Chicago Lyric Opera’s “Dr. Atomic” covers the days leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos: the interaction of Oppenheimer, his family, other scientists, and the military.  There was also a recurring chorus of the Everyman, representing the American public, and workers tinkering silently in the background.  Every now and then a group of dancers took the stage and danced in a circle.  I think they were supposed to be atoms or something.  Maybe electrons.

I should preface this with a disclaimer that I don’t tend to much like modern English-language opera in general, which biased me against this opera.  I also don’t tend to like jangly, dissonant music.  So … this was a modern, English, dissonant opera, and for a lot of the time, I sort of shoved it away.  I liked some things about it very much, though.

I’ve been sick with a bad cold, and about ten minutes into the first half, I felt a horrible coughing fit coming on.  I choked it back and fled to the bathroom, eyes streaming.  Of course, I couldn’t get back in, so I spent most of the first half sucking on Ricolas, watching the monitor in the basement.

 Overall, there was an almost anti-lyricism.  There was little poetic rhythm, particularly in the men’s speech.  The men handled the explication of the events as they unfolded, and discussed mundane but crucial technical details.  Very hard-edged, no flow at all.  The women – Oppenheimer’s wife and their nanny – were more flowing and less literal, and their lines had more poetic imagery and rhythm.  Normally I would prefer the latter style, but the wife was so annoying, I really disliked her arias.

There was a duet between Oppenheimer and his wife near the end of the first act, which I mostly missed because the monitor was fairly small, so it was hard to read the supertitles.  I squinted at the monitor, thinking, did he just say “bite”?  He wants to bite her tresses?  He wants to eat her hair?  Or am I not reading/hearing that correctly?  (Yes, that was correct.)  Maybe it would have been more moving if I’d been more sure what he was saying.

 I did think suspense was maintained pretty well.  The weather was a constant problem – they kept delaying the test due to weather conditions (a lightning storm).  They were worried the lightning might actually set off the bomb somehow.  Against the forced delays, there was tremendous pressure to get the test done – first because they thought they were racing against the Nazis, and then after the surrender, because President Truman needed to know for purposes of the talks in Potsdam.

Sometimes, though, instead of suspense, I just felt like I was drearily enduring the wait.  That was purgatorial.  Another delay, another Ricola.

The one scene which just made the opera for me was Oppenheimer’s aria at the end of the first half, “Batter My Heart.”  In the scene, Oppenheimer hasn’t slept in several days, is near the limits of his endurance.  You sense that he’s exerting superhuman effort to resist all the pressures on him – moral, time, technical – to keep moving.  He alternately moves toward the the bomb tower and turns away, singing lines based on a sonnet by Donne:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason yhour viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

So he keeps walking slowly toward the bomb – but keeps halting and turning away.  As he turns away, he staggers, almost falling, repeating the words break … burn … break … burn…  And you’re watching him, feeling for him, thinking, how can a human being withstand these horrible pressures on him and not snap in two?

I don’t remember for sure, but I think he also said something about a door, that he hoped to rise again and open the door.  I don’t know if Oppenheimer was personally religious – I would tend to doubt it.  So this scene depicted an incredibly painful spiritual struggle, the juxtaposition of someone who has rejected the idea of God, or at least of a personal God – and who by his actions, in building a weapon that rends the very fiber of existence and will kill millions of people, has assured that if there IS a God, he’s pretty much damned himself to Hell – who nevertheless needs that God, or some kind of spiritual sustenance.  His spirit is literally in the desert, parched, tormented. 

It was achingly beautiful.

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