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Explosive opera

John Adams' ambitious Doctor Atomic, which fuses elements as diverse as electronic "soundscapes" and poetry, makes for awe-inspiring music but uneven opera.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published October 21, 2005


SAN FRANCISCO - John Adams calls J. Robert Oppenheimer a "composer's dream - he was the most cultivated scientist who ever lived." From that declaration sprang inspiration for one of the most keenly anticipated musical events of recent years, the premiere of Adams' Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera.

Oppenheimer was the physicist who developed the atomic bomb, director of the Manhattan Project that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he was also an aesthete, a devotee of poetry by John Donne, Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita (which he read in the original Sanskrit).

Thus, a pivotal scene in the opera has Oppenheimer (baritone Gerald Finley), on the eve of the bomb's first test detonation on July 16, 1945, delivering a passionate aria of a Donne sonnet that begins, "Batter my heart, three person'd God."

In a characteristically arty touch, Oppenheimer named the nuclear test site in New Mexico's high desert Trinity, after the Donne poem. Looming above the singer was the bomb, a spiky sphere suspended from scaffolding, draped in a shroud.

As a musical experience - a sensory experience - Doctor Atomic is awesome. Especially from an orchestral standpoint, it's almost physical in its impact. (Performances continue through Saturday; this report is from the Oct. 11 performance.) The pit was crammed with 71 players, including a fearsome array of percussion, to negotiate Adams' score under conductor Donald Runnicles.

But there's also something maddening about Doctor Atomic, which is guaranteed a long life because of Adams' stature as America's most popular living composer. Like Oppenheimer himself, the three-hour opera often is just too brilliant for its own good, with a fiendishly brainy libretto by Peter Sellars, who also directed.

Adams' forte is his richly textured orchestral writing, and that is what made the most compelling impression. The slithery strings of science fiction movie soundtracks and the man-machine rhythms of Edgard Varese are two influences Adams has incorporated into his musical vision of a "post-nuclear holocaust landscape."

You could also hear strains of Kurt Weill's mordant dance tunes, as well as the pulsating intensity of Wagnerian love themes, often with a ghoulish harmonic twist. The chirpy ostinatos of Adams' early minimalist style show up from time to time.

In addition to its powerhouse orchestra, the opera has a sequence of electronic "soundscapes," densely interwoven washes of thunder and rainfall and the clash of metal on metal, or big-band singer Jo Stafford warbling amid the drone of bombers, all piped through a surround-sound system in the darkened theater.

Principal singers used wireless microphones, which didn't endear the production to traditionalists, but the amplification was necessary given the thick orchestration and actorly demands of Sellars' staging.

Doctor Atomic reunited Adams and Sellars, who directed the composer's other topical operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. This time around, the director also wrote the libretto, stepping in to replace Alice Goodman, librettist for Nixon and Klinghoffer, who has become an Anglican minister.

Actually, the libretto was not so much written as compiled from histories and memoirs of the creation of the atomic bomb, government documents and poetry. Sellars, the onetime enfant terrible of opera, responsible for such flamboyant concepts as setting Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Trump Tower, is a prodigious researcher, and his source list for the libretto took up a page in the program.

But for all its inventiveness, the libretto doesn't really work in a dramatic sense, at least on first hearing. Like other Adams-Sellars collaborations, it is a sort of oratorio, lacking the development of character and relationships that make a good story. Even Oppenheimer seems opaque.

Surprisingly, where the performance sometimes founders badly was in the singing of the poetry, which felt more exhausting than illuminating.

Kitty Oppenheimer, the physicist's wife, played by soprano Kristine Jepson, has a long soliloquy to open Act 2, a setting of Easter Eve, 1945 by Muriel Rukeyser, whose poetry is big part of the libretto. In a way, it is the spiritual center of the opera, with its "Night of the soul" imagery. The music is ravishing, but the language is almost impenetrable in its dreamlike complexity.

Better is the Act 1 setting of another Rukeyser verse, Am I In Your Light?, Kitty's bedroom aria to her husband, who responds, typically, with Baudelaire's lush love poetry.

Doctor Atomic has a mostly male cast, reflecting the army of scientists who labored at Los Alamos. To get another woman's voice, Adams and Sellars created a fictional character, the Navajo maid Pasqualita (mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton), whose lullaby to the Oppenheimers' baby brings some earth religion to the musical-philosophical mix.

The most profound achievement of Adams' opera is the subject itself, as gravely relevant now as ever with the threat of nuclear terrorism. The moral debate over the bomb is established early, in a scene with Oppenheimer and his colleagues, Edward Teller (baritone Richard Paul Fink) and Robert Wilson (tenor Thomas Glenn). Wilson urges that the Japanese must be allowed to witness the bomb in a demonstration and given a chance to surrender.

But Oppenheimer, a chain-smoking enigma in porkpie hat, launches into a chilling ode to the visual impact of the bomb's explosion, its "brilliant luminescence," and says that the Japanese can't be warned.

Sellars' staging was stark, focused on primal elements such as the bomb (poised above a crib at one point) and the silhouette of the Sangre de Cristos Mountains in Adrianne Lobel's set. This is an opera in which dance is important, with choreography by Lucinda Childs, and James F. Ingalls' lighting was full of fiery yellow and red.

Doctor Atomic is something of a bittersweet swan song for Pamela Rosenberg, general director of San Francisco Opera, who asked Adams to tackle an opera on Oppenheimer, an "American Faust" in her formulation of the project. Rosenberg came to San Francisco in 2001 with a mandate to shake up the country's second-largest opera company, and she did that, with U.S. premieres of such difficult works as Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise amd Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, as well as the Adams commission.

San Francisco has a great opera audience, as supportive of new work as any (though there were empty seats after intermission at Doctor Atomic), but Rosenberg fell afoul of financial reality when the company had enormous deficits and cut back her ambitious plans.

She is leaving next year to become general director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Germany's leading symphony orchestra, but that may not be as big a stretch as it seems. Though Rosenberg is a California native, she made her mark as an administrator of European opera companies. She'll be succeeded in San Francisco by David Gockley, who has an admirable record of innovative work at Houston Grand Opera.

Doctor Atomic is headed for Lyric Opera of Chicago, Netherlands Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in upcoming seasons. If Adams and Sellars revise the work, perhaps they'll pay attention to the slow second act, an 85-minute buildup to the bomb blast, with little in the way of narrative drive. Still, in a preperformance talk last week, the composer defended it.

"Act 2 is all about waiting," Adams said. "Waiting, in a way, is the essence of 20th century art. Waiting for Godot. Waiting for Lefty. Everyone knows the bomb is going to go off."

And how does this opera with the most horrific of endings actually end? Not with a bang or a mushroom cloud - Adams and Sellars are far too canny to try to pull that off - but not with a whimper, either.

Instead, there's a skittering, anxious quality to the countdown, with the odd chime and muted trumpet, electronic scream and mournful chorus poking out of the orchestra's dissonant chords. Then comes the glimmer of light from a distance, ambient street noise, the murmur of voices, the sound of a baby and, finally, a woman speaking calmly in Japanese.

Bringing the immensity of the bomb down to such an intimate, human level was a powerful piece of theater.

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com