I experienced the John Adam’s opera “Dr. Atomic” on Thursday evening at the Met and found it longwinded. It’s terrific that Adams grappled with the Faustian bargain that Oppenheimer waged when the atomic bomb was created, but the long aria about Kitty Oppenheimer’s hair, the clichéd use of the American Indian as a counterweight to the evil designs of the white man, and the continuous declamatory style of this work made the three and a half hours go by very slowly and drained the impact of the bomb when it finally did explode at the end of the opera.
This new Met production seemed cartoonish in comparison to its production of “La Damnation de Faust,” which used the latest technology to create a cinematic effect. For example, “Dr. Atomic” used a gigantic sheet to help represent the mountains near the Los Alamos testing center. That just did not help to create the impact of the explosion that occurred at the end of the opera.
Adams’ symphonic conception did create a lot of tension and drama. His use of electronic sounds did help to convey the immensity and destruction of the bomb-making effort that took place during July 1945. But the opera bogged down under the weight of the subject matter even though Adams did seek to lighten matters with the banality of everyday life.
I thought that the singing of the principals was exceptional, especially in terms of diction. The enunciation of each singer went was clear as a bell and rendered the Met Titles (sort of like super titles that most opera houses use) superfluous. The marvelous cast included Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer, Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves, and Meredith Arwady as Pasqualita.
The chorus was expertly prepared by the chorus master Donald Palumbo and the stage directions of Penny Woolcock enhanced the telling of the story. Guest conductor Alan Gilbert expertly guided the orchestra through the complex music of is a hallmark of any work by Adams. Finley’s singing of the aria “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (after the sonnet by metaphysical poet John Donne) at the end of the first act was the highlight of the opera. The explosion at the end of the opera, despite the very long build up, was anti-climatic in terms of what I heard and saw. The audience, choke full of people in their 20s and 30s responded with warm applause at the end, but it wasn’t over the top.
John Adams came out on stage during the curtain call and took a couple of blows with the singers. This was the final performance at the Met. The show will be packed up and shipped overseas for a run with English National Opera.