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december 2008

Scene4 Magazine: December - "Dr. Atomic at the Met" reviewed by Karren Alenier

by Karren Alenier

From the night of it's world premiere October 1, 2005, Doctor Atomic by John Adams based on a pieced-together libretto by Peter Sellars has been and remains a controversial opera about the atomic bomb and the use that the United States made of it during World War II. For example, here at Scene4 Magazine, this writer was billed in her feature essay with the title "Doctor Atomic Is Alive" (yes, this writer liked the San Francisco Opera premiere despite the long list of problems, including that the physics were wrong in the original opening lines) while Renate Stendhal's largely negative review (too static Stendhal said) was entitled "Doctor Atomic Is Dead." After two successful subsequent productions of Doctor Atomic in Amsterdam and Chicago that were directed by Peter Sellars, the Metropolitan Opera under the management of Peter Gelb commissioned a new production developed by documentary film director Penny Woolcock, which this writer saw November 5, 2008.


After spending the greater part of Woolcock's production, particularly in Act II, looking at my watch, this writer wonders what the maverick film director, who apparently pumped life into her film rendition of John Adams' second opera The Death of Klinghoffer to good effect, meant for her production of Dr. A to accomplish? What comes to mind as a clue is how oddly baritone Gerald Finley as the lead atomic bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer rendered the seminal aria "Batter my heart, three-person'd God."


In the San Francisco Opera production, Finley who has starred in all subsequent productions of Doctor Atomic, was a scientist tortured by the possible destructive outcome that the atomic bomb could impose on our planet and the people inhabiting it. The aria is based on one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets in which the narrator pleads with God to rescue him from God's enemy (Satan).

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearley'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The metaphorical frame of this poem pertains to holy matrimony. The narrator says he is betrothed to God's enemy and begs God to divorce him from that bond by making him a prisoner to God who in turn would ravish him. Ravish does mean forced sexual intercourse, and yes, rape. The sonnet is a potent counterbalance to the scenes Oppie (Oppenheimer) has with his wife Kitty who cannot seduce him away from the monstrous project of testing the atomic bomb.

In Woolcock's production, Finley's interpretation, while intriguingly masterful, showed not a tortured man grappling with a huge moral dilemma, but a man of science strutting about, filled with the hubris and power of his undertakings. (Pun, however dreadful, made purposefully.) The projection design of Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions reinforces this image of Oppie when in their bedroom, the shadow of Dr. A (Oppenheimer) appears super humanly large over his wife Kitty's more realistically sized shadow.


In Woolcock's playbill notes, she compares the scientists with the soldiers involved in the Los Alamos branch of the Manhattan Project as follows, "The army functions on unquestioning obedience and compartmentalization: scientists thrive on exchanging ideas and free thinking. It was an uneasy marriage." Woolcock's statement leads this writer to believe that she put her directorial intention in the relationships between the people seen on stage and that she saw through the ambitious eyes of Oppenheimer a majesty in the destruction he perpetrated. Perhaps Woolcock was strongly influenced by Pamela Rosenberg, the former General Director of the San Francisco Opera who petitioned Adams to write an American Faust opera based on the story of Oppenheimer.

In answer to a question posed to her by Katrine Ames for Opera News Online (October 2008) about what Woolcock planned to do with Dr. A, the director said, "We obviously can't do the explosion, so we have a lot of things floating up and down in layers." Indeed, the floating pieces of paper that occur at the beginning and end of Woolcock's production provide an interesting effect, however, in a house as big as the Metropolitan Opera's, the subtlety of this imagery seems more pretty than a grim reminder that a city of people in Japan was horribly devastated and that the fallout rippled across generations. And the fallout of floating paper put the concluding emphasis on things and not people.

What worked about Peter Sellars' production was that he included people not seen in the cast of named characters who were working to test the atomic bomb. The end of his production had the chorus in sunglasses rolling and writhing on the stage. Viscerally in that surreal scene, the audience for Sellars' production experienced the aftermath of the blast and identified with the bombed Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Additionally, the voices heard at the end of the opera that were speaking in Japanese and crying for water connected with the actions of the chorus.

What worked best in Woolcock's production were the projections. In the bedroom scene between Kitty and her husband, projections of the curtains blowing behind their bed sensually enhanced Kitty's aria "Am I in Your Light."


While mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Kitty sang the aria satisfactorily, she didn't have the same seduction opportunity as lyric soprano Jessica Rivera who sang the role in the Sellars production mounted at the Lyric Opera of Chicago where both Kitty and Oppie were dressed in pajamas. In Woolcock's production Oppenheimer was in his business suit and barely got near the bed so that the sensuality was dependent on the shadowy projections of the curtains blowing.


It seems like one of Woolcock's intentions was to separate the mind from the body. Therefore besides watching a husband and wife who do not connect well, we also do not see the Oppenheimer infant daughter (the child is mentioned but not even a crib is seen on stage as was the case in the original production). Julian Crouch's set that individually put the scientists, service men and women, and the Tewa Pueblo Indians in stacked cubbyhole boxes cements this idea of separation. Woolcock's directorial landscape seems to emphasize us versus them, a notion entirely in keeping with what went on during WWII. Therefore you have the "non-conformist geniuses" (Woolcock's words for the scientists) versus the disciplined army service personnel and officers like General Groves who in real life thought of the physicists as "the greatest collection of crackpots the world has ever known." Also you have the indigenous but anonymous Indians who are seen sweeping the floors and the one identified nursemaid Pasqualita who tends the Oppenheimer family. By the way, Meredith Arwady who plays/played Pasqualita in Woolcock's Met and Sellar's Chicago productions lends a commanding presence with her earthy contralto voice. In Woolcock's production, the Indians are juxtaposed like the unseen Japanese against the white community of scientists and military personnel. The problem with an entire landscape of us versus them is that the audience has no one to identify with.


Originally Met General Director Peter Gelb had invited Peter Sellars' production of Doctor Atomic. However by August 2007 as reported by Matthew Westphal of Playbill, Gelb had changed his mind and said that the opera deserved a new production for the Met's co-production with English National Opera. On November 12, 2008, at the Politics and Prose bookstore, where Adams was promoting his new memoir Hallelujah Junction, this writer had a chance to ask John Adams about Woolcock and Gelb. Adams said that Gelb chose Woolcock after he asked Sellars to make changes in the second act, which Sellars was unwilling to do. Although Adams was regretful about Sellars, his long-time partner, not being included in the Met production, he was also still filled with happy disbelief that he already had a new interpretation of Doctor Atomic on stage. Adams also commented that he believed that Gelb deep down had always wanted a brand new production of Doctor Atomic, but the composer said without hesitation that Woolcock was a "very risky choice." Additionally, how much trust Gelb granted Woolcock, who had never directed an opera before, is unclear. In an interview made September 19, 2008, with Gelb and Woolcock by Charlie Rose, Gelb did most of the substantive talking. One also assumes that Woolcock, who as young woman born of conservative British parents got arrested for her activities with a radical theater group in her natal country of Argentina, did not follow her film principles of not rehearsing and just letting things happen spontaneously. In a 2004 interview with the British paper The Independent, Woolcock said, "If you're from a documentary background you welcome those surprises, whereas people who've only worked in fiction probably find it quite frightening. I get bored if everything is too nailed down."

Photos - Ken Howard


©2008 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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