ADAMS Doctor Atomic
Forget Nixon in China: Doctor Atomic is arguably John Adams’s finest operatic achievement to date. Dark, disturbing yet powerfully compelling, Doctor Atomic traces the final fraught days leading up to the testing of the first atomic bomb explosion by J Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists at Alamogordo Desert, New Mexico, in July 1945.
In Act 1, Oppenheimer’s increasingly animated discussions with his physicist colleagues at the Manhattan Project laboratory at Los Alamos – then later with military personnel at the test site at Alamogordo – is juxtaposed with tender moments between the scientist and his wife, Kitty, where she gently chides him. Act 2 shuttles back and forth between the Oppenheimers’ household (represented by Kitty, her two young children and the Indian maid, Pasqualita), and the countdown to the detonation itself, which at one point is thrown into jeopardy due to adverse weather conditions. With US Army commander General Leslie Groves ordering the test to go ahead regardless of the electrical storm sweeping across the desert floor, the music wells up to a terrifying climax. In the eerie silence that follows, a lone Japanese voice is heard pleading for water in a premonition of the devastating explosions that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few weeks later.
Doctor Atomic fuses the psychological intensity of The Death of Klinghoffer with Nixon in China’s large-scale dimensions. However, achieving the right balance between the two has not been easy, and previous staged productions have suffered from a lack of consistency: the drama on stage appears sometimes to have inhibited the musical flow.
This recording, taken from studio sessions conducted at Maida Vale followed by a live concert performance at the Barbican Centre in April 2017, is a revelation. Stripped of its staging, the opera’s dramatic narrative is allowed to unfold through the music itself rather than through characters’ actions. Gerald Finley is imperious once more as Oppenheimer – a cold, rational exterior finally exposing doubts and fears that lurk underneath, as heard in the emotionally charged ‘Batter my heart’ at the end of Act 1. Julia Bullock also produces an excellent, rounded performance as Kitty Oppenheimer. Cool and restrained at the beginning of her Act 1 aria ‘Am I in your light?’, she never allows the character to slip into caricature or exaggeration.
But it is the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers who really stand out here. Razor sharp from beginning to end, the orchestra remain highly responsive to the work’s often complex polyrhythmic patterns and pulsations, with tempo and pacing perfectly judged under the composer’s own direction. The chorus is equally effective, ensuring that clarity is retained for the quieter dreamlike sections, and a measure of control applied to louder moments. The powerful, terrifying evocation of Vishnu at the end of Act 2 scene 3 (‘At the sight of this’) is absolutely gripping, as indeed is the performance throughout. Highly recommended.