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John Adams' 'Dr Atomic' in London,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic is his third large scale opera, following on from Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. Doctor Atomic was premièred in San Francisco in 2005 directed by Peter Sellars -- a production which has also been seen in Amsterdam. English National Opera's new production (seen 28 February 2009), shared with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is directed by film director Penny Woolcock. She directed the film of Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Woolcock's production of Doctor Atomic premièred in New York at the Metropolitan Opera last year with a very similar cast to that which appeared in London.

For his first two large scale operas Adams collaborated with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. Reading Adams' recent autobiography Hallelujah Junction, you realise that Sellars had a large input into these operas. His input into Doctor Atomic was even greater as the proposed collaboration with Alice Goodman failed and Sellars assembled a libretto from existing texts. This mixes extracts from diaries and autobiographies of the original participants with poetry. The libretto seems to have been generally unpopular with critics: many commented on its wordiness. But reading Hallelujah Junction you come to realise that Adams is a very dramatically percipient composer and is apt to alter texts as he sets them, so we must come to accept that Doctor Atomic deals with its subject matter in just the way its composer wanted it to.

The subject is the creation of the atom bomb by a team of American scientists in New Mexico. After the first scene in June 1945, the opera concentrates on the final 24 hours before the first test on 15 July 1945. The main engine of the drama is the anxiety of the scientists (Robert Oppenheimer -- Gerald Finley, Edward Teller -- Brindley Sherratt, Robert Wilson -- Thomas Glenn), as to whether the 'gadget' will work at all, the pressure from the military (General Leslie Groves -- Jonathan Veira, Captain James Nolan -- Christopher Gillett) that the test occur on time to suit President Truman's political needs and whether the stormy weather will allow the test to take place at all (Roderick Earle plays the hapless meteorologist Frank Hubbard). Also mixed in is the sheer incompatibility between the military and scientists.

By and large the scientists and the military use naturalistic dialogue, hence the perception that the libretto is wordy. But threaded through this is the presence of Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke) and her maid Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady) whose expression is entirely poetic. With Kitty Oppenheimer's part drawing heavily on the poetry of Muriel Rukeyeser.

The opera opens with a fabulous chorus in which the chorus explains the scientific theory behind the splitting of the atom. Woolcock and her designer Julian Crouch present the chorus on a floor to ceiling screen, each singer in their own research cubicle: a stunning coup which matches Adams' haunting music. Throughout the opera these screens move about in a flexible manner, sometimes holding singers, sometimes receiving projections: the work of video designers Mark Grimmer and Leo Warner.

To say that the scientists and military in Act 1 sing their dialogue in a naturalistic manner is not to imply that this is one of those operas whose form is more like a play with accompany music. Adams leaves plenty of space between the vocal contributions, so that the orchestra effectively forms the interior dialogue of the singers which is absent from the words. Quite often, it is in the orchestra that the main musical interest lies. Woolcock's action is almost entirely naturalistic, taking place steadily whatever the musical content, sung or otherwise. This creates exactly the right sort of feeling for the scientists going about their business. Brindley Sherratt and Thomas Glenn impressed as the two leading scientists, with Gerald Finley in stunning form as Robert Oppenheimer. Jonathan Veira was almost unrecognisable as the apoplectic General Groves, who has extreme difficulty coping with the unruly scientists. (At one point, later on in the opera they run a sweepstake on what the outcome of the test will be!) As someone who did a scientific degree and worked for five years in a government research establishment, I felt that Adams and Woolcock have achieved the right sort of atmosphere balancing extreme sophistication with naivety and sheer silliness.

In the middle of Act 1 Oppenheimer has a distracted love scene with his wife Kitty. In Hallelujah Junction Adams talks about how the role of Kitty was created with the talents of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in mind. Adams and Sellars obviously intended this poetic scene to be a balance to the rigours of the act. But unfortunately Sasha Cooke (who also played the role at the Metropolitan Opera) seemed to be fatally lacking in the sort of intensity that you could have imagined Lorraine Hunt Lieberson bringing to the role. She had all the notes and sounded lovely, in a generalised sort of way. But intensity and vividness were lacking. Quite by how much was shown when we came to the end of Act 1 when Oppenheimer breaks into one of the holy sonnets of John Donne. The real life Oppenheimer knew these poems and the one used, 'Batter my heart', gave the test site its name 'Trinity'. Here Finley's performance was amazing: suddenly the buttoned up scientist breaks loose and we glimpse inside his tortured soul.

From then on, the design of the opera makes more sense. As the test gets closer Oppenheimer increasingly breaks free of the dialogue to express himself in verse and even Wilson (Thomas Glenn) confides in us a dream that he has been having. The structure of the libretto becomes metaphor for the way that the scientists anxieties are breaking down their control.

In the third scene of Act 2, Adams gives us what is essentially an operatic ensemble, when all of the main characters have interlinking soliloquies where they confess their private terrors. The locals, the native Americans who perform menial tasks for the scientists, perform a traditional ritual high up at the top of the screens, with Meredith Arwady singing a genuine Tewa text using her wonderfully dark contralto voice. And the whole scene concludes with a terrible chorus from the Bhagavad Gita (which the real Robert Oppenheimer could read in the original Sanskrit).

Like all of Adams' major works, the opera was presented in a sound design (sound designer Mark Grey). Though the opera had opened with some non musical sounds, for much of the time the sound design had seemed only to function as a means of allowing the singers to be heard over the large orchestra. But as the final scene proceeded to its tense close, Adams increasing use of non musical sounds brought the tension to screaming pitch in a way that no western orchestra could quite do alone. For the final explosion, Crouch's set de-constructed brilliantly and the conclusion was not an explosion of sound but the simple, haunting sound of a Japanese woman asking for water.

My reservations about Sasha Cooke's Kitty Oppenheimer apart, everyone in the cast impressed. All seemed entirely at home in Adams' sound world and in Woolcock's production, creating a feeling that what we were hearing and seeing was natural and inevitable (not always the case with new operas). All the singers made light of whatever technical challenges that Adams provided. But towering above them was Finley's portrait of neurotic, chain-smoking Oppenheimer who finally almost cracks under the weight of his anxiety.

Lawrence Renes conducted the large orchestra and kept his forces in firm control, whilst still allowing the excitement and poetry of the score to blossom. There were a couple of moments at the opening when the hard working chorus were not quite in unison, but given that some of them were placed high above the stage this is perhaps understandable.

John Adams' Doctor Atomic is a richly multi-layered work which cries out to be seen more than once. It treats a complex scientific matter with clarity, in a way which few composers have managed, bringing science and art together. (Incidentally, I never thought to hear the word 'icosahedron' set to music as part of an opera libretto). Penny Woolcock, Lawrence Renes and their hard working singers and musicians have ensured that Adams' conception has been brought to the stage in a sympathetic and thought-provoking way.

Copyright © 3 March 2009 Robert Hugill, London UK





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