Mystery score

Mystery score

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Going Nuclear: Doctor Atomic Arrives

I was lucky enough that even subscribing very late to SF Opera, I was able to get a ticket to the opening night of John Adams and Peter Sellars's Doctor Atomic. It was quite an evening, with much excitement and the sense of occasion you'd expect at the premiere of an important and long-awaited new work. Herewith I try to turn my notes into a review; the notes aren't quite as extensive as I'd like, and (alas) the libretto is not in print yet. Thank goodness for the extensive synopsis in the program.

The short version: if you're within striking distance of San Francisco and you care at all about opera, singing, physics, World War II, or the music of John Adams, go see it. As of a day or two ago, there were plenty of tickets still available for the balance of the run, but that may change when the reviews come out.

The long version:

Doctor Atomic opens with an unnerving welter of mechanistic noise, flowing from speakers set in various places around the opera house. Sound came from behind me and in front of me and seemingly from the sides of the house as well. It fades out to almost nothing and you hear a clip obviously taken from 1940s radio. The curtain goes up to reveal a raked stage lit by eerie blue light and divided into sections by a number of wooden frames running across the stage, among which the chorus is scattered. They intone:

Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.


As the lighting changes to something more natural, you can see that the chorus members are dressed as nurses, uniformed personnel, ordinary people from the 1940s. Dancers flit across the stage and back. Mountains in silhouette undulate at the rear of the stage; during the course of the opera, they are raised or lowered to indicate apparent elevation, depending on the scene's distance from the mountains, and they're lit in various brilliant colors, from egg yolk to red to purple to blue, to illustrate the mood of a particular scene.

A blackboard covered with equations appears in the far left forward corner of the stage; three tables of lab equipment are rolled out, lab lights drop from the flies. You're in Los Alamos. Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink) and Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) sing a duet (I smiled at the mention of Leo Szilard: "he's a bright fellow but something of a busybody") and Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn) joins them for a trio.

I heard that trio for the first time, and "Am I in your light?", the solo that follows for Kitty Oppenheimer (Kristine Jepson), at an Opera Guild preview in February. I'd been wondering for quite a long time how exactly Sellars and Adams intended to construct the libretto for an opera about physicists. The answer - from official documents, from letters, from memoirs, from poetry - still left open questions about how this would work dramatically. The answer turns out to be: brilliantly. The first act is perfectly constructed and perfectly paced from beginning to end, dramatically and musically.

That Kitty Oppenheimer solo sets a Muriel Rukeyser poem; she sings it in bed to Robert, trying to get his attention while he studies papers of some kind. Frustrated, she seizes the papers and throws them to floor. He finally notices her; he sings a passionate poem by Baudelaire, they tangle for a while on the bed but ultimately they separate physically, and the duet ends with them alone and apart. That scene is a marvel, the most intimate and genuinely human love scene I've witnessed on the operatic stage, far more real and far hotter than anything appearing in ostensibly more radical or sexual productions, such as Alcina, Rodelinda, or The Fiery Angel.

The third and last scene of Act I moves to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb (the "Gadget") was tested on July 16, 1945. It's the night before the test, but the weather is uncertain, with rain and electrical storms threatening. General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens) is under immense pressure from Washington to ensure a successful test. He takes out his fears on chief meterologist Jack Hubbard (James Maddalena), threatening jail or hanging. Captain James Nolan (Jay Hunter Morris) attempts to persuade Groves that fallout from the test shot could endanger the whole region. Groves looks like a monster until Oppenheimer teases him about his weight; in the ensuing discussion of Groves's many diet attempts, you realize he's just another human trying to do his job. The act closes with a setting for Oppenheimer of Donne's Holy Sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God:"

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.


I read that poem about a dozen times in the days before the premiere, having been tipped off that it would feature prominently in the opera. I couldn't imagine what Adams would do with it. He must have worked some kind of magic, because as it's set - and as Gerald Finley performed it - it's much easier to understand than reading it on the page.

