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An explosive premiere

S.F. Opera stages John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic' lavishly but with too little passion.

October 03, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — THE atmosphere at the War Memorial Opera House here Saturday night was charged for the premiere of John Adams' new opera, "Doctor Atomic." As the lights went down, an electronic soundscape filled the darkened hall. Distant noises -- from machines, voices, 1945 radio snippets -- ushered us out of our world and into that of the opera.

Doctor Atomic is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led a group of acclaimed scientists in the remarkable race against the Germans to build the world's first nuclear weapon. The opera focuses on the bomb's secret test in summer 1945 in the New Mexico desert. When, at the end, the test succeeds, so do Adams and the librettist and stage director Peter Sellars, forcing us to face exactly what that mushroom cloud means.

This climax contains some of the most powerful and haunting music Adams has written. It relies on one of the most astonishing bits of stagecraft Sellars has conceived. It expands your consciousness in the way opera is uniquely qualified to do on those rare occasions when the art form is working with all its cylinders firing.

New operas are always big events, but the hype surrounding this one went off the scale. Adams is a cultural hero in the Bay Area. Oppenheimer, who was drafted from UC Berkeley to run the clandestine Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., cast a large shadow over this region. The bomb, of course, cast a shadow larger than any other over all humanity. It still does.

Atomic zeal has certainly overtaken the Bay Area. Nuclear physicists, historians, Beat poets, Jungian psychologists and experimental artists have all gotten into the act in a feast of ancillary events surrounding the premiere. No audience has been better prepared for a new work. And anyone planning to attend a performance of "Doctor Atomic" should report for duty at least an hour early to read the thorough, really smart program book.

But the mood Saturday night was also one of concern. Reports of trouble had been leaking from San Francisco Opera, which commissioned "Doctor Atomic," for weeks. During the summer, the most celebrated singer in the cast, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, suffered back problems and was forced to drop out. Other singers left because of problems with either the music or the staging. I kept hearing the word "disaster."

Make no mistake, "Doctor Atomic" is a magnificent accomplishment that easily takes its place alongside the other Adams-Sellars triumphs -- "Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "El Nino" -- and in important respects goes beyond them. It contains music of unearthly splendor and gorgeous lushness, and its rich expressivity will take many hearings to absorb.

The libretto that Sellars has ingeniously collated from documentary material and poetry is a singular accomplishment that deeply humanizes yet also profoundly mythologizes its subjects and subject matter. The complex production, which incorporates light, dance (choreographed by Lucinda Childs), ritual and realism, has unforgettable moments, though it too will take time to fully grasp.

So calling the evening a disaster would be a huge exaggeration. The performance Saturday, however, was not elevated.

First the work itself. Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist who wrestled with the greatest moral issue of all as he guided the construction of the first weapons of mass destruction and their use on two unsuspecting Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the final cataclysm of World War II. A man devoted to poetry and inner reflection, a pragmatist but also a sensualist, he knew what it means to lose a soul.

"Doctor Atomic" opens at the Los Alamos laboratory, June 1945, with the frenzy of finishing the bomb, with Oppenheimer trying to keep high-strung scientists (the hawkish Edward Teller, the dovish Robert Wilson) on mission. His is the power of life and death, and he finds erotic release in an angst-ridden love scene with his wife, Kitty. His lines come from Baudelaire; hers, from the American poet Muriel Rukeyser. In an instant, he drops his defenses, lost in her hair, and then in another instant he needs to put those defenses right back on again.

The rest of the opera demonstrates the inexorable power the bomb has over the men as they wrestle with the possibility of igniting the atmosphere during a freak electrical storm on the night of the test. Back at home, the implications of mass death are understood by the women -- Kitty and her Native American maid, Pasqualita.

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