Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Return of 'The Bomb': Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera

Cast of Doctor Atomic.

REVIEW: Doctor Atomic

Santa Fe Opera Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Reproduced in the Santa Fe Opera's program booklet this summer is a photo of the August 6, 1945 issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Its headline: “Los Alamos Secret Disclosed by Truman.” Los Alamos, the site of the hyper-secretive Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, is just 36 driving miles from New Mexico's capital, Santa Fe, even less from the Santa Fe Opera. After many years' delay, Doctor Atomic, the John Adams/Peter Sellars opera that explores the lives of those who developed the bomb, finally received its company premiere here.

The world premiere of Doctor Atomic had taken place in 2005 at the San Francisco Opera, across the Bay from Berkeley’s University of California, from where hailed many of the scientists who worked on the bomb. When he started on Doctor Atomic some years earlier, composer John Adams, also a Berkeley resident, had already created two path-finding operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), whose libretti had been crafted by Alice Goodman. (These works came to be known as “CNN operas” due to their topicality in headline news.)

Having two successful libretti for Adams behind her, Goodman began writing Doctor Atomic. However, preliminary drafts reportedly took on the tone of comic-book satire (think Dr. Strangelove), diverging from the psychological realism Adams was aiming for. Goodman resigned the commission. Adams invited Peter Sellars, stage director for his first two operas and designated for this one, to write its libretto. Under time pressure, Sellars used contemporary documents of the actual protagonists, and the literature they liked, to create a series of psychological portraits, shaping them into a drama of the mind, where key characters contemplate what could have turned out for them to be the end of the world.

Audience reactions to the premiere of Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera were mixed. The opera has since been considered problematic, if also important. It has been revived, and in 2008 it reached the Metropolitan Opera. Coincident with this current revival at Santa Fe, Nonesuch has released a prestigious CD box, with an introductory essay by L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed, that makes a strong case for the opera. Adams and Sellars have rethought the work, and the staging of it here takes in aspects unique to the Santa Fe locale.

The opera centers on Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (who would for the rest of his life carry the moniker “Father of the A-Bomb”) and those close to him. A political liberal, “Oppie” (as he is called in the opera) faces down the moral dilemma of developing the bomb. The argument went that while a couple of swift bomb strikes would regrettably kill many Japanese civilians, it would avoid island-to-island warfare and save the lives of perhaps a million American and Japanese soldiers. Of significance, it would also end the costliest, most destructive war in history.

Oppie (McKinny) and Santa Fe Opera Chorus.
At the performance, the eye was drawn to the set’s singular focal point, a huge dangling and glinting metallic sphere, new for this production, whose symbolic intent will shift from that of an atomic neutron, to the bomb being tested (named “Trinity” by Oppie, after a poem by John Donne), to the anticipated explosion of same, and even probably also to the orb-shaped Earth.

The action is conversational, taking place in the 24-hour period before the first test was launched. It shifts between three locales: the work environment at Los Alamos, the nearby Oppenheimer home, and the Trinity test site. 

Adam’s semi-minimalist score is full of punchy phrases, nervous string figurations, ejaculatory brass exclamations, and pulsing bass lines. Vocalizations tend to be functional, avoiding all but a few lyrical flights. Most of the vocal phrases end on a note-drop of some degree in the musical scale. The pattern becomes as predictable, and annoying, as a nervous tick. But its coiled energy reflects an unrelenting agitation within the protagonists, heightening their tensions -- as explosive within them, it would seem, as the bomb itself. The internalized dialogues give the work environments and domestic locales a crabbed, panicky feel, like psychological prisons. (Although written in a completely different musical idiom, the anxiety depicted in this work unfolds not unlike the inexorably mounting tension of Britten's The Turn of the Screw.)

Plangent baritone Ryan McKinny’s Oppenheimer is at the center of the action. His character switches from conversations with his colleagues to intimacy with wife Kitty (rich-voiced soprano Julia Bullock). Various supernumeraries and dancers inhabit the stage, often it would seem to provide something for the eye to focus on while the cast members ruminate.

Oppie (McKinny) with General Groves (Okulitch).

Oppie is everywhere, calming a moral rebellion by his equally brilliant colleague, Edward Teller (sonorous bass Andrew Harris) and his protégé Robert Wilson (tenor Benjamin Bliss); developing a rapport with the cranky General Groves (deliciously blustering bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch) by chatting about the latter’s weight-reduction regimen and assuaging his authoritarian anger with meteorologist Frank Hubbard (baritone Tim Mix) over his failure to predict a threatening thunderstorm. (The bits between General Groves's comic-book depiction of a military man and Hubbard seemed like vestigial remnants of Goodman's surreal conception for these roles.)

More penetratingly, when alone, Oppie ponders the moral dilemma of the enterprise, reciting the words of the John Donne poem, “Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God.” The Hamlet-Like soliloquy, ostensibly about the Trinity, wonders whether the world we know will continue to be or not to be. Oppenheimer carries a moral choice he knows is consequential, but even his superior scientific mind knows not to what degree. He struggles at this moment to reconcile the unreconcilable. Coming at the end of Act I, it was, for this reviewer, the highlight of the opera.

Kitty (Julia Bullock).
During the second act, as innovation in the Santa Fe production, descendants of the actual Native American nations who lived near and were exposed to the first bomb (subsequently known as "Downwinders"), joined the cast as stand-ins for their forebears in ceremonial dances of foreboding. (Some controversy arose about their participation, supposing that the Santa Fe Opera might have been exploiting the native peoples by inviting them to take part. But just the opposite was the case; it was they who had approached the Opera.)

Julia Bullock’s moving portrayal of Kitty sings of her own concerns about war and death, first in an intimate scene with Oppie, then later, in the second act, at home with her children. The Tewa housekeeper Pasqualita (sonorous dark-voiced contralto Meredith Arwady), and Kitty add more forebodings. Particularly touching was Arwady's Native American earth-mother concern for the Oppenheimer boy she cares for. At home, Oppie emotionally unravels as the chorus gives a moving rendition of “At the sight of this,” his hallucinatory vision of Vishnu’s apocalyptic slate of terrors.

In the opera’s last uneasy scene of regrets -- this is still before the test bomb has exploded -- Bullock's Kitty urgently renders “We are hopes. You should have hoped us. We are dreams. You should have dreamed us.” It serves as Kitty's effective dramatic counterpart to the John Donne poem that Oppie had sung in the first act. It was the voice not just of a feminine protector, but of all who have no say in the consequential policies and actions of those who govern over them.

The opera ends at the test site, those who were to witness the test bomb lying down, peering toward the bomb (cast members at the edge of the stage, looking straight into the audience). Their fearful faces are lit at first with bright ochre tones. Later, after the test bomb’s implied explosion, those faces take on a sickly green reflection, a zombie-like look of death.

As they remain transfixed, the eerie recorded voice of a lone Japanese woman, speaking from the aftermath of either the later Hiroshima or Nagasaki explosion, pleads over and over for water. More water.

Then, darkness and silence. And time for thought.

Together but alone: Robert "Oppie" Oppenheimer (McKinny) and Kitty Oppenheimer (Bullock).


All above photo credits: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2018
Performance reviewed: July 27, 2018

Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

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