John Adams: Doctor Atomic

English National Opera

London Coliseum, 27 February 2009 4 stars

Gerald Finley(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)John Adams' Doctor Atomic was finally given its long-awaited UK premiere this week, almost four years after its debut in San Francisco. This run, a joint venture between ENO and the Met in New York where the production was housed late last year, presents a new staging by the British director Penny Woolcock, with set design by Julian Crouch. In four years Doctor Atomic has now been staged five times, in two different productions. This is strong evidence indeed, if such is needed, of Adams' pre-eminence in the field of contemporary opera.

Despite the opera's (intentionally) flippant, comic book title, it is a deeply serious piece in which morality and myth collide in a complicated network of perspectives and ideas. The piece explores the personal experiences of the main players involved in the Manhattan Project, the initiative of scientists commissioned to build the world's first atomic bomb in the latter years of the Second World War. The initial impulse for the work came when Adams received in 1999 an invitation from Pamela Rosenberg, the director of the San Francisco Opera, to compose something along the lines of an 'American Faust', with the cultured, charismatic J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the team at Los Alamos, as the central Faustian figure.

This subject matter immediately suggested rich potential to Adams, a composer who has specialised in creating layered, intelligent operatic treatments of significant political events of the past century. Clearly the moral implications of promoting the possibility of nuclear war, and decisively enabling the devastating nuclear attacks which were to take place in Japan as a direct result of the teams' efforts, are vastly complex. Oppenheimer and his team believed they occupied a directly oppositional position, a space that was balanced by a German team working towards the same goals. The us and them mentality which seemed to reign amongst those involved certainly had historical justification, and the immediate pragmatism of the situation seemed to suggest a moral soundness to the project. However before the team had opportunity to complete their tests, defeat of Germany meant that the question of atomic assault, redirected now towards Japan, was being considered anew by some involved as a step too far. Fears of sparking on the one hand an unknowable global environmental catastrophe with the detonation of the bomb, and of course on the other of the surely massive human cost of unleashing this technology on the world, consumed each of the scientists in turn.

The opera essentially takes as its object the emotional vicissitudes of those involved with the project in the run up to the first test proper at Los Alamos on July 15, 1945. The self-performing mythical aspect of the tests; myth as a de-politicised act, a necessary function of the state outside of morality that will ensure the future integrity of that state, compelled the scientists forward. In an early scene, two weeks before the test, the moral question is raised amongst the physicists. The robust and confident Edward Teller, played with assurance and firm stentorian voice by Brindley Sherratt, reads out a letter from the prominent physicist Leo Szilard (who had been the first, in the thirties, to understand the potential of a nuclear chain reaction). This letter asks the scientists to stand against the project, and is addressed towards President Truman himself. Szilard and 58 prominent co-signers state that 'an attack on Japan could not be justified under the present circumstances'. Oppenheimer declares in riposte that scientists have no business in politics, and that Truman would never see the letter. It is a stunning self-abnegation from such a cultured, deeply thoughtful person, and it is a moment that points towards the complicated interplay of nation-state myth, and the lack of space for personal morality within that narrative, at the heart of this emotional, searching opera.

Dr. Atomic (Photo: Catherine Ahmore)Though each of the characters is shown to have moments of intense self-questioning and profound doubt in the opera (indeed these moments suffuse the work with an internal dramatic tension that would have been otherwise lacking), it is only Robert Wilson who maintains a consistent level of misgiving. Wilson is sung by the young tenor Thomas Glenn with an openness of voice and thinness of tone that fits the character perfectly. His line is always strained, high, almost pleading. Though there were some problems with projection, Glenn's characterisation was pitched at just the right point of ingenuousness, always contrasting well with the booming baritone and bass-baritone voices of Teller, and Jonathan Veira as General Groves, the boorish military head of the operation.

The fantastical, almost unreal scale of the moral implications of the project are brought out tellingly time and again by Adams and his librettist Peter Sellars, whether it be in Oppenheimer and Teller's quickly personal discussion of emotion and internecine group politics after the meeting in the first scene, or in the sudden introduction of the domestic, when Oppenheimer returns home to his wife in the second scene. As we watch, we are faced with issues outside of anything human morality has had to face before, issues that require a paradigm shift in how we understand and conceive of militaristic value-systems and war time morality in an age when fates of whole countries can depend on a single order and a single bomb. As we struggle with these enormous issues, bathos intervenes, and we suddenly see the figures at the heart of this complicated situation, figures who through both historical perspective and dramatic idolatry necessarily take on something outside of the conventional in terms of personae, having to negotiate a wives' frustration, deal with irritability caused by lack of sleep, or dally in personal politics between colleagues in the workplace. The opera brings out these absurd contrasts well.

