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The Little Bang

October 1, 2005

Richard Paul Fink
(Edward Teller)
Thomas Glenn
(Robert Wilson)

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We Appreciate

By Allan Ulrich

With Saturday evening's world premiere of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, the San Francisco Opera has, at long last, introduced a work worthy of the company's vaunted reputation, and, in the process, put the seal on the turbulent, five-year tenure of commissioning general director Pamela Rosenberg. She leaves her post in January, with the knowledge that she has enriched the international repertoire.

The implications of the work are certainly global. Doctor Atomic is the brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose stewardship of the Manhattan Project gave us the thermonuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and confronted mankind with the possibility of annihilating itself. Drawing on historical accounts, interviews with participants and recently declassified government documents, Adams' constant collaborator, Peter Sellars, cobbled together a libretto of authentic provenance.

Gerald Finley (J. Robert Oppenheimer)
Kristine Jepson (Kitty Oppenheimer)

To that material, he added verse by Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, poets favored by Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty, and complemented them with an extract from the Bhagavad Gita, and, in one extraordinary episode, John Donne's sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." It was this poem that inspired Oppenheimer to name the New Mexico test site Trinity. And it is this poem around which Adams has fashioned the shattering neo-baroque aria that concludes Act I.

The recourse to actual historical events is nothing new for Adams and Sellars. However, for their third operatic project they have simultaneously hewed more closely to the historical record than before, and departed from it in more magical ways. Adams' evolution, from an avatar of minimalism in Nixon in China 18 years ago to a composer prepared to adopt whatever means served his dramatic needs, has not been more rigorously or sensuously revealed as it is here.

The action begins in Los Alamos three weeks before the first test of the A-bomb in 1945; the last scene and all of Act II transpire on the day before the detonation. Sellars' libretto deftly limns the participants' characters: Oppenheimer's growing self-awareness, scientist Edward Teller's calculating ambition, and the moral qualms of young physicist Robert Wilson, the last overriden by the blustering hubris of General Groves, the project's military commander. The leading women — Kitty Oppenheimer and her Navajo nanny, Pasqualita — serve as creatures of intuition, seers who sense the natural order will forever be overturned with the advent of the nuclear age.

Gerald Finley (J. Robert Oppenheimer)

Adams hasn't entirely forsaken the propulsive ostinatos and repeated rising scales of his minimalist days, but the palette is remarkably richer now, the influences not so much acknowledged as embraced, the electronics not so much decorative as organic. The opera begins with a Varèse-like prologue, a musique concrète composition Adams fashioned from the sound of power tools. Later, the interlude preceding the test seems an homage to the chromatically brooding prologue to, appropriately, the second act of Wagner's Götterdämmerung. The refined colors of Ravel often attach themselves to the vocal line. Here, Adams favors the melismatic writing, often rising to moments of sheer ecstasy, that have come to mark his extended works for the voice.

As in the productions of the two earlier operas, Sellars populates his stage with massive choruses — their opening foray was completely unintelligible — and squads of dancers, here performing Lucinda Childs' pristine, geometric unisons. This, however, is the first of the three operas in which choreography serves a genuinely philosophical function. The New Mexico license plate calls it a "Land of Enchantment," and the dancers who surround and mirror Pasqualita, as she sings a Tewa lullaby to the Oppenheimer baby, seem like spirits from an ancient culture, vainly attempting to halt an assault on civilization itself.

The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley is the latest in a growing line of distinguished artists to enter the Adams orbit. Finley's coppery instrument rode the orchestral waves; his diction was exemplary, his dedication to the role was overwhelming. Bass-baritone Richard Paul Fink was the shrewd Teller, reveling in objectivity verging on callousness. Tenor Thomas Glenn, who joined the cast late in the game, lent Robert Wilson's ethical protestations uncommon force. Bass Eric Owens provided a welcome bit of humor to Groves, more concerned about his diet than the implications of the bomb. Adams/Sellars veteran James Maddalena (the original Nixon) brought his resilient baritone and ironic inflections to Frank Hubbard, the meteorologist ordered by Groves to change the weather for the day of the test.

Members of the
San Francisco Opera Corps de Ballet

Photos by Terrence McCarthy

Beth Clayton deployed her burnished mezzo capably as Pasqualita. But mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson, who replaced Lorraine Hunt Lieberson before rehearsals began, made little of Kitty Oppenheimer. Hazy diction and an unfocused lower register robbed Adams' voluptuous setting of Rukeyser's "Easter Eve, 1945" of its musical quality and moral force, perhaps this premiere production's major disappointment.

In her San Francisco Opera debut, veteran Sellars collaborator Adrianne Lobel has fashioned a minimalist and frequently metamorphosing décor. Wooden slats and metal pipes rise and descend over a steeply raked platform incised with a mandala. Zinc lamps and work tables suggest the feverish activity at Los Alamos. At the rear, James F. Ingalls' extraordinary lighting illuminates a cut-out of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains. A model of the bomb hangs, menacingly, over the stage; even when it is covered by a shroud, its shadow remains. Dunya Ramicova's costumes credibly recreate the final days of World War II, down to Oppenheimer's porkpie hats.

Doctor Atomic may not yet be the opera that its creators hoped for. The 86-minute second act reveals moments that impede the trajectory of the piece. The actual explosion is not approached with sufficient dramatic tension; missing were the countdowns to the blast that had appeared in the version of the libretto distributed to the press. Still, while it is true that Sellars alters the perspective for the epilogue, the decision is valid artistically. Hearing the big bang is not what Doctor Atomic is about.

Despite the density of texture and sheer quantity of incident in the orchestra, it was remarkable how much of the libretto came through. But, under Donald Runnicles' vigorous, committed baton, not quite enough. As to Mark Grey's sound design, although the singers wore discreet cordless microphones, balances among the singers and the orchestra were far from ideal Saturday. If memory serves, the identical problem plagued the 1991 premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer in Brussels. Adjustments will doubtless be made both here and in the score and libretto. Casting will be revised. An Adams-Sellars project is always a living organism, a project in progress.

Doctor Atomic, which continues here through October 22, moves to the Netherlands Opera in 2007 and then to the Lyric Opera of Chicago (both co-commissioning companies). The English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera have reportedly expressed interest. Doctor Atomic may continue to live on the stage for nearly as long as the dilemma it so eloquently recreates for a new century.

(Allan Ulrich served for many years as a music and dance critic at the San Francisco Examiner, and subsequently at the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the Bay Area correspondent for Opera and the Financial Times.)

©2005 Allan Ulrich, all rights reserved