Opportunities to see two different productions of a relatively new opera are rare, and the opportunity to see a broadcast of a second version of such a new work are even rarer. Nevertheless, I can sympathize with Peter Gelb's decision to follow through on adding John Adams' Doctor Atomic to the Metropolitan Opera repertoire by bringing in a new stage director and greatly appreciate his then deciding to include this new production in his Live in HD series. Those of us who have seen a healthy share of Peter Sellars' stagings know that they can be hit-or-miss affairs; and in this case Sellars was already present as compiler of the opera's libretto. Why not assign production responsibilities to Penny Woolcock, who had already taken on the task of creating the film version of The Death of Klinghoffer?
Why not, indeed? The music was given an excellent performance under conductor Alan Gilbert, who seems to have worked well with Woolcock over the most fundamental questions, such as how this extended meditation on the Manhattan Project activities leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb should be paced. Note the noun phrase "extended meditation." The libretto is decidedly not a narrative. Rather it is a reflection on the events that constitute the narrative, constructed from an amalgam of source documents and literary sources, most (if not all) of which were reading favorites of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Director of the Manhattan Project.
The good news is that, for those of us with a reasonably sound sense of the history of the Manhattan Project, that first test firing, and all the subsequent events, the libretto provides a decidedly interesting point of view, even if it does not authentically reflect the personalities depicted in the opera. The bad news is the extent to which ours has become a culture of historical ignorance. When a news anchor for National Public Radio can no longer give an accurate account of Richard Nixon's dog, Checkers, while reading an editorial about Barack Obama's commitment to give his kids a puppy, can we expect a typical audience, even at the Metropolitan Opera, to have a clear sense of the story of how American warfare entered the Atomic Age?
To some extent Woolcock tried to compensate for this ignorance. In Sellars' staging for the San Francisco Opera, the characters were basically vessels for the libretto. This served the meditative objective, but it diminished the role of character as character. The work could just as easily have been performed as a cantata with voices in the appropriate ranges. Woolcock did a better job of translating the textual meditations into dramatic portrayals of the characters as motivated agents. These characters included Oppenheimer himself, General Leslie Groves, in charge of the military presence on the sites of the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller, who spent most of his Manhattan Project time doing the first work on a hydrogen bomb, Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert's wife, Robert Wilson, one of the key young researchers, and Frank Hubbard, the army meteorologist responsible for the final decision on testing the bomb on the basis of suitable weather conditions. Woolcock exploited her cinematic expertise in rendering the motives of these characters through scrupulously chosen postures and gestures; and my guess is that the camera close-ups for the HD broadcast made these physical subtleties even easier to "read" than they would be in the vast space of the Metropolitan Opera House. If the Salome telecast gave us a bit too much of the facial contortions behind the demands of Richard Strauss' writing for the lead soprano voice, the Doctor Atomic telecast cut right to the core of the humanity of these characters who were critical to not only the story of the opera but the story of the Atomic Age itself.
Within this context of motivation, Woolcock also made what I felt was a critical (and valuable) shift in priorities. Where Sellars had tended to focus on the tension between Oppenheimer and his wife, Woolcock was more interested in the tension between Oppenheimer and Teller. Within the context of the overall history, this is the more crucial tension; and it was excellently depicted in the performances by Gerald Finley as the former and Richard Paul Fink as the latter. (This being opera, one could compare that tension to the one that Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito conceived for Otello and Jago.) One could write another opera (probably closer to Adams than to Verdi) that would explore the tragic αγών between Oppenheimer and Teller that ensued after the end of the Second World War; and Woolcock did well to hint that, in the decade that followed the narrative behind Doctor Atomic, an even more important narrative evolved around not just the Atomic Age but the context it established for the Cold War. If this message was a subtle one, then she drew on another subtlety to reinforce it: Julian Crouch's set design incorporated projections of the original Manhattan Project security badges. Among the badges selected for projection was that of Klaus Fuchs, who probably can be counted as the first perpetrator of "atomic espionage," passing classified Manhattan Project data to the Russians. This was the sort of gesture that was probably lost on those unfamiliar with the actual history, but the rest of us appreciated the acknowledgement!