Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera

10/16/2008 10:30 AM |

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.

5 Comment

  • Just saw the HD broadcast this morning, and I must say, while I agree that the melodic lines are . . . difficult to digest much of the time, I am amazed at the ease with which you dismiss this work. Musical conservative? Yes, you most certainly are, in a stodgy sort of way. I feel that Adams can be forgiven for the nature of the score and melodies in the wake of the continued misrepresentation of his current style as minimalist. Not that I am accusing you of having labeled him as such, but I feel an effort on the composer’s part to prove himself away from such a label. In the mean time, as he works this out, it seems quite clear to me that he has moved into a realm compositionally beyond that of any other living composer. Dr. Atomic is certainly a lot to handle, and perhaps that is where it lost you . . . In terms of its connection to “Joe Merlot”, there is a bigger problem at work here than the potential failure of Adam’s intent, and that is the rather musically uneducated state of contemporary society. Though this review may include some rather clever turns of phrase, as one looks deeper, it is seen as really no more than a self-indulgent cursory whine, written in the wake of thoroughly un-intellectual consideration.

  • I comletely agree with jcarlson. Oppenheimer could have written poetry himself and often read & quoted Baudelaire,Donne, and Rukheyser. He was as passionate and romantic about poetry and the arts as he was intellectual and scientific. As musicians are passionate about their opera, why can’t this be combined. It can, but only for those intellectually passionate about the arts. I believe science is an art in itself. These scientists, which this opera is about, looked to the arts as an escape from the horror they were creating. How can anyone review an opera when they haven’t any idea what the opera is actually about?

  • Just listening to Dr.(Met production on French “France Musique” radio.

    1) Music: This is Adams ! it’s a matter of taste if you love his music or not but you cannot dismiss the fact that he is a great composer you CANNOT qualify this as “a brutal, miserable, plaintive score “. It’s actually very melodic for comtemporary music.

    2) Charcaters and plot: The first brillant idea is the choice of the epic story yet so relevant to our current time. Then the parlando is masterfully used (as in Nixon…) so, one can actually follow the story in its (mostly) inhuman “official” tone that is amazingly suited. Enough of Oppenheimer as a humanist: when you design WMD you know what you do; no point being sorry afterwards. Like MKlinger said “These scientists, which this opera is about, looked to the arts as an escape from the horror they were creating”.

    I’m going to love this as Much as Nixon in China! Bravo Monsieur Adams. I wish Boulez could be as lively and relevant to our world as you are….

  • I just watched the Met production that I had recorded weeks ago onto DVR, and while I cannot say it is my favorite work or even the greatest opera of the last 100 years, it deserves a more thoughtful review than what “Mark” has written. It seems more of a soliloquy on his own musical taste rather than constructive critique of the work.

    To be a musical conservative is a matter of taste, but we should not mean to say that the modern aesthetic is flawed or somehow inferior on account of dissonance. Perhaps “Joe Merlot” (is he the bourgeois variant of Joe Sixpack?) will find it “sonically impenetrable” because of a refusal to open their ears and their minds. Consider the words of Charles Ives – a forerunner of John Adams, John Cage, Aaron Copland, et al:

    “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.”

    And perhaps science does not make for the most glamorous opera subject, but I – as a student of music and the human voice – have grown quite weary of the same old production of the same old stories found in Tosca, La Boheme, and La Traviata. Masterpieces, to be sure, with themes that truly do resonate with us in a post-modern world. Opera, however, can expand its narrative scope beyond the realm of the broken heart; stories of politics, of science, and war are equally important and devastating.

    To say “that Doctor Atomic is sung in English is just one more albatross” neglects a great heritage of opera and oratorio in the English language. From Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to Britten’s Peter Grimes, there exist brilliant works that capitalize on the rhythmic power of our language. Or would you rather hear the story of the Manhattan Project sung in the gooey tongue of Romantic French or Italian ope

  • “Furthermore, that Doctor Atomic is sung in English is just one more albatross.” Stop right there(actually, I was stopped much earlier by the inanities of this clumsy review). You reveal such ignorance of the history of works in language and expect to be taken seriously? You mix n match Charles Ives,Cage, and Copland like they’re some kind of lineage? Utterly foolish mumblings.