Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Cold Dark Matter

November 09, 2008

Gerald Finley and cast
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

No matter whatever shortcomings exist with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, the fact that it made it to the stage here at all is undoubtedly a major achievement for this company. What effect recent financial woes will have on general director Peter Gelb’s intention to further move the company in this direction down the line remains to be seen, but I was still thrilled on Saturday to be in the New York audience for the performance that was simultaneously being broadcast to theaters around the world. All of this for an opera not even five year’s old and already with a second production, an achievement in this century shared by a very select set of composers. Adams was rightfully present for the curtain call and received probably the largest ovation of the afternoon.

However, despite this, I would say that I would generally agree with the position that while the opera is clearly a masterpiece, this staging does suffer greatly from the absence of Peter Sellars. Not electing to use the production of the librettist and original director was an error on several levels, and while Penny Woolcock’s approach is not without its merits, the new staging is more static and uninvolved than previously. She keens more toward the obvious and literal aspects of the work. And even though she latches on to the current spice-rack approach with the performers on stage, she is able to maintain more of an appropriate focus on the role that ordinary Americans working in Los Alamos played at the time on the development of the bomb. Woolcock shies away from the more hallucinatory elements of the second Act looking for narrative lines where they are clearly not the focus. Woolcock noted that she had originally based her ideas for the staging on Cornelia Parker’s piece Cold Dark Matter in the collection of the Tate Modern in London. She echoed the work throughout the piece by suspending fragments of rubble above the stage. But, while Parker’s work is chilling and provides numerous overtones about the action of destruction and war, the role of these pieces here seemed much more drowned out and insignificant.

Put the production aside, though, and there was much to love. The opera is an intensely moving and musically beautiful work fully realized by Alan Gilbert and the superb Met Opera Orchestra. That everything sounded so good and the amplification worked so well in this house was amazing given the difficulties that have cropped up with them elsewhere. The cast from the prior outings in San Francisco, Chicago, and Amsterdam is largely unchanged. Gerald Finley has grown in the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer to the point where it’s now hard to imagine anyone else singing it. The big Act I aria “Batter My Heart” continues to bring tears to my eyes. The part of Kitty Oppenheimer has been transposed down again after masterful turns in the role by soprano Jessica Rivera in Chicago and Amsterdam. Now back to it’s mezzo roots, Kitty is voiced by Sasha Cooke who admittedly won me over despite my initial reservations and continued preference for the Rivera performance, which has been preserved, thankfully, along with the Sellars production, on DVD from Amsterdam. Eric Owens as Gen. Leslie Groves, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, and Meredith Arwady as Pasquilita have all returned in wonderful reprisals of their roles.

While the reception of the opera here has generally been warm in the press, it's somewhat surprising how much bitching and moaning is still going on about the opera itself. But I suppose any composer with this much success and talent is bound to draw a significant number of detractors, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised by the continued grousing about the non-traditional libretto and Adams’ own disinterest with operatic convention. Get over it people. It is precisely these things that make the work so interesting, and change is good. Yes, the libretto is filled with the "trivial." That's pretty much the nature of poetry and exactly what people talk about when they are tense and nervous. Yes, there is amplification and pre-recorded sound. It all works well; the the opera is nothing if not a cohesive whole. Doctor Atomic is one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century, and the Metropolitan Opera has wisely decided not to ignore it for the usual 25 years while waiting for the chattering classes to begrudgingly come around to recognizing this. So, despite my misgivings about the production, I still thought the whole thing a huge success. There's only one performance left on Thursday the 13th of November and if I were in town I'd got see it again.

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