A review of the opera, Doctor Atomic


Carl Watson

The subject of John Adam’s opera, Doctor Atomic has been close to my consciousness and my heart most of my life, having been raised in the age of the fall-out shelters, air raid drills, duck-and-cover exercises.  In the 50s and 60s we lived with the constant threat of “The Bomb.”  It informed everything from our ideas of love (doomed love, uncommitted love, serial monogamy) to our concept of the future (no future, apocalyptic future).  Our entertainment was inhabited by monsters that were scared up out of the blood-red radioactive depths of the sea, and giant atomic men who roamed the cinematic landscape crushing cars in their fists while their faces melted like great decaying billboards for the end of time.  These were, of course, projections of the demons that inhabited the individual and collective psychology.  They were the products of atomic mishaps, human errors and human hubris, experiments gone woefully wrong or successful atomic explosions that had ugly unpredicted results.  Ultimately all this mayhem produced many a pessimistic and cynical psyche, something that is both reviled and sadly missing in today’s happy media climate full of good Friends and Manola Blonics addicts, the kind of people you see crawling the streets of the Lower East Side today.

I have been revisiting the early 60s of my youth lately as part of my studies, and Doctor Atomic came around just in time, as so often happens, when my private obsessions soon become those of the culture at large, or vice versa. Doctor Atomic, like other new operas, takes on a rather controversial and not necessarily romantic subject.  Commissioned as a modern Faust, Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books more accurately calls it a modern Frankenstein.  The other new opera I am thinking of is, of course, the Fly, which takes place in a similar time.  Both The Fly and Doctor Atomic deal with versions of the Mad Scientist myth and the quest for the cosmic dream of power.  For any number of reasons, which I will not elucidate here, the time is apparently right for the resurrection of this typically B genre in high art. 

Unlike The Fly, Doctor Atomic especially has garnered all kinds of validating attention. The CUNY Grad Center where I endlessly inhabit the library, recently held a veritable Doctor Atomic festival with learned seminars and atomic wine tastings, etc.  Every publication in this city has already reviewed it so there is really no need for yet another review, especially since, in large part, I tend to agree with Mendelsohn’s opinion.  (One wonders why it is reviewed there since it is not a book, but this question is beyond my reach.) 

Mendelsohn sees the weaknesses of the Met version mainly in its lacking the dynamic of the earlier (San Francisco) staging.  I contend that the Met version is an improvement, although it does not mitigate the fundamental flaws of the work. Mendelsohn says the “ambitions curdle too often into pretensions,” and I would not argue with that.  However, I don’t find Adams’ music nearly as interesting as most critics; I will admit, however, that it is far more evocative when you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, a problem I will address later.

The San Francisco (SF) version, which Mendelsohn prefers, is more dance-oriented; men in casual dress (polo shirts and khakis) sport a lightness of foot that seems, to me at least, inappropriate considering the subject. Mendelsohn likes the dance, he believes it grants an atomic motion to the staging.  Without any justification, I will suggest that such lightness perhaps relates to their moral elevation compared to the darker more somber villains of the warrior class, intent on using the bomb as a weapon. Perhaps my preference is based on my indifference to fleet-footed prancing about, but I like to think it is a matter of moral/philosophical tone. The Met’s version is indeed stiffer, which I interpret as based in group or choral motion, perhaps signifying group-think.  The contrast extends to the sets and staging. The SF landscape seems less stark, more colorful, while I would characterize the Met’s version as more noir, more sepia-toned. This difference, admittedly, is less one of fact than of memory, i.e., a projection of my memory, flavored by the monotone sets of 50s science fiction films, as well as a kind of stoic subscription to destiny by way of power. The costuming in the Met version also has a more noirish quality.  The prancing cast of the SF production gives way to stiff men wearing fedoras and suits who remind one of post-Depression gangsters pumped up on a sense of American world dominance and prosperity. Even the backdrop can be distinguished on symbolic grounds. The SF backdrop is a silhouette of painted mountains, red mountains of course, signifying I suppose, blood, whereas in the Met’s version the mountains are represented by a series of peaked sheets covering something hidden,  nature perhaps.  Or they may represent a fateful refusal to see.

Visual aspects aside, however, the biggest source of discord for me came from the core elements of words and music. Much of the libretto is delivered as recitation, which I suppose is common in contemporary opera, so it is hard to judge the performances as proper singing per se. The voices were good voices.  The character(izations) could even be said to have been good enough.  It was the meshing of the total that disturbed me -— as if all the pieces didn’t quite fit but were jammed together with an impending deadline in mind. The various elements of the opera did not seem to jibe for me; the music, on its own, without the singing would have been fine, and the singing might have been fine as well. My problem is where the music meets the libretto -—the cadence of the words never seemed to match where the music was going.  Words seemed to have been stuffed into a musical phrase that was just fine without it. In part this awkward quality is due to personal taste, especially in regards to the English language. I have never been a fan of English language operas, and this is because I can understand them.  Opera lyrics tend to be pretty corny, even downright dumb, and they have a lot more power if they are lost without translation, becoming part of the music.

This awkward quality is also due to the way the libretto was assembled.  Peter Sellars is credited with the libretto, which he admits he did not write but “collected” or rather pasted together out of other sources.  There is thus a lack of dramatic unity or narrative consistency -— it is an assemblage and it plays like one. The libretto is composed in part, of poetry: John Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita amongst others. Mendelsohn says that Adams’ settings of verse are generally “splendid.”  I disagree. It is, of course, great poetry but seemed out of place and out of sync.  Oppenheimer’s citing of Krishna/Vishnu’s famous lines from the Gita (I am Death, etc.) is certainly resonant but there is no dramatic context for it.  Oppie (Oppenheimer) simply breaks into this rather incongruous bit of religious citation.  The same holds true with Baudleaire’ poem about hair, which Oppie sings to his wife. And the Donne piece is to my thinking rather painful to watch or listen to.  “Batter My Heart Three Personed God,” is sung as if from a different opera altogether.  It seems to have been (like the rest of the found material) airlifted into the opera. Mendelsohn echoes my sentiment when he comments on another scene: “Oppie’s big aria of anguish feels like its been parachuted into the proceedings, and fails to suggest a persuasively textured personality.”  Exactly.  One can understand the religious relationships that Adams wants to create -— too bad it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, I found myself humming this Adams/Donne piece over the days to come. I did so as a joke on myself, a kind of Monty Python skit I was producing internally, but still such activity testifies that the piece had become a sort of brain worm you can’t get out of your head, which might be what Adams intended all along -— a psychological atom bomb.

And so lastly I mention the bomb itself -— looking something like an iron sphere salvaged from an old railroad engine factory.  The ball/bomb is in the complicated grip of some kind of electrical octopus made of wires and conduit passing through various hubs and junction boxes.  It is a fascinating and somewhat sinister object.  At first I thought it was a fanciful representation of the real thing, the product of some artist’s conception. Then I saw the photo of the real thing and realized the bomb really did look like that. Think of the human face as a ball of iron and all that wiring as an alien life form clamped onto the face getting ready to inject its own form of brain worm into human consciousness, that worm being the fear of catastrophic end times, and well that’s the picture I had in my mind even now long after the opera is over.