John Adams Nixon in China
**** (4 stars)
In 1972 President Richard Nixon made history by shaking hands with Premier Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, an event which Nixon regarded as important historically as the moon landings.
Fifteen years later composer John Adams wrote his opera to a libretto by Alice Goodman: the production marked the beginning of Adams’ long collaboration with director Peter Sellars.
The first act of the opera deals with the historical event – the Chinese people awaiting the arrival of the presidential plane, the handshakes, and the diplomatic meetings [in which both sides seem to fail to understand each other]. The second act focuses on Pat Nixon’s reactions to the succession of places and people who are displayed to her, culminating in her visceral response to the punishment of a young girl in a ballet the presidential party are watching. In act three the central figures on both sides reflect on their past happiness and present state of unknowing. It’s left to Chou En-Lai to close the opera, getting up after yet another sleepless night to go to work as the dawn chorus begins, wondering how much of what we did was good?
In this production we are onlookers of the past. The stage is full of stacks of document boxes, among which archivists move, occasionally opening boxes to view their contents. Extremely clever use of contemporary photographs and newsreel footage shows the arrival of the presidential plane and the initial historic handshake: we then move to the room in which Nixon met Mao – the set [bearing a striking resemblance to a photograph of Mao’s private rooms] unfolds on stage from an enormous wooden archive box. The second act starts in the main archive, with boxes used to form the places between which Pat Nixon is shepherded before the space opens up for the ballet. The boundary between art and real life dissolves as Pat is drawn into and takes part in the drama. The third act takes place around the enormous wooden archive box, into which the main characters are gradually replaced. The chief archivists close their boxes, switch off their desk lamp, and Premier Chou En-Lai joins the others ‘back in history’.
What of the opera? I didn’t expect to be grabbed by the music, and I wasn’t. Most of the speech was declaimed, there were no [to me] recognizable melodies, and there was frequent repetition of patterns of arpeggios to start each new scene, as though Adams couldn’t think of any other way of linking scenes. Having supertitles helped understanding of what was being said/sung but distanced one from the action, while not making clear who was singing what in the ensembles. The music didn’t make things any clearer either – I couldn’t follow each character’s musical line in the general all-over wash of sound. I loved the moment when Pat Nixon was taken to a pig farm and the chorus all broke into pig pig pig pig pig, getting one of the few huge laughs of the evening [another being when a photograph of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon stonily ignoring each other appeared a succession of ‘historic encounters’ shots].
The first act, though extremely long, mostly held my attention. The various characters became individuals, and the cultural and ideological differences, and the American seeming ignorance thereof became clear. The second act brought life, colour and incredible movement as seven dancers performed part of The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The third act seemed extremely long and tedious, and lacked any dramatic contrast or fire. Maybe this was the intention: to show the ephemeral nature of the media hype while the real long-term effects of the event were insignificant and the main protagonists disillusioned.
The performances were superb, and I have profound admiration for the singers’ mastery of the complex music as well as their impressively clear diction and excellent characterisation. Chou En-lai [Nicholas Lester]’s voice was gorgeous, while Madame Mao [Hye-Youn Lee]’s ability to sing ridiculously high notes while clearly articulating every syllable was masterly – as was her utterly self-confident ability to dominate every person on stage. David Stout as Henry Kissinger presented a personality somewhat at odds with his ‘elder statesman’ reputation in later years. Eric Greene was an excellent Nixon, underlining the inherent impenetrability of his personality and his possibly conflicted motives – ‘tricky Dicky’ in every respect: while Julia Sporsén shone as his wife Pat, loyally supporting her husband and doing her best to comply with all the press requests for photos, even obligingly patting the ear of one of the pigs at the pig farm. Tenor Mark le Broq gave us a well-observed portrayal of Mao both as an ageing statesman on the verge of death and in his ‘miraculous’ restoration to youth and health as he remembered the pleasure of the early years with the dancer who became his wife.
Nixon in China, after receiving mixed reviews in its early years, is now regarded as one of the great works of the American repertory. Not being an American, I’m left wondering quite what was the point of the piece. It’s great theatre, some of the time, extremely tedious at others: maybe I’m simply not sufficiently politically savvy to have an informed opinion? Maybe this tedium/ quiet subsidence into nothingness was the point? It was Adams’ first opera: I’ve not seen any others, but I’m not inspired to rush out and find them. I’m glad to have seen the piece and warmly appreciative of Scottish Opera’s courage and expertise in bringing it to Scotland for the first time this century. The first-night audience was very warm in their applause at the final curtain, acknowledging the quality of the piece in both its design and execution.
Nixon in China, Scottish Opera Theatre Royal, Glasgow Untill 22nd February, Then Transfers to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.