Doctor Atomic

The Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, November 15.

The Manhattan Project—specifically the final days at Los Alamos before the testing of the atomic bomb—makes for an odd subject for opera. The drama is there, but it’s an internal, bookish sort of drama with little in the way of action. In the first act, the characters argue about petitions and bad weather. In the second act, they just wait for the explosion.

Composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars, adapting a number of sources, attempt to get at the enormous ethical quandaries that Robert Oppenheimer and his team faced, but the music is poorly served by the tag-team philosophizing. Ultimately, opera is not an intellectual medium but an emotional one. When Adams tries to challenge that, the music often feels empty and scattered and the expressed ideas feel superficial. But when he embraces the emotion—setting aside the historical details and physics jargon and ethical debates in favor of meditating on raw fears about mortality and culpability—Doctor Atomic finally discovers its real power.

Not that I don’t appreciate all the research that went into the opera. The program notes—with their mini-history of the work at Los Alamos—are among the most interesting I’ve ever read. But the dense paragraphs there inevitably convey the complexity of the Los Alamos project better than libretto. For example, Sellars uses Robert Wilson as a kind of foil to Oppenheimer (Wilson wants President Truman to invite the Japanese to observe the test in the hopes that they will be frightened into surrendering before the bomb is actually used in an attack, but Oppenheimer insists, despite his private misgivings,  that they test must proceed as scheduled, without outside observers). Intrigued, I searched the Internet the next day for more information on the real, historical figure, but as a character, Wilson is flat, his petition-flogging repetitive and dull. Wilson’s best moment is a brief second-act aria describing a dream of falling. There, the simple imagery takes flight on Adams’s music in a way that ethical lectures cannot.

But damn, that dream-aria, paired with a Tewa (Native American) lullaby, is a gorgeous sequence. Singer Thomas Glenn has one of those tenor voices that sound impossibly youthful—innocent and unsullied by the world—and that works perfectly for his idealistic character. In fact, there isn’t a weak link in the cast, and Penny Woolcock’s stylized production, smashing realistic flourishes against uncanny surrealism, is striking and memorable. Adams’s music, with its rich layers and evocative orchestration, is never dull and often spine-tingling. The opera drags in the second act (I really thought it was going to end after the powerful Bhagavad Gita choral setting, but no), but even if the whole is lacking, most of the parts are invigorating, the kind of music I experience like the first blast of cold upon opening the door on an autumn morning.

And yet, Doctor Atomic didn’t really move me—when the bomb finally, finally, goes off, I felt nothing but exhaustion—and given the opera’s subject matter, that bothers me. I feel like I only responded to Adams’s stimulating music and the talented singers’ performances, and that feels superficial. The juxtaposition of the scientists’ bomb talk with Kitty Oppenheimer’s recitations of Beaudelaire and Rukeyser—intended, according to the synopsis, to explore the “contradictions of peace, war, and love”—works better in theory than in practice. Intellectually, I understand what Adams and Sellars are doing, but it didn’t actually do anything for me.

The one exception—a big exception, as it happens—comes at the climax of the first act. Apparently John Donne’s religious poetry inspired Oppenheimer to name the Los Alamos test site Trinity, and Adams uses that as an excuse to set one of Donne’s holy sonnets, the devastating “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” I happen to know that poem very well—I memorized it as a teenager, enthralled (though I couldn’t/wouldn’t have articulated why) by its meld of spiritual anguish and erotic tension—and Adams’s setting, as an aria for Oppenheimer, is just as a impassioned as Donne’s timeless words deserve. The melody trips haltingly through the doubt before exploding in the final pleas, and baritone Gerald Finley’s fervent performance brought tears to my eyes.

It was just that good, skill and artistry and something even more transcendent coming together perfectly. This is what music can achieve, however rarely, and whatever my mild dissatisfaction with the opera as a whole, it was all worth it to experience that aria. The sonnet’s words work for Oppenheimer—beautifully articulating how good intentions aren’t enough, how doubt can be overwhelming, how panic can take hold when a religious person feels the presence of God slipping away—but the Donne aria doesn’t need Doctor Atomic to have meaning; Doctor Atomic needs the aria. As I walked back to subway, I found myself wishing that Adams hadn’t bothered with all the research of Los Alamos, that he hadn’t written Doctor Atomic at all. Never mind the opera. I want Adams to write a song cycle of Donne’s poetry, and I want to hear Finley sing it.