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ADAMS: Doctor Atomic

CD Button Bullock, Johnston; Finley, Sherratt, Staples, Allicock, Farnsworth, Sakker; BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, Adams. Text. Nonesuch 7559-79310-7 (2)

RECORDINGS DOCTOR ATOMIC COVER 1118
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THIS FIRST STUDIO recording of Doctor Atomic is an essential souvenir of John Adams’s seventieth-birthday celebrations last year, which culminated with the world premiere of his Girls of the Golden West. Critics blamed the failure of the newer work on Peter Sellars’s patchwork text, cobbled together from bits of poetry and primary sources in the same fashion as Doctor Atomic. Yet it was less the libretto’s form than its preachy attitude that held back Girls; the opera was a clumsy attempt at tapping into contemporary identity politics, reducing the complex racial tensions of Gold Rush California to a morally simplistic story of good guys versus bad guys. Doctor Atomic offers a subtler picture of the past in the spirit of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. By no means does Sellars excuse the horrors wrought by the Manhattan Project, but his nonjudgmental portrayal of these real-life individuals as inconsistent human beings with flaws and redeeming traits is far more dramatically effective than his tokenized, two-dimensional ’forty-niners. In fact, in Doctor Atomic, Sellars even worked against historical reality to flesh out the Faustian title role: while the myth of the regretful physicist has largely been debunked, the inner conflict expressed in the fictionalized Oppenheimer’s “Batter my heart” makes for a blistering Act I finale.

Baritone Gerald Finley, fighting back the horrible juggernaut evoked in Adams’s machine-driven ritornellos, pours out an unbearable wave of penitential anguish, hitting the consonants of John Donne’s verses with self-flagellating force. Sellars carefully selected excerpts from Oppenheimer’s favorite poets that expose different facets of his personality. The powerful BBC Singers unleash a ritual dance of death with the chorus “At the sight of this,” an awestruck hymn to Vishnu’s fiery form in the Bhagavad Gita that more accurately depicts Oppenheimer as ambitious acolyte of destruction. But we also encounter the scientist’s tender side in the love-making number “Long let me inhale.” Finley encountered some difficulties with Adams’s lofty vocal writing before he created the role in 2005, but the baritone here has no trouble rising to Oppenheimer’s heldentenor heights in this aria, leaning sensuously into luxurious phrases that convey Baudelaire’s erotic paean to a woman’s black tresses.

No mention is made in the opera of biologist Kitty Oppenheimer’s research contributions at Los Alamos, but soprano Julia Bullock manages to elevate the role from a worried, alcoholic housewife to an almost allegorical figure of pacifist defiance. In “Easter Eve 1945,” she effortlessly tosses off a dozen or so octave-plus leaps that shine beacon-like before flaring up in delicately flickering coloratura—a vivid musical image of the “fierce, continual flame” of peace described in Muriel Rukeyser’s text. Brindley Sherratt, by contrast, is a morbidly cynical presence as the infamous Edward Teller, who inspired Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. There’s a sickening trace of Mephistophelean triumph in his bulbous bass when Teller relishes the possibility of igniting the atmosphere with the bomb. As General Groves, bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock emphasizes more lyrical moments of vulnerability, including the control-freak CO’s deceptively banal number about failed diets, though I much prefer Eric Owens’s aggressive, drill-sergeant delivery on the two video releases of Doctor Atomic

Adams, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, knows just how to manipulate his score’s Hitchcockian buildup. As in Greek tragedy, we’re well aware of the catastrophe in store. But it’s impossible to gauge when the atomic Liebestod will arrive: the composer throws in various false alarms and unsettling calm-before-the-storm passages marked by eerie electronics and shimmering celesta that conjure the pulsating glow of radioactive material. When the final countdown to Trinity arrives, Adams ramps up the gut-churning tension with string tremolos, ticking polyrhythms and apocalyptic choral harmonies that climax in something more terrible than an explosion—an inhuman shriek, derived from the digitally filtered cries of a newborn baby. Unfortunately, it’s not loud enough on this recording to rip through you like it does in the theater. But it’s gruesome enough to leave psychological aftereffects. You’ll never forget that sound once you hear it, or the Japanese woman’s pleas for water in the rumbling silence that follows. —Joe Cadagin 



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