Dr. Atomic

Opera Review by Polly Hope

DR ATOMIC. John Adams.


I was expecting to be bored stiff at Dr Atomic, many of our snide London critics had said as much and I had missed the first night. But goodness, here at last is a really marvelous new and very contemporary work. No holds barred on production, ideas and presentation.

For once a modern theme and packed with tension and worry and real people. Mind you, the theme and story of the testing of the first atomic bomb in the western desert of the United States in the mid 1940s at first thought does not seem the kind of drama grand opera is hewn from.

But of course it is. For three hours the suited scientists stand around wondering if the bloody thing is going to blow up our planet. It is a totally fascinating story, intelligent men wondering if they will bring life to an end on earth, but they are exhilarated with the excitement of solving a vast complicated and unknown problem. John Adams and Peter Sellers have put together s show of breath-taking dimensions.

A huge production, a large chorus is perched in a towered lab of small boxes where each of them work away on equations on blackboards on the back of their cells. From time to time blinds close the boxes and wild weather is projected on the blinds. Weather is of paramount importance for until the last minute it seems likely that the test will literally be rained off.

A long scene of domestic life at the end of Act 1 with Oppenheimer and his wife shows they all live in a real world of married love and children. After which, when his wife leaves to attend to domestic chores, Oppenheimer, now alone on a vast stage, has a complex discussion with God about his responsibilities to the human race. Sounds quite awful, but it works. Gerald Finley's portrayal of Oppenheimer is a miracle. The energy, the doubts, the work, it is all there. Moreover it is possible to hear just about every word of the text. Hearing the text goes for all the singers. What a treat.

The text, put together by Adams and Sellers is cut and paste from existing letters and lectures interspersed with poetry from different epochs. It works well enough and is always to the point. Maybe a great poet could have come up with something better, but these words more than suffice. The fact that really is what the protagonists said has great poignancy

The average age of all the scientists working on what was called the Manhattan project was a mere 25 years. Incredible, Fear the young if they are all so clever.

The music is stupendous, perfect for the subject, the dry air of the desert, the tension of waiting for the big bang and the anguish of Oppenheimer. Adams has come a long way and the sounds he produces have inevitability about them. They are right. The music thankfully is not atonal, not has it any sing along melodies. It meshes with and around the drama, as all good opera music should. John Adams has shown a way that opera can progress into the 21st century. ENO's fine orchestra excels under the baton of young Laurence Rerners, a very bright spark who emerged from the Bremer opera.

The handling of the actual bomb test is hair raising. Just a mummer from the orchestra and the ticking of clocks out of synch. The cast slowly put on their shades. The sound roars around the auditorium and the bomb falls. In the audience we realize that we are in the explosion and everyone is looking at us.

The last thing we hear in the opera is a Japanese woman continuously asking for water… All terrible. What a monster us humans have unleashed.

If you love opera and want to find out what its potential in the 21st century is, then Dr Atomic is an essential experience. Even if you don't care a hoot about opera, still go. A most not-to-be-missed experience. Shatteringly fine theatre.

Polly Hope. London