Dr. Atomic, the opera composed by that dynamic duo John Adams and Peter Sellars and premiered in 2005 in San Francisco, has been reworked for its premier at the Met. A whopping three hours and twenty-five minutes long, it enacts the creation of the mother of all weapons—the A-bomb, the reason Japan surrendered to the Allies and the world got stuck with plutonium fallout and radiation sickness. As a grand theme it’s on par with the creation of the universe, and Sellars, overextending his reach on the libretto, drowns out the subtle but essential voice of his nuanced Pulitzer Prize–winning musical collaborator Adams. Too bad, because the most important takeaway from any memorable opera is its motifs and themes. When you walk out of a performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen you’re humming “To-re-odora,” not Carmen’s spurious words to her suitors, a simple lesson that would have served Dr. Atomic’s team and director Penny Woolcock well. With a libretto dripping in literary allusions and actual snippets of the memoirs of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer that only an English major could love, the opera fares better than the duo’s other work, the klunky Death of Klinghoffer (1991), but is a few notches below their classic Nixon in China (1987), which the Met will be restaging in the next couple of years.
The text flashed on the screen as the curtain rises, “We believe matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only altered in form,” is certainly heady stuff. The cabin-fevered young scientists stuck out at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in June, 1945, slaving away on the Manhattan Project sing pretty arias about how you can locate them just by “following the trail of beer cans from Santa Fe.” The pressure-cooker environment is exasperated by the enormous task the thousands of them face: bringing into realization the most dangerous weapon ever made, with its potential to annihilate the entire human race. But when the excess verbiage subsides, the music is sadly damped down.
With hip sets by Julian Crouch, and forward-thinking digital imagery by Fifty Nine Productions, the scenario is a mild throwback to another mid-century classic that took place around the same time: Jailhouse Rock (1957), with its stacked cubicle sets. There the rebellious one was Elvis Presley instead of the morally troubled nuclear scientist Edward Teller (played by Richard Paul Fink). The real ingénue here turns out to be not Kitty Oppenheimer (played sensuously by Sasha Cooke), the wife of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (sung by Gerald Finley), but the Periodic Table of Elements, making its appearance on stage for the first time other than on a junior high school blackboard. Personally I would rather have seen something a little more zippy, allowing Sellars poetic license to show, for instance, J. Robert teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown and Kitty rushing him to a mental hospital hours before countdown. You know, something more, well, operatic.
It is not really human beings but science and morality that serve as the flash points in this story. Man’s ability to play God and create hitherto unknown levels of mass destruction are foreshadowed through intelligently placed life-sized Hopi Kachina dolls (the Hopi word qatsina translates as “life bringer”), as spiritual and environmental arbiters. There are apocalyptic references to the Hindu God Vishnu, the creator and destroyer of existence, with the refrain “What ever world I know shines ritual death” during the detonation of the test bomb. This refrain is an allusion to Oppenheimer’s actual diary entry quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
When the bomb is about to be deployed at the Trinity test site, a massive electrical storm ensues, threatening premature detonation of the bomb due to lightning.