Adams - Nixon in China

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Monday April 16 2012

Conductor: Alexander Briger. Production and choreography: Chen Shi-Zheng. Sets: Shilpa Gupta. Costumes: Petra Reinhardt. Lighting: Alexander Koppelmann. Video: Olivier Roset. Richard Nixon: Franco Pomponi. Pat Nixon: June Anderson. Henry Kissinger: Peter Sidhom. Mao Zedong: Alfred Kim. Madame Mao (Jiang Qing): Sumi Jo. Chou En-Lai: Kyung Chun Kim. First secretary: Sophie Leleu. Second secretary: Alexandra Sherman. Third secretary: Rebecca de Pont Davies. Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. Chorus of the Châtelet.

In the old days, when pubs were still pubs and not yet a cross between a steak house and a disco with only incidental beer, you’d often see a nicotine-stained sign over the counter or dangling from an optic saying “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”. Several times, recently, it has occurred to me that a similar message might be printed on the cover page of certain opera scores: “You don’t have to be mad to sing this, but it helps”. Nixon in China would be one. I don’t know if everyone in this new production at the Châtelet is certifiable, but if being mad helps with Nixon, judging by their success in singing the unsingable, they must be.

The first time I came across Franco Pomponi was in Henze’s The Bassarids, also with June Anderson – I wonder if they’re having an affair?* Even if the part isn't the most outlandish, apart from the odd falsetto note, it's demanding, but he was just perfect all round as Nixon (and clambered up the scaffolding in act three with admirable ease). June Anderson herself was simply the best I’ve ever seen her over the years, both vocally – none of the “wooziness” she’s sometimes capable of - and dramatically, as the carefully-coiffed, wide-eyed American blonde abroad. Comment from a friend: “It's a real voice whatever people say and she's dead professional like all yanks”. Indeed.

Alfred Kim was positively stentorian as Mao over the noisy chuntering from the pit. Sidhom barked his way through, taking the part by force, but in a character role, that worked. And Sumi Jo was just spellbinding: a tiny thing, even when strutting round, tightly buttoned up in her green or grey uniform suits and sunglasses, on thick platform soles, belting out “The book, the book, the book…!” up to that top D as if there were no tomorrow. An astonishing performance in an impossible role.

This was my first experience of the work live and a number of things struck me during the evening. From the opening bars - bar even - the complex cross-rhythms have much more impact than on disc. I loved that. Then it occurred to me how very odd the score must be to the orchestra when they first play it: it really is different from their usual fare. Listening to CDs and, I thought, being a Bruckner fan, I’d never really noticed how static the first act is: it didn’t bother me, but it must be irksome to others – people who find Bruckner long and boring, for example. And yes, though I see no reference to Bruckner in things I’ve read about Adams and his score, to me there are definitely similarities: if you made a sort of mix of the last-movement codas of the fourth and the eighth, wouldn’t you get something very like the start of Nixon? In the theatre, the score’s crazy demands on the singers are far more obvious. And finally, the scoring is loud, so you can understand that the singers are supposed to be miked, though at the Châtelet they weren’t, making their achievement all the more praiseworthy: on the video you can tell, for example, that Kim is really bawling his head off to project above the pit, as I mentioned above.

Also in the old days… when I was at the oriental faculty, doing Chinese studies, we all mysteriously ended up on the mailing lists for such fascinating, large-format magazines as China Foreign Trade, in which machine tools, old-fashioned tractors or gaily-stencilled enamel thermos flasks were displayed against backgrounds of plain, bright colour. The design of this simple but very carefully-made production brought those pages back to me; but I suppose the images of green and yellow khaki uniforms and splashes of red – Pat’s coat, Little Red Books, badges, basketball boots and the Coca-Cola can Pat took out of her handbag to revive the beaten dancer… - against plain pink, orange or yellow lighting, were more obviously inspired by the heroic painting and ballet of the time. There were no tractors or flasks as such, but the sets were, scene by scene, mostly large, single objects displayed against the changing colour of the backdrop.

In act one, after some Warlikowski-like contrasting TV footage of the US and China at the time, projected on the curtain, we had just an effectively symbolic, rough brick wall. The chorus saw the plane as it flew in over our heads but we didn’t: Mr and Mrs Nixon descended from heaven, like neatly-dressed aliens, in their airliner seats to the platform of a metal staircase wheeled in. For cocktails, what looked at first like a giant chandelier turned out to be a cluster of 40-odd flat screens of various sizes showing more black-and-white TV images.

Once the snow had been swept away, Pat Nixon was shown various gilt bronze objects: a dragon, a pagoda palace, a deer, even the pig, in square glass cases gliding across the stage. The children, waving red flags and stars and stripes in their school uniforms, were equally squarely boxed in. The ballet (super for once, not laughable as most opera ballets are) took place under a yellow-tiled Forbidden City roof that eventually lowered down for Jiang Qing to strut across while the masses fought to adore her. And finally, act three took place beneath the scaffolding surrounding a colossal statue of the Chairman, here replacing the giant portrait from the original production.

The show is already online for the next three months and I imagine there’s every chance of a DVD, so it will end up being familiar to us all – rightly so. Some of the best evenings I’ve ever spent at the opera were at the Châtelet in the 80s and 90s. The programming is now what’s called “eclectic” so I no longer subscribe (the slack being taken up by the newly-excellent seasons at the Opéra Comique). But Nixon in China proves again that when the Châtelet does do opera, it continues to do it proud.

*"His Escamillo is actually sexier than most Carmens" according to one blogger.

Also covered by Opera Cake.

Maestro Wenarto is the wife of Mao Tse Tung. 

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