Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Da bomb

The best element about Doctor Atomic may well be its title, which instantly suggests an action-packed, DC Comics–style caper. But John Adams and Peter Sellars's opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, which I saw at the Met last night, has got to be one of the most…tepid things I've seen in a long time. I didn't think it was possible to suck all the tension and action from the atomic fricking bomb, but they did it.

Sellars's heavy-handed libretto bears a lot of the blame: "adapted from original sources," it is way too verbose, way too literal, and made me long for baroque's elliptical repetitiveness. The singers have to deliver thankless clunky lines and the music, which mostly sticks to a kind of banal beige hum, doesn't help. (Also, okay, I'm far from an expert, but at times it reminded me of Bernard Herrmann, of all people, particularly his score for North by Northwest toward the end of the first act. Weird.)

Despite a few good visual ideas, like the opening hive of scientists working in isolated cells like so many worker bees—for which we have to thank set designer Julian Crouch, already responsible for Satyagraha—Penny Woolcock's staging remains hopelessly static. When a literally electric scene comes along (a storm threatens a bomb test), there isn't enough juice onstage to short-circuit a toaster.

No one in our party of four liked the opera or the production. Here's what my buddy Tristan had to say this morning:
Instead of gaining momentum, the second act went slower and slower. There were no new musical ideas. A hundred people came on stage to watch the bomb go off…and then stood there motionless for 15 minutes, staring at the audience. That was the climactic final stage business. Made Robert Wilson look like Busby Berkeley. There was also some half-hearted fog. The meteorologist sang an entire weather report—I am not kidding. "The wind/Is out of the southwest/At three to six miles per hour/Up to 500 feet." There was a ticking noise and a rumbling noise. The sheets rose up into the air, slowly, revealing…just some more debris.
In other words, the whole thing, in so many ways, failed to detonate. It was, in fact, metaphorically, the fizzle which the scientists had feared when they tested the bomb. But perhaps that's the point. If the bomb had been as badly designed and built as the opera about it was, perhaps we would have a more peaceful world today. If only Oppenheimer & Co. hadn't been so brilliant! If only they had been more like John Adams and his colleagues!
Yow! Tell it like it is! (Tristan also tipped me off to composer Mark Adamo's insightful take on Doctor Atomic.)

On the plus side: There were clips of Robert Lepage's forthcoming La Damnation de Faust playing in the Met's lobby and that production looks ka-razy! Really, really looking forward to it. Which could be famous last words since I was also really, really looking forward to Doctor Atomic. And I once wrote that 30 Rock sucks. And I thought John Kerry could be elected in 2004.

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