There is a relentless quality to John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, which might seem appropriate to an opera whose dramatic thread is a countdown to the bomb. Everything you need to know, from the conscience of the scientists of the Manhattan Project to the horrific human toll ushered in by the Atomic Age, is in Adams’ score. Foreshadowed echoes of the detonation itself can be heard in passages of orchestral violence long before the opera’s final moment of blinding light.
Given the talent on stage and in the orchestra pit Thursday, you might have hoped R.B. Schlather had trusted the musical material a bit more. The director for this Curtis Opera Theatre production of Doctor Atomic could not have had a more highly polished corps of musicians -- from a commanding Edward Teller sung by baritone Tyler Zimmerman to a strong chorus and the incisive and atmospheric sounds drawn from a student orchestra by conductor Timothy Myers.
Adams’ score has stretches of greatness, particularly in the first act, where the music plays with the tension between the warmth of humanity and science’ s realization that for the first time it has humanity’s end in sight -- and it was science itself that cleared the path.
But Schlather generally chose to elaborate on the music with constant over-busyness. Characters literally wrestled (writhed) with their conscience on stage. Objects were dropped from the sky for you to interpret as either confetti conferred upon scientific achievement, or the radioactive fallout to come. One nice move: The stage of the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater was stripped to a minimum -- fly space, rigging, and all -- giving singers a chance to range freely in a rather industrial space, their voices aided by amplification to a wonderful level of detail.
Characterizations manifested themselves vocally with great depth in Jonathan McCullough’s portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Evan LeRoy Johnson as Robert Wilson, and Siena Licht Miller as Kitty Oppenheimer. It wouldn’t have been half as effective had it not been for the incredible skill of the orchestra. Adams is a master of message: momentum, fluidity, transformation, the suspension of time. He summoned Debussy's sound universe in one memorable seduction scene, and Wagnerian menace leading up to the conclusion.
Musically, Adams is impervious to cliché; his language is subtle and powerful, and Doctor Atomic’s resonance, with Peter Sellars' libretto, has only grown louder since the premiere in 2005. Ours is not a bad time to be listening in on the dialogue of concerned artists and scientists.
Additional performance: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10 and $35. 215-893-1999, www.curtis.edu.