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Opera on 3 From the Met.mp3
In a performance given in November 2008 at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, Alan Gilbert conducts John Adams's opera, treating the subject of the atomic bomb, which is the latest in a series of works dealing with resonant moments in 20th-Century history.
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley portrays Robert J Oppenheimer, the highly cultivated scientific genius whose profound humanism is at odds with his role as the head of the project to create a weapon of unprecedented destructive force.
Presented by Margaret Juntwait.
Edward Teller ...... Richard Paul Fink (bass-baritone)
J Robert Oppenheimer ...... Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)
Robert Wilson ...... Thomas Glenn (tenor)
Kitty Oppenheimer ...... Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
General Leslie Groves ...... Eric Owens (bass)
Frank Hubbard ...... Earle Patriarco (baritone)
Captain James Nolan ...... Roger Honeywell (tenor)
Pasqualita ...... Meredith Arwady (mezzo-soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Alan Gilbert (conductor).
See selection of photos from Metropolitan Opera production
Photo Gallery of Doctor Atomic
Synopsis - Act 1 Scene 1
The Manhattan Project laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico. June, 1945.
Work on the atomic bomb approaches its culminating point.
Physicists, engineers, and US military personnel are laboring under intense pressure from Washington to have the bomb tested and ready for use within the next two weeks.
J. Robert Oppenheimer—“Oppie” to his friends—has brought the brightest minds in physics and engineering to a remote mesa in what was assumed to be a race against their German counterparts.
But now Germany has surrendered, and many of the scientists are beginning to question the necessity of its use in Japan.
General Leslie Groves, Army commander of the project, while aware of Oppenheimer’s vague but troubling past involvements with the Communist party, has up to now been able to persuade the government to look the other way because of Oppenheimer’s great value to the program.
Act 1 Scene 1 (continued)
After the opening chorus, Edward Teller confronts Oppenheimer in the lab. Teller’s obsession with his dream of a thermonuclear weapon, the “Super,” has caused difficulties with other scientists.
Teamwork is difficult for Teller, and Oppenheimer excuses him from the group collaboration.
Teller shows Oppenheimer a letter he has just received from another physicist, the Hungarian Leo Szilard, urging all the scientists involved in atomic energy to take a moral stand against the bomb’s use and to sign a letter to President Truman: “We alone are in a position to declare our stand.”
Oppenheimer admonishes Teller and other scientists not to involve themselves in “political pronouncements.”
Act 1 Scene 1 (continued)
Robert Wilson, a committed, idealistic physicist (and the youngest division leader at Los Alamos) is organizing a meeting in his technical area to talk about the social and moral implications of the “Gadget” (code word for the bomb).
Oppenheimer, well aware of Wilson’s liberal affinities, objects to the plan. “You could get into trouble if you had such a meeting.”
Wilson also has a petition for the President that he hopes everyone will sign: “Atomic attacks on Japan cannot be justified until we make clear the terms of peace and give them a chance to surrender.”
Oppenheimer, who has just returned from Washington, describes the decision to bomb Japanese cities, focusing on civilian targets.
“We should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many inhabitants as possible.”
Act 1 Scene 2
The Oppenheimers’ house in Los Alamos
Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, are alone at home. It is a warm summer night, but Oppenheimer is preoccupied reading reports.
Kitty asks him: “Am I in your light?” Roused, Oppenheimer responds to her in rich, atmospheric stanzas by one of their favorite poets, Baudelaire.
For a few brief moments, they are transported into the intoxicated climate of the poem, and then it’s time for Robert to go to work.
“Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war,” Kitty, alone, declares. “A world is to be fought for, sung and built: love must imagine the world.”
Act 1 Scene 3
The “Trinity” test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico. July 15, 1945.
It is the night of the test of the first atomic bomb.
Truman is in Potsdam negotiating the spoils of Europe with Churchill and Stalin.
The pressure on Oppenheimer and General Groves to achieve a successful test is unyielding: the Americans need to have a nuclear weapon as a trump card to play against the Russians
Act 1 Scene 3 (continued)
As predicted months before, a massive summer electrical storm is lashing the test site.
The bomb, already partially armed for detonation and hoisted on a high tower, is in danger of being struck by lightning.
Groves, beside himself with frustration and anxiety, berates Chief Meteorologist Frank Hubbard, who warns the general that attempting the test in these conditions is extremely dangerous.
Captain Nolan off the Army Medical Corps tries to impress upon Groves the deadly toxic properties of plutonium that are only now beginning to be understood.
An accident at the test site could render hundreds of military and scientific personnel fatally ill with painful radiation poisoning.
Already panic is starting to take hold, and several enlisted men have had to be removed under sedation. Groves dismisses all staff to confer with Oppenheimer alone.
