Friday, March 20, 2009

Dr. Atomic

Alaknanda, Iona and I went to see the ENO production of John Adams' new opera the other night. Dr. Atomic - about Oppenheimer. When I say new, it actually isn't that new... Peter Sellars was working on the libretto, and John on the music, when we were working together on Nixon in China at ENO several years back. I remember talking to Peter about the research he was doing, and the political context in which the atom bomb was created. The thing which has stuck in my memory from those conversations was the degree to which the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were unrelated to the war against Japan, which was essentially won anyway, and were in fact motivated by Truman's need to demonstrate US supremacy to Stalin. There are hints of this in the opera - we keep hearing about the imminence of Potsdam as Oppenheimer tests the bomb - but it isn't highlighted, and I rather wished it was. The opera is very much about torment and moral angst - but I didn't really get the sense of what the moral dilemma really was: things were so weighted towards the horror of the bomb that you were left wondering why anybody would want to make it in the first place. A stronger sense of the political imperative would have made the drama more powerful.

Which said, it's an incredible piece. The libretto moves between reportage and poetry, with lengthy quotations from Donne, Baudelaire and the Gita. And the music similarly moves between the lyrical and the rhythmical, with an astonishing climactic orchestral passage as the bomb is finally tested.

I don't understand why they didn't get Peter to direct it - which I had thought had been the plan. The production feels very lame to me - there's very little sense of how to use stage space. The director's background is TV, and, while she did a very good TV version of The Death of Klinghoffer, this lacked focus. But the music was so fantastic that I didn't really mind!

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