Opera Critic

Dr. Atomic, San Francisco Opera, October 1-22, 2005 (World Premiere)
Review by Kenneth Quandt

John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, with libretto and mise en scène by Peter Sellars, has just completed its premiere run in San Francisco. Despite a month of preparatory fanfare, public seminars on the science, several mailings to opera subscribers, programs on the educational TV station, and preconcert lectures by Adams or by Sellars at each and every performance, the critics said it dragged.

A tighter plot might have helped. The opera depicts the last twenty-four hours before the A-Bomb test at Alamogordo as a slice of history. This choice forgoes the energy of a tight and forward moving plot with its intention, conflict, and resolution. The intention we find in Doctor Atomic is to create and test an A Bomb; the conflict is that it might rain but the date cannot be postponed since Truman is poised in Potsdam to persuade Stalin to sign a demand for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. The resolution is that the test succeeds despite the rain. Getting this amount of action to occupy three hours might involve some significant dragging.

The decision to be historical might give us a loose series rather than a tight sequence of events, but it has the potential upside of letting the facts speak for themselves. We get the problem of the weather and General Groves’s brash attempts to bully the meteorologist; Edward Teller’s rabid interest in oddball problems and Oppenheimer’s attempts to keep him under control; Kitty Oppenheimer wanting intimacy with her husband and his needing to rave about her perfume and her head of hair before he can bring himself to comply with her wishes. Is it the sober Groves who wrote Now It Can Be Told that we see, or is it a blustering military man playing opposite the philosophical scientist who can even humor him when he complains about his diet? Is it Teller, the great scientist and Hungarian refugee who went on to invent the much more powerful H-Bomb, or is it the Teller that the antiwar crowd has since vilified as a Dr. Strangelove? Is it Oppenheimer or is it a nerdy scientist who reads poetry in bed and needs to cook up a whole metaphysics of perfume in order to get himself aroused? In place of the real personages that could have been placed on the stage in their arresting historical individuality we are given types rather pukey, depicted in hackneyed cliché.

An historical treatment might have brought us closer to the events. Doctor Atomic brings us closer to our prejudices. Most of these are harmless, but some of them are so ignorant or so ungenerous as to be positively repulsive. Act II begins with a long aria by Kitty Oppenheimer, brightly and resolutely sung by Kristine Jepson, a setting of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Easter Sunday 1945,” over ten minutes long. The title, not its content, suggests a temporal connection at least, though there is no historical one. Kitty is alone at her baby’s crib; above the crib looms the bomb. Yes, the bomb, in a wonderful eerie lighting that makes it present but not present, like a new moon. The Rukeyser poem ties in with a moon of its own, the moon of the night before Easter, looming while the poet awaits sunrise and a brighter time without war when everything shines. Rukeyser is a little beside herself in her voice, but so is Mrs. Oppenheimer, who of course had a drinking problem as the program’s synopsis and the preconcert publicity has gently but persistently been reminding all of San Francisco for a month. Even so, Kitty is a different kind of raving lunatic. Rukeyser hopes for Easter Sunrise and Kitty dreads the flash of the bomb.

Balancing her long aria at the beginning of Act II is an aria by her husband that ends of Act I. It is a setting of Donne’s “Batter my heart three-personed God,” that trenchant poem in which Donne prays that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit might break and dissolve all his strength since he has by now so thoroughly consigned himself to the powers and principalities of this world that only by his total destruction could he be adequately shredded to be worth redeeming. Only God can destroy him as he needs to be destroyed, and only God can then redeem him. The music is a sustained outcry of remorse worded from phrases broken out of Donne’s poem in the manner of an aria da capo. It is the emotional climax of the evening, sung and enacted with great ardency and control by Gerald Finley. As he sings the poem in broken refrains, he steps fitfully but mechanistically toward the tented bomb tower and then back from it, as if toward his own gallows and then away. The aria, and the Act, ends with a blackout on the final note, Oppenheimer having stepped within the tent and standing momentarily visible, backlit in a frozen silhouette. The selection of the poem’s phrases, however, postpones Donne’s own goal, the redemption that alone can justify the battering for which he prays. When it is finally reached, its effect is not climax but closure. Oppenheimer comes off battering himself.

