Six decades ago, a uniquely brilliant man with an anguished sense of
morality led the Manhattan project to develop the first nuclear weapon.
J. Robert Oppenheimer named the final, crucial test in Alamagordo
"Trinity," inspired by John Donne's haunted, metaphysical poems.
Three years ago, on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House,
bass-baritone Gerald Finley - backlighted downstage, his face in the
dark - seemed doubled over, singing the role of Oppenheimer in John
Adams' "Doctor Atomic."
"Batter my heart, three-person'd God..." he sang the aria set on Donne's
stark, powerful poem. With dark, convulsive ecstasy in the grip of the
Trinity's conflicting forces, the singer embraced the poet's terrifying
vision, "to break, blow, burn, and make me new." As Oppenheimer, about
to unleash unpredictable - possibly cataclysmic - energy, Finley moved
spasmodically to the overpowering rhythms of Adams' music, 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."
And now, in 2007, it all comes together in the distinguished documentary
director [http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0255613/] Jon Else's "Wonders Are
Many," shown at the San Francisco Film Festival [see below]: Oppenheimer,
Trinity, Adams' opera, Pamela Rosenberg's most ambitious and successful
project before leaving as general director of the commissioning San
Francisco Opera, dramaturg/stage director Peter Sellars - urbane,
intellectual, smart as a whip, but passionate (and rude) enough to scream
obscenities at the befuddled chorus after a long day of rehearsal - and
a large cast of characters.
Ideas proliferate even more here, from the mechanics of fusion, the inner
structure of plutonium, the nature of individual responsibility for the
actions of one's government, the composer's and the director's creative
process... on and on.
As "Doctor Atomic" was a mostly superb marriage of music, text,
production, melding elements of history, philosophy, politics, poetry,
mass- and individual psychology, fear, and hope, Else's magnificent
construction of the film more than keeps up with - and eventually
illuminates - the complexities, the depth of both the original Trinity
story and the production of a great contemporary opera it inspired.
"Wonders Are Many" is so good that it will grab and hold even those for
whom nuclear physics and opera are of no special interest. The intellect,
humanity, creativity and excitement of it all should appeal to everyone.
Festival showings: April 28 (9 p.m.) - Castro; April 30 (9:10) - Pacific
Film Archive; May 3 (6:30) - Kabuki; May 6 (7 and 9:30) - Intersection.
http://fest07.sffs.org/. Unrelated, but delightful: Montserrat Caballe
as Duchesse de Crakentorp:
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