"Planetary system" is a good description of the set, and the world, of the Met's screening of John Adams's Doctor Atomic last night. Designed by Julian Crouch, the Los Alamos lab on stage was a peculiarly isolated and isolating landscape. In the background, cloths were draped over structures to appear like sharp mountains, over which the bomb, a hideous wired sphere, hung. Everyone constrained to his own compartment, the scientists and staff of the lab stood in the upright grid of a huge box. The marital bed was a scene of disunion. The Native Americans who stood in the top row of the grid in Act II was a constant reminder of a lost world.
It was brave to try to fit scientific and bureaucratic language into the operatic idiom. Much of the libretto came from declassified government documents and communications. The singing at these times sounded ugly and unnatural to my ears. Perhaps it could be done better, if a better writer had done it. Act I ended with Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," sang with tremendous emotion by Gerald Finley, who was the original J. Robert Oppenheimer in the opera's premiere. Sasha Cooke, as Kitty Oppenheimer, sang beautifully the aria "Easter Eve, 1945," based on Muriel Rukeyser's poem of the same name. She also brought off the feat of singing naturally while rolling on the bed.
The Act II scene iii chorus borrows from the Bhagavad Gita its vision of Vishnu (translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood):
At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.
The first line was especially memorable in its forceful sound. In contrast with that fearsome nightmare, the Oppenheimers' Tewa Indian housemaid Pasqualita sang a lullaby based on a traditional Tewa song:
In the north the cloud-flower blossoms
And now the lightning flashes
And now the thunder clashes
And now the rain comes down! A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.
The conclusion of the opera was terrifically suspenseful, as the staff debated whether to go ahead with the testing in bad weather conditions. When the bomb fell, in a clearing dawn, the moment was agonizingly desirable.