The Met continues its commitment to contemporary opera with this new production of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” which world preemed three years ago in San Francisco. Adams’ frequent collaborator Peter Sellars directed that original staging, as well as cobbling together a libretto of sorts from existing sources. At the helm this time around is filmmaker Penny Woolcock, making her opera debut. It’s disappointing that someone who works in a medium as fluid as cinema has come up with such a static staging.
Woolcock’s task was not aided by Sellars’ lumpy libretto, a cut-and-paste job made up of excerpts from a variety of texts including the Bhagavad Gita, Native American songs and poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Baudelaire and John Donne. These disparate sources all figured into the thoughts and consciousness of the opera’s eponymous character, atom-bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer, but they do not coalesce into a compelling libretto.
Julian Crouch’s unit set consists largely of a huge white sheet drawn up into a tent-like form; a large mobile representing radioactive fallout and other debris; and three tiers of open cubicles. Many chorus members and some principals are stuck in the cubicles for a good part of the night, and the view becomes unvaried and monotonous for the audience. It recalls the “advent calendar” effect of John Doyle’s disastrous “Peter Grimes” at the Met last season.
For much of act two, Woolcock also apes Doyle’s “concert staging” aesthetic, with the principals standing in a straight line across the lip of the stage, singing directly out to the audience. And in what appears to be yet another bow to imported-British-director cliches, Woolcock has the set deconstruct itself at the finale. We’ve seen it all before — too many times in the past 15 years.
The evening is not a total loss. Fortunately, Adams’ restless, eclectic score keeps the mind engaged, and the cast assembled for this production is a strong one. Adams surrounds the auditorium with speakers that weave available-sound sources into the music — typewriters, babies’ cries, radio static, snippets of 1940s songs and broadcasts. As part of this total sound design, amplification appears to be in use for many of the singers — a practically taboo rarity in this house.
There are moments of violence in the score, moments of dreamlike beauty and a particularly striking use of silence at the opera’s end to underscore the aftermath of the first bomb test at Los Alamos. Elements of Adams’ early minimalist aesthetic are present, but this cannot be considered a minimalist score along the lines of a Philip Glass opera, laced as it is with moments that evoke Janacek, Gershwin and Bernstein.
Canadian baritone Gerald Finley is superb as Oppenheimer, a role he created. He makes Oppenheimer a charismatic figure full of quick-witted nervous energy, thrilled by his success yet increasingly burdened with guilt over the devastation he will wreak. Finley’s fine-grained baritone seems to fray a bit during his long aria that serves as the climax to act one; fortunately, he has less solo singing in act two.
Sasha Cooke uses her dark, straight-toned mezzo effectively as Oppenheimer’s tormented wife Kitty and looks smashing in Catherine Zuber’s spot-on period costumes. Richard Paul Fink, with his nuanced phrasing, clear diction and penetrating sound, strongly evokes the moral conflicts of Oppenheimer’s collaborator Edward Teller.
Debuting Eric Owens does what he can with the underwritten role of General Leslie Groves, but his sizable bass-baritone could be a real asset to the Met in the future. In smaller roles, tenor Thomas Glenn and powerhouse contralto Meredith Arwady are standouts. Rising young conductor Alan Gilbert makes a solid Met debut leading Adams’ very exacting score.