Opera & Dance
Nixon in China
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,
Touring until May 30
By MARK BROWN
John Adams’s Nixon in China is one of the most remarkable operas from the second half of the 20th century. A work, not only of political history but, in its extraordinary third (and final) act, also of existential philosophy, it is opera on an impressively grand scale.
The first opera to be written by the American composer, the piece is based upon US president Richard Nixon’s famous, week-long visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 (the first ever by a US head of state). The visit, in which Nixon met with Mao Tse-tung (Chairman of the Communist Party of China) and held substantive talks with China’s premier Chou En-lai, altered the course of Sino-American relations, and also of the Cold War.
In this co-production for Scottish Opera, the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, director John Fulljames puts the focus on the visit as history. The events of 1972 are placed within the frame of an archive, where staff explore film footage, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine articles about Nixon’s trip.
It is a brilliant conceptual innovation, in both dramatic and technical terms. Thanks to Fulljames’s excellent design team (designer Dick Bird, lighting designer Ellen Ruge and projection designer Will Duke) the action unfolds ingeniously from a world of pre-digital technology (such as the arrival of Air Force One in Beijing projected onto a series of stand-alone screens which rotate on a cleverly, and regularly, employed stage revolve).
The versatile stage design opens out to envision a China that the American people hadn’t seen since before the Maoist revolution of 1949. As it does so, the renowned repetition and variation of Adams’s music combines with an operatic heft that defies the definition of the composer as a “minimalist”. The result is a score that has both inherent momentum and an impressive sense of drama.
The opera itself is as much a work of universal theatre as it is a historical piece. Alice Goodman’s libretto sparks with wry humour, not least in its depiction of Nixon’s hawkish national security adviser Henry Kissinger (played with energetic, dark humour by the superb baritone David Stout) as a sadistic pervert.
There are outstanding performances by all of the leads. The glorious South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee is as powerful in her (often humorous) portrayal of Madame Mao as she is in her singing of the role.
Julia Sporsén’s Pat Nixon, Mark Le Brocq’s Mao and Nicholas Lester’s Chou En-lai are equally accomplished in their vivid characterisations. The exceptional African-American baritone Eric Greene’s Nixon is a sharp, by turns, earnest and knowingly ironic, portrait of a politician who was, in 1972, both seeking re-election and, very consciously, trying to write his own page in history.
Fulljames’s production (from the fantastic cast to the Scottish Opera orchestra under the baton of Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro) executes beautifully the opera’s shift in tone in the existential third act. Here memory, unfulfilled political and personal ambitions and the weight of mortality tower above Nixon’s “week that changed history”.
As Lester’s resigned, somewhat melancholic Chou exits the stage one can almost see the hand of history writing the damning epitaphs that both Nixon and Mao were powerless to prevent.
From modern mythology to the Ancient Greek variety, as Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT) tackles Sophocles with the new solo show Antigone, Interrupted. The first choreography for SDT by Catalan dance maker Joan Clevillé (who was appointed artistic director of the company last year), the piece is performed by the superb French dancer Solène Weinachter.
The director has expressed his fascination with the modern resonances of the character of Antigone, the aristocratic Theban who rebelled against King Creon’s decree that the body of her brother Polynices (who had taken up arms against Thebes) be left unburied. However, rather than focus the piece precisely upon Antigone herself, Clevillé has cast Weinachter in an almost impossibly challenging array of roles.
The dancer appears as a conversationally informal version of herself, and also as a narrator and all of the key players in Sophocles’s drama (from Creon to the Chorus itself). Consequently, she finds herself engaged in a great many performative tasks that prevent her from getting to the tragic core of Antigone herself.
The pity of this is that Weinachter is a captivating performer, not least in the too few moments when she physicalises Antigone’s anguish and her terrible, sacrificial compulsion. If only Clevillé had taken the economical route of offering the audience some relatively brief, necessary narration interspersed with Weinachter’s performance of Antigone alone.
The overloading of Weinachter’s performance is all the more frustrating because the piece enjoys fine, minimal design, and a smart, atmospheric (if occasionally overcooked) soundscape.
The obvious comparison is with Ewan Downie’s recent, one-man Achilles for Glasgow-based Company of Wolves, which cut Homeric, poetic prose narration with a concentration upon the central character. It is a comparison that does not serve SDT’s uneven production well.
For tour dates for Antigone, Interrupted, visit: scottishdancetheatre.com
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 23, 2020
© Mark Brown