Saturday marked Lyric Opera of Chicagoâ€™s final performance of Dr. Atomic, John Adamsâ€™ and Peter Sellarsâ€™ opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the days leading up to the first test of an atomic bomb, at 5:30 am, July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Thereâ€™ll be another chance to see the opera when the Met mounts a new production in its 2008-2009 season, directed by Penny Woolcock, who directed the extraordinary 2002 film of Adamsâ€™ The Death of Klinghoffer.)
Doctor Atomic defies the conventions of traditional theatre -- it doesnâ€™t have a predictable dramatic arc or a denouement. Instead, itâ€™s a single anxiety-packed build-up that peaks in the operaâ€™s final moments, when the bomb is successfully detonated. The opera isnâ€™t so much about Oppenheimer as a character as it is about the effects of anxiety on all the characters. One of Adamsâ€™ strongest gifts as a dramatic composer is his ability to write music that creates exactly the right mood for each moment, and even though the music is wonderfully varied, it all contributes to the nervous tension that becomes almost unbearable as the opera approaches its climax. When Oppenheimer announces the countdown to detonation at two minutes, Adams brilliantly slows down time so that itâ€™s really much longer (nearly six minutes) until the blast. That way, he forces the audience to experience what seems like an eternity, just as the real characters must have felt that the actual two minutes lasted an eternity.
The operaâ€™s very end is Adamsâ€™ only misstep, and in a piece thatâ€™s almost entirely a build-up to its last moments, thatâ€™s a serious flaw. Heâ€™s been criticized for making the blast so musically understated, but that counterintuitive strategy -- a quiet musical glow radiating from the distant explosion -- actually works beautifully. The opera doesnâ€™t end there, though, but with a tape of a woman dispassionately repeating a phrase in Japanese. It makes sense to link the moment to the human devastation that the bomb would eventually create, but the affectless repetition of the untranslated phrase falls flat.
Adams had a similar problem with creating an effective ending for The Death of Klinghoffer that he never really solved. In its initial production at ThÃ©Ã¢tre de la Monnaie, it ended with a spoken choral prayer. At its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the text was spoken by a single voice, and on the recording itâ€™s omitted entirely, so the opera ends with the very low-key music of Marilyn Klinghofferâ€™s â€œI wanted to die,â€ which doesnâ€™t feel very satisfactory, either. One hopes that Adams, who already made some substantial changes to Doctor Atomic between its premiere at the San Francisco Opera and its Chicago performances, will revisit the ending and find a way to close the opera with as much power as he sustained throughout its course.