Doctor Atomic by John Adams
English National Opera
Directed by Penny Woolcock
The London Coliseum
Running until 20 March 2009
John Adams is America’s great hope for grand opera. He is among the country’s best-known classical composers and probably the only one to bridge the gap between critical and popular acclaim. His works, whether scored for string quartet or choral ensemble, are eminently dramatic, appealing directly to the emotions in a way that has long gone out of fashion. Adams’s music originates in minimalism, but finds inspiration in a wide variety of sources, such as Renaissance polyphony, the Romantic orchestral tradition and American folk music.
No contemporary composer is in a better position to commandeer the forces of a major opera house and produce a success that would achieve that elusive goal of operatic immortality: entering the standard repertory. Since World War II, such success has largely been limited to works that eschewed musical modernism and looked back to the grand tradition familiar to opera audiences. For better or worse, opera audiences seem to demand an expansive, accessible mode of expression, and this is precisely what Adams’s music offers.
Adams has essayed the genre twice before, with Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), both of which attracted loyal followings but never entered the mainstream. Doctor Atomic, premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2005 and currently running in a revised staging at the English National Opera, is his strongest effort to date. Created with long-time collaborator Peter Sellars, it tells the story of the atomic bomb’s first test, focusing on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the charismatic, cultured physicist and leader of the Manhattan Project. The subject matter—a turning point in 20th century history, remembered across the world with vehemence and passion—has huge dramatic potential. “These are Wagnerian topics,” Adams is quoted in the programme, “ideally suited to operatic expression.”
Doctor Atomic’s ambitions are, in their own way, no less grand than those of the scientists working in New Mexico in 1945. No homegrown American opera has entered the international repertory to date. Indeed, those that come closest (George Gershwin’s 1935 Porgy and Bess, Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Candide and Philip Glass’s 1980s “portrait” operas Akhnaten and Satyagraha) were successful largely because they avoided the dramatic conventions and musical language of European grand opera. The Wagnerian ambitions of Adams and Sellars suggested that Dr. Atomic would confront the tradition head-on; the work, dubbed alternately an “American Faust” and “Prometheus” would be a contemporary, new-world Götterdämmerung.
Doctor Atomic is not the explosion it might have been, but it is nonetheless a stunning conflagration. Adams’s music offers some moments of gripping drama and is never less than engaging. Yet the effect of the piece as a whole is frustratingly uneven, as critics have remarked since its premiere. The English National Opera’s production, first seen at the Metropolitan Opera in October of last year, might have lain to rest lingering doubts about the piece. It is staged not by Sellars, but by Penny Woolcock, a British film director who has worked with Adams previously in film. The reasons for the change, particularly striking given that Sellars and Adams conceived and wrote the piece together, were made public when Peter Gelb, the general manager at the Met, said in a New Yorker profile  that he had loved the music, but the production “wasn’t realizing its potential”. Though the music was an unqualified success, Sellars’s staging, Gelb said, was “undramatic”.
Gelb was right about the effect, but wrong about its cause. The opera, as the English National Opera’s production establishes, did not lack drama because of Sellars’s staging, but because of its structure and libretto. The only action of the opera consists in waiting for the bomb to be tested. The text, a patchwork of myriad sources—historical, scientific and literary—creates drama obliquely: the characters express themselves largely in highly stylised, artificial language. Where the original staging was conceived in the same alien idiom as Sellars’s text (unmotivated gestures, dance sequences unconnected to the narrative), Woolcock’s staging seeks to mitigate the work’s dramatic idiosyncracies. The change is well-intentioned, but it creates a sense of incoherence between words and actions, and makes the libretto all the more inscrutable.
Most troubling is the lack of structure in the piece as a whole. Carried by Adams’s compelling music, the expository scenes of the first act manage to eschew the problems of the opera’s dramatic structure. The vocal and orchestral scores are sensitive to the opera’s dramatic context, and frame each episode and encounter subtly. The act ends with Gerald Finley’s Oppenheimer, alone on stage for the first time, singing John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” The alien beauty of the words, the pounding orchestral accompaniment, and Finley’s lone, tortured voice combine in one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced in an opera house.
In the second act, however, the opera’s structural deficiencies reveal themselves: there is little to do but wait. We can enjoy the variety of Adams’s music, but the narrative urgency of the first act is gone. The dramatic pace lags badly and we do not feel the tension the characters are experiencing. In these scenes, when the entire focus is on expression, the failure of Sellars’s libretto to confront emotion head-on is particularly frustrating. It is not until the final scene that the piece finds its footing again, as we and the characters wait anxiously for the explosion, unsure whether to hope for success or failure.
The ambivalence we feel waiting for the blast points to the difficulties of staging an opera based on so destructive an event in world history. Sellars and Adams are clearly attracted to the moral implications of the test. In the first scene, scientists discuss whether and how the bomb should be used after Germany’s surrender, and Oppenheimer repeatedly conveys his sense of awful responsibility (whether he felt it at the time is another question). The opera’s attitude, clear from the production notes as well, is a reflexive pacifism that judges the test of the bomb in light of its later use and condemns it unequivocally. But the treatment of guilt remains distressingly shallow, as if the test of the bomb were in itself an evil—which is not necessarily the case, even if one believes that the use of the bomb was a crime against humanity. This simplistic moralising might be excusable were it not an abject dramatic failure. Sellars and Adams do not portray the genuine moral conflict of the Los Alamos scientists, the aspect that might make their work a tragedy in the fullest sense: that in doing what they believe to be right, they unleash huge evil on the world.
The musical performance is a triumph for the English National Opera under the baton of Lawrence Renes. Stretched by a complex score in which no moment is like the last, the orchestra plays with passion and accuracy. The singing is excellent throughout, with special mention going to Edward Sherrat’s sinister Edward Teller and Met Young Artist Sasha Cooke, an astonishingly mature Kitty Oppenheimer. Gerald Finley has sung Oppenheimer in every performance of the opera since the premiere, and one can hardly imagine anyone else in the role, so commanding is his presence on stage.
Doctor Atomic leaves our hopes for Adams unfulfilled but intact, and even more urgent. One eagerly awaits the moment when his talent as composer fuses with the right libretto. Until then, we will watch like the Los Alamos scientists waiting all night for the test, wagering on the power of the blast. What have they created? When will they succeed? Doctor Atomic does not realise all its ambitions, but it provides moments of explosive drama, and leaves us anxious for Adams’s next experiment.
Joshua Billings  is a doctoral student in Classics at Merton College, Oxford, where he is writing his dissertation on the theory of tragedy in Germany around 1800.
Photograph of John Adams ¬© Margaretta Mitchell