It’s the opera, dummy! Specifically, the Met’s new production of the minimalist John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, which runs through 11/13. The L’s Henry Stewart reviews.
One of composer John Adams’ "CNN operas," Doctor Atomic uses a topic from the relatively recent past — here, weapons of mass destruction — to address the political present. Adams said he believes such cultural relevance will give opera a future; that is, it could reconnect estranged (American) audiences to the medium, lower the enskied art form to the level of the everyday intellectual.
But even if that were true, the thoroughly modern music is bound to re-alienate them. In Doctor Atomic, Los Alamos scientists Oppenheimer, Robert Wilson and Edward "Dr. Strangelove" Teller, along with assorted military brass, struggle to build and test a working A-bomb while weighing the ethical implications of what they’re doing. As with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Doctor Atomic‘s second half is far superior to its first, as it builds to a wrenching climax of boundless destruction in a single flash of light. But both acts suffer from the same problems: the operamakers’ pompous allusions, awkward libretto and abstruse score.
Adams said that as a composer he deals in symbols of the American conscious and unconscious; here, he works from the mushroom cloud to explore the "thrill and romance of science," the moral issues of deifying power, Native American cosmology (you’ll be shocked to hear he lives in Berkeley, CA) and above all, he said, ecological concerns — the contrast between the white man and the Indian’s relationship to the earth, presumably.
Set amid the Manhattan Project, the events chronicled in Doctor Atomic are too close to the present to achieve mythic status — people who have shaken Robert Oppenheimer’s hand are still around. But librettist Peter Sellars (whose production was scrapped by the Met for one by English film director Penny Woolcock, who previously adapted Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer for the screen) means for the characters to loom as large as Wagner’s Nibelungen. Sellars strips them of their humanity — he stuffs declassified government documents in their mouths, leaving adumbrated forms stripped from a History Channel special where people should be. The show could have used a bit of Peter Morgan, the reigning king of transforming contemporary politics into Shakespearean tragedy.
But drama takes the passenger seat in Doctor Atomic; its two acts both open with a periodic table projected stage-high and proscenium-wide, signaling that science primarily drives this opera, as Adams somewhat gleefully announced during an intermission interview. It shows — conspicuously, egregiously — in the jargon-heavy libretto (which at one point goes so far as to include the word "dodecahedron!") The chorus enters the opera singing "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form/Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form" before moving on to discuss "a sustained neutron — neutron chain REACTION!"
Isn’t this a bit absurd, I scribbled in my notebook, and not in a deviously gutsy sort of way? Doctor Atomic gets risible with its mouthfuls of physics-regent cheat sheets. To make matters worse, when not singing in technobabble and memospeak, the characters pedantically spout poetry by Baudelaire, Donne and Rukeyser ("the hackneyed light of evening quarreling with the bulbs/the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees"). Sellars has not created characters here so much as he has torn figures from the pages of high school history textbooks, gussied up with clippings from English class poetry anthologies. Accordingly, they stumble-sing stiffly, inhumanly, and engage in philosophical discussions at the dorm-room bull-session level.
Furthermore, that Doctor Atomic is sung in English is just one more albatross. Our bumbling tongue might sound mellifluous coming out of John Gielgud’s mouth, but it lacks the vowel-heavy singsonginess of French or Italian that gives the greatest classical operas their ethereal flow. Thus the glorious melodies of a Verdi aria have no place here, and Adams replaces them with a ceaseless grim assault of 100 notes per second, a brutal, miserable, plaintive score from the overture’s first blaring, pounding, dissonant notes. (A few exceptions exist, most notably Act I’s finale, "Batter My Heart.") Call me a musical conservative, but Adams’ refusal to resolve any of his lines makes me crazy; I resent that his melodies have no inherent narratives of their own — no build-up, no climax. Though this lack of resolution might mirror the characters’ own open-ended ethical and spiritual dilemmas, in practice the unending battery is wearying. What I wouldn’t have given for a major chord freed from an ominous diminished-minor context!
If we did a few man-on-the-street interviews, I don’t suspect that we’d find that a lack of political pertinence turns off potential opera goers; after all, classical opera deals in universal themes of love, betrayal, etc. that ought to resonate still in the 21st Century. I have never heard anyone complain after the curtain that Carmen failed to speak to the contemporary condition — that, thematically, it’s behind the times. (That’s why MTV was able to turn it into a hip-hopera, or why Mark Dornford-May could relocate it to the modern-day streets of Cape Town in U-Carmen.) Modern classical music and opera from the likes of John Adams put off Joe Merlot because, sonically, they slip into the academically impenetrable. It’s the music, stupid.