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SFO’s ‘Doctor Atomic’ is an aural feast

Opera review

Ryan McKinny as Robert Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic.” (Ken Howard/For the Santa Fe Opera)

The phrase, “now for something different,” describes director Peter Sellar’s new compelling Santa Fe Opera Premiere production of “Doctor Atomic.” With music by John Adams, the opera opened to a sold-out audience on July 14.

At a preview talk before the performance, Sellars, who also wrote the libretto, called “Doctor Atomic” an “opera with no formula.” An opera that should “make you uncomfortable.” One that “you find strange, provocative and moving.” It accomplishes all these things and also challenges you as far as accessibility is concerned. Sellars’ encourages the use of one’s imagination. And indeed, because of some abstract aspects of it, you will need to.

I saw the world premiere of “Doctor Atomic” in San Francisco in 2005 and it made no impact on me. I confess I wasn’t ecstatic about John Adams’ score either. All I remember about that evening were the spellbinding moments at the beginning and end of the opera and feeling pleased that my young son had seen a world opera premiere and witnessed its creators take their bows on stage. Thirteen years later, I’ve evolved, because though I still had problems with some of Sellars’ libretto last Saturday, I was able to appreciate its message. As for John Adams’ music, it was one of the highlights of the evening.

The performance began with members of the Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Tesuque pueblos performing a 20-minute healing corn dance. Beautiful with all their color, it was a fitting spiritual prelude to the opera’s opening.

Peter Sellars’ libretto is comprised of a gathering of scientific documents and the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, John Donne, Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita. (Oppenheimer supposedly carried the last two in his pockets.) It is not linear storytelling.

With a huge chrome-plated steel sphere, representing the atomic bomb, ominously taking center stage, and the glimmering lights of Los Alamos in the horizon, the narrative begins in Los Alamos on a summer day in June 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, and his team are feeling pressured to ready the bomb for deployment ahead of the Nazis. Moral conflicts and doubts abound.

Edward Teller sings, “First of all, let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience.”

And Oppenheimer, “The nation’s fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington. …The test must go on as scheduled.”

Later, on July 15, at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, not only do anxiety and questions of morality continue to plague the scientists, but the possibility of scientific miscalculations in the making of the bomb are feared. Fermi speculates the bomb might ignite the atmosphere, and Oppenheimer worries the bomb might be a “dud.”

Then there’s the incessant rain, whose lightning might detonate the bomb. “What the hell is wrong with the weather?” sings Gen. Leslie Groves, who claims fallout is low on his priority list. Robert Wilson wants to send a warning to the Japanese people but is told by Oppenheimer that the Secretary of War forbids it. The element of surprise is crucial.

Eventually the rain stops.

Sirens blare and countdown begins.

The chorus sings words from the Bhagavad Gita, “At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous. …All my peace is gone;” followed by a horrifically reverberating loud sound before detonation.

Unsettling quiet follows with the haunting words of a Japanese woman begging for water.

Part of the drama includes a love scene between Ryan McKinny as Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty, sung by Julia Bullock. The intent here might have been to show a different side of Oppenheimer, but though sung beautifully by the couple — erotic words by Baudelaire — the scene felt awkward, out of place, and Julia Bullock was not convincing as a lover.

The interminable words sung by Oppenheimer about Julia’s hair did not help.

John Adams’ score has its own narrative to play out and provides a dynamic palette of sound, a soundscape of texture, if you will, for the singers. The score is filled with rhythmic drive and lyricism.

Listen carefully for the little surprises popping up, a sudden piccolo flourish out of nowhere, or a solo trumpet with its own motif. When not playing repeated fast-note patterns, the string section produces layers of sustained sound. Interestingly, often the rhythmic fragments are independent of each other and appear to each be going its own way.

Yet, they’re unified. Often true of the singing voices as well, making me feel they sometimes sounded like instruments themselves.

Young Maestro Matthew Aucoin rose magnificently to the challenge of conducting Adam’s many-faceted score. With emphatic beats (sometimes appearing to be a little labored) and multiple cues, he led the performance to a winning end. The Orchestra was outstanding throughout, especially in executing the many difficult entrances. Bravo!

“Dr. Atomic” features a powerful singing cast whose voices, including those of the chorus, were amplified. This was done so subtly it was barely noticeable. (I heard John Adams always requests that his singers be amplified.) Ryan Finney met the demands of portraying the anguished Oppenheimer. His rich-toned bass-baritone voice often projected the emotions of disharmony Oppenheimer felt. Though his performance was gripping in his singing of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet, Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” his contorted movements, some on the stage floor, were distracting. John Donne’s words should have been left to speak for themselves. They’re heart-wrenching enough.

Julia Bullock’s clear, ringing soprano was truly a pleasure. Her aria, “Waiting to hear news of the test,” based on Rukeysayer’s poem Easter Eve, was lovely. Bass Andrew Harris sang the role of Edward Teller with powerful resonance. Tenor Benjamin Bliss, as physicist Robert Wilson, gave us a couple of lovely moments, as high up on a ladder, he sang with touching expression, “Dreaming the same dream several nights running.” His voice was pure and indeed dreamlike with music from the pit to match. Meredith Arwady, as Pasqualita, Kitty’s housekeeper, entered his dream song with her aria, “In the west the cloud-flower blossoms.” Her contralto was amazing, lusciously low.

Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Gen. Leslie Grove was good at projecting the general’s insistent commands with his intense, penetrating voice. Tim Mix, as chief meteorologist Frank Hubbard and Mackenzie Gotcher, Capt. James Nolan, in charge of the post hospital at Los Alamos, rounded off the talented cast.

Praise, as always, goes to Susanne Shestons’ Opera Chorus, Men’s and Women’s, who played a big role in “DoctorAtomic,” singing in many of the scenes, always with excellence and pleasing sound. Together they began the opera with the intoning of a long dialogue of scientific facts—”We believed that Matter can be neither created nor destroyed . . .” with perfect ensemble and diction.

Scenic designers David Gropman and Simon Schabert provided a minimalist setting on stage. Other than the imposing bomb-sphere, there were a few pieces of chrome-framed furniture, Wilson’s tall ladder hooked to a platform leading to the bomb and large groups of people at varying times in street clothes. The groups included the scientists, chorus, Downwinders (citizens who lived in the explosion site area whose families are still suffering from fallout), Native Americans who provided the only color and the dancers.

Gabriel Berry provided costume design and James F. Ingalls lighting design. Ingalls shed dramatic lighting on the sphere’s reflective surface—threatening occasional sparks at times, and a blood red toward the end. Mark Grey and Daniel Gower, the sound team, impressively engineered the important sound component in the production.

Choreography by Emily Johnson, making her SFO debut, was superb. Her five “Doctor Atomic” dancers in red, with a creative repertoire of body movements, danced and moved randomly about the stage during the orchestral preludes. Occasionally their light steps led them up to the singer’s faces. At times, each performed individual choreography reminding me of the independent rhythmic fragments in Adam’s music. Were these dancers spirits permeating the air with foreboding? I can’t say.

“Doctor Atomic” is more an aural feast than a visual one. It reminds us how the detonation of the atomic bomb at the Trinity site issued the beginning of a new era, and reinforces our awareness of the dangerous nuclear age we live in today. I believe that because of its somber topic, “Doctor Atomic” is not meant to entertain, but rather, it is meant for us to simply experience it.

Remaining “Doctor Atomic” performances will take place at 8 p.m. Aug. 2, 7, 16.