JOHN ADAMS: Doctor Atomic – complete opera (2008)

by | Nov 8, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

JOHN ADAMS: Doctor Atomic – complete opera (2008)

Performers: Gerald Finley (bar.), Jessica Rivera (sop), Eric Owens (bass) and Ellen Rabiner (contr.); Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Chorus of De Nederlands Opera/Lawrence Renes
Story/Libretto: Peter Sellars
Stage Director (Règie): Peter Sellars
Recording date: 2007
Studio: Opus Arte OA-0998-D (2 DVD set) [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 surround
Regional Coding: None
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch
Extras: Featurettes, mini-documentaries, interviews with Adams & others
Booklet: 25 pages; English, French and German
Booklet libretto: none
Length:  230 minutes
Rating: Performance *** Sound *****

John Adams (b. 1947) was commissioned to write this opera by the San Francisco Opera for a joint co-production between Lyric Opera of Chicago, De Nederlands Opera and the San Francisco Opera. This opera is based on a libretto by Peter Sellars (b. 1957) specially written for the occasion. This DVD was recorded in Holland when De Nederlands Opera company premiered this production in 2007.

Right from the beginning of this long opera (almost 3 hours long) John Adams, the composer, establishes his ground or musical concept as the creator of sounds, musical or otherwise, who wants us the audience to hear them in the open. Just as well the librettist (Peter Sellars) also makes it obvious he is the champion of the written word against an also obvious musical encroachment. To make things even more complicated Peter Sellars is also in control of the stage direction; he is the omnipresent Règie who also wants to control the physical and emotional space. The singers (who further complicate things) let their lack of emotions and/or poor acting skills affect the delivery of their overly dramatic roles.

Everybody plows through almost three hours of visual and auditory effects which in the end are too predictable. The solution of the human riddle that gets in between the need for the atomic bomb (heretofore the “gadget”) and the need for humans to assert their humanity or lack of it is developed between the first notes and words and the last notes and words of the opera. The riddle is about the human conflict that is born between (1) the creators of the “gadget” concept, namely the military and the political power makers, (2) the scientists who are in charge of creating the gadget’s mechanism and (3) the human conscience through the voice of Pasqualita (Ellen Rabiner – contr.), a Tewa Indian that speaks symbolically about the need for communion between the human animal and nature, and the purification of Earth as Mother Earth. Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley – bar.) is the chief controller of all the inevitable conflicts that arise between 1, 2 and 3; he represents the supremacy of pure science and the military to toe the official line – the gadget must be built and built it is.

Adams (in charge of the music) and Sellars (in charge of the dialog) are successful in exploring the ethical dilemma of the characters but in the end it all seems an exercise in futility given that while so much infighting is going on the gadget persists. It persists in its insistence to be built and continues with its soulless life while everybody  voices their opinions. The end is to get to the final note of the opera and let history take its course, and that’s where we are now – we the children of the bomb. Should we all learn to love the bomb now just like Dr. Strangelove?  Is it the gadget that becomes Death and the destroyer of worlds, or is Oppenheimer the one who assumes that responsibility?

Adams’ control of the music is absolute and in the end the music wins over matter, the latter being all the personal conflicts that 1, 2 and 3 create. To my mind Doctor Atomic is all about the music, Adams’ remarkable score, a symphony about dread and despair for the most part. It is very beautiful music that begs to escape the narrow confines of this opera and be reborn as a suite and/or a symphony without the mostly annoying dialog. Hope is never part of the equation and reflects Adams’ early leanings toward a Schönbergian model of music – namely, through ever-present controlling dissonances above the melody and harmony. Adams, while adhering to Alban Berg’s idea that music has shock power, also creates profound music, for example in the memorable beginning of Act II Interlude (Disc 2 – T4). Here Adams shows conclusively his ability for melody and harmony in a somewhat neo-classical form with serious minimalist and serial overtones that transform these sounds into powerful symbols. I believe the late Paul Hindemith would have labeled this opera as Industrial Opera. The music surrounds the singing with unusual and mostly dissonant harmonies that act as mechanistic decorations to the action.

The following questions beg for an answer: did Adams and Sellars shock the audience as Alban Berg did with Wozzeck? Hardly, but perhaps that was not his intention after all. The other question is: did Adams score music that will be remembered? YES! As far as I am concerned this opera in the end is totally overwhelmed by its own ambivalence; I just want to hear the music and nothing else.

— John Nemaric


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