Sunday, November 23, 2008

Doctor Atomic Staged Two Ways

(reflections on the opera DOCTOR ATOMIC by composer John Adams and librettist / director Peter Sellars, from primary source materials and poetry. Performed at the Metropolitan Opera and broadcast on HD two weeks ago, and staged for a concert performance in Atlanta's Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center this weekend. Photo from website of the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes,

I settled into the last unsold seat of the orchestra section of Woodruff Arts Center's Symphony Hall in Atlanta, smack in the middle of Row D. It was a great seat for counting every silver hair on the back of conductor Robert Spano's head, and for watching the intense concentration of the cellists. I watched them bow and pluck and occasionally use their bows to beat the strings, and noticed the subtle sound they made in the larger texture of sounds.

That was one way in which the experience of seeing a modestly staged concert version of the grand opera DOCTOR ATOMIC in Atlanta Friday was more exciting even than the fully staged version at the Met viewed in closeup on HD two weeks ago -- even though the wonderful cast was exactly the same. This concert was their "original cast recording" session.

The stage was arrayed simply and effectively, staged by director James Alexander. Spano and instruments crowded right up to the edge of the stage. At the back, the chorus sat in everyday work clothes, in character, and some wore white coats suggesting scientists. Above them, the broad wall was a screen for still photos of the Manhattan Project and the Atom Bomb test site. There were also some animated computer graphics. Platforms set up between the chorus and the orchestra constituted the entire set. "Doctor Atomic" himself, Robert Oppenheimer, played by baritone Gerald Finley, sat at a 40s - vintage office desk, decorated with photos and cluttered with papers. There was a rocking chair suggesting a living room for Mrs. Kitty Oppenheimer, played by Jessica Rivera, whose martini glass told us how she spends her days while her husband works on his top secret mission. Other scientists and a general at the military base occupied a platform above and behind those two, with a couple of 40s - style office chairs (which I recognized from the old chairs at West Chemical and Engineering company -- formed around 1950, and bought by my dad in 1972).

I have to say that I didn't miss the Met's three storey beehive of office cubicles or the gigantic model of the "Fat Boy" (the bomb itself) during the action. The chorus, in work clothes and some white coats, made some trademark Peter Sellars' gestures in unison, and those were effective enough. For example, they turned in unison to face an image behind them, or they covered ears or mouths when the principles discussed the need for secrecy, or they simply reached their hands up at certain moments of indecision.

We gain by NOT having close up cameras trained on the singers' faces. Finley, as Oppenheimer, sits at his desk not singing much of the time, but sipping a martini and smoking, while his "good angel" Robert Wilson (tenor Thomas Glenn) and "bad angel" Edward Teller (baritone Richard Paul Fink) debate matters of conscience just upstage of him. That simple dramatic structure, made so clear here, was muddied by the camera's back-and-forth, in-and-out movements in the HD broadcast. Teller was charming and Wilson was earnest, but we got to see them in their off-camera moments, too, and these singing actors created characters that we enjoyed even when they weren't singing.

We gain by being able to see Spano keeping all the pieces of the composition together, and, aurally, we get some wonderful effects as when a figure in the double - basses spreads like a wildfire across the orchestra. Behind us, the "surround sound" effects were more effective than the HD transmission could be, especially as the moment of the big explosion approaches.

Then there are the voices. Finley is wonderful, and makes his highs and lows seem effortless, while he concentrates on his character's thoughts. Separated by a platform, he still suggests the erotic connection to his wife Kitty as soprano Rivers sings the long sinuous lines of a Muriel Rukeyser poem that the Oppenheimers evidently knew, "Am I in Your Light?" Eric Owens as the General gets the laugh lines for the show -- snapping at the meteorologist that he wants better weather, and remembering the brownies that wrecked his diet. The meteorologist was James Maddelena, whom I've seen in two other Adams premieres, as Nixon in 1987, and as the captain of the Achille Lauro at THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER production in Brooklyn, early 1990s.

This time around, the aria based on John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God" arrived at the end of Act One like the showstopping big hit of a Broadway show, and it thrilled. This time, I picked up echoes of that number in two or three places that follow in Act Two, a respectable technique that I've not heard in Adams' work before. Perhaps space helps me to pick up the sounds that I don't get when the opera comes at me like a wall.

So, the HD experience is wonderful. But I'm much more enthusiastic about DOCTOR ATOMIC now that I've seen it live.

No comments: