Last night, I heard John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the experience was as searing and devastating as the title indicates. In unscripted remarks made before the performance, director/librettist Peter Sellars put the opera in context:
"At this very moment, there are 6700 live nuclear warheads in this country, ready to be launched at a moment's notice. Six minutes from now, the city of Chicago could be completely eliminated."
The opera is set on the day leading up to the first live nuclear test in New Mexico. Sellars told us that Adams' most remarkable achievement - outside his harmonically and rhythmically complex music - is how he plays with time. The last twenty minutes before detonation take forty; the last two minutes last nearly ten. For an artform ruled by measures and time signatures, there is perhaps no device more radical, or more stunning (Messiaen also did this in Saint Francois d'Assise.) As Oppenheimer sings towards the end of Act II:
"There are no more minutes, no more seconds. Time has disappeared. Eternity reigns now."
At curtain time, the house looked to be ne arly full, with a healthy mix of young and well-heeled. (I spotted Thomas Hampson and Renee Fleming sitting together in the orchestra; they are both in town to sing La Traviata.) The opera lasted three-and-a-half hours, with one intermission. My general impression of it: Sellars' direction and libretto were frequently ove rwrought, but effectively served the story. As for the music, this is this is easily Adams' darkest score, full of ominous bass and timpani, as well as electronic effects amplified through speakers placed around the hall. As the sun comes up in the wrenching second act, I kept hearing chords similar to those in Wagner's Ring, drawing an implicit comparison between the nuclear dawn and the twilight of the Gods.
Among the performers, baritone Gerald Finley stood out as Robert Oppenheimer. His performance was generally reserved, with one stunning exception: Adams' setting of the John Donne sonnet, "Batter My Heart, O Three-Personed God!", which Finley sings solo at the end of Act I. (Oppenheimer named the test site "Trinity" after Donne's sonnet.) Finley's delivery was emotive and self-revealing: he pounded his chest, dropped to his knees, and looked as anguished as Jesus the night before his crucifixion, when he asks father, "to let this cup pass from my lips."
Bass Eric Owens delivered a titanic performance as Major General Leslie Groves, hovering over his subordinates with a demonic menace. Jessica Rivera, as Oppenheimer's desperate wife Kitty, managed to convey wide-eyed hysteria without once losing her poise. Other standouts included baritone Richard Paul Fink as Oppenheimer's associate and chief rival Edward Teller, tenor Thomas Glenn as the young gadfly Robert Wilson, and contralto Meredith Arwady as the Navajo nurse Pasqualita. Robert Spano led an outstanding performance of the incredibly difficult score.
The opera concludes with the nuclear detonation, shown as an eerie glow reflected in the faces of the full cast and chorus: first red, then violet, then green. After a long slow fade, with a recording of a woman speaking Japanese, the entire hall - including the orchestra pit - went dark. There was total silence for over a minute before applause started to slowly bubble up from the back, eventually rising to a raucous ovation. One of the most extraordinary moments I've ever experienced in the theater.