We at Ionarts would like to travel more to hear music around the world, but we cannot always go ourselves. Sometimes, we get reports from our friends. So, to follow up on Robert R. Reilly's review of Maskarade in London, we present this review of the biggest opera premiere of the season, John Adams's Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera. The author, Karren L. Alenier, is a poet and librettist, and she had the good fortune to be there for the big night on Saturday. Karren's first opera, Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, a collaboration with jazz composer William Banfield, was premiered in New York this past June. Her articles, including one this month called The State of New Opera, appear regularly in Scene4.
Doctor Atomic, with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars, is awesome, as in inspiring substantial respect for its power, as in creating breath-stopping fear and dread. San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg commissioned and then premiered this seminal work on October 1, 2005.
The story of Doctor Atomic concerns the two weeks leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb, a top-secret United States government project known as the Manhattan Project and led by the physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. Most of the story takes place on July 15, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico at a test site Oppenheimer named Trinity. Peter Sellars created the libretto from U.S. government documents, letters, and poetry of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, the Bhagavad-Gita, and American Tewa Indians.
The music of Adams’s third opera is complex and dark without being strident. Bookending Adams's original compositions are selections of musique concrète, which Adams offers as a compilation of sounds from the modern world, that include running motors, pop music of the 1940s, and people communicating, including crying babies and Japanese speakers. The vibrations of the musique concrète permeated the San Francisco Opera house, providing a visceral component of this opera experience.
Anthony Tommasini, Countdown to the Eve of Destruction (New York Times, October 3)
Mark Swed, An explosive premiere (Los Angeles Times, October 3)
Joshua Kosman, Using a trinity of unconventional drama, haunting score and poetry, S.F. Opera confronts our age's most terrifying topic (San Francisco Chronicle, October 3)
Tim Page, 'Doctor Atomic': Unleashing Powerful Forces (Washington Post, October 3)
Justin Davidson, History's unholy Trinity (New York Newsday, October 3)
Lisa Hirsch, Going Nuclear: Doctor Atomic Arrives (Iron Tongue of Midnight, October 2)
Lisa Hirsch, Fallout (Iron Tongue of Midnight, October 3)
Cedric Westphal, SFist Goes to the Opera: Dr. Atomic (SFist, October 3)
Renaud Machart, L'essai non transformé de "Doctor Atomic" (Le Monde, October 3)
Renaud Machart, Les succès jalousés d'un musicien savant (Le Monde, October 3)
One musical oddity is that none of the singers playing the top principal characters - Robert Oppenheimer, General Grove, Edward Teller, Kitty Oppenheimer - are tenors or soprano. Predominately, this is a story about powerful men much in the tradition of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. In fact, one scene where junior physicist Robert Wilson (played by tenor Thomas Glenn) climbs the launching tower for the bomb has clear echoes with Budd’s scene atop the ship’s rigging. Both Budd and Wilson speak to the issues of good versus evil. Interestingly Sellars, who also serves as the director of Doctor Atomic, has cast a relative newcomer in the role of the junior physicist. Glenn is a second-year Adler Fellow with the SFO Center. His singing is on the money but not as well supported for projection as one would hope.
Generally speaking, the cast carries the weight of this complex work well. Still, one expected more projection power from any soprano who plays Kitty Oppenheimer. Kristine Jepson in that role delivers the “Am I in your light” aria, based on Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, with insistent and seductive lyricism, but it was hard to distinguish the words without referring to the supertitles.
Choral numbers are impressively strong. Particularly memorable is the singing of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita: “At the sight of this, your shape stupendous/Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,/Terrible with fangs.” Choral numbers are also enhanced by the choreography of Lucinda Childs. The dance element is used to portray the emotional landscape. Childs who worked with Philip Glass and experimental director Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach is clearly a master of blending dance with large-scale staging such that it enhances a complex scenic view. For this reviewer’s tastes, the only place the dance did not work was when Oppenheimer’s Indian maid Pasqualita sings her lullaby with a dancer curled in a fetal position on the floor near the baby’s crib. The static position of the dancer seemed too literal in contrast to other dance activity that was more freewheeling.
Are there any problems with Doctor Atomic? Yes! The opening lines (“Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Energy can be neither created or destroyed”) are dead wrong and fly in the face of Einstein’s theorem (E=mc2). John Adams was informed by a UC Berkeley professor of physics about this problem two weeks ago and tried to correct the problem but then gave up and said the change will have to come with the next production. Adams was scheduled to speak about his opera the day before and the evening of the opening, and one suspects he lost his voice to laryngitis because of the tremendous stress this problem added to the normal stresses of opening such a huge ambitious theatrical work.
As Pamela Rosenberg pointed out in a talk held on September 29 at the Berkeley Public Library (and in the shadow of the UC Berkeley Campus where Oppenheimer had his office), Doctor Atomic is not a documentary but an “acute” treatment of subject that goes to the emotional spaces. For this reviewer, the echoes of the current war in Iraq, terrorist assaults such as those on September 11, 2001, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where people of our nation were not helped adequately before and during those days of devastation, coexist with the story of Doctor Atomic. If we do not immediately identify with the people who were vaporized, maimed, and infected with cancers by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still cannot avoid the emotional load that Adams and Sellars drop on us in the music and texts of Doctor Atomic.
Karren L. Alenier
October 1, 2005