Monday, May 06, 2019

John Adams, Doctor Atomic (2005)

BOY it's hard to know what to make of this one. I don't think I've ever seen an opera of which it was so hard to know what to make. It takes place in Los Alamos in the days leading up to the Trinity atomic bomb test, mainly centering around J Robert Oppenheimer. The libretto consists mainly, or possibly entirely, of found texts: communiques among scientists, declassified documents, and bits of poetry.

So the score is great, tense and lush. Adams is a very good composer, and if I ever meet him I will shake his hand and tell him so. And yet, I have a lot of the same issues with this that I did with Nixon in China, accentuated. I'd say this first: I'm just not convinced that you can put relentlessly banal text to music and have it really work. It just sounds odd, and this is sort of complicated by me wondering: does opera always sound like this if you know the language? Well, I didn't have the problem with Dido and Aeneas, so maybe it's just when it's this casual, contemporary(ish) stuff. I understand that it's meant to create a cumulative effect, but I'm not sure it does. In addition to the "normal" dialogue, there's a lot of fairly opaque poetry, which honestly doesn't really work any better, albeit in different ways. Some of it comes from Oppenheimer's wife Kitty, and some from a Native American woman who is there for unclear reasons (don't get me wrong; it make sense to include the perspective of someone with long roots in the area, but hmmm). In any case, the singing is not, to my mind, particularly memorable. Nixon in China at least had "The people are the heroes now" and "I speak according to the book;" the only thing here that can approach them is the apocalyptic choral number "At the sight of this"--definitely worth hearing, but enough to carry the whole thing? I don't know.

It seems like it would be difficult to write a text about the development of the atomic bomb without presenting some sort of opinion on the matter, but this sure does the best it's able. Certain doubts are raised by the young physicist Robert Wilson, but mostly the text is just a blank. I think the worst of it is that Oppenheimer himself is just such a moral void. If I complained about the portrayal of Nixon, this is a lot worse. A cursory look at his wikipedia page suggests that the man did in fact feel conflicted about his work, but you sure wouldn't know that from this. He just doesn't seem to have an opinion about the ethical issues here. The opera tries to humanize him through his relationship with Kitty, but in the absence of anything else, that doesn't really contribute much. So he loves his wife. Hurrah. What does he think about this other...stuff? He has a big climactic aria at the end of Act I, "Batter my heart three person'd God," a musical setting of a John Donne sonnet (apparently the real Oppenheimer turned to poetry to deal with the stress). You'd think this would be a big moment to shed light on the character, but it's just...nothing. Or so I felt. God knows Gerald Finley (who created the role) does the best he can in it, but I'm not sure anyone could have done that much.

What I mainly felt watching this was dispirited, not because of the opera itself so much as because it made me think about what it all means: whether Oppenheimer or Edward Teller or anyone else involved was actually a genius per se, there was certainly a collective genius here, in the bomb's creation. We, humans, are capable of unbelievable achievements: we're penetrating the very fundamental essence of the universe! That's amazing! And yet...we're only doing it to help us slaughter one another more efficiently. Counterpoint: opera. Sure, but I think these two things are in different categories. But boy, if only people, whenever they're about to go do a shitty thing to other people, would just think, hey, you know, let's just watch some Verdi instead, we'd all be SO much better off. Of course, if that attitude were prevalent, Verdi wouldn't have been inspired to write a lot or all of what he did. So...let's not push this hypothetical too hard. But damn. I feel like my hippie-ish tendencies are becoming more pronounced lately. This government'll do that to you.

Anyway. I realize that this doesn't make it sound as though I liked Doctor Atomic very much, and maybe I didn't. It did get a lot of rapturous reviews, however, so I am reserving final judgment and accepting that it is entirely possible that I am missing something.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

[D]oes opera always sound like this if you know the language?

I've wondered about the same thing, and the conclusion I've come to thus far is that the bar for the libretto is that much higher. The only opera I've heard in my native tongue sounded perfectly fine (the fact it was a verismo opera might've helped), whereas what little I've seen in English has always seemed off (to where I only got through Ad├Ęs' The Tempest by tuning out the words and pretending it was being sung in German.)

10:31 AM  

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