"Doctor Atomic" Explodes on Stage

"Doctor Atomic" opened at the Met on Monday to rave reviews. John Adams opera premiered in San Francisco back in 2005, but the original production by Peter Sellars, who was also responsible for the libretto was not the one to open in New York. British film director Penny Woolcock was given control over the Met's production and seems to have brought out more nuances and depth than the previous production.

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times writes, "The impressive baritone Gerald Finley, who created the daunting lead role unforgettably, brings his portrayal to the Met, grown even richer, more vocally visceral and emotionally nuanced...But the big news may be the work of the conductor Alan Gilbert, in his overdue Met debut. The performance he draws from the Met orchestra and chorus is a revelation. This score continues to impress me as Mr. Adams’s most complex and masterly music. Whole stretches of the orchestral writing tremble with grainy colors, misty sonorities and textural density. Mr. Gilbert exposes the inner details and layered elements of the music: obsessive riffs, pungently dissonant cluster chords, elegiac solo instrumental lines that achingly drift atop nervous, jittery orchestral figurations."

Not all explosions are good. Keith McDonnell of MusicOMH writes, "Adams' harmonic language has shifted a long way from the repetitive chord ostinatos that made Nixon in China such a beguiling work but as he has failed to find a distinctive voice to replace them with all of the music he has provided is utterly nondescript and immediately forgettable. This was soundtrack music of the worst kind that delineated neither character nor atmosphere - the two fundamental ingredients of operatic musical language."

David Finkle of TheaterMania feels much the same, "during much of the opera's latter stretches, Adams' inspirations flag. He conjures passages of bad-weather music and running-for-cover music that wouldn't be out of place as thriller-movie underscoring...Adams, Sellars, and Woolcock may require a return to the drawing board for Doctor Atomic to become a fully explosive piece of work. "

There is even reason to suspect U.S. physicist Robert Oppenheimer (the person whom this story is based) wouldn't care for the production. This isn't Mr Adam's latest work (A Flowering Tree, 2006 and Fellow Traveler, 2007), but it is one that will likely stand the test of time being both topical and musically edgy (even if not everyone likes its edges).

Ok, not everyone thinks this new production is better - or even that the opera is completely formed. One thing it does do right: it puts microphones on the vocalists. Mr. Adams uses amplification and electronics in the orchestra, so he requests the singers and chorus use body microphones, the achieve the right balance. Earlier this year a Wagner production had to replace both the lead male and female twice during the first two weeks due to vocal fatigue. There are points during the "Doctor Atomic" where the volume of sound is huge. Forcing vocalists to sing over that is ridiculous and pointless. We have the technology; we should use it.


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