I went to see Doctor Atomic
Tuesday night at the San Francisco Opera. Like Diane, I had some mixed feelings
. Unusual for opera, it was the libretto, not the music, that wowed me. Peter Sellars’ juxtaposition of texts was inspired. Where else could you hear at once the poems of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and Muriel Rukeyser, sacred texts from the Bhagavad Gita and the Tewa Indians, and the memoirs of Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, and other scientists and soldiers who developed the atom bomb? As Diane said, one of the most inspired moments was Oppenheimer singing Donne’s “Batter My Heart” sonnet while almost singing to
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Oppenheimer himself may deserve the credit for this particular stroke of genius, as he himself named the site of the first atom bomb test Trinity because of Donne’s sonnet. To me the tortured syntax seemed expressive of Oppenheimer’s tortured conscience, and I even liked the clash of dictions when Donne’s sonnet followed the general’s discussion of his calorie-counting.
I thought much of Sellars’ staging was inspired as well, though it occasionally seemed heavy-handed, like the Bomb hanging over the baby’s crib. One touch I particularly liked was the ending where the chorus watches for the explosion of the first atom bomb while facing the audience. Yeah, where else would the chorus face but toward the audience while they sang? But to me it was a powerful statement addressed to the audience: The Bomb is not some gadget; no, it’s you
. Very likely that interpretation did not occur to anyone but me, though, including the director!
As far as the music, overall it did not do a lot for me. The San Francisco Chronicle
review (and many others) said things like “haunting lyricism” and “shimmering beauty,” and maybe all that was there, but I’d be lying if I said I heard the lyricism and beauty. I did hear rhythmic drama and excitement, though it never quite had me on the edge of my seat. The truth is that if Jon Stewart did a parody on the Daily Show tonight of George Bush singing “in the style of a John Adams opera,” I doubt I could tell it from the real thing.
But the words! As a poet I couldn’t help being thrilled to hear poetry sung like this, and I thought the singers were great, especially Kristine Jepson as Kitty Oppenheimer, but really everyone in the cast. The vision of Rukeyser’s “Easter Eve, 1945” was strikingly original—“now I name death our black honor”—and for some reason the phrase “promiscuous as mercy” sticks with me. The “duet” of the Bhagavad Gita’s prayer to Vishnu, “flame-eyes staring,” and the Tewa song to the cloud flowers of thunder was dynamite. It’s worth seeing this opera if you have a chance.