English National Opera – Doctor Atomic [Review 2]

Doctor Atomic – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Peter Sellars [UK premiere]

J. Robert Oppenheimer – Gerald Finley
Edward Teller – Brindley Sherratt
Robert Wilson – Thomas Glenn
Kitty Oppenheimer – Sasha Cooke
General Leslie Groves – Jonathan Veira
Frank Hubbard – Roderick Earle
Captain James Nolan – Lee David Bowen
Pasqualita – Meredith Arwady

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Lawrence Renes

Penny Woolcock – Director
Julian Crouch – Set designer
Catherine Zuber – Costume designer
Brian MacDevitt – Lighting designer
Andrew Dawson – Choreographer
Mark Grey – Sound designer
Mark Grimmer & Leo Warner – Video designers

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 February, 2009
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Doctor Atomic. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreAlthough he has undertaken several stage-works during the interim, “Doctor Atomic” is John Adams’s first fully-fledged opera in 15 years. Back at the turn of the 1990s, the end of the Cold War hardly seemed to prophesy a future attrition such as is now fast taking shape – making an opera centred on the figure who effectively spearheaded the coming of the nuclear age the more relevant. “Doctor Atomic” thus has a remit to fulfil both in terms of a human drama and as a political-cum-moral fable.

In terms of the human drama, “Doctor Atomic” is only a limited success. Much of the problem lies with the libretto “adapted from original sources” by Peter Sellars, which results in an uneasy accommodation between documentary reportage and literary quotation as the means of illuminating the characters and the reasons for their actions. While a more naturalistic representation was hardly likely to succeed, the drama as it is played out largely fails to engage intellectually or emotionally; unfortunate when the characters in general, and the scientific figures in particular, are potentially among the most interesting and creative to have been accorded dramatic treatment. Had Alice Goodman not left the project at an early stage, the libretto might have followed on from those for “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer” in the reconciling of subjective expression with objective observation to a degree that largely seems to have eluded Sellars’s discursive and over-wordy text.

Gerald Finley as J Robert Oppenheimer & Brindley Sherratt as Edward Teller. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreThe opera succeeds better as regards the fable aspect, though this has much to do with the qualities of the staging. For the atomic site at Los Alamos, Penny Woolcock makes effectively claustrophobic use of the front-stage – the community of scientists and ancillary staff filed in vertical formation so that they resemble a hive of worker-bees, each mindful of their place within the scheme of things. At times, this opens up to reveal a domestic arrangement suitable for scenes between Oppenheimer and his wife; at others, it reveals Trinity (code-name for the first test-bomb) in all of its suspended and ominous expectancy. A functional production, shot-through by images of heightened dread, that surely reflects the ‘condition of the field’ with admirable realism – to which Julian Crouch’s adaptable sets and Catherine Zuber’s in-period costumes are further enhancements. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is as subtle yet dynamic as required and meshes effectively with the video images, but the electronic component – doubtless well conveyed by Mark Grey – rather leaves the impression that a boffin working with Pro-tools could have achieved something less moribund.

As to the music, Adams continues to mine that post-minimalist take on tonality that has served him these past two decades. Instrumental textures are skilfully handled so that vocal lines are seldom, if ever, obscured and the sonorities frequently beguile the ear (imagine the prelude to Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” as reconceived by Rautavaara). Yet the vocal writing too often unfolds as undifferentiated parlando which ‘sets’ the text rather than illuminating it, while a tension and relaxation necessary over the course of acts that last for around 70 and 80 minutes respectively is largely conspicuous by its absence.

Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer & Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreIn his programme essay, Adams speaks of the intended shock when a D minor-centred monologue concludes the first act that “teeters on the cusp of tonality”: however, such a “Wozzeck”-like trajectory is nullified by music that evinces little tonal definition whether in terms of an overt chromaticism or diatonicism, while the climactic setting of John Donne feels too earnest and also earthbound for the ecstatic aspiration of its words to bring about the catharsis intended. Partly because it proceeds with surer dramatic aim, the second act holds attention more readily. Charting the parallel disintegration of Oppenheimer as scientist and family man, it duly arrives at a plateau in which the main characters state their convictions directly to the audience (and one such as Adams has effectively deployed on previous occasions) before a gradual winding-down of activity in the run-up to the denouement. In its deafening encroachment of silence as the performers look out at the audience, the detonation of the bomb is a real coup de théâtre – but the postlude of a Japanese woman begging for water, against a repeating chord uncannily like that which closes Webern’s Opus 6, is too perfunctory to be provocative.

The casting is uniformly excellent – with pride of place going to Gerald Finley’s superb assumption of Oppenheimer, a physicist of genius whose gradual inner withdrawal as the price of his achievement becomes apparent is eloquently because humanly conveyed. As his fatalistic and perhaps opportunist sidekick, the deadpan Edward Teller of Brindley Sherratt is an ideal foil, as is Thomas Glenn as the eager but naïve Robert Wilson. If Kitty Oppenheimer brings an overly detached emotional response, this is more to do with the role as conceived than with a lack of conviction from Sasha Cooke; which latter quality is hardly lacking from Jonathan Veira’s assumption of the boorish yet all-too-human General Groves. Roderick Earle exudes a pained sense of duty as the much-put-upon meteorologist Frank Hubbard, while Lee David Bowen – standing in at extremely short notice for Christopher Gillett – brings a valid nobility to army medic Captain Nolan. Meredith Arwady is heartfelt in her cameo as Pasqualita, one of the native Tewa whose presence in a variety of menial roles is historically authentic yet smacks of that tokenism to which Adams’s more recent stage-works have been prone.

Making his English National Opera debut with this production, Lawrence Renes conducted this first-night with a sure dramatic pacing – not least in sustaining the drama through those passages that might otherwise have been longueurs pure and simple – while securing a generally excellent orchestral response, compromised only in the more exposed string writing. It rounds out a convincing presentation of an opera that is worth encountering live – even though, whether in the evolution of Adams’s musical language or of opera as a theatrical medium, “Doctor Atomic” represents a ‘quantum leap’ only in the original, scientific sense of that term.

  • Further performances February 28 (at 6 p.m.) and March 5, 7, 11, 13, 18 & 20 March at 7 p.m.
  • Box Office 0871 911 0200
  • English National Opera

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