Over the weekend we caught the final performance of John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Adams’ music was mainstream Adams, showing hints of everything he has used before – from minimalism to the otherworldly choruses of The Death of Klinghoffer to the exciting musical chaos of pieces like Short Ride on a Fast Machine. Unfortunately, Adams’ score and the excellent cast of singers were upstaged by the irritating staging of Peter Sellars and the lame choreography of Lucinda Childs, which was a limp version of work she’d done decades ago.
The opera centers on J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and his colleagues at the Manhattan Project during the last day before the first atomic test at Alamogordo. Since we all know the outcome, Doctor Atomic has little choice but to focus on the rising tensions amongst the scientists, the military men, and in the Oppenheimer household as the countdown nears, the doubts mount, and the weather turns sour. Oppenheimer, a kind of American Faust, has the opera’s one great aria “Batter My Heart,” which is lifted from the poetry of John Donne. Over everything, quite literally, hangs the Bomb, just in case we miss the point.
At the ultimate moment, when the atomic bomb is successfully detonated, while nearly everyone on stage lies prostrate except for Kitty Oppenheimer kneeling beatifically with arms crossed, Sellars and Adams tell us in no uncertain terms that neither music nor silence is capable of dealing with the explosive birth of the atomic age. Doctor Atomic concluded as the Lyric Opera shook to the surround-sound noise of deep rumbling that seemed straight from a grip-the-armrests moment in the movie theater. In the pit, most of the musicians could be seen covering their ears with their hands. As the long, loud rumbling slowly subsided, Sellars and Adams made one last stab at leaving the audience with a lump in its throat; the recorded voice of a woman spoke quietly but plaintively in Japanese. It was the only understated moment in the opera. John Adams had missed his opportunity to musically describe the defining event in 20th century history.
With some relief, my wife and I charged into the sub-zero night to look for a taxi.