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Doctor Atomic

available at Amazon
John Adams, Doctor Atomic, G. Finley, J. Rivera, E. Owens, De Nederlandse Opera, L. Renes

(released on September 30, 2008)
Opus Arte 0998 D
John Adams scored a success, with a few caveats, with the premiere of Dr. Atomic, which he describes as "longer and more complex than any of my previous stage works," at San Francisco Opera in 2005. The work's major failure, according to many critics, was the non-narrative style of the libretto (.PDF file), assembled from documentary sources by Peter Sellars, who also directed the opera. In the interview included as an extra on the DVD of the opera, Sellars proudly says that the characters speak only words that are actually attributed to them, but even with the use of poetry for aria moments (Baudelaire in the Oppenheimers' bedroom scene, Donne at the end of Act I, the Tewa song of Pasqualita) the libretto is leaden. In spite of the focus on sources, Sellars missed the chance to tell the real story of the Manhattan Project, working as he was from his well-known, rather one-sided political viewpoint. As someone who is close to a scientist who worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory, although many years after the time of the development of the atomic bomb, I know the matter of the building and even use of the weapon to be much more complicated than is shown here, and not only for the scientific errors, noticed by a Berkeley physicist at the time of the premiere and finally corrected for the production at De Nederlandse Opera, recorded for this DVD.

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.


available at Amazon
John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony / Guide to Strange Places, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, D. Robertson

(released on July 28, 2009)
Nonesuch 468220-2
John Adams himself conducted the world premiere of his symphonic distillation of music from Doctor Atomic, with the BBC Symphony at the Proms two years ago. However, the composer dedicated the final version of the Doctor Atomic Symphony to conductor David Robertson (whose misspelled name on the cover delayed the release of this new disc by a couple weeks). He led the American premiere performance with his current band, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, recorded live here. Adams tightened up the score considerably, cutting it from four movements lasting about 45 minutes to three movements in just over 24 minutes. The final version includes not all that much of the material from the opera, focusing on the scientific parts of the story and leaving out the, well, female parts of the opera. Also of interest is the fact that Adams chose to conclude the symphonic score with an orchestral arrangement of Oppenheimer's "Batter My Heart," an acknowledgment perhaps that this aria, which concludes the first act, is actually the climax of the opera, rather than the explosion of the actual bomb.

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.



Varun said...

Ah! A man after my own heart.

Watching it at the Met, as someone who is pretty familiar with the story of the development of the bomb leading up to Trinity, I found the opera rather dumbed down, trying to find meaning in moments rather than trying to appreciate the full complexity of emotions felt - and written extensively about - by the principal characters of the opera. The net result is that though this is the first truly modern opera I've liked, I found the story shallow and the characters caricatures of themselves. I suppose had I not known as much about the dramatis personae, I would have enjoyed it more. For what it's worth: the Met production cut out the scene of the bomb hovering over the baby carriage - much to the outrage of certain parties known to both of us - but once I watched the DVD, I realized that it just made an already slightly cartoon like opera even more of a farce.

That said, I loved the music, conducted masterfully by Roberston [sic] and I agreed wholeheartedly that batter my heart was the climax and the defining sound of the opera.

Bonus: the CAPTCHA is roberst!

Charles T. Downey said...

Hahaha. I was so sad not to get up to New York for the Met production.

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jfl said...

"Worst of all, the video direction, also by Sellars, is nauseating."

Felt just (almost) the opposite way. Not knowing who was responsible for the video direction I thought: 'At least a sympathetic director who also thinks this opera is complete shite... and one who tries to make the best of the little he's got to work with.'

As someone who loves "El Nino", likes "Nixon", and appreciates "Klinghofer", I couldn't help but find this "Doctor" quite foul.