Minority Report on Dr. Atomic / Redux
Ron Rosenbaum has a scathing critique of Peter Sellars' libretto for Dr. Atomic over at Slate.
I'll concur with an even more general point: a lot of modern opera libretti aren't terribly good. Now, I don't know that one needs to lavish the sort of care on a libretti -- especially in a traditional (i.e., non-Gesamtkunstwerk) opera -- that Richard Wagner did in, for example, the Ring or Parsifal; I do know, however, that libretti are something more than an excuse for a pleasing vocal line.
I do not, however, think that the folks in love with Dr. Atomic really care about the quality of the libretto. I see three alternate possibilities: (1) people love the music, (2) people love the staging, and/or (3) people love the philosophical/political content or implications. I think most folks would be pretty upfront about (1) and (2), but I get the impression that it might be a little déclassé to admit that one loves a work of art solely because it fits into one's subjective political or philosophical worldview.
At the risk of making this really awkward, I am not at all surprised that the libretto ranges from not the strongest point of the work, in some of the better reviews' judgment, to Rosenbaum's walkout-worthiness opinion. This opera seems to want to make a point that anyone who's ever been an undergraduate or precocious high-school student has made, probably at a party when it wasn't terribly appropriate to do so. In other words, this opera seems to want to make the point that using (developing) terribly destructive weapons is a difficult moral choice. It's along the lines of the Philosophy 101 question, "Would you kill one man if you could save a thousand? A million?"
Of course, gentlemen of a certain age didn't and don't really express a lot of moral angst about the use of atomic weapons in August 1945. Indeed, there's a reason why Dr. Atomic is about Oppenheimer rather than Edward Teller, to say nothing of combat-weary men who saw -- rightly or wrongly, given the later revelations of history and the effectiveness of firebombing Japanese cities -- only the rising sun in their futures.
It's not a great surprise the libretto was done poorly, or at least not brilliantly.