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Doctor Atomic, BBCSO, Adams, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Doctor Atomic, BBCSO, Adams, Barbican

Doctor Atomic, BBCSO, Adams, Barbican

Gerald Finley reprises his tormented nuclear scientist in electrifying company

Brindley Sherratt as Edward Teller and Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer at the BarbicanAll images by Mark Allan

Bomb-dropping is the new black again in Trump's dysfunctional America. Awareness of that contributed to the crackling cloud of dynamic dread hanging over last night's concert staging of John Adams's opera-oratorio - my description, not his - about the July 1945 desert testing of the plutonium bomb under the supervision of self-divided Robert Oppenheimer, an American Faust.

But then the music's insistent stepwise descents towards the centre of the earth, in various modes and illuminated colours, the claustrophobic volume of much of the variegated score in the no-escape close-ups of the Barbican, a superlative team of singers (miked, to boot), and Adams's own heavy insistence as a conductor of the indefatigable BBC Symphony Orchestra also intensified the oppressive horror.

Adams's inspiration level is high and the shifting, complex orchestral textures and rhythms always compel even when the ideas do not. He dares more even than in the world of El Niño, the millennial response to Christ's birth which Doctor Atomic so often evokes - and it was fresh in our minds following Adams' LSO performance in the Barbican at the end of last year (this, of course, is his 70th). But where that pure oratorio's collage of texts is successfully distributed among its three soloists, counter-tenor trio and chorus, the attempt to pin them on characters which Adams and his inseparable collaborator Peter Sellars can't seem to decide whether they want to develop or not sometimes makes one wince here. The didactic opening is fine - no problem if it smacks of Brecht and Weill's Lehrstücke or "lesson-dramas". But then the elephant in the room is the absence of that extraordinary poet Alice Goodman, who provided two of the 20th century's best librettos - yes, Hofmannsthal-worthy - for the two previous operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and, alas, withdrew from this project at a crucial stage.

Julia BullockHere there's poetry of a banality Goodman would never have produced, chiefly Muriel Rukeyser's in the mouth of Kitty Oppenheimer; lines like "the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs" are the wrong words in the wrong place. You're sitting there dreading the emergence of something like Ronald Duncan's "oatmeal slippers of sleep" in one of the worst opera libretti ever, for Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. Even the magnificent Julia Bullock (pictured right by Brett Arnold), her delivery conveying much of the urgent vocal style Adams engaged to serve the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the still-resplendent Dawn Upshaw alongside something of Leontyne Price's vocal colour, can't quite get away with that at first.

Bullock does, though, manage to move us with Kitty's gran scena at the beginning of Act Two, the opposite pole to Oppenheimer's "Batter My Heart". That's the Act One finale clincher which compels even if it doesn't feel quite dramatically prepared. This passion aria, dragging us downwards with pity and terror as it responds so brilliantly to Donne's text between fissile bursts of orchestral static, belongs to its co-creator, Gerald Finley. He rose to it as superbly as ever last night, leaving half the audience wild with performer-worship and the other  half stunned by the context. Let's just say that I didn't want to talk to anyone in the interval.

Adams' vocal writing - so much more focused than that of contemporary Thomas Adès, however strenuous at times - gives grateful moments of significance even to the secondary characters, all of them flawlessly well taken last night. That was why Samuel Sakker's Captain James Nolan froze us in horror in one of the score's few still moments, telling of plutonium's effect on the human body, and why a second tenor, Andrew Staples, mesmerised us with his dream of falling (Adams gives the similar nightmare of Musorgsky's Pretender-to-be in Boris Godunov a good run for its money here).

Aubrey AllicockIn Act Two, the human response to the impending catastrophe has a numinous twist in the contralto range of Tewa Indian Pasqualita, a very specific irole,  if slightly over-extended in its vatic melismas. The always impressive Jennifer Johnston had exactly the right timbre for those, the opposite pole to nature-irritated General Groves (Aubrey Allicock, authoritative and terse, pictured left). Since the first solo voice we heard was that of the firm-projecting bass Brindley Sherratt as ironical scientist Edward Teller, I wondered if the miking was necessary, but it seemed well managed and the pre-recorded soundscapes, pinning us to our seats with just the right degree of volume, were superbly well handled. Let's not forget the many phosphorescent orchestral solos, either - James Burke's clarinet writhing above a downward-dragging trio of trombones, Nicholas Korth's horn lighting up the desert moonscape.

Director Kenneth Richardson made it simple and easy for the singers to work with scores - presumaby Finley didn't need to, but it would have looked uncollegial for him to give his familiar performance without one - and to convey just the right suggestion of character - not that there's a lot of it - at the same time. Lighting effects were maybe unnecessary, smoke effects definitely so; otherwise, little intruded, as in ENO's 2009 production. Insistence on American vowels and consonants could sound a bit overdone from the BBC Singers ("madder" rather than "matter" in the opening chorus), but the text was always clear, hair-raisingly so in the big Vishnu apparition of Act Two - well prepared by Finley's crumpled expression suggesting Oppenheimer on the brink of breakdown before the explosion.John Adams takes a bow at the end of Doctor Atomic

That sustained 90-minute countdown to the inevitable demands a lot from orchestra, singers and audience. I found it more consistently compelling at ENO, but the arrival of Ground Zero and its aftermath, with Japanese voices begging for water into the void, was properly appalling. It takes a lot to rise to so terrible a subject, and Adams (pictured above taking a bow) may be the only opera composer in the world today who could bring it off. And the good news, revealed by a commenter below, is that while this performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date, the same forces set down the interpretation in the studio earlier, offering us the prospect of a much-needed CD release.

The passion aria, dragging us downwards with pity and terror, belongs to its co-creator, Gerald Finley


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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It was recorded in the studio with the same forces last week, for a CD release next year.

Good news, and something you'd have thought the BBC would have wanted to publicise. Grateful that you have. I'll adapt the final sentence as a result.

after the disaster in Tschernobyl 1986 the leader of the former S.U. Mikhail S.Gorbachev said very clearly--a nuclear war should never be fought--- he also stopped the Cold War etc

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