English National Opera – Nixon in China

Nixon in China – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Alice Goodman [sung in English with surtitles]

Chou En-lai – Mark Stone
Nancy T’ang, First Secretary to Mao – Serena Kay
Second Secretary – Alexandra Sherman
Third Secretary – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Richard Nixon – James Maddalena
Pat Nixon – Janis Kelly
Henry Kissinger – Roland Wood
Mao Tse-tung – Adrian Thompson
Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung) – Judith Howarth
Wu Ching-hua (revolutionary ballet heroine) – Nicola Tranah
Hung Ch’ang-ch’ing (revolutionary ballet hero) – Nikolas Kafetzakis

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Peter Sellars – Director
Fred Frumberg & Michael Walling – Associate directors
Adrianne Lobel – Set designer
Dunya Ramicova – Costume designer
James F. Ingalls – Lighting designer
Mark Morris – Original choreographer
Peter Wing Healey – Choreography revival
Live Sound – David Sheppard
Sound system design – Chris Coxhead

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 June, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

“Nixon in China”, John Adams’s first opera is that rare – if not unique – phenomenon; namely a work which, at its première in Houston in October 1987, concerned people who were still alive and events which occurred some fifteen years beforehand and thus within the audience’s living memory. Over thirty years on from President Nixon’s visit to China, it is perhaps not so easy to appreciate its historical significance. Suffice it to say, the “old cold warrior” (as Alice Goodman’s libretto has Nixon describe himself) effectively ended China’s isolation from the West or, at the very least, started the process whereby full diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic and the United States were restored.

It was director Peter Sellars (returning to English National Opera to revive his production first seen in London in 2000) who proposed the idea of an opera about this subject; Alice Goodman agreed to write a libretto in rhyming couplets but would only assent to the task if it was to be an ‘heroic’ opera, rather than a satire.

Musically speaking, John Adams’s score would not exist in its present form were it not for the example of Philip Glass – specifically Glass’s early operas for the conventional operatic stage – “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten”. Indeed some explicitly Glass-like ideas, or ones derived from his example, are constantly audible; the A minor arpeggiated opening of “Akhnaten” finds its counterpart at the start of Adams’s opera by use of the same key albeit in the form of a rising scale. Glass-like figuration – such as a two-note ‘rocking’ motive – is also discernible and the often-declamatory vocal writing (especially for the chorus) is another common feature.

It follows, then, that anyone with an aversion to minimalism – for want of a more convenient term (neither Glass nor Adams are comfortable with being so labelled) – will not have an easy journey through “Nixon in China”. The three acts become progressively shorter, with the opening focussing on the first day of the Americans’ visit. We first hear the chorus in chant-like fashion proclaiming Communist ideals; this leads into a marvellous orchestral passage graphically depicting the arrival of the Americans’ aeroplane. The swirling winds and rumbling and crashing percussion (a remarkable array of instruments astonishingly given to only one player, executed on this occasion with terrific panache) is a spot-on aural representation of the stage-image – Adrianne Lobel’s designs and their technical realisation being of a very high order indeed.

The character of President Nixon – to whom James Maddalena bears an almost uncanny resemblance – is initially depicted as rather nervous and hesitant, but his confidence grows as his big aria progresses – “News (the word repeated many times) has a kind of mystery”, with its constant references to “history”. Maddalena created this role in 1987 and if his voice, inevitably, does not now have the kind of freshness it had then (as may be heard on the excellent recording on Nonesuch), his burnished baritone is still ideal for the part – not to mention his facial expressions and body movements which surely bespeak careful study and observation of Nixon himself. It is a touching and affectionate portrayal; any reservations are not Maddalena’s fault.

After a brief scene between Nixon and his wife – Janis Kelly, via a few short phrases already depicting a sympathetic character – the President, Henry Kissinger and Prime Minister Chou En-lai head for the meeting with Chairman Mao. Depicted in the opera as ill and decrepit, Adrian Thompson nevertheless gives a performance of considerable histrionic conviction, with awkward vocal lines – often very high – delivered with ease. Mao’s utterances are ‘backed’ by his three Secretaries who almost invariably sing together. Serena Kay, Alexandra Sherman and Rebecca de Pont Davies were excellent throughout.

