Cher Public

Manhattan melodrama

Curtis Opera Theater mounted a musically remarkable account of John AdamsDoctor Atomic on March 2. (It was repeated on March 4). Timothy Myers was the masterful conductor and drew superb playing from the Curtis Symphony Orchestra crowded into the pit of the small Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center. 

Adams’ amazing range of sonorities, colors, the richness of his almost romantic inspirations, his beautifully organized counterpoint and subtle use of motives and cells to create long melodies were wonderfully served. Small groups of instruments and soloists played with haunting beauty. Myers’ managed impeccable balances, integrated the electronic elements of the writing adroitly, and achieved a clarity of intent and rightness of touch to which the orchestra responded spectacularly well. It was only in some of the big muscular movements that there wasn’t sufficient force or always confidence, especially as the long evening wore on.

The singing was just as impressive. The chorus (including many singers who have sung leading roles at Curtis) trained by Elizabeth Braden, the chorus master of Opera Philadelphia, was spectacular. In solo roles, graduate students trying parts meant for more mature voices, were splendid for the most part. All sang well, had Adams’ style and rhetoric down, managed clear verbal articulation, and phrased—where the production allowed—with artistry.

The sole musical misfire was the amplification of the voices. Adams asks for this device, but it was crudely handled, flat, and occasionally distorted at the first performance. In this small theater less definitely would have been more.

The piece itself is problematic, with phenomenally inventive music by the arguably great composer Adams, but with a preposterous libretto by the self-promoting Peter Sellars.

So the story goes, Doctor Atomic was a “big idea” that occurred to Pamela Rosenberg, then of the San Francisco Opera, in 1999. She approached Adams who at first resisted the idea of a work about “The Manhattan Project” and the inventors of the atom bomb. He had been burned by the anger provoked by The Death of Klinghoffer and admitted in interviews that after all, he didn’t really like opera, Mozart perhaps being the exception. He hated Madame Butterfly. But Adams had a glimmer of interest when he learned that Oppenheimer—for all his vast culture — also hated opera!

At any rate, Adams eventually was persuaded, finding a model for what he called “a post-nuclear holocaust sound” in the music of the great Edgar Varèse. The librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman, departed the project after two years, leaving Sellars to devise a text which is a mélange of actual quotes from the participants and astonishingly pompous literary citations. He also directed the world premiere.

One can feel sympathy for the Curtis director, R. B. Schlather, tasked with dramatizing this sententiously ham-handed text. From a group of puppets spouting famous poems, he had to create recognizable human beings, people that an audience can understand and feel for. How?

Schlather and his designer, Paul Tate dePoo lll, came up with a raised stone circle in the center of a bare stage, backed by a black screen. Characters often performed on the raised circle, but also played on the stage surface. In act two, the insufferable Native American stereotype character, Pasqualita, intoned her endless, unintentionally funny doom-laden chants circling around it, and, at the end, two children crawled out from under the circle to stare at the audience.

Schlather took a very radical course with the performers. Given that his singers had neither the age nor the physical types of the middle-aged people they were impersonating, he deliberately went counter to any “realism” in the portrayals.

The opera began with a young male figure in a variety of bedclothes flopping and jerking on the circle, performing acrobatic feats. Perhaps this was someone really dying of radiation poisoning? But no, it was Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan McCollough). Throughout the act, he rolled and toked joints (presumably laced with speed) to fuel further leaping, writhing and spasms while pulling items of clothing on and off.

McCollough was truly brave. He committed fully to this extreme physicality even though he had an enormous amount to sing. He has a fine middle weight baritone and, remarkably, managed focused tone and clear diction—until the great aria that ends act one, Batter my Heart three-personed God, a sonnet by John Donne.

But why this text? Why at his highest moment of self-understanding would a nuclear scientist about to unleash an unfathomably lethal weapon be invoking the Christian idea of the Trinity? Wouldn’t he be mourning what he has done, terrified at its implications, tremendously proud of his achievements and deeply ashamed? He gives a poetry reading—with the wrong stresses—instead? It is grotesque sentimentality.

Schlather had McCollough jump around during the orchestral interludes in this aria, leaving him short of breath and unable to articulate the words. It was understandable, even honorable, for Schlather to footnote the sophomoric dishonesty of the text but those good intentions misfired, effectively sabotaging composer and soloist.

