friday night at the Palace Theater here as part of the Manchester International Festival, which commissioned it along with the English National Opera and London 2012. Its title character, John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609), was the historical figure who was probably a model for Shakespeare’s wizard Prospero and for Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.
Dee was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, navigator, book collector, philosopher and proponent of empire for an expanding Britain. (Much of Mr. Albarn’s career, from the Britpop of Blur to the global pop eclecticism of Gorillaz, has contemplated the end of that empire; the opera reconsiders its beginnings.) Dee also sought to communicate with angels and was convinced by one scryer (crystal-ball gazer) that he was divinely instructed to share his wife. He was an adviser to Elizabeth I, but her successor, James I, spurned him. In his later years Dee had his library pillaged and his reputation tarnished by accusations of occultism; he died in poverty. Mr. Albarn, in an interview, described the opera’s story not as a tragedy but as “a melancholy.”
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