Thursday, 19 March 2009

Doctor Atomic - The English National Opera at the Coliseum, Monday 16 March 2009

I’m no aficionado of opera houses, but as far as unlikely venues for an A-bomb go, the Coliseum has to top the list. Its décor is heavily baroque: arches and columns are liberally distributed, and cornicing climbs among them like a particularly virulent creeper (to say nothing of the vertiginous lions and angels peering down from the ceiling); it’s almost too old-fashioned-looking to be real—a modern pastiche of 18th-century affectation. And yet there’s a certain visual correlation with the foreboding orb that hangs over the stage for part of the evening, its burnished carapace moodily lit and strewn with cables that look aesthetic as much as functional. It almost makes you wonder why no-one thought of putting a bomb into an opera before.

Jokes about Boulez aside,* there’s definitely a Wagnerian quality to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and in the absence of the man himself, who better than John Adams to step into the breach? Despite having written only two other capital-O operas (i.e. disregarding certain “opera-musicals” and “opera-oratorios”), Adams has established himself as the modern-day king of grandiose, emotive music-drama. What’s more, he’s a keen exponent of using the genre to examine contemporary—and often highly contentious—stories and issues, from international diplomacy to terrorism. His last opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, caused a minor scandal when it debuted in America, and has only been performed live once in the last 17 years.

Doctor Atomic, which depicts the final stages in the development of the atom bomb, is a far less controversial work than its predecessor. Adams and his librettist, Peter Sellars, focus on exploring the anguish and self-doubt experienced by those involved in the project, chiefly Dr. Oppenheimer himself. There’s nothing very illuminating in this—I don’t suppose anyone thinks that the development of a WMD is undertaken lightly—but there are moments of tremendous a/effectiveness, notably Oppenheimer’s aria “Batter My Heart”, which closes the first act. Unfortunately, much of the opera consists of interminable ensemble scenes, wherein various characters squabble about their misgivings. Not only does this slow the action to a crawl, it also precludes the in-depth exploration of the individuals depicted, so that the proceedings too often resemble a mere historical re-enactment (without even being particularly accurate).

Adam’s music is similarly undistinguished for much of the duration. While it’s every bit as brisk as expected, it fails to enliven the events on stage, and seldom rises to the emotive heights achieved in his previous operas. Besides the aforementioned aria, only a couple of sequences stand out, one being the tense but surprisingly low-key finale, which actually employs a lot of un-composed recorded sounds.

Overall, the strength of the performances and staging help to ensure that Doctor Atomic is intermittently enjoyable, but nothing can fully compensate for the libretto, whose formal shortcomings and occasional lapses into agonisingly bad pseudo-poetry (“…my eyes splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love…”) render too many sequences either tedious or embarrassing or both.

*Optional "writerly" opening paragraph + sentence fragment.

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