Monday 1 May 2017

Review: Nixon in China, Bord Gais Energy Theatre

Nixon in China.
Nixon in China.

Pat O'Kelly

Thanks primarily to the determination of conductor Fergus Sheil, Wide Open Opera brings US composer John Adams' 1987 opera 'Nixon in China' to Dublin for the first time.

Led by original director Michael Cavanagh, they offer a visually atmospheric production. The imaginative set by Erhard Rom is enhanced by Sean Nieuwenhuis' video designs that knit effortlessly together as either fore- or background images.

Musically, there is also much in the presentation's favour. It has the distinct advantage of the RTÉ NSO in the pit. Its musicians are kept consistently on their toes by Adams' energised score. Wide Open's chorus, drawn mainly from Dublin's two main music colleges, fulfils its proletariat role with vitally solid and unstrained tone.

The opera is partly drawn on fact – President Nixon's groundbreaking Peking visit in February 1972; and partly based on fiction – the reminiscent reveries in Act III. Its six main characters are set out in more or less classical order with set-piece arias and elaborate ensembles.

Wide Open's cast responds to Adams, librettist Alice Goodman's rhyming-couplet libretto and conductor Sheil with remarkable ease considering the work's complexity.

It is led strongly by Barry Ryan's Nixon, who catches the genial public and private nature of the president against Hubert Francis, who captures the erratic and authoritarian side of Chairman Mao.

There is a lyrical dignity in James Cleverton's interpretation of Premier Chou En-lai, while John Molloy brings an element of comedy to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In Act II, Molloy enters a fantasy ballet sequence as the fictitious hooligan Lao Szu and does so with nimble vocal and physical acrobatics.

In the female roles, Claudia Boyle cuts a dash as First Lady Pat Nixon while Audrey Luna's coloratura as Madame Mao Chiang Ch'ing, has piercing accuracy as she waves aloft Mao's Red Book of ideologies.

But what of the opera itself? Much as I enjoy Adams' repetitive musical ideas, 'Nixon in China' really is overlong and prolix.

There are wonderful things in the score and Adams uses his orchestra superbly while writing understandingly for his singers. His desire to have them amplified is justified in his wish 'to allow a greater array of musical inflection and shape'. However, the lengthy Act II ballet-parable 'The Red Detachment of Women' is frankly hardly worth the effort.

Despite that, much has been achieved in bringing this evocative production here.

Irish Independent

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