Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera is part of Pamela Rosenberg's Faust project. The Faust project included a fully staged Damnation of Faust, Berlioz' insufficiently theatrical opera. For me it was very successful, bringing coherence where it had not been before.
The Faust project also included Busoni's Doktor Faust which I loathed. It was set in what appeared to be a factory. Or was it a power plant? Faust's significance seemed to be indistinguishable from Homer Simpson's job at the power plant. People came and went for no apparent reason. There was an ending, but who knows what it meant? I expect the production to explain the opera to me, but this one explained nothing.
Faust is always a well-educated man who wants to experience more than ordinary human experience allows. J. Robert Oppenheimer wants to experience the creation of a nuclear explosion, an activity previously outside human experience. Has he sold his soul to accomplish this? Has this process shown him that he has a soul?
I said that I would review this work as opera and not as politics. In order to do this I would first need to convince myself that it existed apart from politics. Adams' libretti are not really operas and I think this one is the worst offender. Is there drama here at all? The bomb is ready to go off, and everyone is fretting over it. We are transitioning from a world without nuclear explosions to one with them. The wife, Kitty, sung by Kristine Jepson, who is entirely outside the project, thinks we should aggressively pursue peace. One of the scientists, Robert Wilson, ably played by the Adler Fellow Thomas Glenn, is worried about the morality of the proposed bombing of Japan, which they all seem to know about.
The supposed bomb, looking nothing like the actual atomic bomb which was not particularly interesting looking, hangs from the ceiling throughout the opera, reminding us constantly of what the subject is.
For me this simply did not work. There were sufficient events to fill the first act, but the second act is empty. There is ticking to indicate a count down, but there is no number to tell us where we are, no sense of progress toward the end. The lighting changes. The people stand or lie on the stage. The colors change--I'm told each of these colors is assigned a particular significance, but do I care? What little tension there may have been entirely dissipates by the end. Nothing happens except the lights go out, the chorus stands and the lights come back up. This entire act created no tension for me at all, and I'm told that the ending was changed from the opening on October 1 to be even less eventful.
John Adams' music is the best part of this. There is homage to Verese, someone I enjoy, in the mechanical sounds that make up the overture and parts of Act II. It's minimalism in every sense. Adams is less minimal than Glass by quite a lot, but there is lots of harmonic, thematic and rhythmic repetition. Minimalism is based firmly in the concept that less is more. Less complexity brings greater comprehension and appreciation, and after Schoenberg, this is welcomed. But less theatrical arc does not yield more theatrical satisfaction. I need something going on. I'm sorry to say it, but this opera is just plain boring.
The texts all appear to be borrowed. There are frequent elements that could have been formed into a plot. The scientists could have actively fought over the ethics of bombing a Japanese city with no warning instead of just doing monologues. There was singing, movement, people, lighting, music. For me all that was missing was the opera.