Nixon in China – Festival Theatre

Opera by John Adams, Liberetto by Alice Goodman

Directed by John Fulljames

Gorbachev & Reegan, Putin & al Assad, Blair & Bush, Johnston & the highest bidder – throughout history, politicians have had their images emblazoned with that of another. None quite so unexpected as Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China. An event the world never thought they would see, the President of the US stepping foot into China. Was it an act of peace, a way forward with the Soviet Union, or just a smokescreen to improve Nixon’s plummet in opinion? The face of Mao Tse-tung still reverberates in China, though his symbolic presence seems to wane. Nixon, scarred by the marks of corruption, would find at least another place in histories lexicon as the man who would pave the future for other presidents.

Considerably shrouded, Nixon’s visit to China with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger is an effective time-period to transcribe into opera. A mere decade later John Adams, with libretto from poet Alice Goodman, would craft an opera which would open as much a path as Nixon’s visit had done, this time for the synthetic manipulation of sound for ‘mainstream’ libretto’s. Chartering their time from Air-Force One’s landing to a profoundly intimate epilogue on the people behind the parties Nixon in China, in the hands of Scottish Opera, is a powerhouse of aria, composition and powerplay.

Taking their first foray into Scottish opera’ clan, American baritone Eric Greene champions the part of Richard Nixon, refraining from the cheap characteristics of trademarks. Commanding, while conveying an endearing attraction of presence, it’s difficult not to see the President who would hoodwink many. As Henry Kissinger, David Stout captures a far more playful perspective, which exudes an animated characterisation as the narrative advances. Opening with the meeting of Nixon and Chou En-lai, China’s Premier, the men soon sit with a rapidly ageing Mao Tse-tung, more a philosopher than he was a Politian. Equally as compelling, Mark Le Brocq has a ghostly presence, with a voice harmonising the growing frustrations and deafening silences as the two world leaders talk.

At what may first seem a man’s opera, Nixon in China begins to centre around the women, not behind, but besides these men. Transitioning into an avant-garde piece, Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-Tung) Carneiro squarely frames these women in the dynamic they exude. Julia Sporsén spends much of the first act in the presence of her husband, which starkly alters as we enter act two, where from now on the production’s focus is away from the camera’s point of view and to a personal voyage. 

Sporsén’s control of her emotive range, beyond pure sensational sound, is world-class. Particularly for opera in the audience’s home language, here English, it’s easy to detach from the annunciating break in emotion, words we use daily drawn out. Obvious to this, Fulljames direction tethers Goodman’s poetry to the performers. Greene plays with this immeasurably, his charming, disingenuously schmoozy Nixon toying with the crowd.

Sporsén’s role contrasts Greene as the politician, though both reflected sympathetically. Bestowing kindness across histories image, geopolitics is but a framework, accurate, but not incorporated to align allegiance or point blame. Madame Mao Tse-tung (Hye-Youn Lee) an equally, inequitably powerful woman in her own right, stands polar to Pat Nixon, an intimidating, shrieking performance which dominates. Mesmeric in attitude, almost archaic in her sinister prowls, Hye-Youn Lee’s coloratura aria haunts with a vision untouchable by mortal means. Chiang Ch’ing’s position within the opera may serve to reinforce the relationship of the Nixon’s, as well as an accessible look into the often unknown life of Mao Tse-tung, but her inclusion shakes the dynamic enough, encompassing the production’s more creative, bespoke acts.

Initially reflective of the onerous tempo of the piece, Carneiro’s conduction takes time to build from the gravity laden slowness into the energetic rhythms in a more subdued manner than one expects. Further diverse than first appearances, Nixon in China refrains from the confines of expectation, carving its path alongside Goodman’s libretto. Adam’s infusion of heavy brass elements with Stravinskian neoclassicism, injecting a heaping os saxophone jazz to reflect Nixon’s youth. Leaping into a softer palette accompanying traditional dance of the nation builds in a prolonged resolution, which returns to the classical roots of the genre. John Ross’ original choreography manipulates this production into a piece of movement. Intense, reflective but all the while subverting expectation, the Scottish Opera orchestra champion the onstage vocals sensationally.

And it takes a voice to stand-out on this stage, a design which defines the term ‘epic’ in droves of creativity, integrating into the narrative mechanics, as opposed to flashy or gimmicky. Exploring the past, delving into the personal story, much of Nixon in China may present itself as a live unfolding of events, but truly this is a rich archive of investigation. Still photos under the spot lamps, raw video footages, crates groaning with historical artefacts and Deliveroo for the hungry archivists. John Adams opera has been remodelled by Scottish Opera, utilising their talent for perfecting an already genre-defining piece. Here the meta-narrative slashes down myth, the sepia-tints of history sift away before us in fluid space, examining the bones rather than the legend.

Of course, legend has a place in Dick Bird’s design work – his unfolding scenes echo an almost story-book transition. With live theatre, within the production, being staged for the ‘pleasure’ of the visiting American’s, Bird’s design plays heavily with a dream-scale of colours, palette and lighting. Notably a tricolour of women, Chinese performers forging a connection with Pat Nixon, where opera marries as close as possible with dance, poetry and theatre. The revolving stage, vintage projectors capturing the moment on film, all confined to a warehouse of hundreds of boxes, each containing a treasured memory or revelation of the political meeting of the century.

Revolutionising the spirit of Opera, staying authentic to its roots, but lifting the visage of this artform to stellar heights – Scottish Opera achieves a starkly modern, edgy production with a pulsing beat of classical direction and inspiration. A decisive moment of modern history, it’s explosive reverberations clenched tightly within three-hours of lyrical majesty.

Touring information can be found at: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/nixon-in-china/

Photo credit: James Glossop

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