Saturday, October 01, 2005

Doctor Atomic Preview

The greatest "classical" composer in the world right now happens to be a local Bay Area guy named John Adams, who has been producing one masterpiece after another for the last thirty years, from huge orchestral works to chamber music to electronic MIDI music to full-length operas, and that's only a partial listing. His first two operas, "Nixon in China" (yep, about Nixon's trip to China) and "The Death of Klinghoffer" (yep, about the Achille Lauro terrorists and the old Long Island tourist they threw into the Mediterranean) are both wonderful, radical pieces that get better with each passing year. His third opera, "Doctor Atomic," about the creation of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, has been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and premieres on Saturday night, October 1st.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Opera Guild sponsored a lecture on the new piece, with Gloria Christison, their Community Outreach VP, introducing the speaker for the afternoon at the fancy basement auditorium in the Main Public Library.

The packed house was mostly elderly...

...and literally well-heeled.

The lecturer was an important local pianist named Sarah Cahill, and she took us on an intelligent tour of John Adams' career with a number of musical examples that she played on the sound system, which she probably should have cranked up louder.

What was most interesting were the musical examples from the new opera, "Doctor Atomic," that came from John Adams' computer where he orchestrates his pieces using the MIDI system. The pieces were so extraordinary-sounding that it made me really want to see the piece NOW, so at the end of the lecture I went backstage at the opera house and got my name put on the list for final dress rehearsal tickets for that evening.

I wrote to a friend later that night with an account of the opera which follows:

We were all sitting in the grand tier section and after the first act I decided I couldn't stand the director Peter Sellars' stupid schtick, which involved a dance company and an incoherent libretto, a mixture of found historical material and poetry (Baudelaire and Muriel Rukuyser). So I moved to the balcony where I got to spread out in the last row on the center aisle all by myself. It was, as they say, heaven, particularly for an Adams queen like myself.

The music is extraordinary and rich, though complex as hell, and the further one got away from the silly dance stuff and bad super acting and weird supertitle text, the more impressive the staging sometimes became. When the women's chorus came in late in the second act singing that amazing music while doing a strange little stoop, it was totally enchanting for reasons that are impossible to explain. The finale, with its fabulous lighting, short amazing outburst from the chorus, extensions of time, and people just being still, was a total coup de theatre. I loved the effing thing. But I will never get nearer to this production than the last row of the top balcony.

Actually, the opera is very brilliant and very disturbing. And it doesn't even have its ideal cast or ideal director. The wife, Kitty Oppenheimer, was written for the arty mezzo-soprano diva of the moment, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who IS awesome in performance. But she threw out her back and her doctor told her not to move, essentially, for six months so she canceled everything. So some woman who has a decent voice is singing it, but the part is hugely difficult and meant for a major singer. Actually, the same could be said for the rest of the cast too.

The orchestra and the chorus, however, are both performing in a league they've rarely ventured into. They're just plain awesome.


Kitten said...

Ohmigod. I'm so jealous. I miss SF so much. I'd argue our symphony is better, but what I wouldn't have given to see the premiere of Dr. Atomic -- if only a dress rehearsal. I fell in love last year when I reviewed Nixon in China. Head over heels, take a bottle of pills, throw myself off the balcony in love. (Which you can see by my review on Aisle Say:

Kit Stolz said...

Alex Ross of "The New Yorker" liked Doctor Atomic too--to put it mildly. "Suffice to say that Doctor Atomic is the most complexly enthralling thing that's come along since I've been a critic."