July 15, 1945. Dark and distended with potential, the A-bomb hangs like an anti-moon in the desert night. Alone and chain-smoking, its trilby-hatted creator rages against fate in the words of a poet who knew more than most about doubt and compromise. Somewhere nearby is a sympathetic woman who likes a drink, knows her place, and can quote verse too. Then there's the wise-ass side-kick, the dumb-ass general, the kid with a conscience, the weatherman, the local hired help and several hundred soldiers, scientists and secretaries. It's a busy place, Los Alamos. But for eight glorious minutes it's just one man and his gadget and the first great operatic aria of the 21st century: "Batter my heart, three-person'd God".
History is littered with one-aria operas. Is Doctor Atomic another? Scored for tectonic plates of brass, hissing strings, rapt cascades of tuned percussion, hot, darting flutes and shuddering electronica, John Adams's re-imagining of the storm-struck night before J Robert Oppenheimer's creation first exploded is part triumph, part disaster: an excruciating countdown that climaxes long before detonation. Of the bomb itself, all you need to know can be heard in the closing tape of a Japanese woman quietly asking for water for her children. (Adams refrains from attempting to represent the conflagration directly.) Of the scientist who built it, Gerald Finley's wracked performance of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV at the end of Act I gives you more information than the rest of librettist Peter Sellars' syntactically baffling collage of poetry, memoirs and declassified military files.
Designed by Julian Crouch, Penny Woolcock's English National Opera staging pays close attention to period detail. Manhattan Project ID cards and Japanese street maps are projected on to screens. Cigarettes are omnipresent, sometimes passed from smoker to smoker in a gesture of sexual intimacy. Cocktails, like babies and wives, are restricted to private quarters. There are some stunning images: the three-tiered opening chorus, the film noir lighting of Oppenheimer's lonely, metaphysical aria. But it's hard to convey a New Mexico mesa on a narrow, cluttered stage. Woolcock is too unconfident to establish a mood and let it settle. Wary of stasis, she scatters the stage with actors, moving this or that desk or bed, often jarringly out of step with Adams's rangy score.
Where Woolcock succeeds is in close-up: Finley's arrogant, impatient, guilt-stricken Oppenheimer, Sasha Cooke's creamy, fretful, dipsomaniac Kitty, Brindley Sherratt's tough-guy Teller, Jonathan Veira's preposterous, gluttonous General Groves, Thomas Glenn's idealistic Wilson, Roderick Earle's despairing Hubbard. This is just as well, for Sellars' libretto sounds like a game of consequences. Judicious editing could trim 30 minutes without losing key character details, yet the supporting players form an orderly Mozartian queue for their individual arias in Act II. The Oppenheimers' loquacious Tewa Indian nanny, Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady), seems wholly incidental, there either to symbolise a pre-industrial idyll or simply to prevent the cast from turning into a stag party. But if Sellars needed more women, why didn't he use the other woman in Oppenheimer's life, Jean Tatlock?
Adams delivers the goods tirelessly – a blazing chorus from the Bhagavad Gita, a Debussian wash of sensuality for Kitty and Oppenheimer's Baudelaire and Rukeyser love duet, a rolling electric storm – but he cannot lend Sellars's untidy text real urgency. Though superlatively performed by the cast, chorus and orchestra under conductor Lawrence Renes, this is a fascinating failure: less nuanced and disciplined than Klinghoffer, less theatrical than Nixon (both written with Alice Goodman), less fluid and focused than El Niño or A Flowering Tree (both developed with Sellars). It's worth seeing Doctor Atomic for "Batter my heart" alone. Nonetheless, like the real-life Oppenheimer, you might prefer to leave after Act I.
I'd never thought of the Royal Opera House as having a larger stage than the Coliseum but it seemed to be so last week. Like his ENO staging of Boris Godunov Tim Albery's new Covent Garden production of Der fliegende Holländer is performed without an interval and on a single set. But what a set. After an unpromisingly abrasive, chaotic overture from conductor Marc Albrecht, designer Michael Levine's dull shower-curtain sweeps back to reveal a vast curve of steel with salt-streaked port-holes like the eyes of a beached whale and a single channel of brine. The setting is adamantly post-industrial, the costumes apparently sourced in Soviet era Riga. The spinning wheels are sweatshop sewing machines, the Dutchman's boat a vertiginous shadow, the Dutchman himself a lead-limbed Bryn Terfel, his Senta the childlike, ardent Anja Kampe. Aside from Albrecht's inability to find a sensible balance between stage and pit, this is a compelling theatrical experience, with no wastage, no superfluities, meticulously clear diction and candour from Kampe and Terfel. Hans-Peter König's Daland and John Tessier's Steersman are excellent, the supporting cast and chorus strong.
Scottish Opera's Five:15 project reached its second phase last week, with a fresh crop of fledgling composer-librettist partnerships and five more 15-minute operas under the meticulous direction of conductor Derek Clark. As in 2008, there was whimsy (David Fennessy and Nicholas Bone's Happy Story); gore (Stuart MacRae and Louise Walsh's Remembrance Day); cultural dislocation (Gareth Williams and Margaret McCartney's White); a stinker (John Harris and Zinnie Harris's tasteless portrayal of Dr David Kelly's suicide Death of a Scientist); and one zingy little drama (Martin Dixon and Amy Parker's adaptation of Herman Melville's The Lightning-Rod Man) that avoided delivering each character's words in a uniform style and metre. Taken over the course of a year, one good new opera out of five isn't bad. In one evening, however, it made this listener feel like a rabbit in a cosmetics laboratory.
'Dr Atomic' (0871 911 0200) to 20 Mar; 'Der fliegende Holländer' (020-7304 4000) to 10 Mar; 'Five:15' (0131-473 2015) 7& 8 MarReuse content