by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The show I picked last night was Doctor Atomic, the latest opera by John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars (with quite a lot of help from various poets: Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, John Donne and the authors of the Bhagavad-Gita, all of whom were particular favorites of the operas central characters, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife). The opera is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the last few days before the Trinity atomic bomb test of 1945, and it’s an intriguing if not altogether successful attempt to dramatize the internal conflicts within and between the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, particularly Oppenheimer (baritone Gerald Finley) and Edward Teller (bass Richard Paul Fink — actually quite an appropriate name for someone playing Teller, given what he did to Oppenheimer after the war!).
It’s a powerful theme for a drama and one that can’t help but make an effect, even though you’ll be somewhat at sea during this opera if you don’t know at least some of the basic trivia about the Manhattan Project and in particular about the physical and engineering problems involved in designing the world’s first atomic weapon — and it probably would have helped if you’d been familiar with the poems Sellars was drawing on for his text (virtually every piece in the work that even remotely resembles an aria was drawn from the Oppenheimers’ extensive reading list). Doctor Atomic was filmed in the Met’s production on November 8, 2008 and shown on PBS late last year — though the San Diego outlet pre-empted it from its Monday night time slot on the rest of the network and ghettoized it to Sunday, January 4 at noon (the shabby way they usually treat cultural programming!) — and it’s apparently a quite different mounting from the production Sellars did himself for the world premiere in San Francisco (and the review of the DVD of the Sellars production in the current American Record Guide suggests that the original might actually be more powerful).
The biggest problem with Doctor Atomic is that there’s simply no reason why these people need to be singing instead of speaking. Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd remain my touchstones for opera-in-English (i.e., operas written by composers whose native language is English and therefore designed to be sung in it, rather than the God-awful disasters most attempts to do foreign-language operas in English translation end up being). John Adams’ music is “effective” — it sets the mood well and presents the words intelligibly (the Met supplied English subtitles but they really weren’t needed except during a few of the choral parts) — but it really isn’t all that operatic. One could imagine this score working just as well as instrumental background for a spoken play (or a film) based on this history and these characters. The music doesn’t really characterize the people involved the way Britten’s (or Mozart’s, or Verdi’s, or Wagner’s) did.
Much of what does work about the piece lies in the interrelationships of the characters, notably Oppenheimer and Teller — especially Teller, who’s presented as kind of a grand contrarian, audibly worked that the possible side effect of the bomb could be to ignite the atmosphere itself and wipe out either just New Mexico or the entire world (he comes off here as more liberal than Oppenheimer, especially in his concern over using the bomb on a civilian target, which is quite surprising for anyone who knows the sequel — which was that Teller reported Oppenheimer to the government for his reluctance to build a hydrogen bomb and lobbied to get Oppenheimer’s security clearance withdrawn, thereby shutting out the main inventor of the first nuclear weapon from any further work on U.S. nukes — which itself would make a fascinating basis for an opera in case Adams and Sellars want to do a sequel to Doctor Atomic!).
Penny Woolcock’s production was effective, stylized (as the piece would virtually require!) but not annoyingly so, with the scientists cooped up in cages at the back of the stage from which they emerge to comment on or participate in the action, and a front-curtain display before the opera begins of the periodic table of the elements — though one thing Sellars did in his production that Woolcock didn’t was begin with actual photos of the devastation of the first atomic attack on Hiroshima, which would have made the final theatrical coup — a woman speaking in Japanese (the first time we’ve heard any language other than English all night!) and asking where her husband is — less arbitrary and more effective.
Doctor Atomic works almost in spite of itself — the basic story is a strong one, the sense that one is witnessing the death of one world and the beginning of another at least as compelling as it is in Götterdämmerung (though for cosmic eloquence Adams’ music is several orders of magnitude down from Wagner’s!), and the suspense at the end as the various characters reflect while waiting for the Trinity test to detonate is palpable (and I quite liked the touch of having the test occur in a rainstorm, as if the scientists are thumbing their noses at nature and proclaiming themselves to be capable of unleashing at least as great a storm as nature can!), though the test itself is a disappointment: just a few strobe-like flashes of white light across an otherwise dark stage, It’s surprising that a production that otherwise made effective use of projected film footage did not use the actual atomic-bomb films here; the situation cried out for it!