Nov 11, 2008

"Atomic" Implosion

(Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.)

I ate popcorn at the opera on Saturday--or rather, at the Chelsea Clearview cinema, where I watched a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan of Doctor Atomic. This whole simulcast thing is an excellent idea and a great bargain ($22 vs. $150-plus for a decent seat at the Met), and I see via Playgoer that some theaters are taking the plunge, though while I'm talking about the broadcast itself, it was a little disconcerting to see Gerald Finley interviewed on-camera seconds after the end of the first act, like a halfback who just scored the winning TD.

As for the opera itself--well, I'll have to take the word of critics I trust that it was better in Frisco. I'll start by saying I'm a huge fan of the composer, John Adams--I saw lot of him on the West Coast, where he regularly guested at the L.A. Phil, and I still cherish the memory of his lively Ojai Fest directorship of 1993 (God, was it that long ago?). I'm also a fan of most of the Peter Sellars work I've been lucky enough to see (again, mostly at LA Opera and on the teevee), and their work together has been alternately brilliant (Nixon in China), lachrymose (The Death of Klinghoffer), and impassioned (El Nino).

Two of those were operas with libretti the poet Alice Goodman, while El Nino is an oratorio with a crazy quilt of texts relating to exile, journey, and the Nativity. The text of Doctor Atomic was assembled in a similarly hodgepodge way, and to my mind the opera's problems start there, though like a chain reaction this deficit goes on to wreck the music and the production, too. In treating the days leading up to the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos in 1945, Sellars (who is credited with "libretto") stitched together documentary texts, firsthand accounts, and poetry beloved by the extremely well-read J. Robert Oppenheimer.

This leads to some wrenchingly beautiful and haunting material--as well as sprawling deserts of essentially undramatic, thuddingly prosaic recitative, set to restless music that eventually acquires the monotony of the seemingly arbitrary. Penny Woolcock's production often looks great as a static installation with some moving parts, but the problem with stage pictures is that the theater no less than music moves in time, and a brilliant picture tends to look dead after, say, 10 minutes. I had a hard time tracking any of the characters, because they aren't given scenes to act so much as states.

On the plus side, I was grateful to be exposed to some stunning texts, many of them beautifully voiced by Sasha Cooke, in the dramatically extraneous role of Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty. All her words, in fact, are from poems by Muriel Rukeyser. I was struck in particular by this:
Now I say that the peace the spirit needs is peace,
not lack of war, but fierce continual flame.
For all men: effort is freedom, effort’s peace,
it fights. And along these truths the soul goes home,
flies in its blazing to a place
more safe and round than Paradise.

"Effort is freedom," that's one to remember (shades of Flow, no?). And this:
Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war.
Our conflicts carry creation and its guilt,
these years’ great arms are full of death and flowers.
A world is to be fought for, sung, and built:
Love must imagine the world.

Musically, I felt mostly adrift, though Adams' is a sonic world I don't mind drifting in. Exceptions include a "Vishnu" chorus in the second act, with some of the Bhagavad-Gita's gnarliest images making for a deeply disturbing chorale. And of course, the searing "Batter My Heart," setting a favorite poem of Oppenheimer's by John Donne, which closes Act One memorably:

Speaking frankly, it all comes off a bit like a work of art by two very, very concerned citizens who seem to have mistaken the nimbus of world-ending, nature-warping dread surrounding the dawn of the Atomic Age for drama. This dread has inspired some of Adams' most anguished music, and in the lead role Finley is often quite movingly wracked--remarkable given that he spends about three-quarters of the show in much the same state: as a walking guilt ghost, his own self-contained Banquo. But it's a faltering piece of music-theater--something of a dud explosion from artists who at their best can be incendiary.

This is inarguably cool.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Nice review! Do you know about this edition of the Gita?