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Doctor Atomic

John Adams and Peter Sellars' opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer turns out to be an arresting if not fully explosive piece of work.

Sasha Cooke and Gerald Finley
in Doctor Atomic
(© Ken Howard)
If you believe outsized events are the ones that lend themselves most auspiciously to magnum-opus treatments, then it takes little imagination to understand why composer John Adams jumped at the chance to create Doctor Atomic, now making its belated New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

First commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, this probing work is about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley in muscular and almost consistently anguished mode and wielding an ever-present cigarette), the central figure behind building the first atomic bomb. The opera, which features a libretto by Peter Sellars derived in part from Oppenheimer's and his colleagues' writings and recorded comments, turns out to be more than intermittently arresting under Alan Gilbert's grand conducting, even if it fails to reach its intended heights.

The opera's action unfolds during the run-up to the first A-bomb test in 1945 -- when Oppenheimer was still hearing from associates about their misgivings and was grappling with his own -- and then in the tense hours before the test when an electrical rain storm threatened to throw a monkey wrench into the grim proceedings. Also included in the story line are two separate scenes featuring wife Kitty (Sasha Cooke, radiating great mezzo-soprano conviction) -- presumably to not only give audiences a look at Oppenheimer as husband and father, but to remind them of how women and children would be affected internationally by the man's handiwork.

Adams and Sellars were wise to position Oppenheimer and his interior struggles at the center of the narrative. Moreover, they most often approach their creative zenith with the Oppenheimer-oriented segments, notably when the erudite but understandably anxious scientist interacts with associates like the morally dubious Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink in robust bass-baritone form) and the equally concerned Robert Wilson (pure-voiced tenor Thomas Glenn).

Musically, Adams hits more of his peaks at the orchestra-juddering test-about-to-occur coda and, before that, in the first-act-closing aria, "Batter My Heart." That heartfelt text is actually a John Donne poem set to music -- and Sellars also includes odes from Charles Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, as well as excerpts from the Bhagavad Vita. However, during much of the opera's latter stretches, Adams' inspirations flag. He conjures passages of bad-weather music and running-for-cover music that wouldn't be out of place as thriller-movie underscoring.

There's also a problem with a production that boasts a kick-off show curtain that depicts the Periodic Table and its then-94 identified elements. Indeed, to claim that director Penny Woolcock includes even more elements than that only begins to describe the clutter of this show. Take the moments when set designer Julian Crouch's three-tiered rectangular units start swiveling or what seems to be a huge replica of the A-bomb core drops from the fly space.

Indeed, Adams, Sellars, and Woolcock may require a return to the drawing board for Doctor Atomic to become a fully explosive piece of work.

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