Opera Review








A UK Premiere
ENO in a co-production with Metropolitan Opera New York present

Doctor Atomic


Gerald Finley as J Robert Oppenheimer

photo by Catherine Ashmore

Photos Courtesy of ENO


Opera in two acts

by John Adams

Libretto by Peter Sellars adapted from original sources

Conductor Lawrence Renes

Chorus Master Martin Merry

Set Designer: Julian Crouch

Associate: Director David Ritch

Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber

Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt


London Coliseum

25 February – 20 March 2009

(9 performances)









A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


In their traditional sense, operas often centre on tragedies. However, the world changing event this contemporary opera, by Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams focuses on - the invention of the Atomic bomb, focuses on the moral dilemmas faced by those creating it, particularly, ‘The Manhattan Project’s director – physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, rather than the human suffering on a grand scale, resulting from its use. The opening of the opera finds us in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in June, 1945, as they make ready for the testing of their creation in the surrounding desert on July 16.

At first glance the wood-look set, designed by Julian Crouch of Improbable Theatre (who also designed the sets for the Phillip Glass opera Satyagraha), looks like a huge specimen box, with multi-compartmented sections, each exactly the same, their inhabitants of both genders, one to a box, in 1940’s sombre hued clothing, standing at attention inside. Upon further inspection, one spies American military men in similar stances standing onstage, outside of the box, reminding us that in the case of the top secret, ‘Manhattan Project’, the scientists poised within were hired by the military to design the atomic bomb. Albert Einstein had written a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging the design of such a bomb as soon as possible in order to derail Hitler and his Nazi contingent, whose scientists were also trying to design a nuclear bomb.  However, as Germany surrendered before the bomb was completed, many humane human beings, believed that the idea of using such a deadly device should be shelved. But, unfortunately, as both the physicists who’d invented the bomb and the military who had commissioned them were eager to gauge the effectiveness of their creation, and Japan had yet to surrender, two densely populated Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both at that time, unscathed by fire-bombings, were chosen as alternative targets. Robert Wilson, a Quaker physicist working on the project and several other scientists opted to first warn the Japanese of the bomb, before again, asking them to surrender, and requesting as an alternative that they at least give the people a couple of days warning, but both options were quickly vetoed by the military. J. Robert Oppenheimer is the central figure of this opera and his inner debates during the immediate time frame leading up to the testing of the bomb on July 16, 1945, a moment of truth, not just for him, but for all those working on the creation of the bomb, its moral focus. The libretto, devised by Peter Sellars, which stresses at its opening that the bomb was made by many ‘normal’ men and women, is taken from actual letters and journals of those concerned, as well as favourite poetry of J. Robert Oppenheimer by John Donne and other poets.


Set Designer: Julian Crouch

photo by Catherine Ashmore


Lawrence Renes takes on the challenge of conducting Adams’ fluctuating score with great focus and fervour, moving along with its changes as though he and the orchestra were one. Leading musicians through this intricate score during the course of a three hour opera must surely make for a strenuous musical marathon. Some portions of the score are somewhat ambient, though not decidedly so, while its arias are sublimely lyrical, which is apt, as parts of the libretto are actual poems, set to music, which are beautifully sung by the opera’s star, Gerald Finley, who enacts the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This is a role that Finley has already performed, to great acclaim, both at the San Francisco Opera House where Doctor Atomic had its premiere and the Metropolitan Opera in New York and it’s easy to understand the accolades, as his emotive acting within the context of his singing is truly, superb. Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty is also, very well played and sung by Sasha Cooke, in her ENO debut. The duet the pair perform together is one of the highlights of the production, along with Finley’s solo performance of John Donne’s poem, ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’, set to one of the most haunting parts of Adams’ diverse score.



photo by Catherine Ashmore

Overall, this opera offers interesting music that is at times, truly great, though at others, if offers little that is new, as in some rather lengthily passages, its own, rather peculiar brand of ambience tends more towards the banal than the brilliant. (as a fan of Phillip Glass music, so I can accept and appreciate the use of repetition in music) However, the hybrid mixture of musical styles combined with the often, unexpected notes the excellent sound design of Mark Grey incorporates into the score boosts interest and helps heighten the sense of danger during pivotal moments.

This is difficult subject matter to address within any medium, though I don’t think the opera always succeeds in getting the horror of its topic and the magnitude of its inevitable realisation across. In reality, the contrast between the neighbouring Pueblo Indians quiet presence and rituals in the aftermath of the atomic bomb testing and the physicists and military men’s callous betting as to the ratio of the damage area couldn’t be further apart. However, that isn’t always apparent during, or after the scenes in which indigenous peoples are seen enacting their rituals, though that may be more due to the lightness of the Native American spirit as compared to the big guns of the US military, but in any event, something gets lost in translation during those scenes. It was also hard to believe that a physicist, on the eve of testing the most powerful tool for annihilation ever made, who has nearly been driven to the brink of madness (and in reality, starvation as well) by the creation of it, would even think about paying any attention to his wife, no matter how seductive she may be. However, the shared cigarettes of the project’s director J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty were, by all accounts, very 1940’s in the cinematic sense of the word, so it was not surprising to learn that director Penny Woolcock was originally, a film director. However, some of the projections, by Fifty-Nine Productions, such as the equations scrawling themselves across large photos of the real inventors of the atomic bomb were very effective in terms of creating their own afterthoughts, such as reflections on the fact that nearly all of the physicists involved on the Manhattan Project, including Oppenheimer were subsequently dropped like bombs once they’d served their purpose.

Despite its sanitised, anti-climatic ending, given its challenging subject matter, unusual score, fine sets and marvellous performances, Doctor Atomic is, nevertheless, an intriguing opera, all round.



photo by Catherine Ashmore





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