First the good. Make no mistake, there is some very wonderful, top-shelf Adamsian music in Dr. Atomic, especially the opening chorus, the first Kitty Oppenheimer aria, the Donne aria at the end of the first act, some of the Kitty business in the second act, the tenor aria in the second act, and any number of wonderful orchestral interludes.
But dramatically, Dr. Atomic is kind of a mess, veering clumsily between the type of opera it wants to be, and ultimately saying nothing of great interest about its subject, the bomb. And at its weakest points, trivializing it something fierce.
Now, this is a bit of a dangerous case--like others, I've been imagining this opera in my mind for two years now, getting stoked about it, reading articles about it, and generally developing a bushel of preconceived notions about it. So criticism noted if it sounds like I wanted it to be a different opera than it is. But at the same time, I've wanted this to be a great theatrical experience for a long time now, and, while my usual MO is to leave over-hyped things praising the good and looking for excuses for the bad, I left Dr. Atomic with few charitable feelings.
The libretto is the big problem. As we've read, Sellars' libretto is largely drawn from a combination of source material and poetry inspired by the things Oppenheimer and others were famously reading at the time. Certainly sounds good on paper. But the result is basically a total lack of any narrative thrust to the opera. The Kitty Oppenheimer character, who ends up with the lion's share of the lyrical writing, expresses herself almost entirely in broadly relevant poetry. By the end of the night, it sounds like gibberish. Like the woozy feeling one gets after 2 hours of really expressionistic spoken word. Yeah, I guess the words are pretty, and maybe if I sat down with it I would get what it means about the bomb, but an opera on the move is no place for it.
The other side of the coin, the mundane detail material, just sounds really boring when sung. You can see how a straight play composed of this material would work, but the inherent gravity of singing makes these essentially worthless details seem terribly irrelevant. You sit there thinking "Am I really listening to someone sing this stuff?" Mind you, it works for a while in the beginning of the show, when we would expect more exposition setting the stage for the bomb. But later, when we want the work to come together emotionally and intellectually, it just feels like our time is being wasted.
Other parts of the libretto are just bizarre mis-steps. Somehow, in the midst of all this dread and oppressive authority, we are supposed to swallow the Leslie Groves character as a buffoon? Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Manhattan Project knows that Groves was about as far from a buffoon as you can possibly get. Yet here we have the character milking the same stupid joke about not accepting the weather forecast over and over again. And then the weird-ass exchange about his dieting at the end of the first Act. Yeah, I'm sure it's based on something real, but at that point in the show it just comes off as an inappropriate cheap laugh.
The Oppenheimer character is certainly less vulgar, but its ultimate failure is revealing as far as the libretto's larger problems go. No one is expecting a historical facsimile, but Oppenheimer isn't exactly some obscure figure--he's a towering enigma in the popular imagination and historians have spent countless words attempting to understand the character of his remorse about the bomb. Given that, a clear dramatic choice would have been to explore him as both the villain and ultimate conscience of the play, letting him drive the project on and then ruminating on what he has done of his own free will. But this Oppenheimer just wallows in regret for the bulk of his time, as though he's being coerced against his will to finish the thing. I guess it makes him sympathetic, but it also makes him terribly uninteresting.
The ham-handed staging exacerbates all of this. The libretto demands this sort of cinematic structure for a great deal of the opera. If you were to count up the individual scenes French style, the mind boggles. This may be an inherent flaw, but regardless, it demanded some sort of imaginative staging conceit to keep it in line. Instead, characters just walk all over the place willy-nilly. With a few exceptions, its impossible to invest anything in the exchanges because someone takes a few paces stage left and all of a sudden they're in the desert or back in the living room or something. And speaking of the living room--where the f is Oppenheimer supposed to be during the middle of the second act? It's supposedly a few hours before the test, there's a living room set downstage where Kitty is, and he seems to flit between the living room and the control room at the test site at will. Maybe wouldn't be a problem in something more abstract, but the staging is often so brutally literal that just ignoring those barriers when you feel like it ends up looking sloppy.
The staging also suffers from a serious lack of faith in the music. Very beautiful internal arias that should be simple showcases for vocal acting are marred by all sorts of superfluous movement, i.e. the cringeworthy "break, blow, batten" motions in the Oppenheimer Donne aria. Also the attempts to turn Kitty's second act opener into an actual scene with the maid caring for her and such, because she is obviously going nuts shrieking marginally applicable poetry in the middle of the living room. Opera gives you a free pass to let people get up and just sing these things. Why feel you have to illustrate them?
Which brings us to the Indian maid character. This is a really unfortunate choice. Are we in 1992? Do we need to throw in an essentialized Native American who likes to scold people for raping the earth? When I read about this, I thought "hmm, that sounds sort of suspect, but I trust them, it is probably tasteful and haunting." Wrong. It is almost exactly as cheap as you fear.
I won't continue, but the staging has other problems, like the random, pedestrian dance sequences determined to not allow us any alone time to dwell on Adams' wonderful interludes. I found myself looking at the ceiling just to get away.
By the end, when we finally get to the detonation, it all just seems like so much self-serving anxiety. There are so many interesting, still unanswered questions about the bomb, and all we get is heavy handed dread. Cuz you know, the bomb is fucked up and stuff. And sure, its fucked up. But does anyone deliberately seeing this opera really need that pounded into their heads? I think not. What we could have used were Death of Klinghoffer tough questions--real problematic questions that opera, with its ability to demonstrate deep emotions and motivations like no other art, can illuminate in new and powerful ways.
The heartbreaker is that I spent the first 10 minutes or so really excited because I thought that's where it was going to go. The opening chorus is this perfect John Adams harmony--you're unclear whether it's glorious major or glorious minor, the articulation is impeccable, the intellectual and musical coexisting in stark relief: the chorus is chanting "We believe matter is neither created or destroyed, we believe energy is neither created or destroyed, etc." It evoked something new and chilling about the beauty of the 20th century's faith in the elegance of science, and the inevitable and terrible thing which will grow from that faith. Now there's a tough question about the bomb: if one really considers the scientific discoveries of the teens, 20s and 30s--those marvelous revelations that changed so much of the world we live in--its pretty impossible to imagine that nuclear energy, and its military potential, wouldn't be developed. Oppenheimer and crew had reservations about the thing, and joined up anyhow in many ways based on that logic. So can we really hope for some 'pure' state of nature without the prospect of nuclear war? Or is our fate inextricably tied to nuclear weapons? For that matter, would we want to live in a world without nuclear weapons? Where mutual deterrence wouldn't be around to prevent another cataclysm of the magnitude of World War II?
But by the end of Dr. Atomic we have nothing approaching a tough question. We just have a lot of pretty sounding mush and upset faces. Because in case you forgot, the bomb is fucked up.
Oh yeah. The singers. I had vague impressions that Gerald Finley and the tenor (Thomas Glenn) had nice sounds, and Jessica Rivera (Kitty) had a powerful but not very nice sound. But who could judge with the brutal mic-ing? This was not subtle enhancement. It was full-bore amplification which reduced everyone's sound to a single level and muted any individual nuance. I've read that this is because there are electronic sound effects (extremely grating, BTW) but to me at least, it didn't seem like much solo singing was done while the effects were on, so I don't know why they felt this necessary.
Nice work from Robert Spano and the Lyric orchestra and chorus. If the regular Met chorus does this in a year, they are going to need to step it up.