Nixon in China

Opera by John Adams, Libretto by Alice Goodman
Scottish Opera, The Royal Danish Theatre & Teatro Real Madrid
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Eric Greene (Richard Nixon), Nicholas Lester (Chou En-lai) and Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) Credit: James Glossop
Nicholas Lester (Chou En-lai), Mark Le Brocq (Mao Tse-tung) and Hye-Youn Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung) Credit: James Glossop
Dancers and The Chorus of Nixon in China. Scottish Opera 2020 Credit: James Glossop

When John Adam's Nixon in China first graced the Edinburgh stage, back in 1988, it was a mere fifteen years after the period in time the opera depicts. Looking back on the chronicled events almost fifty years after the fact is something of a double-edged sword. Enough years have passed to let the momentousness of the occasion and subsequent related events slide from vivid immediacy into the realms of remembered living-history. As such, the meetings of Mao and Nixon and their legacies have become mired in their own mythologies; and the particulars of the events are far less known to younger audiences.

It's important for this to be understood, because it presents a real issue for large swathes of the audience's interpretations of the opera. Many of those sat in the audience of the Festival Theatre had not even been born when Nixon in China first played in Edinburgh, let alone when the American President made his diplomatic sojourn across the oceans to Beijing.

It's perhaps then fitting that this new production is framed in the form of a great archive being delved into by countless workers. The stage is replete with stacks of boxes and with newspaper clippings, photographs and snippets of footage projected upon them as if by these investigating archivists. It's in and around these stacks of boxes that the cast recreate the famous scenes and imagined vignettes that follow, before the whole is swallowed up again, as if being packed away by careful hands.

The orchestration under the deft hands of Joana Carneiro is flawless throughout, wreaking the occasionally jarring miasma of Adams's deliberate stylistic clashes with the requisite mixtures of bombastic thump and quiet yearning, while the cast manage to embody their charges with enough physical and vocal characterisations to keep these larger than life figures from becoming parody, something that is a particularly keen obstacle when dealing with broad and borderline comical personalities like Kissinger, Mao and Nixon; and the strange absurdity of them all in a room together.

That's not to say they don't have fun with the roles. As Eric Greene brings enough of the 37th President's goofy mannerisms to play to make the audience laugh several times, while David Stout's Henry Kissinger flits between bouts of lechery and panic. Mark LeBrocq's Mao comes off slightly better, racked with illness and taking great pulls periodically from an oxygen mask.

Understandably, it's the First Ladies who are given a more sensible treatment, particularly in the second act, which focuses on them specifically. Julia Sporsén's Pat Nixon winds a route from blithe fun through apprehension to a keenly felt sadness throughout the hyper-realised middle section of the piece contrasted by the solid ferocity and steely confidence of Hye-Youn Lee as Chiang Ch'ing. It's Lee who overall ends up as the standout, carrying this sentiment through to the final moments of the opera and arguably having some of the best material to work with.

The problem with Nixon in China is that it never manages to quite get away from the fact that it is a sophomoric effort on Adams's part. There is clear brilliance in it, but the structure fails it, as does the skill with which he tackles the overall theme. His almost slavish adherence to following a realistic narrative in the first act makes it feel incongruous to the rest of the opera and, dare I say, rather dull as the meeting of Mao and Nixon begins to drag into awkwardness. While that might well be accurate to the history, it's not necessary to replicate it in art.

As a whole, the opera suffers from the problem that it is neither a straightforward narrative, nor a clearly stylised abstraction of the events. Rather it's a patchwork of vying ideas and themes, not to mention musical cues and motifs. It's to its absolute credit that Scottish Opera has gone some ways to try to work around the fundamental issues in the material. Indeed, it's possibly the best performed rendition of this opera performed in the UK in a decade. However, this comes with the caveat that unfortunately the novel staging actively detracts from what's occurring onstage at times, particularly during the latter half of the first act, and throughout the sublime balletic performance of "The Red Detachment of Women", where the occasionally shaking background projections, images and video clips distract more than they compliment. Thus as it stands, it is a solid performance of a lesser opera.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan