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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


John Adams, Doctor Atomic (world premiere) San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles, conductor, 5.10. 2005 (HS)





The world changed at dawn July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the United States successfully detonated an atomic bomb. Ever since, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been a rip current making all our lives more turbulent. Doctor Atomic, composer John Adams' new opera, strives to grapple with these ramifications as it focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the title character and the physicist who led the scientific team that figured out how to make the bomb work -- and later anguished over what he had done.

The stage director is Peter Sellars, who also directed Adams' previous operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and the oratorio El Nińo. Alice Goodman, his previous librettist, bowed out of this project early on. Sellars stitched together the libretto from historical materials and poetry that had meaning to the principal characters in real life. Adams and Sellars focus on the six hours or so leading up to the test detonation. The opera becomes a rumination on the meaning of what they were doing in that summer as World War II drew to a close.

The opera premiered on October 1 at San Francisco Opera, which commissioned it. In the second performance, seen this week, the work stands revealed as a strange beast. There are some big moments, both musical and dramatic. The' music rises to the occasion at several points to create mesmerizing set pieces. But in the end, it is neither dramatically cogent nor musically consistent enough to achieve its lofty goals.

Events of that night were dramatic. An electrical storm raged in the final hours, raising fears that it might detonate the bomb prematurely with workers still swarming around it. Everyone worried that their radical design might fail, leaving president Harry S Truman with no trump card to play at the Potsdam talks beginning the next day. But Sellars and Adams seem less interested in the drama than the inner torments of Oppenheimer and the other key members of the team.


After a first half-hour of frenetic activity, the rest of the opera settles into a series of scenes in which the characters argue with each other, worry about the outcome and what it all means, and, for the biggest set pieces, quote poetry. The problem with Sellars' libretto is that it leans so heavily on direct quotations from John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, Muriel Rukeyser's Easter Eve 1945, and the Bhagavad Gita. Adams' musical settings carry tremendous power, but these moments fit awkwardly with the prosaic waiting and worrying surrounding them. Quoting poets makes the characters sound like college intellectuals spouting the latest book they read instead of thinking, feeling human beings.

Another problem is an oddly inert dramatic flow. Basically, nothing happens. Instead, Sellars compensates with striking visuals. There are eight dancers who move through many of the scenes. The most powerful image is of the bomb hanging over the stage like a sword of Damocles. The second act curtain goes up on the bomb hanging over a baby's crib like a grotesque mobile. The image remains through most of the second act, to the point where we almost become inured to it -- just as we thought less and less about threat of nuclear extinction over the years.

The cast is impressive, especially baritone Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer. Baritone Richad Paul Fink voices a contentious Edward Teller (who later would lead the team that developed the hydrogen bomb) and bass Eric Owens brings a stubborn military bearing to General Leslie Groves, the Army's project head. Mezzo soprano Kristine Jepson delivers on a couple of dramatic scenes as Oppenheimer's alcoholic wife, Kitty, and contralto Beth Clayton lends a certain gravitas to Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers' Indian maid. They, and a supporting cast that includes baritone James Maddalena (who has been in all of Adams' operas), tenor Thomas Glenn and Jay Hunter Morris, lavished a strong commitment to the work.

The problem is that Adams' vocal lines are weak. They are not distinctive enough to give these characters music that tells you much about what kind of individuals they are. As a result, the characters remain undeveloped. The real stuff happens in the orchestra, which never stops underlining, commenting and growling with portent.

Adams' music starts off with an electronic soundscape, emanating from speakers around the opera house, intending to evoke the feeling of a cyclotron revving up. (A similar soundscape uses the sounds of rain and thunder in a second-act interlude.) The musical language in the first scene is busy, batteringly dissonant, rhythmically jagged, complex. The main things we learn are that the thousands of people on the project are pressing to get things done, and some of the scientists want to petition Truman not to use the bomb on Japan without warning.

The music becomes tender and lyrical in the next scene, as Robert and Kitty trade lines from Baudelaire's erotically charged poetry, almost get into a sex scene, only to have Robert rush off to duty. Left alone, Kitty gets the first big aria, to a Muriel Rukeyser poem longing for peace in a world that has concentration camps.

Scene iii takes us to the bomb test site, which Oppenheimer has named Trinity after the Donne sonnet which begins "Batter my heart, three person'd God." The bomb is hoisted into place. General Groves berates a meteorologist for not providing good weather, then complains to Oppenheimer about his difficulty losing weight. The scene climaxes with Oppenheimber singing the Donne poem to a complex orchestral underlay of intricate polyphonic music evocative of Palestrina. The image is also striking. A white shroud has been lifted around the tower to hide the bomb, one flap partially opened to let the white light stream out onto the stage. The image evokes the Old Testament tabernacle. Finley sings in this shaft of light, displaying a baritone that reaches to the highest range without strain, singing with purity and real grace.


Act II begins with another long soliloquy by Kitty from Easter Eve 1945. The orchestra plays a gorgeous rain interlude and Pasqualita sings a lullaby to the rain (which, as desert dwellers, her people welcome, as opposed to General Groves).

Thunder and lightning punctuate the next scene at the bomb tower, raising fears that the storm will cause a disaster. Some of the scientists wonder if the bomb could set off a chain reaction that would encircle the globe. The music for this scene tends to be quiet, and nervous. It got me biting my nails.

In the final scenes, subtitled "Countdown," everyone seems to be having visions. There is a Native American corn dance. Oppenheimer nearly has a nervous breakdown. In the most brilliant of these interludes, the stage goes bright, garish colors light the background and the chorus sees the bomb as a terrifying vision of Vishnu, as described in the Bhagavad Gita. Adams' music for this scene is sensational, a tremendous welling up of multiple rhythms, vivid harmonies, stunning choral writing and technicolor orchestration.

For the final moments of the countdown, the stage is filled with prostrate soldiers and scientist awaiting the blast. The music for this scene plays with time, using Adams' off-center rhythmic sense to stretch a two-minute countdown to nearly six minutes of music that ratchets up the tension while remaining eerily, hauntingly beautiful.

There is no explosion. Instead the opera ends in silence, except for a final brief soundscape in which a woman speaks in Japanese.

After all that buildup, it is not a satisfying ending. The idea makes sense, but in the end it is as if the bomb had fizzled out. Understandably, Sellars and Adams did not want to create a special effect. As Sellars put it in a pre-performance talk, "Oedipus Rex is not about what it looks like to gouge out his eyes, but why he does it." Maybe so, but Sophocles does not end the play with Oedipus going offstage to do the deed. We see the bleeding result. Doctor Atomic leaves us hanging.

Oppenheimer's scene quoting the Donne sonnet and the big choral explosion of the Vishnu scene are, for me, the vocal highlights. If and when Adams extracts an orchestral suite from this opera, it will be worth hearing in the concert hall, especially such items as the rain interlude and the music for the final scene. But as a complete opera, it works only in fits and starts. Further productions are scheduled at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and De Nederlandse Opera, which co-produced the work. We will see if Sellars and Adams do something to pull it all together better.



Harvey Steiman



Photographs © San Francisco Opera


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