AS love duets go, this one places an unusual premium on the life of the mind. A wife recites Muriel Rukeyser. Her husband comes back with Baudelaire. He pushes her down on the bed. She tugs his tie. Then he notices the time, adjusts his clothes and leaves for work.
At the Metropolitan Opera the Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, as Kitty Oppenheimer, recently replayed these moments over and over, improvising dance moves, whisking aside a notebook, perfecting the sweep of their prop cigarettes. “I just want it to be him,” Mr. Finley said, visibly in the grip of a gentle obsession, loosening his collar yet again.
The scene is from “Doctor Atomic,” the latest of the John Adams operas on emblematic moments of 20th-century history, after “Nixon in China” (1987) and “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991). Until further notice, Mr. Finley owns the Oppenheimer role, having created it three seasons ago in San Francisco and accompanied the original production to Amsterdam and Chicago. The Met’s new production, Mr. Adams’s company debut, will open Monday.
“Doctor Atomic” tracks the countdown to the explosion of the first atomic bomb near Los Alamos, N.M., home to the Manhattan Project. The libretto, by Peter Sellars, is a collage from documentary sources, history books and poetry variously connected to the characters’ inner worlds. “Everything,” Mr. Sellars has said, “comes from somewhere.”
Mr. Sellars staged the original production of “Doctor Atomic,” as he had those of “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer,” and the Met initially planned to import his quasi-canonical version, giving him a belated house debut. Unspecified creative differences arose, and the company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, turned instead to another newcomer, Penny Woolcock, the British filmmaker responsible for the powerful film of “Klinghoffer.” She has never directed for the stage.
Mr. Sellars, who has been signed for the Met premiere of “Nixon in China” in 2010-11, has taken any disappointment he might have felt with cheerful equanimity.
“Kids leave home,” he said recently in his sun-drenched living room in Culver City, Calif. “If they don’t, you didn’t do a good job of raising them. They leave and have incredible experiences they couldn’t have with you. The operas I’ve worked on with John and other composers, like Kaija Saariaho and Osvaldo Golijov, have all gone on to other lives, which is so unlike the fate of most contemporary opera. We’re bringing things into the world for the ages, not for the next five minutes.”
Ms. Woolcock called Mr. Sellars a brilliant director. “He approaches the material in a much more abstract way than I do,” she said after a recent rehearsal, “so I never felt I’d be stepping on his toes. I’m very literal minded. But I think we proceed from the same impulse.”
Eric Owens, a bass-baritone who has been in “Doctor Atomic” from the beginning, summed up that impulse in one phrase: “to tell the story.” As Gen. Leslie Groves, the bully in charge of the bomb project, Mr. Owens throws monster tantrums, but Ms. Woolcock is also keen to explore his insecurities. She has been turning the same microscope on Oppenheimer.
To Mr. Finley, who has done several Mozart roles in a wide range of productions, this is no different. “The strength of ‘Doctor Atomic’ is the layered subtext,” he said. “Each character has many agendas to get through. It’s very refreshing to reveal aspects that haven’t been seen.”
In its prior incarnation, available on an Opus Arte DVD drawn from the Amsterdam performances, “Doctor Atomic” was vintage Sellars. On a virtually bare stage the chorus would charge to the footlights, harangue the audience, then disperse with ferocious intensity. There were passages of the patented Sellars semaphore: big, jagged physical gestures externalizing emotions already seismic in the score. And dancers, flung into motion by Lucinda Childs, tore through the action, signifying — what? Subatomic particles whizzing through infinite or infinitesimal space?
“The dancers were the weather,” Mr. Sellars said. “I can’t bring the wind, the precipitation into the theater.”
Without changing their nondescript costumes, they also doubled as laboratory scientists, performing intricate mechanical operations at high speed. And at a climactic moment they stood in for the Pueblo Indians of the area, stamping the earth in the summer sun to prompt their buried ancestors to release life-giving rain. This was in counterpoint to the general’s panic at the threat of electrical storms that might turn the experiment into a fiasco. But how many viewers could unravel these cross-references?
Ms. Woolcock’s imagination feeds less on big ideas than on concrete detail, as in her film of “Klinghoffer.” In the story that made headlines everywhere, Palestinian terrorists hijack the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro, murder an invalid American tourist and toss his corpse overboard in his wheelchair. In Mr. Sellars’s hands this played as ritual. Ms. Woolcock’s film reinvented the action as docudrama, losing some splendid choral music in the process. It was said back then that the producers had insisted on reducing the running time.
“No,” Ms. Woolcock said, “I was the ax murderer there. The choruses are beautiful, but I simply didn’t know what to do with them. They had no narrative function. In film, storytelling is imperative. You can’t stop, dream, ruminate. You need the story to keep going.”
Though she brought that same ax to the bargaining table for “Doctor Atomic,” Mr. Adams did not accommodate her this time. “I’m truthfully very glad,” she said. “I’ve found solutions to things I found troublesome.”
If the imperative in film is to move the story, different types of theater have different imperatives. Ms. Woolcock has no use for plodding realism. “I hate sitting in the middle of a row,” she said, “watching a three-piece sitting-room set with people shouting, pretending to be real.”
In preparation for “Doctor Atomic,” she said, she began attending opera only last year. “I spent several months in London and New York watching every opera they put on, just to see how to get people on and off the stage,” she added. “I had to learn about stagecraft.”
She found that opera at its most retro — the Met’s Cecil B. DeMille-style “Aida,” for instance — had huge appeal. “Opera demands such a leap of faith,” she said, “such a surrender to the hallucinogenic.” Which, in turn, opens up room for dreaming.
Literalist that she is, Ms. Woolcock shows the bomb much the way the Sellars production did, as the untidy-looking gizmo it was. But lighting can transform it. In the words of the scenic designer Julian Crouch, it then becomes “something like a large moon, very shamanistic in feeling.” And the explosion — flying debris frozen in space, inspired by the harrowing sculpture of Cornelia Parker — is not literal at all.
Ms. Woolcock was struck that Oppenheimer and other scientists on the project were also great aesthetes. Unlike the original production, this one unapologetically aims for beauty. The video artist Mark Grimmer, of Fifty Nine Productions, was fascinated by the graphic panache of equations in scientific notebooks from Los Alamos. His partner in video, Leo Warner, mentioned the painterly effect of motifs from the Tewa Indians. The costumes, by Catherine Zuber, include ghostly allusions to American Indian kachina figures.
Someday, Mr. Sellars prophesied, we will know “Doctor Atomic” the way we know “Don Giovanni.” “We’ll reach a place,” he said, “where our overview includes all the years and years of reaction.”
Least tangible, yet of the essence, will be the varying light and shade cast by different conductors. The lone Oppenheimer, Mr. Finley, has already worked with Donald Runnicles (San Francisco), Lawrence Renes (Amsterdam) and Robert Spano (Chicago). At the Met, Alan Gilbert takes the podium in his house debut.
“The wonder of John,” Mr. Finley said of Mr. Adams, “is that he challenges every orchestra to the limits of their capability. Each reading brings a firm new revelation of instrumental textures. Just as in Mozart there’s room for huge flexibility. Speed, dynamics, the buildup of intensity, the way you explore a passage of relaxation: you’re always hearing new melodies, new undercurrents. It never stops.”
Mr. Adams, whose verdict on his music fluctuates with the quality of the latest performance he has heard, knows what it’s like. “Any serious work of art is daunting on a first encounter,” he said recently at his home in Oakland, Calif. “You have to make a real effort. I’m reading ‘Anna Karenina’ for the second time now, and I’m amazed at what I missed the first time.”