13 February 2006

Dr Atomic

I hate to be negative on the first real post, but I have to start somewhere with the backed-up reviews and Doctor Atomic was the big autumn event here. As you can see below, I was really disappointed. By the way, this was my third world-premiere opera in one year, which may be, sadly enough, some sort of record for someone with no connections to the biz. This is cobbled together from e-mails to various friends; eventually I will just refer them to the blog, if I decide to let them know it exists. . . . I'll post some further/second thoughts later.

I saw Dr. Atomic October 14, mid-way through the run. I had heard raves from some who had been there. I was pulling for it because it was [departed SF Opera Director Pamela] Rosenberg's baby and I love her and hate to see her go. But I honestly have to say I was really disappointed. I liked the music, and was really impressed with Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer). But the libretto just doesn't work.
I have no problem with non-linear or fragmentary narratives -- two of my favorite operas are 4 Saints in 3 Acts and Satyagraha, and when you get down to it another favorite of mine, Il Trovatore, is filled with obsessive fragmentary narratives -- but the work doesn't seem to know if it wants to be an accurate portrayal of the days leading up to the test explosion or a meditation on those events, and so it just sort of flops unsatisfyingly between the two. Too many scenes go on too long (everything with Kitty Oppenheimer, for instance, and I don't think even the magnificent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson [who was originally cast but had to withdraw for medical reasons] could have convinced me she needed to go on so long). There is no character development, so you're left puzzling out some of the relations between the characters and the political situation. Usually I skip the plot summaries in the program, but I read this one after the performance and it's full of information that is either not conveyed or contradicted by what's onstage. I wonder if they were all just too close to the material and assumed much more pre-existing knowledge on the part of the audience than they should have.
Just as you start to get a feeling for what it must have been like to be a young physicist in the desert grappling with the unknown consequences of the test, the scene is interrupted by Muriel Rukeyser's ghastly verse clomping across the stage for 20 minutes. And every time the collage of quotation starts to provoke a meditative and insightful look at the bomb, you get a scene of the most banal conversations (about calorie counting, for example) and you're left trying to figure out who these people are and how they fit in together. Some I couldn't identify until I checked the program afterwards. Even when I could figure out that one guy was Edward Teller, I didn't understand quite why he was quoting a letter that I thought was the opposite of what Teller believed. It turns out we're supposed to realize that he's thinking the letter writers are on the subversive side, and in fact he thinks Oppenheimer is too. But we have no context at all for knowing any of this. (I actually knew the story of Teller and Oppenheimer but only remembered afterwards; I think it's a good indication of the problem that my memory wasn't jostled by what I was seeing.)
The whole second scene with Oppenheimer and his wife is typical. It starts with her lengthy recitation of one of Rukeyser's verses. He responds by quoting Baudelaire (but you only know this by reading the program -- it's presented as if these are their actual words). It's hard to know what to make of this. The scenario and the critics seem to think it means they have a troubled relationship and can't communicate directly. I don't know -- I think quoting Baudelaire to your wife is pretty hot. And the quotation method is the same method used in the libretto -- so how can we take it as an indication of falsity? Also, if I were in charge of building the first atomic bomb, I'd be pretty distracted. Conversely, if I were a woman in the mid-1940s who was stuck in the desert while my husband worked on a mysterious and important government project, I might drink a little too much. (I assume that's what they meant by the scene where she's holding a bottle of scotch or vodka while reciting YET ANOTHER of Rukeyser's tedious verses.) So is this bomb-specific? Or were they always like this? And what difference does it make?
There's a general [General Groves] who is made to look ridiculous -- he berates the meteorologist at length because he doesn't like the weather report, even demanding that he change the weather. In Alex Ross's excellent article in the New Yorker, he refers to this as a Lear-like scene. But it's not. Lear directly and hopelessly confronts the elements, and that's the pathos and the tragedy that come out of the situation. The general is merely berating an underling with absurd demands; it's simply ridiculous. And then he's the one who goes on tediously about his calorie counting. (Also, they cast a black man in the role -- I'd be happy to see the singer in something else, but if you're trying to represent America in the mid-1940s you simply cannot cast a black man as the general in charge of the atomic bomb -- the political and moral implications of segregation are just too overwhelming in America for this casting to make sense, especially in a work claiming to deal with political and moral implications.) And of course the Oppenheimers have a (largely invented, apparently) American Indian childcare provider, who supplies us with chants of the Native people. Initially I liked having this voice, but they kept repeating it and it just got cheesier and cheesier -- finally I was reminded of Kokopelli souvenirs for sale in airport gift shops. I'm also the Vietnam-Watergate generation, but could we maybe consider the possibility that a general in the US Army might have slightly more cogent thoughts on war than a 20-year-old nanny, even if she is apparently genetically predestined to transmit The Wisdom of the Ancient Ways?
The first act ends with the big hit number, the already widely praised setting of one of John Donne's holy sonnets, "Batter my heart." I can already see that this is going to be detached and performed in concert as frequently as baritones can get it scheduled, and it's wonderful. If only the whole libretto had been selected from such resonant texts. (The test site was named Trinity by Oppenheimer after this sonnet; again, this is something you only find out from reading the program; there's no indication in the work itself what the specific significance of the poem is, though its implications are obvious.) (Another oddity in the libretto: though they quote the Bhagavad Gita, they omit Oppenheimer's famous reference to "I am become Death, the Destroyer of Men." I wonder if it was getting too much like Glass's Satyagraha for them (the entire libretto for which is made up of quotations from the Bhagavad Gita). So frustrating.
I couldn't help contrasting this libretto with Toni Morrison's for Margaret Garner. She took something that (I assume) is much more of a settled issue than the atom bomb and made us see slavery as people at the time would have seen it, with some of the ambiguities and contradictions and assumptions. She avoided the easy and melodramatic judgments. I think the stitched-together libretto might have worked if they had made the whole thing more of a meditation on the bomb and not attempted a recreation of the events as well -- which is something that a book can do better anyway. I figured the meteorologist scene was based to some extent in reality but I also assumed that even if the General did say all that he's shown saying he also possibly later realized in some way that he was being ridiculous or had just lost his temper. But again, there's no context. Looking at the program afterwards I could tell just from the brief description in there that Groves was a more interesting and complex man than the one on stage. I haven't seen any mention or criticism of casting a black singer in the role -- sort of funny, since it's very easy to say why it's wrong in this instance but it's not a problem to have (for example) Willard White as St. Francis [in Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise, which the opera did a few years ago].I liked the staging and Sellars avoided his frequent over-reliance on placing video monitors all around, but I just didn't admire it enough to want to give up another evening and a lot of money, so I’m glad I didn’t rush out and get a second ticket. The work may actually benefit from being heard rather than seen since without surtitles inevitably some of the fairly dense libretto is going to get lost, which can only help.

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