The poem is here because Oppenheimer often led people to believe that he named the test site “Trinity” after the “three-personed God” of this poem. But this proposition never made sense. The only sense it could make is that Oppenheimer, a Faust transmogrified, felt he had sold out and now on the eve of the test begs forgiveness and salvation from the triune God. This however would be the Christian God, not some ethnographical curiosity like the “trinity” of Hindu mythology (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) depicted with blissful impertinence in the program. Oppenheimer did read Sanskrit with Arthur Ryder at Berkeley, and did so in the only way that Ryder would read Sanskrit, with serious devotees in serious devotion and by candlelight. He knew therefore that the Hindu triad was nothing close to the “three-personed God” invoked by Donne. That the Donne poem could be the vehicle for expressing a Faustian remorse or a humanizing uncertainty at the last minute is a misinterpretation likewise alien to a mind with even the merest shadow of Oppenheimer’s intelligence.

In a late letter to General Groves (20 October 1962), published in a widely available short collection of his reminiscences and correspondence, he cleared things up as much as they could be cleared up:

“I did suggest it (sc. the name Trinity) … Why I chose the name is not clear but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: ‘…As West and East / In all flatt Maps — and I am one — are one,/ So death doth touch the resurrection.’ ”

The quotation is from Donne’s “Hymne to God my God in my sicknesse,” where Donne wonders with an elaborate cartographic conceit whether the high fever he is suffering, which he represents by the hot southern point of the compass, might be triangulating him on a course through straits in the southwest, the westward tendency in his bearing symbolizing the sunset of death. The plain implication is that Oppenheimer feared the test would kill him in the flat southwestern desert at Alamogordo, and mused over a kind of immanent immortality in which the end is the beginning.

The magnificent aria does not survive reflection but fails in truth and fails in meaning. It is one of many virtues in the production that soon go sour. Sellars has added occasional interventions on stage of dancers for eight or thirty two bars, which are attractive. Soon we realize they are there to depict the emotions that these
scientists are unable or unwilling to articulate in words, and on reflection we wonder why we are being asked to spend the evening with such people in the first place. The music of Adams is as usual bright and objective, like the scientists on the stage that prate on about the conservation of matter and energy, so that what is objective in the music soon tends to devolve into the at-arm’s-length. When commitment comes, as in the “Batter” aria, it fails to make sense; when love comes on stage in the bedroom scene the music forgets itself and suddenly becomes lurid.

For the purposes of this opera, sounding scientific will do. Self-battering guilt moreover is a theme more fashionable these days, and therefore tips Sellars’s choice about the history. Kitty’s raving and self-defeating pacifism likewise rings the right bells. A dysfunctional love relationship between these two intellectuals that just scrapes by is perhaps more comfortable than the real thing, even though love is the greatest teacher in opera, and its Muse.

To right the story about Christian sentiments in this context is probably a fool’s errand. The piece is political art and in political art everything goes by the boards, starting with taste. Second goes profundity. Doctor Atomic purports to depict the moral qualms that might trouble the men and women involved in the production and deployment of a weapon of mass destruction; but rather than articulate these problems in their essentials, it bewails them by bluffing its way with high-sounding literature that means something else. Third and last to go is heart. How can the complex and wonderful Oppenheimer we had known something about be the person we see on stage, a secretly self-flagellating managerial eunuch afraid of his wife?

The thing drags because it depends so heavily upon the audience to connect the dots and give it what little sense it makes, an effort it barely repays. Finally the bomb explodes. These days when we go to the opera we see something that has made sense, on average, for at least a hundred years. This one is more like a movie, the sort of thing that won’t make sense in twenty.

