So there I sat as the theatre filled up, in a decidedly unappreciative frame of mind thanks to a middle-ear infection – ibuprofen’d to the eyeballs, deaf on one side apart from a constant whistling noise, and distracting myself by trying to work out which elements were missing from the large periodic table which was printed on the stage scrim. And there 3 hours later, enthusiastically applauding performers, production team and composer for an evening which I enjoyed a great deal, despite myself.
The opera opens with two large sets of stacked cubicles, each one containing a chorus member, seat, bit of blackboard and a screen which could be pulled down over the front of the cubicle and have stuff projected onto it. This device was used many times throughout the production and was visually effective in conveying all the different ‘normal’ people each working on their own little bit of research for the Manhattan project, coming together only later as the bomb took shape. I do like the multimedia experience of using projection screens on stage, although in this case the images used were mostly monochrome and pretty literal – scientists’ ID cards, maps of Japan, rainstorms, etc. There wasn’t much to the rest of the set – a desk for Teller, a bed for Kitty Oppenheimer to languish on, and some scaffolding for the bomb tower – but one’s attention was all on the characters singing, anyway.
Adams was never my favourite minimalist, but I have always found his music listenable. I’m not familiar with most of his more recent work, so was interested to hear this one. It surprised me by the number of different styles that were mixed up together – rich Wagnerian textures here, jazzy Sondheim-esque stabbing rhythms there, along with passages of traditional minimalist bubbling woodwind accompaniments or Shaker Loops strings. Under a less experienced composer this mixture would probably have not held together, but in this case it did. The harmony was tonal but chromatic, sometimes straying far from a sense of home key. I found it best when the vocal lines were more lyrical and sustained (although often with spiky dissonant orchestral accompaniment), compared to the staccato fast-talking sections.
The libretto didn’t do an awful lot for me, but lyrics rarely do. The tension of the scientific and political context was quite dramatic enough by itself, but those who can’t bear a romance-free story will be glad to hear there was the ‘subplot’ of the Oppenheimers’ marriage, which actually did not feel shoehorned in at all.
Of the performers, Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer), Brindley Sherratt (Teller) stood out as excellent. Finley is becoming one of my favourite singers, and was a charisma machine in complete command of his role, showing a three-dimensional character conflicted about his success in developing a world-changing engine of destruction. ‘Batter my heart’ was probably the highlight of the evening. Sherratt, an old favourite of mine, sang his part very well, although he didn’t get as much to do as I would have liked. He injected Teller with a fantastic deadpan black humour.
I also particularly enjoyed Sasha Cooke’s Kitty Oppenheimer. Her voice was lovely, with a tone well-balanced between clarity and richness, and the flexibility to comfortably slur jumps of over an octave as if they were a semitone. ‘Am I in your light?’ was another highlight of the evening. Meredith Arwady (as Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer’s Tewa Indian maid, complete with buckskin outfit and pigtails) hit some amazing resonant low notes, but was less convincing when switching to higher-pitches passages – although this may well be the fault of the writing rather than her voice.
The orchestra sounded good, although not knowing the music I can’t comment on accuracy. The piccolo was featured quite a lot, and was played very well (Regular readers will know that I always notice what the piccolo is doing!), and other stand-outs were the principal horn, Eb clarinet and low brass. The sparing use of electronic sound blended well into the overall soundscape, and the only bit that jarred for me was the tacked-on recording at the end of a woman (presumably future bomb victim) speaking in Japanese.
As for once I’m writing this right at the start of the run, I can advise any waverers that Dr Atomic is definitely worth an evening of your time!
Many stage works contain dream sequences, but perhaps not many have dreams that last for more than half the performance? Also, I don’t think that any I have seen evoke quite so well the surreal and disjointed imagery of dreaming (or some of my dreams, at least!) For me, the stars of this performance of Die Tote Stadt were Willy Decker’s beautifully-judged visual production, and the ROH orchestra.
Paul (Stephen Gould) lives mostly in one room, paralysed by grief over his wife Marie’s death, and watched over with concern by his housekeeper Brigitta (Kathleen Wilkinson) and friend Frank (Gerald Finley). He is temporarily roused from his stasis by encountering young dancer Marietta (Nadja Michael), who looks uncannily like Marie (although does not act like her; the two women are cast in the traditional female stereotypes of “saint” versus harlot). The story, such as it is, concerns Paul’s struggle to separate illusion from reality and retain (or regain) his sanity.
Hearing Korngold’s score for the first time, I cannot make any comparisons regarding musical decisions such as tempi and balance. At the start of each act, and particularly the 3rd, the music sounded very cinematic – although it’s possible I was biased by knowing that film music would in later years become the main part of Korngold’s career! At these points the music bordered on schmalzy, but for most of the time this was not the case. Orchestral timbres and textures were varied and interesting, and although strongly melodic and tonal, the ‘big chords’ were often subverted by quiet dissonance. I wonder if it would be going too far to suggest that the use of bitonality could represent the duality of the conscious/unconscious mind? Anyway, the orchestra were on top form and played beautifully under Ingo Metzmacher. Special props, as usual, to the woodwind section.
The staging was of a style I particularly like; a fairly minimalist and uncluttered main stage are (in this case a wooden floored room, door, 2 chairs and a large portrait of Marie) with side walls, but no back wall, and an infinite-looking empty space behind. This missing-wall-space also contained a thin screen for projections, which was very effective, particularly when more and more identical images of Marie appear before the tormented Paul.
In Act 2, when Paul begins to dream, a duplicate of the stage area appears behind the first, and a duplicate Paul gets up and acts out his dream (involving Marie returning from the dead to talk to him, his best friend’s betrayal, and the irritating antics of a bunch of white-clad hyped-up drama school types), while the real Paul lies asleep in his chair. After Marie/Marietta’s appearance, the two separate arenas of action slowly begin to merge, until finally actors step easily from one to the other. For anyone who tends to experience hypnagogic states, this was an unnervingly accurate portrayal of the way dream elements (f0r example, people we have been thinking about) can superimpose themselves on what had appeared to be reality. It is unsurprising that Paul was confused, upon waking, thinking that he had just strangled Marietta with Marie’s hair (echoes of Porphyria’s Lover).
Talking of which, considering the number of lines in the libretto about Marie/Marietta’s hair, it was an interesting decision to make dream-Marietta bald. It was very visually striking, and with her slim dancer’s frame made her look quite alien, or perhaps like a mannequin come to life. However, when she repeatedly invited Paul to touch and admire her hair, it did make one think ‘What are you talking about? You haven’t got any hair, you daft woman.’ Nadja Michael threw her all into acting the role physically, and was very impressive. Vocally, she had some great moments, but could be uncontrolled at times in volume and pitch. Power was not lacking, but greater subtlety and variation would have improved things. Still, it did seem an awfully demanding role.
Even more demanding (as far as I can tell) was Gould’s role. Again, he sounded really very good at times, particularly in the middle register, but he sounded like he was straining to deliver volume at the top. However, although forced-sounding from the start, his voice did not deteriorate at all throughout around 2 hours of singing, so full marks for stamina. His acting was rather wooden, but it didn’t matter too much in this role, as he was in a trance-like state or actually asleep for a lot of the time.
The supporting roles were all competently-sung, but the most enjoyable voice on stage by a long way was Gerald Finley, and although the Pierrot-lied was lovely, it was a shame he didn’t have more to do. Looking forward to hearing him in Dr Atomic next month…