Dr. Atomic Oppenheimer

John Adams wrote his third full-length opera, Doctor Atomic, for the San Francisco Opera in 2005. As is true of all three works, its subject matter is not typically “operatic” -- it’s a retelling of fairly recent political events. The title refers to the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, and it explores the tensions building up at the Los Alamos testing facility in July 1945, during the final weeks before the test of the first nuclear weapon. When General Director Peter Gelb decided to bring Doctor Atomic to the Metropolitan Opera, he turned to British film director Penny Woolcock rather than Peter Sellars, who had been Adams’ collaborator from the beginning of the project, who created the libretto, and who staged the first production, which was seen in San Francisco, Chicago and the Netherlands. Woolcock, whose version of Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer is one of the most stunning films of any opera, seemed like a natural choice for the assignment. This production, though, with sets designed by Julian Crouch and costumes by Catherine Zuber, lacks the strong vision and conviction of Sellars’ original.

Dr. Atomic crowd

Woolcock’s work is most telling in scenes in which the principals are captured in moments of intimate reflection or intense personal interaction -- Oppenheimer’s and his wife Kitty’s soliloquies, their bedroom duet, fellow scientist Edward Teller’s stirring up of skepticism about the project, General Leslie Groves’ fractious, arrogant demands, and Robert Wilson's anxious appeals for a consideration of the moral implications of the scientists' work. All of these characters are brought to life with a fierce integrity that commands our interest and attention.

In some of the large ensemble scenes, however, Woolcock fails to create a convincing sense of drama; in the climactic scene just before the siren announces the countdown to the detonation of the bomb, for instance, the principals simply stand in a line in front of the chorus and sing straight to the audience. It’s a visually striking stage picture, with a massive backdrop of stacked boxes, populated with scientists and totemic Native American figures, but it deadens dramatic momentum just at a point where a sense of urgency is critical to the opera's unfolding. Woolcock is not helped by Crouch’s sets, which though occasionally are striking and memorable, lack a coherent sense of style, and fail to create either a tangible, specific enough sense of place, or a powerfully symbolic enough environment to draw the audience viscerally into the world of the anxiety-ridden community at Los Alamos.

Whatever shortcomings the production might have, though, the performances of the cast are beyond reproach. Gerald Finley's portrayal of Oppenheimer is brilliantly subtle, as the close-ups reveal with wonderful clarity. His baritone is as rich as humus, and as dark and organic sounding. The emotional intimacy he conveys, and the voluptuous musicality of his singing in the aria, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” based on the sonnet by John Donne, make the character of Oppenheimer fully human. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is an impassioned and strongly delineated Kitty Oppenheimer, and she sings with fullness and warmth; her second act aria, a setting of Muriel Rukeyser's "Easter Eve 1945," is one of the vocal highlights of the performance, and its gorgeous music is a highlight of the opera. There are no weak links among the other soloists; Richard Paul Fink, Eric Owens, Thomas Glenn, Meredith Arwady, Earle Patriarco, and Roger Honeywell all turn in musically vibrant performances and create memorably distinctive characterizations.

Kitty & bomb

In his Met debut, Alan Gilbert, who was recently appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, leads the formidably virtuosic Met Orchestra in a dazzling reading of Adam's score. The Met Chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo, is equally impressive in the large and demanding role Adams gives them.

The ending of the opera has been problematic since its premiere, and it remains so even after being subtly tweaked. The final detonation of the bomb is presented musically as an anticlimax, with much buildup but little fanfare, and then the distant glow of the detonation is followed by a tape of Japanese voices reading transcriptions of quotes of victims of the Hiroshima bombing. This sudden shift away from the opera's central characters and toward a political/moral viewpoint is jarring and dramatically out of step with the body of the opera. In spite of that issue, however, the opera is clearly the composer's most ambitious work to date, and it takes his music to a new level of expressive depth and lyrical expansiveness.

There's still an opportunity to catch the Met's production of Doctor Atomic. The broadcast will be repeated on Wednesday, November 19 at 7:00 pm (local time). BerliozCheck with your local theatres for details. The next installment in The Met: Live in HD series will be a new production of Berlioz's rarely staged opera-oratorio, La Damnation de Faust, directed by Robert Lepage, on Saturday, November 22 at 1:00 (ET), with an encore broadcast on Wednesday, December 3 at 7:00 pm (local time). James Levine will conduct, and the production will feature Susan Graham, Marcello Giordani, and John Relyea. For details, check out the Met's website.