John Adams

Doctor Atomic at Lyric Opera

Dratomicchicago* Notes *
Doctor Atomic had its last performance this season at Lyric Opera of Chicago yesterday. The first half of the opera seemed much like what audiences saw in San Francisco two years ago, besides a few minor changes in the libretto and a soprano as Kitty Oppenheimer, instead of a mezzo. I had been warned that Act II was rather different, but looking at the synopsis, it certainly did not look like it would be a change in plot. Indeed, it was not, though the roles of Kitty and Pasqualita were expanded, there was more furniture, the crib was not under the bomb, and some of the choreography was changed. Even with the revisions, Act I was stronger than Act II, especially since the aria at the end of the first act, "Batter my heart, three person'd God," is particularly good. In Act II, the chorus singing "At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous" made an impression, though I find the use of the text from the Bhagavad Gita a bit boggling.

For the first half, the singing was somewhat hard for me to hear unless the singers were downstage, but I believe this was mostly due to my location in the house, off to the right and on the ground floor. When I moved toward the center after intermission, the sound improved. Richard Paul Fink was recovering from a cold, but sang Teller quite audibly and acted well. I especially love his line "The only saviors are the ham sandwiches and hot coffee," which Fink delivered with a certain archness. Jessica Rivera was convincing as Kitty Oppenheimer, though I found her voice more pleasant in her lower range. Meredith Arwady sang Pasqualita beautifully, the contralto sounded perfectly in control. Gerald Finley remained very much in the character of Oppenheimer.

The choreography annoyed me much more this time around. It was often too literal and inelegant. Oppenheimer practically mimed John Donne's words in "Batter my heart, three person'd God."

The sound coming out of the speakers at the back of the ground level was deafening, I wish I had known it would be so loud, for I would have chosen different seats or brought ear plugs. When I left the opera house I felt that strange sensation of not being able to hear exactly normally, feeling like a membrane has grown over one's ear canal.

* Tattling *
The
Civic Opera House is the coldest one I have been to, at least as far as the ground floor lobby is concerned. However, the colorful style is quite charming.

The pre-opera lecture was by the librettist himself, the flamboyant Peter Sellars. He discussed the Greek origins of opera, the texts used in Doctor Atomic, the history of the characters, and a rundown of what would happen during the performance. He warned the audience that "Act II is something you will really hate. It is incomprehensible and too long. Opera is the last thing in America that is too long and you can't do anything about it."

The person sitting next to me arrived only a little before the curtain rose. Somehow he placed his coat on half of my backrest, and seemed utterly bewildered that a person was sitting in his coat's seat when he saw me on it at the end of Act I. The person in front of me had his elbow almost on my knee, and when he finally moved it, it was to draw his companion to him so that their heads completely blocked my view of the stage. Said companion had bathed in perfume, and I was apparently allergic to it, as I had to suppress sniffles and coughs until I could get fresh air during intermission. Thankfully the people on my other side left after intermission, so I was able to escape both coat and perfume.

The couple behind me had never been to the opera before and had been expecting something "more like Les Mis." The young man expressed disappointment in opera as a form, he thought there would be "songs" instead of "sing-talking." I was overcome with glee at this, and wanted to tell him that Doctor Atomic is not a paragon exemplar of opera, but was able to control myself. Perhaps they thought since the opera was in English that somehow it would be "opera-lite."


Matter can be Neither Created nor Destroyed

DAactI_093John Adams' Doctor Atomic had its world premiere on the first day of this month at San Francisco Opera. The opera is in English and is set in New Mexico in July 1945. It starts off with the chorus singing something like "Energy! Matter can neither be created nor destroyed!" It was difficult not to laugh, and I admit, I did laugh many times rather inappropriately to the situations being depicted. The audience was more or less indifferent to these scenes, which I found impossibly absurd.

Adrianne Lobel's set was appropriately stark, many aspects of it moved vertically and hung from the unseen ceiling. The floor had geometric shapes carved into it, a circle off to the right side midstage, upstage some lines met. Certain elements of the set design and staging were rather cliché. The shadow of Oppenheimer behind the sheet covering the bomb was especially egregious, as was a crib strategically placed beneath the bomb itself.

Lucinda Childs' choreography was somewhere between Graham and dance seen in musicals. Too bad SF ballet has no sense of synchronization, it could have been very good. The loudness of the music did cover up most of their eternal clumping, however. One of the dancers did execute a gorgeous hinge to the ground as Pasqualita (Beth Clayton) sang about cloud blossoms.

The singers were quite solidly good. Often with contemporary music, I can't really tell one way or another. I liked the aria "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God" at the end of the first act, it almost sounded Baroque. The words are from John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, and thus are not completely inane. It actually has a tune a normal person can follow and perchance even remember. Adams, at times, sounds very much like Glass to me, a lot of agitated clanging and building up without release.

In the end, the release is simply silence. This dead silence is extremely unusual at the opera and only happened because the audience was could not tell if there was to be more singing.

John Adams' Doctor Atomic had its world premiere on the first day of this month at San Francisco Opera. The opera is in English and is set in New Mexico in July 1945. It starts off with the chorus singing something like "Energy! Matter can neither be created nor destroyed!" It was difficult not to laugh, and I admit, I did laugh many times rather inappropriately to the situations being depicted. The audience was more or less indifferent to these scenes, which I found impossibly absurd.

Adrianne Lobel's set was appropriately stark, many aspects of it moved vertically and hung from the unseen ceiling. The floor had geometric shapes carved into it, a circle off to the right side midstage, upstage some lines met. Certain elements of the set design and staging were rather cliché. The shadow of Oppenheimer behind the sheet covering the bomb was especially egregious, as was a crib strategically placed beneath the bomb itself.

Lucinda Childs' choreography was somewhere between Graham and dance seen in musicals. Too bad SF ballet has no sense of synchronization, it could have been very good. The loudness of the music did cover up most of their eternal clumping, however. One of the dancers did execute a gorgeous hinge to the ground as Pasqualita (Beth Clayton) sang about cloud blossoms.

The singers were quite solidly good. Often with contemporary music, I can't really tell one way or another. I liked the aria "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God" at the end of the first act, it almost sounded Baroque. The words are from John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, and thus are not completely inane. It actually has a tune a normal person can follow and perchance even remember. Adams, at times, sounds very much like Glass to me, a lot of agitated clanging and building up without release.

In the end, the release is simply silence. This dead silence is extremely unusual at the opera and only happened because the audience was could not tell if there was to be more singing.

But as I look back on other recently composed operas that have happened at SF, Doctor Atomic is probably the least awful. Saint Francis just sounded like cell phones because of the ondes martenot, Le Grande Macrabre was painfully absurd, and Doktor Faust was simply nothing much.