Doctor Atomic


John Adams Doctor Atomic opera to libretto of historically accurate text and poems assembled by Peter Sellars. Directed 2007 by Peter Sellars at De Nederlandse Opera. Stars Gerald Finley (J. Robert Oppenheimer), Jessica Rivera (Kitty Oppenheimer), Eric Owens (General Leslie Groves), Richard Paul Fink (Edward Teller), James Maddalena (Jack Hubbard), Thomas Glenn (Robert Wilson), Jay Hunter Morris (Captain James Nolan), Ellen Rabiner (Pasqualita), and Ruud van Jijk (Lieutenant Bush). Lawrence Renes conducts the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera (Chorus Director Martin Wright). Sets by Adrianne Lobel; costumes by Dunya Ramicova; lighting by James F. Ingalls; choreography by Lucinda Childs; sound by Mark Grey. Directed for TV by Peter Sellars. Released 2009, disc has Dolby 5.1 TrueHD sound. Grade: B

If you're new to a work, we usually suggest that you watch it cold. But Doctor Atomic is a profound opera, and it may seem difficult on first encounter. So watch the extras first. Start with the 27 minute interview with Peter Sellars. You probably already know that Doctor Atomic depicts the personalities and events surrounding the test of the first atomic bomb, under the leadership of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, on July 16, 1945. Sellars in his interview gives you backstory and also relates the moral issues that arose in 1945 and which still haunt us today.  From the remaining extras you can get up to speed on the characters portrayed and see historic photos of some of the gear that is represented by props in the show. You can prep for the shifting style and tone of various segments of the libretto. (Since this is a new opera, it isn't in all the standard opera books. You will find, however, good information and the libretto on the Internet.)

The Adams orchestral score doesn't sound particularly aggressive by the standards of today's music. The singer are all fine, especially Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer. The voice parts tend to be angular rather than lyrical and Adams bestows little melody. A good part of the text deals with historic events in recitative that is fairly easy to follow. But when the arias arrive, the libretto often shifts into dense and intellectually challenging poetry, a lot of which was admired by Oppenheimer himself. The disc has English subtitles which can help you follow the libretto. There is a large chorus and battery of dancers to liven thing up a bit.

This opera was written in 2005. By the time the HDVD came out, the live opera had been produced only 4 times, so only a tiny number of people had seen it. Sellars apparently planned from the start to use video as a way to get the word out. He personally supervised the video shoot, and he decided to give the video viewer a radically different experience from that of one seeing the opera live. From the extra features on the disc, you can see that the live show takes up a full stage in which there is often a large field of chorus members and dancers in the background surrounding the lead singers, who occupy a small area in front. But in the video, most of the time you only see close ups and facial shots of the leads. There's a lot of good acting in this production, and the intimate views are impressive.

Here's a decent clip of Finley's famous singing of Oppenheimer's aria at the end of Act 1: