October 21, 2008


The Terror and Attraction of Science, Put to Song (DENNIS OVERBYE, 10/21/08, NY Times)

The tug of war between beauty and horror is the theme of “Doctor Atomic,” the opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars about the building of the atomic bomb, which opened last week at the Metropolitan Opera. It stars Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant philosopher-king of the secret society of scientists and engineers who were plucked from academia and assembled on a New Mexico mesa during World War II and told to make a bomb before the Germans did — a man as sung by Mr. Finley equally in love with the Bomb and his own inscrutability.

The opera follows events on two nights — one in June and then on the eve of July 16 during the countdown to the first test explosion at Alamogordo amid lightning and rain — as the scientists wrestle with doubts about whether “the Gadget,” as they refer to the bomb, will work, or work too well, setting the atmosphere on fire, and whether it should be dropped on humans.

As a love-starved Kitty Oppenheimer, sung by Sasha Cooke, sings, “Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war.”

“Doctor Atomic” was surely born on the dark side of science mythology. Pam Rosenberg, then director of the San Francisco Opera, wanted to do an opera about an American Faust, namely Oppenheimer, whose life certainly seemed to follow a tragic trajectory. Wealthy, articulate and effortlessly fluent in far-flung domains of learning and culture, he was the young American prince of the new science of quantum mechanics as well as a bohemian and a pal of communists (his brother Frank and his ex-lover Jean Tatlock). Less than a decade after he was hailed as the deliverer of Promethean fire and the symbol of American science, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance and banished from government circles.

But whether this story really ends badly depends on your point of view. Oppenheimer, who resisted building the hydrogen bomb, lived out his life hobnobbing with geniuses at the Institute for Advanced Study, living in a house full of Van Goghs in Princeton, sailing in St. Johns and wearing custom-made suits.

Yes, the bomb worked. Yes, it was dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite the qualms of some of the scientists who had helped build it, killing hundreds of thousands. Yes, the war ended abruptly after that, sparing everybody an Iwo Jima-style invasion of Japan, but historians and scientists still argue about whether bombing those cities was necessary.

No, the bombs have not been used since, except to terrify us.

And therein lay the tragedy, the utter waste of fifty years of Cold War and tolerance of regimes like the PRC.

False Dawn: The Met’s take on John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic.” (Alex Ross, 10/27/08, The New Yorker)

I first heard John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic”—an opera set in the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear test, on July 16, 1945—while driving toward the patch of New Mexico desert where the detonation took place. In the course of chronicling the first production of “Atomic,” at the San Francisco Opera in 2005, I had arranged to visit the Trinity site, and brought with me the composer’s computer realization of his score. An eerie trip ensued. Even as the hot gleam of the highway gave way to desolate roads and fenced-off military zones, Adams’s characteristic musical gestures—the rich-hued harmonies and bopping rhythms that have made repertory items of “Harmonielehre,” “Nixon in China,” and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”—disintegrated into broken clockwork rhythms, acid harmonies, and electronic noise.

Rehearsals for the première revealed “Atomic” to be not only an ominous score but also an uncommonly beautiful one. Scene after scene glows with strange energy. There is an inexplicably lovely choral ode to the bomb’s thirty-two-pointed explosive shell, with unison female voices floating above lush string-and-wind chords and glitterings of chimes and celesta. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the atomic project, and Kitty, his brilliant, alcoholic wife, sing sumptuous duets over an orchestra steeped in the decadent glamour of Wagner and Debussy. Oppenheimer’s central aria, a setting of the John Donne sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” has a stark Renaissance eloquence, its melody a single taut wire. The night of the countdown is taken up with a hallucinatory sequence of convulsive choruses, lurching dances, and truncated lyric flights. After the first run-through with singers and orchestra, it seemed clear that “Doctor Atomic” was Adams’s most formidable achievement to date.

Staging the opera, though, has proved a challenge.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 21, 2008 7:48 AM
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