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Adams– Doctor Atomic

J Robert Oppenheimer – Gerald Finley
Kitty Oppenheimer – Jessica Rivera
General Leslie Groves – Eric Owens
Edward Teller – Richard Paul Fink
Jack Hubbard – James Maddalena
Roberts Wilson – Thomas Glenn
Captain James Nolan – Jay Hunter Morris
Pasqualita – Ellen Rabiner

De Nederlandse Opera cond Lawrence Renes
Stage & TV Director – Peter Sellars

Sets – Adrianne Lobel

Costumes – Dunya Ramicova

Lighting – James F Ingalls
Choreography – Lucinda Childs


Opus Arte OA 0998 D [2 DVDs – June 2007, 230 minutes ]

I must admit to approaching this opera with a fair amount of “baggage”.  I studied physics in Cambridge during the 1960’s, carrying out my practical experiments in the Cavendish Laboratories where the pioneering nuclear physicists Ernest Rutherford and J J Thomson cast long shadows, and later had the opportunity of spending some time in the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. 


When my year’s intake of students were gathered for our first lecture we were surprised to be given a paperback book – Robert Jungk’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns, a plain spoken account of the development of the atomic bomb and the ultimate cautionary tale for scientists of every discipline.  Most of us followed up with C P Snow’s novel The New Men bringing into even sharper focus the personal dilemmas involved.


So, now there’s an opera. The scenario has shifted to Mexico where members of the American team have believed themselves to be in a race with German physicists to develop and deploy the bomb, and ultimately to protect the people of their country.  Just as the prize is within their grasp, the rug is theoretically pulled from under their feet when Germany surrenders and the bomb is to be used against the civilian targets in Japan - a country which presents no nuclear threat.


As the opera opens there is a pause for thought and conscience to reconsider. Peter Sellars’ libretto draws widely on archive material, with the scientists own words reproduced verbatim.  John Adams has a very neat way of composing music to such documentary material, employing cadences that, for example, match the naturally rising pitch as a speaker become more agitated.   


By contrast, the personal scenes at the Oppenheimer’s home draw on poetry.  I found this to be a less successful device, and generally a bit out of kilter with the action.


In the title role Gerald Finley gives a superb performance, portraying the nervous exhaustion of a brilliant scientist close to breaking point.  He is a highly intelligent singer who always lets the words colour the tone of his voice; he is totally convincing.  


In this DVD much of the action is shot in close up, demanding considerable acting skills from all involved.  The expressions on the faces of members of the chorus are some of the most moving images in the film.    As zero hour approaches a wide range of emotions are displayed.  In the end it’s the confrontation between the weather and the test that takes over and passions become as highly charged as the threatened electrical storm.


The sincerity of the principals shines through and the musical standards are very high.   I was particularly impressed by tenor Thomas Glenn, spelling out his beliefs with a mixture of youthful charm and earnest conviction, and with the full throated contralto of Ellen Rabiner in the role of the children’s nurse.


This is not an opera for the faint of heart, but it is certainly a thought provoking one and this DVD will stand up to repeated viewing.


Serena Fenwick


Image: Doctor Atomic at Chicago Lyric Opera