Review – Doctor Atomic, ENO at the Coliseum

Written for The Public Reviews 

Concerning the last days and hours leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb, or ‘Gadget’ as the members of the Manhattan Project somewhat endearingly called it, Doctor Atomic focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the “Trinity” test was being prepared; ending on the iconic moment when the ‘Gadget’ exploded expectations and a new world age was entered.

Composed by the contemporary minimalist John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellers this is a deeply faithful piece of work, with the language being pulled mainly from source material including personal memoirs, government documents, recorded interviews and technical manuals of nuclear physics.  As a result this opera is a somewhat lumbering beast, with Adam’s initially staccato score only making the heavily worded exchanges all the more disengaging.  A deeply Brechtian concept, this distance allows practical understanding from the audience but at first does not encourage us to engage with the personal stories being told.   The natural rhythm and pace of conversation seems too fast for Seller’s dense style and this is not aided by Adam’s repetitious, vertically linear note sequences.

But we were not to be as doomed as the Manhattan Project team themselves.  Interspersed within this forest of scientific technical fodder oases of feeling and poetry begin to spring up in the form of soliloquies and choral pieces taken directly from sources such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the poetry of John Donne and Charles Baudelaire (a favourite of Oppenheimer).  These transport one into an emotional understanding of the God like beauty and terror at work in the atomic creation.  At these moments the layering which has been building up in Adam’s composition becomes at its most intense and an environment is created which crackles with electricity as each instrument plays unique moments whilst at once performing as a cohesive whole.  It is now that this opera takes flight, creating questions and images in one’s mind which stay at the forefront for long after.

Film director Penny Woolcock’s first foray into the realms of stage performance combine a cinematic touch through the naturalistic and intimate performances of her leads with a blatantly theatrical mise-en-scene, in a production which elegantly reveals the psychologies of this terrible work and those who became caught up in its machinery.  Julian Crouch’s setting with its haunted peaks of fabric and periodic table towers has one compartment for each of the chorus with Japanese style roll down screens for each square container.  These speak volumes on their own whilst also forming the perfect back drop for Fifty-Nine Productions’ (Mark Grimer and Leo Warner) inspired video design which mixes sensual moments of seductive shimmering cloth with darkly cartoonish storm clouds and rain. 

Against this smoothly eclectic background the leads within this piece are universally powerful; Sasha Cooke’s richly sensual Kitty Oppenheimer, Brindley Sherratt’s booming and wry Edward Teller and Jonathan Veira’s pompously humorous General Leslie Groves are of particular note.

But at the heart of this piece is the performance of Gerald Finley in the role of J Robert Oppenheimer.  With effortless fluidity Finley’s melodic and pure baritone voice transports his feeling throughout the Coliseum, drawing all into Oppenheimer’s fall from assured proud excitement to tight grief as, in the eclipse like shadow of his bomb, he begins to awaken to the full potential of his creation crying ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’.  This is a tour de force moment of operatic composition with score, libretto, performance and setting leaving a blinding imprint on the mind of every person who lives under the shadow of atomic war fare today.  

Doctor Atomic is a piece which begins weakly and gains in strength, as we are taken from the repetitive and distancing conversational first act to the spiritually searching final moments.  A slow burner, it may not represent the momentum with which scientists go gung ho into the fray but what it loses in pace, it gains in longevity.  This is an opera which will leave a lasting impression on those who see it and its repercussions will be felt for a long time to come; something that could be said of the ‘Gadget’ itself.

Dr Atomic runs at the ENO until March 20th 2009 (9 performances)


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