“It would be hard to invent a fictitious scenario for a modern opera more gripping” than the one taken from real life by composer John Adams, said Jeremy Eichler in The Boston Globe. In 1945, the world’s most advanced physicists are assembled in Los Alamos, N.M., working furiously on an atomic bomb. They are led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Adams’ Faustian protagonist, who wages war with inner demons while steadfastly presiding over the push to create the most destructive weapon in history. Librettist Peter Sellars weaves lyrics that combine everything from declassified government documents to the poetry of John Donne, and Adams again exhibits his mastery. He bends the “centuries-old art form” of opera to give our recent national past “a new dimensionality and resonance,” just as he did in 1987’s Nixon in China.
This is Adams’ “most complex and masterly” score to date, said Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. Full of subtle intricacies and layered elements, the orchestral writing seems to “tremble with grainy colors, misty sonorities, and textural density.” Conductor Alan Gilbert’s work with the chorus and orchestra is “a revelation” in his Met debut. As Oppenheimer, baritone Gerald Finley gives a “vocally visceral” performance, especially in Act 1’s climactic aria, a rendering of Donne’s “Batter my heart.” Bass-baritone Richard Paul Fink anchors the score as Oppenheimer’s skeptical colleague Edward Teller, and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke stands out as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty. Her “wistful intensity” in this key role helps to humanize the driven physicist.
The weak link is director Penny Woolcock, said Eric Myers in Variety. The British filmmaker was asked by the Met to stage a brand-new production of this work, originally directed by Sellars for the San Francisco Opera in 2005. But Woolcock adds no new insights, and the staging seems unusually static for someone who “works in a medium as fluid as cinema.” In most scenes, the principals remain stuck in one of the set’s three tiers of cubicles. At other times, they merely stand in a line onstage. Only Adams’ score, with its immense power and eclectic beauty, consistently “keeps the mind engaged.”