October 14, 2008


New Hands Detonate ‘Doctor Atomic’ (MATTHEW GUREWITSCH, 10/12/08, NY Times)

In its prior incarnation, available on an Opus Arte DVD drawn from the Amsterdam performances, “Doctor Atomic” was vintage Sellars. On a virtually bare stage the chorus would charge to the footlights, harangue the audience, then disperse with ferocious intensity. There were passages of the patented Sellars semaphore: big, jagged physical gestures externalizing emotions already seismic in the score. And dancers, flung into motion by Lucinda Childs, tore through the action, signifying — what? Subatomic particles whizzing through infinite or infinitesimal space?

“The dancers were the weather,” Mr. Sellars said. “I can’t bring the wind, the precipitation into the theater.”

Without changing their nondescript costumes, they also doubled as laboratory scientists, performing intricate mechanical operations at high speed. And at a climactic moment they stood in for the Pueblo Indians of the area, stamping the earth in the summer sun to prompt their buried ancestors to release life-giving rain. This was in counterpoint to the general’s panic at the threat of electrical storms that might turn the experiment into a fiasco. But how many viewers could unravel these cross-references?

Ms. Woolcock’s imagination feeds less on big ideas than on concrete detail, as in her film of “Klinghoffer.” In the story that made headlines everywhere, Palestinian terrorists hijack the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro, murder an invalid American tourist and toss his corpse overboard in his wheelchair. In Mr. Sellars’s hands this played as ritual. Ms. Woolcock’s film reinvented the action as docudrama, losing some splendid choral music in the process. It was said back then that the producers had insisted on reducing the running time.

“No,” Ms. Woolcock said, “I was the ax murderer there. The choruses are beautiful, but I simply didn’t know what to do with them. They had no narrative function. In film, storytelling is imperative. You can’t stop, dream, ruminate. You need the story to keep going.”

Though she brought that same ax to the bargaining table for “Doctor Atomic,” Mr. Adams did not accommodate her this time. “I’m truthfully very glad,” she said. “I’ve found solutions to things I found troublesome.”

If the imperative in film is to move the story, different types of theater have different imperatives. Ms. Woolcock has no use for plodding realism. “I hate sitting in the middle of a row,” she said, “watching a three-piece sitting-room set with people shouting, pretending to be real.”

In preparation for “Doctor Atomic,” she said, she began attending opera only last year. “I spent several months in London and New York watching every opera they put on, just to see how to get people on and off the stage,” she added. “I had to learn about stagecraft.”

She found that opera at its most retro — the Met’s Cecil B. DeMille-style “Aida,” for instance — had huge appeal. “Opera demands such a leap of faith,” she said, “such a surrender to the hallucinogenic.” Which, in turn, opens up room for dreaming.

Literalist that she is, Ms. Woolcock shows the bomb much the way the Sellars production did, as the untidy-looking gizmo it was. But lighting can transform it. In the words of the scenic designer Julian Crouch, it then becomes “something like a large moon, very shamanistic in feeling.” And the explosion — flying debris frozen in space, inspired by the harrowing sculpture of Cornelia Parker — is not literal at all.

Ms. Woolcock was struck that Oppenheimer and other scientists on the project were also great aesthetes. Unlike the original production, this one unapologetically aims for beauty. The video artist Mark Grimmer, of Fifty Nine Productions, was fascinated by the graphic panache of equations in scientific notebooks from Los Alamos. His partner in video, Leo Warner, mentioned the painterly effect of motifs from the Tewa Indians. The costumes, by Catherine Zuber, include ghostly allusions to American Indian kachina figures.

Someday, Mr. Sellars prophesied, we will know “Doctor Atomic” the way we know “Don Giovanni.” “We’ll reach a place,” he said, “where our overview includes all the years and years of reaction.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 14, 2008 8:27 AM
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