Fink, Richard Paul


AtomicJohn Adams - Doctor Atomic

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2007 | Lawrence Renes, Peter Sellars, Gerald Finley, Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, Ellen Rabiner | Opus Arte

There is no reason why opera can’t deal with really big subjects. Even in its earliest form, going right back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and dealing with ancient classical mythology, right through to Verdi and Wagner, or even the treatment of the Holocaust in Weinberg’s The Passenger, through the combined artforms of drama and the abstraction of music given expression through human performance, opera has been able to delve deeply into the nature of humanity when faced by the big questions of existence – God, Love, War and the essential matters of Life and Death.

Obviously, those subjects are no less central to many aspects of our lives today and no less important to modern composers. It’s in this context that the operas of John Adams (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) deal with contemporary or recent ‘headline’ subjects that have had a major impact of our lives or say something significant about the world we live in today. Dealing with Oppenheimer’s development and testing of the first Atom Bomb in June 1945, leading to its deployment in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Doctor Atomic tackles with one of the most significant developments of the 20th century – if not actually the biggest since it deals with the potential annihilation of the entire human race – but one wonders whether this subject may indeed not be too big for opera, or at least for the limitations of composer John Adams and librettist and director Peter Sellars.

Atomic
Whether they succeed in their aims or not, no-one at least can accuse the authors of lacking in ambition. The decision to condense all the personal, moral, philosophical, political and military considerations around the development of the Atom Bomb into a 24 hour period, confining it (with some significant temporal twists) to the preparations for the first test of the bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico is perhaps necessary from a dramatic perspective, but it does make it somewhat difficult to get to the human heart of the subject and the personalities involved. In some ways, of course, this reflects the dilemma of the scientists working on the project, caught up in the science of the work and in the middle of a war, there’s some urgency involved that doesn’t perhaps leave a lot of time for consideration of the moral and political implications, to say nothing of the personal toll that the results of the project will later exert over the consciences and lives of those men.

There is consequently some discussion and disagreement in Doctor Atomic between Oppenheimer and Teller not only over the estimated yield of the explosion and the possibly global catastrophic consequences that are as yet unknown, but also concerns voiced about the military application of their work on the Japanese people – without warning – particularly since Germany has already surrendered the war. The tense confrontations between scientists and the military advisors as well as the approaching deadline for the first test create a fraught situation that in only heightened and its dangers made real by the electrical storm that has arrived just at the critical moment.

The opera consequently maintains a high edge of intensity throughout. It’s evident in the discordant notes, and staccato strings of Adams’ score, underscored by rumbling percussion; it’s evident also in the sparse staging and stark lighting for this production at the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam – a mobile set of wooden scaffolding over a “ground zero” circle that allows for a reasonable flow to me maintained between scenes. Aside from the busyness of Lucinda Childs’ dancers over the circle, the intensity of the production is even more pronounced however – perhaps to a state of being somewhat overwrought – by the singing performances and the delivery of a rather portentous libretto. Drawn from released declassified official documents, with the addition of some passages from Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto may have authenticity and a sense of poetry that is certainly in keeping with the grandness of the subject, but it does indeed often sound like notes from scientific documents and personal journal observations rather than actual dialogue, and it consequently lacks any deeper insight into the nature of the people involved, or any sense of real human feeling.

Atomic

With a libretto taking in questions of life and death from the god-like stance in relation to such matters wielded by the figures involved, and with nature invoked in the forms of thunder and lightning (to say nothing of consideration of radioactive rain and visions of “cloud-flower” structures), such weighty pronouncements are moreover sung by a cast of powerful deep voices that are predominately baritone or bass-baritone for the main masculine roles (Gerald Finley, James Maddalena, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink) and mezzo-soprano for the two significant female roles (although Adams reworked Kitty Oppenheimer for soprano Jessica Rivera for this production, it’s still at the lower end of the soprano tessitura). The declarative delivery, against such a musical, scenic and dramatic background with a Chorus that has all the portentousness of a Greek Chorus, is, barring a few brief scenes, consequently never anything less than overwhelmingly tortured and angst-ridden.

Is such an approach justified? Would all these moral questions really have been weighted-up and agonised over in this way over such a short intense period of time, or is this a retrospective look at a significant moment taking in all the implications in the light of what would subsequently transpire in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Either approach would be valid and the scope and nature of the subject itself undoubtedly calls out for just such a treatment, but does it work? There’s no doubting the ability of the composer and librettist to draw these diverse historical references, documents and characters together, poetically working nature and elements into the equation in a manner that is certainly powerful and – by the time one gets to the conclusion – dramatically effective, but rather than being in any way enlightening or instructive about the subject, the overwhelming feeling is that Doctor Atomic is just overwhelming.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release of this 2007 production at De Nederlandse Opera is a strong presentation of the work. It’s filmed often in extreme close-up (under the direction of Peter Sellars) and in High Definition under stark bright lighting, you might get to see right into the pores of the singers more than you would like to. Radio microphones are used for this production and visible on all the performers – whether this was for the stage or to allow better mixing for the recording, I’m not sure, but the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are well presented. In addition to a detailed on-screen synopsis and cast gallery, there are several short background mini-documentaries on the production, and an extended interview with Peter Sellars.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.

Nixon

The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.