Just as Schlather avoided the “suave, urbane” Oppenheimer, he avoided the “fiercely intellectual” Edward Teller. In this role, Tyler Zimmermann was also very brave, saddled as he was with the most embarrassing moment of an evening full of them. In act two, face painted as death, wearing only his underwear, he crossed the stage slowly with a begging bowl. Then he was parked upstage for the duration to laugh at the coming test. Zimmermann sang very well and articulated superbly but this was not a dramatic approach I can imagine any performer beinging off with success.

Schlather was most successful perhaps in the love scene in act one. Mrs. Oppenheimer, Kitty (Siena Licht Miller), was treated as a graduate student of great allure and the sexual nature of her relationship to her husband was given a very erotic realization through intimate touching, the sensuous removal of some of Kitty’s intimate garments and a very well-conveyed sense of increasing arousal by both performers. This is another gorgeous scene, set in large part to a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. Kitty sings to Oppenheimer, “only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love…”

Now, that’s sure to arouse an exhausted, anxiety ridden husband to sex! And it does, for he is turned on by her “noisy hair”. Nothing human, sexual or intimate is said in this scene, nothing that explicitly and specifically belongs to these characters at this moment. Adams cheats with his gorgeous melodic line, beautifully managed by Miller, and Schlather’s staging for once helps.”

It still exists in the re-do I sent you. Some trimming is fine but I do like pointing out another tendentious citation in the Rukeyser poem. But the final decision, of course, is yours.

The best solo singing came from Evan LeRoy Johnson who spun out Wilson’s line with a beautiful tenor. Vartan Gabrielian was impossibly thin as the fat obsessed General Groves but he and Dogukan Kuran (Hubbard) sang very well. Sophia Fiuza Hunt loaned her lovely voice to Pasqualita’s groaner aria, “The Cloud-Flower Lullaby”.

Schlather did have a few “big ideas” of his own. One was his depiction of acid rain, a massive drop from the flies onto the stage starting with black atom-shaped balloons and proceeding to all kinds of detritus, including a chair! (This required a massive cleanup effort during the intermission, more interesting than a lot of the show.)

Curtis was brave to mount this work, and did wonderfully by it musically. As an opera it raised some fascinating questions; for example, it is possible for the composer to stand utterly alone and transcend his text? Can an opera ever work with what amounts to the Spinal Tap of opera librettos?

Dr. Atomic does to a large degree in act one, but eventually Sellars’ inability to plot, over-reliance on exposition and addiction to quotation cause everything to stall. Adams might have been better off forgetting Edgar Varèse and studying Madame Butterfly.

Photo: Karli Cadel

  • Batty Masetto

    “The Spinal Tap of opera librettos”! :D Love it!
    I do think “Batter My Heart” is a beautiful aria, although what it’s doing there where it does it, I do not know. My heart bleeds for any director who has the job of trying to hold this thing together.
    The Gospel According to the Other Mary, heard here in SF a few weeks ago, has another Sellars magpie-contraption of a libretto, but fortunately is held together a little better by the inevitable waystations of the Passion narrative. Again some stunning music, though, and very well performed. Tamara Mumford was especially haunting as Martha.

  • PCally

    I saw the second performance and agree with much of this fantastic review. I actually never saw the opera when it was performed at the met and I’ve never really seen it in its entirety (literally because of what is stated in the review, that sellers librettos really drag down whatever musicals values Adams brings to his operas) The high music standards applied to a piece like this is a really impressive accomplishment.

    Had no idea mrs John claggart was so anti-sellars lol

  • Porgy Amor

    Like PCally, I skipped this opera the season it was presented by the Met (which seems longer ago than it was). I still have not heard Doctor Atomic, and Albert’s excellent review makes me want to. I suspect I would agree with Albert about the largely insurmountable problems posed by Sellars’s text.

    (This required a massive cleanup effort during the intermission, more interesting than a lot of the show.)

    Ha ha. “Burn!” as they say.

  • Camille

    “Rinnegata…e felice!”

  • Alex Baker

    Great review, even if it did force me to relive terrible moments of that libretto I’d hoped to forget.

