New Recording Of 'Doctor Atomic' May Be The Opera's Definitive Performance

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This is FRESH AIR. "Doctor Atomic" is an opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars about the first atom bomb test. It had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2005. A new recording conducted by the composer himself has just been released. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says this may well be the definitive performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN ADAMS' "DOCTOR ATOMIC: OVERTURE")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: "Doctor Atomic" is the third collaboration between composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars dealing with key turning points in modern history. The first and maybe still the most satisfying is "Nixon In China," which is about a valuable accomplishment by a dishonored president - the opening of communist China to the West.

The second and most controversial is "The Death Of Klinghoffer," which deals with the circumstances surrounding the notorious Palestinian terrorist attack on the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro, which resulted in the death of a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American tourist. Both of these had eloquent and pointed librettos by the poet Alice Goodman.

"Doctor Atomic" contends with Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb tests at Los Alamos. When Goodman dropped out, Sellars compiled a libretto using interviews, memoirs, declassified scientific reports and poems ranging from the "Bhagavad Gita" to John Donne, Charles Baudelaire and the mid-century American poet Muriel Rukeyser.

Sellars has constructed a dramatic and suspenseful scenario. But the flat, conversational language of much of the dialogue is better served by the orchestral accompaniment than the actual vocal lines, as in this passage between physicist Robert Wilson and Oppenheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DOCTOR ATOMIC")

THOMAS GLENN: (As Robert Wilson, singing) Everybody is rushing around. They don't appear to be ready. But there's momentum. Everybody's working day and night. Nobody has a spare moment, and we work like dogs. It's hard to stop and think as one ought to.

GERALD FINLEY: (As Robert Oppenheimer, singing) Well, how do you feel?

GLENN: (As Robert Wilson, singing) Well, pretty excited - like going out to save civilization.

SCHWARTZ: Some of Sellars' libretto, though, inspires vivid lyricism from Adams. My favorite passage in "Doctor Atomic" is an actual aria, a rare phenomenon in contemporary opera. It's Adams's haunting setting of John Donne's paradoxical "Holy Sonnet: Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God" which ends the first act. On this recording, it's sung by baritone Gerald Finley who created the role of the tormented Oppenheimer. I'm especially moved by the way Adams repeats single syllable words like heart and breathe and mend and gives them a poignant downward turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DOCTOR ATOMIC")

FINLEY: (As Robert Oppenheimer, singing) Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you. As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.

SCHWARTZ: The two major women characters are Oppenheimer's wife Kitty and her Native American maid. They are the moral authorities. The maid Pasqualita is a more abstract figure whose lullaby is in implicit contrast to the scientist's betrayal of nature. The role of Kitty Oppenheimer was originally intended for the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who was already too ill to take on the role. The character essentially finds her voice in the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. She's sung on this recording by the expressive mezzo-soprano Julia Bullock.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DOCTOR ATOMIC")

JULIA BULLOCK: (As Kitty Oppenheimer, singing) Listening, listening - speaking into the covert night. Did someone say something? Love, am I in your light? Am I in your light? Am I in your light?

SCHWARTZ: I saw the Metropolitan Opera production in person. And it's one of the few times I actually preferred the live in HD telecast shown in movie theaters, partly because I could only tell who was singing when the TV camera focused on a particular character since, to my ear, Adams doesn't make many distinctions among the numerous male roles. I'm especially impressed by the quasi overture and the final countdown to the bomb test, which, even though we know what's going to happen, builds up powerful suspense. So even when the musical settings of the words aren't especially memorable, we still get the sense that all these figures are caught up in an unstoppable maelstrom. And so are we.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DOCTOR ATOMIC")

FINLEY: (As Robert Oppenheimer, singing) Zero minus two minutes. The two-minute warning rocket has sputtered out prematurely.

RICHARD PAUL FINK: (As Edward Teller, singing) That was an ominous sign.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed the new recording of the John Adams opera "Doctor Atomic" conducted by the composer. On tomorrow's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAN & OLLIE")

JOHN C REILLY: (As Oliver Hardy) We're friends because Hal Roach put us together. And the only reason we stayed together was because the audience wanted it.

DAVIES: John C. Reilly tells us about playing Oliver Hardy and bringing some classic Laurel and Hardy comedy routines to life in the new film "Stan & Ollie." Reilly also produced and co-stars in the film "The Sisters Brothers" about two contract killers in the Old West. Hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD GALLIANO'S "LEKLAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.