The subcritical mass goes supercritical

The subcritical mass goes supercritical


norman lebrecht

February 26, 2009

John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic had its fifth production and UK premiere at English National Opera last night. It is, I think, deepening with each exposure and every aspect of the ENO performance was polished by the experience gained by director Penny Woolcock and several cast members at the Met, Amsterdam and elsewhere.

What came over more searingly than on the DVD pre-release was the diversity of styles that Adams adopts, one for each scene of the first act. He starts with the language of Berg’s Lulu, segues into the English hymnody of Herbert Howells and Benjamin Britten and emerges in a post-minimalist instrumental patter and a vocal line somewhere between Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. This is high opera, and no mistake, sometimes a little too high on its own aspirations.

The story of the Los Alamos scientists who conducted the first nuclear test is dramatically told. When Edward Teller informs the General that he does not know if the blast will knock out New Mexico or the whole human race, he does not exaggerate. The excitement and danger of science is everywhere in this piece, the driving force on stage. Even the drop curtain displays the periodic table.

What I miss is the sense of dislocation. The core scientists were Hungarian Jews who belong in a cafe, not a desert. Their intellectual and emotional lives are absent. Personal qualities are invisible and Peter Sellars’ script is often too wordy. Read Kati Marton for context.

Gerald Finley is outstanding as the project director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who sold his soul to the war effort, and Sasha Cooke is fetching as his wife Kitty. Both characters need more script development. A purple dress is not enough to express sexual frustration. Jonathan Veira as the General adds menace to the experiment.

ENO’s orchestra has not sounded this wonderful for a long time and the young conductor Lawrence Renes was intensity personified. The atmosphere in the house was almost epochal and the ovation for Adams was the loudest of all.

Doctor Atomic is real opera. It sets you thinking and sometimes touches the heart.



  • bulgogi says:

    “Gerald Finlay is outstanding as the project director”
    Isn’t his name spelled “Finley”??? Granted, it’s not as bad as “Tutula Bartley”, but if someone is going to search your archives for Finley, then they will miss some of your postings. Cheers!
    NL to Bulgogi: Thanks for picking up two hasty typos. They have been corrected.