This year marks the centennial of Richard Strauss’s once controversial operatic adaptation of the eponymous play by Oscar Wilde. Dresden’s Semperoper, which introduced the opera to the world, has marked the occasion with an innovative new production by Peter Mussbach. Moving beyond the historicism of opera has become more than a trend, and this production is no exception. Mussbach’s sets (he designed his own) are free not only of Biblical kitsch, but of any indication of time or place. The psychodrama unfolds in a floating maze of geometric shapes presented at sharp angles to the audience. A contorted hexagon outlines the stage, which is dominated by a large cube representing Herodes’s palace and a steeply inclined rectangle that confines the movement of the characters. Jochanaan’s cistern is suggested by the handles of a swimming pool ladder dropping off into a pitch black abyss. Shades of light, ranging from sultry purple through azure blue and bright peach, bathe the stage according to the work’s changes in mood. Costumes are basic post-modern black for Herodes’s court, loose-fitting white for Jochanaan, and frilly pink for the decidedly teenage Salome.

Mussbach’s approach engagingly draws attention to the characters and their complex sexual relationships, yet his staging falters in presenting several of the opera’s critical moments. Jochanaan is already on stage when the opera begins, leading one to wonder why Salome should call for him to be brought out of his place of imprisonment. The famous Dance of the Seven Veils is depicted more as a family squabble than the exotic set piece one usually sees. Nothing on stage responds to the driving percussion of the dance’s first bars or to its distinctive chords. Herodes smokes, and Herodias tries unsuccessfully to entice him; Salome achieves her “seduction” by making a few awkward ballet steps. In the final scene there is no severed head, no necrophilic kiss, and no step-familial murder. Salome crawls into Jochanaan’s body bag to perform her entire monologue. An ax-wielding Herodes appears ready to execute his own command to kill her, but runs off in delirium when he discovers that she has already expired (“Salome dies of desire,” the program notes rather implausibly explain). Mussbach’s imagination and technical achievements are strong and prove the opera’s ability to lend itself to new interpretations, but one wishes for fewer loose strings.

The Semperoper recruited for its celebratory production some of the best vocal talent at work in Germany, and the results were mostly successful. The American baritone Alan Titus, Bayreuth’s reigning Wotan, delivered a commanding Jochanaan, convincing in prophecy and unswerving in defiance. Evelyn Herlitzius, his recent Brünnhilde, overcame some early upper range difficulties to give a more than competent performance in the title role, despite the unfortunate acoustics created by the body bag in the final scene. With a couple of momentary exceptions, her voice was refreshingly free from the screeching common among today’s Salomes. Wolfgang Schmidt appears to be following the well-worn path from Heldentenor roles to Herodes, a part better suited to his occasionally nasal tenor. If his Wagner performances were never truly outstanding, he is at least making the transition gracefully in this production. Dagmar Peckova captured the psychotic urgency of Herodias’s singing, but her voice lacks the true dramatic power to bring out its vindictive best. Salome calls for a relatively numerous supporting cast of soloists, 13 in all, and the Semperoper’s roster supplied amply talented voices for these roles. Marc Albrecht led the theater’s equally adept orchestra in a fine playing of Strauss’s score.

Following a disastrous new production of Tristan and Isolde which premiered here last month after the opera’s 92-year absence, one might doubt the Mariinsky’s talents in Wagner. But as last night’s Parsifal proved, such doubts are misplaced.

One of the most striking contrasts between the two productions lay in Gergiev’s conducting. Perhaps it is his much greater experience with Parsifal – he has been conducting the work since Tony Palmer’s thoughtful Mariinsky production premiered in 1997, — but the laziness of his approach to Tristan gave way to firm, incisive direction not only accomplished in its own right, but representing an improvement even over the Mariinsky artistic director’s well-received Met performances in 2003 (Christoph Eschenbach conducted the work at the Mariinsky that summer; Gergiev led it again in January 2004, but this reviewer was in Sharm El-Sheik at the time).

