Date of Performance: 9 October 2008 (Dress Rehearsal)
One of composer John Adams’ “CNN operas,” Doctor Atomic uses a topic from the relatively recent past — here, weapons of mass destruction — to address the political present. Adams said he believes such cultural relevance will give opera a future; that is, it could reconnect estranged (American) audiences to the medium, lower the enskied art form to the level of the everyday intellectual.
But even if that were true, the thoroughly modern music is bound to re-alienate them. In Doctor Atomic, Los Alamos scientists Oppenheimer, Robert Wilson and Edward “Dr. Strangelove” Teller, along with assorted military brass, struggle to build and test a working A-bomb while weighing the ethical implications of what they’re doing. As with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Doctor Atomic’s second half is far superior to its first, as it builds to a wrenching climax of boundless destruction in a single flash of light. But both acts suffer from the same problems: the operamakers’ pompous allusions, awkward libretto and abstruse score.
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