But it was during this scene that doubts started to creep in about the libretto. Instead of ‘fleshing out’ the characters, very often the singers have to utter platitudes of various kinds – or sound-bites, as they might be termed. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine these people actually speaking in this way. I can’t imagine Mao, for instance, saying: “I’m growing old and soft, and won’t demand your overthrow”, or Nixon’s “He’s a consummate diplomat. Girls think he’s lukewarm when he’s hot” (in reference to Kissinger).

Well written as it undoubtedly is, Alice Goodman’s text often sounds like, as Nixon said in another context when being interviewed by David Frost, “a series of statements”.

The third scene of the first act is set at the banquet held in the evening of the first day. Speeches and toasts are exchanged, and there is a celebratory mood with joyous choral affirmations. The chorus made a fine contribution, though I was starting to tire from the endless triadic and diatonic harmony and longed for a little dissonance.

The first of the two scenes which make up Act Two focuses around Pat Nixon and her own schedule of visits including one to a hospital and school, as well as encountering an elephant and a pig. A not inappropriate degree of humour is evident at some points (as with the chorus’s repetition of the word “pig” – almost suggesting a parody of the minimalist style). Then she sings what is the most lyrically extended aria in the opera – “This is prophetic” – in which Mrs Nixon reflects on liberty in America, though, once again, the linguistics are often clumsy – “Let the stand-up comedian finish his act, let Gypsy Rose kick off her high-heeled party shoes”.

Adams does not respond to specific verbal imagery, but colours the text with a gentle lyricism. Janis Kelly was most persuasive and, in fact, rather moving. The second scene finds the Presidential party attending a performance of a ballet – ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ – devised by Madame Mao, which actually occurred. However, events take a strange – and to my mind – unconvincing turn when the main protagonists become ‘involved’ with the fate of those depicted in the ballet.

Indeed it not credible when Henry Kissinger (a strong portrayal from Roland Wood) enjoins “whip her to death” to those punishing a revolutionary girl. Perhaps it would not be so odd were the principals depicted otherwise very reasonably throughout the remainder of the opera. In any event, this scene is disconcerting and far too long, the music being insufficiently varied to sustain the on-stage action.

The final section of this act – to counterpart the opening – is centred on Madame Mao. “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” is rather obviously and repeatedly stated by Chiang Ch’ing, thrillingly depicted by Judith Howarth with some fantastic high notes and coloratura flights. This is, musically speaking, a high point, though arguably contributes little to the development of the actual plot. But a determined, fanatical and steely personality is conveyed via the music and Howarth’s strong characterisation.

The single scene of the final act finds all the characters in their respective bedrooms on the final night of the visit. The slower pulse of the music effectively suggests the sense of weariness, though once again the characters’ utterances and behaviour are perplexing. I wouldn’t have thought that Nixon would have started reminiscing about his wartime experiences, nor is it likely that Mao would have sexual activity with one of his secretaries in front of his wife. But perhaps a surreal turn is intended – we see the ‘deaths’ of Mao and Chou En-lai, though this did not occur during the Americans’ visit. Inexplicably, in the opera, they then come back to life, presumably to enable Chou En-lai to deliver the concluding monologue with further elusive allusions.

The opera finishes on a decidedly enigmatic note: “Outside this room the chill of grace lies heavily on the morning grass” – whatever that might mean. So, having enjoyed certain parts of this opera for some years via CD, my first encounter with it in the theatre proved a somewhat mixed experience.

Reservations aside, “Nixon in China” is an astonishing ‘first’ opera by any composer’s standards, though one might have doubts at the efficacy of the chosen musical style to carry a nearly three-hour drama.

What is absolutely beyond question is the conviction of this performance and production, under the watchful supervision of him who initiated the whole project. Whatever personal misgivings one might have, I would suggest that anyone interested in the direction opera has taken over the last quarter of a century should go and see “Nixon in China”.

  • Performances on June 17 (at 6 p.m.), 23 & 29, and July 6 at 7 o’clock
  • Box Office: 0870 145 0200
  • English National Opera

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