Friday, February 27, 2009

Keeping Bad Company?

The Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which I have tried to examine from a variety of points of view, most recently by comparing my own thoughts with those of Daniel Mendelsohn's in The New York Review, has now been transferred to the English National Opera (ENO). I have now read two reviews from London, Rupert Christiansen's account in the Telegraph and that of Richard Fairman for the Financial Times. Also, to add to my own reflective mix, I finally got around to watching my DVR recording of The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, shown on the PBS American Experience series.

The word from across the pond is not particularly glowing (which may not be the best metaphor for an opera whose climax is the Trinity test of the atomic bomb). Christiansen was able to write from a position of familiarity with the opera:

When I first heard John Adams's third full-scale opera Doctor Atomic at its 2005 première in San Francisco, I called it "a moving and compelling work of moral, as well as musical, grandeur". I'm not going to eat my words, exactly, but a second hearing – ironically, in a production superior to San Francisco's – leaves me less convinced.

Fairman also tried to search out positive spin but found it only in the wisdom of the production-sharing arrangement that the ENO has formed with the Met:

This is the first time that Doctor Atomic, premiered in 2005, has been seen in the UK, and it is the third in a series of co-productions between English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. At a difficult time for funding, ENO must be glad to have the alliance and not only because the previous two productions – Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly and the highly original staging of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha – have been so successful.

As it turns out, Doctor Atomic is barely an opera at all, which is its number-one problem.

Christiansen also provided some useful background, part of which was actually new to me:

The opera tells the story of the last phase of the 1945 atom-bomb test at Los Alamos, and specifically focuses on the physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, a sensitive, spiritual, liberal man who was nevertheless prepared to develop a weapon of mass destruction. In early planning, Doctor Atomic was also going to deal with Oppenheimer's remorse after Hiroshima and his run-in with McCarthyism. But, after Adams fell out with the original librettist Alice Goodman, Peter Sellars (who also directed the San Francisco production) created a script that makes what seem to me two crucial errors – the text was assembled from actual historical documents, bumped up with poetry associated with the characters in question; and the opera is brought to an end with the first test explosion.

This makes for a peculiarly inert plot, with all the corny "countdown" tension of a rotten episode of Star Trek – will the weather clear in time? Will the darn bomb actually work? –­ and dramatis personae who remain flat figures, lumbered with unshaped words that they seem to recite rather than embody. What Sellars has assembled may be scrupulously fair to all parties and the deeper "for" and "against" ramifications of the issue, but it doesn't come alive as theatre.

Adams has also been left to grapple with some very clunky text, which he fails to animate into a flow of meaningful melody – tracts of the vocal writing are so dull that they have no business being music at all.

The new part for me was that bit about Adams falling out with Goodman. In the events I had attended prior to the premiere of Doctor Atomic, this was quietly covered up with word that Goodman had a conflict with "other commitments." However, if there was actually a behind-the-scenes narrative about the coming apart of the "dynamic trio" behind the "ripped from the headlines" operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, then that narrative may be worth considering in terms of how Doctor Atomic finally emerged.

Both Christiansen and Fairman felt that the libretto of Doctor Atomic was the weakest link in its "production chain;" and they both provided basically the same justification for their respective opinions. In my own reaction to Mendelsohn's review, I also recognized that there was not much to the libretto; and, on further reflection, I would now invoke Gérard Genette's three component parts of "narrative reality:"

  1. What you want to say (usually called the "story")
  2. How you structure your text to say it (for which I like to apply Seymour Chatman's term "discourse")
  3. How you deliver that text (which Genette calls the "narrating")

From that point of view, I would say that, in the case of the first two operas, there had been so much media attention that the libretto could be more concerned with meditating on the underlying story, rather than narrating it. Mendelsohn thus cited Adams describing Klinghoffer "as being more like a Bach oratorio or Passion than like a conventional opera" (Mendelsohn's words). One may also approach Oppenheimer in a similar way. On the one hand the story of the Manhattan Project keeps getting retold each time more of the related documents are declassified, while, as the American Experience film demonstrated, the character of Oppenheimer himself continues to intrigue. That latter factor is probably why San Francisco Opera Director Pamela Rosenberg first approached Adams for her "Faust Project," even if the real Faust story only began to emerge, in the words of an earlier documentary, "the day after Trinity" (which, as Christiansen observed, is where this particular opera ends).

However, I have a greater problem with Christiansen's observation about the resulting libretto, which is that, in my own personal opinion, the texts of both Nixon and Klinghoffer are far "clunkier" than that of Doctor Atomic. The latter opera intersperses the mundanity of source documents with some really fine poetry; and, for many who have seen this opera, Adams' setting of John Donne's fourteenth sonnet ("Batter my heart") is one of the high points. Goodman's texts, on the other hand, not only fail to rise above the mundane but practically celebrate their failure to do so. The results are not only clunky but the worst kind of tendentious. Were the underlying stories not so interesting, it would be easy to dismiss both Nixon and Klinghoffer as pretentious wasting of time.

Now Fairman was equally unhappy with the libretto, calling it an "artsy patchwork of texts," which would probably indicate that he felt the selection of Donne was out of place, even if he then went on to approve of how Adams had set that text. This got me to thinking that Adams seems to have run up a history of finding himself in bad company, at least where operas are concerned. Even when the text is a good one, he had to contend with the context that Sellars had provided for it; and I think that Fairman has a point that, although the Doctor Atomic text can rise above the mundane, it still has to contend with a pretentiously "artsy" context that is entirely Sellars' doing. This has a lot to do with why I side with Christiansen's preference for Penny Woolcock's staging over Sellars' original conception and why I invested so much of my own text in defending Woolcock against Mendelsohn's assessment of her efforts. Going back to Genette's framework, I feel very strongly that one cannot meditate upon a story that one does not understand; and, for all of his summoning of source documentation, there was too much evidence that Sellars just did not understand the story at the heart of this opera. Most important is that Sellars missed out on the critical tensions in Oppenheimer's life, which lay at the heart of the new Trials documentary (whose very choice of title oriented the viewer towards those tensions). I even went so far as to argue that, where grand opera is concerned, those personal tensions often carry far more weight than the story line of the plot itself. Unfortunately, Sellars was not able to carry that weight in Nixon; and he was even less up to the task in Doctor Atomic.

When thinking of the partnerships that Adams has formed in these operas, I find myself reminded of Duke Frederick's admonishment to Orlando after the wrestling match in the second scene of the first act of William Shakespeare's As You Like It:

I would thou hadst told me of another father.

When I consider the sensitivity that Adams has brought to setting not only Donne but also Walt Whitman (as in "The Wound Dresser"), I regret that he cannot tell me of "other parents" for his operas. He clearly understands how the nature of character can be revealed through music, and he deserves better partners to provide him with characters that can be so revealed.

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