Friday, October 28, 2005

Dr. Atomic: The Opera

To summarize: Good opera. Not sure if I entirely liked it.

Dr. Atomic is definitely a successful opera. It is coherent, it worked well, the audience was into it, and I see no reason it shouldn't enter the standard repertoire. But I'm not sure if I actually...enjoyed it. I really like John Adams, and prepared for this trip by listening to recordings of Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, both of which I really like. But Dr. Atomic didn't totally do it for me.

I think the main problem was the vocal writing. A lot of it seemed rather arbitrary--large amounts of text was just kind of spit out, pitched in vaguely atonal melodic lines that seemed designed to just spit large amounts of text and nothing else. The few moments that I found really beautiful, like the John Donne aria at the end of Act 1, were the moments where the music seemed to be driving the text, not vice versa. What's the point of being postmodern if you can't have pretty tunes?

That said, the orchestral writing was great. Adams has no problem with that, beyond a slight tendency to have little minimalist quotations that made me yearn for some actual hardcore minimalism.

Let's see, what else...the libretto had occasional tendencies towards annoyingness. We all agreed that the love scene between Oppenheimer and his wife was pretty stupid, although to be honest during that moment in the opera I was expending most of my energy supressing a sudden coughing fit, and so was not really appreciating anything. Unlike several of my friends, and some restless audience members, I found the last twenty minutes to be really compelling. The twenty minutes are actually a prolongation of the five minute countdown to the first detonation of the bomb. Throughout, the entire chorus is spread out on the stage lying down, assuming the prone position the scientists were supposed to take just in case the bomb was more powerful than expected, but also summoning up images of dead bodies littered everywhere.

That was I think the best part of the opera--these brief, powerful moments that carried with them enormous resonance. Like when Mrs. Oppenheimer (I think--we were in the cheap seats, so it might have been her housekeeper) was singing to her baby in its crib, unaware of the gigantic bomb hanging Damocoles-like over her head. Or the John Donne aria, where the bomb was covered in white silk sheets lit from within so that Oppenheimer was silhouetted in front. And the rather sad, frail, moment, where the General talks about his struggle to lose weight as a small boy.

The thing is, looking back at my favorite moments, none of them have anything to do with music. The only musical moments I really remember well, a week later, is that the Donne aria was pretty, and that the last twenty minutes were appropriately loud and ominous. Everything else is mostly visual.

Hopefully they will release a recording soon, or with any luck maybe even a score. I'd really like to think about this opera some more.

P.S. Alex Ross, he of New Yorker glory, has an interesting roundup of Dr. Atomic critical opinion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more... I'm an ardent fan of Adams and thoroughly enjoyed Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, but, crikey, Dr Atomic was torturous! All that exhausting, relentless angst and arid recitativo-like writing. The worst of it is, I fell asleep in the John Donne aria!