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A Mythic Story

'Nixon in China', reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL

 

Nearly twenty years after its premier, John Adams's Nixon in China remains astonishing. Though to be fair, the work is effectively a joint creation of Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. Reading about the genesis of the work, Sellars seems to have played a prime role in creating the form and shape of the opera. Their combination of the mythic story of Nixon's visit to China with the set pieces of grand opera was a stroke of genius which has often been imitated but never equalled. English National Opera's revival of their production (seen 29 June 2006) was doubly welcome as its previous outing had had to be cancelled due to the delays with the Coliseum re-building.

The production was new in 2000, but new is a relative word in this case as Sellars and his production team (designers Adrianne Lobel, Dunya Ramicova and choreographer Mark Morris) reproduced the original production from Houston Grand Opera from 1987. I had never seen the work live and felt that, nineteen years after its début, the production's ideas were seeming a little stale. This was not helped by the suspicion that in transposing the work from Houston to London, a number of compromises were made in the set design.

Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon. Photo © 2006 English National Opera and Alistair Muir
Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon. Photo © 2006 English National Opera and Alistair Muir

The work opens with one of those annoyingly stylised gestures from Peter Sellars which you either love or hate. The curtain rose about a third of its height and the chorus delivered the opening stationary through the letter box shaped gap.

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Copyright © 2 July 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK

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