Review – Dr Atomic, English National Opera

I was unlucky enough to catch Dr Atomic at the ENO in the final week of its run.

Because it is absolutely stupendous, the sort of show that usually generates an all-points alert by text message insisting ‘you HAVE to see this, incredible, unbelievable, beg, borrow, steal, stand in line, join the chorus, just get to the coliseum’.

The opera, following Robert Oppenheimer in the weeks and moments before the detonation of the first nuclear bomb at Los Alamos, stands as one of the most audacious and exciting experiments in a theatre I can remember. And this from someone who, generally, for the most part, finds opera slightly ridiculous.

Dr Atomic
Things start slowly (operatically) in the first half. Oppenheimer spends a great deal of time telling the audience what his wife’s hair smells like (chocolate, tobacco, opium, etc) and how much he would like to eat it. But these operatic follies are soon forgotten as we, much like the scientists which are its subjects, are dragged along by the inexorable force of history into the central theme of this incredibly powerful opera: Oppenheimer, bringing down the curtain on the first half, sings Donne’s Holy sonnet XIV, praying for God to ‘batter my heart, that I may rise, and stand … burn and make me new.’ Here he is no operatic stooge; here he becomes an incredibly powerful image of the human condition: blessed, and cursed, with intelligence, the power to create this thing of absolute destruction.

And then the second half. The second half. What a second half. Suffice to say, things really kick off. No more opium or hair.

The bomb itself, just one of many numerous wonderful pieces of set design from Julian Crouch, appears as a wonderful and terrifying spectre on the stage. As the entire stage, and the entire world seems to converge on its awesome power the powerful libretto veers between the mundane (much discussion of the weather) and the truly spiritual and haunting (borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous / Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies, / Terrible with fangs, O master.’).

The climax of this incredible opera comes powerfully, not in the least diminished or cheapened by the level of expectation established by the incredible, break-neck assault for the finish line insisted upon by the urgency and potency of the performances. Rarely have I ever been made to feel such anticipation, such genuine fear from the Upper Circle, as I did last night.

This is a truly incredible opera powerfully realised. If it’s not already too late, then beg, borrow, steal, stand in line, join the chorus: just get to the Coliseum.