Wednesday, January 16, 2008


First the good. Make no mistake, there is some very wonderful, top-shelf Adamsian music in Dr. Atomic, especially the opening chorus, the first Kitty Oppenheimer aria, the Donne aria at the end of the first act, some of the Kitty business in the second act, the tenor aria in the second act, and any number of wonderful orchestral interludes.

But dramatically, Dr. Atomic is kind of a mess, veering clumsily between the type of opera it wants to be, and ultimately saying nothing of great interest about its subject, the bomb. And at its weakest points, trivializing it something fierce.

Now, this is a bit of a dangerous case--like others, I've been imagining this opera in my mind for two years now, getting stoked about it, reading articles about it, and generally developing a bushel of preconceived notions about it. So criticism noted if it sounds like I wanted it to be a different opera than it is. But at the same time, I've wanted this to be a great theatrical experience for a long time now, and, while my usual MO is to leave over-hyped things praising the good and looking for excuses for the bad, I left Dr. Atomic with few charitable feelings.

The libretto is the big problem. As we've read, Sellars' libretto is largely drawn from a combination of source material and poetry inspired by the things Oppenheimer and others were famously reading at the time. Certainly sounds good on paper. But the result is basically a total lack of any narrative thrust to the opera. The Kitty Oppenheimer character, who ends up with the lion's share of the lyrical writing, expresses herself almost entirely in broadly relevant poetry. By the end of the night, it sounds like gibberish. Like the woozy feeling one gets after 2 hours of really expressionistic spoken word. Yeah, I guess the words are pretty, and maybe if I sat down with it I would get what it means about the bomb, but an opera on the move is no place for it.

The other side of the coin, the mundane detail material, just sounds really boring when sung. You can see how a straight play composed of this material would work, but the inherent gravity of singing makes these essentially worthless details seem terribly irrelevant. You sit there thinking "Am I really listening to someone sing this stuff?" Mind you, it works for a while in the beginning of the show, when we would expect more exposition setting the stage for the bomb. But later, when we want the work to come together emotionally and intellectually, it just feels like our time is being wasted.

Other parts of the libretto are just bizarre mis-steps. Somehow, in the midst of all this dread and oppressive authority, we are supposed to swallow the Leslie Groves character as a buffoon? Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Manhattan Project knows that Groves was about as far from a buffoon as you can possibly get. Yet here we have the character milking the same stupid joke about not accepting the weather forecast over and over again. And then the weird-ass exchange about his dieting at the end of the first Act. Yeah, I'm sure it's based on something real, but at that point in the show it just comes off as an inappropriate cheap laugh.

The Oppenheimer character is certainly less vulgar, but its ultimate failure is revealing as far as the libretto's larger problems go. No one is expecting a historical facsimile, but Oppenheimer isn't exactly some obscure figure--he's a towering enigma in the popular imagination and historians have spent countless words attempting to understand the character of his remorse about the bomb. Given that, a clear dramatic choice would have been to explore him as both the villain and ultimate conscience of the play, letting him drive the project on and then ruminating on what he has done of his own free will. But this Oppenheimer just wallows in regret for the bulk of his time, as though he's being coerced against his will to finish the thing. I guess it makes him sympathetic, but it also makes him terribly uninteresting.

The ham-handed staging exacerbates all of this. The libretto demands this sort of cinematic structure for a great deal of the opera. If you were to count up the individual scenes French style, the mind boggles. This may be an inherent flaw, but regardless, it demanded some sort of imaginative staging conceit to keep it in line. Instead, characters just walk all over the place willy-nilly. With a few exceptions, its impossible to invest anything in the exchanges because someone takes a few paces stage left and all of a sudden they're in the desert or back in the living room or something. And speaking of the living room--where the f is Oppenheimer supposed to be during the middle of the second act? It's supposedly a few hours before the test, there's a living room set downstage where Kitty is, and he seems to flit between the living room and the control room at the test site at will. Maybe wouldn't be a problem in something more abstract, but the staging is often so brutally literal that just ignoring those barriers when you feel like it ends up looking sloppy.

The staging also suffers from a serious lack of faith in the music. Very beautiful internal arias that should be simple showcases for vocal acting are marred by all sorts of superfluous movement, i.e. the cringeworthy "break, blow, batten" motions in the Oppenheimer Donne aria. Also the attempts to turn Kitty's second act opener into an actual scene with the maid caring for her and such, because she is obviously going nuts shrieking marginally applicable poetry in the middle of the living room. Opera gives you a free pass to let people get up and just sing these things. Why feel you have to illustrate them?

Which brings us to the Indian maid character. This is a really unfortunate choice. Are we in 1992? Do we need to throw in an essentialized Native American who likes to scold people for raping the earth? When I read about this, I thought "hmm, that sounds sort of suspect, but I trust them, it is probably tasteful and haunting." Wrong. It is almost exactly as cheap as you fear.

