'Doctor Atomic': Unleashing Powerful Forces

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO -- There is much to admire in "Doctor Atomic," a new opera by John Adams that received its world premiere here Saturday night in a production by the San Francisco Opera.

The subject is a potent one, even though the opera seems less a portrait of the complicated and controversial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and more of an examination -- part factual "nuts and bolts," part abstracted meditation -- of the collective process of testing the world's first nuclear weapon in the New Mexico desert on the morning of July 16, 1945.

The libretto, assembled by director Peter Sellars from a variety of sources -- textbooks, petitions, letters, poetry by John Donne and Muriel Rukeyser, the Bhagavad-Gita and Native American lullabies, among others -- is protean and dramatically vital for most of the evening. And the casting, across the board, is almost unbelievably strong -- the San Francisco Opera has assembled an amazing troupe of American singers, all of them at the peak of their abilities, giving everything they have to conjure up our once and present collective nightmare.

I have rarely been able to share in the rapturous admiration that has been generally accorded to Adams's music by many critics and musicians. (He is best known for his operas "Nixon in China," in 1987, and "The Death of Klinghoffer" in 1991.) For me, his delighted appropriation of the styles of other composers has usually seemed the pastime of an ever-more-virtuosic pasticheur. Even here, in what is far and away the best score he has ever given us, it is difficult to identify any half-minute of music and say, "Oh yes, that could only be by John Adams."

And yet, this time around, for most of the first act and much of the second, Adams takes his eclecticism so far that it becomes a convincing personal style in itself. If the finale of Act 1, for example, sounds like a mixture of Handel opera, Mendelssohn oratorio and Philip Glass minimalism, it is also genuinely beautiful in its own hybrid manner. One senses that Adams has begun to absorb the spectrum of musical history, the way past composers absorbed theory, counterpoint and harmony, and, by force of will, made it distinctly his. To adapt a familiar but useful metaphor: The trees in "Doctor Atomic" may not be always recognizably "Adams," but he owns the forest.

The first act lasts 67 minutes, yet it is surprisingly taut, with a lyrical duet (between Oppenheimer and his wife) that manages to convey lovers who are both crushed by circumstances and weightlessly ecstatic. Unless your name is Richard Wagner, however, it is never a good idea to write a 90-minute act, and "Doctor Atomic" flounders badly in Act 2, especially in the last few minutes leading up to the detonation, which are bizarrely anticlimactic. To Sellars's credit, he doesn't attempt to give us one of those showstopper cosmetic thrills a la the descending helicopter in "Miss Saigon" or the plummeting chandelier in "Phantom." There is no cosmic kaboom!

But his alternative -- a stageful of hopping, skipping, writhing people bathed in red -- called to mind a generic representation of the underworld in "Faust." Moreover, the sustained image of the bomb hovering over an empty cradle was simply trite, calling to mind an old cover of Psychology Today or the platitudes of a protest poster (Motherhood = good; nuclear weapons = bad. Hey, thanks, man!) At the same time, many of Sellars's images were eerie and visually arresting: I shall not soon forget the flashes of heat lightning that accompany some of the grimmest discussions in the history of humankind, as an infinitely larger "light" is planned for the following morning.

Recognizing some of the complications of the situation, Adams and Sellars have wisely avoided casting much individual blame on the central characters (even the deeply weird Edward Teller maintains a certain humanity). The sole exception is Eric Owens, who plays Gen. Leslie Groves as a mixture of Idi Amin and King Canute, demanding that the notoriously volatile New Mexico weather bend to his will in much the same manner that the Viking ruler once ordered the tides to turn back.

Gerald Finley, who played Oppenheimer, is a high, lyrical tenor of the first order, gifted with a fluent, expressive voice, welling theatrical gifts, and diction that is nothing short of immaculate (one never needed to follow the supertitles to find out what he was singing). Still, it was Kristine Jepson, as Kitty Oppenheimer, who seemed to carry the emotional drama, singing Rukeyser's words with melting tenderness and infinite sorrow.

Beth Clayton, as a Native American mother, did her songful, empathic best with what seemed a stock character. Richard Paul Fink made much of Teller's mixture of anguish and resignation, while Thomas Glenn, as the dissenting physicist Robert Wilson, easily negotiated crushingly difficult music in a high, boyish tenor. (An officially designated Rebel With a Cause, he wore an open shirt, as opposed to the dark suits of Oppenheimer and Teller -- such is symbolism.)

James Maddalena sang out the last pre-atomic New Mexico weather report with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet, while there was precise, urgent support from Jay Hunter Morris as Capt. James Nolan. Donald Runnicles conducted the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus with a deft mastery of Adams's stylistic twists and turns, seeming comfortable and fully engaged at all times. (Much of the orchestral playing -- and, indeed, the music itself -- was dazzling, especially a long, lowing passage for the deepest brass.) The choreography, by Lucinda Childs, was cast in her patented style, with dancers racing coolly yet furiously across the stage, stiffening and striking individual poses, then joining the mad rush again.

I am inclined to think of "Doctor Atomic" as a work in progress; some judicious trimming of Act 2 could make it a far more satisfying evening in the opera house. Still, it is a chilling evocation of a time and place where, in the words of Thomas Pynchon, "a million bureaucrats are diligently plotting death and some of them even know it."

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