John Adams Doctor Atomic
Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock, Brindley Sherratt; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Adams
Nonesuch 7559793107 157:00 mins (2 discs)
Familiarity makes the heart grow fonder of John Adams’s third opera, and also more fearful of its almost unbearable tension in the musical countdown to the ‘two billion dollar experiment’ testing the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. Gerald Finley ‘owns’ the operatic characterisation of J Robert Oppenheimer, the immensely cultured inventor whose Faustian pact changed the world after the war was over, and may yet destroy it. He sang the role in Peter Sellars’s inaugural production, at English National Opera and – best of all, I think – in the 2017 Barbican concert performance which followed Maida Vale recording sessions (there’s also a DVD of the Sellars production and a version of that great aria, the Donne-based ‘Batter my heart’ which ends the first act on a high point, on a Chandos recital disc from Finley).
The work isn’t perfect: if only Alice Goodman, poet-librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, arguably the best since Hofmannsthal, had returned to this project. Sellars’s own compilation hits a sticky patch in the use of Muriel Rekeyser’s banal poetry for Act 1 scene 2, the Oppenheimers at home, though musically the lyricism is timely and Julia Bullock’s Kitty Oppenheimer the most ardent possible. All else is compelling on every level, with superb British support from Brindley Sherratt as doubtful fellow physicist Edward Teller and three younger-generation singers, tenor Andrew Staples, baritone Marcus Farnsworth and contralto Jennifer Johnston, mesmeric in maid Pasqualita’s lullabies. Superbly recorded, the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra pull total focus under Adams’s ever more experienced baton, and the last half hour is stunning. Batter my heart indeed.