I won't continue, but the staging has other problems, like the random, pedestrian dance sequences determined to not allow us any alone time to dwell on Adams' wonderful interludes. I found myself looking at the ceiling just to get away.

By the end, when we finally get to the detonation, it all just seems like so much self-serving anxiety. There are so many interesting, still unanswered questions about the bomb, and all we get is heavy handed dread. Cuz you know, the bomb is fucked up and stuff. And sure, its fucked up. But does anyone deliberately seeing this opera really need that pounded into their heads? I think not. What we could have used were Death of Klinghoffer tough questions--real problematic questions that opera, with its ability to demonstrate deep emotions and motivations like no other art, can illuminate in new and powerful ways.

The heartbreaker is that I spent the first 10 minutes or so really excited because I thought that's where it was going to go. The opening chorus is this perfect John Adams harmony--you're unclear whether it's glorious major or glorious minor, the articulation is impeccable, the intellectual and musical coexisting in stark relief: the chorus is chanting "We believe matter is neither created or destroyed, we believe energy is neither created or destroyed, etc." It evoked something new and chilling about the beauty of the 20th century's faith in the elegance of science, and the inevitable and terrible thing which will grow from that faith. Now there's a tough question about the bomb: if one really considers the scientific discoveries of the teens, 20s and 30s--those marvelous revelations that changed so much of the world we live in--its pretty impossible to imagine that nuclear energy, and its military potential, wouldn't be developed. Oppenheimer and crew had reservations about the thing, and joined up anyhow in many ways based on that logic. So can we really hope for some 'pure' state of nature without the prospect of nuclear war? Or is our fate inextricably tied to nuclear weapons? For that matter, would we want to live in a world without nuclear weapons? Where mutual deterrence wouldn't be around to prevent another cataclysm of the magnitude of World War II?

But by the end of Dr. Atomic we have nothing approaching a tough question. We just have a lot of pretty sounding mush and upset faces. Because in case you forgot, the bomb is fucked up.

Oh yeah. The singers. I had vague impressions that Gerald Finley and the tenor (Thomas Glenn) had nice sounds, and Jessica Rivera (Kitty) had a powerful but not very nice sound. But who could judge with the brutal mic-ing? This was not subtle enhancement. It was full-bore amplification which reduced everyone's sound to a single level and muted any individual nuance. I've read that this is because there are electronic sound effects (extremely grating, BTW) but to me at least, it didn't seem like much solo singing was done while the effects were on, so I don't know why they felt this necessary.

Nice work from Robert Spano and the Lyric orchestra and chorus. If the regular Met chorus does this in a year, they are going to need to step it up.


Henry Holland said...

I was at the premiere in San Francisco and the group of people I was with all thought it was a very, very poor piece. I said to one friend "Adams built his career as a reaction to the post-war avant-garde and now he's using a bunch of their tricks".

The word setting was awful too--he should lock himself away and study every one of Britten's operas and the War Requiem for clues on how to set English. Oh wait, why would he? He doesn't like opera but he keeps writing the damn things anyway.

Excellent, thorough review Alex.

Alex said...

Right on about the word setting. If you're going to set totally straight passages of conversation, you need to write with some ear toward the natural rhythms of speech, or the whole thing is extremely hard to digest. That is, unless you are going for a deliberately unsettling effect, but I really don't think that's what Adams had in mind. I clearly don't understand Czech, but Janacek's sung conversations are far more intelligible than last night's.

Patricia.Nicholas said...

Honestly, I was unable to read the entire, very long post, but I must comment on the second paragraph.

It is incomprehensible that anyone seeing the opera would think that it was about the bomb. Even a cursory exploration of the extensive material available on the creation of the opera, and even a slight attempt to a pay attention to the production should make it clear that it was not about the bomb, but the emotional involvement of the people who were instrumental in its creation.

More than that, it was a preview of the impending destruction of Oppenheimer by a society steeped in red baiting, and maybe one guilty about the horrible consequences of its use.

I promise that I will read the whole long thing later. Obviously I will probably disagree with you about the value of the effort to create the opera.

Alex said...


That's a fair point, altho I do take some issues with the oversimplification of the emotional involvement later on. At the risk of imposing one's own whatnot on the opera, I guess I would say I think it is inadequate to make an opera about the bomb that only gets as far as the tension between the people involved being regular people and the bomb being this inhuman evil. That said, I am more than open to arguments about what I was missing...I was pretty strongly turned off by the end, but maybe it blinded me to other virtues.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your perception of the Leslie Groves character... I thought that in many ways he was the weakest link of the opera.

