On the surface, there’s little overt action. Oppenheimer and his colleagues stand about talking, but therein lies the drama. Remember “Waiting for Godot”. The angst is existential, directed inwards. There is no overt commentary in the libretto, either. Instead, texts are taken from documents and letters of the time, presenting evidence without explicit judgement, for there are no easy answers. The words hang in limbo, like the photograph of the wall in
If the action drags at first, it recreates the suffocating atmosphere at
How do scientists, men of reason, get caught up in barbarity ? Oppenheimer himself was an educated, civilized man who was later persecuted for his political beliefs. The scientists on the
Perhaps the secret to this opera is not to expect action from the words, but from the music. Orchestrally, this is surprising rich and beautiful, the choruses in particular well supported. The ENO chorus and orchestra have performed Adams before, most recently Nixon in China but this isn't traditional repertoire, so they deserve credit for achieving such good results. Lawrence Renes conducted the European premiere of the original staging at Der Nederlandse Opera in 2007. Experience shows.
This production, by Penny Woolcock, who directed the Death of Klinghoffer film, makes much of the Teva Pueblo. Just as the scientists do the bidding of politicians, the
Special mention should be made of Meredith Arwady’s dark contralto, seething suppressed passion. Pasqualita is a small part, but essential. Kitty is too distressed to mother her baby, but Pasqualita nurtures.
The final scene is overwhelming, as it should be. The orchestra builds up to a harrowing climax, rolling thunder as it the skies were rent asunder. As the cast stare upward, transfixed, the bomb explodes. The whole auditorium is bathed in unearthly yellow light. This is what “awesome” really means – it is magnificent as theatre. But lest we be too impressed, the voice of a Japanese woman cries out for water. All that power, all that knowledge, was to be channelled for destruction.
Superb singing from Gerald Finley who has made Oppenheimer his speciality, and also from Brindley Sherratt who was impressive recently as Pimen in Boris Gudonov. Sasha Cooke characterizes the brittle Kitty well. The whole cast is strong but chorus and orchestra ground the production with firm purpose. The ENO has long had a reputation for choosing innovative and challenging work : this Dr Atomic epitomises what the ENO stands for.