There have been dozens of reviews of Doctor Atomic, the new John Adams opera. Lisa Hirsch has collected links at her blog. Most critics acknowledge the power of Adams's writing, but many detect problems in one or another part of the score. What's striking is that there's little agreement on what and where those problems are. Joshua Kosman, in a generally enthusiastic review, took a dim view of the ending: “After three hours of waiting for the bomb to drop, the audience is surely entitled to a more emphatic rendering than a quiet rumble and a few desultory lighting cues.” Janos Gereben thrilled to Act I but wrote off most of Act II: “Boiling Act II down to its indispensable dramatic core and adding it to a slightly edited Act I could create an awesome 90-minute one-act opera... all of one piece.”
Timothy Mangan, though, believed that the ending made up for an opera consumed by inert worrying: “The culmination — the countdown and explosion — is handled magnificently by Adams.” Andrew Clark also praised the ending as a “surprisingly apposite way to bring the curtain down on a work predicated on the moral and historical ramifications of the first nuclear test. You can't begin to depict a bomb of such magnitude in the representational language of theatre.” Clark disliked the earlier arias, saying that “much of the vocal music is effortful: ‘Batter my heart’, the John Donne poem with which Oppenheimer brings Act 1 to a close, see-saws self-consciously.” For Rich Scheinin, “Batter My Heart” was one of the few highlights: “The orchestra's stuttering figures, its tremulous chords and rumbling drums, said everything one needed to know about Oppenheimer's inner state.” Heidi Waleson thought that Act II was stronger than Act I: “The bulk of Act II, the final countdown to the Trinity test, dropped the pretentious arias to let the orchestra and chorus carry the momentum.” Scott Cantrell thought that the arias were the only thing worth saving: “The poetic arias might be excerpted and turned into a marvelous orchestral song cycle. But, at least on first sight and hearing, Doctor Atomic is not a satisfying opera.”
Tony Tommasini, Justin Davidson, Mark Swed, and Alan Rich, among others, praised the score as is. Rich writes in LA Weekly: "The wonder of Doctor Atomic, overriding the timelessness of its subject matter and the intelligence in the way it has been set forth, is the deep penetration of Adams’s music into the troubled souls of his characters. More than in any large-scale work of his to date, I get the sense here of extraordinary mastery over a vast spread of expressive technique, and the intelligence to summon its variety at the proper moment. This is operatic writing in the grandest sense, the more so for it being entirely of its own time – and ours." That's my take, too.
There are five more performances of Atomic, and tickets are becoming scarce. The score won't be heard again until 2007.