Show Hide image

Blinded by the light

The drama of John Adams’s nuclear opera is lost in theorems
<strong>Doctor Atomic</strong>

It is a sign of these self-reproachful times that we should even contemplate going out on the town for a show about the nuclear bomb. John Adams’s bleak opera Doctor Atomic dramatises the build-up to the first test at Los Alamos in 1945. It focuses on the scientist J Robert Oppenheimer, who at the crux quotes poetry by John Donne. He is a physicist reciting a metaphysicist. “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” he sings as he wrestles with his moral dilemma: serve the state or his own conscience. It is in Donne’s honour that the test was code-named Trinity.

This is opera seria at its most serious. It is probably the first time a Donne poem has cropped up in an opera, a form of theatre that does not have a history of rating words highly. The librettist, or rather compiler, Peter Sellars, is better known as a director, often a controversial one, and might have been expected to devise the unconventional. Unfortunately the whole pentameter does not fit on the subtitles digital display board and Donne’s lines are broken up, but the poem is in the programme. Gerald Finley as “Oppie” sings it in a creamy baritone alone on stage.

He is an isolated figure. In the first scene he is alone among many, in the second alone with his wife, Kitty. They make love but it is perfunctory on his part. The bomb goes off tomorrow. In the past an explosion might have been a metaphor for how’s-your-father. Not here. This is the destruction of mankind. Perhaps that is sexy after all. I remember some quite passionate arguments in the playground about whether the A- or the H- was more destructive. But nobody here is enthusing about the bomb. If they’re not depressed, they’re joking about it. The camp has a lottery called “Guess the Extent of the Fallout”.

Finley’s Oppenheimer is not an ogre of a bomb-maker. He is a youngster (the average age of the scientists at Los Alamos was 25) among the bald generals. His vulnerability comes across as he appeals to the gallery with sad eyes. However, his and the cast’s diction is too good. One hears every word of the scientific discourse about plutonium, though it makes little difference to the level of understanding and might as well be in Italian. The fundamental truth (“matter is not created or destroyed but only altered”) comes right at the start, like a theorem, which is not the best basis for a developing drama. The bed scenes, where the talk is of love and yearning, are a relief from the incomprehensible calculus. In Act II the missus is drunk, but Sasha Cooke, the silky mezzo, gives her despair a touching realisation.

A third element appears in the person of the Indian nanny, sung this night by Meredith Arwady, a fruity contralto. She smiles and her low notes are echoing tombs. She represents the villagers who are natural sun-and-moon pacifists and soon-to-be-downtrodden, but are also a subplot too many. The scientists are the main chorus, stacked in three tiers as the curtain rises, their legs lit first, clad in 1940s stockings or turn-up trousers. They give much-needed human life to Adams’s rhythmic score, conducted by Lawrence Renes. There is still a tendency to play the music of the minimalists and their offspring robotically with every beat emphasised equally but, whether the composer wants it to sound like that or not, they should still distinguish between the crotchets a little more. Admittedly Adams has moved on considerably in complexity but much of the music still has that insistent, steady pulse. It lacks spring and doesn’t dance. At the moment, one feels as if one is being pinned to one’s seat. The dancers of the New York production, relinquished here, might have helped.

Penny Woolcock’s production is impressively staged. Besides being in hen coops, the chorus, wearing dark glasses, is on for the finale’s explosion, which comes from behind the audience while a harrowing reminder of the consequences of the foregoing is heard and seen on the descending curtain. I was reminded of wind blowing through a wheat field.

Adams’s opera is potentially a moving piece of theatre. There are some top voices on display, especially the two female principals, but the science is too much for most and the music itself wants a lighter interpretation. The bomb is a little off-target.

Pick of the week

The Multiplier Series 2
Kings Place, London N1
Graham Fitkin mixes harpsichords, harps and performance (17 March).

Dido and Aeneas
Banqueting House, London SW1
The English Bach Festival celebrates Purcell’s 350th birthday with his great tragic opera. Runs on 18 March only.

Consortium5 Recorder Consort
Old Royal Naval College, London SE10
Trinity College’s musicians in Wren’s college chapel (17 March).

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd