Like a golfer craving that elusive perfect tee shot long and straight down the middle, what keeps me coming back to opera is the hope of a perfect “wow” moment where music, voice and dramatic setting come together to knock me sideways. At the Barbican last night, Gerald Finley, John Adams and the BBC Symphony Orchestra combined to deliver the heaviest operatic punch I’ve been subjected to all year, at the close of the first half of Doctor Atomic.

John Adams takes a bow after conducting his opera, ‘Dr Atomic’ © BBC | Mark Allan
John Adams takes a bow after conducting his opera, ‘Dr Atomic’
© BBC | Mark Allan

The context is the detonation of the first atomic bomb: the realisation is dawning on Robert Oppenheimer of how terrifying and beyond his control are the forces he is releasing: his escape is to retreat into poetry – in this case, Donne’s sonnet Batter my heart, three person’d God. Finley’s delivery was spellbinding: his smooth and warm baritone steadily increasing in fervency in a perfectly measured crescendo of emotion. Meanwhile, Adams’ music has spent most of the previous hour preparing your ears for this: the insistent rhythms envelop your senses, while your brain is jarred by the contrast of the spirituality of Donne’s words against the harsh, prosaic military language that has preceded it.

There can hardly be a more important subject for opera than our gaining the ability to destroy our entire planet and the people who gave us the tools to do so. Adams approaches the subject with utter seriousness and an all-seeing eye for detail: the libretto is unlike any other, crafted by assembling fragments of documented quotations from scientists, military and government officials. The precision of the deliberations over how the bomb can be best made to terrify the Japanese into surrender is chilling, as is the mundanity of the scientists’ daily lives (they take bets on the likely yield of the bomb, and with particularly black humour, it’s pointed out to the military man in charge, General Leslie Groves, that anyone wishing to deduce the supposedly top secret location of the test site needs only to follow the trail of beer cans from Santa Fe). Oppenheimer’s veering from arrogant self-confidence to withdrawal into poetry is vividly portrayed, as is the scientists' horror as they discover that the bomb is to be used against civilians without warning. Act II sees a telling contrasting voice and mindset in the shape of Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers’ Native American nurse. The libretto becomes somewhat more oblique and difficult to grasp, but that’s just when the music is ratcheting up in intensity to compensate.

Adams had spent the previous six days in a studio recording Doctor Atomic with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The effects were clear as day: the orchestra played better than I have ever heard them. Adams seemed to have everything under control precisely the way he wanted it; his baton directions were especially crisp and the orchestra responded with verve and accuracy. Choral numbers were delivered by the BBC Singers with commitment.

Brindley Sherratt and Gerald Finley © BBC | Mark Allan
Brindley Sherratt and Gerald Finley
© BBC | Mark Allan

One could hardly have asked for a better cast of singers, without a single weakness. The role of Oppenheimer was originally written for Finley, so it’s unsurprising that it fits him like a glove. Brindley Sherratt brought his imposing bass to the part of the scientist Edward Teller; Aubrey Allicock was thoroughly scary as Groves; Andrew Staples displayed a clear, bright tenor as the younger scientist Robert Wilson. The role of Kitty Oppenheimer is a difficult one since it requires an element of desperate housewife to be combined with poetic spirituality: Julia Bullock tackled the contradictions with aplomb and also proved that one can sing complex, atonal music at the high end of the tessitura while retaining a beautiful sweetness of tone.

This was a concert performance, with staging limited to a desk, some military costumes and a few lighting effects. That was plenty enough, as far as I was concerned.

In an interview with Bachtrack earlier this year, Adams claimed that he doesn’t like to be called a political composer. Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much: in the great debate as to whether the use of the atomic bomb was legitimate warfare – not the principle, but the fine detail of the events leading up to the Hiroshima bombing – Doctor Atomic makes the strongest case I have heard for the side of the argument that describes it as “state terrorism”. Adams never states his views explicitly, but the way he presents the material left me in no doubt as to his opinion.

At the end of the opera, the composer wisely eschews any attempt at outdoing the music for the Star Wars Death Star: rather, there is a prolonged, blood-curdling orchestral scream of despair, followed by the sampling of Japanese voices, leaving us with “O mizo o kudasai” (water please). A chilling ending for an opera that was riveting throughout.

 

[P.S. By the way, big plaudits to sound designer Mark Gray. I'm told that voices were lightly amplified, and he achieved a near-miraculous level of voice-orchestra balance and naturalness of vocal timbre.]