Opera review: Scottish Opera: Nixon in China, Theatre Royal Glasgow

HINDSIGHT is a wonderful thing, and it’s what informs and vitalises John Fulljames’ challenging new vision of John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China, presented here by Scottish Opera as part of a co-production with The Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid. This is a contextualised history lesson for everyone, cast included.

Mark Le Brocq makes Mao Tse-Tung seem warm, while Eric Greene as Nixon gets across the doubts underlying his bravado
Mark Le Brocq makes Mao Tse-Tung seem warm, while Eric Greene as Nixon gets across the doubts underlying his bravado

Scottish Opera: Nixon in China, Theatre Royal Glasgow *****

We are viewing Richard Nixon’s media-hyped encounter with Chairman Mao in 1973, not so much as it happens, but with more contemporary eyes, through what appears to be a vast archival depository, regimented stacks of cardboard boxes towering up to the ceiling. Contained within these shelves are the records of history, the news headlines of the day, being viewed – helpfully for us as projected slide shows – by a bureaucratically anonymous black-suited chorus.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

When the story and its characters emerge, it is from the dark recesses of this warehouse, in Mao’s case from a gigantic wooden storage crate, rather reminiscent of scenes from Indiana Jones. It’s in this resuscitated form that the central cast of Mao, Nixon, their wives, Kissinger and Chou En-lai, replay events.

Not that we miss out on iconic moments, such as Nixon’s arrival by presidential plane – designer Dick Bird’s ingenious use of projected film on a series of revolving screens is way more effective than the manufactured Jumbo Jet of previous productions – or the spectacle of Madame Mao’s extraordinary Act 2 propaganda ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, choreographed here by Nathan Johnston with every ounce and bounce of the mischievous irony contained in Adams’ music.

Instead we’re taken more deeply into the minds of the protagonists: the discomfort of the two leaders’ initial private encounter in Act 1, made less tedious by excitable choreography in the banquet scene; their poignant personal reminiscences in Act 3 coloured by images of more recent symbolic political encounters, that of Boris and Nicola getting raucous laughs.

But it is the unstintingly powerful and imaginative interaction of sight and sound that triumphs here and validates Scottish Opera’s bravery in tackling an opera that could so easily have proved an anachronistic folly.

There is cast-iron evenness among the key players. Eric Greene – it was surely a striking counter to literalism to cast a black American as Nixon – captures tellingly the doubts behind the presidential bravado. Julia Sporsén blossoms with genuine concern as his wife, Pat.

Mark Le Brocq finds an unexpected warmth in Mao, contrary to the fearsomely dogmatic coloratura of Hye-Youn Lee’s Madame Mao. David Stout’s frenetic portrayal of the buffa-style Kissinger makes him a golden theatrical foil to the stoical composure of Nicholas Lester’s Chou.

All of which would be nothing without the synchronised unity of the chorus, and the mechanised thrust of Adams’ engine room music. Conductor Joana Carneiro and the orchestra sustain a scorching momentum throughout, though mindful of Adams’ more lyrical diversions and giving substance to those weak moments within the vocal writing. Cameron Crosby’s largely imperceptible amplification design works a treat.

KEN WALTON

Theatre Royal, Glasgow tomorrow and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 27 and 29 February