IDON'T think anyone would expect that an opera that starts with the words: "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only altered in form" and ends, three hours later, with "The work in ideas of unstability: divisible and transmutable as matter, divisible and transmutable as idea" is going to be much fun.

And John Adams' "Doctor Atomic," which had its much-hyped San Francisco Opera world premiere Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, is something of a downer. Those who do not share SFO director Pamela Rosenberg's idea that opera "is good for you," will probably be happier at one of Vivica Genaux's performances of "The Italian Girl in Algiers."

Yet not all opera need be frivolous. Adams' fourth, full-length collaboration with director Peter Sellars — who cobbled together the lengthy, sometimes non-sequitur libretto from "original sources," including scientific writings, letters, documents and poetry — tells the story of the final moments before the testing of the atom bomb by the Manhattan Project of government and scientific functionaries and geniuses at Los Alamos, N.M., in July 1945.

Adams understands that opera only works as polemic when it is character driven, so this story is intimate and personalized, with only a bit of artistic license assuming what these real-life personages might actually be thinking.

The right-wing Internet posters who complained, before hearing a note, that the new opera was "liberal propaganda" (i.


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e. pacifist and anti-bomb) were clearly wrong.

Yet the evening is very serious and, despite a number of dramatic and theatrical miscalculations by Sellars, produces a score as dense and impressive as any Adams has written in the last decades. It opens with Pink Floyd-like electronics and closes with a spooky detonation of the bomb, rather than the orchestral cataclysm I was hoping for.

Along the way there is an endless "love duet" for J. Robert Oppenheimer (the chief civilian scientist on the bomb project) and his alcoholic wife, Kitty, with poems by Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Baudelaire, humor from Gen. Leslie Groves, who details his diet woes, and a magnificent setting of John Donne'sHoly sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" in which "Oppie" sings of his conflict between the good and evil consequences of pure scientific exploration.

The vocal lines, as always with Adams, tend to be prosaic until something like the Donne poem touches his imagination. He's not a "tunesmith," but he can rise to an operatic occasion. Perhaps he doesn't do it often enough in "Atomic," but that is partly Sellars' fault. Even with supertitles, the libretto seems forced and artsy.

Sellars' production involves the usual suspects: Adrianne Lobel's moveable set pieces, Dunya Ramicova's servicable costumes, James F. Ingalls' bold lighting that makes much of the backdrop of the Sangre de Christos mountains, Lucinda Child's fluid but superfluous choreography.

In the pit, Donald Runnicles had the Wagner-sized orchestra purring like a big, dangerous cat. The soloists, augmented by the flawless SFO chorus, made the most of their acting and singing assignments. Gerald Finley was the conflicted Oppie, Kristine Jepson his garrulous wife, and Beth Clayton her Native American maid Pasqualita. Eric Owens created humor as Gen. Groves berating the local weathermen and Thomas Glenn was the poignant young scientist whose conscience made him miserable.