"Could we have started the atomic age with clean hands?"
John Adams' opera DOCTOR ATOMIC asks the above question in its very first scene. It is a question that the play's protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, ducks at first, but gradually finds himself having to confront. Most of DOCTOR ATOMIC centers on the roughly 12 hours leading up to the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and specifically on Oppenheimer's crisis of conscience as the zero hour nears.
Alas, the production currently occupying the Metropolitan Opera in New York City manages to lose its way pretty thoroughly in a needlessly prolonged and almost entirely tension-free second act. I'm going to have to blame the director, one Penny Woolcock, a filmmaker who is making her theatrical debut with this production, for not ratcheting up the tension and making the characters live onstage as they should. Granted, the libretto doesn't do her any favors. Assembled by Peter Sellars from a variety of sources, the libretto is a patchwork taken from interviews, histories, and poetry. Some of the sources can be rather oblique: if I hadn't read the synopsis before the opera began, I would not have known that an extended love scene between Oppenheimer and his wife is made up almost entirely of poems by Muriel Rukeyser and Baudelaire. Other scenes involve a discussion on calorie counting between Oppenheimer and the general in charge of the operation.
Clearly, LA BOHEME this ain't. The first act progresses well enough, culminating in a marvelous aria from Oppenheimer, sung powerfully by Gerald Finley, taken from a sonnet by John Donne. Sung while standing quite literally in the shadow of the bomb, it lays out Oppenheimer's conflicts very clearly and movingly. Then Act Two begins, and the momentum simply evaporates. The test is delayed due to rain, and characters start dealing with what their development of the bomb might really mean. What might have been an opportunity for increased tension and soulful examination of motives turns out to be, quite simply, a bore. Ms. Woolcock has no idea how to move people around onstage, there are just too many scenes of people simply standing around onstage while the music plays. I started to wonder if someone had missed a cue or something. It definitely ruins the otherwise impressive final countdown sequence, played as the entire cast cowers together onstage, staring out at the audience.
It is worth noting that this is in fact the second full-blown production that DOCTOR ATOMIC has had. The first productions were directed by Peter Sellars himself, and I have a feeling he has a better handle on the material than Ms. Woolcock. The original production has been released on a DVD which I am going to have to check out shortly, just to see if Sellars' production solves the problems the opera presents. I've seen a few clips online that don't make me particularly optimistic. Maybe DOCTOR ATOMIC shouldn't be given a full production at all. I have a feeling that it might be more successfully mounted as an oratorio of some kind.
An oratorio presentation would put the attention where it belongs: on John Adams' music. I don't have the musical vocabulary to do it anything like justice, I'll just say that the score for DOCTOR ATOMIC seems to me on a first encounter to be one of Adams' finest accomplishments, along with his recent opera A FLOWERING TREE. I have no doubt that it will live a long life on my Ipod. Mr. Finley makes a very real physical impression as Oppenheimer, his cool certainty in the opening morphing gradually into anguished fear by the final moments. I have a memory of him leaning forward during the countdown, at an almost impossible angle.
I'll get the CD. If you aren't going to be able to see the production, don't lose too much sleep over it.
Here's a link to the Met Website, where you can see a trailer that makes the production look a lot better than it is: