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In a scene from Act I of the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season, Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, l.) and Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink, r.) confer in a Los Alamos laboratory. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
20 Jan 2008

John Adams' Doctor Atomic in Chicago

John Adams, whose opera Nixon in China set the bar for post-minimalism in the lyric theatre, has once again scored a success with his latest work.

Above: In a scene from Act I of the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season, Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, l.) and Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink, r.) confer in a Los Alamos laboratory. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.


Doctor Atomic, now making its second appearance in North America at Lyric Opera of Chicago after a successful premier in San Francisco, has at its core the sound that we have come to expect from a work bearing Adams’ autograph, but the composer has expanded his sonic language, embracing an approach that straddles a very delicate compositional line: Adams, unlike many of his contemporaries, is able to be at once harmonically complex and accessible. The dense score is simultaneously engaging and tuneful.

The drama of the opera concerns itself with the work of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team at the test site of the first atomic bomb outside Los Alamos, New Mexico during the days leading up to the first detonation. Tensions build as the test approaches and conditions become less and less favorable. Oppenheimer and his staff consider the implications of their work and the strong possibility that their labor and calculations could end in folly.

The role of Oppenheimer, sung exquisitely by Gerald Finley, begs the ethical scientific questions of the first half of the 20th century. First, is a mastery of science reason enough to employ the laws of nature to destructive ends? And, additionally, if we respect the dignity of life, what are the criteria we use to decide when the time has arrived to employ devastation on such a large scale? Adams paints with broad strokes well suited to operatic characters. Acquiescing to the commands of those more powerful than he and arguing that morality has no place in a lab, Oppenheimer struggles to convince himself that he is not responsible for the global annihilation of which his “gadget” is capable. Conflicted but moving ever forward, Finley’s Oppenheimer is representative of humanity itself. Finley’s end of act one tour-de-force soliloquy “Batter my Heart” is a crystallization of this dramatic idea.

On opposite sides of the allegorical spectrum, Robert Wilson and Richard Teller respectively oppose and condone the experiment. Thomas Glenn handles the vocally demanding role of Robert Wilson securely in spite of its relentlessly high tessitura. Glenn’s characterization is appropriately urgent, as he eloquently implores Oppenheimer and the rest of the team to petition Washington to stand down on the attack until the Japanese have been given clear terms of peace. Richard Paul Fink’s characterization of Teller is chillingly laissez-faire, his matter-of-fact delivery as frightening as the bomb itself, which hangs overhead throughout the entire performance.

As Kitty Oppenheimer, Jessica Rivera provides an attractive foil to a mostly male cast. Her warm tones bring true beauty to “Am I in your light”, and her mastery of the angular, cross-registral lines show the singer off to great success. If Meredith Arwady’s vocal line is not as smooth as one might have hoped, her portrayal of Pasquelita is characterized by a rich and booming contralto. A member of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center, Ms. Arwady’s career is definitely one to watch.

Under the leadership of Donald Nally, the ensemble gives an effective, moody opening chorus and provides commentary throughout. The sense of ensemble is sure, and the musicianship unfaltering and clear. The corps de ballet, however, does not fare as well. Lucinda Childs’ choreography was abstract and moving, and it provided a great deal of much appreciated spectacle, but it is, unfortunately, executed somewhat weakly by the dancers, who seemed on several occasions dangerously off-balance. Peter Sellars’ compiled libretto is serviceable but suffers under comparison to the brilliant work of Alice Goodman, who prepared the incomparable text for Nixon in China. Sellars’ choice of texts for arioso moments, which range from the metaphysical and symbolist poets to the Bhagavad-Gita is wise, saving the director-librettist from foisting upon the composer the unhappy task of setting less lyrical texts for critical emotional moments. Sets by Adrianne Lobel were industrial and functional, helping the drama to continue along at an exciting pace.

Highest praise, however, must be extended to conductor Robert Spano, who finds the logic of the fascinatingly overwhelming score. Under his baton, Lyric’s orchestra makes sense of the polyrhythmic undulations and pan-tonal implications of the work.

Doctor Atomic is an important addition to the operatic canon. The evening continues the Adams-Sellars collaborative tradition of socio-political examination of definitive moments of modern history, and as such, is perhaps not as narratively satisfying as traditional nineteenth century opera to less experienced theatre-goers. Though it is not overwrought, this evening of theatre is operatic, and this sentiment can be found in the cardinal expression of the human heart in ethical conflict with itself. This anxiety is not particular to modernism, but its application in Doctor Atomic is extremely timely and makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening. Those who attend hoping for stage pyrotechnics and a “big bang” will be disappointed, but those who attend looking for distilled ethical conflict will leave more than satisfied.

Gregory Peebles © 2008

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