[For an illustrated version of this review, see Opera West, at
"Batter my heart, three-person'd God..."
Backlit downstage, as close to the audience as physically possible, and
yet his face almost invisible, Gerald Finley seems doubled over. With
dark, convulsive ecstasy in the grip of the Trinity's conflicting forces,
the baritone embraces John Donne's terrifying vision, "to break, blow,
burn, and make me new." As J. Robert Oppenheimer, contemplating the
bomb about to unleash unpredictable energy, Finley moves spasmodically
to the overpowering music's rhythm, his clear, warm, powerful and seductive
voice soaring through the house:
"Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."
It's a new milestone, this scene is - and you know it instantly and with
certainty. It strikes the listener as other unforgettable performances have
over the years from the same spot on the War Memorial stage: Lorraine Hunt
whispering "Addio Roma" with majesty even in utter defeat, Leonie Rysanek
hissing power and venom as Ortrud, Gosta Winbergh's Idomeneo, melting
Can an opera at its first appearance provide such instantly memorable
great moments? John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" does. The San Francisco
Opera's commissioned world premiere tonight revealed a true Gesamtkunstwerk,
a mostly superb marriage of music, text, production, melding elements
of history, philosophy, politics, poetry, mass- and individual psychology,
fear, and hope... against hope.
There has been so much publicity - hype even - about the work, and
librettist-director Peter Sellars is such a spellbinding speaker, that
it was difficult to experience the opera in and for itself at the premiere.
Another, even more powerful, set of circumstances is the overwhelming
historical background and significance of the subject: the first successful
test of a nuclear weapon in the Manhattan Project, of an implosion-design
plutonium bomb, at Trinity Site, in New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
It's not easy going, "Doctor Atomic." That great "Trinity aria," for
example, comes immediately after a recitation of caloric intake by a
general, which follows a sung symposium on the mechanics of fusion, the
inner structure of plutonium, and the nature of individual responsibility
for the actions of one's government, especially in wars - in Hitler's
Germany, in Truman's US, and... [no, it's not carried any further].
Watching the dizzying mix of personal details and historic events, one
realizes that "great opera" derives not from historic events but from
meaningful characters. With few exceptions ("War and Peace," perhaps)
historical importance, even when coupled with characters of substance,
leads at most to pageantry.
"Doctor Atomic" bids fair to be such an exception - perhaps a new
archetype of "historical opera." Though it deals with the events surrounding
the first test of a fission bomb, it presents the events through fascinating
characters and meaningful questions to the audience. It is true to those
men and to their milieu through a libretto which expresses the truths
driving those men. The essence of those truths is heard in words from
John Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Ghita, and the characters appear
attuned to the issues of morals and ethics addressed in those sources
and compelled by their work.
In one its historically accurate, artistically/emotionally meaningful
vignettes, the opera shows that the scientists working on the test were
facing the unknown in every way. They had no idea how big the explosion
will be, so most Manhattan Project participants took part in a macabre
pool - at $1 a bet - guesses ranging from the ridiculously small (in
hindsight) to cataclysmic figures. The actual outcome: more than 20
kilotons (about the same as Fat Boy in Hiroshima), releasing four times
the heat of the interior of the sun, creating a pressure of 100 billion
atmospheres; the flash was seen 250 miles away: "I am become Death / The
shatterer of Worlds," says the Bhagavad Gita, the work that had prompted
Oppenheimer to study Sanskrit.
Publicity and hype may safely be disregarded, but the subject's relevance
in the real world cannot - and yet "Doctor Atomic" must be examined here
as musical theater, in isolation, as it were, and thus violating its
very nature. Suppose you walk into the performance without memories and
thoughts of Hiroshima, the Cold War, the China Syndrome, and everything
else this first day of the nuclear age had helped to bring about - as
if Mrs. Lincoln were asked to evaluate the play in Ford Theater. So,
what of the opera?
The music is Adams' best, "minimalist" only in the sense of its pulsating,
driving rhythms, but harmonically and melodically varied, inspired, and
appealing in an "old-fashioned," romantic, big-sweep, big-sound way,
Besides Oppenheimer's Act 1 Trinity finale (an original masterpiece,
with emotional - not musical - resonances of Iago's "Credo" and Philip's
aria in "Don Carlo"), the extended Act 1 duet between Finley and Kristine
Jepson (Kitty Oppenheimer) is music you treasure on first hearing, and
want to hear again. Reminiscent of "Pelleas et Melisande" (an association
enhanced by the use of Baudelaire poems in the text), the duet is a
compositional and performance triumph.
Donald Runnicles drove the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, already on
fire, to the exceptional standards heard here before in his Wagner and
Britten. Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus worked hard through Lucinda Childs'
choreography for most of the three-hour-long evening. Adams' choral
writing serves as an effective background, but the text remains at the
mercy of the much-welcomed supertitles - and of the amplification.
Runnicles is facing a tricky-to-impossible balance problem, created by
the fact that all principal singers and some of the chorus use body
microphones - a strange, unwelcome "first" in SF Opera history (with the
possible exception of previous Adams operas, the composer known to insist
Childs' choreography for the cast and the chorus is fine, but her use
of hard-working dancers seems strangely out of place - it belongs neither
in the 1940s nor in our time, but rather, stuck in the 1970s, dancers
intermingling with the chorus and executing straight-armed leaps and
half-turns in the air. It doesn't contribute, introducing distance when
everything else works to bring the audience closer.
