Review: Nixon in China – Scottish Opera

Madame Mao

Hye-Youn Lee as Madame Mao. Photograph: James Glossop

Do we make history or does it make us?

Scottish Opera’s co-production of Nixon in China is a timely and intelligent piece that asks questions about things that many in the audience will remember yet provides no easy answers. This is not a simple morality tale, nor a love story, nor a tragedy. It is an opportunity for every audience member to reflect on the swirling currents of modern political life. It is a piece that is at once about how strange the past seems to be and how even stranger, the present.

The dominant theme in John Fulljames’s production is looking back. The whole story is told as a retrospective study of documents within an archive storage facility. Everything is either memory or historical record.

This is an innovative staging making clever use of video throughout. Some of this is simply projected pictures. More interestingly though, much is seen in the form of layers of documents laid down under a digital vizualiser on a desk on the stage.

The bold scoring of the arrival of the plane in China (Landing of the Spirit of ’76) is matched with a particularly fabulous kaleidoscope of projected images on stage.

Joana Caneiro’s conducting shows some restraint throughout the evening. Both orchestra and singers seem a little underpowered. There was no trouble with balance between the pit and the stage but as the action and the theatre heated up, the sound of the fans on the large digital projector in the auditorium were more of a distraction than they should have been.

None of this took away from the sheer excitement of the score. This is a phenomenal musical work. The retrospective mood on the stage perfectly matches the retrospective mood of much of the music, referencing, Wagner, Stravinsky, dance tunes and so forth. This is a production which also emphasises that though radical in some ways, the piece is fundamentally rooted in an operatic tradition. The various set pieces between the six characters, the three female secretaries singing in a semi-chorus, the quotes from other musical works and librettist Alice Goodman’s teasing playfulness with rhyming couplets all emphasise that this is a piece that refreshes a tradition that we already know well.

The singing honours have to be awarded to the two female principals. The arrival of Hye-Youn Lee as Madame Mao in the second act was brilliantly exciting. The role demands an agile coloratura soprano and Hye-Youn Lee did not disappoint. Julia Sporsén’s portrayal of Pat Nixon was also astonishing and she completely dominated Act II. Indeed, there was the creeping realisation that there’s an ambiguity in the title of the work. Which Nixon are we celebrating coming to China – Richard or Pat? John Fulljames missed a trick in not bringing Ms Sporsén on last to receive the audience’s appreciation at the end of the evening to make the point that the piece is largely about Pat Nixon rather than her tricky husband. This was particularly seen throughout the revolutionary ballet when the action was entirely focused on Pat. Throughout everything her voice and hair were coiffed to perfection. She looked and sounded impeccable.

Amongst the men, Eric Greene’s Richard Nixon was interesting and even vulnerable and Nicholas Lester’s final valediction as Chou En-lai the Premier of China moving, elegiac and world-weary.

As the final archive box was put away with its characters in it, one felt thankful that this work had been brought out of storage by those intelligent enough to make it compelling and interesting. In a world still functionally unable to make sense of the relationship between power and the people this was a production that seemed necessary. I came out at the end of the evening feeling that I understood the world better than I did before. I also came out feeling that the world was also more perplexing than it seemed earlier in the evening.

Both things can be true.


Rating: ★★★★☆

This review was published first by Scene Alba.

Anthropocene – Scottish Opera – Review

It is a joy that Scottish Opera have once again commissioned a significant new work and included it in their main stage programme and it is unsurprising that they have turned once again to librettist Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae. Their last collaboration The Devil Inside was a brilliant hit in 2016.

This production once again looks straight into the face of all that is uncanny and disturbing and makes for an interesting though never comforting evening.

A ship gets stuck in the ice off Greenland. It contains a rich entrepreneur and his daughter, a couple of scientists, a journalist and a couple of crew members. They get trapped due to the actions of one of the scientists who has discovered a body frozen in the ice – a body which turns out, somehow, to still be alive. This extraordinary part of the plot isn’t explored nearly as much as one would like. Though we later discover the strange survivor to have once been the victim of a cult of blood-sacrifice, the other characters seem curiously uninterested in her story other than that it might make some of them rich and famous.

Throughout the whole opera, MacRae’s score glistens with icy melodrama – the pit seeming to become the very ice that traps the ship above it. So much does the orchestra creak and moan and shimmer throughout the whole evening that the frozen sea itself seems to have become another character in the drama.

There was much strong singing, but it would be unfair not to single out Jennifer France singing the part of Ice – the curiously resurrected body. Her singing seemed to be what the word ethereal was coined to describe.

This is a piece with particularly strong music for the female voice and a prolonged section for the trio of the three female singers in the second half of the evening was stunning.

Musically, things are considerably stronger than the plot and there is a curious disjuncture between the first half of the evening and the second. It is as though the creative team were somehow subconsciously rewriting The Flying Dutchman for the first half and then when they realised what they were doing, decided to have a go at rewriting Parsifal for the second.

Without giving away too many of the plot twists, this is a salvation story with no salvation. But therein lies its problem – this is a piece which is all too aware of its own conceit and takes us nowhere new. There are resonances here with the post-Christendom nihilism of some of Flannery O’Conner’s characters but O’Conner tells her stories with considerably more affection for the human soul.

A number of familiar operatic clichés make appearances. Two men roll around the stage fighting one another over the affections of a woman just before the interval – though their affections come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Ultimately, there is “…no blessing, no words of comfort” as Ice sings at the very end. The trouble is, we already knew that and we end the evening having been exposed more to concept than story.

It is almost guaranteed that one will come out of a Welsh and Macrae opera talking about what it all meant and even a day later, I find myself still curiously unsure whether my opinion of it has finally settled. All I can remember looking back is being surrounded by ice and that everything around us is breaking up and is bitter cold.

This is opera to chill you to the marrow but it neither promises nor delivers solace.

In that, it is very much a piece of our times.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review appeared first in Scene Alba.