Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Failed Libretto?

In reading Joshua Kosman's review of Porgy and Bess at the San Francisco Opera, I was distracted from his perceptive thoughts about this opera when he referred to Eric Owens, who sings the role of Porgy, as "a commanding bass-baritone best remembered in these parts as the diet-conscious Gen. Groves in John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic." It left me wondering if that was all he could remember about Groves from this opera. I then remembered sitting next to a guy at the HD screening of the Metropolitan Opera production, realizing that the only thing he remembered was Oppenheimer wrestling with his personal demons by singing the words of John Donne! Putting these two episodes together, I realized that there was relatively little that I remembered from either production. One reason may be that the music was not particularly memorable, perhaps because the strength of the historical narrative ended up pushing the music into the background. However, I say "historical narrative" because the libretto itself, compiled from a variety of sources by Peter Sellars, was more impressionistic than narrative; and this may have been the real problem with memorability. For better or worse, I came to both productions of Doctor Atomic over-prepared for the historical narrative, just because I had studied it from so many difficult angles. (One of the first things I noticed in the set for the Met production was the projected image of Klaus Fuchs' security badge. I am sure this was intentional, but the production team probably knew that only a few people would pick up on that bit of irony.) What I realize in retrospect, though, is that Sellars' text neither presented the narrative (which I think was not his intention) nor reflected on it in any way that registered on my (admittedly over-prepared) existing impressions of the events depicted by the opera. (The British press seems have had similar problems when the Metropolitan Opera production was transferred to the English National Opera.) Whether this constitutes, as my title has insinuated, a failure on the part of the libretto is open to debate. However, I now find myself wondering whether or not Doctor Atomic is one of those dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs operas, memorable for having done what it did but not memorable for doing any of it well enough to make a strong impression.

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