The subject of the atomic bomb has become a fascination for the so-called ‘minimalist’ composers.
Steve Reich addressed the morality of its existence in his video opera Three Tales, yet here John Adams takes a closer look at the man behind the fearsome device.
Whether Adams should now be regarded as a minimalist composer is a pertinent question, especially taking in mind passages of music such as that beginning Act 2, a lengthy soprano aria that continued the build up of tension begun in the first act. For Adams’ portrayal of ‘Doctor Atomic’ – aka J Robert Oppenheimer – takes in the lead up to the first test explosion of the bomb in New Mexico in July 1945.
Fraught with dread, the doctor’s fellow scientists and companions consider the impact of this terrible thing they are close to, while the clock ticks inexorably towards zero hour.
As the tension rises, Adams uses Oppenheimer’s extraordinary grasp of language and intellect to include passages of Baudelaire, the mystical Bhagavad Gita and, most dramatically, the John Donne sonnet Batter My Heart. This proved the musical highpoint of the first act in the work’s UK premiere, Gerald Finley singing with barely concealed dramatic passion in the title role, while the orchestra, under the direction of Lawrence Renes, through out a particularly biting accompanying sequence.
The first half was however a little slow to ignite, hindered somewhat by Peter Sellars’ unwieldy libretto, often lifted from actual writings of the doctor and scientists. The striking tenor of Thomas Glenn, however, brought the second part to life with an equally alarming and amusing vulnerability as Robert Wilson. This set the tension for a gripping passage of uncertainty among the main characters, the weather taking a turn for the worse and the awful hulk of the bomb itself looming large at the back of the stage.
The staging itself proved most striking throughout, Julian Crouch’s designs centered on a flexible piece of apparatus that, if bare, would have resembled an oversize piece of shelving. However, split into three rows of fourteen compartments, it could be manipulated into a series of cubicles in which the chorus stood as scientists, or a series of small screens on which the equations themselves were scrawled. Most strikingly of all the screens were pulled aside to reveal the Tewa people observing the scientists’ growing anxiety, wearing their sacred masks.
When the explosion finally arrived it capped Adams’ most dramatic writing, and the hairs stood up on the back of the neck as the awfulness of the explosion took hold, the entire cast watching through protective glasses. That Adams was successfully able to convey this, and finish the opera on a suitable concluding note, was impressive. With a small Japanese voice asking for water, he was leaving the way clear for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Gerald Finley was superb throughout as the Doctor, fretting even when consoled by his doting wife Kitty, the clear-voiced Sasha Cooke. Meanwhile Pasqualita, the couple’s maid (a full bodied alto in Meredith Arwady) movingly sang against the bomb as she cradled their child.
The choreography was most impressive also, the eye kept busy by the material on screen when the cast was stood still. With perhaps Adams’ finest opera score since Nixon In China, this made for a truly powerful evening – its message hindered only slightly by that libretto.