The first so-called ‘CNN opera’ was premiered in 1987, when the events it portrayed – US President Richard Nixon’s unanticipated and historic visit to China – were just 15 years in the past. Now they’re nearly 50 years old, and it was time for a new visual look at a piece that entered the international repertoire in the original staging by Peter Sellars.
Designed by Dick Bird, John Fulljames’ version aptly presents it within a vast archive, Will Duke’s projections counterpointing the action with actual footage and photos of this newsworthy, sky-high-profile episode of cold-war détente.
Much of the live performance, too, emphasises the documentary elements in a piece that at the same time presents a complex philosophical vision of a subject that could so easily have been treated as mere satire; instead we have a disquisition on power that ends by questioning the validity of all political achievements – a surprisingly moving if ultimately downbeat ending.
The central roles are all impressively taken, from Eric Greene’s boisterous yet strangely sympathetic Nixon to Julia Sporsén’s infinitely touching Pat Nixon, David Stout’s canny Kissinger, Mark Le Brocq’s ailing Mao, Hye-Youn Lee’s high-energy Madame Mao, and Nicholas Lester’s thoughtful Chou En-lai.
Originally choreographed by John Ross and here revived by Nathan Johnston, the substantial dance sequences – especially the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women – are brilliantly and regularly wittily realised.
Joana Carneiro’s conducting maintains a firm grip on the score’s rhythmic complexity, with the chorus and orchestra invariably engaged and perfectly on cue.