Six decades ago, a uniquely brilliant man with an anguished sense of morality led the Manhattan project to develop the first nuclear weapon. J. Robert Oppenheimer named the final, crucial test in Alamagordo "Trinity," inspired by John Donne's haunted, metaphysical poems.
Two years ago, on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, bass-baritone Gerald Finley - backlit downstage, his face in the dark - seemed doubled over, singing the role of Oppenheimer in John Adams' "Doctor Atomic."
"Batter my heart, three-person'd God..." he sang the aria set on Donne's stark, powerful poem. With dark, convulsive ecstasy in the grip of the Trinity's conflicting forces, the singer embraced the poet's terrifying vision, "to break, blow, burn, and make me new." As Oppenheimer, about to unleash unpredictable - possibly cataclysmic - energy, Finley moved spasmodically to the overpowering rhythms of Adams' music, his clear, warm, powerful and seductive voice soaring through the house:
"Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."
And now, in 2007, it all comes together in Jon Else's "Wonders Are Many," shown at the San Francisco Film Festival: Oppenheimer, Trinity, Adams' opera, Pamela Rosenberg's most ambitious and successful project before leaving as general director of the commissioning San Francisco Opera, dramaturg/stage director Peter Sellars - alternatively urbane, intellectual, smart as a whip, and screaming obscenities at the befuddled chorus after a long day of rehearsal - and a large cast of characters.
Ideas proliferate even more here, from the mechanics of fusion, the inner structure of plutonium, the nature of individual responsibility for the actions of one's government, the composer's and the director's creative process... on and on.
As "Doctor Atomic" was a mostly superb marriage of music, text, production, melding elements of history, philosophy, politics, poetry, mass- and individual psychology, fear, and hope, Else's magnificent construction of the film more than keeps up with - and eventually illuminates - the complexities, the depth of both the original Trinity story and the production of a great contemporary opera it inspired.
"Wonders Are Many" is so good that it will grab and hold even those for whom nuclear physics and opera are of no special interest. The intellect, humanity, creativity and excitement of it all should appeal to everyone.
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