    What’s the historical precedent for just making up an entirely new text for an existing score? Still pisses me off that we basically have to write off an entire Adams opera…

    • Thank you for your kind words. I agree. I think there are sublime inspirations in Adams work here but the text is just impossible and Sellars lack of dramatic skill, even on a basic level, means that the work has no theatrical shape, no sense of forward movement or inevitability about it. The result makes it impossible for Adams to move forward and really build the second act. I know Sellars is a famous director but I’ve always thought he was a vivaciously self promoting vaudeville act of the trendy moment. All the influential pretentious idiots of that time (and those were idiots, indeed, I knew them all) bought his routine.

      When he was the artistic director of American National Theater in Washington, D.C ALL the actual theater people he dealt with thought he was an arrant and arrogant fraud. You can get away with a lot in opera in America where few people understand or even care about the form. Although a director can have a clever concept based on an existing text, that doesn’t meant s/he can actually create a convincing dramatic action. That is fundamental, more so even than the words.

      Adams’ training is also to blame. Back then opera was considered beneath contempt. It wasn’t only that many gifted young composers didn’t have the opera illness, it was that they were discouraged from even bothering to find out how the form worked. Though they and many of their teachers were brilliant people, ignorance led to a lazy acceptance of cliches and silly generalizations. The irony here is that Adams has a great gift for writing eloquently for singers — many of his colleagues did not have that gift. My point about Butterfly is that like Oppenheimer’s journey, hers is largely internal, as her perceptions and understanding shifts. Illica and Giacosa know exactly how to keep that alive and available to an audience. Sellars hasn’t a clue.

      • Alex Baker

        That is some good context, clearly a lot of institutional dysfunction was required to get such a high profile project to the stage in such miserable shape.

        I wasn’t aware of that Kennedy Center thing but there is a whole lot going on in this random 1985 LA times profile I just googled:

      • DonCarloFanatic

        Maybe you can answer this: What happens to new operas with bad librettos but interesting music? (For example, The Perfect American.) Does anyone try to fix them? We see productions that get tweaks when they move from one city to another and have a new local director, so what about librettos and music getting the same? We’re used to seeing the third versions of 19th century operas, but where are the second versions of lame 20th or 21st century operas? Why can’t Dr. Atomic get an overhaul? Is it because the creators involved have a lock on them, or are blind to their faults, and worse, are incapable of correcting them?

        • I think in many cases there aren’t enough opportunities to do the work to prompt serious rethinking — beyond cuts, perhaps, or some changes in instrumentation.

          Adams doesn’t really have that excuse. His is one of the three most produced American composers of opera internationally (along with Glass and Heggie) and I think could effect a revision with another librettist, although Sellars very likely has a contractual lock on royalties (that creates some difficulties for a theater wanting to hire someone else to do an overhaul, they’d have to be paid in addition with some consideration for royalties, padding the budget).

          And since Adams was really the creative power in this project he bears some blame for how the work is now (although I think some changes were made after the first run in San Francisco).

          I think, as I suggested above, Adams just doesn’t have much feel for the dramatic/theatrical aspect of opera. Verdi and Wagner had tremendous instincts for what would work for them. Verdi did hire librettists (who in some cases seem mainly to have taken dictation from the composer) but fought hard to get what he needed. Wagner wrote his own libretti for better or for worse. But even where they are arguably prolix or pretentious that was what he wanted and he coped memorably musically.

          Verdi and Wagner, although both were very well trained composers (Verdi along with Martucci was probably the best trained and most sophisticated composer of his generation in Italy), were men of the theater. Wagner when young was a successful conductor and producer of operas and Verdi also controlled what happened on stage.

          Adams, I believe, is fundamentally a non-theatrical composer, although I think a lot of his teachers would have judged the “emotive” and “narrative” aspects of his musical rhetoric harshly. But those qualities and his ability to write eloquently for singers aren’t really enough for him to have the instincts and control of someone born for the theater.

          As for various versions, the century from 1820-1920 was the high point of opera as a very popular even commercial entertainment. There were theaters all over Europe and then in the Americas that solicited either revisions or re-thinking (as in Verdi’s Paris versions of some of his operas) and that made it worthwhile for the composer to do it.

          No longer, alas…

      • There are things you say here that bring L’Amour de Loin to mind to me.

  • Thank you for the great review. Sellars can be a revelatory director but, as a librettist, he really needs a dramaturg. I saw the Met HD of this opera and liked many highlights. But I found the libretto very uneven and a major stumbling block. I also recall Adams’s musical inspiration seemed to rise and fall with the libretto. At the libretto’s most inane moments, the music was banal.