So there I sat as the theatre filled up, in a decidedly unappreciative frame of mind thanks to a middle-ear infection – ibuprofen’d to the eyeballs, deaf on one side apart from a constant whistling noise, and distracting myself by trying to work out which elements were missing from the large periodic table which was printed on the stage scrim. And there 3 hours later, enthusiastically applauding performers, production team and composer for an evening which I enjoyed a great deal, despite myself.
The opera opens with two large sets of stacked cubicles, each one containing a chorus member, seat, bit of blackboard and a screen which could be pulled down over the front of the cubicle and have stuff projected onto it. This device was used many times throughout the production and was visually effective in conveying all the different ‘normal’ people each working on their own little bit of research for the Manhattan project, coming together only later as the bomb took shape. I do like the multimedia experience of using projection screens on stage, although in this case the images used were mostly monochrome and pretty literal – scientists’ ID cards, maps of Japan, rainstorms, etc. There wasn’t much to the rest of the set – a desk for Teller, a bed for Kitty Oppenheimer to languish on, and some scaffolding for the bomb tower – but one’s attention was all on the characters singing, anyway.
Adams was never my favourite minimalist, but I have always found his music listenable. I’m not familiar with most of his more recent work, so was interested to hear this one. It surprised me by the number of different styles that were mixed up together – rich Wagnerian textures here, jazzy Sondheim-esque stabbing rhythms there, along with passages of traditional minimalist bubbling woodwind accompaniments or Shaker Loops strings. Under a less experienced composer this mixture would probably have not held together, but in this case it did. The harmony was tonal but chromatic, sometimes straying far from a sense of home key. I found it best when the vocal lines were more lyrical and sustained (although often with spiky dissonant orchestral accompaniment), compared to the staccato fast-talking sections.
The libretto didn’t do an awful lot for me, but lyrics rarely do. The tension of the scientific and political context was quite dramatic enough by itself, but those who can’t bear a romance-free story will be glad to hear there was the ‘subplot’ of the Oppenheimers’ marriage, which actually did not feel shoehorned in at all.
Of the performers, Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer), Brindley Sherratt (Teller) stood out as excellent. Finley is becoming one of my favourite singers, and was a charisma machine in complete command of his role, showing a three-dimensional character conflicted about his success in developing a world-changing engine of destruction. ‘Batter my heart’ was probably the highlight of the evening. Sherratt, an old favourite of mine, sang his part very well, although he didn’t get as much to do as I would have liked. He injected Teller with a fantastic deadpan black humour.
I also particularly enjoyed Sasha Cooke’s Kitty Oppenheimer. Her voice was lovely, with a tone well-balanced between clarity and richness, and the flexibility to comfortably slur jumps of over an octave as if they were a semitone. ‘Am I in your light?’ was another highlight of the evening. Meredith Arwady (as Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer’s Tewa Indian maid, complete with buckskin outfit and pigtails) hit some amazing resonant low notes, but was less convincing when switching to higher-pitches passages – although this may well be the fault of the writing rather than her voice.
The orchestra sounded good, although not knowing the music I can’t comment on accuracy. The piccolo was featured quite a lot, and was played very well (Regular readers will know that I always notice what the piccolo is doing!), and other stand-outs were the principal horn, Eb clarinet and low brass. The sparing use of electronic sound blended well into the overall soundscape, and the only bit that jarred for me was the tacked-on recording at the end of a woman (presumably future bomb victim) speaking in Japanese.
As for once I’m writing this right at the start of the run, I can advise any waverers that Dr Atomic is definitely worth an evening of your time!