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Le 16 juin 1945 eut lieu dans un recoin de l'Etat du Nouveau Mexique la première explosion d'une bombe atomique de l'histoire. Le physicien Robert Oppenheimer avait été nommé en 1942 responsable scientifique du projet Manhattan, dont l'objet était la conception et la production de l'arme nucléaire. C'est Oppenheimer qui aurait choisi le nom de code de ce test, « Trinity », en référence au poète John Donne. Un des sonnets de Donne est cité dans l'opéra, sonnet qui évoque les affres du pécheur tiraillé entre le bien et le mal.
Le succès du test entraîna le 6 août suivant le largage d'une bombe au dessus de la ville d'Hiroshima, puis le 9 août, d'une seconde au dessus de celle de Nagasaki, avec les conséquences humaines, militaires et politiques qu'on sait.
Souvent, je me plains de la frilosité des livrets d'opéra, de leur manque d'audace. Il serait donc malvenu de ma part de reprocher à John Adams, le compositeur, et à son librettiste et metteur en scène Peter Sellars, d'avoir choisi pour sujet les ultimes préparatifs de l'opération Trinity, et la personnalité d'Oppenheimer, physicien de premier plan et concepteur d'un nouvel usage destructeur des forces naturelles.
Construit en deux actes, l'opéra nous montre le scientifique, sa femme, ses collaborateurs, le général Leslie Groves -responsable militaire du projet, les soucis, les angoisses et les dilemmes moraux nés du recours sans précédent à une arme de destruction massive, bien réelle celle-là. Quel effet cela fait-il, de passer du déchiffrement des secrets de la nature au déchaînement des enfers ?
Créé en 2005, l'opéra doit être vu comme un spectacle total et un appel à la réflexion. Musicalement, si certains passages sont plus conventionnels (l'air « Batter my heart » qui conclut le premier acte, fondé sur le poème de John Donne, m'a moins plu qu'à d'autres), il y a non seulement une riche partie d'orchestre (dont Adams a tiré une partition indépendante), mais une progression dramatique véritable, le second acte offrant des pages hallucinées, d'une grande richesse d'invention, jusqu'à une fin digne de son sujet.
On aurait bien aimé que la notice nous en dise plus sur la genèse de l'oeuvre et l'élaboration du livret à partir des documents d'archives.
La mise en scène est tout à fait idoine, et l'interprétation de haute tenue lors de cette soirée néerlandaise, tout particulièrement celle de Jessica Rivera en épouse, et du baryton-basse canadien Gerald Finley, créateur du rôle principal, aussi bon acteur qu'il est chanteur convaincant, et qui est ici comme un frère d'un acteur de film des années 40/50 à la Sterling Hayden, échappé de cette époque dont l'opéra retrace un événement dont on ne peut exagérer l'importance.
le 5 septembre 2014
We are dealing here with a highly political subject and opera. We are dealing here with the scientists who invented, tested and then supervised the use of the first atom bomb ever produced, tested and used in the world. The main character is thus Oppenheimer himself with a couple of his colleagues and the military personnel that is following the project. We are after the victory over Germany and before the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that will bring the surrender of Japan, or should I say precede Japan’s surrender that was expected any time before the bombs were dropped. The opera only considers the stakes and ethical questions of the scientists themselves. The fact that the use of these atom bombs will bring the Cold War is not even considered, it is even hinted at as being a common project with the Soviet Union, which is totally false. It was a unilateral action of the US that could have been avoided politically and militarily because it was purely useless: the victory and the surrender of Japan was only a question of days.
Even so this opera is strongly anti-military and anti-atomic from the purely scientific point of view. Ethics are here and there alluded to, especially by second zone scientists, not the top ones, but it is only anecdotes more than real facts and actions. The opera’s libretto is supposed to have been written from authentic documents, and it contains a lot of literary quotations. This implies the positions defended by the two top scientists and the top general in this case are supposed to be authentic, in spite of the numerous and long literary quotations that are set in Oppenheimer’s mouth. The anti-war and anti-atomic meaning of the opera is not really expressed as such, but can be derived from what is being said, because it may freeze our blood in our own veins.
First of all the chorus opening the opera is scientifically fundamental.
“Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.” . . . “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form. But now we know that matter may become energy and thus be altered in form.”
It was known before since Einstein had proposed it as a theory. But the atomic research, today known as nuclear research, proved it. All is energy and energy is material by essence. It is the volatile and flexible form of matter and matter is nothing but an assemblage of energy. This is frightening because it states there was no creation, hence no possible god or other event that would have brought the world into existence from nothing. This is frightening because everything in the world being matter and energy and the former being only a particular form of the latter we are nothing but an assemblage of energy particles. That brings up the fundamental principle of Buddhism: we are part of cosmic energy and our material existence is nothing but a transient condensation of this energy in our evanescent body and being. No divine soul, nothing stable and long-lasting in us, nothing but unstable energy that can be released or can release itself eventually. Life is not our essence, death is and life is nothing but a short suspension of that death thanks to the condensation of a certain amount of energy into our likeness we call our body or our mind, and death is only the point when and where the enrgy that composes our body is restructured, naturally altered in form. Religion is totally side-tracked and even science is marginalized. The scientist is a sorcerer’s apprentice playing with some natural criteria and parameters that we cannot control. At best, maybe, we can manage them so that we do not get burnt up or destroyed by our tinkering about.
We are not then surprised by what Oppenheimer says about the soul:
“The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss [the loss of human conscience due to the work on this humanity-negating nuclear energy] I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card.”
We are beyond the negation of God. We have reached here the reduction of the divine soul to some kind of ethical essence that is anyway nothing at all and practically rejected by Oppenheimer. To do what he or they is or are doing he or they must have no soul whatsoever. When the scientist who is second in command says that they should speak up and try to influence the politicians who are making the decisions how to use this atomic power he is rebutted by Oppenheimer in the most condescending way possible:
“The nation’s fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington.”
Who says they are the best men? And the principles of the use of this atomic power in Japan are simple:
“. . . Psychological factors in selecting the targets are of great importance. . . We cannot give the Japanese any warning. . . Doctor Conant suggests a vital war plant is the most desirable target, employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by worker’s houses. . . Several strikes would be feasible. . . The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used, and no agreement will help. Would we have started the atomic age with clean hands?”
Then everything has been said and the only words that can be used here are cynicism, hypocrisy, unconsciousness, vanity and of course thirst and hunger for power and prestige, even if criminal. The attitude of the General is typical: he wants to command the weather, order nature to do what he wants and abide by his law, or diktat. And this libretto is nearly nice on the subject because it does not speak of the time when the bomb must be dropped, which is early enough in the morning to catch the workers going to work and the children going to school to make sure the casualties are essentially innocent and totally non military by definition, even if they work in some military factories, though children do not. Civilian victims are not even collateral. They are the target. We are dealing here with a crime against humanity and it necessarily feeds the thirst and hunger for authority in many men.
Then the wrapping it up in Oppenheimer’s wife’s pangs of conscience is useless since she has no say in what is happening. Her husband neither by the way. The attitude of some disagreeing scientists like Wilson in the opera is just vain and useless, if not hypocritical, since they know security would stop their petition before it even entered the oval office or penetrate the White House. And we have nothing to say about Oppenheimer himself and his near nervous breakdown during the count down for the test. Do not even mention the cynical Teller, second in command in the scientific team, who is just up-handedly brandishing some negative arguments as his taste for black humor allows him to make fun of everything. Cynicism and foolishness are the main two characters of these people. Note the fact that humanity will always do what it can do, no matter how criminal or dangerous it may be, is not really questioned and anyway if Americans did not do it, Germans would do it, or the Japanese, or Russians. There is in this opera a fatality in history: always will human beings invent new weapons that will always have to be more and more destructive.
The conclusion comes from Oppenheimer who does not speak in his own words but quote a sonnet by John Donne. He addresses a plea to “three-person’d God” to take him and imprison him because by becoming the prisoner of God he could be freed from God’s enemy who he is “betroth’d to.” This is a vision of absolute dependence, total and final subservience, immense and yet divided obedience.
The only challenge then comes from Oppenheimer’s Navajo nurse and maid, Pasqualita, who brings in that bleak picture a more “natural” approach. First a lullaby from her culture to put the baby to sleep: the Cloud-Flower Lullaby, one of the Songs of the Tewa translated by Herbert Joseph Spinden and published in 1933. The Tewa are Pueblo Indians, who live on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.
“In the north the cloud-flower blossoms,
And now the lightning flashes,
And now the thunder clashes,
And now the rain comes down!
A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.”
It will be repeated four times. The full stanza for the west, next the south, and finally the east, but in this last case Pasqualita will be interrupted after two lines.
Then Pasqualita will quote part of the eighth elegy, from the 1949 volume “Eligies” by Muriel Rukeyser, which is an evocation of the dead during the WWII, and their possible return that will never happen (being sung by Pasqualita we could think it means the Indians who were killed during the Indian wars and the Indian genocide):
“Then word came from a runner, a stranger:
“They are dancing to bring the dead back, in the mountains.”
We danced at an autumn fire, we danced the old hate and change,
The coming again of our leaders. But they did not come.
The winter dawned, but the dead did not come back.
News came on the frost, “The dead are on the march!”
We danced in prison to a winter music,
Many we loved began to dream of the dead.
They made no promises, we never dreamed a threat.
And the dreams spread.
In the summer dreaming was common to all of us,
The drumbeat hope, the bursting heart of wish,
Music to bind us as the visions streamed
And midnight brightened to belief.
In the morning we told our dreams.
They all were the same dream.”
This is of course the evocation of World War II and the fifty million casualties, and in particular, since Muriel Rukeyser is Jewish, the fate of the Jews in the Shoah. They were gone and they did not come back. They were taken beyond the gate of light that casts no shade and they never came back.
The only solace or support Oppenheimer can find in his situation is an evocation of Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu trinity, who is brought forward by the chorus in a translation that seems personal. We have to keep in mind Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit in 1933, and the “Baghavad Gītā” in particular. He declared to Christian Century Magazine in 1963:
"The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find [in modern physics] is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom."
But the quotation the “Baghavad Gītā” sounds like a very poor solace and a deep anguish if not fear in front of the imminent first explosion of this bomb:
“At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.”
(“Baghavad Gītā” Chapter 11, verses 23 & 24)
The end of the opera is situated in the text two minutes before the test. But the opera in this stage production is slightly different.
We can know shift to the music and the stage production.
The opera divides the stage in three spaces: in the foreground Oppenheimer’s home with one night scene with his wife in bed first: a scene that was supposed to be sentimental if not erotic and that turns into some very distantly metaphorical evocation of sensuous pleasures centered on perfumes, the perfumes he finds in his wife’s hair and that evoke fruit, foliage and human skin. But he was working on some document at the beginning, he stopped for a short while and he interrupted this sentimental drift to go back to his bomb. Then that private space will be occupied by Kitty Oppenheimer, her infant daughter in a cradle, the Navajo nurse and later three helpers for that nurse. Two short incursions of Peter Oppenheimer, their son can be noted. This private space is centered on the baby and the five women are only there to take care of her.
In a middle stripe on the stage we have the labs and the bomb with two types of personnel, the scientists on one side and then the military people who are managing the first test of this bomb with the scientists, and also trying to manage the weather and the scientists.
Further back, hence in the background of the stage we have an open space where dancers intervene very often, most of the time six dancing on a circle, and once four dancing on parallel lines running from left to right. Personally I do not see what these dancers are bringing to the opera, except that they are dancing in circles like the scientists and the soldiers who are activating themselves, running in circles mostly after their own tails like Chopin’s Little Dog Waltz.
Then the back of the stage is most of the time cut in two layers, a top layer that is black and a layer between that top layer and the back line of the stage that is used for light. It is often white, but can be blue or red according to the scenes.
Thus the stage is visually putting one on top of the other five layers from the foreground to the top of the backdrop. This is very interesting for the DVD because cameras can shift from one layer to the next and concentrate or zoom in onto one section of these layers, on one face, one character. We practically never have a full vision of the stage, which is kind of frustrating.
The music is essentially some accompanying music behind the singing. The singing itself having to be clearly understood because of the pregnancy of the text is more chanted than sung. There are very few instances when the singing has any kind of musical complication. At times it is even slightly humdrum. But then the music behind and in-between two sentences can be rich and impressive but always of the accompanying type used to amplify the meaning of the words.
The singing emphasizes some words or phrases by repeating them and such repetitions are never gratuitous and are most of the time triple repetition or a triple simple repetition with a fourth one that is one word longer, or one word shorter. This pattern of four being clearly three plus one is an echo to John Donne’s “three-personed God” and this Christian reference is important because then the extension to four is necessarily the extension to the crucifixion. This is a direct allusion to these scientists who are probably very religious in their common life (saying graces at every meal, going to church every Sunday, etc) and yet their very activity is making them the agent of the devil, “your enemy” in Donne’s words. Donne’s richness is not entirely used. For example the last five lines of the sonnet are very rich in this symbolical way:
“But am betroth’d to your enemy (A),
Divorce me (1), untie (2), or break that knot again (3),
Take me to you (4), imprison me (5), for I
Except (B) you enthrall me (6), never shall be free (C),
Nor ever chaste (D), except (E) you ravish me (7).”
The enemy is A-B-C-D-E, hence a pentacle, the devil of course. God is asked to do seven things hence the holy week that ends we must keep in mind on the crucifixion and the resurrection. The crucifixion is carried by the four negatives B-C-D-E- within the pentacle of the devil. And the seven requests to God plus the five attachments to the devil make twelve and there we are whole again since it is the number of the Last Supper’s participants, once Judas, the supposed traitor is gone.
In fact in the first scene of the second act Kitty in a long poem by Muriel Rukeyser introduces Jesus:
“. . . This earth-long day
Between blood and resurrection where we wait
Remembering sun, seed, fire; remembering
That fierce Judaean Innocent who risked
Every immortal meaning on one life.”
Jesus, the Judaean Innocent is captured in our memories between blood and resurrection, the crucifixion on the Friday afternoon (death at the ninth hour) and the resurrection on the Sunday morning.
The music thus puts up this drama. We could say a lot more.
A last remark. The opera starts with black and white images of war scenes, desolation, dead people, bombings, and it ends with the color vision of all the actors and singers lying on their stomach on the ground while the sound tracks gives us some Japanese remarks from people after a bombing looking for help of for relatives, and these Japanese sentences are duly translated in English for us to see the meaning, at least on the DVD. Before we had simple bombings and after the test shown on the stage it will be the next generation of bombings, the atomic generation and the desolation of survivors. War is a cycle from one battle to the next and it never stops.
This opera is not a call for peace. It is a pessimistic call for the end of that ever going war process that is human by essence and we know it will never end.
And it may live for generations in our modern universe because of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome it may build in the survivors and the descendants of the survivors, be it only in the morbid celebrations of the “victories” that were never that glorious, due to the horror committed by the victors during the war, and these horrors were often just as horrible as those committed by the defeated ones. Is Coventry in any way worse than Dresden, Pearl Harbor than Hiroshima?
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU