Doctor Atomic

John Adams’s 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, recently premiered in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera marks the fifth in a series of collaborations (which began with Nixon In China) between the composer and director Peter Sellars over a twenty-year period. The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the testing of the first atomic bomb should have made for exciting theater. Alas, as one of the characters worried about the bomb throughout the course of the story, this opera is a “dud.” 

It is rare for new operas to get a brand-new production this early in the game. Met general manager Peter Gelb reportedly was unhappy with Sellars’s original production in San Francisco and bankrolled a new one, entrusting it to first-time opera director Penny Woolcock. (Woolcock had previously directed the film version of Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer.) While I can’t compare the two visions (I haven’t seen the De Nederlandse Opera production on DVD which replicates Sellars’s original), I can comment on the Met production, which I saw last night.

First, the good news. The New York Philharmonic’s musical-director-elect, Alan Gilbert, making his house debut, led the Met Orchestra with an assured baton and the Met musicians played with their usual high standard. Adams’s score contains some thrilling and moving sequences for the orchestra, even when the vocal line doesn’t always support it.

But therewith ends the good news.

Woolcock’s lack of opera and stage experience shows in this static production. Actors standing around in opera is nothing new, but there are long stretches in which this large cast has nothing to do. When all else fails, Woolcock fill the stage with copious amounts of useless “business.” Adams’s music clues us in that something is going on but it is not reflected on the stage.

The three-tiered rows of windows (reflecting the periodic table) may have seemed like a clever concept except that it keeps the human interaction further removed. (Problems with the sliding window shades didn’t help.) While the bomb itself was appropriately menacing and impressive as it hovered over the (in)action onstage, white curtains upstage filled in as cheap desert mountains and an unimpressive mushroom cloud at the end. And to have the scientists in three-piece suits when there are countless desert photos showing them wearing short-sleeve shirts and khakis shows a lack of attention to period detail.

But the main problem of the opera remains in Sellars’s pretentious, opaque libretto. Culled from original sources, the arias and recitatives move from complex physics problems to an army general’s diet with not one shred of drama or human interaction anywhere in between. Scenes move from one to the next with no rhyme or reason, many of them seemed interchangeable or should have been, better yet, excised. Throw in a typically esoteric John Donne poem for Oppenheimer’s overblown Act I aria and you have a frustrating evening in which a well-sung cast (including Gerald Finley reprising the role of Oppenheimer) is strapped with cardboard characters that don’t command our attention or interest.

The story of Oppenheimer and the bomb is an intriguing story with a fascinating and complex central character. And the doubts and fears of the scientists–and our own knowledge of the effects of the bomb–should have brought a real human element into the evening. However, I predict Doctor Atomic may run the fate of John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles, which premiered at the Met in 1980 to great expecation and great critical drubbing, and has never had another production (though it is scheduled for the 2009-2010 season with Angela Gheorgiu and Kristin Chenoweth).

Woolcock’s production doesn’t help Adams’s music, but I’m not sure any director could make sense of Sellars’s dispensible libretto. Perhaps it’s time for Adams to find a new collaborator.


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