[Note: This post has been updated (2) as of 1:20 PM Eastern on 18 May. See below.]
We've just finished listening to today's Chicago Lyric Opera broadcast of its production of John Adams's opera, Dr. Atomic, the first time we've heard this work which had its premiere in San Francisco in 2005. The music is gorgeous, powerful, and Wagnerian-symphonic-rich throughout cum synthesizer-created soundscapes when dramatically called for; not at all what we expected. But as opera — as dramma per musica — the work fails utterly, its failure due entirely its largely prosaic, undramatic, clunky, and inept libretto by Peter Sellars (yes, that Peter Sellars) with largely prosaic, undramatic, clunky, and inept vocal lines by Adams to match (what else could they have been given what Adams had to work with?), all of which when taken together have all the drama, power, poetry, and evocative resonance of a hockey puck. With certain exceptions such as the beautifully lyrical Act I Muriel Rukeyser-, Baudelaire-laced colloquy between J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, and the potent Act I close wherein Oppenheimer sings the terrible plea of the John Donne sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person’d God", the libretto is, for the most part, little more than an artlessly strung together collection of artless quotes from contemporary documents and letters that, taken together, work to pimp Mr. Sellars's leftist ideologue view of this mythic, world-shattering event — in short, a libretto that's mostly unmitigated, pedestrian-grade, postmodern-style agitprop (surprise!). And as if to clinch the opera's postmodern provenance, there's its tacky, pop-culture-inspired title; a title more appropriate to a 1950s sci-fi B movie which, we're certain, is precisely why it was chosen and not because it was commonly known to be Oppenheimer's nickname (which it wasn't) as some would argue.
And that's all a damn shame. Given the dramatic potential of the opera's mythically charged subject — a dramatic potential Adams's score mines musically and to powerful effect in spite of the leaden libretto and ineluctably inept vocal lines that blunt and work against it in almost every measure — and the richness of Adams's lush, polytonal, polyrhythmic score, its inept vocal lines notwithstanding, the work might have been made into a dramma per musica that could have stood comfortably alongside the very best. As it now stands, Adams has sold his score short — way short.
We'd very much like to see Adams do one of three things with this work (apart from losing its ridiculous, wannabe-cool title): 1) hire a real librettist to rewrite the text from top to bottom as an opera; 2) hire a real librettist to rewrite the text from top to bottom as an oratorio; or 3) chuck the present libretto altogether into the rubbish bin where it more properly belongs, and rework that glorious music into either an extended tone poem or three-movement dramatic symphony. It would be an aesthetic crime of the first magnitude to permit that music to remain hostage to the dead-weight libretto to which it's now shackled.
Update (12:24 PM Eastern on 18 May): We've been admonished for passing judgment on Dr. Atomic without actually having seen the opera. The staging, we're told, makes all the difference.
Our answer to that criticism is that mounting a perceptibly flawed and badly cut diamond in the most exquisite of settings will neither mask nor mitigate its inherent flaws and make of it a stone of the first water.
An opera's libretto is the (music-)drama's dramatic armature (and we're here talking about opera that aspires to genuine dramma per musica, not opera as a pretext and platform for showcasing songbirds); that about which the (music-)drama is constructed. If that dramatic armature is fatally flawed, then the (music-)drama must ultimately collapse, and not even the most brilliant staging will serve to save it as dramma per musica.
From our first-time hearing, such is our impression of Dr. Atomic.
Update 2 (1:20 PM Eastern on 18 May): In a post titled, "Forgotten Symphony", composer and blogger Marcus Maroney of Sounds Like New writes:
I'm confused, though, about ACD's third "suggestion" at the end of his review, the one about how he wishes Adams would: "chuck the present libretto altogether into the rubbish bin where it more properly belongs, and rework that glorious music into either an extended tone poem or three-movement dramatic symphony." I'm confused mostly because ACD commented on Stephen Hicken's post about the premiere of the Dr. Atomic Symphony, premiered nearly a year ago.
Sonofagun. Forgotten symphony indeed. A clear case of cryptomnesia on our part. Even after following Marcus's link to Steve's post and reading our two-word comment there, it still didn't ring a bell.
Well, in any case, we're most pleased that John Adams saw fit to work this music into symphonic form, and we look forward to hearing the result when the work becomes available on CD.
Our thanks to Marcus for calling this to our attention.