‘Dr. Atomic’ radiates fiery melodic flair

It’s big news when a major opera company commissions a new opera, and the frenzy surrounding the October 1 premiere of John Adams’s “Dr. Atomic” in San Francisco has reached fever pitch. The much-anticipated opera has been on the radar since it was announced in 2002 — and judging by Adams’s previous two, this was an occasion not to be missed.

Dr. Atomic takes the Manhattan Project as its subject, centering on Robert Oppenheimer, the cultivated and controversial head scientist. Set in the New Mexican desert in July 1945 on the eve of the world’s first successful test of an atomic weapon, the opera explores the wide-ranging moral, political and scientific viewpoints surrounding the building of the “Gadget.”

The most unique aspect of “Dr. Atomic” is the libretto, or the lack thereof — the opera’s eclectic text was compiled piecemeal from various sources. A 1940s informational packet on nuclear energy, declassified Truman-administration transcripts, a John Donne sonnet, a passage about Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita, and verses of Oppenheimer’s beloved Baudelaire are transformed into conversations, arias and choruses. The man responsible for this assemblage is Peter Sellars, a longtime Adams collaborator, who also directed the opera.

On its own, such disparate material is a patchwork, but thanks to Adams’s music, the text gains poignant cohesion. His well-loved musical voice has been further honed, and it plumbs new depths. Conductor Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra turned the masterful score into a viscerally engaging performance. Threatening rumbles, unpredictable brass blasts, and gristly harmonies permeate what is perhaps the tensest three hours of music ever written.

The opera begins with a collage of pre-recorded sounds, reminiscent of the composer’s memorial for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, “On the Transmigration of Souls”. Trucks, machinery, bombers, thunder, loudspeakers and fractured bits of a 1940s radio tune rumble over 70 loudspeakers, creating the impression that the entire opera house is a giant freight elevator taking its audience to an underground bunker. The chorus — which acts as a Greek chorus commenting on and occasionally participating in the action — bursts in almost immediately, blustering “matter can be neither created nor destroyed”. Certainly, no one but Adams could have set the Law of Conservation of Matter to music so gracefully.

Another peculiarity of this drama is the barely-existent plot. The main conflict is a moral one — Oppenheimer never questions the nuclear intentions of the government, while the young scientist Robert Wilson is racked with doubts. The conclusion does not absolve anyone of internal struggle, save General Leslie Groves, the unwavering commander whose only worry is that a violent thunderstorm will disrupt the test. Forgoing the expected explosion, Adams represents the bomb’s detonation with a distant swell, tolling bells, and a disembodied Japanese voice repeating “A drink of water, please.”

While the male scientists argue around their lab tables, the female characters provide the philosophical backbone of the opera. Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, singing poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, vies desperately for her husband’s romantic attentions during an abortive bedroom scene. Kitty is imbued with a prophetic gift, despite her high-strung alcoholism. Her huge opening aria of act II, a lyrical plea for peace, was sung with melancholy conviction by mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson.

Baritone Gerald Finley, as Oppenheimer, sang and moved with frightening intensity during the opera’s dramatic crux, the setting of John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (the poem which inspired the ever-literate Oppenheimer to name the test site “Trinity”). Adams’s music traverses centuries here — at once ancient, Romantic, and apocalyptic, it is the most immediately memorable melody of the opera.

The only weakness of the opera was the most easily remedied: staging. The set and props were minimal and effectively atmospheric, but their use was fussy. The chorus continually shifted poles, scaffolds, and ducts to different positions around the stage, for seemingly no dramatic purpose. A troupe of dancers only served to confuse the main activity with balletic leaps weaving around the singers. Throughout most of Act II, the life-sized atomic bomb model was suspended over the crib of Oppenheimer’s child, a move temptingly symbolic, but heavy-handed.

But these complaints are mere nit-picking; Adams and Sellars have outdone themselves with Dr. Atomic. Despite its difficulties, the opera is sure to become a repertory staple. It is modern mythology, high drama, and one of the most convincing anti-war statements in the history of music.

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