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Review: 'Doctor Atomic' Brings the Bomb Home to New Mexico


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Review: ‘Doctor Atomic’ Brings the Bomb Home to New Mexico

ImageRyan McKinny as J. Robert Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic” at Santa Fe Opera, with a gigantic sphere representing nuclear weapons and the desert visible beyond the stage.CreditKen Howard

Doctor Atomic NYT Critic’s Pick

By Zachary Woolfe

  • July 15, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. — “We must first devise a demonstration,” a nuclear scientist sings in the opera “Doctor Atomic.” “Where there won’t be any people. Not on a city.

Or a demonstration right here in the desert.”

As he delivered the line on Saturday evening at Santa Fe Opera, the tenor Ben Bliss gestured toward the vast landscape beyond the stage, still visible to the audience as the sun set. And for the first time in the opera’s history, there was no need to suspend disbelief.

We were, indeed, right here in the desert where “Doctor Atomic” — a turbulent reflection on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the lead-up to the first test of the bomb developed at Los Alamos, a short drive from Santa Fe — takes place.

After its premiere in San Francisco in 2005, a Metropolitan Opera run in 2008, performances all over the world, and the release just weeks ago of a ferocious recording conducted by its composer, John Adams, the work had come home.

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Superbly performed (it runs through Aug.

16), it struck me as both clearer and stranger than it had when I last saw it, a decade ago in New York. Peter Sellars — who compiled the libretto from a collage of primary sources and poetic texts, and who directed the San Francisco premiere — has returned to “Doctor Atomic” in a spare state of mind.

Gone are many of the trappings of that elaborate, 1940s-noirish first production (to say nothing of the positively steroidal Met presentation, staged by Penny Woolcock), including hordes of dancers and a scale replica of the explosive “gadget.” Here in Santa Fe, the costumes are contemporary street clothes, with the youthful physicists looking like engineers at a Silicon Valley start-up; just a handful of dancers thrust and wriggle to Emily Johnson’s choreography.

There’s almost no set except a gigantic silver sphere hanging a few feet above the stage. Bomb, globe, Christmas tree ornament, disco ball: Its surface shined to a mirror, this orb can be anything you project onto it.


Sellars, who directed the opera’s original production, has returned to “Doctor Atomic” in a spare state of mind.CreditKen Howard

Mr. Sellars has been at pains to flesh out the opera’s rather sketchy connection to its setting. As much a community organizer and consciousness-raiser as a director, he has brought into the staging indigenous people from the region and a group of so-called downwinders, whose families lived not far from the test site and say they suffered health problems from the resulting radiation.

The group of natives performed a steady, rhythmic sacred corn dance a few minutes before the performance began, and returned for a surreal reprise, to Mr.

Adams’s roiling music, during the fraught, chaotic countdown to the test. The downwinders stood, in silent rebuke, as scientists and an Army general argued about whether to notify the communities that might be affected by the blast. (I’ll let you guess which side won.)

Moving and palpably real, these interventions further pulled the opera from the naturalism of its early stagings, and felt of a piece with the terse weather reports and dense, dreamlike poetry — Donne, Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, the Bhagavad Gita — in which the characters attempt to express themselves.

To Mr. Sellars’s credit, the involvement of these local communities is stirring but not exactly uplifting.

It was presumably unintentional, but telling, that the solemn preperformance corn dance, a ritual rarely given outside the dancers’ pueblos, took place as much of the audience noisily took its seats, air-kissed, and chatted: thousands of rich white people, ignoring the natives as they always have.

ImageJulia Bullock, her voice warm and her presence daringly prickly, is a richly complex Kitty Oppenheimer.CreditKen Howard

The work is, frankly, less boring than I remembered — those weather reports feel tighter here than at the Met — though the passionately precise new recording is also a revelation in this regard. With so much pared away in the staging, the weird intensity of the libretto’s poetry is stronger and less jarring, its tumble of eroticism and morbidity more evocative; the sense that the bomb has contaminated these characters and their relationships is more explicit. Mr.

Adams’s score now comes across as a steady knotting of the stomach, gradually ratcheting tension by alternating lush, ominous sensuality and pummeling intensity.

And it is well served by the conductor Matthew Aucoin — his orchestra committed, if less rivetingly rigorous than the recording’s — and an excellent cast. While Ryan McKinny’s extremes aren’t as epic as those of Gerald Finley, who originated the role with a uniquely wounded authority, he is a handsomely frustrated Oppie. Julia Bullock, her voice warm and her presence daringly prickly, is a richly complex Kitty Oppenheimer.

Mr. Bliss, Andrew Harris, Daniel Okulitch and Meredith Arwady make vigorous impressions in smaller roles; the Santa Fe chorus, drawn from the company’s young artist program and directed by Susanne Sheston, is as always a wonder.

