John Adams, Doctor Atomic, G. Finley, J. Rivera, E. Owens, De Nederlandse Opera, L. Renes
(released on September 30, 2008)
Opus Arte 0998 D
Still, the opera is a compelling piece of music, if not necessarily of drama or history, especially because of the fine work of this generally strong and attractive cast. The opera is in its revised (one presumes, final) version, but it is possible to imagine a more effective production, although the sets (Adrianne Lobel) and costumes (Dunya Ramicova) are beautiful. Sellars' most irritating directorial tics are on display, with the odd emoting hand movements, most distracting when poor Gerald Finley, who sings so well and incarnates the dashing, arrogant Oppenheimer, has to macarena his way through his big aria, "Batter my heart." Dancers choreographed by Lucinda Childs invade many of the scenes, with Jerome Robbins-like movements that mostly give a discordant, Broadway feel to the action (The Bomb!). Worst of all, the video direction, also by Sellars, is nauseating in its overuse of rapid cuts, clumsy zooms, awkward pans, and closeups that deprive the viewer of the vantage of the entire stage far too often, focusing instead on details that destroy the illusion of opera (the fake doll that stands in for Oppenheimer's baby, the microphones and monitors taped to the singers' ears, including one that stubbornly resists staying in place for Eric Owens). Especially at the current high price for this 2-DVD set, this is not recommended for immediate purchase but is the only game in town.
John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony / Guide to Strange Places, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, D. Robertson
(released on July 28, 2009)
One of the better symphonic works by John Adams in recent years, Guide to Strange Places, from 2001 and like the Doctor Atomic Symphony recorded here for the first time, first reached my ears in a live performance by the Cleveland Orchestra two years ago. Inspired by a tourist guide book about unusual sites in Provence that Adams spotted in a book store, the work is a semi-autobiographical journey, based on memories from the composer's family vacation. Like the revised version of the Doctor Atomic Symphony, its appeal has to do with its almost constant bubbling motion, here evoking the rattling pulse of travel. The use of a steady motoric pulse, against which accented syncopations clash jarringly, does recall Stravinsky, especially The Rite of Spring most clearly in the early sections. What strikes the ears many times, in the quirks of the orchestration as textures are piled together and untangled again, is the composer's sense of humor. Insightful liner notes by Jeremy Denk are a bonus.