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A masterful fusion in Chicago

December 18, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- A day may come when John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" -- the operatic saga of Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb that premiered in San Francisco two years ago -- will seem quaint. Maybe even as quaint as "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" (The Woman Without a Shadow), Richard Strauss' alarming fairy tale about defective gods and bickering people and the nature of light and shadow.

Strauss wrote his most elaborate opera in the first years after World War I, when it became clear that after such destruction the 20th century could not possibly be as cozy as the 19th. Adams and director Peter Sellars, who assembled a libretto from historical documents and excerpts of poetry, took the next step, reminding us of what politicians don't like to address: that the bombs built in the New Mexico desert and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II changed the world again, and in ways with which we have not adequately coped.

These two ambitious, massive operas were on display at Lyric Opera of Chicago over the weekend. Friday night, "Doctor Atomic" was given in a slightly revised version, brilliantly performed. Sellars' San Francisco production was also touched up a bit, all the better to demonstrate the opera's profound examination of vital issues. "Die Frau," seen Sunday afternoon, boasted some stunning singing in a cute new production by Paul Curran that was equally stunning in its superficiality.

That "Doctor Atomic" is a masterpiece of modern opera was not, I thought, in doubt at its first San Francisco performance. But the performance was troubled. Adams wrote the role of Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, for the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who was too ill to perform it and died the next year. The cast included many fine singers, but only one, Adams veteran James Maddalena as the weatherman Jack Hubbard, was fully convincing. Everyone else seemed cowed by the musical challenge of an ever-shifting rhythmic landscape.

That's all changed. The revised score and production were given in June by Netherlands Opera, and by the time the cast took the stage in Chicago on Friday, they had come to inhabit their roles. And with conductor Robert Spano in the pit, the opera felt in sure, expansive hands.

Gerald Finley's twitchy Oppenheimer is one of opera's most fascinatingly complex figures. Oppenheimer was husband and father, scientist and humanist, with a bent for classical poetry, and -- as leader of the Manhattan Project -- inventor and maker of the first weapon of mass destruction. Chain-smoking, Finley now captures him inside and out, nervously confronting the bullying Gen. Leslie Groves (Eric Owens) and Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink), and bursting into dark, ecstatic song, whether to express existential turmoil or the delusional elation of a Hindu god.

But Jessica Rivera is the big news in Chicago. Adams has rewritten Kitty's part for soprano, and this former resident artist of Los Angeles Opera, who got her start in Sellars' productions of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar" and Adams' "A Flowering Tree," here flowers into a major singer. Kitty is also complex. Adams has added new music for her at the end, and with Sellars keeping her on stage throughout the second act, for the buildup to the test of the bomb, she has become, more than ever, the conscious of the opera. Rivetingly dramatic, Rivera made her the literal voice of doom.

Another young singer announced herself. Meredith Arwady as Kitty's Native American maid, Pasqualita, firmly planted herself and delivered low notes that seemed to come from the center of the Earth.

The changes in Adams' score include adjustments to vocal lines and newly enriched harmonies. Sellars' staging is now less busy, which allows Lucinda Childs' dancers to fit in more tightly. With more left to the audience's imagination, James F. Ingalls' lighting all the better captures the desert colors, and Dunya Ramicova's khaki costumes, each a subtly different desert shade, seem more interesting than ever.

But Adams, unfortunately, caved in when literal-minded scientists objected to his opening chorus, which proclaimed, "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form." Over three hours, and with time slowed down with excruciating meaningfulness for the final countdown to the test, "Doctor Atomic" presents the proof of Einstein's prediction that extraordinary energy can be released from matter and that time is relative. Now the opera begins with the wussy qualification "We believed that. . . . "

Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, didn't know what to make of all the changes in the theories of light and matter that occurred in their lifetimes. "Die Frau" -- in which an empress from the realm of the gods tries to obtain a shadow from a human so that she can have children -- is confusion made mythic with some of the composer's grandest and most glorious music.

Chicago's "Die Frau" is not grand, but the opera's three ladies are. Christine Brewer, as the Dyer's wife, is astonishingly powerful and down to earth. Deborah Voigt's Empress is all shimmering silver. Jill Grove is a deliciously nasty Nurse. Curran captures the comic aspect of "Die Frau" better than most, but he never gets beyond that, and the three women might as well be housewives in a lightweight chick flick. Franz Hawlata is impressive as Barak, the Dyer; Robert Dean Smith, less so as the Emperor.

Andrew Davis conducted warmly, never letting the large orchestra threaten the singers, when, of course, it should all the time. But perhaps in a world where more than 25,000 atomic weapons exist, "Doctor Atomic" is all the threat an opera company can handle at one time.


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