Opera in Sketch: DOCTOR ATOMIC (Curtis) + BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE (Philadelphia Orchestra)

The Kimmel Center For the Performing Art’s Perelman Theater and Verizon Hall show opera in two different ways, on display in two production this past weekend.

scene from DOCTOR ATOMIC

In the Verizon Hall, Curtis Institute’s contemporary opera production of DOCTOR ATOMIC featured a spacey set design by Paul Tate dePoo III. Written by John Adams and Peter Sellars and premiered in 2005, the opera is set in the desert at Trinity bomb site in New Mexico in 1945. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s dilemma about his moral compliance with testing the atomic bomb is driving him insane.

Also this past weekend, the Philadelphia Orchestra presented BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE in the Perelman Theater. It is the second opera by the orchestra conducted by Yannick Nezet-Sequin since he has arrived in Philadelphia as the artistic director. A lesser known opera, BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE is an adaptation of a play by Maurice Maeterlink. The librettist, Bela Balazs takes a simple folk-minded story of love and gives it to Bartok’s folk inspired music composition to reveal the orchestra in various parts of the story. Judith is in Bluebeard’s castle with seven doors, and we become part of the journey of Judith going through the doors in Blue Beard’s castle by watching the strings, especially the harp, and brass instruments key us into Duke Bluebeard’s castle.


DOCTOR ATOMIC starts with a person reclined on a round platform center stage and a chorus that comes from the audience. They are dressed in space suites, and scattered about the stage. The costumes at times create restricted movement and disturbing gestures by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Janathan McCullough) shows a mental struggle with being the project manager at the atomic bomb test site. The surreal display of electric blue and orange lighting by Jax Messenger is unsettling. Pasqualita (Sophia Fuiza Hunt) reminds us to keep the peace with a song called, ” The Cloud-Flower Lullaby.” She is dressed in a green, red, and yellow striped burka and enters the stage after the chorus lie down in a random arrangement across the stage. Kitty Oppenheimer (Siena Miller) begs her husband to stop. She is wearing a blood red dress which trails behind her, the stretch in the fabric shows her struggle, and the dress’s train falls off the side of the round stage like a scar.

The two operas count down, and to an extent we know the play’s ending. The seven doors in BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE, and the chemical equation in DOCTOR ATOMIC. There is an ultimate delay to their destructive endings. Judith asked for the keys to the seven doors, and she knew the rumors about Bluebeard’s past wives hidden behind the doors. Dr. Atomic wrote the formula for an atomic bomb for the sake of science, and the opera appropriated poetic works by Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, and John Donne which weaved a complex web for morality and art.

The stillness in the endings for both Bartok’s BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE and John Adam’s DOCTOR ATOMIC at The Kimmel Center this past weekend left me with a clear image for, “all’s fair in love and war.”

DOCTOR ATOMIC (Curtis Institute Theatre) and BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE (Philadelphia Orchestra) ran March 2-4, 2017 at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts [300 S. Broad Street]; kimmelcenter.org.

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