New `Atomic Doctor'

OperaReview

October 13, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

SAN FRANCISCO -- "All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am."

Those words from the Bhagavad Gita, sung by the chorus in John Adams' new opera, Doctor Atomic, register with the musical and theatrical force you would expect in a work about the Manhattan Project's awesome progeny.

Not all of this ambitious opera proves so indelible, but it contains lots of fissionable elements. In an age of minisecond attention spans, superficial news and scant respect for the lessons of history, Doctor Atomic takes a firm stand for serious ideas and ideals. It's a welcome provocateur.

The music world will be buzzing about it for some time, as was true with Adams' Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. That nearly 90 critics attended opening night of Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera earlier this month says plenty. (I caught up with the work last weekend.)

Like Nixon and Klinghoffer, the new piece is a dual product. On one side is Adams, whose distinctive music retains flavors of the minimalist style that first earned him fame but has become more complex and melodically far-reaching. On the other is Peter Sellars, the perpetually hip director who thrives on concepts.

This time, Sellars added librettist to his credits, providing the composer with lines drawn from government and scientific documents (this must be the only opera to include the word "icosahedron"), personal records of those who worked on the atom bomb, poetry and religious texts.

At the center of the opera, set in New Mexico during June and July 1945, is the chain-smoking J. Robert Oppenheimer, who compartmentalized ethical qualms to push ahead with the bomb. There's a juicy role, too, for Oppenheimer's alcoholic wife, Kitty, who, in a neat, pure-Sellars touch, speaks only through the lines of poets (mostly Muriel Rukeyser).

Doctor Atomic is at its best when it moves beyond the actual - scientific debate, weather forecasts for the test site, a general talking about his dieting - and takes poetic turns, not just for Kitty. A stunning, darkly colored aria for Oppenheimer has him singing a John Donne sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," that reveals his internal conflicts and underlines his code name for the bomb test site, "Trinity."

The discreetly amplified cast, headed by exceptional baritone Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer, serves Adams' music vividly. Conductor Donald Runnicles gets brilliant playing from the percussion-enforced orchestra.

Sellars' alternately spare and fussy staging (too much interpretive dancing) is balanced by mostly subtle visuals by Adrianne Lobel (sets) and James F. Ingalls (lighting); the lightning-filled silhouette of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is ideally ominous.

The pre-detonated bomb makes a few ponderous appearances, at one point hanging over a crib (gee, could it mean future generations are forever threatened?).

Fortunately, there is no mushroom cloud at the end. Instead, a crowd of military and scientific observers awaits the final countdown from prone positions as the opera fades out on notes of uncertainty from the orchestra, an assortment of electronic sounds and, perhaps from a radio about to be silenced, the calm voice of a Japanese woman.

We're left to imagine, all too easily, "fear-struck" worlds to come.

"Doctor Atomic" continues through Oct. 22 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Call 415-864-3330.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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