John Adams – Doctor Atomic / Metropolitan Opera 2008 (3)

(Previous section here.)

I am not sure that I would seek out a recording of this opera that was audio only. I didn’t dislike the music, and at no point was I ever bored, but I’m not sure that I really got sucked into it, either. Repeated listenings might change this; I’m not sure.

There was nothing wrong with the performances. Gerald Finley sings the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and I particularly enjoyed his monologue at the end of Act I, “batter my heart, three person’d god” (Oppenheimer, who often expresses what he’s wrestling with via poetry, is quoting John Donne). I found myself liking Eric Owens (General Groves) more on this DVD than when I heard him live in the Bach mass a few weeks ago. Maybe with the Bach he didn’t have enough singing time to really get into it; I don’t know. But I liked his voice better here. Earle Patriarco is very sympathetic as the often-bullied (by Groves) meteorologist who, unfortunately, cannot control the weather.

What I found happening to me while I watched this, though, was that I kept getting distracted by what it was about. At the same time, I was not sure exactly what it was about. I’m not saying that the opera should be boiled down to something like “was the atomic bomb a good idea or not” or anything like that. I mean ‘about’ in the sense of what the core aesthetic punch of the thing is supposed to be. The Met’s production addresses questions of cooperation and isolation and responsibility (all those people in cubby-holes! and the part where Oppenheimer is talking with his wife about what is happening, and the lighting causes his shadow to suddenly loom very very large) as well as knowledge – how you know what you know, and whether certain varieties of knowledge are worth more than others – and the terrifying conjunction of the ordinary and the completely unknowable. The opera ends with a woman speaking in Japanese, asking for water and expressing concern for her children. Up to that point, we have experienced the process from the point of view of the people working on the project or living nearby. The end pulls us out of that and reminds everyone of the other key human experience of the atomic bomb: having it dropped on you. My point isn’t that this switch of perspective is a bad idea; rather, it adds to my general sense of there being almost too much at once going on here. What I like in a good production of an opera is one coherent impression (the aforementioned punch) that nevertheless contains ambiguities and contradictions. In this case there is plenty of ambiguity, but I am still working out what I think the punch is. This is most likely my lack of familiarity with the opera – though part of me suspects that Sellars’s allusive, many-texted libretto has something to do with it. (I got a little distracted mentally chasing quotations.)

So, I think the thing to do is to track down a different production of the opera and have another go at it. Or, failing that, Nixon in China.

2 thoughts on “John Adams – Doctor Atomic / Metropolitan Opera 2008 (3)

  1. I can’t imagine listening to Doctor Atomic though I have listened to both Nixon in China and A Flowering Tree. The DVD of Nixon isn’t bad though James Maddelena had an awful cold when it was recorded.


    1. I’m glad it’s not just me. This is one of the few operas that I have heard for the first time and then realized that I couldn’t recall very much about the orchestral music. I’ve liked Adams’s music in the past (the violin concerto, Shaker Loops, a few other things that I can’t recall right now) but this is not my favorite thing he has written.


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