Adams Doctor Atomic, English National Opera, London Coliseum

4.00

At the end of the first act of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, J. Robert Oppenheimer – harbinger of mass destruction – is suddenly confronted by the enormity of what he has created.

Invoking the words of John Donne – his Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” – he hurls out his challenge to the Almighty amidst a rush of shrill, pulsating, fanfares. At this moment he is the loneliest man in the universe and in high baroque style John Adams lays bare his agony. This aria, heart-rendingly sung by Gerald Finley, is the detonation in Oppenheimer’s soul which triggers the big bang. You can already find it on You Tube and it might just be the single most beautiful thing Adams has ever written.



There is more, much more, where that came from in Doctor Atomic, now receiving its eagerly awaited UK premiere at the London Coliseum. But there are longueurs, too. Length is an issue. There’s a whole lot of information in the opera – it’s its own information highway, the libretto being almost entirely drawn from documentary sources. But then again, has scientific data ever sounded sexier? One of Adams’ theatrical tricks here – and as a composer with such an innate understanding of theatre he always has one or two up his sleeve – is his way of setting the mundane or impossibly complex to music of great beauty and simplicity. A chorus describing the process of nuclear fission assumes the tranquillity of a Bach chorale; a description of the effects of radium on the human body is so lyrical as to be almost sensuous.



There are two distinct kinds of music in Doctor Atomic: the busy, impatient, dryly kinetic music of scientific theory (and Adams harnesses his orchestra like a force of nature) and that which foreshadows and confronts the emotional consequences of the scientists’ actions. Oppenheimer found his refuge in poetry and in the intimate second scene of the opera with Kitty, his wife (Sasha Cooke, bravely negotiating the challenging vocal compass of the role) the heady poetry of Charles Baudelaire demands and gets an effusion of lyricism.



The look of Penny Woolcock’s excellent staging, designed by Julian Crouch, beautifully complements the musico-dramatic thrust of Adams’ work. With the sculptural look of an art installation (which was its inspiration) fragments of debris hang suspended, as if mid-explosion, while tented sheets rise up to invoke the desert mountain ranges of New Mexico. Tiered boxes house the Los Alamos project personnel as if they themselves are the objects of experimentation – human guinea pigs. Videos of scientific formulae (Fifty-Nine Productions) play on every surface; at one point, a map of Hiroshima eerily burns.



Woolcock, who did such a brilliant job with the TV movie of Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, is especially good at building the composer’s signature choral tableaux. Nearing the climax of the opera – the testing of that first bomb – the entire ensemble moves downstage to confront us confronting them in Adams’ mightiest chorus “At the sight of this your shape stupendous” – words which could hardly be more pungently expressed in music.



No praise can be too high for the chorus work, still more that of the orchestra which, under Lawrence Renes, is forever powering towards, in Oppenheimer’s words “a brilliant luminescence”, trumpet-topped and grimly magnificent. As to individuals, Finley’s chain-smoking Oppenheimer is a model of edgy practicality, Brindley Sherratt towers as Edward Teller, and Thomas Glenn as wiry Robert Wilson is the unsettling voice of doubt.



The second act of dreams, premonitions, and predictions can only end one way and Adams’ real-time approach to “the shot” is an unbearably intense crescendo. How fitting then that the music of the final words – “Can I have some water?” in Japanese – is the saddest of the evening.

Edward Seckerson's Dr Atomic podcast for Independent Classical

Subscribe to Independent Classical podcasts on iTunes

Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada