Doctor Atomic, John Adams

English National Opera, Coliseum

25th February 2009

Doctor Atomic is John Adams’s third full-scale opera following on from the hugely successful and somewhat controversial Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990). The work was premiered by San Francisco Opera in 2005 and finally made its way to London in this co-production between the Met and ENO. The first night caused something of a stir in artistic circles with all the good and the important out, and visible at the Coliseum (including the BBC, covering a music event that didn’t involve Elton John or Michael Jackson – did their correspondent even know where the Coliseum was?) leading to the feeling of a cause célèbre for contemporary opera. With all the hype surrounding this lavish production and the opera’s slightly ‘sensitive’ subject matter (that undoubtedly added to the media intrigue) there was a growing sense of an elephant (or perhaps a herd of elephants) in the room: was Doctor Atomic actually any good? Was it worth the weeks of publicity and hard sell propagated by the various media?

In a word: yes.

If only this review were that short! I say yes candidly, though cautiously having had some time to think about that opening night. There were many good and admirable things about both the opera itself and the production, however there were also things that disappointed and continue to irritate. The performance was a classic six out of ten: high in effort, lower in achievement. However, there were enough good points for me to recommend going to see this production and for the opera to remain within the repertoire, for the time being.

Catherine Ashmore

The performance did not begin well. The opening chorus was wayward and unfocussed, whether it was the quality of Adams’s music or opening night nerves I’m not sure, but the opening felt unsteady and unsure. This wasn’t helped by our first introduction to the male members of the cast, fretting over plans, times and ultimately the delivery of the atomic bomb (the cast did a lot of fretting – if I were to choose one word to describe the action of Doctor Atomic it would be…fretting), the ubiquitous recitative style of singing that characterises much of contemporary opera was to the fore, as was Adams’s often clunky and unusual approach to word setting. The music, although beguiling, was not what we have come to expect with Adams; the ‘chugging’ of Nixon in China may have been replaced by a lush post-romanticism in more recent works, but here it was more intense, more acerbic and in the main, dissonant. What helped to give this opening scene a sense of grounding were the performances of the cast, especially baritone Gerald Finley (as Oppenheimer – more on him later) and young tenor Thomas Glen (as Robert Wilson – the ying to Oppenheimer’s yang). Throughout the opera the lead male roles held together scenes that were often disparate and chaotic with the power and conviction of their performances.

The second scene saw the welcome introduction of Sasha Cooke (making her ENO debut) as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, in a tender, shimmering aria that provided a necessary change of texture from the opening male-dominated scene. But this provided one of the major problems in Doctor Atomic – the libretto. It is understood that Adams had a major difference of opinion with regular librettist Alice Goodman (of Nixon and Klinghoffer fame – apparently she is now a Church of England minister) which led to the libretto being ‘compiled’ by long time Adams collaborator Peter Sellers (who directed the original production of Doctor Atomic) from various sources including US army reports, government documents, poetry by John Donne and a translation of an excerpt from the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita. This led to a fragmented, often haphazard libretto with the flow of the text often being interrupted as it lurched between different styles and idioms. This was highlighted in the bedroom scene between Oppenheimer and his wife as the libretto included large chunks of Baudelaire (in translation) which sat incongruously with the increasing drama and emotional tension.   

However this ‘piecemeal’ approach to libretti did provide the undoubted highlight of Doctor Atomic: Oppenheimer’s aria ‘Batter my heart’ which closes the first act. This setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV (which was one of Oppenheimer’s favourite poems) is a moment of searing beauty and unabashed cantabile that emerges from the stilted rhythms and recitative that embody the first act. Is ‘Batter my heart’ the first great aria of the twenty-first century? Judging by online forums and hits on YouTube it quite possibly is. It is certainly one of Adams’s finest moments: part Purcell, part Puccini and combining this with jagged outbursts of Nixon-era minimalism, the latter eventually gaining prominence and finishing Act I in a cacophony of swirling strings, timpani and bells. The performance of Finley was outstanding, his mellow baritone moving from impassioned to emotive in seconds; his acting throughout the opera was also commendable, catching the impulsive, skittish nature of the chain-smoking Oppenheimer perfectly.

The second act was a hodgepodge of different operatic clichés: a sub-plot is brought to the surface (something to do with Native Americans), the supporting cast get a moment in the sun (in the first scene) and the main characters face their demons head on. That being said, the drama began to pick up as we moved swiftly towards the first atomic test; even the chorus redeemed themselves in their impassioned fragment of the Bhagavad Gita (with the wonderfully vivid line “At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous, Full of mouths and eyes, feet, things and bellies.”). The denouement was handled with great sensitivity by Adams, no grand orchestral explosion with flailing brass and an arsenal of blaring percussion, rather a sustained orchestral clock gradually building over increasing sonic rumbling piped throughout the auditorium in surround sound. The segue from this horologically inspired orchestral showpiece to the final recorded voice of a Japanese woman repeatedly asking for water may have been a little melodramatic, but it showed a dramatic awareness that had perhaps been missing at other points in the opera.

So, yes it was (just) worth the hype, and yes, it was worth going to see. The libretto might be suspect, Adams’s music might leave you a little cold and the  idea of three hours of people fretting about the weather and trying to get their mouths round various scientific jargon might not be your idea of a good night out. However the staging was uniformly excellent, the cast very good (especially Finley – watch out for him in the UK premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole at the ROH soon) and ‘Batter my heart’ is about as beautiful as contemporary opera gets: need I say more?


Duncan Ferguson