Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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What’s makes judging Sellars and Adams’ Dr. Atomic difficult is not that any individual element is or isn’t done particularly well.  On the contrary, there is no doubt that very little in Dr. Atomic is done well.  What makes passing verdict difficult is that Dr. Atomic, despite using a laudable libretto as its foundation, still displays enough insightful thinking to make it worth watching.
Dr. Atomic is an opera by composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars, and lead cast members Gerard Finley and Kristine Jepson.  The story revolves around J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” his wife, and other important figures in the Manhattan Project when nearing the date for the first testing of the atomic bomb.  Given that Sellars has directed over 100 productions, it is a shame to see the librettist craft such a weak text for the opera.  The problem is that the text provided seems adequate for conversation but not for complementation by a musical score.  Such forceful accompaniment results in awkward pauses, strained delivery, and abruptly transitioned notes.  Take for example the excerpt from the 1945 Smyth Report, used as the opening chorus, or “Easter Eve, 1945,” Kitty Oppenheimer’s aria; neither is meant to be sung yet both are treated like any other operatic text.  This limits the entire production because the performers, while talented, can’t sing what doesn’t have musical harmony and, despite Adams’ efforts, a score can’t successfully complement text lacking any melodious rhythm.
That’s not to say that Dr. Atomic has no redeeming qualities.  The opening is very cinematic, with appropriately gaunt music and lighting, and proves historically accurate, emphasizing the isolation with which each scientist worked, never knowing anything past his or her own department.  The librettist, too, makes one good choice in quoting the Bhagvad Gita, which sounds apocalyptic without the singing feeling forced.  The composition, whenever freed from having to complement the text, works well in scenes where characters are silent, delivering that sense of impending doom most appropriate for this subject.
The opera’s biggest accomplishment, however, lies in the technical department.  The effects are consistently believable, with well-designed backdrops and an abundance of props and lighting schemes used to give each environment a unique flavor.  The concluding explosion has seen criticism for being too “weak” as a bomb but increased levels of brightness and sound could have proven painful so the degradation of force was a good choice.  Still, one particular scene where physics equations can be seen burning in the background outshines all others because it is both aesthetic and meaningful.  Science is always associated with progress and betterment yet this scene demonstrates how this supposed engine of advancement helped make man’s nightmare of absolute destruction a reality.
Ultimately, Dr. Atomic only rarely does well but those few moments in which it does are memorable.  It may be difficult to call this a masterpiece, but Sellars and Adams have created a technical marvel that inspires a complete rethinking of how science should be viewed.