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Act II focuses on the bomb test and is set in the Oppenheimers' family living room with children present, symbolic perhaps of the birth of the new nuclear era.
A scene from 'Doctor Atomic' at the Holland Festival. Photo © 2007 Marco Borggreve
From the start the music was echt-Adams, a continuous tonic pedal point emerging out of the initial electronic hissing and blowing noises, which returned at the end to effectively suggest the explosion. As in Adams' earlier operas, the chorus has an important role, though singing mainly in block harmony. The main musical interest thus resides in Adams' very fine orchestration, propelled with exhilarating energy by the Nederlands Philharmonic under Lawrence Renes. Adams has an uncanny ability to layer up exciting rhythmic polyphony, through pulsating repetitions of simple harmonies in some unusual groupings of strings, brass and woodwind. The harmonic idiom is mainly triadic, though there are some memorable neo-Romantic luscious chromatic and polytonal chords, developed in extended purely orchestral passages. Like Meyerbeerian tableaux and Wagnerian music dramas, each Act is an uninterrupted sequence of aria, chorus, dialogue or ballet/orchestral interludes. One of the Act I highlights is a big 'love duet' for the Oppenheimers sung in bed, although here the cinematic cutting of the scene meant one could not identify any developing relationship, so the sinewy lyrical lines lacked any convincing erotic intensity.
Kitty Oppenheimer (Jessica Rivera) and J Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley). Photo © 2007 Marco Borggreve
While much of the vocal writing is a type of declamatory arioso, there are two set piece arias for Oppie (end of Act I) and Kitty (start of Act II) which are highpoints. The Act I aria -- a setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV ('Batter my heart, three person'd God' -- one of several eloquent poetry quotations used throughout the opera) -- depicts Oppenheimer's anguish as well as his obsession with the bomb: sung at the entrance to a large wooden edifice in which the bomb is housed, it has a Purcellian or even Handelian grandeur, with its falling chain of dotted rhythm gestures. That stylistic allusion created a strong postmodern clash with the refrain based on the pulsating minimalism of Adams' earlier style.
Gerald Finley as J Robert Oppenheimer. Photo © 2007 Marco Borggreve
Copyright © 18 July 2007
Malcolm Miller, London UK