John Adams - Nixon in China
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2012
Stephen Betteridge, Chen Shi-Zheng, Franco Pomponi, Alfred Kim, June Anderson, Sumi Jo, Kyung Chun Kim, Peter Sidhom, Sophie Leleu, Alexandra Sherman, Rebecca de Pont Davies
ARTE Live Web, Live Internet Streaming, 18 April 2012
If the Live in HD broadcast last year of Adams’ Nixon in China direct from the Met in New York around the world served to remind one of the relevance of the work to the advancement of technology and the power of the media that forms one of the main themes of the work - the US President’s visit to China in 1972 broadcast to American primetime TV via satellite to impress the electorate back home - the latest live broadcast of a new 2012 production at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, made freely available for viewing on the internet courtesy of the TV channel Arte, certainly emphasises that point. On a rather smaller and more intimate scale however than the revival of the Peter Sellars production at the Met, it was the power of the opera itself and ultimately its message that came across even more strongly in the new Paris production.
Having recently listened to a number of modern operas sung in English, I was beginning to question again whether it’s a sufficiently musical language for opera. Even with John Adams’ rather more accessible rhythms, it’s not always the case that the English language fits smoothly with the flow and meter of the music, and that’s not even necessarily the case with Nixon in China itself, so it’s wonderful to hear the work sung, as it is here, with such a wonderful sense of integration with the music, and with feeling for the language and meaning of the libretto itself. There is a softer tone to the arrangements played by the Chamber Orchestra of Paris here, conducted by Stephen Betteridge with a wonderful sense for the rhythmic interweaving of the music and the voices, that seemed to bring a newfound lyricism to the sometimes obscure pronouncements and interjections of the protagonists in Alice Goodman’s libretto.
In terms of production design, there’s not really a great deal you can do with Nixon in China, since it is indeed tied to the historical event of an official state visit of an American President to Communist China in 1972, and Shilpa Gupta’s set designs for Chen Shi-Zheng’s production accordingly don’t look greatly different from the original Peter Sellars’ production. There’s no taxiing onto the Peking runway of the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ here - President and Mrs Nixon descend on a pulley to the background of a Great Wall - and the set designs are quite minimal elsewhere (there’s little sign of a banquet at the end of Act I, and no actual beds in the closing bedroom scenes of Act III), but essentially apart from the Red Detachment of Women’s Revolutionary Ballet in Act II, there’s no great reliance on dramatic interaction in the work, the Heads of State for the most part addressing each other and the audience as the people and the watching public.
Leaving the stage fairly clear of props - those that are used are mostly suspended by cables - the production is directed then very much with a choreographer’s eye by Chen Shui-Zheng, often populated with Red Army troops and Chinese citizens of the Revolution who deliver the opera’s fabulous chorus work. And since the opera deals with a visit that is heavily “stage managed”, the management of the stage in this way is kind of appropriate, the effects achieved simply though the use of light, colouration and stage placement of the figures. The Act II ballet, which brings into focus the key central theme of “power fantasy” works wonderfully in this respect, looking marvellous, while also emphasising the delicate blurring between the disturbing reality of the ballet created by Madam Mao and the no less disturbing resonances it sparks off in each of those who view it.
It doesn’t take Nixon long at the banquet in Act I to realise that he was wrong about China, and that although they may appear to be diametrically opposed in ideology, they are united by a common sense of purpose - world domination, or at least an evangelical belief in the mastery of the great over the small that can be achieved through manipulation of the reins of power. Nixon can’t help but admire the cult of personality the Mao inspires and recognises that whether it’s through a little red book or through satellite broadcasts on primetime TV, it’s an effective means of propaganda that appeals as much as to his sense of self-importance as his ideals. Act II’s ballet then represents different facets of this power fantasy to each person watching - on a political level as well as an interpersonal and gender level, the strong dominating the weak, the great demonstrating mastery over the small, individuality powerless against the force of the masses. Act III of course reminds us that each of the personalities involved are all too human and weak themselves, struggling with their own demons and their sense of insignificance in the greater scheme of things. That doesn’t however lessen the influence and capability for long-lasting damage that they can inflict through their beliefs and the image they desire to uphold before the media.
This is fantastic production then of a work that continues to exercise a fascination and meaning way beyond its historical 1970s context. It looks good, it sounds great and it full gets across all the qualities, implications, undercurrents and relevance of the work. Getting the right balance between self-importance and self-parody, Franco Pomponi sings Richard Nixon masterfully with genuine feeling and a wonderful lyricism, but he’s wonderfully supported also by an impressive performance from June Anderson as Pat Nixon. There are a large number of Chinese and Korean singers and dancers here that contributes towards an ethnic realism, but all sing well in their own right, notably Alfred Kim as an enigmatic and impassioned Mao Tse-tung, Kyung Chun Kim a dignified and troubled Premier Chou En-lai and Sumi Jo coping well with the high vocal demands of the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing.
Recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18th April 2012, Nixon in China is currently available, free to view, from the Arte Live Web site.