Composer John Adams, Reaching Critical Mass

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Opera can depict the end of the world: We've known that since Wagner's "Götterdämmerung." But the close of John Adams and Peter Sellars's "Doctor Atomic," rather than merely ending a world onstage, creates a space for the hypothetical destruction of the real one. This opera delineates a place of dread: The moments before the first A-bomb test in New Mexico in July 1945 become a metaphor for American anxiety during the decades of the Cold War as they waited for the big one to go off.

There is no moment of release. The music builds with inward-turning intensity, broken off by a long scream. And then, not with a bang but a whimper, the horrified chorus stares at something we cannot see while we hear the taped voice of a Japanese woman asking in her own language for a glass of water.

"Doctor Atomic" has just come out on a two-DVD set that documents the 2007 Amsterdam performances of Sellars's original 2005 production -- a release nearly coinciding with last week's opening of a new production of the work at the Metropolitan Opera. Indeed, the music world is in Adams fever this fall. The 61-year-old American composer's eclectic and cerebral memoir "Hallelujah Junction" has been released this month. To accompany it, Adams's longtime label Nonesuch has released a two-CD set of excerpts of his most important works, including "Harmonium," "Harmonielehre" and his violin concerto.

More satisfying than that CliffsNotes version is the new release of Adams's most recent opera/oratorio. "A Flowering Tree," has had several performances since its world premiere in Vienna in 2006, including the one with the London Symphony Orchestra and the original soloists from Vienna (Jessica Rivera, Russell Thomas and Eric Owens) documented on this original-cast recording.

It has been interesting to watch the development of Adams's appeal to the opera world since 1987, when "Nixon in China" brought him wide attention, and his works got the label of so-called "docu-opera." Certainly his large-scale vocal works have continued to take on topical political themes: terrorism and the Palestinian-Jewish question ("The Death of Klinghoffer"), the miracle of birth in a contemporary context that casts Christ as the child of Hispanic teen gang members ("El Niño").

The trajectory has not always been smooth; nor has it been determined by Adams alone. Sellars has been his operatic instigator and collaborator for 20 years, and the pieces are infused with this director/impresario's increasing earnestness as he moves from his early wackiness to his self-appointed role as an intense spokesman for society's conscience. In documentaries on the "Doctor Atomic" DVDs, the vignettes of Sellars talking about his mission offer a characteristic sense of art at its most stubbornly idealistic.

Adams's operatic music has followed a parallel path, moving from the bright, shiny ecstasy of "Nixon in China," expressed with a wide-eyed, pop-art kind of self-parody, to something richer. Adams's strength is his ability to tap into the familiarity of musical tradition while translating it into a contemporary idiom. This is music born of minimalism, with repeated rapid patterns and blocks of musical event in lieu of straightforward linear development. But if it bears traces of Philip Glass, it is no less influenced by Wagner, whose shadow hovers in the shimmering transformation music of "A Flowering Tree" (as the heroine actually becomes a tree laden with gorgeous blossoms) or in the pacing of the long, tortured monologues of "Doctor Atomic."

It is also music that often tries to do several things at once. Adams himself says on the DVD that "Doctor Atomic" draws on the vocabulary of the overwrought scores to 1950s sci-fi B movies, except with all the camp stripped away so you are left with pure anxiety conveyed by certain sound effects and timbres at key moments. But there are also moments of rich beauty. In the second scene, when the setting shifts from the lab to Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer's bedroom, the score is so purely gorgeous it could make you cry. (The cast is notable: Gerald Finley, with his strong baritone, owns the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb; Richard Paul Fink provides appropriate vocal darkness as the scientist Edward Teller; Owens is the husky, stentorian general; and Rivera is quite good in a role written for the luminous Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died before she was able to sing it.)

But is it opera? The question is not merely facetious. "A Flowering Tree," a homage to Mozart's "Magic Flute" and based on a Tamil legend, was conceived as an opera-oratorio, designed for concert as well as staged performance. And "Doctor Atomic," while it successfully evokes the sense of a long night of ordeal (the tedium of anxious waiting, the bouts of emotion, the drained calm in their wake), is not necessarily dramatic in an operatic sense. Sellars compiled the libretto from actual quotes, interspersed with poems by Rukeyser, Baudelaire, Donne and an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita. The resulting textual juxtapositions are easier to appreciate when read than heard; and while having the characters express their inner thoughts in poetry is a beautiful conceit, it does not actually provide a sense of who they are or how they develop. (The DVD echoes the patchwork effect with rapid and distracting cuts from one image to another.)

Opera or not, both "Doctor Atomic" and "A Flowering Tree" grew on me with repeated hearings. "Doctor Atomic" is a self-consciously important work, slightly hobbled, I think, by the idea that it should be staged, with all of its heavy-handed symbolism (like the earth-mother figure of the Oppenheimers' Native American nanny). I would opt to listen to it in concert, in silence. "A Flowering Tree" is intended as musical balm. If it never seduces the ear as fully as some of Kitty's music in "Doctor Atomic," it is full of studied prettiness, like enamel. Owens is compelling as a narrator who, like a village storyteller, guides the listener through a story in which almost no one is completely good (except the heroine, Rivera). Yet there is a happy ending -- though the music, significantly, refuses to linger over it.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company