The supertitles are helpful, especially for choral passages, but nothing
can assure ready comprehension of Sellars' complex text, both affecting
and perplexing, consisting almost entirely of actual quotes. As the
chorus is singing from declassified government documents and the Bhagavad
Gita, with poems by Muriel Rukeyser, Donne, Baudelaire, references from
the worlds of global politics 60 years ago, mathematical in-jokes, the
inner working of physics, a torrent of examples from ancient literature
and philosophy, "Doctor Atomic" should be a mess, flying apart from an
unstable nucleus, to scatter debris of its zillion components.
And yet, the greatest accomplishment of Adams' music, Sellars' libretto
and production, the devoted work of singers and musicians is that the
integrity and impact of the opera are unquestionable as it retains a
kind of nuclear cohesion, instead of exploding.
This is especially true of Act 1, which - in 75 minutes - provides
manifold introductions to the complex story, to the many characters.
It involves, engrosses, and builds to the terrific climax of the aria to
Donne's poem. Act 2 - after two lengthy mezzo arias, and a fascinating
musical interlude - portrays the countdown to the actual explosion; it
is suspenseful, but more theater than opera. At 80 minutes, it is too
long and repetitive, quite without the sub-stories and subtext of the
first part. Boiling Act 2 down to its indispensable dramatic core and
adding it to a slightly edited Act 1 could create an awesome 90-minute
one-act opera... all of one piece.
In the event, even with its flaws, the whole of "Doctor Atomic" is a
testament to its creators, and to Pamela Rosenberg, outgoing SF Opera
general director, who first proposed the project and then ushered it
through five years of gestation, even took the lead raising funds for
it. The two major financial contributors were Roberta Bialek and the
Flora L. Thornton Foundation, the former with a "political-art" record
of having served as godmother to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Berkeley
Rep commission of David Edgar's "Continental Divide."
The physical production of "Doctor Atomic" - by Adrianne Lobel - is
marvelously sparse, with gigantic pipes and huge scaffolding, completed
spectacularly by James F. Ingalls' lighting design. (How do you light
a nuclear explosion? Come and see.) There is a great deal of recorded
sound in the production, some - such as meaningless bits of commercial
radio programs - rather confusing. What could have been a striking
image, the bomb suspended over a cradle, is used endlessly in the second
act, which seriously blunts the intended effect. Unlike the perhaps
excessive trust in the listener's education and intelligence elsewhere,
here Sellars and his design team keep making a point, until it becomes
With a new opera, the newborn characters are more important than the
singers, so apologies to the principals for all-too-brief references.
Finley's marvelous vocal performance easily tops his acting as Oppenheimer;
even with the ever-present hat and cigaret, the tentative posture, no
singer could convincingly portray the uniquely emaciated, bizarre genius.
Jepson's Kitty is similarly more voice than acting, the latter propped
up by a bottle on the floor, a glass in hand. The voice is large, warm,
well-projected (although at times lacking in clear diction), Jepson doing
justice to Adams' gorgeous low-tessitura melismas.
Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink) comes out of this historical account
looking much better than his late-years Dr. Strangelove act would
suggest. Here, he is the one calling Oppenheimer's attention to Leo
Szilard's warning about the "German example," of individual responsibility
for government actions, urging scientists to protest unleashing nuclear
energy as a weapon. With very little of his infamous manners showing,
the Adams-Sellars Teller is a rather amiable fellow, although refusing
to attend meetings, and using Oppenheimer as a kind of messenger boy.
Teller's (unquestionable) scientific contributions to the Manhattan
Project are emphatically acknowledged in the opera, his well-known lack
of social skills soft-pedalled.
Unlike Teller, Washington's viceroy at Los Alamos, Gen. Leslie
Groves is looking very bad, indeed, his sole redeeming quality being his
support for Oppenheimer to head the project. As sung by Eric Owens, in a
faithfully ill-fitting uniform, typical of Dunya Ramicova's "documentary"
costum design (which gives an individual look to every member of the
chorus), Groves is breathing fire through the opera, he threatens the
Army weatherman with hanging in case of a forecast jeopardizing the test,
distrusts and badmouths all scientists, spies on Oppenheimer, and has
much to say about his ongoing fight with weight, at one time reciting
from his pocket diary minute details of calory intake, then inhaling
chocolate bars just before the explosion.
The Manhattan Project's youngest physicist (and veritable conscience),
Robert Wilson, is sung by the SF Opera Center's Thomas Glenn. The young
tenor took over the role just days before the premiere, and then not
only "made do" with the substitution, but triumphed with exceptional
singing, clear diction, and perhaps the finest acting in the cast. James
Maddalena and Jay Hunter Morris portray two important staff members of
the project, Beth Clayton sings marvelously as Pasqualita, a role whose
importance - or even significance - is not at all clear on first hearing,
and assigned music that's not fully equal to the rest of the opera.
At the very end of the opera, instead of the expected stunned silence
to follow the explosion, a brief recording is heard, of a woman, speaking
in Japanese. There are no supertitles or even a note in the program to
explain what she is saying. I asked Sellars about it, and he said the
translation was "may I please have some water?," quoting a Hiroshima
survivor. Sellars did not say why this was not in some way communicated
to the audience... but then neither that nor anything else seems to
have mattered. The world premiere of "Doctor Atomic" ended with an
explosion of applause that lasted six long minutes. And then, as if the
universe were sending a reminder about the imperfections of technology,
the fire alarm went off, forcing the evacuation of the artists getting
ready for the post-premiere party.
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