The Metropolitan Opera – Doctor Atomic

John Adams
Doctor Atomic – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Peter Sellars

Kitty Oppenheimer – Sasha Cooke
Pasqualita – Meredith Arwady
J. Robert Oppenheimer – Gerald Finley
Edward Teller – Richard Paul Fink
General Leslie Groves – Eric Owens

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Alan Gilbert

Penny Woodcock – Producer & Director
Julian Crouch – Set Design
Catherine Zuber – Costume Design
Brian MacDevitt – Lighting
Andrew Dawson – Choreography
Fifty Nine Productions – Video Design
Mark Grey – Sound Design

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 18 October, 2008
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

A scene from John Adams’s 'Doctor Atomic.' Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaA quick look at the audience arriving for this matinee performance of John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” revealed a large contingent of younger listeners, downtownish hipsters and casually dressed attendees for the second performance in the debut run of film director Penny Woodcock’s production.

Before the opera begins, the image of the atomic periodic table is projected on a dark screen, which rises to reveal an imposing set, designed by Julian Crouch, dominated by walls of cubicle-like rectangles that mimic the periodic table. These sets-on-walls move and morph for each scene, transforming from tiny offices occupied by manic scientists scrawling formulas on chalkboards to oriental-style paper screen walls to military guard towers. They dwarf the cast and the sparse props (drafting tables, equipment crates, the bed and lamp in Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer’s bedroom, a film projector shining “Beau Geste” onto a wall), putting the protagonists not on a larger-than-life scale but that of important players overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Manhattan Project.

Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer and Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaWoolcock’s direction imparts the majority of the characters with a manic, nervous energy, in which even the more meditative scenes – Oppenheimer’s aria on John Donne’s “Batter my heart” that concludes Act One and Kitty’s frustration-laden meditation in Act Two – crackle with an undercurrent of forces outside of their control. The reflections of native American housekeeper Pasqualita bring stretches of serenity that is both ironic and tragic in light not only of the goal of Oppenheimer and his team but the social forces of mid-20th-cetury America.

For the libretto, Adams turned to the gifted and controversial Peter Sellars, who assembled a “found” libretto from diaries, literature favored by Oppenheimer and government transcripts and documents, many of which had been only recently declassified at the time of the work’s creation. The resulting text illuminates not only the complexities and contradictions of those who managed the Manhattan Project – sometimes making Oppenheimer look more the heavy or the weasel than the “hero” – but the underlying moral and ethical dilemma of developing an horrific weapon in the face of a protracted war in the Pacific.

Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller (with back to the camera) and Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaThe words of the history-makers and the literature they favored tell the story through Sellars’s carefully selected and assembled libretto, structured in such a way that even the reflective texts enhance the dramatic action as the Manhattan Project hurtles with anxious momentum toward its ultimate goal. This is Sellars’s finest theatrical achievement – brilliant work that is in stark opposition to the often frustratingly impertinent nature of his operatic productions, including that of Adams’s “El Niño”, in which the visual presentation thoroughly undermined the music.

The score includes a large number of electronic sequences, majestically static and panoramic stretches of sound that contain both ominous and beautiful drones and sounds, some derived from plane and truck engines. The orchestral and vocal music is far and away the most ‘beautiful’ of Adams’s large-scale work, written in his individual ‘mash-up’ of minimalism and neo-romanticism, and in “Doctor Atomic” he seems to have found at last an ideal amalgam of text and melodic line that suits the action and mood; the long soliloquies of Oppenheimer and Kitty brought to mind some of Britten’s finest operatic moments. Adams also employs the most effective orchestration of any work he has written to date, including the interludes; the memorable final orchestral-electronic epilogue, its long, metamorphosing chords and droning rumbles, is nearly overpowering in magnitude.

A scene from John Adams’s 'Doctor Atomic.' Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaWoodcock and the Met decided to take the controversial path of ‘miking’ the cast due to balance issues with some of the electronic music, and the overall effect was nothing less than natural and unobtrusive – a testimony not only to the discretion of Woodcock and the Met’s superb technical staff but the state of the electronic art. The orchestral music itself was conveyed with a bit less dynamic nuance, color and bite than one normally expects from Adams, and there were more than a few ragged attacks from the usually ultra-precise Met Orchestra under the direction of New York Philharmonic music director designate Alan Gilbert.

The cast was uniformly impressive, and no doubt chosen in part for their highly distinctive voices. As Oppenheimer, Gerald Finley was particularly effective in conveying the scientist’s frustration and moral confusion, particularly in the emotionally fulcral final scene of Act One, ‘Batter my heart’. Sasha Cooke’s strong acting and vocal delivery, with both a warm mezzo voice and stunningly clear diction, brought sympathetic depth to the role of Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, battling the frustration of isolation and boredom while turning too often to the bottle to soothe her pain.

Richard Paul Fink brought Edward Teller to life as a decisive, steely foil to Oppenheimer. Eric Owens generated an aura of grim duty with flashes of absurdity, humor and frustration as General Groves. In the role of Pasqualita, Meredith Arwady’s massive voice blossomed with imagery of nature from a native American perspective, conveyed with a sense of hope and tragedy.

Even the smaller roles – Thomas Glenn’s Bob Wilson, Earle Patriarco’s Hubbard and Roger Honeywell’s Captain Nolan – conveyed the individuality and urgency of players who find themselves more trapped on history’s stage than participating in a project that redefined political and military power.

Adams, Woolcock, the magnificent cast and technical team have succeeded in mounting a production of this vital new work that will leave the audience puzzling the gargantuan moral questions which this opera sets out not to answer but to ask again in the midst of a tumultuous time of anxiety and change. These questions are given a final punctuation with a chilling and moving gesture following Adams’s slow-moving depiction of the Manhattan Project’s “gadget”. This important Met production is likely to be one of the highlights of a season that had already been off to an impressive start.

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