October 3, 2005


'Doctor Atomic': Unleashing Powerful Forces (Tim Page, October 3, 2005, Washington Post)

There is much to admire in "Doctor Atomic," a new opera by John Adams that received its world premiere here Saturday night in a production by the San Francisco Opera.

The subject is a potent one, even though the opera seems less a portrait of the complicated and controversial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and more of an examination -- part factual "nuts and bolts," part abstracted meditation -- of the collective process of testing the world's first nuclear weapon in the New Mexico desert on the morning of July 16, 1945.

The libretto, assembled by director Peter Sellars from a variety of sources -- textbooks, petitions, letters, poetry by John Donne and Muriel Rukeyser, the Bhagavad-Gita and Native American lullabies, among others -- is protean and dramatically vital for most of the evening. And the casting, across the board, is almost unbelievably strong -- the San Francisco Opera has assembled an amazing troupe of American singers, all of them at the peak of their abilities, giving everything they have to conjure up our once and present collective nightmare.

I have rarely been able to share in the rapturous admiration that has been generally accorded to Adams's music by many critics and musicians. (He is best known for his operas "Nixon in China," in 1987, and "The Death of Klinghoffer" in 1991.) For me, his delighted appropriation of the styles of other composers has usually seemed the pastime of an ever-more-virtuosic pasticheur. Even here, in what is far and away the best score he has ever given us, it is difficult to identify any half-minute of music and say, "Oh yes, that could only be by John Adams."

And yet...

Nightmare? It worked.

An explosive premiere: S.F. Opera stages John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" lavishly but with too little passion. (Mark Swed, October 3, 2005, LA Times)

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. [...]

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 Niño" — 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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2005 8:17 AM

Is there a die-in at the finale? Complete with the skeleton masks inevitably seen at anti-war and anti-nuke rallies?

Did he crib from Sting's song "Russians" (complete with Prokofiev backround music)?

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 3, 2005 9:15 AM

Dude. The '80 are so over. Move on already.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 3, 2005 12:26 PM