Doctor Atomic

It’s not often that my interest in Opera overlaps significantly with my career in Physics, but this Saturday night (28th March) was a definite example, with English National Opera‘s production of Doctor Atomic by John Adams providing the opportunity. I even went with a group of six physicists to see it.

The piece is, of course, centred around the personality of J Robert Oppenheimer “The Father of the Atomic Bomb” and is set in Los Alamos in the runup to the first “Trinity” test detonation of an atomic bomb in July 1945. Other physicists feature in the story, especially Edward Teller and Robert Wilson, and images of many more taken from their security passes are projected onto the set at the opening of Scene 1.

According to what I was told, John Adams originally engaged a librettist to write the text for the Opera but this didn’t work out, and a libretto was instead stitched together by Peter Sellars from a variety of sources, including the poetry of John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita, scientific documents, and assorted memoranda from Los Alamos.

This means that the work doesn’t really have a real narrative trajectory, and there is very little in the way of character development, but instead it resolves itself into a series of impressionist tableaux. Rather than attempting to provide the coherence that the libretto lacks through the music, Adams chose to work with what he had and not try to impose a larger structure on it via the score.

The result is fascinating but it’s not without its problems. I greatly admire John Adams’ music, which manages to be both innovative and accessible. There certainly are many places in Doctor Atomic where the music, words and drama come together to make wonderful Opera. Frankly, though, there are also some passages where it gets becalmed, especially in the domestic scenes between Oppenheimer and his wife which didn’t seem to me to add any special insight into the character of either. The Opera ends with the countdown to the detonation of the Trinity Test, but I thought this was also too long, robbing the event of some of its power, although the last moments and the explosion itself were brilliantly done.

This is a new Opera, first performed as recently as 2005 in San Francisco. This production is only the second, as it has moved directly to London from a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Many of the great operas which we now regard as standards went through several iterations before they arrived at their final version. This may happen to Doctor Atomic too. The running time of around three hours is by no means excessive by opera standards, but I do think it would work even better on stage if it were shortened quite a bit and tightened up to remove the longueurs from both acts and focus on building the tension as the test approaches.

I hope all this doesn’t sound too negative. It really is a fascinating and compelling piece. The ending, involving an empty stage and a tape recording of the words of a dying Japanese woman asking for water, moved at least one of our little group to tears.

And of course there’s that aria. At the end of Act 1, just before the interval, Oppenheimer is alone on stage while the prototype bomb is suspended behind him. His thoughts are expressed by the words of a Sonnet Batter my Heart, by John Donne:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Coming back to Cardiff on the train this morning I read a glowing review of Doctor Atomic in the Observer by Fiona Maddocks which referred to this aria as the greatest written since Puccini. I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but it is truly wonderful, especially when sung as it was last night by the flawless Gerald Finley. It also struck me that it has many parallels with, and is as at least as good as, the aria When the Great Bear and Pleiades in Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Whether Doctor Atomic eventually comes to be regarded as a great Opera in the way Peter Grimes has remains to be seen, but I would bet my bottom dollar that this aria will anyway be performed many many times as a concert piece.

Fortunately, though, you don’t have to take my word for how good  it is. Since the Met version of this production has been released on video, I can end with Batter my Heart just as we saw and heard it last night, with John Adams great music stuttering uneasily at the start but taking on a radiant quality as the aria develops. Superb.

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4 Responses to “Doctor Atomic”

  1. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Doctor Atomic […]

  2. […] weekend I went to see the Opera Doctor Atomic in London, and last night I was tidying up my CDs which I usually leave lying around all over the […]

  3. Theron Knapp Says:

    I found your article while looking for more info on this tremendously moving aria. While I agree with your overall assesment of the opera, I found that other than this aria, the aria (duet) with his wife was the next best part. I wonder if successive viewings have changed your mind on this point at all or if you have enjoyed such.

    Thank you for the YouTube posting!

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Last night I attended a concert at the Barbican Centre, London, in which John Adams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme that included his Doctor Atomic Symphony. The symphony consists of a number of pieces taken from the opera, arranged for an orchestra alone, with individual instruments replacing the singers in some instances. For instance, a trumpet replaced the baritone in Batter My Heart.

    Adams first produced a symphony from the opera a few years ago and it was given its premiere at the BBC Proms in 2007. However, he has now shortened the piece considerably: the new version lasted 24 minutes last night and is a single movement work. It is not particularly symphonic in character, given its origin as extracts from an opera, but does work nicely as a modern concert piece.

    But there wasn’t an explosion.

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