Adams: Doctor Atomic

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Adams
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Doctor Atomic; plus bonus features: ‘J Robert Oppenheimer: In the Shadow of the Bomb’; ‘Backstage at the Met with Gerald Finley and John Adams’
PERFORMER: Richard Paul Fink, Gerald Finley, Thomas Glenn, Sasha Cooke, Eric Owens, Earle Patriarco, Roger Honeywell, Meredith Arwady; Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Chorus & Orchestra/Alan Gilbert; dir. Penny Woolcock (New York, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: 88697806659 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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Penny Woolcock’s production of Doctor Atomic is the second staging of John Adams’s opera to be filmed for DVD. Broadcast live from New York in 2008, with Susan Graham as anchor-woman, the contrast with the earlier release (on Opus Arte, reviewed October 2008) could not be plainer.
 
Where Peter Sellars’s film of his own 2005 staging is a loose-limbed, poetic riff, filled with ruminative close-ups and giving little sense of the theatrical experience, the Met’s cameras seem more interested in the theatrical experience than they are in the opera: chasing conductor Alan Gilbert from dressing room to orchestra pit like autograph hunters with a VIP pass, then pulling back for an awe-struck panorama of Julian Crouch’s set.
 
The razzmatazz of the Met brand sits ill with Doctor Atomic. Thankfully Susan Graham’s platitudinous interval chats with Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer) and the composer are filed under ‘bonus features’. The panic in her eyes whenever Adams says anything too thinky is something to behold. For the rest, this is clearly a high-calibre performance of a work that, ironically, might improve were Woolcock allowed to effect cuts similar to those she made in her Channel Four film of The Death of Klinghoffer.
 
Though Sellars’s libretto is dramaturgically awkward, the orchestral writing is impactful, the word-setting often stunning. Gilbert brings sparkle to Adams’s tart woodwind counterpoint and great refinement to the strings, imbuing the scenes with Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke) with unhurried lyricism. Richard Paul Fink excels as tetchy Edward Teller, while Finley has made Oppenheimer his own. The sound quality is superb. Anna Picard