Surtitles and Dr Dee

8 Jul

I sat through the first act of Dr Dee at ENO on 4th July.  What surprised me was the lack of surtitles.

Now my views on surtitles have changed a lot over the years. Originally, I was strongly in the Rodney Milnes camp of regarding them as the devil’s own work, wrecking the concentration on the stage and on what the singers are doing there.  Then I had to concede that in an opera I don’t know (at the time, Elektra), they were useful if you’re command of German is less than middling.  And I have gained far more out of performances of the Wagner with them than I would have without, so I actually quite like them in foreign language performances.

I’ve been very much more ambivalent about them for performances sung in English. largely because I remember that, for so many performances at ENO and elsewhere you barely needed them (listen to those recordings of Werther and Pelléas taken from live performances – you don’t need the text inf front of you).  I remember, for example, the joy of being in audience for the Opera North Don Carlos where we were actually listening to the Philip/Rodrigo and the Philip/Inquisitor dialogues, or for Semele at the ROH where the audience were lisitening to the text and laughing at it.  One of the real irritations of surtitles at the ENO’s Billy Budd was that part of the sentence always comes slightly before you hear the word and so you miss the spontenaity that you get when people are communicating directly and you are not expecting what is comiong next.  On the other hand, as my mother tells me, your hearing deteriorates with age and I certainly don’t think that diction is always what it used to be and, if the opera is by Birtwistle you generally need them.  So, while I remain cross that ENO have them (and the ROH and Glyndebourne for performances in English), I don’t regard it as much of a matter of principle as I used to.

So why were there no surtitles for Dr Dee?  Did ENO think that because the singers were amplified we’d hear the words clearly.  That certainly wasn’t the case.  Did Albarn refuse to allow them? Or was the piece reckoned to be somehow “different” from ENO’s normal fare, more like a musical, perhaps, so not needing surtitles.  I don’t know but it struck me as though some double standards were being operated somewhere and I thought that if you needed them for Billy Budd, you more than needed them for this.

I found the piece pretty tiresome and couldn’t really see the point of it and the music didn’t help. I don’t think that I’m the demographic it was aimed at and it was good to see a young audience, clearly well-informed about Damon Albarn, at the Coliseum.  i wonder if they’ll be back for Julieta or even Flute?


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