Opera under a mushroom cloud

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Wednesday August 15, 2018
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Nuclear opera from genius composer John Adams. Photo: Nonesuch
Nuclear opera from genius composer John Adams. Photo: Nonesuch

Nonesuch has just released the first recording of "Doctor Atomic," composer John Adams' opera about the Manhattan Project, which had its world premiere from San Francisco Opera in 2005. Out There, who was in the audience at its debut, gave the recording a deep listen.

On the two-CD box set, the Bay Area composer conducts the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with a cast led by Gerald Finley and Julia Bullock as the alpha couple Dr. J. Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer. Peter Sellars created the libretto, drawing from original sources and poetry to explore the final hours leading up to the first atomic bomb explosion at the Alamogordo, New Mexico test site in 1945. A 64-page bound booklet includes archival photos, the libretto, and an essay by Mark Swed.

It's easily one of Adams' most accomplished and musically complex scores. A feeling of apprehension and doom pervades from its very first bars, and the opera's stand-out aria, the Act I closer "Batter my heart," in which Oppenheimer battles his demons to the lines of a transcendent John Donne sonnet, is up there with the very best of Adams' entire oeuvre.

The opera's main problem is that the Sellars-curated libretto is just not dramatic enough to sustain audience engagement. It's a shame, since Adams' score is intensely exciting, as evinced in the opening scene of Act II, Kitty Oppenheimer's (Julia Bullock) anxiety monologue "Wary of time O it seizes the soul tonight." Then an orchestral interlude, "Rain over the Sangre de Cristo," segues into Kitty's Tiwa Indian maid Pasqualita's (Jennifer Johnston) "Cloud-flower Lullaby." Throughout, the music is stirring, multi-layered, and allusive.

But the actual preparations for, and complications of timing around, the test blast are simply not operatic in nature, nor are they very compelling as narrative drive. There's a lot of information, as in meteorologist Frank Hubbard (Marcus Farnworth)'s lines: "We have visibility greater than sixty miles. The surface wind from the east southeast is three to six miles per hour below 500 feet." Engineers scurry about, worrying about radio connections and techno snafus. "Tosca," this is not. But a great 21st-century score it certainly is.

A self-portrait by Cecil Beaton, from Love, Cecil. Photo: Zeitgeist Films.  

Along with everyone else at the opera's premiere, the big question for OT was, How would Adams convey the cataclysmic detonation, the opera's climax, in music? Turns out it's the quietest, most anti-climactic nuclear explosion in history. The world enters the nuclear age not with a bang but with a whimper, in the low woodwinds.

Beaton goes on

Guess we knew the work of late British aesthete Cecil Beaton best from his Oscar-winning production and costume designs for "Gigi" and "My Fair Lady," but his life work also included photography, visual art, theatre and film design, and his published diaries and scrapbooks.

We enjoyed the new documentary "Love, Cecil" from director Lisa Immordino Vreeland, full of previously unseen footage and stills, with excerpts from his diaries narrated by Rupert Everett, and many interview scenes of Beaton describing himself in his own words. Publicity says, "From his work for Vogue, as a photographer in WWII, to his relationship with the Royal Family and his alleged affair with Greta Garbo (her picture was discovered in his bedroom among those of two of his male lovers after his death), the film includes appearances by David Hockney, Isaac Mizrahi, David Bailey, Leslie Caron and Hamish Bowles." Cecil is all here: from his outsize talent to his eagle eye, from his snobbery, class consciousness, and prejudice to his openness to the new, the spontaneous, and the visual knockout.