BBC Proms 2017 / 1: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 / John Adams Harmonium

First half disappointing.

Beethoven seemed a bit bashy. The cadenza in the first movement revealed character. Second movement too. Didn’t really feel what everyone seemed to be feeling. All felt a bit hollow. Lacked nuance. Encore seemed a bit laboured.

Harmonium was a revelation. Stunning. Restorative. Chorus struggled with a demanding vocal score, but that didn’t diminish from what was a remarkable half hour of television. Heart was pounding.

3/5 (via TV)

Doctor Atomic ENO Adams Woolcock

Doctor Atomic @ ENO, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

English National Opera scheduled a history lesson this evening with a performance of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, one which struggled to rise to the dramatic challenges posed by a plot of which the audience knew the denouement long before the houselights dimmed.

The UK premiere of the opera set in the run up to the testing of the first atomic bomb promised all the weight of Adam’s operatic success Nixon in China. An audience waited to be stunned.

But whilst the first scene delivered a grotesquely unnerving realism combining Adams’ skilfully gargantuan soundscape and the documentary evidence peppered throughout the libretto, the plot quickly gave way to seemingly vast expanses of weak character development on which the success of the work ultimately depended.

Director Penny Woolcock had already conceded in an discussion on Radio 4’s Start The Week this week that protagonist Oppenheimer’s wife had been subject to a certain amount of dramatic licence in the libretto compared to other characters in the work. What grated more however was Oppenheimer’s seemingly rapid move from total absorption in his work to near ecstatic intoxication by the smell of his wife’s hair (we were told it smelt of tobacco, opium and sugar) in the space of ten minutes.

When General Groves demanded a confirmed weather forecast on pain of death in the next scene followed by a detailed account of his daily calorific intake and its impact on his waistline, the reality of a balcony seat began to kick in for some of us. Was it really meant to be making light of the whole affair when the first scene had set some of us on a different path?

Surprisingly, casual disinterest at the beginning of the second half didn’t make the prospect of a further hour and ten minutes totally unbearable, possibly because most looked forward to the visual representation of what the detonation. The sight of the bomb and those busying themselves around it earlier on in the performance may have contributed to a feeling that the entire Manhattan Project had risked being a slightly Heath Robinson affair, but come the blast simplicity saved the day.

The audience rightly applauded faultless soloists and chorus and an orchestra at ease with Adams’ orchestration before running home to read over their programme and look for the next first night to attend.