Ever since my first opera attendance, when I saw Parsifal at the Vienna Staatsoper with Placido Domingo in 2002, I have not seen a better opera. Maybe it was the first impression that counts. Growing up, opera wasn’t present in my life; all that I knew of opera was packaged in those tedious concerts with the Three Tenors. No context, no stories. After Parsifal, I realized opera could be grand, thought-provoking and beautiful.
After moving to Chicago, the first Lyric Opera performance I attended was Der Rosenkavalier with Susan Graham. Brilliant and stunning, but it was still Parsifal that occupied the throne. Last year, Salome with Deborah Voigt came close. Last night, however, I saw Doctor Atomic. This, I believe, is the one opera that can challenge Parsifal’s crown.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alan Rich of the LA Weekly wrote about the 2005 premiere: “In the Doctor Atomic of Adams/Sellars I detect more of Wagner’s Parsifal and, in their troubled genius/mystic/hero, the tortured martyr Amfortas himself. ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God,’ cries Oppenheimer at the shattering first-act curtain under the Bomb’s menacing shadow…”
Andrew Patner, writing about the Chicago performance in the Chicago Sun-Times, makes another reference to Wagner: “Think of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle but with real lives at stake and the actual planet as a whole perhaps facing its twilight.”
Doctor Atomic by American composer John Adams and stage director Peter Sellars premiered in San Francisco in 2005. A revised version premiered in Amsterdam this past June. Co-producer Lyric Opera is only the third company to stage the opera, which can be seen in Chicago until January 19, 2008. The story reveals the tension and anxiety of the scientists at the Los Alamos test site, where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested, and reflects on the morality of the ultimate weapon.
The opera follows the “father of the atomic bomb,” physicist Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, baritone) and his wife Kitty (Jessica Rivera, soprano). Finley was more than spectacular in “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” set to John Donne’s (1572-1631) poetry and Rivera was at her best when she weighed the consequences of the atom bomb.
Librettist Peter Sellars adapted the words of the opera, which means he didn’t write an original libretto, but rather quoted from other sources. Interestingly, many of these sources are declassified military and government documents, but we also hear poetry by Donne, Rukeyser and Baudelaire. This fusion of the factual with the beautiful demands the attention of the listener; in this opera every word matters.
The first act moves much faster than the second. After the climactic end of the first act with “Batter my heart,” the second act seems to linger on Kitty and her housemaid Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady, contralto), but the sheer beauty of the music, voices—Rivera and Arwady sing phenomenally—and perhaps most of all, the libretto, save the day.
Time moves at an even slower pace in the last three-quarters of an hour, which portrays the 20 minutes before “zero,” the detonation. And it needed to. The chorus chants “At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous” from the Bhagavad Gita, a bone-chilling metaphor on the morality and consequences of the bomb and one of the highlights of the opera. Then a warning rocket soars through the sky and an unnerving siren sounds, signaling the approaching moment of detonation. A second rocket goes off at zero minus two minutes; throughout the sampled sounds, I believe I hear a clock ticking, but its sound is slowed down, just like the minutes on stage.
A final rocket signals zero minus 60 seconds. Percussion and chorus create a sound of uncertainty and pending doom. The stage resembles a battlefield aftermath, when the scientists and soldiers take cover in the trenches. The detonation is not a vast exploding climax, but rather an unsettling roar accompanied by a distressing shriek. The last moments of the opera have little to do with the moment itself, but all the more with the consequences that followed. As we hear the voice of a Japanese woman echoing away, the stage goes dark. I didn’t know what she said, but it didn’t matter.
I left the theater with a lump in my throat. And I didn’t leave that way after Parsifal.