First performed in 1987, John Adams’ ‘CNN opera’ follows the President’s epochal visit to Beijing in February 1972. Adams describes his score as a mix of ‘Day-Glo colours and upbeat energy’, with jazz and rock ‘n’ roll elements representative of Nixon’s hopeful aspirations – both foreign and domestic.
The historical portrayals are sympathetic, and exaggerated for the operatic form. Eric Greene’s Nixon is ever-concerned with the eyes of history, the media, and the electorate; his jingoistic enthusiasm muffling Nicholas Lester’s Chou En-lai during their first encounter. Pat Nixon (Julia Sporsén) is a thoughtful, if naïve, figure, afforded great attention in the second act. David Stout’s Henry Kissinger is suitably lecherous, particularly during the later ballet scenes; his depiction so enduring, I winced even in the curtain call. The Chinese representations are more complex. Chairman Mao (Mark Le Brocq) is an ailing, introspective figure, simultaneously staking support for the Western right, and suspicion of America’s (capitalist, imperialist) intentions. And Hye-Youn Lee’s Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) – who delivers the production’s strongest performance in her signature coloratura aria – is truly terrifying.
Orchestrated to the smallest precision, the production’s greatest successes outlie the main cast. Coordinating proceedings are the overwhelming chorus of backstage bureaucrats. As the Nixons pick canapes behind ever-flashing cameras and ever-scribbling secretaries, they scoop noodles from takeout boxes. Near hauntingly omnipresent, the centrality of the chorus suggests of the great number behind the landmark 1972 meeting. Chiang Ch’ing commands moving dance scenes in The Red Detachment of Women, one of the Eight Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution. The Scottish Opera Orchestra, led by Anthony Moffat, offer an (expectedly) impressive rendition. With so much to merit, it was often difficult to know where to focus attention.
Dick Bird’s design and staging deserves particular acclaim. Floor-to-ceiling brown boxes represent archives, upon which primary images, videos, and texts are projected. Actual footage of Nixon and Chou En-lai toasting shots shadows over their characters, their handwritten and speeches (respectively) scroll as they sing. The rotating platform and expanding box offer rich new settings, including Mao’s notebook-stuffed offices. Beyond these practical opportunities, the staging thus contributes to the ongoing process of historical memory-making.
Director John Fulljames’ few allusions to the present day were coarse and unnecessary. An unexpected Deliveroo driver, and a photographic series setting Nixon and Mao against Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, only distract from self-evident import of this historic meeting. It is the deft combination of fictional performance and primary sources which make Nixon in China 2020 a landmark of historical myth.
Scottish Opera: Nixon in China 2020 runs at the Festival Theatre until 29 February 2020.