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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Opera Review: Tick, Tick, Boom

Doctor Atomic nukes the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

"Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering kaboom!"
--Marvin Martian
Some of the greatest operas in history have bombed on opening night. John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which had its Met premiere on Monday night, is an exception--a very successful operatic work about the bomb itself. Penny Woolcock's new production finally gave New York audiences a chance to experience this powerful, oratorio-like work, that tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the launch of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Los Alamos, The Trinity Project, 1945.

Mr. Adams' music incorporates a wide palette of influences--everything from the warts-and-all historical approach of Modest Mussorgsky to expressionism and Musique concrète. The result is tonal but not always easy on the ears. Some vocal lines are flowing and melodic--others (especially Kitty Oppenheimer's Act II arioso) are spiky and evoke the work of Alban Berg.

Huge brass chords signal the impending detonation, and skittering woodwind fugues represent the anxiety of the Manhattan Project scientists. It is a powerful score, albeit one that lacks in memorable melodies and arias. The choral writing is excellent, but not tuneful. Alan Gilbert, in his first performances at the Met, does a sterling job with this complicated score.

Where Doctor Atomic fails to ignite is in the libretto. Written by famed theater director Peter Sellars, it is constructed from letters, poems and classified documents, much in the same way that Mussorgsky built his Russian historic opera Khovanschinha. Unfortunately, this means that the characters spend most of their time expressing and representing ideas than acting as people. We gain little insight into the scientist, his wife, and their motivations. The use of quotation throughout the libretto (from John Donne, Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita), increases this feeling of detachment and the emotional isolation of the main characters.

Los Alamos, July 1945, a few hours later.
Gerald Finley anchored the cast with his strong baritone and expressive acting, the picture of nervous energy as he paced the stage, chain-smoking. The Canadian singer was ably supported by a solid cast.
Sasha Cooke shone as the neurotic, depressed Kitty.

Wagner baritone Richard Paul Fink was a sonorous rounded Teller, the voice of reason to Oppenheimer's obsession. Also, three artists made their Met debuts: Thomas Glenn (as Robert Wilson--no not that Robert Wilson), Eric Owens (as General Leslie Groves) and Meredith Arwady as Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer's nanny. She had some of the opera's best music to sing--a lullaby in Act II based on traditional Native American themes.

The production creates an atmosphere of impending doom as the clock ticks down to the apocalypse. Projections and images flash throughout on giant sliding screens that reveal actors hidden inside. All these projection surfaces were illustrated with periodic tables, mathematical equations and maps of Japan, hallmarks of progress and harbingers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The most memorable image was in the second act as black rain seared across the white cloth mountains of Los Alamos. Overhead. Oppenheimer's bomb dangled ominously, a grey metallic sphere that could be the Death Star's grandfather.

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