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Review Round-up: Does Doctor Atomic Explode or Fizzle?

John Adams’ 2005 opera has finally premiered in the UK, in a production by English National Opera at the Coliseum, after appearing in Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco. The original direction was by the work’s librettist, Peter Sellars, but is now in the hands of Penny Woolcock, who impressed with her TV film of Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer.

Doctor Atomic tells the story of the first nuclear test in New Mexico in 1945 and how it impacts on the life of the bomb’s inventor J Robert Oppenheimer. It is drawn largely from documents of the time but also quotes from Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita and Sellars’ own poetic imagination. With phrases like “interwoven with the twelve pentagonal faces of a dodecahedron”, Adams has his work cut out providing an interesting and challenging score.

There is mostly praise for the opera, production and central performance by the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. Those who had seen the work’s premiere in San Francisco largely agree that Woolcock has done a much better job than Sellars did.

Even Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph, who gives a characteristically biting appraisal, admits that the score has some “marvellous inspiration” but he’s not alone in pointing out the difficulties of the text, which in the first scene has a group of scientists discussing their work in highly technical language.


Simon Thomas on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “If opera is to pull in new and young audiences, it’s works like Doctor Atomic that are likely to do it…tauter and more focused than John Adams’ Nixon in China, without the earlier work’s surrealistic sallies. Penny Woolcock’s production (with designs by Julian Crouch) is pretty much faultless, with nothing overdone or out of place… Adams’ music grinds, flutters and chimes throughout… Gerald Finley brings all his charisma and richness of tone to the role of Oppenheimer, although it’s only at the Act 1 conclusion that the increasingly agitated inventor really bursts into life with a startling rendition of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”, leaving the image of the spot-lit man and his ugly creation scalding the memory…This is mind-stirring and viscera-stabbing stuff.”

Richard Morrison in The Times (four stars) – “It’s all interesting, but not exactly action-packed. We see Oppenheimer first as a laconic but cunning executive, appeasing his military master (Jonathan Veira, suitably irascible as General Groves) while deflecting the moral qualms of his increasingly uneasy colleagues… But as the atomic test draws near, Oppenheimer himself disintegrates…That outburst is one of many stunning musical moments. And they are well conducted by Lawrence Renes, though the ENO orchestra and chorus sometimes sound as if they could do with another rehearsal or three… Penny Woolcock’s production — though sitting awkwardly within Julian Crouch’s rabbit-hutch sets — already seems much tighter than it did at the New York Met. It’s certainly worth a visit. Once again Adams has turned 20th-century history into absorbing, provocative music-theatre.”

Edward Seckerson in The Independent (four stars) – “There’s a whole lot of information in the opera – it’s its own information highway, the libretto being almost entirely drawn from documentary sources. But then again, has scientific data ever sounded sexier? One of Adams’ theatrical tricks here – and as a composer with such an innate understanding of theatre he always has one or two up his sleeve – is his way of setting the mundane or impossibly complex to music of great beauty and simplicity. A chorus describing the process of nuclear fission assumes the tranquillity of a Bach chorale; a description of the effects of radium on the human body is so lyrical as to be almost sensuous…The look of Penny Woolcock’s excellent staging, designed by Julian Crouch, beautifully complements the musico-dramatic thrust of Adams’ work.”

Andrew Clements in The Guardian (four stars) - “…far more convincing musically and dramatically than it seemed at its premiere. Woolcock's naturalistic staging, with designs by Julian Crouch and carefully gauged video projections, is far less cluttered and tendentious than Sellars's original… It's all too wordy, lacking real dramatic sweep or momentum. The kernel of the story… is also blurred by the domestic scenes in the Oppenheimer household… which have a touchy-feely PC irrelevance about them.. The setting of the Donne sonnet, Batter My Heart, which ends the first act, remains the standout musical number, especially when sung with the gilded beauty that Gerald Finley brings to it; his neurotic, chain-smoking Oppenheimer is a remarkable portrayal…. There is the stuff of a real opera in Doctor Atomic somewhere. Woolcock's production gets closer to it than one ever thought it could.”

Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph - “This makes for a peculiarly inert plot, with all the corny "countdown" tension of a rotten episode of Star Trek – will the weather clear in time? Will the darn bomb actually work? – and dramatis personae who remain flat figures, lumbered with unshaped words that they seem to recite rather than embody…it doesn't come alive as theatre… tracts of the vocal writing are so dull that they have no business being music at all…But I must stop complaining at this point, because there is much marvellous inspiration in the score.. vastly more sophisticated than anything Adams has previously written in opera, the minimalist chug-chugging long behind him now…Gerald Finley sings magnificently as Oppenheimer, even if his expression of slightly baffled anguish becomes monotonous... The chorus sounds wonderful… brave failure on a grand scale.”


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