Nixon in China English National Opera, 7 June 2000
Yes! ENO has to be congratulated upon having staged John Adams' first opera Nixon in China, premiered 1987 in Houston, Texas. It was a very enjoyable experience to see Peter Sellars' original production now here in London, more than a decade on.
Nixon in China is a rich, complex opera, full of private passions, heroism, big ideas (capitalism versus communism), but also irony and wit. To chose a political event from recent history (Nixon visited China in February 1970) as the subject was a daring and dangerous act, which Peter Sellars had the inspiration to suggest to Alice Goodman (who wrote the libretto) and John Adams.
Most operas deal with topics from myths or distant history in order to create the necessary aesthetic distance from everyday life. Opera has to be artificial to be effective. In Nixon in China the familiarity of the current-affair-style topic creates a tension between the relevance for our lives and the aesthetic distance, which is created by the music and the singing.
Right at the beginning Adams succeeds in creating a grand, heroic tableau, when Nixon descends from his plane to greet premier Chou En-lai, singing 'News, news, news ....' Adams' music is a perfect expression of Nixon¹s excitement and self-awareness of the historic event: Nixon's private passion of leaving a mark in history is fulfilled at that moment. Adams' repetitive, forward propelling music with rich harmonic layers and rhythmic intensity is the excitement - without irony or intellectual cynicism.
Another, similarly grand occasion is the great banquet. Peter Sellars made sure that all singers also acted as credible characters. James Maddalena as Nixon sang and acted the mix of public and private, ambitious persona of the president perfectly. Janis Kelly portrayed Pat Nixon as a compassionate woman, who felt for the Chinese workers (in Act 2, Scene 1) and put up with her husband. Kelly's singing is wonderful.
One of the richest and most hilarious scenes of the opera was the performance for the American guests of the dance theatre The Red Detachment of Women by Mao¹s wife Chiang Ch'ing. In a remarkable choreography by Mark Morris the perfect dancer-actors, especially Sonja Yun-Mi Kostich, create an intense realism, which draws Pat Nixon into the stage action, blurring the realities of this dance theatre scene with the opera reality. It also shows the absurd and brutal communist indoctrination, as it was perpetrated by Mao¹s wife and the gang of four. Judith Howard as Mao¹s wife sang the difficult coloraturas brilliantly and also succeeded in portraying Chiang Ch'ing (Mao's wife) as a dangerous, vicious and aggressive woman.
Mao (witty and cunningly portrayed and sung by Robert Brubaker) is constantly surrounded by three secretaries (Victoria Simmonds, Ethna Robinson and Rebecca de Pont Davies are all great). He is frail and lives in the past, but still exerts immense power over his people, arbitrarily using the persons around him. His dangerous Chinese sense of humour is not always understood by the Nixons and Kissinger, who seem to suffer from an American naivety stemming from the oversized self-confidence of a super power.
The only implausible, and to me not clear, event in the opera was the metamorphosis of Kissinger (well sung by Stephen Owen) into the dance theatre character Lao Szu (act 2, scene 2). Adrianne Lobel's set design captured perfectly the atmosphere of Nixon's visit and provided a sense of location. And Peter Sellars turned opera singers into credible actors. The ENO orchestra played the rhythmically intricate score perfectly under Paul Daniel's direction.
Occasionally the singers had to struggle against a too loud orchestra. The textures of John Adams' music are very dense over long periods. It needs careful balancing with the singers. In act three the opera loses intensity, as if the exhaustion of the visitors and the hosts were transferred into the opera and music itself. One feels for the complex, troubled and slightly sad character of Chou En-Lai (warmly sung by David Kempster). Nixon in China at the ENO made for a very enjoyable evening and it should become a regular in the opera repertoire.
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