Recording of the Week,
John Adams's Doctor Atomic, conducted by the composer
With works such as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and El Niño, John Adams is certainly no stranger to choosing controversial and politically sensitive topics for his operas. In his 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, he and regular collaborator Peter Sellars depict the events leading up to the testing in New Mexico of the first atomic bomb in 1945, focusing on the preparations for this by the various scientists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer (dubbed the Manhattan Project).
A DVD of the opera has previously been released of a Dutch production from 2007, but this is the first audio recording of the work, with the composer himself conducting. Singing the role of Oppenheimer is baritone Gerald Finley, who not only created the role at the San Francisco premiere but has also reprised it in several subsequent productions in Amsterdam, New York, and London. The authority that he therefore brings to the part is immediately apparent. One of the highlights of both the opera and of Finley's performance is his aria from the very end of Act One, using the text of a John Donne sonnet, "Batter my heart". Adams's setting involves multiple repetitions of various lines from the sonnet, and the intensity and expression that Finley puts into each repetition is highly affecting, portraying magnificently Oppenheimer's sense of turmoil and moral conflict as he muses on whether or not he can go through with the test.
As well as this excerpt from Donne, Sellars's libretto is largely compiled from various texts including poetry by Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, extracts from the Bhagavad Gita (from which comes Oppenheimer's infamous quotation, on witnessing the first successful detonation on 16th July, 1945: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"), and, perhaps more unexpectedly, transcripts from several declassified US government documents and discussions between scientists and officials involved with the project.
This might sound like somewhat unorthodox fodder for an operatic text, and indeed the libretto has come in for some criticism since the work's premiere (even the booklet notes on this release describe it as "deceptively dry on the page"), but the textual banalities and detachment of all of these weather reports, explanations of atomic theory, and so on, are transcended by Adams's music, often to quite spellbinding effect. The score is littered with moments of unexpected beauty, whether it be the captivating, almost sensual way in which the female chorus describes how the bomb works by disturbing the stable nucleus of a plutonium atom in order to make it go supercritical ("We surround the plutonium core from thirty-two points spaced equally around its surface"), or the eerie harmonies as the chorus echoes Oppenheimer discussing the bomb's potential targets ("Kyoto. Classified double-A target").
Contrasting with this are scenes in the Oppenheimer household, and although the aforementioned "Batter my heart" is quite rightly often cited as a highlight, for me the most exquisite music is sung by Julia Bullock as Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, as she attempts to divert her husband's attention away from his bedtime reading to focus on her instead, in her aria, "Am I in your light?". Surrounded by the chaos and destruction of much of the rest of the opera, it's a tender interlude full of imaginative orchestral touches. As the Oppenheimers move into their duet ("The motive of it all was loneliness"), there are some radiantly shimmering string chords set underneath a magical, distant trumpet solo, glowingly performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
There are many other outstanding contributions, not least from Brindley Sherratt as Oppenheimer's colleague, Edward Teller, and Jennifer Johnston as the Oppenheimers' maid, Pasqualita (whose Act Two lullaby, "In the north the cloud-flower blossoms", is another stand-out moment). Overall, though, this is Finley's opera, and his impressive achievement makes this a highly compelling first recording for this thought-provoking work.
Gerald Finley (Robert Oppenheimer), Julia Bullock (Kitty Oppenheimer), Brindley Sherratt (Edward Teller), Samuel Sakker (James Nolan), Andrew Staples (Robert Wilson), Jennifer Johnston (Pasqualita)
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams
Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC