John Adams' Dr. Atomic UK premiere at ENO

English National Opera

20 February 2009

Dr Atomic

John Adams is at the forefront of contemporary opera composition. Only Harrison Birtwistle rivals him for fecundity and invention in theatrical composition amongst the senior ranks of contemporary composers.

Favouring engagement with modern political issues and the experiences of the key players involved thereof, Adams' operas, including Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), A Flowering Tree (2006), as well as other operatic theatre works, are required listening for anyone interested in contemporary music theatre. Each work has comfortably entered the repertory.

Adams' third opera proper, Dr. Atomic, received its premiere in San Francisco in 2006 in a production directed by the composer's long-term collaborator, Peter Sellars. After touring to Chicago and Amsterdam, some alterations were made to the piece in response to feedback gained through these performances, and a new production of the piece opened at the Met in New York to generally warm acclaim. This production, directed again by Penny Woolcock (who directed the famous television film version of Adams' controversial Death of Klinghoffer), comes to ENO on February 25 featuring stage designs by Julian Crouch (whose work for ENO in Satyagraha two years ago proved a highlight of that production). Gerald Finley again reprises his much-praised performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the person who oversaw the controversial project, a role he created in the original production in San Francisco.

Dr. Atomic focuses on the moral dilemma faced by Oppenheimer and other key players in the Manhattan Project as they develop nuclear technology, and gradually come face to face with the possible implications of their actions. The libretto, assembled by Sellars, makes creative use of a variety of sources, primarily declassified U.S. government documents and communications among the scientists, government officials, and military personnel. It also uses poetry from John Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita and a traditional song of the Tewa Indians.

The music, from what I've heard, builds upon Adams distinctively sharp-edged and forward-driven minimalism, as comfortable in swimming lyricism as it is in spinning-top mechanics, heard in his earlier works. Moreover, The New York Times review of the Met premiere stated the following: 'this score continues to impress me as Mr. Adams's most complex and masterly music. Whole stretches of the orchestral writing tremble with grainy colours, misty sonorities and textural density.' Anthony Thommasini, the reviewer, praises its 'obsessive riffs, pungently dissonant cluster chords, elegiac solo instrumental lines that achingly drift atop nervous, jittery orchestral figurations.'

Gerald Finley and Richard Paul Fink, photo by Dan RestAdams has shown himself a subtle choreographer of large-scale movements of drama, and equally of stilling moments of great inner turmoil. He has an even-handed and always nuanced approach to the dramaturgy of history which imbues his works with their lasting ambiguity, and fascination. (Adams has nevertheless occasioned some controversy- witness Richard Taruskin's typically wrong-headed condemnation of Adams as anti-American, with respect to his apparent romanticisation of the terrorists in Klinghoffer, in an article for the New York Times after the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001). The ENO has staged Nixon twice to great acclaim, and this new co-production with the Met, opening on February 25 and running in rep until March 20, should prove a highlight of the opera calendar in the UK this year. Lawrence Renes, conductor at the European premiere of this work in Amsterdam in 2007, will lead the ENO Orchestra and Chorus in what should be an exciting and exhilarating set of performances.

By Stephen Graham

Photo Credits: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Related articles:

Opera Review: John Adams' A Flowering Tree at the Barbican
Concert Review: John Adams leads the BBCSO in excerpts from Dr. Atomic at the Proms
Review of the London Sinfonietta's 40th Anniversary, including a performance of Adams' Chamber Symphony