Friday, November 7, 2008

Stupid Opera Reviews

My lover and I saw the Met's new production of Doctor Atomic on Wednesday. We weren't familiar with it at all, but the timing was pretty perfect. It's an account of the days leading up to the first test of the nuclear bomb in Los Alamos, but penned during the beginning of the Iraq war, so there are all sorts of thematic references to more recent issues surrounding American hegemony, military dominance, truth, and ethics.

I appreciated being able to take in the performance with the knowledge that all of that is soon to be behind us. Watching the first production, in San Francisco in 2005, must have been a markedly different experience.

Anyway, I've been poking around different reviews since then. Most critics have loved it, declared it John Adams' masterpiece, &c., but there are some hilarious dissenting opinions.

One was Henry Stewart's L Magazine blog review: he found the score "academically impenetrable," saying that "Adams’ refusal to resolve any of his lines makes me crazy." This was actually a concern of mine going in, since I'm not a sophisticated music listener in general, and if I'd ever listened to an opera younger than 100 years old then it hadn't been by much. But I needn't have worried: the music was "modern," but at this point modernism is hell of old, and whatever radical musical ideas that can be found in Doctor Atomic have long since permeated popular music and film scores, to the extent that the kinds of people who would complain about Atomic's inaccessibility are the ones who still bemoan jazz's descent from Dixieland into bebop. "Call me a musical conservative," Stewart invites, but I'll demur: he's a straight-up curmudgeon.

He also has a beef with Peter Sellars' libretto being written in English: "Our bumbling tongue might sound mellifluous coming out of John Gielgud’s mouth, but it lacks the vowel-heavy singsonginess of French or Italian that gives the greatest classical operas their ethereal flow." I don't know what John Gielgud has to do with anything (Wikipedia says he's an actor), but someone should tell Stewart about this dude Wagner, who I hear tried to write operas in a language even bumblier than English. Seriously, I'm not going to bother mounting a full defense of the English language as a poetic medium here, but this is Europhilism at its most absurd: the transition of Oppenheimer's language, from harsh Anglo-Saxon gutturals as he muses on science and military power (the test bomb's nickname, "the Gadget," did not go unnoticed), to drawn-out Latinate roots when he interacts with his wife, is a feat simply not possible in other languages.

Ron Rosenbaum takes a different tack in his review (of the opera's first half) in Slate: he makes the bold, courageous argument that opera-goers are self-impressed snobs who don't know the first thing about real art. Indeed, he claims to be shocked with the discovery that his fellow audience members' "sophisticated taste" did not live up to his expectations, though not a moment earlier humbly confiding that he generally avoids opera because he "prefer[s] poetry and drama without orchestral distractions." Truly a man of the people, Rosenbaum.

Yes, he finds the libretto "pedestrian, speechifying, and painfully simplistic (when not embarrassingly schlocky as in the 'love scenes')." Welcome to the opera! And herein lies his real complaint, I think, not with Atomic but with opera and opera fans as a whole: but if there is anything more pretentious than bitching about the phoniness of opera fans than I can't think of it. Oh, and one more thought on the libretto:
Do words not matter in opera? It's not something I'd thought about, because opera is so often in a foreign language, which discourages close reading.
I don't even know what to make of this. Apparently La Traviata, for example, is in foreign-ese as some sort of a ruse? So people like Rosenbaum won't notice how banal it is? And Rosenbaum approves? Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, I thought it was great. I just ordered the DVD of the original production, performed in the Netherlands. I don't think there's a CD of just the music yet, but it'll be neat to see the other choices in staging anyway.

1 comment:

Dave said...

It's not like an ebert review -- he'll try to presume the best of the movie he's reviewing because he loves movies and will let you know if it's terrible.

It's like the common review of modern art "My child could do that!" : not liking the art form probably means you won't be a very helpful critic of it.