John Adams’ Doctor Atomic of 2005 has enjoyed two full-scale productions. The first was by Peter Sellars for San Francisco Opera, and also appeared at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam and the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007. British opera-goers, however, are more likely to be familiar with Penny Woolcock’s version which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 before coming to the London Coliseum the following year. While, however, Woolcock’s staging was effective, this presentation in the Barbican Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of the composer, was enough to suggest that the opera actually works better in concert.
This is because the piece, like Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, explores the characters involved in the relevant historical incident rather than re-enacting it. As a result, much of the importance rests in the language as individuals frequently speak their minds at length through soliloquies. Even in scenes that involve more than one character each still tends to advance their own thoughts, rather than interacting with others as they do in La traviata or Carmen. As a result, a presentation that enables us to focus on the libretto, which Sellars compiled from a number of sources including John Donne sonnets, the Bhagavad Gita and declassified U.S. government documents, helps us to penetrate the philosophy of the piece to a far greater extent.
The dilemmas faced by Oppenheimer, and the point that the development of the atomic bomb brought into focus (and frequently pitted against each other) the realms of science, politics, religion, morality and pragmatism, are obvious in any performance. This is due in large part to the music, and to the way in which the chorus (here the BBC Singers) offer ‘commentaries’ that come from a variety of these realms. However, the attention we could pay to the language saw so much more detail come to the fore. For example, in Act I it became clear how the whole question of whether the use of an atomic bomb would ultimately save more lives than it took was caught up with so many others. Was this bomb predominantly designed as a deterrent, which in itself begged the question of how much time and opportunity the Japanese should be given to surrender, or was the ultimate aim to use it simply because it had been developed (with Germany in mind)? While this is going on, we also hear about the conventional raids taking place over Japan that, although not carrying the same dangers of nuclear fallout, are killing frighteningly large numbers of people while passing virtually without comment.
This version also enabled us to engage with the conversation between General Leslie Groves and the meteorologist Frank Hubbard, who advises on the weather conditions for the nuclear test. In it Groves threatens Hubbard with prison if his information is wayward. If we consider how humans often think, it seems likely that such a threat might encourage an individual not to make mistakes, but it is interesting that this should be the case when Hubbard is already aware of the consequences of being ‘wrong’, which go far beyond being locked up. Groves also urges Hubbard to confirm that the weather will be fine as if such a confirmation will in its own right miraculously transform inappropriate conditions into suitable ones.
When Oppenheimer tells Groves that he seems to be coping well with the pressure and that the only sign of stress comes from his expanding waistline, Groves reacts defensively by giving details of his dieting attempts. There is both irony and pathos in seeing a man with so much power in some respects revealing typical everyday fears. Here the effect was made complete by the sorrowful expression on the face of Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer) as he listened, which revealed his own understanding of human frailty. We also hear that Oppenheimer is receiving advice from ‘too many’ quarters, which is generally good when attempting to reach conclusions in science or life, but is at odds with military approaches that depend more on quick thinking, split second timing and acting with certainty and conviction.
There was not single weak link in the cast, which included Andrew Staples as Robert Wilson, Aubrey Allicock as Groves, Marcus Farnsworth as Hubbard and Samuel Sakker as Captain James Nolan. Gerald Finley was outstanding as Oppenheimer, a part that he made his own virtually from the very first performance of the work. His baritone was strikingly rounded and his performance so sensitive as to be heart breaking. Julia Bullock was an exceptional Kitty, producing a sound that was vibrant and precise and yet almost otherworldly. Brindley Sherratt was on excellent form as Edward Teller, his firm bass resonating around the hall, while Jennifer Johnston’s mezzo-soprano bought depth and refinement to the role of Pasqualita. The BBC Symphony Orchestra clearly benefited from being conducted by the one person who naturally understands the piece better than anyone else.
Director Kenneth Richardson ‘staged’ the work very effectively. A single desk on one side of the conductor’s podium and a lone stool on the other marked out the realms of work and home for Oppenheimer, with Finley singing from whichever side was appropriate for the scene in question. This signified how close and yet so far removed the domains of work and family were for him, and by extension highlighted the tension between his public responsibility and private thoughts. Various scenes saw different coloured lights shine on the orchestra with green, in particular, hinting at radioactivity.
The ending was ‘staged’ fairly similarly to how it is in a full production as the principals gazed out at the bright light that fell over the auditorium and marked it out as the detonation site. It felt even more effective than usual, however, because the Barbican stage and auditorium are directly joined, and because various sound effects were utilised so that everyone in the stalls positively felt their seats vibrating underneath them. It seemed as if the characters were shielding their eyes not just from the dazzle emanating from ground zero but from a future that for them was too dangerous to comprehend, and yet one in which we actually live.
This concert was recorded for a future broadcast on a (currently unspecified) Saturday evening on BBC Radio 3.