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Ensemble

Convincing and Moving

John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic' receives
its first European performance,
reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER

 

Both Wagner Dream, by Jonathan Harvey, a masterly electro-acoustic opera for the 21st century, and John Adams' Doctor Atomic, were received with enthusiastic ovations, the composers present to enjoy rapturous receptions, at the 60th Holland Festival in Amsterdam in June, which took as its 'theme' science and spirituality. Significantly, both draw their heroes from recent cultural history: Richard Wagner and Robert Oppenheimer, exploring their impact as 'great men' as well as their human doubts, passions, and moral dilemmas, their inner as well as outer worlds. Yet stylistically the operas are diametrically opposed: Doctor Atomic continues and develops the neo-romantic, neo-minimalist tonal reportage of Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China, while Wagner Dream [also reviewed here], more dramatically engaging than Harvey's earlier 1993 opera Inquest of Love, is also immersed in even more sophisticated electro-acoustics, postmodernist atonalism and Buddhist ideas.

At the European première of John Adams' Doctor Atomic on 10 June 2007, Amsterdam's lavish new opera house was aflame with the enthusiasm: a standing ovation, celebratory scenes on stage, flowers thrown to the chorus by the composer. The co-production of the Nederlands Opera with San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago had held the audience's attention for over three hours in two single-span acts.

The seriousness of the subject matter, the moral issues surrounding the development of the atomic bomb in 1945, and the role and character of Oppenheimer, were treated in Peter Sellars' libretto and production, as well as in the music, with suitable gravitas and depth. The evocative open-ended conclusion, when the bomb is finally tested in New Mexico, was convincing and moving: while the chorus prays, the scientists experience euphoria, and one hears chiming bells and a Japanese woman's pleading voice.

Jessica Rivera as Kitty Oppenheimer and Ellen Rabiner as Pasqualita with members of the chorus in John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic'. Photo © 2007 Marco Borggreve
Jessica Rivera as Kitty Oppenheimer and Ellen Rabiner as Pasqualita with members of the chorus in John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic'. Photo © 2007 Marco Borggreve

 

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Copyright © 18 July 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK

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