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Unlike Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, the previous two operas by John Adams (and directed by Peter Sellars), librettist Alice Goodman was not involved in the final Doctor Atomic project. Although she had been engaged originally to write the libretto, she pulled out of the project before delivering any material, leaving Adams and Sellars to adapt the material themselves.

Unfortunately, the largest flaw of Doctor Atomic comes from this circumstance. The reliance so heavily on source documents for text makes the resulting libretto overly wordy and not nearly as poetic or dramatic as is ideally needed for opera. Numerous 'poetic' insertions occur -- through poetry that was actually important to the characters involved. The poems of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rekeyser, and the Bhagavad Gita are employed as texts for arias. The contrast between these poems and the government letters and source material documents is quite extreme.

What was needed for the work is the kind of touch that could have been provided by Alice Goodman (or another poet-librettist) -- someone could have taken all of these different source materials (poetry, documents, dialogue, etc) and created one unified libretto, with a single poetic style and a unified dramatic arc.

The music Adams has created for the work draws, as has most of his recent music, upon all the past style periods of his work. He stated that, for this opera in particular, the work of composer Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) was a particular inspiration. The orchestral section of the first act overture and some of the final minutes of the opera display the most marked examples of that influence.

From his earliest mature works, Adams has always embraced the integration of recorded electronics and live samplers with the traditional orchestral palate. In Doctor Atomic, he and his brilliant sound designer (the composer Mark Grey) have assembled an extensive electronic tape part which interacts throughout the work with the large acoustic orchestra. The opening moments of the overture for Act I are entirely 'musique concrete' -- provided by the tape. In the second act, in particular, the samplers and the tape interact closely with the orchestra. The very final minutes of the opera are almost exclusively dominated by the tape, with only minor colorations and additions from the orchestra.

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Copyright © 3 October 2005 Carson P Cooman, San Francisco, USA


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