Following last Sunday’s historic Prague speech by US President Barack Obama envisioning a world free of nuclear weapons, no classical work could currently make more appropriate viewing than US composer John Adams’ most recent opera, Doctor Atomic, issued on DVD by Opus Arte last year.
It features the run-up to the testing of the atom bomb in the New Mexican desert on July 16, 1945. At its center is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the cultured but troubled scientist who led the project. But Oppenheimer isn’t shown as a modern Faust figure, selling his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, but something more modern — a short-tempered neurotic opposed by invocations to Vishnu, Native American rain dances, and extensive poetic quotations that are used as backdrop to the whole hideous story.
And it is presented as hideous. The subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are prefigured early on by a discussion of the US’ decision to select targets with a high concentration of workers’ houses, and not to give Japan any advance warning. And a half-hour interview with director and librettist Peter Sellars, the most extensive of several bonus items, makes no bones about the work’s essential meaning.
Art cannot parallel the unspeakable horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he says. But the continued existence of these weapons, all subject to possible accidental or deliberate use, and last year on the back burner of public awareness, is at the heart of Doctor Atomic. It was Sellars himself who assembled the libretto, a montage of recently declassified documents, Native American prayers, and poems by, among others, Baudelaire, John Donne and the 1930s pacifist and feminist Muriel Rukeyser.
Doctor Atomic is Adams’ third opera on a politically charged theme, following The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, and Nixon in China (1987). It was initially a co-production of the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, and this DVD was put together from Amsterdam performances given in June 2007. It has subsequently received a different production from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, as well as being staged by the English National Opera in London.
Adams’ music is particularly suitable to opera. It’s far more dramatic, for example, than Philip Glass’ operatic writing, mesmerizing though that often is. There are no melodies as such, but in their place Adams uses just about everything he can find — sirens, bells, computer-generated sounds — with rhythms that surge onwards, and counter-rhythms that flicker back and forth underneath. It’s a style that reinforces the fundamental drama, as well as the intensity of the characters’ feelings. Its success becomes even clearer once one begins to realize just how inappropriate to the subject matter melodies would actually be.
You’d think that a libretto such as Sellars provides, lacking conventional dialogue, would inhibit characterization. But this isn’t the case. Many strongly delineated characters emerge — the ruthless general Leslie Groves (Eric Owens), the scientist Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink), the dissident scientist Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn), the Oppenheimers’ Tewa Indian maid Pasqualita (Ellen Rabiner) and, most impressive of all, Opperheimer’s wife Kitty (Jessica Rivera).