<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill A MYTHIC STORY
Only with the chorus, 'The people are the heroes now', (one of Adams's most memorable melodies) did the curtain fully rise. The main opening scene, with its airplane arrival is iconic, and the gesture defines the stylised realism which grips the first half of the opera. The three main scenes in Act 1 (arrival, meeting with Mao, banquet) are all presented as realistically as possible. In between there are scenes in the Nixon's hotel bedroom represented by just a bed in front of the curtain. This striving for naturalism seems to grip not only the production but the work itself and this sits somehow uneasily with the abstract nature of Adams's music. Though Adams writes music of undoubted power and drama, it is rarely descriptive or naturalistic. Adams seems to be striving to depict what goes on beneath the surface and it is only in Acts 2 and 3, when the production loses its self-satisfied realism, that the opera as a whole comes into its own.
Act 2 opens with a kaleidoscope of Pat Nixon's visits to a factory, a clinic, a crèche and a zoo. In the middle, Adams/Goodman/Sellars daringly insert a long solo and Sellars leaves Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly) alone on stage. Kelly proved both touching and naïve as Pat Nixon, but the extreme poetics of Goodman's libretto rather defeated me in this aria.
Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon with members of the chorus. Photo © 2006 English National Opera and Alistair Muir
The second scene of Act 2 showed the Nixons watching a revolutionary ballet, created by Chiang-Ch'ing, Madame Mao Tse-tung (Judith Howarth). The Nixons get drawn in to the action of the ballet and realism is finally broken, to striking effect as the whole ballet troupe are caught up in revolutionary fervour, creating an orgy of destruction, presided over by Howarth's fearsome Madame Mao. Having only seen Howarth as coloratura heroines in works by Rossini, Meyerbeer and Bellini, her incarnation of the fearsome Madame Mao was remarkable and her control of the difficult vocal line was superb.
Copyright © 2 July 2006
Robert Hugill, London UK