Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Nixon In China, Victorian Opera, May 16, 2013 ***1/2

Music by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman; by Victorian Opera 
Her Majesty’s Theatre, May 16, 18, 21 & 23, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 16 
Stars: ***1/2
Review published in print in Herald Sun on May 21 and online on May 22. KH.

"February 21, 1972, the week that changed the world."

For many listeners, the contemporary music of John Adams may sound as alien and difficult as that of the exotic Peking Opera, so it makes a strange sort of sense that his opera, Nixon In China, uses his minimalist music.

On February 21, 1972, US President, Richard Nixon, arrived in Peking to meet with Chairman Mao and his Premier, Chou En-Lai, during “the week that changed the world”, just a year before his presidential demise after Watergate.

Orchestra Victoria, under the impeccable leadership of conductor, Fabian Russell, brings life to Adams’ edgy, complex score that incorporates a smattering of other styles into its mostly minimalist structure.

Adams’ repetitive music has a tidal ebb and flow that surges at times with emotional, dramatic crescendos, echoes of ceremonial celebrations, militaristic revolutionary bands and plenty of brass.

Librettist, Alice Goodman, cleverly intersperses imagined scenes, dreams and conversations amongst real events and meetings between the characters.

Director, Roger Hodgman, deftly captures the ritualism and formality of the Chinese regime, its odd collision of rigidity, pride and pomp, accentuated by Richard Roberts’ design of rich, enormous, scarlet drapes and stark, geometric furniture in a cavernous stage.

Nixon In China, first performed in 1987, is not easy listening, and those who are not aficionados of contemporary opera may find it impenetrable, but it is certainly challenging and this production features some exceptional singers and orchestra.

Barry Ryan’s powerful voice lends Nixon both strength and vulnerability, Bradley Daley’s thrilling tenor makes the aged and ailing Mao compelling, and Christopher Tonkin plays Chou En-lai with dignity and composure.

Tiffany Speight brings to life the peculiarly unemotional Pat Nixon, singing Pat’s meditative aria, This is Prophetic, when she visits the peasants and factories, with her warm voice and perfect control.

A highlight is soprano, Eva Jinhee Kong’s tough, resilient Madame Mao, and her impassioned, exhilarating aria, I Am The Wife of Mao Tse-tung.

Andrew Collis plays Nixon’s adviser, Henry Kissinger who, in Goodman’s libretto, is the butt of jokes, rather than the canny manipulator and diplomat.

The trio of Mao’s secretaries, sung by Sally-Anne Russell, Dimity Shepherd and Emily Bauer-Jones, provides humour and political commentary, while the rich vocal quality of the chorus brings a fine, vocal foundation to the music.

It may be a challenge to the ear but, if you want to experience one of the more accessible modern operas, choose Nixon In China.

By Kate Herbert

Chou En-lai Christopher Tonkin 
Richard Nixon Barry Ryan 
Henry Kissinger Andrew Collis 
Mao Tse-tung Bradley Daley 
Pat Nixon Tiffany Speight 
Chiang Ching (Madame Mao) Eva Jinhee Kong 
Nancy T’ang (Secretary to Mao) Sally-Anne Russell 
Second Secretary to Mao Dimity Shepherd   
Third Secretary to Mao Emily Bauer-Jones

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