If opera is to pull in new and young audiences, it’s works like Doctor Atomic that are likely to do it. The mix of contemporary resonance, political and moral musing and exciting new music, that doesn’t demand too much of the listener, is an attractive one.
The opera, which has done the intercontinental rounds since 2005, is set on the eve of the first nuclear test in 1945, in a world on the tipping-point of no-return. J Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist at the head of the team who split the atom, hangs in a literal storm of anticipation for a venture whose consequences are very far from certain.
Doctor Atomic is tauter and more focused than John Adams’ Nixon in China, without the earlier work’s surrealistic sallies. Seen at the Coliseum in 2000 and 2006, Nixon balanced the domestic and political/historical and the new opera seeks to do the same.
The bedroom episodes, which glimpse into the personal turmoil forced on Oppenheimer and his wife by his epoch-making work, are less successful dramatically than the strained work scenes. They are lyrical, with some nice Debussyan meandering in Kitty O’s poetically fanciful flights, but are over-long and lacking in the tension that pulses through the rest of the work.
Penny Woolcock’s production (with designs by Julian Crouch) is pretty much faultless, with nothing overdone or out of place. There’s an unsettling quality to the Native Americans who clean up and hang around on the fringes, barely noticed by the world-changers who wrangle and angst about their decision-making without really considering the people who will be most affected.
Adams’ music grinds, flutters and chimes throughout, serving as an under-score for the singers, which is apt considering how important the quasi-scientific, moral-mazing and tersely poetical words are to the work. When not supporting the singers, the music breaks into pounding, clashing orchestral interludes for which the concert hall surely beckons.
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.
Elsewhere, the characterisations are sketchy and functional: square-headed generals, bickering scientists and weathermen and conscience-pricked youngsters. The irrepressible rumble of history and “progress” threaten to swallow up the personal detail, although there’s a telling scene where Jonathan Veira’s scratchy General Groves confides his weight problems during a lull in the waiting.
This is mind-stirring and viscera-stabbing stuff, building to a disturbing (not to say very loud) conclusion that combines the huge significance of the world’s first atomic explosion with its simple human consequences.
Photograph: Catherine Ashmore