Saturday 14 March 2009

New Opera - Dr Atomic at ENO

John Adams is not one to pick a conventional subject for an opera: Nixon's visit to China, the cruise liner hijacking that led to the Death of Klinghoffer and now the Manhattan project: the programme which developed the atom bomb.

This isn't the first time I've seen the opera, or indeed this production. It is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and was broadcast to cinemas in the autumn. In part then, seeing it in the flesh provides a fascinating contrast. I've tended to think the Met cinecast is a pretty good substitute for the real thing (certainly I very much enjoyed the Runnicles/Peter Grimes). Dr Atomic was powerful in the cinema; however, the biggest difference is the that the video director's fondness for close ups seems to have lost a lot of the scale of the production. I've often said that on videos and DVDs, and especially something as big screened as the the cinema, I just want a view from the stalls as the camera often doesn't go where my ear is telling my eyes to look.

During the overture, a semi-transparent screen displayed the periodic table. For reasons that were and are not clear, four were blacked out: Technetium (atomic number 43), Promethium (61), Lutetium (71) and Francium (87). Three of the four, excluding Lutetium are found in Uranium ore, but otherwise I can find no connection. Possibly some malfunction with the projector seems a more reasonably explanation. True, my A-level chemistry is some years behind me, but if you're going to do something like that there should be a reason that does not require a Ph.D to determine (suggests welcome in the comments).

The curtain rose to reveal a giant three story truck, the face of which was covered with three rows of mug shots of participants at Los Alamos, one that reads like a veritable who's who of 20th century atomic physics: here an Oppenheimer, there a Feynman, a von Neumann, Teller, Fermi and more besides. These were projected onto blinds which lifted to reveal a chorus (notable for their poor diction) of atomic physicists at work on their blackboards. It irks slightly that when the young and idealistic Robert Wilson descends from behind his portrait, it is in fact von Neumann's (leading me to think that was who the character was for the entire first act). Another minor niggle is that when the libretto describes the polyhedrons that are the basis for the arrangement of the explosives that will trigger the chain reaction, a completely different one is projected.

We then join Oppenheimer (superbly sung and acted, as at the Met, by Gerald Finley; indeed, he seems to have sung the role in every production to date and this shows in his command of it), the somewhat sardonic Edward Teller (Brindley Sherratt, also very fine) and later Wilson (Thomas Glenn) as they discuss the project.

These are three of the most complicated and interesting characters I've seen in an opera for some time. You see the culture clash between an army and a government that simply want the job done and the collection of cerebral intellectuals they have assembled to do it, prone to doubt, question and tangents. We hear Oppenheimer speculate on the extent to which science can, or should, determine policy; Teller reads a letter from a colleague requesting the scientists to petition against the dropping of the bomb; Wilson attempts to organise a meeting to consider the consequences of the 'gadget'.

We see, in the second scene, the toll the project takes on the director in his slightly dysfunctional home life and his relationship with Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke). Some felt this wasn't then taken anywhere in the remainder of the piece, but I think its presence hangs over the work in a effective way.

The action then jumps to the test site at Trinity on the night of 15th July 1945, on the eve of the first test. A storm is raging and General Groves berates meteorologist Frank Hubbard (Roderick Earle) for failing to predict fine weather for the test, the urgency of which is dictated by a desire to announce a successful test at the Potsdam conference (between Truman, Stalin and Churchill - in truth Truman did indeed announce that they had tested a weapon of unimaginable power, Stalin gave no reaction, causing Truman to query whether he had understood; as it turned out, he already knew the details of the project due to security leaks). Jonathan Veira sings the general well enough, but in contrast to the physicists, it as one dimensional caricature, though quite funny at times, not least in his diary of the extra calories he has gained from three slices of chocolate cake here or two brownies there.

The act culminates with one of the most one of the opera's most powerful moments: Oppenheimer reciting Jonn Donne's Batter my heart. Finley's performance here is quite exception, helped by the fact that Donne's words are so powerful. Oppenheimer quotes poetry at various points and this is fine except Peter Sellars libretto isn't so good in comparison.

The second act is a little different. It is dominated by the wait for the test as the scientists and army personnel wait, worry and joke (and even, at Teller's instigation, apply sunscreen at one point). This is intercut with Kitty drinking at home with her maid Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady) keeping vigil. Arwardy is not bad, per se, but not to my taste and something about her performance just doesn't quite seem to gel.

We see the scientists taking a pool on the yield of the bomb: from Oppenheimer's 300 kiloton fizzle to Teller's mocking of his colleagues' pessimism by predicting more than twice the gadget's blackboard potential. We see Teller express the real concern that the bomb might ignite the atmosphere.

As the scientists prepare to watch the test it seems that ENO couldn't afford as many pairs of goggles as the Met could. Then comes a rumbling sound that appears to shake the very foundations of the Coliseum. One could nitpick and mention that the sound of the bomb should come after the light, not before, yet this way yields a better and more dramatic climax and such concerns are willingly suspended.

Overall then, it's a strong work and was given a fine performance. The way, though much of the opera, the 'gadget' hangs ominously in the background is particularly powerful. The orchestra of ENO, under Lawrence Rense, were on fine form in what Donald Runnicles himself acknowledges is a tricky score (though, obviously, we wish the maestro, who premiered the piece, could have been in the pit).

It's effective that they haven't gone for the obvious choice and quoted Oppenheimer's quotation "I was reminded of the ancient Hindu text: I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." at the end. Instead, a Japanese woman is heard begging for water. It is devastating.

The length of silence before the first applause indicates this view was shared. The production was well received by the audience, many of whom appeared to be taking advantage of a cheap deal, with the loudest cheers deservedly reserved for Finley. See it if you can.

1 comment:

Neil McGowan (aka Reiner Torheit) said...

I saw the ENO production, and the work is indeed an extraordinary piece. But I had several reservations.

The composer writes an extraordinary 6-page introduction to the work in the ENO programme, in which he effectively says he was nobbled by persons unknown in the USA to write a very different piece than he originally intended. His original was to have taken Oppenheimer's career up to the point where he was arraigned by McCarthy's Committee On Unamerican Activities.

What was the reason for jettisoning the production by Peter Sellars? It seems that we got a gerrymandered production what was intentionally "fixed" to remove the inherent criticism and anti-war nature of the work's conception.

The end, for me, is a cheat. DR ATOMIC isn't about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The explosion we see happens in Nevada. The opera is about putting a weapon of appalling devastation into the hands of the Generals who have been pleading for it. It is not about Hiroshima... because that is a different story.

On a musical level I have nothing but the greatest praise for Adams's text-setting - he's found the genuine speech-patterns of contemporary American English in musical lines. Not a word or phrase rings "false" or "operatic" - it's all entirely natural. This seems simple, but it must have been the work of many months to achieve.

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