Maestro Gergiev was aided in his efforts by one of the Mariinsky’s rare guest appearances, that of the accomplished young German bass René Pape, whose strong Gurnemanz made the evening. It is appearances such as Pape’s, along with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s in Boris Godunov and Don Carlo last summer, that leave one to wonder why Gergiev does not bring in more guest artists. Finance is probably the reason – indeed, several slated guest performers (including Barbara Frittoli last year) have cancelled at almost the last minute for what are rumored to have been financial reasons, — but the Bol’shoi does not seem to suffer nearly as much. Be that as it may, the Mariinsky’s roster was far from out of place in Pape’s company. Evgenii Nikitin’s rich tones and superlative line have made his Amfortas as good as any singing today. Mikhail Petrenko was in good form vocally and suitably menacing as Klingsor. The tenor Oleg Balashov, whose fine voice is more of a lyric tenor (he also sings Rodolfò in La Bohème and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly) than a true Heldentenor, was nevertheless effective in the title role. Indeed, as the evening went on, he only got stronger and increased his volume. Only Larissa Gogolevskaia disappointed, despite some recent improvements in her singing. Kundry needs a certain amount of shrieking (witness the long enduring triumph of Gwyneth Jones in the role), but in many passages – and to little dramatic effect — that was all Gogolevskaia could produce. Fortunately, the rest of the cast and the orchestra under Gergiev delivered enough fine music to make up for what she lacked.


Saint Petersburg celebrated its 302nd birthday and the opening of its 13th Stars of the White Nights Festival this year with what could have been an historic occasion: Russia’s first performance of Tristan und Isolde since 1913. Perhaps it was the 92-year gap in the opera’s performance history on the Russian stage, but this new production by Dmitrii Cherniakov sadly failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

Cherniakov, who has recently staged well-regarded productions of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (2004) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Maiden Fevroniia (2001) for the Mariinsky, has given Petersburg audiences a stultifying post-modern interpretation of Wagner’s most ethereal opera. Tristan appears to be an officer in the Royal Navy and brings his captive back to Cornwall in a small cabin on what the photographs on the wall indicate to be an aircraft carrier. Cherniakov and Zinovii Margolin’s set in the first act is cluttered with sundry items of modernity: a working personal computer, exercise machine, luggage, and office water cooler, the last of which Brangäne uses to mix her potions. The height of the magically enhanced love affair in Act II takes place in a room in what must be Cornwall’s most functional minimalist high-rise hotel, complete with a do-not-disturb sign that Tristan awkwardly places on the door when he rushes in. What Cherniakov and Margolin hoped to add by presenting us with a cheap digital alarm clock that informs the audience of every passing minute of the act and its rapturous love scene is anyone’s guess. And why must the poor cuckolded King Marke mar his affecting scene by taking refuge in the room’s lavatory or flipping through television channels? In Act III Tristan’s ancestral castle in Kareol is reduced to a plain 1950s-style drawing room with boring furniture. The home of a great warrior looks more like somebody’s grandmother’s house – an allusion not all that far-fetched since Cherniakov engaged an actor and actress from Petersburg dramatic theaters to make unscripted silent appearances as Tristan’s dead parents. To make it all worse, the design seeks to remind us of the obvious constraints in which the lovers find themselves by utilizing only about two-thirds of the Mariinsky’s already rather ordinary stage space. One Russian critic aptly described the whole production as “claustrophobic.”

The costumes, designed by Cherniakov himself in collaboration with Irina Tsvetkova, add even less. Sergei Liadov, our bespectacled Tristan, does not remove his glasses throughout the entire opera, though the tenor has performed other Wagner roles without showing any sign of needing them. This oddity, together with his second act gray sweater and trench coat, both of which stay on the whole time, including the lusty scenes, do more than anything other than a walker or a wheelchair to eliminate the dynamism with which Wagner endowed his hero. It is hard to imagine this professorial Tristan killing Morold or doing much of anything else with passion or verve. The scuffle with Melot (over a pistol rather than a sword) is a stellar example of theatrical silliness – our Tristan resembles a hapless middle-aged man vainly resisting a mugger. Isolde spends the entire opera in non-descript gowns that seem deliberately designed for fat ladies. Marke, clad in a cashmere topcoat, and his suited retinue look vaguely like Russian gangsters, perhaps intentionally, but perhaps not.

