From Greek myths to kings and queens, opera has long looked to the past for inspiration. Superficially, Nixon in China is no different, but scratch the surface and John Adams’s opera is concerned not so much with the who-said-and-did-what of the historical event in question – Nixon’s diplomatic visit to the People’s Republic in 1972 – but with the very idea of how history is created.
John Fulljames’s slick and inventive production for Scottish Opera takes this idea very literally indeed. The staging – a co-production with the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, originally performed in Copenhagen last year – is a museum piece. Or rather an archive piece, as Dick Bird’s sets place the action in the Chinese state archives, all towering shelves of anonymous brown boxes containing a wealth of historical information.
This isn’t the first time Fulljames has explored the idea of opera as historical relic – he is the director who put Rossini’s character Elena back in a display case at the end of the Royal Opera’s La Donna del Lago a few years ago. Yet this is a rather different postmodern take on a historical subject. Peter Sellars’ original 1987 production, created only 15 years after the events it depicts, saw the protagonists made up to resemble the real-life figures – something that might seem distastefully close to caricature for modern sensibilities. Instead, Fulljames and his team turn to the wealth of archive material. There are photographs, magazine covers and film footage of Nixon’s visit cleverly projected via Will Duke’s designs on to a minimalist set. It’s a witty dissection of the recent past and also – when a box full of copies of Mao’s once-fashionable Little Red Book spills open, much to the consternation of an archive flunky – a reminder of how much has changed in the half-century since these events.
Against this ultra-realist backdrop, the characters are ciphers of the real thing. Neither Eric Greene’s Nixon, initially a little underpowered, nor Mark Le Brocq’s Mao – despite his otherworldly high tenor – are given much opportunity to project personality into their roles. In Fulljames’s vision, the opera is about the creation of history rather than the fates of the individual people involved. This alienating device reminds us that we see these figures as media constructs rather than as real people with real emotions.
The exception is Julia Sporsén’s Pat Nixon, who is strong-voiced yet sympathetic, particularly during the disturbing set-piece revolutionary ballet in act two. In contrast, there is nothing vulnerable about Hye-Youn Lee’s Madame Mao, whose stratospheric entrance aria is the show-stealing moment of the night. The leaders’ sidekicks are even more blandly sketched: David Stout is blustery and self-regarding as the shady Henry Kissinger, while Nicholas Lester as Chinese premier Chou En-lai is his softer, more introspective foil.
Musically, conductor Joana Carneiro favours soft edges over rhythmic intensity in her account of the score. While on the opening night the action flagged at times, particularly towards the end of the first act, overall it emphasised the rich colours of Adams’s lush orchestration. The expanded Orchestra of Scottish Opera was attentive to phrasing and detail, and ensured that the invention seen on stage was mirrored in the pit.