By John Adams
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Directed by Peter Sellars

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Perhaps the most momentous development of the 20th century was the advent of the atomic age, ushered in with a test explosion in the New Mexico desert in July 1945 and followed shortly thereafter by use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Composer John Adams and librettist-director Peter Sellars recount some of the events leading up to the first test in Doctor Atomic, commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Opera. What Adams and Sellars, along with their artistic and technical collaborators, have achieved is an operatic masterpiece for the early 21st century.

The opera takes place over a period of about three weeks from late June 1945 to the early morning of July 16, 1945, as creation of the first A-bomb culminates in a test detonation at Alamogordo, N.M. The main character is J. Robert Oppenheimer (baritone Gerald Finley), the top civilian scientist working on the Manhattan Project. Mounting political pressures from Washington, along with growing ethical and moral concerns among the Manhattan Project staff, add to everyone's stress.

Adams' score opens with mechanical sounds (sound design by Mark Grey) underlain by an airplane's drone, perhaps symbolic of the planes that dropped the bombs over Japan. The action begins in the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory where military and civilian workers bustle about, getting everything ready, as Oppenheimer and his scientific colleague, Edward Teller (baritone Richard Paul Fink), discuss the ethical concerns being raised by other scientists. Then Robert Wilson (tenor Thomas Glenn), the youngest scientist on the project, says he wants to circulate a petition asking President Harry Truman to give Japan a chance to surrender before the United States uses the bomb against it.

Other principal characters include Gen. Leslie Groves (bass Eric Owens), Army commander of the project; Kitty Oppenheimer (soprano Kristine Jepson), Robert's wife; Pasqualita (mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton), the Oppenheimers' maid and a Tewa Indian; Jack Hubbard (baritone James Maddalena), an Army meteorologist; and Capt. James Nolan (tenor Jay Hunter Morris) of the Army Medical Corps. Groves hounds the weatherman because a severe electrical storm puts the project in jeopardy the day before the test, and Nolan talks about the serious health effects of atomic radiation that are just beginning to be understood. All of the singers seem tailor-made for their roles both vocally and dramatically.

Sellars draws his libretto from sources as varied as declassified government documents, poetry and the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text. Adams sets it to music that can range from cataclysmic to lyrical. Conductor Donald Runnicles, SFO music director and principal conductor, leads the splendid orchestra. Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus also is splendid, both in its singing and its acting. Also making an outstanding contribution are the dancers (choreography by Lucinda Childs). The period costumes and uniforms are by Dunya Ramicova.

Adrianne Lobel's fluid set features pillars and posts representing work areas and a backdrop representing the mountains. The ominous bomb itself, known as the "Gadget," is prominently featured as the opera progresses. James F. Ingalls' lighting design often evokes time, place and mood, but strobe lights that simulate lightning are used so frequently that some audience members have to close or cover their eyes. The number of the flashes could be greatly reduced without diluting the dramatic effect.

Act 1 ends on the eve of the test as Oppenheimer agonizes over the situation. With the bomb hanging over the stage and silhouetted behind a white curtain, Oppenheimer sings "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," from John Donne's Holy Sonnet, the poem that led him to name the test site Trinity. It's a brilliant, wrenching scene, a fitting conclusion to the powerful drama that has preceded it.

One would expect even greater tension and drama in Act 2 as the clock ticks toward the test, but this act sags at times. Moreover, it loses its focus on Oppenheimer, and the final moment, the detonation, is anti-climactic.

Nevertheless, "Doctor Atomic" is a brilliant opera that marshals all of the musical and dramatic arts into a work that should become a staple of the modern operatic canon.

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