Dr. Atomic, live cinema screening from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Nov 2008

This is about Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Second World War quest to build a nuclear bomb. The music by John Adams is wonderful, but the libretto by Peter Sellars falls far short of expressing the potential drama of this story. As a piece of theatre this opera fails, and I kept my eyes closed through most of it. When I opened them, the stage action never seemed to match the music. A better libretto would surely have inspired Adams to give us a more theatrical show, and for his next opera he needs to abandon the collaboration with Sellars. There were too many weaknesses, but the plaintive cry of a Japanese mother at the end was surely an unnecessarily egregious extension of a drama that by this time had rather failed to convey the urgency and determination of the scientists who made it all possible. As for the general in charge complaining that he had difficulty keeping his weight down, the less said the better. The best part of the performance was Gerald Finley’s wonderful portrayal of Oppenheimer, with Sasha Cooke as his wife. Other performers sang well: Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, and Eric Owens as the general, to name three, and the music was well conducted by Alan Gilbert. But it was a weak production by Penny Woolcock and did nothing to match the rhythmic intensity of Adams’ music, with ineffective sets by Julian Crouch, and darkly conspiratorial lighting by Brain MacDevitt. Many of the audience loved it, but I suspect it was as a catharsis to their sense of guilt over the use of the bomb in 1945.

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