Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Adams' Chronicles

Doctor Atomic
Composed by John Adams
Libretto by Peter Sellars
Production by Penny Woolcock
Conducted by Alan Gilbert
Starring Gerald Finley, Sasha Cooke, Meredith Arwady, Richard Paul Fink, Eric Owens
The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues
Performances on October 13, 17, 21, 25, 30, November 1, 5, 8, 13, 2008

Doctor Atomic (Opus Arte DVD)

The Netherlands Opera

A Flowering Tree (Nonesuch CD)

Composed by John Adams
Libretto by John Adams and Peter Sellars

Finley as Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic (photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
John Adams’ operas mythologize events in American history, starting with his first opera, 1987’s Nixon in China (about the president’s 1972 visit behind the Red Curtain) right up to 2005’s Doctor Atomic, which dramatizes what is arguably the pivotal event of the 20th century–the Manhattan Project’s creation of the atomic bomb in the summer of 1945, which culminated with the “Trinity” test that began the nuclear age.

Rife with innumerable philosophical, moral and historical ramifications, the subject seems ripe for Adams’ intelligent musical exploration. Yet, for all its many fascinating characters–led by Robert J. Oppenheimer, the project’s brilliant head scientist–and weighty subject matter, Doctor Atomic largely fizzles, and the main culprit is Peter Sellars’ libretto, largely a cut and paste job of quotes from those involved in the Manhattan Project, however pregnant or trivial, including copious amounts of poetry (from Baudelaire and Byron, among others) and other literary sources (like the Bhagavad-Gita Gita), referenced by Oppenheimer himself in later statements and writings.

Sellars’ libretto includes such sleep-inducing passages as the project’s general, Leslie Groves, berating a meteorologist about a bleak weather forecast for the bomb test–which, though germane to the subject, plods on far longer than necessary–and Groves’ later explanation of his special diet. Adams’ music is at its most tentative during these (and other) settings, but not even Strauss or Britten could do justice to lines about how many calories are in a cookie.

Conversely, Adams elevates the poetic passages, turning Oppenheimer’s lengthy love duet with wife Kitty–set to poems by Muriel Rukeyser and Baudelaire’s ecstatically romantic A Hemisphere in Your Hair–into what sounds like an exquisite outtake from Pelleas et Melisande, and giving the Act I finale–set to John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, which inspired Oppenheimer to name the test site “Trinity”–the gravity otherwise missing from Sellars’ kaleidoscopic libretto.

Adams’ very fine music too often sounds like symphonic swellings for a melodramatic film about Oppenheimer, hitting its nadir during the finale, as the test drags on so long it becomes a spectacular anticlimax. This is obviously intentional, but slowing down time prior to the blast is better in theory than in execution. It also mutes the power of the opera’s last aural image: a female voice asking for water for herself and her children a few weeks later in Japan.

The Met staging by Penny Woolcock avoids Sellars’ own desperate stratagems for its initial productions–mainly, dancers to give a sense of movement to an essentially static piece–yet suffers by her decision to stage much of the work around a large wooden wall in two sections that contains three rows of cubicles out of which many characters either sing or simply watch the proceedings. It’s a valiant but failed attempt to find another way around the visual inertia of Doctor Atomic, which would probably work best as an oratorio, a la Adams’ own El Nino.

Conductor Alan Gilbert and the Met Orchestra shape Adams’ music admirably for three and a half hours, the Met Chorus is in peak vocal form and Gerald Finley (who owns the role of Oppenheimer) gives a stentorian performance in the taxing lead role. Although Greg Owens (General Groves), Richard Paul Fink (scientist Edward Teller), and Thomas Glenn (scientist Robert Wilson) acquit themselves favorably, the major female roles are less ably filled by Sasha Cooke (Kitty) and Meredith Arwady (the Oppenheimers’ Native American maid, Pasqualita).

Doctor Atomic
can also be seen in its European premiere last year at Amsterdam’s Netherlands Opera. The Opus Arte DVD features Sellars’ original staging, nimbly conducted by Laurence Renes, played with feeling by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and brilliantly sung by Finley, Owens, Fink, Glenn and–most impressively–Jennifer Rivera as Kitty and Ellen Rabiner as Pasqualita, who both become the true heart of the opera, not apparent from the Met staging.

Sellars’ production includes those aforementioned dancers, which are unintentional comic relief, as they are all too obvious attempts to distract the audience from the fact that not much else is happening. Unfortunate too is the decision to show the dancers–and the singers as well–in unflattering close-ups, which are further distractions for the DVD viewer.

The opera does sound superb in full, rich DTS Surround Sound, and the DVD includes interviews both enlightening (Adams) and unenlightening (Sellars). Doctor Atomic is a major effort–as witness two productions by four companies since its 2005 premiere–but its dramatic value is outweighed by its historical importance.

A Flowering Tree, Adams’ latest opera–available on a Nonesuch CD–is also his most blissful dramatic work. This mystical fantasy based on an ancient Indian folk tale about a couple undergoing trials prior to marriage is filled with ravishing melodies and extraordinarily beautiful washes of sound that are the antithesis of Doctor Atomic’s ponderousness.

A Flowering Tree builds to a climax that surpasses Doctor Atomic’s love duet for musical euphoria. Adams himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, and his three soloists–Greg Owens, Russell Thomas and Jennifer Rivera—wonderfully convey the emotional content conspicuously missing from the more “serious” Doctor Atomic.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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