Opera Critic

After nearly 1,100 performances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera alone (tonight’s was number 1,086, making it the second most frequently performed work at the Met after the ubiquitous La Bohème), can this great warhorse of the standard repertoire – an astonishingly un-Egyptian work about Egypt connected despite the popular misconception in no way to the opening of the Suez Canal — still deserve a fresh look? Despite a few empty seats at this Saturday night spectacle, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

The Met has marshaled some solid talent for this season’s revival. The Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian, who debuted in the title role in 1999, is one of the handful of Aidas worth hearing today. Although she cannot capture the vocal heights in a way equal to that of the great golden age singers (one might rightly ask who can), she nevertheless performed with intelligence and grace. Franco Farina, her Radames, delivered dramatically, though his tenor also strained in its reach for the upper register. The young baritone Mark Delavan gave the house a solid Amonasro, admirably balancing the fatherly tenderness and royal rage that Verdi demands. Yvonne Naef’s Amneris lacks the jealous passion that Dolora Zajick or Olga Borodina have brought to the role, but nevertheless served well. The important supporting cast also measured up to the tasks before them. The basses Morris Robinson and Paata Burchuladze sang with stentorian weight in the roles of the King and High Priest, respectively. As in most Verdi operas several scenes in Aida depend on the chorus, and the Met’s well directed ensemble succeeded brilliantly, as did its corps de ballet. From the podium James Conlon masterfully addressed the score’s sentimentality, passion, and furor with equal giftedness.

Sonja Frisell’s mammoth traditional production, with sets by Gianni Quaranta, continues to prove that opera on a grand scale can entertain, attract, and speak loudly to a broad audience. Perhaps Verdi’s themes of a lost homeland, duty to its recovery, and devotion to love are dated, but since when has great entertainment depended on relevance to ugly modernity and its many disappointments? Who but the most alienated and unfeeling post-modernist could fail to be moved by the size and power of the triumphal scene, probably executed more spectacularly in Frisell’s production than in any other, past or present? And what visitor (or, in this reviewer’s current case, resident of) Egypt can ignore the memories evoked by the high walls, monuments, and bas-reliefs that the production team have recreated not too greatly below scale in a building at 63rd and Broadway? It is productions like this that bring audiences to opera. Let us have more of them.

Jonathan Miller’s 1998 production of this Mozart favorite premiered with a starry cast. Renée Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Dwayne Croft, and Suzanne Mentzer assembled under Met artistic director James Levine’s baton to form arguably the best ensemble for the opera alive today. Le Nozze di Figaro has eventfully returned to the Met this season in a revival populated by promising successors to the blockbuster cast of seven years ago. Indeed, only one of the evening’s principals, the veteran Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, has been singing at the Met for more than three years. Our Figaro and Susanna only debuted last season (both in Mozart roles, appropriately enough). Cherubino, Bartolo, and the evening’s conductor all made their debuts in this performance.

The freshness of the principal cast contrasted well with Peter Davison’s sets, which leave one to wonder whether he is trying to convey old regime dilapidation or the rough qualities of an unfinished new palace. The Venezuelan-born, Argentine-trained, Italian baritone Luca Pisaroni has a voice perhaps more lyrical than Figaro’s should be, but he lasted most of the evening with energy and verve. His Act IV scenes and less inspired “Aprite un po’ quel’occhi” suggested exhaustion after a long performance. His Swedish counterpart Peter Mattei cut a tall figure as the Count, adding to his physical stature with a rough lasciviousness that made his attempts to seduce Susanna much more vivid than we usually see. Lisa Milne, an accomplished young Scottish Mozartean, made a slow start, almost giving the impression of being underpowered, but came alive in the later acts. Her “Deh vieni, non tardar’” sparkled with gorgeous sound. Hong’s Countess endowed the opera with all of the grace that this too often underrated singer shares with her character. “Porgi, amor” was nothing less than brilliant.

It was one of the evening’s debuts, however, that commanded the most attention. The mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has already built an impressive international career and, drawing the most applause of any soloist, proved last night that she will be a welcome addition to the Met’s roster. Her Cherubino was passionate without being too boyish, and the role’s signature aria, “Voi che sapete,” illustrated an undeniable intelligence meeting the challenge of portraying an immature character. Maurizio Muraro debuted solidly as Bartolo. His Marcellina, the veteran comprimario mezzo Wendy White, rounded off the opera’s all important ensembles. One wishes only that the British conductor Mark Wigglesworth, also debuting in this performance, would have kept the tempi a touch slower. But with such electric and youthful enthusiasm on stage, he was probably unable to resist a faster pace.

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.