Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Hans Werner Henze Choral Music

Hans Werner Henze works for mixed voice and chamber orchestra with SWR Vokalensemble and Ensemble Modern, conducted by Marcus Creed. Welcome new recordings of important pieces like Lieder von einer Insel (1964), Orpheus Behind the Wire (1984) plus Fünf Madrigale (1947).

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Bettina Smith, Norwegian Mezzo, in Songs by Fauré and Debussy

Here are five complete song sets by two of the greatest masters of French song. The performers are highly competent. I should have known, given the rave reviews that their 2015 recording of modern Norwegian songs received.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

The opera world barely knows how to handle works that have significant amounts of spoken dialogue. Conductors and stage directors will often trim the dialogue to a bare minimum (Magic Flute), have it rendered as sung recitative (Carmen), or have it spoken in the vernacular though the sung numbers may often be performed in the original language (Die Fledermaus).

A New Anna Moffo?: The Debut Disc of Aida Garifullina

Here is the latest CD from a major label promoting a major new soprano. Aida Garifullina is utterly remarkable: a lyric soprano who also can handle coloratura with ease. Her tone has a constant shimmer, with a touch of quick, narrow vibrato even on short notes.

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017 - Winner Announced

Bampton Classical Opera is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2017 Young Singers’ Competition is mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard and the runner-up is tenor Wagner Moreira. The winner of the accompanists’ prize, a new category this year, is Keval Shah.

Il sogno di Scipione: a new recording from Classical Opera

With this recording of Mozart’s 1771 opera, Il sogno di Scipione (Sicpio’s Dream), Classical Opera continue their progress through the adolescent composer’s precocious achievements and take another step towards the fulfilment of their complete Mozart opera series for Signum Classics.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer and Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams's
18 Nov 2008

Doctor Atomic and Arjuna’s Dilemma

As Tom Stoppard put it, “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”

John Adams: Doctor Atomic
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerard Finley); Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke); Teller (Richard Paul Fink); Wilson (Thomas Glenn); General Groves (Eric Owens); Hubbard (Earle Patriarco); Pasqualita (Meredity Arwady). The Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by Alan Gilbert.

Douglas Cuomo: Arjuna’s Dilemma
Arjuna (Tony Boutté); Krishna (John Kelly/Humayun Khan); Ensemble (Suzan Hanson, Anita Johnson, Barbara Rearick, Kirsten Sollek, Bora Yoon); Saxophone (Bob Franceschini); Tablas (Badal Roy). Conducted by Alan Johnson. Stage Director: Robin Guarino. Next Wave Festival, BAM Harvey Theater.

Above: Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer and Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]

 

I thought of this during one of the many patches in John Adams’s new opera, Doctor Atomic, when nothing much was going on and there was plenty of time for gathering wool. But the particular buildup of suspense I reflected on was Mozart’s, in the Act I finale of his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito. Sesto (you may remember) has set fire to the Capitol and stabbed the emperor, his great friend, at the request of the snubbed Vitellia – who has changed her mind, but too late. The orchestra depicts the rising flames of the catastrophe, aided by the chorus. The chorus sings no words, only “Ah!,” a cry of horror, in various tones – we may, perhaps, assume their feelings are too shocked for words, or that the distance and the flames are turning their words into undifferentiated noise. In the foreground, Sesto is cursing himself for his hideous deed. If we have read the synopsis, we know that in fact he has slain the wrong man, and Emperor Titus is just fine (and will remain clement). No matter – the alarm of the crowd, the insanity of the act, the emotions of the evildoer occupy our thoughts. The music rises and falls, and we are at the edge of our seats: what will happen next?

There was very little suspense at Doctor Atomic. The bomb will be tested, it will be a success, the earth will not explode due to chain reaction, the bomb will then be dropped on Hiroshima, the war will end, the world will be shocked and uneasy. We all know that. It is up to the composer, the librettist (Peter Sellars), the director (Penny Woolcock), the conductor (Alan Gilbert), the singers to make us feel the tension of unanswered questions: what will happen next? To whom will things happen? (Because these characters stand in for us, who have been haunted by the bomb all our lives.)

They do not achieve this.

DOCTOR_ATOMIC_scene_1540a.pngA scene from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
There is, in fact, a great deal of musical interest going on during Doctor Atomic – in the pit. There are genuinely intriguing sounds, developments, inspired innovations of percussion, melodies that spin and writhe and tingle. As a symphonic meditation on nuclear energy and its destructive implications, this would be an evening worth spending. Adams’s purely instrumental music is often impressive, sometimes deeply feeling. As the accompaniment for stage action and a work of vocal theater, however, Doctor Atomic let me down.

The libretto was certainly at fault – it’s very difficult to create poetic, metaphorical feeling on the grandiose level on which this work pompously and preachily insists if the words you hear remain sullenly, risibly pedestrian. Bets on the amount of radiation. Nervous but hardly profound discussions of the implications of the weapon. Pros and cons of dieting. A sonnet by John Donne that might be a step in the right direction if it had anything to do with the action, and if the setting were at all appropriate or at least appealing. (How on earth can anyone make a New Mexico sky at sunset, or during a thunderstorm, dull?) A vision from the Bhagavad Gita and a lullaby by a Native American seem designed merely to cover extra cultural bases – and the lullaby, insistently chanted to keep us mindful of the coming catastrophe (well, Native American songs often are one or two lines, repeatedly chanted) does not build tension – it gives evidence that tension is what they creators of this work would like to provide. But, words and music, they have no idea how to go about it.