Dr. Atomic (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)However, despite much to praise within the piece (not least its high seriousness of intent), dramatic problems persist rob it of some of its vitality. Sellars assembled the libretto from historical documents, letters by each of the physicists, and memoirs (much of the dialogue thus has a ring of verisimilitude). Poetry from Baudelaire, the Bhagavad-Vita, and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is inserted into the narrative at crucial emotional points. The circumstantial and indeed aesthetic justification for including these texts is sound; Oppenheimer was known to have quoted these poets and texts frequently on the test site, famously commenting after the success of the test 'I am become death, destroyer of worlds'. He even named the test site Trinity after the Donne image of a 'three-person'd God'. Yet the syntactic and semantic contrast that they occasion in performance greatly upsets the coherence of the flow, even though those occasions in which poetry supervenes are surely the emotional nucleus of the piece. Equally, for instance, the technical descriptions that are anchored in theoretical physics with which the chorus opens the opera work to provide a curiously static set piece. Text such as that just does not sing well, and the large three-tiered set, which is the multi-functional backdrop for much of the work, is also static initially, with the extended team of scientists being shown working away on calculations and theorems in stark isolation from the others.

This set does open out later quite effectively though, particularly in the second act. There, the domestic, feminised world of Kitty Oppenheimer (a radiant, spellbinding Sasha Cooke, whose two solo arias and early duet with her husband contain some of the most movingly elegiac music in the opera), and her Native American maid Pasqualita played by Meredith Arwady, who sings with strength but whose voice lacks colour, is paralleled with the masculine test site, where scientists, meteorologists and army officers are all at odds and in varying states of distress over the impending deadline for detonation. The entreaties on behalf of peace by Kitty, and the evocations of visions of death from Pasqualita, fail to move however. They appear as facile, dichotomised representations of moral alterity. Though some of the sound images within the music here, particularly the misty, impressionistic sonorities that accompany Kitty's supple elegies, are strong and evocative, the attempt to choreograph a dramatic contrast between lament and action in this second act is only a partial success. The contrast just feels a little too tacked-on, too trite, for it to ring true as insightful theatre.

Though these problems do persist within the complex dramatic framework of the work, it is clear that its heart, its beating heart, is the music. Adams has created his richest score yet; teeming chromaticism ebbs and flows throughout his porous orchestration. Shards of jittery minimalism jut out in isolated brass or wind figures, whilst throbbing pulses emerge portentously, only to peel away in ambiguity. Vast tutti chords stab into the dark heart of the subject, rhythms clash and textures mount up of sandy detail and metallic toughness, only to break apart as the drama moves onward, into newer fragmentation. This is music of utmost suppleness, flexibility, richness of image and colour, and of a fresh, singular aesthetics. Minimalist mottos and strategies bubble up here and there, but this score is surely much too fluid, too plural, to be conceived simply within that tradition. The true forebears of Doctor Atomic are Sibelius, Debussy, early Schoenberg, even Mahler. The static, internalised perspectives the opera invites us to experience are of a piece with the Symbolist theatre of Debussy and Maeterlinck. The yearning polytonality underpinning the vocal writing and harmonic progressions within the arias, those sections where the dramatic current suddenly becomes interrupted by the imposition of formal generic convention (and all the implications of emotion thereof), suggests Mahlerian ambiguity, and the orchestral multi-voicing echoes back equally to the same source.

Dr. Atomic (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)The Mahlerian elements are particularly clear in Oppenheimer's climactic act 1 aria Batter my heart, where the dominant actor within the opera, Gerald Finley, suddenly recognises the portentousness of his actions and pleads with the three-person'd God to 'break, blow, burn and make me new'. Adams thrusts upon the audience a monumental paragraph in D minor (a stark contrast to the previous unstable chromaticism), a passage of stormy inner turmoil to match any in recent music theatre. Finley, worn into the role now after four years of experience (he created the part in San Fransico), sputters out this poem, violently razing his previous arrogance, unexpectedly bringing to the fore the moral complexity of the events around him. Finley is magnetic throughout the work, his stooping self-assurance is a constant thread of certitude, and his thundering yet curiously restrained recitations carry the violence of the subject forward up until the successful test.

Adams conveys these final minutes, and the hectic and prone final countdown, stunningly. He builds a busy orchestral polyrhythmic countdown, and finally lets out a throbbing sub-bass rumble (the electronic element is subtle throughout, though the Coliseum's inadequate speaker system often strained at the edge of clarity). The explosion of light across the auditorium at the climax of the detonation is followed by the distant voice of a Japanese woman pleading for water for her children. As the cast stand frozen to their spots, looking out askance at the audience, the curtain comes down, and the voice of that woman, with text projected for all to see, apostrophises the true portent of the protagonists' actions. The staging works very well in these last stages, and the ENO orchestra, with an authoritative, limber Lawrence Renes at the helm, carry off the effect expertly, as they had throughout the evening. The opera might have benefited from making the action encompass each of the protagonists' postwar reactions to the devastation of Japan (the work is essentially a moral disquisition after all on the issue of nuclear technology used in warfare), but this might have been an endeavour too far. However in its present state it presents a powerful depiction of the dichotomy between personal action and the larger general consequences in this new age of nuclear technology. The subtlety and conviction of its execution, so still, so serious in effect, is deeply impressive.

By Stephen Graham

Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore


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