Review of Reviews: John Adams' Doctor Atomic opens at ENO

Critical perspectives on the latest London opera production

1 March 2009

Doctor AtomicThis week, John Adams's Doctor Atomic received its UK premiere at the London Coliseum, in a new version co-produced by ENO and the Metropolitan Opera. Originally directed by its librettist Peter Sellars, this new production is directed by Penny Woolcock and designs by Julian Crouch.

As Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph summarizes, 'The opera tells the story of the last phase of the 1945 atom-bomb test at Los Alamos, and specifically focuses on the physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, a sensitive, spiritual, liberal man who was nevertheless prepared to develop a weapon of mass destruction'.

Before delving into Adams's musical merits, most of the critics concentrate on the libretto, which seems to make the whole work problematic. Richard Fairman, writing in the Financial Times, observes that 'The librettist, opera producer and long-time Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, does not try to explain the science behind nuclear fission, but even that might have been more intelligible than the artsy patchwork of texts he has come up with'. Along the same lines, Richard Morrison of The Times remarks that 'It's all interesting, but not exactly action-packed'.

In fact, it is evident that that despite the last sequences being extremely dramatic, the rest of the opera does not succeed in maintaining a balanced narrative tension. In a particularly severe reading, The Telegraph remarks that Sellar's script '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. What Sellars has assembled may be scrupulously fair to all parties and the deeper "for" and "against" ramifications of the issue, but it doesn't come alive as theatre'.

Sellars's narrative elaboration is questionable, then. Andrew Clements of The Guardian summarizes the opera's weaknesses: 'Woolcock's naturalistic staging, with designs by Julian Crouch and carefully gauged video projections, is far less cluttered and tendentious than Sellars's original, doing away entirely with the mimsy, inappropriate choreography. Yet, though it has been possible to take Sellars out of the production, his contribution to the opera itself, as author of the libretto, remains persistently problematic. The text is a mosaic of borrowings from documentary sources, with extracts from Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita and a Donne sonnet thrown in for good measure. It's all too wordy, lacking real dramatic sweep or momentum'.

The Stage too, in the words of its critic George Hall, places the main flaws in the libretto: 'Peter Sellars' compilation of extracts from historic documents has a dusty, unnatural feel'. Barry Millington of the Evening Standard puts it more explicitly: 'Not even John Adams can make phrases like "interwoven with the twelve pentagonal faces of a dodecahedron" sound convincing, and in truth there's too much banal conversation set to unlyrical, unmemorable music'.

Although the investigation of the libretto's defects seems to have monopolized the British press, a focus on Adams's successful orchestration is just as manifest. The Times comments that 'The atomic explosion, when it finally arrives two minutes before the end of John Adams's epic opera, is all the more chilling for being so understated. First the orchestra builds a sinister crescendo of clocks, ticking down the seconds to that fateful moment in July 1945 when Robert Oppenheimer's scientists tested the A-bomb and changed the world for ever. Then, as the cast crouches on stage, hypnotised in horror, a huge electronic rumble rolls round the Coliseum, and there's an ear-splitting blast of babies screaming. Finally, over and over again, you hear a Japanese woman plaintively begging for water. That's when the penny drops'. Yet, the same critic adds that 'Nothing in the preceding three hours of Adams's 2005 piece […] is as dramatic. Perhaps that's inevitable'.

Doctor AtomicAware of the flaws of Sellars' libretto, the Financial Times notices that 'Adams's score is much more successful. Although he still has minimalist motifs ticking away in the background, there is much else besides, from lavishly romantic orchestral writing reminiscent of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé to a moving setting of Donne's Sonnet No 14. The powerful ebb and flow he creates in the music almost convinces us there is a real drama going on.'

The Telegraph shares with the Financial Times the same reservations and, although acknowledging the music's powerfulness, is not convinced by this new production as a whole: 'Penny Woolcock's staging struggles with the problems that the text proposes, but it's far stronger than Sellars's version – and the bomb itself is chillingly represented. Gerald Finley sings magnificently as Oppenheimer, even if his expression of slightly baffled anguish becomes monotonous. He has excellent support from Thomas Glenn as a young scientist, Sacha Cooke as Kitty, Brindley Sharratt as the sceptical Edward Teller and Jonathan Veira as the calorie-conscious General Groves. The chorus sounds wonderful. Lawrence Renes conducts with flair, but ensemble wasn't ideally crisp.'

On the other hand, The Telegraph declares to be persuaded by Adams's contribution: 'Orchestrally too, the score is vastly more sophisticated than anything Adams has previously written in opera, the minimalist chug-chugging long behind him now'. 

Along the same lines, many reports emphasize that the success of Adams's score was supported by an intense orchestral performance. The Evening Standard comments that 'Given that the entire work leads up to the catastrophic explosion, the tension is maintained superbly – thanks also to Lawrence Renes's well-paced conducting of the first-rate orchestral and choral forces. More surprisingly, the overall effect is oddly hypnotic.' The Independent's Edward Seckerson is equally enthusiastic: 'No praise can be too high for the chorus work, still more that of the orchestra which, under Lawrence Renes, is forever powering towards, in Oppenheimer's words "a brilliant luminescence", trumpet-topped and grimly magnificent'.

The Telegraph too, whose criticism is the most severe, surrenders and applauds Adams's work: 'I must stop complaining at this point, because there is much marvellous inspiration in the score – the impassioned setting of a Donne sonnet with which Oppenheimer concludes the first act, a lovely aria for Oppenheimer's wife Kitty, and the stunning Vishnu chorus, for example'.

One of the numbers mentioned above, the Donne's sonnet, received unanimous praises. The Guardian comments that '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'. The Evening Standard's remarks are similar: 'one of the finest passages sets Donne's Batter My Heart to a poignant Elizabethan-style lament: verse and music fuse to express the pangs of conscience'. The Independent is even more generous: 'This aria, heart-rendingly sung by Gerald Finley, is the detonation in Oppenheimer's soul which triggers the big bang. You can already find it on You Tube and it might just be the single most beautiful thing Adams has ever written'.

In addition to the score's significance, the press unanimously reports the faultless interpretation by an outstanding cast. The Evening Standard notices that 'Gerald Finley is magnificent here and throughout as the tortured Oppenheimer. Brindley Sherratt and Jonathan Veira as Edward Teller and General Groves are the other stars in a strong cast'. The Guardian adds that 'There are other well-formed characters, too - Brindley Sherratt as Edward Teller, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Jonathan Veira as General Groves'.

The conclusive remark by Clements, from The Guardian, perhaps summarizes the general feeling about this powerful and controversial work in its UK premiere: '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'.

by Marina Romani


Doctor AtomicRelated articles:

Review of Doctor Atomic from ENO
Preview of the production
Interview with Gerald Finley, who plays Oppenheimer in the production
Review of Philip Glass' Satyagraha from ENO, 2007

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