DOCTOR_ATOMIC_scene_Finley_.pngA scene from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic with Gerald Finley (center) as J. Robert Oppenheimer. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]

The voices are well produced, but they are deployed as electronic instruments might be: as notes on a page, not as instruments of emotional utility. Everyone in this opera is ordinary but no one is human. Even the gods of Wagner and Gluck get to be human. (I am told Gerard Finley’s personal agonizing, as Oppenheimer, was poignant on screen, but in the house, mediated by microphone, it made very little effect. Sasha Cook sounded good, but whether her character, Kitty Oppenheimer, was agonized by her marriage or the bomb or wondering what to pay the babysitter was not apparent from her vocalises.)

The staging is certainly at fault – like the libretto, it harps on the inanity of the human activity that led to such profound consequences, without illuminating either one. If you’re going to symbolize world-catastrophe, you have to make it personal, but Sellars and Adams cannot make their inventions live. They can’t even make them explode. Oh for a Mozart. No, there aren’t many Mozarts – oh for a Ponchielli or a Meyerbeer, journeymen who knew how the machine worked, how to put catastrophe on stage, how to make it personal and real to a large, disparate audience. How about a hunchbacked scientist who invents a bomb out of vendetta on his society and discovers too late that it has torn the skin off his own beloved daughter? That might be an opera. If you could find a Verdi to compose it.

Instead we get the Oppenheimers’ marital problems, a failure to communicate, though thanks to the sound system, heaven knows they are loud enough. This scientist represents this argument, that scientist represents another one, and none of them are either human or archetypal enough to be superhuman. Just cardboard. One could forgive that if their music was interesting, but the vocal lines are uniformly un.

At the Met last spring, Satyagraha, with its diorama staging and intentionally incomprehensible libretto (in Sanskrit), was a vocal drama of real excitement and beauty, with metaphorical actions giving access to the creators’ meditations on significant philosophical questions. There was no suspense in Doctor Atomic, and nothing in the debate around the atomic bomb was brought to life in it.


Arjuna’s Dilemma is another recent opera based, in part, on the text known as the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous (and philosophical) episode from the Mahabharata, the longest epic ever composed. With Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic, this is the third opera I’ve seen this year that drew on the Gita – which has become the Orlando Furioso of modern opera, as the Gita itself and its characters grow as familiar to opera-goers as Ariosto’s characters were to music lovers of Handel and Vivaldi’s day.

_DSC8038.pngBadal Roy on tablas (foreground) and John Kelly as Krishna (center) from Arjuna’s Dilemma [Photo by Stephanie Berger]
In the Gita, Prince Arjuna, driven (with his four brothers) from their kingdom by some sneaky cousins, is about to take part in a murderous battle with the usurpers, and has doubts about the whole thing – killing, being killed, slaying all those pals he used to hang with, spreading mayhem through the countryside and no doubt into the heart of many a widow and orphan and bereft parent. What’s it all for? His charioteer, however, assures him that life goes on (and everyone who dies will be born again anyway), that he’s just one cog in the great big wheel of life which will cease to turn if people stop to question their proper position. Of course he’s no mere charioteer – he’s none other than the god Krishna, and vouchsafes the prince a vision of the universe as symbolized by his ineffable self. (This is the bit that Oppenheimer saw in Doctor Atomic.) Arjuna, convinced and enlightened, fights on. (Where was Krishna when Achilles had his far less worthy doubts in the Iliad? – you may well wonder.)

Douglas Cuomo has turned the Gita into an opera, making use of amplified voices, Indian percussion, cellos, saxophones, a bass clarinet from the Western tradition, background film, foreground choreography, titles to translate the Sanskrit and English text, all the bells and whistles of modern opera-creation as deployed, also, by John Adams at the Met. The techno wonders are all here (in BAM’s self-consciously decrepit Harvey Theater, a credible scene of battle), and the grandeur of the presentation matches the grandeur of the conception.

But the experience of Arjuna’s Dilemma is a very different one from the experience at the Met. Partly this is a matter of length – Arjuna is about 70 minutes, no intermission – and partly this is a matter of lack of pretension. The story is a wisdom text not an action text, a central prescription for the life well-lived in Hindu terms, a revelation of the god, but one does not feel preached at, manipulated, in this work – and there is no attempt to tie the extraordinary to the mundane in the way that a troubled marriage and the quotidian concerns of the scientists totally failed to achieve in the gaudier piece.

_SBP3113.png(l-r) Anita Johnson, Bora Yoon, Suzan Hanson, Kirsten Sollek, and Barbara Rearick from Arjuna’s Dilemma [Photo by Stephanie Berger]

Most of all, Arjuna’s Dilemma has been created by a composer who trusts sound, a few fine voices and a few fine virtuoso instrumentalists, to reveal his message in the same way that the great opera composers trust the sounds will bring to us. The singers’ art (and the instrumentalists’ art) is the central focus of the work. The message is not made explicit and ordinary, humdrum, as Peter Sellars’s text did in Doctor Atomic; its meaning comes to us subtly, open to our different levels of understanding, on the beauty of the human voice, of melody working sinuously to take us into trance states while we meditate, line by line, on the brief story being told us. Tony Boutté impersonates Arjuna, dancer John Kelly (who has also choreographed the piece) plays – but Humayun Khan sings – Krishna, advising, consoling, manipulating, guiding him. Their words are taken up, repeated, sung in canon, tossed about, harmonized by a chorus of five women, and the beauty of the sounds they make expresses a message never made explicit. We draw our own moral. The instrumentalists, too, are virtuosos, and take part in the dialogue. No message goes on too long before it evolves into a new manner of presentation, giving us in this brief space some hint of the breadth of the message, the universality of it.

The piece concludes without a gimmick: they have said what they wanted to say, we have taken in what our individual senses and understanding have prepared us to take. A tale has been told. We have not been told what to feel. We feel for ourselves.

Arjuna’s Dilemma is a modern opera, a tale told through singing.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):