Doctor Atomic is a new-ish opera about Dr. Oppenheimer, his team, and the first test of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. I saw the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s semi-staged version on Friday night. It was all played and sung well enough. Parts of it were good. Some parts were outstanding—Oppenheimer’s aria on John Donne’s Batter my heart, three-person’d God was an incredible piece of music, if not storytelling (here’s a recording and a video of the solo). And the gut-wrenching countdown carried by the orchestra in the second act was a ton of fun. What suspense!
But some parts on the journey were just dreadfully boring. People sing about the weather and scientific devices and stand around and smoke. There’s no real look inside their head and they don’t seem to have motivations. The final seconds of the ending—recorded voices of a victim asking for help coupled with the image of a Japanese mother and child projected against the backdrop—just seemed plain old tacky and self-congratulatory in a dangerous way. When you omit the few weeks that happened between the first test and the first bombings, the ambiguity and the wonderful moral dilemma of the time gets washed out.