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John Adams' bomb bursting on air

December 6, 2008 |  4:47 am


Leave it to the Dutch.  A broadcast of the Netherlands Opera production of "Doctor Atomic" -- John Adams' startling, profound opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the A-bomb -- didn't exactly come gift-wrapped last Christmas.  But an exceptionally well-made video of the Peter Sellars staging was, indeed, broadcast over Dutch television on Christmas Day.  That kind of significant holiday fare could never happen on our PBS, right?  Wrong.  Very wrong.

It turns out that hidden away among the "Nutcracker" and Viennese waltzes, KCET has a "Doctor Atomic" double whammy this month.  On Dec. 16 at 9 p.m., "Independent Lens" will feature a fine documentary, called "Wonders Are Many" about the making of the opera and lead-up to its premiere in San Francisco in October 2005.  Then on Dec. 29 at 8 p.m., "Great Performances" will broadcast the Metropolitan Opera's new production by Penny Woolcock of the opera.

The Met production and performance do not quite hold up to the Dutch version, but it is still worth watching.  And be sure to read Sellars' libretto -- a brilliant mixture of historic material with poetry -- first.  A copy happens to be online, free.  You can learn where to find it from a Times Sunday story on the importance of librettos in modern opera.

-- Mark Swed

Photo:  Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer in the Met's "Doctor Atomic." Credit: Ken Howard /  Metropolitan Opera.