Yet a certain emptiness remains at the work’s core. “Doctor Atomic” was commissioned as an American “Faust,” but the opera’s Oppie, who’s never as thrilled about the bomb as the man himself was, doesn’t get to revel in Faust-like triumph. And our sense that he’s surrendered his integrity for personal gain is, as the critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in 2009, contingent on particular assumptions — debatable, at least — about the morality of the bomb.

Nor is this Oppenheimer the Prometheus figure he styled himself in real life.

To revive that legend, of a life-giver punished for his hubris, the opera would have needed to push into the decades beyond World War II, into Oppenheimer’s outspoken, complicated regrets and the disgrace of the stripping of his security clearance.

“Doctor Atomic” embraces one thing opera does do well: spectacle. (There’s the disco-ball bomb, everyone dancing beneath it.) But focusing entirely on “will it explode?” — the only real question of the long second act — stints the human, the deeper work opera can do.

Now a teenager, “Doctor Atomic” still conveys a feeling of grief — here in Santa Fe a very local variety — rather than telling a story.

Follow Zachary Woolfe on Twitter: @zwoolfe.

Doctor AtomicThrough Aug.

16 at Santa Fe Opera;

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Android Circuit: Radical Galaxy S10 Leaks, Massive Nokia 5.1 Revealed, Note 9 Release Date

Taking a look back at seven days of news and headlines across the world of Android, this week’s Android Circuit includes the Galaxy Note 9 release date, specifications and details on the new phablet, the massive camera on the Galaxy S10 camera leaks, details on the budget Galaxy S10, Nokia 5.1 Plus details leak, Sony launching the new Xperia XA2 Plus, more BlackBerry Key2 reviews, Oppo arriving in the UK, and Android P’s ‘ask me anything’ details. Android Circuit is here to remind you of a few of the many things that have happened around Android in the last week (and you can find the weekly Apple news digest here). Galaxy Note 9 Launch And Release Dates

Everyone is expecting the Galaxy Note 9 will be launched at Samsung’s upcoming ‘Unpacked’ event on August 7th, but when will it be available in stores? It looks like the retail release will be earlier than expected, SamMobile suggested this week:

The Galaxy Note 9 may go up for sale on August 24… That would make the time between the Note 9’s announcement and release date smaller than it was last year for the Galaxy Note 8.

The Galaxy Note 8 was unveiled on August 23 and hit retail three weeks later on September 15th. According to the report, sluggish Galaxy S9 sales are the reason Samsung decided to go with August 24 instead of August 31 after some deliberation.

I’ve taken a look at what the date implies and how it fits in with Samsung’s use of the Note 9 to act as a blocker for the South Korean company in the fight against iOS-powered devices:

the Galaxy Note range has moved away from being a revolutionary device that was used as a testbed for Samsung’s latest technology – including elements like the S-Pen stylus and the curved ‘edge’ displays – towards a more tactical product that allows the Galaxy S flagship to be the lead handset from the company while the Note series runs interference against the Apple iPhone by capturing digital column inches, featuring in comparison articles, and giving those who are tending to Android over iOS a new handset to consider.

Read the full analysis here on Forbes. The Colorful Galaxy Note 9

With the Note 9 following an iterative path in regards new technology, Samsung will be spicing up the options available to customers with a number of new colors for the phablet. I looked at the cosmetic approach to the Galaxy sales:

Putting aside the Note’s own fan base, how can you bring new users to the phablet? How can you bring in more than the productivity-focused users to the Note platform? It appears that Samsung is going to take the path of least resistance and go for the soft underbelly of modern smartphone marketing.

It’s going to offer the handset in a number of new and exciting colors

More here on Forbes, although do note that Samsung is not alone here, Apple is also looking to add some color to 2018’s iPhone range.

Galaxy S10 Concept (Creative Commons, by Commons, by Five Cameras For The Expensive Galaxy S10 While the Note 9 runs interference with its iterative update, the Galaxy S10 is expected to push the technological boundaries and return the South Korean company to the top of the smartphone stack.

With imaging one of the key areas, the inclusion of five camera lenses on the premium model is sure to be a key feature. Gordon Kelly highlights the new changes:

In a new report, historically accurate Korean site The Bell reveals Samsung will equip the Galaxy S10 and the Galaxy S10 Plus with four and five cameras respectively. The Bell says both models will have triple rear cameras and while the Galaxy S10 will have just one front facing camera, the Galaxy S10 Plus will have two. Such a move would once again drive Samsung to the forefront of smartphone camera innovation.

Something it has arguably conceded to Huawei’s P20 Pro and Google’s image processing in recent years.

