Doctor Atomic – Not Quite A Review

I managed to catch Doctor Atomic on Great Performances today. I didn’t see the whole thing (I had to leave partway through the performance, but I made it back in time for the conclusion), so I can’t do a proper review, but I am going to give my thoughts on what I saw, making it close to a review.

I missed, frankly, much of the first and second act. I missed the majority of the portions with Oppenheimer’s wife, the other scientists, everything up to the final test. I did catch that bit.

The first thing that struck me about the opera is that it took my mind a second to adjust to Opera as sung in English. I’d heard excellent things about this opera, as well as composer John Adams’ other works (particularly Nixon in China), but I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing opera in other languages (Italian, German, Russian and possibly French), that there was a brief disconnect while I, basically, accustomed myself to the how the music worked.

Now, I have listened to some of the works of Andrew Lloyd Weber, the composer who, before the docu-operas of John Adams became popular was the most promenant English Language opera composer. However, his work is far from traditional from opera – for that matter, so is Adams’ work, but in different ways. Adams’ work is different in it’s subject matter – covering historical events of the 20th century, depicted using, in part, the words of the people who participated in the act – much as 1776 used the writings of the Founding Fathers as the source of the dialog. The difference being, 1776, as a musical mixes spoken dialog with song, and thus could incorporate the dialog that didn’t fit into the music into the spoken portions. With Doctor Atomic, on the other hand, it’s Opera, so it’s all singing.

This brings me to Weber, and how his work differs from tradition . If you listen to, in addition to watching an opera, you’ll notice that not all the notes are melodic. This is particularly noticable during conversations, what is known as a Recitative. The melodic portions are saved for monologues, or Arias (though an Aria can be done by 2 or more people, sometimes). Andrew Lloyd Weber’s compositions are almost always melodic. The first example that comes to mind is in Jesus Christ Superstar.  Yes, I know that that particular example, as is much of Weber’s stuff, is a Rock Opera but bear with me. The scenes between Caiaphas and Annas and the other Pharasees are the closest the show gets to conversational, but the Weber, rather than writing it as a Recitative, he instead basically uses a short repeating theme. Lazy? Probably. It works though, plus it gives Weber a theme to break out whenever he wants to reference the machinations of the Pharisees. Anyway, having formerly grown accustomed to Weber’s rubbish I had to get re-accustomed to hearing recitatives in English.

The next thing that struck me was the staging. I have not seen the version of Doctor Atomic that was performed in Denmark, and the version I saw was staged at the Met in New York, so there may have been alterations in the set design to reflect the size of the stage. However, the performance took advantage of projected video and moving constructed stage elements to great effect. The set design didn’t have the level of construction to it that I’d grown accustomed to with historical operas by the major composers – Puccini, Wagner, Mozart, Berlioz (sp) and so on – but with those operas – as products of a certain time and either set contemoraniously or in the past, the set designers today do elaborate sets to get across both when and where the opera takes place (particularly when not everybody can tell 16th-17th century France from 16th-17th century Italy from clothing alone – usually clothing + set is enough to make the when and where clear. On the other hand, Doctor Atomic is set in 1945, and they establish that explictly in the opening song and the wardrobe does the rest (basically).

The opera ends immediately following the bomb test with a repeated series of phrases, said in Japanese, with the English translation of the phrases displayed on a black translucent curtain lowered over the stage – “May I have some water? I need some water for my children. Mr. (Person’s Name) I cannot find my husband. ” It then repeats, and then the first line of the series i repeated, and then the opera ends.

I don’t particularly have any negative points to make about the opera at the moment, as I haven’t seen all of it yet. It’s an opera, so it takes poetic license with the factual events to fit the needs of opera, while adhering to the writings of and reports of the Manhattan project, as well as including poetry that Oppenhimer was reading during the poject, and quotations from the Bhagavad Vita (but not Oppenhimer’s famous quote/paraphrase – which I found was good as we really didn’t need it, it’s become such a major part of the American – nay, the Western cultural psyche that we all know it, so we’ll all fill it in ourselves).

Once I get a chance to actually watch the opera all the way through I’ll probably be able to find something I don’t like about it, but otherwise, I think it’s excellent.

Amazon doesn’t have a DVD for the staging at the Met, but – they do have one for the Denmark performance. I’m going to pick up a copy eventually, and once I do I’ll try to do a compare and contrast.