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Words from the past, insights for today
Saturday morning, hyperbolic weather reporters here barked out warnings of heavy wind and drenching rain all day. A shower or two did dampen Manhattan streets, but the real New York weather over the weekend was elsewhere.
Friday night at the Chelsea Art Museum, John Cage's “Lecture on the Weather,” commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in 1975 to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial, had its belated New York City premiere. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera was in the midst of presenting the New York premiere of John Adams' recent “Doctor Atomic,” which I saw Saturday night. These are strikingly timely works in which past American thought provides acute insight into our country's present situation. In both, weather is the central dramatic device.
FOR THE RECORD:
'Doctor Atomic': An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" said that it would be broadcast in movie theaters Nov. 22. The broadcast will be Nov. 8. —
Cage's piece calls for a dozen speakers, who recite bits of text taken from Henry David Thoreau, accompanied by the recorded sounds of thunder and downpour, as projections of Thoreau drawings printed in negative are flashed on a screen like lightning.
In an introduction, Cage chillingly wrote, "The desire for the best and most effective in connection with the highest profits and the greatest power led to the fall of nations before us: Rome, Britain, Hitler's Germany." He advocated giving up "the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems."
"Doctor Atomic" follows the last 24 hours in the creation of the atomic bomb in New Mexico at the end of World War II. Hitler's Germany has fallen, but war continues in the Pacific. Nuclear might is America's ticket to becoming the world's first superpower. Truman is about to meet with Stalin and Churchill, and he demands the bomb. The first test must progress in the desert on schedule, despite forecasts of rain that could create a radioactive catastrophe.
Like Cage's "Lecture," Adams' opera uses a constructed text. Peter Sellars arranged documentary materials from recently declassified papers, allowing the scientists in question to speak their own words. He also put poetry into the mouths of the morally conflicted leader of the top-secret Manhattan Project hidden away in the Southwestern desert, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his wife, Kitty.
Through the lyrics of John Donne and lines from the Hindu spiritual work the Bhagavad-Gita, Oppenheimer confronts the world-changing meaning of the moment. The New York poet Muriel Rukeyser is Kitty's voice.
At the beginning of the second act, Kitty warns of dreams converted into "a resting place among the flight of things." A storm brews in the orchestra, along with the sound of rain. The Oppenheimers' Native American maid, Pasqualita, holds the couple's baby and sings of thunder, lightning and cloud-flower blossoms in a voice deep and dark that sounds as though it comes from below the soil. The test proceeds. Time slows down to allow more than one voice to be heard, more than one meaning to be considered, complexity to occur. The 20-minute countdown to detonation lasts an almost unbearably meaningful 45 minutes on the stage.
The Met production, unfortunately, is utterly dry. The company, in its first attempt at an Adams opera, rejected Sellars' original production for San Francisco Opera, which premiered "Doctor Atomic" three years ago. That production went through extensive revisions when it was subsequently mounted by the Netherlands Opera and Chicago Lyric Opera and can now be seen on an extraordinary DVD, directed by Sellars, in which every word uttered, every emotion expressed has riveting immediacy.
The Met, instead, imported Penny Woolcock, a British film director with a penchant for the violent and sexually tawdry sides of the British underclasses. Her previous operatic undertaking was a grippingly naturalistic film of Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer."
That affinity for raw realism appears to be a cinematic talent. For the Met production, Woolcock relies on a movable prosaic set by Julian Crouch in which characters and chorus members stand and sing. Uninteresting films, say of rainfall, are projected to suggest the weather and the landscape, unlike the electrical-storm tension brilliantly evoked in the Sellars production with effects very similar to the ones that Cage used in "Lecture."
Some cast members from the earlier productions -- Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer), Eric Owens (Gen. Groves), Richard Paul Fink (Edward Teller) and Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita) -- are compelling performers, but they all seemed uncomfortable on the Met stage. Sasha Cooke's Kitty was well sung but blandly operatic. Her words couldn't be understood. Amplification, which Adams calls for, amplified the chorus' stiffness of utterance. Alan Gilbert conducted with surety and a feeling for orchestral beauty, but he did not match the tension or passion of Robert Spano's performance in Chicago.
The Met's rendering of the Manhattan Project is not one of its current attempts to connect with Manhattan Modern art. Sellars, by contrast, employed the hyperactive choreography of Lucinda Childs, which translated the excitement of scientific discovery into dazzling movement. That immediately brought to my mind Experiments in Art and Technology, the '60s project in which avant-garde New York artists and Bell Laboratory scientists worked together. Childs was involved in E.A.T., as was Cage.
Cage's "Lecture on the Weather" on Friday was presented as the conclusion of a latter-day E.A.T. festival called Ear to the Earth, combining art, technology and ecology. The modest but highly effective production came from Bard College and included art world luminaries reading. One was Merce Cunningham (Jasper Johns had been a reader at an earlier performance at Bard). A few readers also occasionally played percussion instruments. One of those was Greg Zuber, who happens to be principal percussionist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I don't think it was a coincidence that the only aspect of the Met's performance the next night that sensationally surpassed all others was how exciting the percussion sounded.
"Doctor Atomic" will be the next Met broadcast in movie theaters, on Nov. 22. That same weekend in Atlanta, the opera will also get a new semi-staging by the Atlanta Symphony conducted by Spano.