It’s a relief to report the opera about the Bomb isn’t one itself. But the kind of explosive impact one might applaud also is lacking in this much-anticipated latest collaboration by composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars. Intelligent, interesting and frequently attractive in its individual components, the evening as a whole has no grip on the emotions — its look at the world’s first atomic bomb detonation remains on a lofty, sometimes dullish intellectual plane. Oh, the humanity: That’s what’s missing thus far in a work destined to be admired with just measured enthusiasm.
Whatever objections might be raised toward the duo’s prior “Nixon in China” or “The Death of Klinghoffer,” their libretti successfully balanced multiple reportorial viewpoints against the weight of history to make (fairly) recent events (fairly) viable in the operatic form. But this time librettist Sellars seems overwhelmed by the staggering issues at hand — understandably so. His solution is a pastiche of found texts that never seem more remote from human immediacy than when trying to express the anguished heart.
Taken as an awkward whole, the words seem like diverse quotes tastefully edited and typeset for a glossy coffee-table Manhattan Project commemoration book. Then, problematically, it’s set to music — brilliantly orchestrated, richly atmospheric if seldom very dramatic music that will no doubt deepen with further listens. (One can already imagine a CD set more cogently rewarding than the stage package.)
Sellars’ text — performed in English, with supertitles — accompanies one of Adams’ least pastiched major scores, a solidly 20th-century avant-garde soundscape of delicate detailing, dissonant frissons over a consonant foundation and occasional soaring (if insufficiently related to their instrumental backdrop) vocal lines. It’s void of the lame popular-idiom imitation and quoting that have marked so many of his better-known works.
With text all over the map and music striking yet ephemeral, the story should ground matters, being relatively straightforward in outline. It’s June 1945. The European theater is closed, but the Japanese seem unwilling to surrender — how many more lives could be lost in continued battle? Washington exerts enormous pressure on the small army of engineers, physicists, et al, deployed in the New Mexico desert to ready their top-secret “gadget” for testing.
Should the leading scientists factor conscience into this awesome, terrifying “progress,” or (as they’re urged) simply do their job and let the boys in D.C. decide what’s necessary? Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley), Teller (Richard Paul Fink) and Wilson (Thomas Glenn) all have different qualms.
When a remote-site test is pushed toward July 15 reality, Gen. Groves (Eric Owens) is so hell-bent on mission completion — despite extremely unfavorable weather conditions — that he demands a hapless meteorologist “predict” clear skies.
An odd flash-forward halfway through act two aside, the opera spends its majority with various Army, medical and scientific staff as they sleeplessly endure delays prior to the explosion that will clear the way for Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This period should be full of unbearable suspense, but as stage drama it’s a nonstarter — neither composer nor director/librettist have found a way to make waiting any more than that.
This failure is in large part due to Sellars’ halfhearted attempts at character involvement. The crisp, explanatory, often technical dialogue of ensemble sequences is replaced by poetical excerpts (from Baudelaire, John Donne, the Bhagavad-Gita, etc.) that sound awfully strained when used as the inner thoughts of principal scientists, tippling Kitty Oppenheimer (Kristine Jepson) or the latter’s stereotyped earth-mother Mexican housekeeper (Beth Clayton).
The opera ends with a stirring image — entire company prone, agog at the brilliant mushroom cloud we can’t see — but until then it has mixed success as maxi-minimalist objet d’art. On a steeply raked, diagrammed floor, bare building beams are rolled to and fro against a silhouetted desertscape. The Bomb hangs ominously over a baby’s crib, an image (and blunt metaphor) striking yet quickly played out.
Echoing her key early collaborations with Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs’ choreography has utilitarian-clad (as are the vocal cast) dancers hurtling across stage in factory-efficient formations that create neat stage pictures. Yet their purpose is not always clear, especially when principals leap about as (Pueblo Indian-inspired, the program tells us) “Cloud Flower Blossoms.”
The leading singers are fine, if variably subsumed by the stolid limits of character conception and textual choices. Donald Runnicles’ conducting of the SFO orchestra deservedly got the evening’s most fervent applause.