The Clouds Gather

Like the explosive “gadget” that forms its centerpiece, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic casts a blinding light upon the gloomy musical landscape. Suddenly there is something new and famous in classical music: an American opera, no less — not a rewrite of a movie script this time (as is contemporary practice among lesser souls) but a work of serious, attention-grabbing artistic stature. And if you thought that Adams might have been flirting with trouble by orchestrating Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Palestinian terrorists onto his operatic stages in his lifetime, consider that his latest foray into lands once held sacred by the likes of Mozart and Verdi terminates in a sound and a stage effect that could very well be meant to stand in for the end of the world — depicted, need I further inform you, in the brilliant, imaginative orchestral language that happens to be one of Adams’ specialties.It was appropriate, of course, for the San Francisco Opera to involve itself in a work about the conception and birth of the atomic bomb, much of whose planning took place in nearby Berkeley, where Adams himself now resides. The notion of commissioning and putting forward an opera on this level of enterprise, furthermore, reflects the mindset that made Pamela Rosenberg such a strong choice to head the company four years ago. San Francisco’s operagoers, alas, have proved not yet ready to countenance such strength. A leadership that began nobly with Messiaen’s Saint-François and ended memorably with Doctor Atomic (and embraced along the way two Handel operas in modern-dress productions, German imports that I could learn to live without) will not be soon stricken from San Francisco’s memory book.Doctor Atomic teeters precariously on a needle point of history — June
and July 1945, on the eve of the Bomb’s first test — in New Mexico at Manhattan
Project HQ in Los Alamos and at the detonation site at Alamogordo, 200 miles to
the south. Assembled around this moment of crisis are the scientists J. Robert
Oppenheimer and Edward Teller and their idealistic acolytes, facing off against
the hard-nosed military project command. Ideals and moralities do battle. Germany
has surrendered; the question resounds: Why develop so deadly a weapon merely
against Japan, which is virtually defeated anyhow? Voices offstage sound further
dissonant counterpoints: A letter from physicist Leo Szilard implores scientists
to petition President Truman against using the bomb; word comes that Enrico Fermi
is taking bets that the A-test will destroy the world’s entire atmosphere in a
chain reaction. Closer to home, an unseasonal electrical storm threatens to set
off the trial bomb (or “Gadget,” as it is known) ahead of schedule. “I demand
a signed weather forecast,” General Leslie Groves blusters at the post meteorologist,
“and if you are wrong I will hang you.” Interesting operatic material this, beside
which Adams’ Nixon in China might pass for La Traviata redux.
This Is How It Ends …
I wrote some months ago, in a different context, that the words of Peter Sellars cry out for musical setting. Here we are, then; Sellars’ libretto for Doctor Atomic constitutes a poetic and rhetorical foundation that endows its dark life even beyond musical considerations. Much of his text derives from military and scientific notes and from conversational scribblings possibly fished out of wastebaskets — chitchat, for example, about General Groves’ dieting problems. For leavening there are the human sidelights: family life among the Oppenheimers, with alcoholic Kitty drawing solace from Muriel Rukeyser poetry, Robert lost in lines from John Donne. Pasqualita, their Navajo nanny, croons her own visions. From these discordant fragments, personages take shape in the dimly lit desert landscape — and that is the genius of Sellars’ words. Subtle, anticipatory moments nudge the alert observer. One of the scientists mentions Hiroshima among possible Japanese target cities, and Adams’ orchestra gives off a meaningful groan. At the final curtain, as a chorus down front cries out its anticipation of humanity’s oncoming agony, the words of a single Japanese woman sound above the multitude.
Measured against its time and place — a major Hiroshima anniversary year, widely
observed in literature and conferences, nowhere more assiduously than in and around
the Bay Area, where so much of the thinking began — Doctor Atomic might
be easy to tag as a work of ambitious opportunism. Adams, as with his 9/11-inspired,
Pulitzer-honored On the Transmigration of Souls, has no problems in transforming
contemporary headlines into important, large-scale musical designs. The wonder
of Doctor Atomic, overriding the timelessness of its subject matter and
the intelligence in the way it has been set forth, is the deep penetration of
Adams’ music into the troubled souls of his characters. More than in any large-scale
work of his to date, I get the sense here of extraordinary mastery over a vast
spread of expressive technique, and the intelligence to summon its variety at
the proper moment. This is operatic writing in the grandest sense, the more so
for it being entirely of its own time — and ours.
Pamela Rosenberg speaks of the opera as the last in a series she has produced to reflect the Faust legend. In the Doctor Atomic of Adams/Sellars I detect more of Wagner’s Parsifal and, in their troubled genius/mystic/hero, the tortured martyr Amfortas himself. “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” cries Oppenheimer at the shattering first-act curtain under the Bomb’s menacing shadow, in the words of John Donne that had given the Bomb project the subtitle Trinity, “for I never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” Later in atomic history Oppenheimer will feel the thrust of the betrayer’s spear, as Edward Teller leads the inquisition that will bleed him of his stature among scientists. But that is matter for another opera, another time.At San Francisco’s Opera House, where I attended the third and fourth mountings of Doctor Atomic last weekend, Donald Runnicles led bone-chilling performances of Adams’ many-edged music, before not-quite-sellout audiences. Gerald Finley is the Oppenheimer; Kristine Jepson has the underwritten and arguably superfluous role of Kitty; Richard Paul Fink is Teller; and the real star, the Bomb itself, hangs over the production like some evil-eyed monster from the deep about to swallow us all. The marvelous abstractions of Lucinda Childs’ choreography take us back to her work in Einstein on the Beach, and that seems exactly right. The work needed to be heard twice; I found it the brainiest, the most challenging of Adams’ large-scale stage works, the one least subject to easy solutions. Even the final explosion, which everyone in the theater knows is coming, turns up in Adams’ music and Sellars’ staging as a splendid and imaginative backward thought. Since there are four performances left this coming week, I will say no more.

LA Weekly