Mesmerized by the fascinating very recent documentary (which sadly I caught only the last 15 minutes of) on the making of this opera, called "Wonders Are Many" and aired recently on PBS, I was more than happy to sit down and watch the entire opera, from the Met, on TV.
In case you don't know, "Doctor Atomic" is the story of physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project -- that is, the building of the first atomic bomb, in seclusion in New Mexico in the 1940s. The opera follows Oppenheimer and the rest of the scientists and aides and their families, holed up in close and distressing quarters, working under great pressure and often filled with moral misgivings about what they were doing yet at the same time rushed by high-level U.S. government officials to complete, test, and roll out the finished product, no matter what.
As you might imagine, the opera is fascinating. Adams' music is, well, certainly up to one's expectations of him, and certainly if you like his other stuff, including the fascinating and groundbreaking Nixon in China, you'll like this.
The libretto, written by Peter Sellars, is also a tour-de-force. It's based on a multitude of sources, including documents and literature. The result is a collage of poetry (Oppenheimer himself was inordinately fond of poetry, and as a young man considered that as a career option), history, biography, and philosophy. In addition to the historical documents and letters, Sellars uses abundant quotations from the Bhagavad Gita, and from the poetry of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and Muriel Rukeyser. The result is a mixture of fact and imagery that dazzles, but can occasionally be befuddling.
Excellent notes on the Libretto are found on the Metropolitan Opera's official site. Click: Watch & Listen > Saturday Matinée Broadcasts > All Operas.
Things I liked: The singing was first rate (and that's saying a lot, as the music is quite difficult).
The sets and staging/direction (and even the costuming and makeup) were spectacular -- some of the best and most evocative I've ever seen. And extremely creative, yet always in the service of the story, never detracting from it.
The music was, as mentioned, fascinating, especially during certain sequences like the very end.
Things I didn't like (don't be put off by my grousing -- I like to analyze things): I think the thing should have been edited a bit, either libretto-wise or music-wise.
(1) There's a bedroom sequence in which Oppenheimer muses for a full 7 minutes solely about his wife Kitty's hair. That's when I turned the recording off the first time, and started up again at a later date.
(2) Kitty Oppenheimer has one or two scenes with Oppenheimer, which are fine, but the rest of her scenes are solos, and usually very long ones. That would possibly be fine if what she was singing was germane to the story. However, she sings only abstract images and rootless musings which make little or no sense, at least the way the music has them sung. Bits of Rukheyser's or Baudelaire's poetry are very hard to follow and make any sense at all of, unless the music helps the phrases cohere and relate, and unless the music conveys her state of mind and the point of it all. I was left with the impression that Kitty was losing her grip on reality, which was not the actual case. So, in the end, I don't know if this was a libretto problem or a music problem. I think would have been GREAT if Kitty had sung at least a few sane human sentences, to ground her into reality like Oppenheimer's lines were grounded so effectively. Conclusion: If you see the opera, get acquainted a bit with the sources of the libretto, especially the Rukheyser. See the extensive notes on the Met site, and/or check Wikipedia.
(3) It seemed long to me at three hours, largely because of items (1) and (2) above. I think a little editing could have been in order, as it got slightly repetitive and long. To me, that is.
Upshot: Do see it, or watch the DVD, if you have a chance.
I personally would recommend seeing the fabulous 90-minute "Making of" DVD (called "Wonders Are Many") even more than the opera itself! (Amazon reviewers agree with me.) It was exciting, thrilling, abundantly creative and informative, and there was never a dull moment. Frankly, you get to experience the opera without sitting through it. Excellent stuff!
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