It's a gray sun brooding over the proceedings, a diving bell to hell, a sacred-heart monstrance in a monstrous benediction. The atom bomb hanging over the New Mexico desert cyclorama in Lyric Opera's "Doctor Atomic" looks like it came at once from government-archive photo and stage director Peter Sellars' dark fantasies. Act One of this San Francisco Opera co-production has dancing electrons and an Anvil Chorus of physicists, but "The Gadget" steals the show.
Sellars' libretto for the John Adams opera is a pastiche, but with a striking range. J. Robert Oppenheimer speaks in his own words and in the poetry of Baudelaire and John Donne, whose poem Batter my heart, three person'd God becomes a Faustian killer aria for Gerald Finley. His wife's dialog is elegaic poet Murial Rukeyser, who apparently is not represented in the Chicago Public Library collection. A Greek chorus quotes The Bhagavad-Gita in their fear of what Man hath wrought.
This has been a fine season for Lyric Opera, perhaps because we've cut our subscription back to four operas to avoid yet another "Boheme" or "Traviata." (OK, we don't mind another "Barber of Seville.") Handel's "Julius Caesar" cornered the market on countertenors, trumped by Danielle de Niese's Cleopatra as a Bollywood ingenue. And Christine Brewer dueled diva Deborah Voigt to a draw in "Die Frau ohne Schatten."
But the Lyric's late first attempt at a John Adams opera matched these considerable feats. As a dramatic slice of recent history it resembled "Amistad", which debuted at Lyric a decade ago and only now is being revived for Spoleto. But while Anthony Davis' high-atonal score did the impossible, creating an opera on slavery that could not bring you to tears, "Doctor Atomic" used a similar musical language to speak the unspeakable with both force and intimacy. Bring your hankies.