John Adams’ 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, about the development of the first atomic weapon, comes over very effectively on CD. I think this is because, in essence, it’s more oratorio than opera. There’s very little action in the stage version. So little in fact that Peter Sellars staged the original production rather the way he stages oratorios with lots of stylized movement by the chorus and the introduction of dancers. There are definite advantages to having the music without the distraction of the visuals.
It’s very much a work in two acts. Much of Act 1 is scene setting at Los Alamos and at times the libretto, largely drawn from archive sources by Sellars, is prosy and has one wishing that Alice Goodman had taken on the project. That said, the interplay of themes and moods –the morality of the project (indeed of nuclear science), the “world of men” versus domesticity, bureaucratic doggedness – play out effectively and the act closes with the one real vocal show stopper in the piece; a blistering setting of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-personed God”.
Act 2 really starts to build the tension as the countdown to the test continues in deteriorating weather. Oppenheimer increasingly retreats into an inner world, Teller survives through black humour and at the Oppenheimer home Kitty Oppenheimer turns to poetry to convey longing for peace, while the Tiwa maid, Pasqualita, expresses increasing distress at the desecration of her people’s land in the language of dreams. The tension builds right up to the moment of detonation where, in a final and devastating coup de theatre, not only matter, but time and space, disintegrate and we find ourselves no longer in New Mexico but in the rubble of Hiroshima.
Musically it’s a fascinating piece. There are the usual Adams pulsing rhythms and sheer energy but here they are integrated with recorded sounds; engines, propellers, rainfall, etc. to great effect. Sometimes this is dramatic and in your face, as in the opening of each act. Sometimes it’s incredibly subtle, like raindrops and running water during Pasqualita’s first aria. The piece has real arias too. Besides the Donne setting there are proper set pieces for both Kitty and Pasqualita.
Nonesuch assembled a fine cast for this recording, made in conjunction with a series of performances conducted by the composer at London’s Barbican. Gerald Finley is, as in previous outings, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a good role for Finley. It needs both lyricism and depth and he conveys both. Brindley Sherratt is also excellent as the quirky Edward Teller. He sings with absolute solidity and brings out the dry humour of the role. Julia Bullock copes with the tricky role of Kitty. Much of it, in typical Adams style, is set quite high and she manages not to sound squally while still being impressively ardent. Jennifer Johnston brings her lovely, slightly smoky mezzo to the role of Pasquilita. General Groves is sung here by Aubrey Allcock. It’s a tricky role. His angry outbursts can come over as dangerously mad but Allcock manages to convey the sense of extreme pressure he’s under quite sympathetically. All the singers, and the BBC Singers, who make up the chorus, sing with really good English diction. It’s good enough in fact to make the full text supplied in the booklet pretty much superfluous. The BBC Symphony Orchestra sounds great and nobody conducts Adams like Adams!
The recording was made at the BBC Maida Vale Studios, though some of it may have been patched in from the Barbican performances. It’s really good. This is a work of often very dense textures and this recording teases them out very well. It also copes well with the pretty extreme dynamic contrast. Besides the libretto, the booklet contains a useful essay and a synopsis.
This two CD set makes a very persuasive case for Doctor Atomic as music. With the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight what more appropriate piece could there be to listen to?
This review first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Opera Canada.