Adams Doctor Atomic

Adams’s Oppenheimer opera divides opinions – but here receives a fine performance

Author: 
Philip_Clark
John Adams Doctor AtomicJohn Adams Doctor Atomic

ADAMS Doctor Atomic

  • Doctor Atomic

I don’t know if there’s a causal link, but Doctor Atomic is the most dramatic subject matter of any John Adams opera and musically the most inconsistent. Indeed, as subject matter goes, Doctor Atomic could hardly be more apocalyptic. The work’s principal character is J Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War from its earliest prototype through to the test bomb that was detonated in 1945 at a secret site in New Mexico. The opera’s first act takes place a month before the test; the second act is set on the day itself, with a finale that strategically plays with our perception of time as the bomb is about to be detonated. Adams’s first opera, Nixon in China, rattled along with a note-specific clarity that flickered like newsreel; he paints Doctor Atomic in broader brushstrokes, using post-Bernard Herrmann suspense tactics and angsty chromatic swells to portray charged emotions. But an underlying weakness is the stubbornly unmemorable and melodically colourless vocal writing (the violin writing in Adams’s Violin Concerto suffers comparable problems), leading to one-dimensional characterisations. Adams’s and librettist Peter Sellars’s decision to incorporate poetry by John Donne and Muriel Rukeyser into the opera only highlights the functional flavour of Sellars’s own words as the balance is flipped towards contrived artifice. No complaints about the performance though. Gerald Finley carries the problems of the world on his shoulders as Oppenheimer and the Netherlands Philharmonic and Lawrence Renes play like it’s the best score since Fidelio.

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