Nixon in China

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

THE STATUS of John Adams’s Nixon in China as a pivotal score in modern music already made this revival by The Royal Danish Opera’s John Fulljames for Scottish Opera a major event. But the vision and intelligence he has brought to the new production elevates it to being an essential experience.

The documentary opera of the American president’s summit with Mao in the company of their wives and key sidemen, Henry Kissinger (David Stout) and Chou En-lai (Nicholas Lester), that Adams, original director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman created in 1987 is presented here as part of the archive of the actual events fifteen years earlier.

Photographs, film footage, and documents are displayed and projected in a myriad ingenious and dramatic ways as part of an animated approach to storytelling that ingeniously operates within the technology of the era, with pop-up projector screens and overhead projectors employed in real time, and as part of a superb choreography (Nathan Johnston reviving John Ross) that also keeps a corps of dancers busy for much of the evening.

On a revolving stage, the fluid way the cast and props make the narrative crystal clear is matched by the approach of conductor Joana Carneiro to the music in the pit. An expanded cross-generational Orchestra of Scottish Opera is on top form, with the reeds, who do a lot of the heavy lifting, magnificent.

The multi-national cast that Scottish Opera has assembled for these performances is without a weak link and the subtle amplification employed by sound designer Cameron Crosby ensures that demanding vocal leaps Adams requires of Eric Greene, as Nixon, and Mark Le Brocq, as Mao, are heard to best advantage. Even when the action is static, as in the men’s amusingly unproductive first talks, the music supplies plenty of drama.

Of a wonderful three-part evening, it is the second act, which revolves around Pat Nixon (Julia Sporsen) and Madame Mao (Hye-Youn Lee), that is the absolute sensation of the night as a theatrical experience, by which time the contemporary relevance of this tale of half a century ago will already have you on the edge of your seat. Beyond question one of the most rewarding and thought-provoking evenings that will be available in any theatre this year.