I don't, however, share the idea that the opera should have "said something." What could it have said that hasn't already been thought through any number of times by any number of thinkers, scientists, politicians and the like?

I've never thought of opera, or really any of the arts, as a medium for saying "something about something"... I tend to look more for indefinite expression... that is, the sort of expression found in instrumental music. I wouldn't ask a symphony to say something meaningful about the bomb... instead I'd ask, what is it expressing?

That being said, I thought the opera did a wonderful job of expressing any number of things, and a tepid job at others. I saw worlds intersecting and toppling over into each other - the bomb isn't at the center of things, and neither is family life, and neither are everyday details, and neither are politics... instead, everything runs next to each other, emphasis shifting. I thought this was beautifully expressed in the Kitty and Oppenheimer "Am I in your light?" scene as well as certain portions of Kitty's sections in the second act. That's one example of what I got from the piece.

But I can agree with many of your observations including some of the over-the-top gestures and motions, and the unclear (and suddenly-appearing) role of the Native American maid. Kitty's melodrama in the second act was a waste of absolutely stunning music - I'm not sure if this was the Rivera's fault or the fault of staging (or both). Ultimately I thought that the music was the star of the show and when I allowed myself to sink into it I found a lot to relish... but it was implemented in odd and sometimes meaningless ways, leaving me a little unfulfilled.

Anonymous said...

I saw the opera last night at the Lyric. What a letdown! Nixon in China is far and away my favorite modern opera, and the production I saw in St. Louis two years ago flat blew me away. So, it was with great anticipation that I (an Army nuclear weapons officer back in the '70s and quite aware of both the history and the physics) took my seat at the Lyric last night. I wanted to see what Adams had to say about Oppenheimer and The Bomb.

I suspected trouble when the opera began with recorded sounds, of all things! Recorded sounds at the Lyric? Gimme a break!

However, the opening number with the chorus was wonderful--kinda like the opening scene in Nixon. The opera essentially went downhill from there. Other than the Donne aria concluding the first act--which was a magic moment even if the gesticulations were a tad overwrought--there simply were no memorable moments in this opera. The second act in particular was a complete bore--I wanted to hear more about Oppenheimer and Teller, and less self pity on the part of Kitty and tribal lore from a Jane Eaglen-sized 1992 PC Native American (who, incidentally, had a truly fine voice, but was given nothing to sing but gibberish). The dancers were distracting, running hither and yon for no apparent purpose. But, at least watching the dancers gave me something to do during those wretched Kitty arias.

I don't agree with you regarding Groves. Of course, as an historical person, Groves was unfairly depicted--but his role here was comic relief, as was Kissinger's role in Nixon. I thought it worked pretty well.

While sorely disappointed, I came away glad that Adams, a huge talent, is making the attempt to keep my favorite art form alive--and that the Lyric is willing to stage new works. Even Mozart and Wagner had a dud or two, and we still love their operas, nicht wahr?

P.S. I did think that casting James Maddelena, the original Nixon, as the weather officer in Dr. Atomic was a nice touch.

P.P.S. I'm not sure that the singers were miked. If they were, you couldn't tell it in the first balcony.

Patricia.Nicholas said...

Dear Anonymous,
Sorry you didn't enjoy the opera. As an absolute Adams fan perhaps my views are not completely objective.

However, I thought the opera was all about Oppenheimer and the emotions felt by everyone connected to the project and the effect it had on everyone near to them, and very little to do about the bomb as a bomb.

My perception of your comments about mic-ing are I think in concert with mine. Dickie at COT had said "never, ever" yet "Nixon" was mic-ed. Adams insists because he does not want singers to pop a gut over his gigantic orchestration.

Furthermore, this is not a fist at Lyric. Sweeney Todd was mic-ed. "A View From The Bridge" had recorded songs playing on a "phonograph."

The mic-ing was very discreet and in spite of my aversion to it, I found it completely unobjectionable in the second row.

Anonymous said...

Hank: I can't say I "didn't enjoy" this opera. But I was disappointed. It's as if I ordered prime rib and the waitress delivered a Whopper. And, while I stand by my statement that the 2d act was a bore, it was positively riveting compared, say, to the second act of Parsifal.

Heidi said...

Totally agree with you about the Indian maid. "The cloud-flower blossoms." My god.

I'd like to link my blog to this post if you don't mind -- I posted very briefly on Atomic and linked to another friend's post. I also blogged about the Met's Macbeth broadcast recently.

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Anonymous said...

Re: the cloud-flower blossoms

Sorry, but that's a direct quote from a Tewa poem. I agree that the maid came across as a cliche (not so bad in the San Francisco production, but in the Met one ... yecch, and terrible taste in jewelry too), but what they gave her to sing was the real deal.

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