18 Nov 2008
Doctor Atomic and Arjuna’s Dilemma
As Tom Stoppard put it, “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
As Tom Stoppard put it, “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”
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.
A 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.
A 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.
Badal 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.
(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.