"My soul floats on words the way other mens' souls float on music." (Oppenheimer, Doctor Atomic,Act I)
It is still a mystery exactly why Met Opera director Peter Gelb decided to ditch Peter Sellars' production of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which I first saw in January at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It is even more of a mystery to me now, having seen Penny Woolcock's new production at the Met Saturday night, which didn't appear to be all that different from the original. One thing I did hear was that Gelb had an issue with Sellars visual representation of the Bomb: a huge metal globe covered with wires that hung over the stage for much of the opera.
So, how did Ms. Woolcock choose to represent the bomb? As a huge metal globe covered with wires that hung over the stage for much of the opera.
I don't mean to disparage Ms. Woolcock, who has offered a decent - if somewhat static - production of this three-year-old opera, which marks Adams' long-overdue Met debut. But, Sellars was far more than just the director of the original production: he was the librettist and co-creator, just as responsible for the final vision of the work as Adams himself. Moreover, Sellars has been instrumental in realizing all of Adams' prior operas, starting with Nixon In China twenty-one years ago. Whatever Gelb's beef is with Sellars, did he really think he'd be better off with a first-time director, who until last year had never even seen an opera performed live?
Fortunately, Adams' potent, powerful music is still intact, melding electronic and acoustic effects to portray the moments leading up to the birth of the atomic age. (Apparently, this too was in jeopardy, as Woolcock had initially requested cuts from the score; Adams refused.) Adams is a highly skilled colorist, painting the space around the words, rather than the words themselves. The final two minutes of the countdown must rank among the most tension-filled in all of opera, thanks to the elongated time (they actually last ten minutes), as well as our awareness of the horror that is about to be unleashed.
Also retained from the original production is much of the cast, including bass Eric Owens as Gen. Leslie Groves, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller - and the remarkable Gerard Finley, who seems to have immersed himself even more deeply into the role of Robert Oppenheimer, particularly the riveting Act I aria "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God." Joining them is the young mezzo Sasha Cooke, who manages a fine - if tepid - portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer.
At the opera's close, the two twenty-foot towers - which previously held rows of feverishly-working scientists - collapsed forward, recalling the iconic wreckage of the World Trade Center. Then, as the last bass rumblings of the bomb faded away, a recording was played of a Japanese woman pleading desperately for water: a clear reference to the soon-to-be-realized use of the bomb on real people. As in Chicago, there was a long, eerie silence after Alan Gilbert's hands fell for the last time, everyone seemingly uncertain about how they should react. It was a riveting moment, given the raucous applause that usually accompanies the Met's curtain fall.
Postscript: A completely unwelcome addition were the cameras pitted throughout the theater, which were there to dress for this Saturday's HD broadcast. I realize this is all part of Gelb's mission to bring opera to the widest possible audience, but there is a fine line between outreach and overexposure - especially when it takes the form of a rodent-like contraption scurrying along the stage apron. (More pics below and here.)