Sunday, November 9, 2008

Disturbing the universe (Opera - Dr. Atomic by John Adams & Peter Sellars)

American composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars have created an unlikely hybrid in Doctor Atomic - an abstract documentary opera on the creation of the atomic bomb. A documentary because it is based on actual occurrences and people. Abstract because while it focuses on the days approaching the testing of the bomb at Los Alamos, it is less a linear story than a collage. It uses projection and sculpture, going back and forth from the daily activities at Los Alamos to the interior monologues of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading physicist on the project, and his wife Kitty, and includes two poems - one a sonnet of John Donne's and the other Muriel Rukeyser's Easter Eve 1945. These varied components hang together on a score strongly consistent in temperament and sonority. Opening each of the two acts act is a recorded soundscape evoking the period and atmosphere of those days - bits of radio, sounds of machinery, jeeps driving around the dessert, the thunder storms that plagued the testing schedule. But this gives way to Adams orchestral music, which is brash, solid, evocative and intense. Modern textures mix with beautiful lyrical lines. You know what century you are in and you can feel the disturbance in the universe that is the theme of this work.

The Manhattan Project led to the development of a bomb that worked via the fission of the uranium atom, splitting it into small parts to cause the release of tremendous amounts of energy. Some also call it the birth of “Big Science.” The destructive force of the bomb was meant to be unparalleled, but once unleashed it would literally mean that humans could destroy everything. J. Robert Oppenheim, may have been a leader of the project, but he was also a voice of conscience. Quoting the Bhavagad Gita he wrote “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Once accomplished, this disturbance in the physical structure of the universe would leave the world a less stable place. While our increased knowledge would facilitate victory in war, it precipitated a world with political and humane problems never before contemplated. Dr. Atomic is a meditation on disturbance at these multiple levels and is beautiful in its sensitive expression of conscience and appropriately unsettling.

The production, directed intelligently by Penny Woolcock, is strong on story-telling. She is master for using people and things on stage to make our progress from event to event clear. There is none of the Met's typical sloppiness and nineteenth century stage clich├ęs of people getting up on boxes to sing solo lines. Stage action was human and necessary. However Ms. Woolcock was less adept in her ability to develop the vertical line of the piece - the point in soliloquoy or aria when time’s literal progress stops and the inner workings of a person’s mind or soul unfolds before us. Here is where theatre engages in a little “quantum physics” of its own, defeating the typical laws and time and space, travelling in a way that memory and imagination allows. In these equally important moments of Dr. Atomic Ms. Woolcock seemed to have left the performers to their own devices. They became unrooted, and frozen in general attitude. It was a shame because the score and libretto in Kitty's Oppenheimer's scene in Act II were crazily inventive and an opportunity for complex internal conflict expressed with challenging music. An Act I scene meant to develop the Oppenheimers relationship, and the only time we see them together, was strangely disconnected and made unimaginative use of a silly choreographed dance rather than having these troubled human creatures connect to their love, or their pain in its absence, their feelings of inadequacy, or their feelings about anything at all. A more thoughtful development of the character of Pasqualita - the Oppenheimers’ housekeeper - might have helped sustain our interest in her long aria that opened Act II. The production seemed to want to use her as a spiritual symbol of the indiginous culture of New Mexico and perhaps stand for the parts of Los Alamos history that were more respectful of nature, but between desultory staging and textual references to vishnu and the trinity, I couldn't figure out what was intended.

Otherwise the production was strongly satisfying. Its physical elements were creative, functional, and a pleasure to look at. The Met chorus was used as an effective narrator and their performance was uncharacteristically precise and energetic. The role of J. Robert Oppenheimer is written with wide ranging emotional and musical tessitura. Gerald Finley's performance was human and involving, and his singing sumptuous. This was particularly apparent in the aria that closed Act I, a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, chosen because it inspired Oppenheimer to name the bomb test site Trinity. It was the highlight of Dr. Atomic’s lyrical side. The writing of this opera was effective in not burying the story either in the development of technology, or in sentimentality for our lost innocence. The structure of the piece, building to the Trinity test, drummed up tension in the final ten minutes that really made my heart pound. As a whole the opera was thoughtful about human responsibility in the face of our ever increasing knowledge and movingly resonant, even topically so, but not preachy.

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.


Anne Camille said...

It is probably too late in the evening for me to write a really thoughtful comment that would do your post justice. You have described the opera beautifully. I've been contemplating the use of Donne's sonnet, Rukeyser's poem, and the Bhagavad Gita today. Masterfully done by Adams and Sellars. I agree fully on your point #2 about each of the elements.

I also was confused about the role of Pasqualita. Was she a spirit? was she really the maid? I couldn't figure it out. Yet, I liked the incorporation of the Native American mythology. Was there any background info in the program about

I wasted no time on YouTube finding a recording of Finley's Donne aria. I had to hear it again. It's absolutely stunning! That aria made up for all of the sluggish parts of Act I and made me want to come back for Act II.

I was going to write a post aobut this opera today, but just haven't yet wrapped my brain around anything cogent to say.

Thanks for posting this.

Ted said...

Thanks, Cam. I couldn't find any material in the program or on the Met website about Pasqualita. I understand how some incorporation of the local culture makes a lot of sense, but then giving her this second quasi-spiritual role as well kind of annoyed me because the libretto didn't really support it (this feels a lot like a Peter Sellars influence to me. He's constantly putting weird spiritual things into his productions because it's just what he's into and then when asked what it was about says that he cant' tell you and 'isn't that just like life?') I would have enjoyed it if the director had found some way to justify it better, but it was far from a deal-breaker as far as the piece is concerned.