That perfect first act would be a tough act to follow, so to speak, and indeed the second act has its problems. For one thing, it's likely that anyone attending the opera knows how the test turns out: the bomb goes off. So there's the problem of how to create tension. There is plenty of terrific music in the act - my notes call out the Wagnerian grandeur of the brass sonorities early on, recalling the Valhalla and curse music from the Ring, and somewhat later, mid-act, night music worthy of Bartok. But the act's overall effectiveness is significantly undermined by a couple of major misfires in the pacing.

At the end of scene ii, Oppenheimer decides that the test shot will be fired at 5:30 a.m., which is still some five hours away. Scenes iii and iv are the countdown from 5:10 a.m. to the explosion, but I didn't get sufficient sense of time passing between midnight and 5 a.m.. The various characters ruminate and chorus very shortly sings a wild chorus to Vishnu. The stage seemed set afire, with yellow mountains, green, orange and red light: I was sure the bomb had gone off, even though there was no sound of an explosion. Imagine my surprise when the countdown proceeded - and I was even more surprised by the comparative fizzle we got at end the opera, which left me wondering exactly what had happened. There was some noise - but not quite as impressive a noise as at the beginning - and in the silence that followed, a woman's voice speaking Japanese, apparently from a radio air check. There was no translation provided, nor is there anything in the program indicating what she's talking about.

I understand that it's difficult to represent in sound or music the sound of an atomic bomb going off. It's hard to represent the end of the world, too; that's why Wagner gave us the 20-minute-long Immolation scene to balance off the immensity that goes before. (I confess that the coda of the Immolation always seems to me not quite long enough too - but I digress.) In any event, the sound world at the end of Doctor Atomic isn't remotely sufficient; it doesn't awe, terrify, or even startle the audience very much. Maybe the opera needs an immense flash of light, or perhaps Adams and Sellars need to explicitly state that it will end not with a bang but a whimper.

I here note that the program synopsis is explicit about what's going on at any given moment. If I'd read it, maybe I wouldn't have been fooled. And yet, the opera on the stage should be clear enough to be accurately understood without reading the notes.

That's not the only significant problem in the second act. There's a character who seems entirely superfluous to the main action. This is Pasqualita (mezzo Beth Clayton), a Tewa Indian who is the Oppenheimers' maid. She appears at various times calming their daughter by singing a lullaby, or simply by holding the child. Her music is lovely, and Clayton's dark, contralto-y tone contrasted beautifully with Jepson's brighter high mezzo. But still - it was not possible to discern her dramatic function from her stage appearances and music.

It's also a shame that Kitty doesn't have more music in the second act. I think you never see her with Robert again after the devestating love scene in the first act; you learn enough about her, and about them, to want more. Perhaps the countdown could have been shorter - or Pasqualita eliminated entirely if her role isn't made clearer - and more music and stage time given to the Oppenheimers and their marriage.

Despite the flaws in act II, Doctor Atomic is one hell of an accomplishment. The music is Adams at his riveting best: full of rhythmic and melodic interest, densely and beautifully orchestrated in overlapping layers of sound, all executed brilliantly by Donald Runnicles and the opera orchestra. Each character is sharply drawn in music; the scientists sing to each other in a style that's talky, conversational, almost a bit square, with spikey melodic lines. Robert Wilson, the youngest of the scientist-characters, is impetuous and idealistic. The women are more lyrical - Kitty soars in her music - and Oppenheimer himself is at his most lyrical with his wife, at his most dramatic singing "Batter my heart." (I do feel that "Batter my heart" would have been just as effective staged more subtly.)

And the singers themselves are flawless. They sang this difficult music as if it were the most natural thing in the world, even the three latecomers to the cast (Fink, Glenn, and Jepson); the men's diction was so good that I consulted the supertitles perhaps five percent of the time when they were singing. The women were a bit more difficult to understand. (I note that Adams said in September that he "requires very subtle miking of soloists and chorus." Could that be one reason for the excellent diction? I could not find a discussion of this issue in the program.)

I was happy with each and every singer; I want to especially applaud Gerald Finley, for his beautiful singing, lovely voice, and dramatic embodiment of the complex being who was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I hope he'll be back.

And I hope you'll all turn out for Doctor Atomic.

(Very minor revisions - typos fixed and a couple of awkward sentences smoothed - on October 12, 2005.)

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