More here on Forbes. Next: A cheaper Galaxy S10, the new Nokia 5.1 Plus, and Sony’s latest Xperia… Cheaper Galaxy S10 Specifications

As well as the Galaxy S10 and the Galaxy S10 Plus more details are coming out around the third S10 model, a lower priced and lower specced Galaxy S10 ‘Budget’ model – for example the fingerprint sensor will be mounted in the power button, rather than the revolutionary under-screen reader expected in the more expensive models:

Of course, the obvious question to ask is: Why would Samsung take such a risk with such an important phone? The answer lies in a change of strategy. Samsung is expected to release three Galaxy S10 models, rather than the usual two with the third an ‘entry-level’ device.

The problem at this stage is ‘entry-level’ is undefined: it may be a significantly cheaper option like Apple’s upcoming budget iPhone X or the standard model with the in-display reader saved for two new high-end options much as Apple did last year when releasing the iPhone X above the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

More on this new model here.

Galaxy S10 Concept (Creative Commons, by Commons, by Nokia 5.1 Plus Leaks As well as updating its Nokia-branded Android handsets for 2018, it looks like HMD Global is expanding the portfolio with a new variant of the Nokia 5.1 – the phablet sized Nokia 5.1 Plus. Shannon Liao reports on the leaked handset:

The new Nokia 5.1 Plus pictured in leaked images sports a 5.7-inch display, and the Nokia logo has migrated from the top bezel to the chin.

It keeps the volume controls, power button, and headphone jack of the original Nokia 5.1, but the images suggest the Nokia 5.1 Plus has swapped out the Micro USB port for a USB Type-C port. On the rear, the camera and fingerprint sensor placement remain the same, but there are now dual cameras instead of a single 16-megapixel cam. It comes in at least two colors: dark silver and a reflective shade that looks to be either white or a light gray.

More at The Verge.

Sony’s Latest Xperia Handset Launched Following up on the release of the XA2 and the XA2 Ultra earlier this year, Sony has now unveiled the XA2 Plus, a larger handset that reaches out of the low-end market into the mid-range. Ben Schoon reports:

Like Sony’s earlier releases, the Xperia XA2 Plus is a pretty simple mid-range device. At its core, the device is powered by a Snapdragon 630 chipset paired with either 4GB or 6GB of RAM, and 32GB or 64GB of storage backed up by a microSD slot.

Other familiar specifications include a 23MP rear camera, 8MP wide-angle front-facing camera, and rear fingerprint sensor. There’s also a sizeable 3,580 mAh battery with USB-C for charging.

More at 9to5Google. Next: Latest BlackBerry Key2 reviews, Oppo heads to the UK, and Android P heads to Reddit…

More Thoughts on The Return Of The Keyboard The BlackBerry Key2, launched last month, has been continuing to pick up reviews as more people get used to its unique capabilities. Andrew Martonik has been using the smartphone for three weeks to uncover the power of the physical keyboard:

Aside from a couple hiccups here and there, the BlackBerry keyboard experience actually complements Android really well when it’s this thoughtfully designed. The keyboard feels like more than a text input device — I just started to use it as a core part of interfacing with the phone, which is key for justifying its existence.

More at Android Central.

BlackBerry Key2 (Ewan Spence)Ewan Spence

UK Should Prepare For An Oppo Arrival Oppo has caught a number of eyes with the Find X smartphone – which removes the notch to offer a full-screen experience, but featuring a pop-up camera for selfies – but the Chinese based company is looking to expand into the UK. A number of handsets have been registered, although there are no further details on what be launched. John McCann reports:

In response to our question about whether Oppo phones would arrive in the UK, the spokesperson told us “that’s correct, however we don’t have any information or timescale to share on the UK at this moment.”

Oppo has only recently entered the European market, announcing its arrival during the Oppo Find X launch in Paris, but at the time it didn’t confirm whether the UK would be getting its handsets. While the innovative Find X, with its three pop-up cameras, will be available in a handful of European countries, the handset is missing from the name registration that was leaked, so it’s still unclear whether we’ll be treated to the all-screen phone.

More at TechRadar. And Finally…

Android P’s engineering team will be heading to Reddit to take part in its popular ‘Ask Me Anything’ topics during the next week. Justin Duino picks out some potential highlights:

This AMA comes shortly after the release of the third Android P beta and several weeks before the last Developer Preview. This opportunity gives developers and fans alike the chance to pick the brains of those behind Google’s mobile operating system. …Some of the topics the team intends to discuss include:

Android Jetpack, Kotlin, Notifications, Power (app standby, app restrictions), Display cutout, Actions and Slices, Compatibility and non-SDK interface restrictions, Android P Beta devices, and Project Treble.

You can follow along at the Android Developers subreddit.

Android Circuit rounds up the news from the Android world every weekend here on Forbes.

Don’t forget to follow me so you don’t miss any coverage in the future, and of course read the sister column in Apple Loop! Last week’s Android Circuit can be found here, and if you have any news and links you’d like to see featured in Android Circuit, get in touch!