John Adams’ Doctor Atomic in Chicago

Doctor Atomic, now making its second appearance in
North America at Lyric Opera of Chicago after a successful premier in San
Francisco, has at its core the sound that we have come to expect from a work
bearing Adamsí autograph, but the composer has expanded his sonic language,
embracing an approach that straddles a very delicate compositional line:
Adams, unlike many of his contemporaries, is able to be at once harmonically
complex and accessible. The dense score is simultaneously engaging and

The drama of the opera concerns itself with the work of J. Robert
Oppenheimer and his team at the test site of the first atomic bomb outside
Los Alamos, New Mexico during the days leading up to the first detonation.
Tensions build as the test approaches and conditions become less and less
favorable. Oppenheimer and his staff consider the implications of their work
and the strong possibility that their labor and calculations could end in

The role of Oppenheimer, sung exquisitely by Gerald Finley, begs the
ethical scientific questions of the first half of the 20th century. First, is
a mastery of science reason enough to employ the laws of nature to
destructive ends? And, additionally, if we respect the dignity of life, what
are the criteria we use to decide when the time has arrived to employ
devastation on such a large scale? Adams paints with broad strokes well
suited to operatic characters. Acquiescing to the commands of those more
powerful than he and arguing that morality has no place in a lab, Oppenheimer
struggles to convince himself that he is not responsible for the global
annihilation of which his ìgadgetî is capable. Conflicted but moving ever
forward, Finleyís Oppenheimer is representative of humanity itself.
Finleyís end of act one tour-de-force soliloquy ìBatter my Heartî is a
crystallization of this dramatic idea.

On opposite sides of the allegorical spectrum, Robert Wilson and Richard
Teller respectively oppose and condone the experiment. Thomas Glenn handles
the vocally demanding role of Robert Wilson securely in spite of its
relentlessly high tessitura. Glennís characterization is appropriately
urgent, as he eloquently implores Oppenheimer and the rest of the team to
petition Washington to stand down on the attack until the Japanese have been
given clear terms of peace. Richard Paul Finkís characterization of Teller
is chillingly laissez-faire, his matter-of-fact delivery as
frightening as the bomb itself, which hangs overhead throughout the entire

As Kitty Oppenheimer, Jessica Rivera provides an attractive foil to a
mostly male cast. Her warm tones bring true beauty to ìAm I in your
lightî, and her mastery of the angular, cross-registral lines show the
singer off to great success. If Meredith Arwadyís vocal line is not as
smooth as one might have hoped, her portrayal of Pasquelita is characterized
by a rich and booming contralto. A member of Lyric Operaís Ryan Center, Ms.
Arwadyís career is definitely one to watch.

Under the leadership of Donald Nally, the ensemble gives an effective,
moody opening chorus and provides commentary throughout. The sense of
ensemble is sure, and the musicianship unfaltering and clear. The corps
de ballet
, however, does not fare as well. Lucinda Childsí
choreography was abstract and moving, and it provided a great deal of much
appreciated spectacle, but it is, unfortunately, executed somewhat weakly by
the dancers, who seemed on several occasions dangerously off-balance. Peter
Sellarsí compiled libretto is serviceable but suffers under comparison to
the brilliant work of Alice Goodman, who prepared the incomparable text for
Nixon in China. Sellarsí choice of texts for arioso moments, which
range from the metaphysical and symbolist poets to the Bhagavad-Gita
is wise, saving the director-librettist from foisting upon the composer the
unhappy task of setting less lyrical texts for critical emotional moments.
Sets by Adrianne Lobel were industrial and functional, helping the drama to
continue along at an exciting pace.

Highest praise, however, must be extended to conductor Robert Spano, who
finds the logic of the fascinatingly overwhelming score. Under his baton,
Lyricís orchestra makes sense of the polyrhythmic undulations and pan-tonal
implications of the work.

Doctor Atomic is an important addition to the operatic canon. The
evening continues the Adams-Sellars collaborative tradition of
socio-political examination of definitive moments of modern history, and as
such, is perhaps not as narratively satisfying as traditional nineteenth
century opera to less experienced theatre-goers. Though it is not
overwrought, this evening of theatre is operatic, and this sentiment can be
found in the cardinal expression of the human heart in ethical conflict with
itself. This anxiety is not particular to modernism, but its application in
Doctor Atomic is extremely timely and makes for a thoroughly
entertaining evening. Those who attend hoping for stage pyrotechnics and a
ìbig bangî will be disappointed, but those who attend looking for
distilled ethical conflict will leave more than satisfied.

Gregory Peebles © 2008

image_description=In a scene from Act I of the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season, Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, l.) and Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink, r.) confer in a Los Alamos laboratory. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
product_title=Above: In a scene from Act I of the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season, Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, l.) and Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink, r.) confer in a Los Alamos laboratory. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.