Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Adams Nixon in China

ENO, London 14 June 2006

Chou En-lai Mark Stone
Richard Nixon James Maddalena
Henry Kissinger Roland Wood
Pat Nixon Janis Kelly
Chiang Ch'ing Judith Howarth
Mae Tse-tung Adrian Thompson
First Secretary Serena Kay
Second Secretary Alexandra Sherman
Third Secretary Rebecca de Pont Davies
Wu Ching-hua Nicola Tranah
Hung Chang-ching Nikolas Kafetzakis

Conductor Paul Daniel
Original Director Peter Sellars
Revival Director Fred Frumberg
Set Designer Adrianne Lobel
Lighting Designer James F. Ingalls
Original Choreographer Mark Morris
Revival Choreographer Peter Wing Healey

Richard Morrison at the Coliseum - "still one of the most thrilling, funny, poignant and contentious music-theatre pieces written in my lifetime"

Seen for the first time, following mixed impressions from hearing it on the radio, the first act of Nixon in China made a huge impression, one of my most absorbing hours at the opera in many months. Not fans of minimalism in general, one of us wanted to depart at the interval! I coined the phrase holy minimalism to review the UK premiere of Gorecki's Symphony No 3 - (had others done so before me?) - and tend to avoid that genre, though recognising that some of its proponents have themselves moved on and diversified their idioms.

Reactions in the Coliseum varied, and I suspect that it was the staging which took many people's attention; one couple said in the first interval that the descent of the plane was the big moment. For us, this was handled less well than the lift-off in Dove's Flight. You can see on the programme cover illustrated that the hoarding and trees are visible past Mrs Nixon; no illusion that they had emerged from the interior of the air liner!

Grabbed instead aurally by the orchestra, I was fascinated throughout the whole evening by the clarity of Adams' way of maintaining attention and keeping monotony at bay by continual variation of one or other element. Having accepted his "perpetually chugging minimalist rhythms" (Richard Morrison in The Times) as a given, one put the foreground into the background of one's listening and enjoyed an object lesson in variation of timbre and build up of long sections: q.v."Adams's minimalist repetitive but evolving cycles of notes, may induce repetitive strain injury in the players but is also beautiful, lyrical and, yes, operatic" (Erica Jeal in The Guardian).

Unlike so much modern music which one has to take on trust that the composers know (and could explain if pressed) their processes, Adams methods are upfront and could be taken as lessons in keeping alive tonal harmony without the paraphernalia of traditional development.

It was that which made my evening first and last, though the activities on stage were but little less riveting, by their economy and focus which contrasted with some over-clever and extravagand stagings of opera/shows at ENO recently.

The "revolutionary ballet" bewildered me as well as it did Nixon, and I found the (shortest) last act overlong, perhaps missing the point that "its gorgeously autumnal lyricism allows characters to express their forlorn helplessness" (The Times).

This is an opera that gains in retrospect from reading the reviews assembled in The Opera Critic, where there is also to be seen a full selection of images.


© Peter Grahame Woolf