Strong soloists, chorus, and orchestra are the pluses of Scottish Opera’s Nixon in China

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adams, Nixon in China: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Joana Carneiro (conductor). Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29.2.2020. (SRT)

Hye-Youn Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung) & Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) in Nixon in China
(c) James Glossop


Director – John Fulljames
Set & Costume designer – Dick Bird
Lighting designer – Ellen Ruge
Projection designer – Will Duke
Sound designer – Cameron Crosby
Original Choreographer – John Ross
Revival Choreographer – Nathan Johnston


Richard Nixon – Eric Greene
Mao Tse-tung – Mark Le Brocq
Chou En-lai – Nicholas Lester
Pat Nixon – Julia Sporsén
Henry Kissinger – David Stout
Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) – Hye-Youn Lee
Secretaries – Louise Callinan, Sioned Gwen Davies, Emma Carrington

I love John Adams’s music, and I am perfectly happy to sign up to the orthodoxy that he’s the most important (and accessible) composer to come out of the USA in the last three decades. However, I have long had issues with Nixon in China which this Scottish Opera production only threw into starker relief.

It isn’t so much Adams’s music, though it is hard to argue that, when you compare Nixon with his later operas, Adams was still figuring how to sustain his post-minimalist technique over the length of a full drama. A much bigger problem comes with Alice Goodman’s scenario and libretto. For one thing, her attempt to transform history into myth means the need to sidestep some pretty critical issues. In humanising Nixon, particularly in the third act’s reminiscences about his past, the text avoids the things about him that chime most with the public imagination: namely his headstrong will, his ruthless streak and the will to power that motivated most of what he did in the White House, particularly around the time of his re-election campaign, which coincides with his visit to China in 1972. There is nothing wrong with an attempt at rehabilitation, of course, but it is a bit dishonest to place such a figure on the stage while wholesale ignoring such important aspects of his career.

Worse, the undoubted horrors of living in Mao’s China are not so much ignored as avoided with a barge pole. Of the famine, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, still ongoing at the time of Nixon’s visit, there is nary a mention. Instead we get Mao as the grandfather of the nation and Chou as the wise elder statesman; unquestioningly gently humanised portrayals of these titans of 20th century China with no attempt to evaluate them honestly in the light of their deeds or what makes them most famous. Strip all that away and what’s left?

On an even more basic level, Goodman’s text is unbearably ponderous in places. Quoting swathes of the dialogue between Nixon and Mao in the first act does nothing so much as underline the bizarrely circuitous nature of their meeting, and the second act’s scene with the revolutionary ballet leads into some utterly opaque character interactions – what on earth is Pat Nixon thinking when she intervenes? – that seem designed to baffle rather than elucidate. Nor can Goodman decide whether her style is to be heroic naturalism or empathetic identification. I am all in favour of using poetry to reflect on recent events: I just do not think Goodman did it very well here.

John Fulljames’s production at least succeeds in breaking free from the shadow of Peter Sellars, the director who had the idea for the original project, and whose naturalist approach has dominated Nixon’s look ever since. Fulljames sets the opera in a vast archive, as though to make concrete the questions about History that the opera sets up. It is remarkably handsome to look at it, with vast shelves and a huge box that serve as screens on which to project a series of images: several of them are of Nixon’s visit, and some, in fairness to Fulljames, represent the very things about whose absence complained above, namely the Cultural Revolution and the Watergate scandal.

The projections are stylishly handled, and the show as a whole looks great. Indeed, it feels like the most expensive project Scottish Opera have put on in a long time, and it is surely something of a prestige thing for them to be doing such a key contemporary piece to sold out audiences. The wheels come off in Fulljames’s direction of individuals, though, which is often static or simplistic. That’s at its worst in the red ballet scene, which leads into some very heavy handed symbolism surrounding the red book, and it treats Pat Nixon’s character with some pretty clunky body language of oppression. I could put up with Pat’s earlier monologue being delivered static, in front of a lectern, but I lost patience with this, and with the rather empty direction of the final scene.

Thankfully there is nothing to complain about in the music, which was strong in every quarter. Eric Greene’s baritone struck me as rather guttural, and took me a while to get used to, but his Nixon is completely distinctive, and he cut through the texture admirably. So, too, did Nicholas Lester as Chou, and David Stout made a supremely effective Kissinger, making a huge impact with the little he has to sing. Mark Le Brocq caught well the slightly strangulated nature of Mao’s music, and the secretaries who follow him around had a good combination of the sinister and the mundane. Hye-Youn Lee chewed up the scenery as Madame Mao, and her blistering top notes could have stripped paint. On the other hand, Julia Sporsén sounded like a proper soubrette as Pat; warm, gentle, and the closest thing in the drama to you and me. The chorus sang with power and compelling presence.

Top marks go to the orchestra, though, who have been having a fantastic run of success recently. They thumped with power, making Adams’s pulsing textures quiver and shake in a way that made my scalp prickle. Joana Carneiro held the whole thing together with iron assurance, controlling the assemblage confidence and skill.

None of this made me love the piece any more, though. Indeed, it has made me wonder whether we are really justified in acclaiming this as the most important recent opera. Adams surely did better in Doctor Atomic and Klinghoffer; didn’t he?

Simon Thompson

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