Thursday, February 26, 2009

Doctor Atomic Explodes in London

With the rave reviews coming out of Chicago and New York, it is no surprise that the opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams is receiving the same sort of praise in London. Based on the life and memoirs of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who built and tested the first atomic bomb in July 1945. It's three hours of thought provoking music and words and yet, not so much a history lesson as a look at our own situation of action and consequence.

Richard Morrison of the The Times (London) gave this review:

"There are fascinating vignettes (much of Peter Sellars’s libretto is drawn verbatim from memoirs) mingled with agonised soliloquies in which characters wrestle with their consciences. There is even a tender love scene in which Oppenheimer (the superb Gerald Finley) soothes the fears of Kitty, his increasingly unhinged wife (the luscious-voiced Sasha Cooke) with sensuous renditions of Baudelaire. ...as the atomic test draws near, Oppenheimer himself disintegrates, singing Donne’s sonnet Batter my Heart, Three-person'd God, an agonised cry for oblivion and a clean start which, of course, will never be possible. "

The opera is not a glimpse at history, even though the characters and events are historical; it is not a documentary, although much of the libretto is taken from Oppenheimers own memoirs. It is about Oppenheimer, but rather than a glimpse at historical events, Doctor Atomic probes into the mind set of the era, of the scientist and the morality of our actions. The music drives us to ask questions, from the subtle repetitions in the orchestra to the mind numbing ticking of the count-down clock and eventually to the recorded screams of horror. Edward Seckerson of The Independent had this to say:

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 music and libretto don't make this an easy opera to watch, but the subject matter isn't easy either. Befitting his world class statis, John Adams and his opera Doctor Atomic launch the London stage into a new way of thinking.

Doctor Atomic
February 28, March 5, 7, 11, 13, 16, 18 & 20 London Coliseum Tickets available online at: https://www.tickets.eno.org/show_events_list.asp - £15-84


John Adams' music is the focus of a Barbican Series next year. As part of the Focus, baritone Thomas Hampson and the New York Philharmonic, led by conductor Alan Gilbert, will perform Adams's The Wound-Dresser along with works by Haydn, Schubert, and Berg, on February 4, 2010; Emanuel Ax will give the UK premiere, on March 5, of a new work for solo piano written for him. On March 25, the St. Lawrence String Quartet will give the UK premiere of Adams's String Quartet, at LSO St. Luke's.

The composer will lead the London Symphony Orchestra in two concerts, one featuring the UK premiere of his revised Doctor Atomic Symphony on March 7, and the other the UK premiere of the new Los Angeles Philharmonic commission for Gustavo Dudamel, City Noir. In July 2010, the Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East will present a new production of his theatrical piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky on the main stage of Theatre Royal, reimagined from 1994 Los Angeles to 21st-century East London.

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