Thursday, 26 February 2009

Doctor Atomic

A really splendid first night of John Adams (the Nixon in China man)'s new opera, Doctor Atomic. Fabulous singing, especially from the glorious Gerald Finley. The first-half closer was a solo setting for him of Donne's sonnet 'Batter my heart, three-person'd God', and it was a show-stopper. Donne is a devil to set as it's such twisty, complex stuff: I've never heard a convincing setting, and often you just wish you could get rid of the music. But this was stunning music.

There had been a lull in the middle of the first half, as the bedroom scene with the Oppenhemers didn't work terribly well. The libretto was so abstruse that you couldn't take it seriously as a conversation, and it wasn't clear what anyone was talking about. Beautiful singing, though, from Finley again - god, he's good - and Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer. One member of the cast was a last-minute substitution, and I didn't catch who, but it was impossible to tell. Everyone's diction was lovely, and they got the accents spot on, I thought. Good naturalistic pronunciation, too - none of that 'pronounce the words as they are spelt, not how a normal person would say them' rubbish, except from the alto Meredith Arwady, resolutely enunciating 'moun-TAYNS' when everyone else sang 'mountins'. Her part was a bit of a drag, to be honest: she was a sort of ethnic voice of conscience.

The second half - all one and half hours of it - hardly flagged. Adams really built up the tension, but he used touches of humour to release it as effectively as Shakespeare does: they were very nicely judged. Almost at the end, there were two minutes of near silence: brilliant. The final moments had the perfect focus on individual anguish. After the end, there was a silence you could almost feel - until the inevitable over-eager idiot felt they had to start clapping: a great pity.

The chorus work was very effective: for once having everyone in their own little box seemed appropriate to the subject matter. The choruses were all, I think, all homophonic - no: what's it called when everyone sings different notes but at the same time? - which made a few ragged edges obvious. Mostly excellent, though. The staging worked very well, with the bomb dangling ahead for much of the time, and the weather effects were good too. As in Candide, the touches of video and graphics were beautifully judged, eschewing gimmickry.

The whole thing was surprisingly affecting: I cried for the first time ever at an opera, having sat dry-eyed through Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and so on. It's really not at all an odd subject for an opera when you consider it.

Top marks all round - do go and see it! Day seats in the balcony are only £10 and you just phone the box office after 1230 to get one.


Unknown said...

Hi Beck - thanks for the review of interesting music - where is Dr Atomic showing?

Beck said...

Oops - sorry! It was at the Coliseum: English National Opera. It's on till 20 March: see Other reviewers agreed with me, so I don't know if it's selling out, but ENO always has day tickets, up in the balcony, where you get a pretty splendid view, and it's fine if your legs aren't too long. You can call in after 1000 or phone after 1230 to get one: 08714 720800.

Unknown said...

Thanks - and I listened to Clare Wilkinson - who was wonderful

Unknown said...

Thanks - and I listened to Clare Wilkinson - who was wonderful