Being a huge admirer of the previous operas of John Adams, I had high expectations for “Doctor Atomic.” Adams seemed a Teflon composer and virtually any subject that he touched, no matter how diverse and controversial (the Cold War, 9/11, Middle East terrorism, the Nativity story, et al) he seemed to be able to write engaging music that complemented the drama in compelling terms. What went wrong with “Atomic,” which given the scope of the subject matter, might well have been expected to be Adams’ masterpiece? In a word, the libretto. I hadn’t given much thought to how crucial a component Adams’ longtime librettist and poet Alice Goodman had been to his previous successes, but given how huge of a void her absence creates in this work, it is now clear that it was a role as big a role as say, Lorenzo DaPonte with Mozart, or Hugo von Hofmannstahl with Richard Strauss. Director Peter Sellars tried to step in and fill Goodman’s shoes when she pulled out, but his bizarre solution to a dramaturgical problem that Goodman apparently could not solve was to take literal transcripts of technical documents and assemble them into a hodgepodge of atomic academia that ends up offering little, if any, insight into the genesis of the nuclear era that couldn’t be found far more thoroughly in a book on the subject. The result is a choir standing on the edge of the stage having to sing such non-singable syllables as “icosahedron” and “dodecahedron.” Weighing in at more than three hours, the drama revolves around the question, “Will the bomb work?” It is amazing that we don’t care, not only because we already know the answer and the far more compelling drama that followed that first test, but also because we don’t get to really know any of the cardboard characters in the opera, particular the mysterious title character, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Imagine if Mario Puzo instead of writing a detailed fictional account of gangster life complete with character development and inside views decided to compile trial transcripts and police reports to write “The Godfather.” What little drama there is here, will the bomb, that is suspended mid-stage a la “Phantom of the Opera” chandelier (but never moving, nor exploding with the time-frame of the static “action”) work, is never resolved. If you didn’t know the story, you would never know. The fact that a handful of male dancers skip around here and there with truncated Jerome Robbins-like choreography suggesting that they are passing through on their way to audition for a high-school production of “West Side Story,” is never explained. Perhaps admirers of the work will insist that the work is ambiguous, like the atomic age itself, but uh, we kind of knew that much coming in. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, (312)332-2244. This production is now closed.