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Doctor Atomic

DVD Review

Alicia M. Doyle

Notes, Volume 66, Number 3, March 2010, pp. 628-629 (Review) Published by Music Library Association

DOI: 10.1353/not.0.0308

This live recording of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic as performed at Het Muziek- theater, Amsterdam in June of 2007, is available from Opus Arte (2009) in Blu-ray (1080i High Definition 16:9 BD50, with 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio). Recorded in high definition video and true surround sound, the advanced technology allows the director the capability of making one of the largest moral dilemmas in United States history feel personal on every level.

Visually, Peter Sellars optimizes the potential for extreme realism through advanced technology by incorporating many camera angles, some of which are quite daring. Musically, every sonic nuance of Adams’s score is clearly audible. Combined, the high definition video and audio quality result in many instances where the viewer is virtually brought into the room with the characters, witnessing the moral tension from beginning to end as if we were truly there. For example, during Oppenheimer’s aria in Act I, Scene 3, “Feelings of heat and cold, pleasure and pain,” the camera allows the viewer to feel like a guest in a salon, and the aria takes on the tone of a lied. During Wilson’s humanitarian plea to warn the Japanese before bombing during his aria, “No. Before the bomb is used Japan must have some warning,” has the effect of convincing us into believing he is actually speaking our behalf. Another amazing moment only made possible by the filming is in Act II, Scene 1 when in Kitty’s aria at the words “Night of the soul, our dreams in the arms of dreams dissolving into eyes that look upon us,” Jessica Rivera turns to “us,” and with the fourth wall missing, she seems to actually dissolve into our omnipresent (voyeuristic?) eyes.

Periodically the very thing that makes this recording great—the quality of the picture—causes distraction. In high definition you can see everything: makeup, an unruly eyebrow, the perspiration of a dancer after a particularly vigorous scene, a dangling earpiece, Oppenheimer’s electronic cigarette (no ash!), and various other characteristics of face and body that are not typically seen in such great detail. The precision of the image forces attention to certain cosmetic details like Gerald Finley’s blue contact lenses. (Oppenheimer was known for his blue eyes, and Finley’s, apparently, are not blue.) Product placement also was a small distraction in the final scene where several nervous eaters were walking about with large Hershey chocolate bars, calling to mind John Hersey’s Hiroshima, but perhaps that was intended.

The historical accuracy of the sets and James F. Ingalls’s lighting are absolutely stunning. Peter Sellars’s research shows that his sets imitated certain aspects of the site exactly including the tent around the bomb, down to the drawn curtain. The acting, singing and instrumental performance are remarkable, and because of the HD, quite exposed! Despite a few moments that are awkward film-wise—the scene before Groves’s diet diary aria when Oppenheimer and Groves cross the stage is lumbering, and the orchestral interlude: “Lightning in the Sangre de Cristos” in Act II after Kitty goes to sleep seem too drawn out on film— the staged version translates nicely to film.

The extra features (illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, mini documentaries about the opera, cast, composer, and director) and the interview with Peter Sellars are also a fascinating watch. Of particular interest in the mini documentaries is a behind the scenes glimpse of the amazing and complex camera set up which is extraordinary. Sung in English, subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

So the question is this: Does Blu-ray make it better? The answer is yes . . . and no. The sound and image quality are off the charts, but once in a while (for the image in particular), this can be too much of a good thing.