“Oppie” gently humors Groves about the latter’s chronic weight problems, and the General confesses many failed attempts to control his diet.
Groves leaves to catch two hours of sleep.
Oppenheimer faces his own personal crisis alone in the desert, recalling the Holy Sonnet by John Donne: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” It is the poem that inspired him to name the test site “Trinity.”
Act 2 Scene 1
The Oppenheimers’ house
It is two in the morning, July 16.
Two hundred miles from the test site, Kitty and her Tewa Indian maid, Pasqualita, are watching the night sky for signs of the blast. (Women were prohibited from entering Alamogordo.)
Pasqualita occasionally checks on the Oppenheimers’ sleeping child. Kitty, in a long soliloquy, sings of the war, of death, and of the resurrection of the spirit: “Now I say that the peace the spirit needs is peace, not lack of war, but fierce continual flame.”
Rain over the Sangre de Cristos Mountains.
Seven-month-old Katherine Oppenheimer awakens, crying. Pasqualita takes the baby and comforts her, singing a lullaby.
Act 2 Scene 2
The “Trinity” test site. Midnight, July 16, 1945.
The plutonium bomb has been mounted on the detonation tower and all personnel have been cleared from the surrounding blast area.
Robert Wilson has to climb the tower one last time to attach a measuring instrument to the bomb.
From the top of the tower he can feel the wind and rain buffet his face, and he sees flashes of lightning in the distance.
Jack Hubbard is at the foot of the tower, making wind velocity measurements ordered by Groves.
Wilson confesses his extreme anxiety about being around the bomb in the middle of an electrical storm.
To Hubbard, a test in the middle of such weather is a “blunder of the first magnitude,” and he points out that the high winds could scatter lethal radioactive debris for miles.
While Wilson and Hubbard are at the tower, Groves, Oppenheimer, and the others wait nervously at the Base Camp observation bunker for the storm to pass.
Act 2 Scene 2 (continued)
The scientists’ talk returns to an unsettling concern: whether or not the detonation might set off an uncontrolled chain reaction ending in the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere.
Teller muses: “Might we not be settling off a chain reaction that will encircle the globe in a sea of fire?”
Rumor has it that Enrico Fermi, one of the team’s most respected scientists, has been taking bets on whether such a calamity might occur.
Oppenheimer notes pointedly that such a result is not possible, but it hardly brightens the mood of gloom pervading the test site.
With the rain still coming down, Groves disregards Hubbard’s warnings about the storm and Oppenheimer orders all personnel to prepare for the test shot at 5.30 A.M.
Scenes 3 and 4
The final countdown begins at 5.10 A.M. Groves, always fearing sabotage, complains to Lieutenant Bush about the behavior of individuals who have caused endless security headaches: “This program has been plagued from the start by the presence of certain scientists of doubtful discretion and uncertain loyalty.”
Oppenheimer, whose normally thin frame has shrunken even further to 98 pounds, is in a state of extreme nervous exhaustion.
Everyone waits, each absorbed in his own thoughts. “Memories, Regrets, Spasms, Fears, Afflictions, Nightmares, Rages, and Neuroses” overwhelm the hours between the minutes.
Pasqualita has her own visions: “News came on the frost, ‘The dead are on the march!’”
At Base Camp, the men make a betting pool.
Each tries to guess the yield of the bomb.
Oppenheimer surprises everyone by his pessimistic prediction of three kilotons—“a fizzle,” Teller calls it. Even Groves is unable to conceal his waning faith.
Teller scoffs at their timidity and predicts a 45-kiloton explosion.
Scenes 3 and 4 (continued)
The night sky is suddenly filled with a terrifying vision of Vishnu as described in the Bhagavad Gita: “At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous, full of mouths and eyes … terrible with fangs … when I see you, Vishnu … with your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—all my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.”
At zero minus ten minutes, Groves becomes concerned that Oppenheimer, “our high-strung director,” is going to have a nervous breakdown.
A warning rocket arches in the sky and a siren sounds. Everyone rushes to their places in the trenches.
Then the storm breaks, and the sky over Ground Zero suddenly clears.
At zero minus two minutes, another warning rocket goes off but sputters out prematurely.
At zero minus 60 seconds, a third rocket appears in the morning sky, signaling the final 60-second countdown.
Base Camp resembles an outpost of the dead: rows of scientists and Army personnel lying facedown in shallow ditches.
There is no movement or whisper of activity, only the rhythmic countdown over the loudspeaker.
At zero minus 45 seconds, an engineer flips the switch for the automatic timer.
The triggering circuits begin to fire in rapid precision. “Zero minus one.”
There is an eerie silence, and then an era begins.