Friday 16 May 2014

Adams - Nixon in China (Wide Open Opera - Dublin 2014)

John Adams - Nixon in China

Wide Open Opera, Dublin 2014

Fergus Sheil, Michael Cavanagh, Barry Ryan, Claudia Boyle, James Cleverton, Hubert Francis, John Molloy, Audrey Luna, Sharon Carty, Imelda Drumm, Doreen Curran

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 11 May 2014

For a modern opera that is based on a relatively recent historical event, John Adams' Nixon in China is proving to be an enduring work that continues to gain new productions worldwide. What is even more surprising, and which perhaps accounts for the place it is gaining in the repertoire, is how each production manages to find a new way of approaching the work's themes. It's clear that Nixon in China is about more than one specific event of historical significance only to the 1970s, but is a work of multifaceted complexity that makes it open to continuous reinterpretation and re-evaluation.

Undoubtedly, that's got a lot to do with Alice Goodman's libretto. It doesn't entirely hold together and it can be difficult to comprehend at times, getting bogged down in the competing ideological, political and philosophical views of each of the participants in US President Nixon's visit to Communist China in 1972. Certain passages of the opera feel the weight of some very obscure esoterica, but the libretto also has the ability and the insight to look beneath the jargon, the showmanship and the politicking to make some very pertinent points about the nature of the figures in question as human beings.

In order for the work to endure however, it needs to extend this out beyond the specific to the universal, and while the political landscape has changed much in the intervening years, with the respective powers and influence of both China and the USA starting to reverse, the human aspirations behind them hasn't changed that much. Even if Nixon in China were only to remind us of this fact, highlighting the present by showing us how it once was, or how indeed it all started to change from a globalised technological perspective, it would still be an interesting work, but as this latest Dublin production from Wide Open Opera makes clear, there's evidently much more to the opera than that.

Wide Open Opera's Dublin production of Nixon in China for example threw up a new aspect to the work that I had never considered before. Is Nixon in China a feminist opera? It seems unlikely for a work set in the 1970s based on the meeting between two male heads of state alternately back-slapping each other and competing to prove the supremacy of their vision of the world. In fact, with Henry Kissinger's reputation and attitude towards women satirised in the dances of Act II ("Whip her to death!"), with Pat Nixon being the model First Lady and housewife, deferential to her husband's important career, and China's treatment of women hardly being anything to be proud of, despite Chiang Ch'ing's contribution to the Cultural Revolution, it's not surprising that the possibility of the work having a feminist agenda is rarely considered.

The fact that these issues are shown at all, even in a seemingly unfavourable light, is significant, but the women in Nixon in China are actually very strong personalities, and can even be said to be the true heart of the work. Part of this might be to do with the librettist being female, but in reality it's much more to do with there being considerable thought and attention paid equally to all of the main characters. In attempting to make them real, in attempting to look beneath the surface and see a real person, those issues and how Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch'ing might feel about them are taken into consideration. If there is a feminist view in Nixon in China, what is wonderful is that it's not presented in any dogmatic fashion, but arises out of treating each of the characters as equals in human terms. It's when this conflicts with the public personas, and with the male and the political agendas, that the whole question becomes much more complex.

Part of the reason why there are so many ways of interpreting and looking at Nixon in China is just down to the nature of its creation, and the nature of opera itself. It's not just Alice Goodman's libretto that is important or the only aspect of the opera that plays with ideas, but rather it's the multidisciplinary nature of how it interacts and conflicts with real-life, with the focus, structure and dramatic concept of Peter Sellars' original idea, and with John Adams' music. That reflects and complements the competing personalities on the stage and it creates a dialectic that really opens the work up. And when you hand that over to a new stage director, a new music director and new singers, you have something that can be even more fluid and mutable.

Wide Open Opera's production of Nixon in China originates from Michael Kavanagh's 2010 production for Vancouver Opera. It's a very fine production that retains the historical basis of Nixon's visit to China and adheres relatively closely to Peter Sellars' structuring of the work. At the same time however it finds its own way to capture the spectacle and the grandeur of the event and get underneath to the rather more difficult to define aspects of the personalities that are brought out by the libretto and the music. Broadly speaking however, the tone of the work and the stage direction is defined by its three-act structure.

Act I is all show, making use of impressive projections that show Air Force One landing in Peking Airport, using bold colours and national flags to indicate the jostling for power, position and philosophical superiority between the leaders of the two great nations. There is at the same time a mutual respect and appreciation for each other, for the power that they wield and how they exercise it, and both are fully aware that this is a unique and unprecedented opportunity to extend their influence and reputation across the world via new satellite technology. The staging fully supports the joyous fervour that this generates, each of them dancing around, drunk on power, lost in their own wonderfulness.

Dancing in fact plays a large part in this production, and it highlights just how important it actually is as another means of expression in the work itself. Aside from the obvious Revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women in Act II (a dance of death, liberation), there are references to dancing at the ball put in honour of the Nixons in Act I (a dance of celebration, assertion, joy) and there's a melancholy waltz in Act III (a slow dance of sadness and introspection), each of which conforms perfectly to the tone of the three acts. The deeper interiority of Act III is more difficult to stage and make work than the more obvious tone and the action of the first two acts, and it doesn't quite come together in the opera itself, but Michael Cavanagh's direction, the use of mists (for time, memory, distance) and the use of connections made though the dancing, finds a through-line that holds it all together surprisingly well.

It's important that all this works with the music and singing performances. The musical challenges alone are considerable for a work that makes use of unconventional orchestration with saxophones and electronic keyboards, but Fergus Sheil and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra provided an invigorating and thrilling performance that balanced the rhythms with the nature of the drama expressed in the libretto and on the stage, as well as with the expression of the singers. The program notes that microphones are required to amplify the singers above the orchestra (although a reduced orchestration allowed the Châtelet in Paris to perform it acoustically), but the singing, diction and expression was so strong here that you scarcely believed it was necessary.

As if to confirm the importance of the women figures, the singing was particularly impressive from Claudia Boyle and Audrey Luna. Claudia Boyle's Pat Nixon was confident and accomplished, but touching too, with a real sense of sympathy for her character and the importance of her as the heart of the opera. Audrey Luna's Chiang Ch'ing saw more of the stratospheric notes the coloratura soprano hit in her Met performance of Ariel in Adès' The Tempest. Where the use of microphones might have been useful here was in allowing the male singers to sing rather than project. Barry Ryan's Nixon was accordingly wonderfully musical, showing the lyrical qualities that are in the writing of this character which we rarely hear in English language opera. Like Ryan, we also had sensitive performances from James Cleverton as Chou En-lai, Hubert Francis as Mao Tse-tung, with John Molloy fully entering into the spirit of the playful but sinisterly depicted Henry Kissinger.

Presenting a modern opera to a Dublin audience was always going to be a challenge, but it's one that, following their marvellous The Importance of Being Earnest, has again paid off impressively for Wide Open Opera. This is a far cry from La Traviata or Madama Butterfly, and a new and sometimes challenging experience for many, but judging from the enthusiastic response of the audience at the opening night at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for Nixon in China, many were clearly struck at the possibilities this form of music theatre can offer. That's clearly a mark of Wide Open Opera's approach to ensuring quality at every level, and genuinely having something new to bring to the arts and theatre-going public in Ireland.