In his new autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, composer John Adams calls the 1944 creation of the atom bomb at Los Alamos “the American myth par excellence.” That’s precisely the trouble with Adams’s opera, Doctor Atomic, currently receiving its New York premiere at the Met: It turns something that real human beings actually did into a mythic event so abstract that you hardly feel anything’s going on at all.
Myth is one major part of opera’s essence, but it works dialectically with the other: drama transmitted through the human voice. A brilliant orchestral colorist whose smaller symphonic pieces like The Chairman Dances are bestsellers, Adams writes for singers skillfully but mechanically: The voices play their part in the larger musical texture, but rarely shape it. The result is the opposite of operatic. His short, recitative-like vocal phrases, rarely coalescing into anything substantive enough to be called an aria, also tend to turn downwards, producing a soporific effect. Doctor Atomic‘s heroine has trouble sleeping; her audience constantly has to fight off the temptation to nod out.
Adams’s pallid sense of theater isn’t energized by either his librettist or his stage director. Not a writer by trade, Peter Sellars, who staged the work’s world premiere in San Francisco, has provided a cut-and-paste text, mingling documentary excerpts from memoirs, interviews, and newspaper accounts with poems favored by the opera’s hero, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom tabloids baptized “Doctor Atomic” and “father of the atom bomb.” To convey Oppenheimer’s conflicted feelings over the monstrous destructive power he’s unleashing, the first act ends with a setting of John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”—a notoriously convoluted work, not particularly pertinent, which Adams’s blips of melody can neither elucidate nor galvanize emotionally. His tenderest music is puzzlingly reserved for a passage in which General Groves, the military commander at Los Alamos, sings about his efforts to lose weight.
Battling the prosy, patchwork text, Adams hits another snag with his director, Penny Woolcock, primarily a film and video artist. Her physical production, like Adams’s music, is handsome but emptily abstract: two enormous wall units that function as giant projection screens or, lit differently, reveal rows of tiny cubicles, with singers looking uncomfortably trapped in them.
Adams supplies some musical excitement, of course, particularly in the long orchestral interlude that leads into the first act’s third scene. He enriches the score with startling “found” sounds, from old-time radio dance bands to warning sirens. Inevitably, there’s a big, effective, blast-you-out-of-your-seats moment when we reach the final countdown for the test at Alamogordo. But far too often, what we hear, though sumptuously rendered by the Met orchestra under conductor Alan Gilbert, is an interesting orchestral piece with the vocal lines only a mildly annoying distraction sprinkled on top.
And only a few brief sections, in which Oppenheimer confronts a young physicist troubled by the bomb’s moral implications, even begin to adumbrate the real and vitally important drama that transpired at Los Alamos and after. You could hardly gauge from Doctor Atomic that a remorseful Oppenheimer would soon become the nuclear arms race’s fiercest opponent, while his colleague Edward Teller, seen here questioning the enterprise, would confront him as the scientific world’s strongest supporter of American armed might. The absence of this most dramatic aspect of Oppenheimer’s story points up to the opera’s ineffectuality as a comment on history. It doesn’t offer its singers much opportunity, either, though Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer and Thomas Glenn as the argumentative young physicist, Robert Wilson, give shining accounts of their constricted roles.