AtomicJohn Adams - Doctor Atomic

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2007 | Lawrence Renes, Peter Sellars, Gerald Finley, Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, Ellen Rabiner | Opus Arte

There is no reason why opera can’t deal with really big subjects. Even in its earliest form, going right back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and dealing with ancient classical mythology, right through to Verdi and Wagner, or even the treatment of the Holocaust in Weinberg’s The Passenger, through the combined artforms of drama and the abstraction of music given expression through human performance, opera has been able to delve deeply into the nature of humanity when faced by the big questions of existence – God, Love, War and the essential matters of Life and Death.

Obviously, those subjects are no less central to many aspects of our lives today and no less important to modern composers. It’s in this context that the operas of John Adams (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) deal with contemporary or recent ‘headline’ subjects that have had a major impact of our lives or say something significant about the world we live in today. Dealing with Oppenheimer’s development and testing of the first Atom Bomb in June 1945, leading to its deployment in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Doctor Atomic tackles with one of the most significant developments of the 20th century – if not actually the biggest since it deals with the potential annihilation of the entire human race – but one wonders whether this subject may indeed not be too big for opera, or at least for the limitations of composer John Adams and librettist and director Peter Sellars.

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Whether they succeed in their aims or not, no-one at least can accuse the authors of lacking in ambition. The decision to condense all the personal, moral, philosophical, political and military considerations around the development of the Atom Bomb into a 24 hour period, confining it (with some significant temporal twists) to the preparations for the first test of the bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico is perhaps necessary from a dramatic perspective, but it does make it somewhat difficult to get to the human heart of the subject and the personalities involved. In some ways, of course, this reflects the dilemma of the scientists working on the project, caught up in the science of the work and in the middle of a war, there’s some urgency involved that doesn’t perhaps leave a lot of time for consideration of the moral and political implications, to say nothing of the personal toll that the results of the project will later exert over the consciences and lives of those men.

There is consequently some discussion and disagreement in Doctor Atomic between Oppenheimer and Teller not only over the estimated yield of the explosion and the possibly global catastrophic consequences that are as yet unknown, but also concerns voiced about the military application of their work on the Japanese people – without warning – particularly since Germany has already surrendered the war. The tense confrontations between scientists and the military advisors as well as the approaching deadline for the first test create a fraught situation that in only heightened and its dangers made real by the electrical storm that has arrived just at the critical moment.

The opera consequently maintains a high edge of intensity throughout. It’s evident in the discordant notes, and staccato strings of Adams’ score, underscored by rumbling percussion; it’s evident also in the sparse staging and stark lighting for this production at the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam – a mobile set of wooden scaffolding over a “ground zero” circle that allows for a reasonable flow to me maintained between scenes. Aside from the busyness of Lucinda Childs’ dancers over the circle, the intensity of the production is even more pronounced however – perhaps to a state of being somewhat overwrought – by the singing performances and the delivery of a rather portentous libretto. Drawn from released declassified official documents, with the addition of some passages from Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto may have authenticity and a sense of poetry that is certainly in keeping with the grandness of the subject, but it does indeed often sound like notes from scientific documents and personal journal observations rather than actual dialogue, and it consequently lacks any deeper insight into the nature of the people involved, or any sense of real human feeling.

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With a libretto taking in questions of life and death from the god-like stance in relation to such matters wielded by the figures involved, and with nature invoked in the forms of thunder and lightning (to say nothing of consideration of radioactive rain and visions of “cloud-flower” structures), such weighty pronouncements are moreover sung by a cast of powerful deep voices that are predominately baritone or bass-baritone for the main masculine roles (Gerald Finley, James Maddalena, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink) and mezzo-soprano for the two significant female roles (although Adams reworked Kitty Oppenheimer for soprano Jessica Rivera for this production, it’s still at the lower end of the soprano tessitura). The declarative delivery, against such a musical, scenic and dramatic background with a Chorus that has all the portentousness of a Greek Chorus, is, barring a few brief scenes, consequently never anything less than overwhelmingly tortured and angst-ridden.

Is such an approach justified? Would all these moral questions really have been weighted-up and agonised over in this way over such a short intense period of time, or is this a retrospective look at a significant moment taking in all the implications in the light of what would subsequently transpire in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Either approach would be valid and the scope and nature of the subject itself undoubtedly calls out for just such a treatment, but does it work? There’s no doubting the ability of the composer and librettist to draw these diverse historical references, documents and characters together, poetically working nature and elements into the equation in a manner that is certainly powerful and – by the time one gets to the conclusion – dramatically effective, but rather than being in any way enlightening or instructive about the subject, the overwhelming feeling is that Doctor Atomic is just overwhelming.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release of this 2007 production at De Nederlandse Opera is a strong presentation of the work. It’s filmed often in extreme close-up (under the direction of Peter Sellars) and in High Definition under stark bright lighting, you might get to see right into the pores of the singers more than you would like to. Radio microphones are used for this production and visible on all the performers – whether this was for the stage or to allow better mixing for the recording, I’m not sure, but the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are well presented. In addition to a detailed on-screen synopsis and cast gallery, there are several short background mini-documentaries on the production, and an extended interview with Peter Sellars.