Even though rain pounded the Santa Fe Opera last Thursday, the show went on.
Thunder, lightning and sheets of water fell throughout most of Act I of “Dr. Atomic.” Crew members swabbed the stage and slid vertical buffers in place. The orchestra kept playing and the singers kept singing. The open-air theater may have a substantial roof, but that doesn’t prevent rain from impacting stage, audience or orchestra pit.
For an opera about anxiety, nature’s pile-on seemed excessive. Then, again, a night of unpredictable weather figured prominently in the first atomic bomb test, July 16, 1945.
As crafted by composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars, “Dr. Atomic” unfolds in the 24-hour period leading up to the blast. Whether the test will succeed, abort, cause massive damage or even set the planet on fire, is uncertain and under discussion throughout the opera.
An atmosphere of increasing tension pervades the score, what Zach Wolfe of The New York Times described as a “steady knotting of the stomach.”
Original director Sellars was asked to reimagine the 2005 work for Santa Fe. Since it opened in San Francisco, “Dr. Atomic” has played all over the world with different looks and additions. The 2007 Netherlands version, available on DVD, includes film footage of a ravaged Japan.
There are no film projections in Santa Fe. A huge chrome sphere dominates the stage, symbolizing “the gadget,” as the scientists referred to the bomb. The original 1945 dress code has morphed into today’s casual look for all but the military.
Credit Sellars for one significant innovation for the New Mexico premiere. He invited three area pueblos to perform the Corn Dance on stage before the overture. The dancers reappear in the final scene where everyone anxiously awaits detonation. In addition, two groups of Downwinders, those whose families have suffered health consequences because of fallout, stand silent witness at the end.
The musical structure remains the same throughout and involves extensive choral exposition. Background information comes in sheaves of chanted text; even scientific formulas are sung. Moral and scientific arguments for development and detonation unfurl as talky duets. An ongoing weather report is heroically updated by Chief Meteorologist Frank Hubbard (baritone Tim Mix), not exactly proving that pedestrian prose can be made magical given the right setting.
Fortunately, poetic respite arrives in arias by the Oppenheimers (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and soprano Julia Bullock) as well as Pasqualita (contralto Meredith Arwady), the Tewa housekeeper. But these, too, have an abstract quality that is more off-putting than emotionally engaging.
Sellars drew primarily from original texts – memos, notes and government documents. This libretto method is often dry, and that’s the case with “Dr. Atomic, not to mention plays like David Hare’s 2004 “Stuff Happens.” The title comes from Don Rumsfeld’s dismissal of unintended tragedies, and Hare’s play is an exposition of the runup to the Iraq war. The result is stilted dialogue.
Originally, San Francisco Opera commissioned Adams/Sellars to create a work about Robert Oppenheimer as the American Faust. That idea was abandoned early on for the tense countdown story. In some ways, last year’s moving opera about Steve Jobs by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell came close to the idea of a Faustian drama and will linger long in memory.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.