Scottish Opera: Nixon in China

Julia Sporsen (Pat Nixon) in Nixon in China. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop (Cropped)

Glasgow: 18th, 20th and 22nd February, Edinburgh: 27th and 29th February
(see below for special events)

Keenly anticipated when it received its UK premiere at Edinburgh Playhouse in 1988, Houston Grand Opera’s production of John Adams’ Nixon in China, directed by the renowned Peter Sellars with libretto by poet Alice Goodman, had already set a unique standard – that of the media-age opera, based on a momentous, and at the time recent, political event – US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Communist China, meeting Chairman Mao. Its opening scene, at Peking airport, expectation mounting as the Chinese welcoming party awaits the arrival of the President’s plane, has been asserted to be the most exciting opening to any opera, bar none – an excitement I remember clearly from then.

Forty-two years on, the production has returned to Scotland, this time in Scottish Opera’s collaboration with Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, under the direction of John Fulljames. Notable firsts for the production include the Scottish debuts of baritone Eric Greene in the title role and musical director Joana Carneiro, plus a sound system that reinforces and balances without losing spatial placing – realising a long-held intention of Adams’ piece. Many of the leading performers are making their return to Scottish Opera, and the performances on the opening night were world-class – Mark Le Brocq’s Mao, Nicholas Lester’s Chou En-Lai, Julia Sporsén ‘s Pat Nixon, David Stout’s Kissinger and Hye-Youn Lee as Chiang Ch’ing, Madame Mao. Impressive and formidable, the production retains its ample capability to astound.

Hye-Youn Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tun g) and Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) in Nixon in China. Scottish Oper a 2020. Credit James Glossop.
Hye-Youn Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung) and Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) lead the chorus with Mao’s Red Book. Image: James Glossop

 

This time, the production’s viewpoint throughout is at one remove from the action – the chorus of record-keepers and documenters, sifting through photo’s, objects and cine-film footage of the visit, sharing their unearthed mementos with the audience through overhead and cine-projection. While Nixon’s emperor-like descent of the Air Force One steps is still a stirring moment, and he giddily spouts his excitement at the network news coverage back home he obviously prizes, we are now seeing it through the frame of a half-century of history, knowing nowadays as we do a very different China and America.

Julia Sporsen (Pat Nixon) in Nixon in China. Sc ottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop. (2)
Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) in Nixon in China. Image: James Glossop

 

The opera’s gift is the many angles to the visit it offers up for scrutiny. The political aspects of Nixon’s attempt to reach in to closed, post-revolutionary China, no doubt in the hope that such a media-coup, instantly relayed via satellite for tv broadcast back home, would vouchsafe election victory later that year; the very different private perspectives of the protagonists – Nixon and Mao, First Lady Pat Nixon, Madame Mao, US Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger and his counterpart, Chinese Premier/fixer Chou En-Lai. Adams’ restless, angular and ever-shifting music, building to dense arpeggiated high-points of dizziness, gives way over time to the hauntingly elegiac, as we seem resigned to accept the cultural and personal vacuum that seems to subsume the visit, threatening almost to render it pointless. And what to make of the all-encompassing libretto – Goodman burrowing ever-further into sound-bite over-repetition, echoing revolutionary red-book chant, darting to conversational back-slapping, then turning to serene philosophical axioms, and venturing to lay bare the characters’ weaknesses, revealed gently to themselves in dark personal introspection.

Julia Sporsen (Pat Nixon) in Nixon in China. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop (Cropped)
Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) intervenes to confront the revolutionary dancers. Image: James Glossop

 

An interesting writers’ choice, reinforcing the work’s enigmatic nature, is that across the three acts we are allowed-in on only choice excerpts from the four-day story – a stirring beginning and a wounded departure, yes, but we are left have much work to pick over to join the narrative arc together. It’s oblique and elliptical – Nixon and Mao have much in common understanding, but then seem to try and out-wit each other, ideologically forever at odds; Pat Nixon’s well-received visit to school, clinic, factory, farm and the Ming Tombs has the charm of personal resonance for her, but later she is horrified by the abusive brutality of the revolutionary ballet that the strident Madame Mao has choreographed. With the burden of grand, gestural history-making seemingly threatening to crush the visit’s spirit, the final act sees the two camps retreat into themselves, comforted by recalling their younger lives – Nixon as a wartime Marine in the Pacific sending letters home to Pat, while the Maos revel in their shared glory of the revolutionary Long March.

Nicholas Lester (Chou En-lai), Mark Le Brocq (Mao Tse-tung) and Hye-Youn Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung). Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop.
Nicholas Lester (Chou En-lai), Mark Le Brocq (Mao Tse-tung) and Hye-Youn Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung). Image: James Glossop

 

Paradoxically, for all its complexity and contradictions, we’re drawn in throughout rather than baffled, and never dissatisfied by the fact that everything remains unresolved. Finally left with the enduring question of how much of what we do, as humans or as politicians, can ever be enduringly good, the production ultimately bestows us its peace, as we leave somehow content to live with never quite knowing the answer.

Theatre Royal Glasgow,
282 Hope Street,
Glasgow G2 3QA

Festival Theatre,
13–29 Nicolson Street,
Edinburgh EH8 9FT

Special Nixon in China events: Glasgow
Unwrapped Fri 21 Feb, 6pm
Pre-show Talk Sat 22 Feb, 6pm
Touch Tour Sat 22 Feb, 6pm
Audio-described performance Sat 22 Feb, 7:15pm

Special Nixon in China events: Edinburgh
Nixon in China Unwrapped Fri 28 Feb, 6pm
Pre-show Talk Sat 29 Feb, 6pm
Touch Tour Sat 29 Feb, 6pm
Audio-described performance Sat 29 Feb, 7.15pm

Thank you to Scottish Opera for their assistance. All images: Scottish Opera, James Glossop

 

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