I’ve watched John Adams’ Doctor Atomic three times now. The first time; a MetHD broadcast, I wasn’t impressed at all. The second time; an AVI rip of the Dutch television broadcast, I started to come around. Having now watched the Opus Arte DVD based on the Dutch TV broadcasts I’m converted. This piece is every bit as good as Nixon in China and probably surpasses it in emotional impact due to the more visceral nature of the material. The orchestral writing is classic Adams. The musical argument is swept along on a strong rhythmic pulse and overlapping waves of colour. In contrast the vocal line often seems duller though there are passages of great lyricism, notably Oppenheimer’s big Act 1 aria Batter my heart, three personed God. Kitty Oppenheimer and the native woman, Pasqualita, also get some good singing. I also found myself warming to the libretto. Some rather self conscious passages of Donne and Baudelaire aside, it lacks the poetry of Goodman’s libretti for Adams but Peter Sellars’ selection of words taken from the documentary record is, in its way, quite compelling; reflecting the mix of high and banal concerns that people under great tension express. It’s particularly interesting to see the relatively high level of respect for and confidence in the moral judgement of politicians displayed by the scientists. One doubts whether that would be the case today. In total, it’s a strong additiion to the repertoire of 21st century operas.
The staging in Amsterdam is basically the same as at the premiere in San Francisco. The bomb is omnipresent. It hangs over the centre of the stage pretty much regardless of what else is going on. The “ground zero” markings are used to frame a small, more intimate area, which serves, for example, as the Oppenheimers’ bedroom. Quite a lot of the time classically trained and choreographed (by Lucinda Wison) dancers use the wider stage space to comment on the story (at least I think that’s what ‘s happening. It is very hard to tell on the DVD). In common with other Sellars’ productions, the actors quite often use rather broadly exaggerated gestures and facial expressions and there is a fair amount of “Sellars semaphore” especially from the chorus and when Pasqualita is symbolising native Ameican “earth goddess” wisdom. It’s one of those productions that I would really like to see live because it’s not easy to figure out on DVD (see below).
I don’t think there’s much point doing a singer by singer review of the performance. It’s a thoroughly capable ensemble built aroung Gerald Finley’s, for now, definitive Oppenheimer with strong support from Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, Jay Morris, James Maddalena, Ellen Rabiner, Thomas Glenn and Richard Fink. There’s really solid work from the Nethherlands Philharmonic and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera and music director Lawrence Renes was obviously working very closely with the composer.
This being Sellars, the most problematic aspect of the discs is the video direction. Sellars clearly sees the DVD as a “show” in its own right rather than a record of the stage production. This is clear from the use of documentary footage in the opening and closing sequences. There is no clear cut line between disc and stage. It’s also clear that Sellars thinks very small screen. There’s a sequence during ne of the “extra” interviews showing him at work reviewing film on a tiny monitor. One feels strongly that that’s what his screen images are composed for. If you watch the piece on your laptop you may appreciate that. Watching on a large screen I’d have preferred something less claustrophobic. The camera angles get mildly weird too though not to the completely disorienting level though. The extras are well worth watching. There are four mini documentaries on the cast, director etc and a longer interview with Sellars.
Technically, the DVDs are very good (there’s Blu-ray available too). The picture is good DVD quality though given the close ups in manner ways it hardly matters. The sound is very good DTS 5.1 which sounds lifelike and vivid. Even the PCM stereo is very good. There are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles. Documentation consists of an essay about the work and a scene listing.
This is the only recording of Doctor Atomic available on Blu-ray though Sony have released DVDs of the Metropolitan opera production from the Live in HD series.