Doctor Atomic review – John Adams's Oppenheimer docudrama overwhelms

Barbican, London
Adams conducted with supreme conviction this unforgettable concert staging of his visionary account of the events leading up to the first atomic test in 1945

‘I wince at being called a political composer,” John Adams said in a recent interview, despite the fact that his finest operas deal with the most profound crises of recent history. Adams turned 70 earlier this year, and marked his birthday with this concert staging of Doctor Atomic, his 2005 operatic docudrama about J Robert Oppenheimer and the events that culminated in the first atomic test, near Los Alamos in July 1945. Adams himself conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

A noble, probing examination of scientific responsibility, it’s his most visionary and ambitious stage work to date, though it is not without its flaws. These largely derive from Peter Sellars’s libretto, a collage of quotes from contemporary sources – interviews, letters, declassified government papers – into which literary and sacred texts are strategically inserted: passages from Baudelaire and the activist-poet Muriel Rukeyser; John Donne’s Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God, which inspired Oppenheimer to name his test site “Trinity”; and the Bhagavad Gita, from which he famously quoted the line: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Dramatically, however, the results can be awkward. Documentary material doesn’t always lead to clarity of characterisation or motivation. The long scene between the increasingly abstracted Oppenheimer and his lonely wife, Kitty, based on alternate settings of Rukeyser and Baudelaire, feels like a self-contained song-cycle, imperfectly integrated into the score. Yet the work also contains some of Adams’s greatest music. The storm that threatens to delay the nuclear test sounds like nature convulsing at its own impending defilement. The Hindu god Vishnu presides over the destruction and creation of worlds in a chorus of horrific ferocity. Towards the end, time seems to buckle, bend and stretch into eternity as we wait in dreadful anticipation for the explosion that will change the course of history.

John Adams with BBC players at the Barbican on Tuesday.
John Adams with BBC players at the Barbican on Tuesday. Photograph: Mark Allan

You couldn’t fault the performance. Adams’s conducting, second to none in his own music, had tremendous conviction and unique authority, with every facet of the score’s terrible beauty laid bare. There was thrilling playing and choral singing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers. Returning to the role he created in 2005, Gerald Finley conveyed Oppenheimer’s moral agony with singing of great refinement and subtlety: Batter My Heart, in which scientific wonder gives way to the awareness of the enormity of what he is about to unleash, was overwhelming.

Yet this is also an ensemble piece, and among the exemplary cast were particularly distinguished performances from Marcus Farnsworth as the anxious meteorologist Frank Hubbard, Julia Bullock’s gloriously lyrical Kitty, and Aubrey Allicock as the unimaginative general Leslie Groves. Director Kenneth Richardson’s less-is-more approach, meanwhile, proved entirely convincing. By not showing us the actual bomb, he left our own psyches and memories to supply the appalling images of what we were witnessing. The final moments, as a woman’s voice emerges from a terrifying electronic rumble to ask in Japanese for water for her injured child, took place in gathering darkness and was unforgettable.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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