The Mariinsky is not known for the high quality of its stage direction, but it would seem that Cherniakov and his collaborators have seen or heard of too many other po-mo Tristans. Perhaps there is a new sexual harassment law in the theatrical world that forbids singers to touch during love scenes, but Petersburg’s audience has now joined Vienna’s in witnessing two static figures standing beside each other and staring into space while they indulge in the closest musical approximation of orgasm. But in case we miss the dramatic point or cannot hear the singing, at least we have digitally created explosions going off on a film screen that depicts a sprawling metropolis at night – explosions bright enough to divert all our attention from the singers and their raptures.

Overall, Cherniakov has reduced a work that is the quintessence of spiritual and emotional transcendence to a mere reminder of the banal contemporary reality that we are condemned to inhabit. Wagner’s philosophical goal of escaping mundane, phenomenal existence through art, music, and theater has been avoided yet again to no purpose by a producer who can add neither an affirmation of humanity nor any more than a superficial comprehension of the composer’s intentions. Of course the human experience has limitations, but is it not Wagner’s point that they can be overcome, even if it must be in death? What value can possibly come from trivializing the power of love, ecstasy, and redemption in the way that this Tristan does? All it really tells us is that Eurotrash designers are dull, passionless individuals who are too bogged down in their own pretensions to cynicism and irony to find beauty in the world. And if that is what they have to say, then who cares? Why must expansive, feeling people be forced to waste so much time paying attention to so many bores – the people who, to paraphrase the late William S. Burroughs speaking of the late and not so great Kurt Cobain, frown for no reason? Let us feel sorry for the prolonged adolescence of the avant-garde and move on. The gushing streams of people fleeing the Mariinsky after Act II both nights and one Russian audience member’s overheard comment, “Just shut your eyes and listen to Wagner’s music” illustrate perfectly that these theatrical crybabies are not responding to the needs and aspirations of their audience, whose humanity is already under relentless assault and ever more in need of affirmation.

Talented vocalism can often save abstruse productions such as this one (witness the Met’s recent Tristan, Lohengrin, and Fidelio productions), but here, too, the Mariinsky’s effort has little to offer. Liadov’s Tristan had occasional flashes of power, but was on the whole weak and unbalanced. Most of his third act singing evoked the rhythmic barking of an aged Siegfried Jerusalem, who held on to his Heldentenor roles a few years too long. In the May 29 performance even Liadov’s second act singing was weak, verging at times toward inaudible. The role of Isolde went in the opening night performance to the ill-suited Larissa Gogolevskaia, handily the worst of the three Brunnhildes cast in the Mariinsky’s Ring Cycles of 2003 and 2004 and a soprano who justifiably appears to receive very few other parts in Petersburg or elsewhere. Although she seems to have lost some weight and handled her role’s middle register with more agility than she has mustered in the past, her upper register remains as shrill and unpleasant as her dramatic abilities are limited and disappointing. Her Liebestod sounded like a last desperate gasp for air rather than a surrendering to eternity. Milana Butaeva, who took over for the second performance, was more appealing visually, but also struggled to deliver Isolde’s best music. A glimmer of hope is offered by the fine young soprano Olga Sergeeva’s reported inclusion in this production, but she has yet to be heard (a third performance is scheduled for June 30). More enjoyable was the supporting cast, particularly the Markes of Mikhail Kit — fresh from his well-received performances of Wotan in New York last month — and Gennady Bezzubenkov. Masters of the Russian repertoire’ great bass roles, their Wagner performances are solid and should be esteemed. Olga Sa
vova and Svetlana Volkova both brought fine musicianship to their Branganes, as did the stentorian Andrei Spekhov to his Kurwenal. Artistic director Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky’s orchestra with his usual intensity and volume, especially in the brass and percussion, but, uncharacteristically, he seemed inattentive to many subtleties in the score and failed to convey much of its pathos. The prelude did not move, and the orchestra’s general sound remained inchoate throughout both evenings. Despite his achievements elsewhere in the Wagner repertoire, his Tristan cannot yet stand with those of Levine, Barenboim, or, especially, Christian Thielemann in its power and purpose.