Fission Power

Illustration by Rodrigo CorralPhoto: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Was there ever a more operatic sunrise than the artificial one loosed upon the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945? All through the previous night, slantways rain and lightning bolts slammed around an ungainly metal ovoid, bristling with wires and primed to wreak inconceivable destruction. An angry general demanded obedience from the skies. An unnerved J. Robert Oppenheimer declaimed lines of Hindu scripture. Another scientist reassured himself that dawn would not bring the world’s end. This is the stuff that a Wagnerian epic is made of.

The first wonder of John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic is that he saw the music drama lurking in that final vigil of the pre-nuclear age. The second is that Adams has the mastery to cope with his topic’s fundamental flaw: Nothing actually happens. From first chord to final cataclysm, the blackboard oracles and slide-rule warriors can do little besides wait.

Adams has written his finest work, a darkly riveting if grandly imperfect opera. I attended the unveiling in San Francisco in 2005 and came away bewitched but fearful that opera houses might avoid such a big, contemplative, and intricate drama. The Met’s new production, directed by Penny Woolcock and spectacularly conducted by Alan Gilbert, intensifies the music’s strengths and sharpens the libretto’s weaknesses. Gilbert has a gift for seeing the lucid core in mountains of complex detail, and he reveals a score of microscopic clarity and panoramic sweep. The text that Peter Sellars fashioned out of memoir, oral history, and other people’s verse remains an inelegant thing, lurching between documentary and mythic modes. But then Adams could set a Chinese-takeout menu to music without sacrificing lyric fluency.

Doctor Atomic rumbles toward the inevitable with ravishing dread, reaching a peak of poignancy in the final fifteen minutes of Act One. “There is an air of excitement at the camp that I do not like,” barks General Leslie Groves, but the composer thrills to disquiet. Pumping rhythms give off syncopated sparks and dangerous little fanfares. As the general and Oppenheimer contemplate the possibility that an errant gust of radioactive wind could poison people for miles around, the score judders with percussive intensity—a herky-jerky dance of industry and panic. Then, suddenly, the adrenaline abates. The orchestration thins to a nocturnal wash of strings, with minor glints of brass and a horn murmuring pianissimo. From his early experience as a minimalist, Adams learned to organize nothingness. Here, two burdened men float on a cushion of soft recitative into intimate trivialities about the general’s diet. “Three pieces of chocolate cake—300 calories,” Groves sings mournfully, and there’s something touching about his faith that such things will continue to matter.

For three years now, Eric Owens has been singing the role of Groves and Gerald Finley has inhabited Oppenheimer, and each has had time to burrow deep into his character. Owens tries to instill calm and winds up spreading terror with his meaty basso. Finley, chain-smoking and jittery, seems constantly on the verge of psychosis, yet he sings with the mellow baritone of a man about to stride into legend. Oppenheimer ends the act with John Donne’s poem “Batter My Heart,” set to music that recalls a lament by Henry Purcell. The melody sighs, slides, and recovers by leaps, only to roll back gently into exalted gloom. This is the opera’s hit single, and its power comes from sweeping away the cluttered rattle of building, calculating, fretting, and arguing. Donne pleads for faith to storm his hesitant soul; Oppenheimer utters his doubts aloud and alone, asking for certainty that the course of mass destruction is just.

The real Oppenheimer did whip out a volume of verse in moments of stress, and he loved Donne’s invocation of a “three-person’d God” so well that he named the Trinity site for it. So long as Sellars sticks to the historical record of the Manhattan Project, the opera thrums briskly along, with Adams deftly threading together the scientists’ terror and self-satisfaction. The chorus in the opening scene helpfully explains that “we surround the plutonium core from 32 points spaced equally around its surface [to form] … an icosahedron interwoven with the twelve pentagonal faces of a dodecahedron.” Adams threshes that bushel of syllables deftly, separating the sense of focused urgency from the chaff of technical verbiage.

This leaden lingo sounds fleeter and truer than the opaque poetry of the characters’ confessional mode. Kitty Oppenheimer might have been more persuasive as a troubled heroine if she had been allowed to utter her own words, instead of being saddled with the language of the poet Muriel Rukeyser. In the Oppenheimer bedroom, while the great man reads, his volatile wife suggests a snuggle with a jab of apocalyptic verse. (“My eyes / Splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love.”) He parries with Baudelaire. This game of quotations, played in the privacy of the conjugal bed, turns humans into symbols draped in glittering harp glissandos. When the characters fail him, the composer retreats into beauty, and both this scene and Kitty’s Act Two aria (a setting of Rukeyser’s “Easter Eve, 1945”) are lovely baubles that Sasha Cooke sings with seductive fury.

Sellars directed the original production, available on a new Opus Arte DVD, and kept everything in constant motion, as if he didn’t trust either his own text or Adams’s music to sell the opera’s big ideas. Woolcock has pared the staging down, simplified the décor, and focused on the story. Julian Crouch’s sets are admirably humble, even childlike: Draped sheets represent New Mexico’s polychrome mountains; a mobile of suspended debris stands in for all explosions; projected equations furiously write themselves, transforming into lunatic doodles. Woolcock and Crouch wisely avoid competing with history or overwhelming the score. The production is muted because the topic is blinding, and because Adams’s music is so iridescent.

Doctor Atomic
John Adams.
The Metropolitan Opera. Through November 13.

Fission Power