Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A brilliant luminescence

December 20, 2007

Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer
Photo: Dan Best/LOC 2007
It’s December and as a thin-blooded Los Angeleno I’m asking myself what am I doing in cold and snowy Chicago. Really, the answer is easy – I’m here for opera – two to be exact. Tonight was my second viewing of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic which I last had the pleasure to see in San Francisco during its world premiere on October 1, 2005. It is still brilliant, beautiful and undoubtedly one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century. It is true that Adams and his librettist, director, and collaborator Peter Sellars have made a number of changes to the piece for this Chicago run as well as for performances in Amsterdam earlier this year. They are substantial particularly in the second act, including the addition of some non-singing roles and some general beefing up of the Kitty Oppenheimer part. Still these changes do nothing to distract from the core accomplishment: a musically beautiful, complex work that is both challenging and daring in scope.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the cast is that of Jessica Rivera as Kitty Oppenheimer. This part was originally composed with the late great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in mind though unfortunately that was not to be, leaving an able Kristine Jepson to step in for the premiere. However, things never quite gelled for her. Rivera came onto Adams' and Sellars' radar after her magnificent performances in Golijov’s Ainadamar in Santa Fe and Ojai steering her to the lead role in Adams’ A Flowering Tree in ’06 and eventually to Kitty. Suddenly the opera has another pole. What seemed solely about Oppenheimer and the people around him before now is richer and more complex. Doctor Atomic becomes a metaphorical and ideological tug of war between Oppenheimer and his wife. They are two souls struggling with the same issues at the same time but in markedly different ways. Rivera’s singing is wondrous evoking Dawn Upshaw in her clear tone and superlative acting. She commands the stage providing a counterpoint to a remarkable turn from her co-star Gerald Finley.

Finley, and the rest of the cast, have grown into their roles giving the work a flow and a real sense of the relationships between the characters. Finley’s performance of “Batter my heart” at the end of Act I continues to stun and is easily one of the highlights of the entire year on an opera stage. Robert Spano led the orchestra through a score that is complex and increasingly beautiful in the most unexpected places with each repeated listening. The amplification and use of pre-recorded ambient noise seemed to work much better here than in San Francisco. This necessary and fascinating element seems to continue to provide a challenge to opera houses not designed for this kind of innovation, and I am interested to see how the Metropolitan Opera deals with this component of the work when Doctor Atomic arrives on their stage in the coming years.

Of course, there is still a lot of bitching and moaning going on in the press about the libretto. Fashioned by Sellars from a variety of already existing prose and poetry texts, it is more assembled than written. But I find that to be one of the opera’s charms. Like some modern day Casablanca everyone has had their hands on this work, but it is beautiful and the libretto is nothing if not poetic. The language is metaphorical and not particularly interested with a formal storyline, which is the perfect choice where the outcome is so familiar to the audience that increased explanation could only serve as overkill. Doctor Atomic will be taking a brief break here in Chicago over the holidays but will return for the rest of its run in January. It should not be missed.


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