Sunday, 8 March 2009

Dr Atomic at ENO

I saw the 4th performance of this new opera by John Adams last night:

It's a big disappointment in that it is remarkably inert

(OK, quick aside... I can see the endless possibilities for puns queueing around the block. Here it's a periodic table gag, i.e. inert gas, from the familiar chart that forms the safety curtain for this production. I'll be neither pointing them up nor apologising for them.)

and perversely, given that the subject matter is physically the most dramatic thing of which we can conceive, it has no drama in it at all.

What is opera if not drama? That's meant to be a rhetorical question, although I suspect a reasonable response is 'music'. Well the music is good,
particularly in the first half. Lyrical without being melodically pungent, it serves as a reasonable conduit for a cast emoting as they wait for the weather to clear and allow their test explosion to go ahead.

But here's the thing. That's it. That's the whole story. Cast wait for text explosion, cast get test explosion. At one point the central figure of the thing,
Robert Oppenheimer, goes home to his wife... but she talks to us, not to him. There's no argument, no metaphor, no cause and effect. The opera doesn't so much lean as stand upon the basis that we all know all about the subsequent, dispiritng history of nuclear proliferation, detterence and, most immediately, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It does nothing (OK, little, if one takes this production in the subset of 'the opera') to provide information or dramatic bias for these themes. Just like the ill-conceived The Minotaur that the ROH put on last year, the opera is simply a meditation on a known event. Like The Minotaur I would rather hear it in concert. It's entireyly possible that this misdirection is in no small part spawned in the libretto - written by Peter Sellars, no less. Moonlighting, tsk.

If one does get to hear it on the radio then, probably the best place for it, then it would be just fine to have the cast I did on Saturday. James Cleverton was standing in for an indisposed Gerald Finley (who has been honing the role internationally) and did a good job, although I wonder how much of my wandering interest in the whole was due to this unavoidable substitution... Brindley Sherratt was clearly the most impressive of the principals. The band played this coloured but often relentless score very well under Lawrence Renes.

I could talk about other things but they don't matter there's no point in having great design, choreography and lighting if you don't have a drama to enhance. The first dud of the 08-09 season.

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