John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” at SFO

Doctor Atomic Batters Heart, Mind

By Janos Gereben

“Batter my heart, three-person’d God…”

Backlighted downstage, as close to the audience as physically possible, 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, Gösta Winbergh’s Idomeneo, melting hearts.

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.

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 of 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 would 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 Little 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, orchestrated gloriously.

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 Pelléas et Mélisande (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 on amplification).

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 moot.

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 cigarette, 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” costume 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 caloric 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.

It’s not easy going, . 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]. 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, orchestrated gloriously. 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, should be a mess, flying apart from an unstable nucleus, to scatter debris of its zillion components. 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.

CAST:
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Gerald Finley*
Kitty Oppenheimer: Kristine Jepson
Edward Teller: Richard Paul Fink
Robert Wilson: Thomas Glenn
Jack Hubbard: James Maddalena
General Leslie Groves: Eric Owens
Captain James Nolan: Jay Hunter Morris
Pasqualita: Beth Clayton

PRODUCTION:
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Peter Sellars
Set Designer: Adrianne Lobel*
Costume Designer: Dunya Ramicova
Lighting Designer: James Ingalls
Choreographer: Lucinda Childs*
Sound Designer: Mark Grey*
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera debut
Cast, programs and schedules are subject to change

Approximate Running Time: 3 hours
Sung in English with English Supertitles
Co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and De Nederlandse Opera

Sat. October 1, 8 pm
Wed. October 5, 7:30 pm
Fri. October 7, 8 pm
Sun. October 9, 2 pm
Tue. October 11, 8 pm
Fri. October 14, 8 pm
Sun. October 16, 2 pm
Tue. October 18, 7:30 pm
Thu. October 20, 7:30 pm
Sat. October 22, 8 pm

Commission and Production Sponsorship made possible by Roberta Bialek. Additional sponsorship provided by Jane Bernstein and Bob Ellis, Richard N. Goldman, Leslie and George Hume, The Flora C. Thornton Foundation, The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, and an Anonymous Donor. Support also provided by The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Opera Fund, a program of OPERA America

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