Doctor Atomic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams

“I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu… says: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’.” – Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer’s words describe the moment when the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity site in Los Alamos, New Mexico. This famous quote does not appear in Peter Sellars’ libretto for John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, but lines from the Bhagavad-Gita do, scattered among transcripts of the people involved in the Manhattan Project.

Sellars had the idea of melding original source material – some newly declassified – with poetry that Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty would have known and liked. The result is remarkably successful, and this wonderful recording conducted by the composer must be considered definitive in all ways. Canadian baritone Gerald Finley has made the title role firmly his own since the San Francisco premiere in 2005 and he has a wonderful supporting cast here.

We witness the battles of conscience; machinations over whether the Japanese should be warned ahead of Hiroshima; the relationship between Oppenheimer and Kitty, all played out to a musical score of amazing contrasts and richness. We even hear how the bomb is made and the weather and technical problems that plagued the project. We see Oppenheimer’s transformation “from radical to establishment figure” as physicist Robert Wilson (Andrew Staples) puts it. The dreadful questions are asked. Oppenheimer says, “How can we scientists judge the way to end a war?” while colleague Edward Teller (Brindley Sherratt) agonises: “Could we have started the atomic age with clean hands?”

The American soprano Julia Bullock is ravishing as Kitty in her two big scenes – Am I in your light? and Wary of time, both settings of poems by the feminist writer Muriel Rukeyser, who went to school with Oppenheimer’s younger brother Frank.

There are several references in Adams’ score – Wagner is an obvious one, with some great horn passages, as well as Stravinsky (Oppenheimer attended the premiere of Requiem Canticles). Bach is another, as we hear in Oppenheimer’s aria Batter My Heart, set to John Donne’s poem in the most dramatic, impassioned and, when sung as it is here by Finley, visceral of scene closers.

“Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart,” Oppenheimer sings before the bomb detonates and the opera closes with the taped voice of a Japanese woman asking for water. Truly, this is an opera with enormous relevance to our own age of anxiety.

Composer: John Adams
Composition: Doctor Atomic
Performer: Gerald Finley bar, Julia Bullock s, Brindley Sherratt b, Samuel Sakker t, Andrew Staples t, Jennifer Johnston ms, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams
Catalogue Number: Nonesuch 566773-2 (2CD)

Doctor Atomic is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in October 2018. Read our interview with Gerald Finley here.