Friday 27 March 2009

Night waiting for dawn

Dr Atomic, English National Opera, Coliseum, London

An opera by John Adams

Opera is a big art form, and it needs big themes. Without them, the sheer scale of orchestra, chorus, vast sets that glide about or descend from above, can start to look silly. If it’s a conversation about losing her keys, why is she singing it with such superhuman virtuosity? It’s telling that many contemporary composers struggle to find stories to match the resources a full-scale opera brings to bear.

John Adams isn’t afraid of turning to recent history for his operas. Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990) both used 20th century incidents to cast light on current political reality. So the story of the Manhattan Project, the creation of the first atom bombs unleashed on Japan in 1946, is so perfect for Adams it’s almost surprising he’s waited this long to tackle it.

Unfortunately, it’s a work that sits tantalisingly between a great opera and a great idea. Director Penny Woolcock and set designer Julian Crouch create a stunning opening image, three storeys of cells in which the brown-clad staff of Los Alamos appear and disappear behind roller blinds, sitting impassive or scribbling frantic mathematics on blackboards. Projected on the blinds are the larger pictures, first rows of impersonal security pass photographs that include the characters, later flying clouds or a map of Hiroshima.

Adams can handle the musical scale of this conscious revisiting of the powerful Faust myth. Thickly layered, complex choruses, and melodic, expressive arias prove his ability to express emotions both intimate and terrifying. All the soloists create memorable and human characters with both voice and body. But the libretto is a confusing and disorienting muddle.

Why did Adams and his librettist Peter Sellars decide to assemble their script from original sources, instead of writing it? A setting of Baudelaire’s poetry, all extravagant metaphors and heady symbolism, follows a scene that draws heavily on technical documents, letters, and a petition drafted for President Truman. All deeply authentic, no doubt, but from the auditorium it’s hard to keep a straight face just when the subject matter is at its most serious. At one point they are literally singing the weather forecast.

The tone of the piece lurches from overblown to ludicrously mundane. In another work this might be a deliberate strategy, to keep the audience aware that they’re watching a secondhand report of real life. It certainly succeeds in preventing the viewer from being lost in the emotional journey of the characters.

But this work is so clearly about Oppenheimer, it’s hard to believe we’re not meant to get inside his mind. Gerald Finley holds the stage, whether he’s dominating the laboratory, alone and tortured by doubts, or in his bedroom with his wife Kitty, the physically and vocally expressive Sasha Cooke. This Kitty appears to live permanently in a fuchsia negligee, quite unlike the serious woman we’ve seen on a Los Alamos ID card.

In fact, her role is entirely schematic, obviously representing the emotional and sensual side of J. Robert Oppenheimer, just as the native Americans are there to represent humanity at one with the natural world. In this opera they get to do menial tasks in Los Alamos, nurse the Oppenheimer infant, and don animal masks in heavy-handed contrast to the impending technological cataclysm. So women are creatures of emotion and the body, Indians are simple people in touch with the rhythms of Nature, and white men are slaves to reason and technology with ultimately inhuman and destructive results? Just so long as that’s clear.

But I could live with lazy symbolism if it created a dynamic within the piece. In fact, it sits like a lump of undercooked pastry. All the drama of the opera happens in the first scene, where Robert Wilson and Edward Teller try to change the course of events and avert the needless use of the bomb. Oppenheimer tells them it’s futile, and from then on it’s just a long countdown to the first test firing of the first A-bomb.

The music continues to be glorious. The staging is evocative, the visuals epic. But there is no suspense. We know the end of this story, after all. We know it will detonate, there will not be a chain reaction that ignites the atmosphere, Oppenheimer will live to doubt his decisions. The entire second half is a night waiting for dawn so the skies will clear enough to test the Gadget, as they call it.

There are both touching and funny scenes, as the scientists place bets on how big the explosion will be, and the General demands guaranteed good weather on pain of court martial. Thomas Glenn as physicist Robert Wilson, and Roderick Earle as the hapless meteorologist Hubbard, shine as small humans entrained in a bigger process. But the wait is ultimately so long that it’s a relief when the bomb does go off. Surely that’s not what we’re intended to feel.

Perhaps Adams and Sellars were over-awed by their subject matter and took refuge in authenticity, forgetting that literal truthfulness counts for nothing in art. If it did, every passport photograph would say more than a great painting. Oppenheimer sings a beautiful setting of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God…’ which expresses his emotional turmoil the night before the test. But does it matter that he actually knew that poem and took the test site’s name, Trinity, from it? This is a work of art, not an episode of QI.

Did Sellars and Adams feel that, in order to bring us into the world before the Bomb, the world in which those choices were yet to be made, they had to use the words of those who were there? If so, they were wrong. Did they feel unable to assert their own moral or artistic views on such a loaded subject, and instead hid behind the words of others? If so, they are abdicating their responsibility as artists.

It’s not an easy subject to tackle. The history of the project began with physicists wanting to be sure that the very Nazis they had fled would not be the first to create such a devastating weapon. It ended with America using the bomb on a defeated enemy in order to start the Cold War with a chilling threat. Great human tragedy is woven deeply into a complex political picture. To some extent, any such opera will have to measure up to the one we imagine before we go into the theatre.

But Adams and Sellars are up to that job, if only they had had the courage to go for it. Is it reasonable to demand of an opera the kind of structured story and economically eloquent dialogue we’d ask of a film? No. But to make do with as little structure as this, as much cut-and-paste libretto, doesn’t do justice to either the music or the story.

See this opera if you get a chance. But try to see it in a language you don’t understand. And don’t read the surtitles. Your experience of it will be all the richer.

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