The ordeal that is the Bord Gais Energy Theatre’s foyer and ticket booth, clearly in no way prepared for the popularity of the night, leads to a delayed opening and sets up a challenging atmosphere for the opening night of John Adams’s Nixon in China. The performance begins with chorus joining the already raging orchestral action, the austere visual impact contrasting powerfully with well executed, complex rhythmic lines. As the chorus turns its back on the audience to view the landing of the presidential plane, we join them in the anticipation of what is to come.
Barry Ryan‘s Richard Nixon is powerful, booming and surprisingly energetic. The staging more than makes up for the plane graphics seen earlier, the overwhelming plane now towering over the performers. Touches of humour from Ryan serve to lighten the mood, but James Cleverton‘s Chou En-Lai starts off without the power to hold his own. For such an extreme piece of scenery, the production does not belabor the plane, as we soon move to Chairman Mao’s study. Here we are introduced to the three secretaries to Mao, the impeccable combination of Sharon Carty, Imelda Drumm and Doreen Curran. John Molloy’s Kissinger is an odd caricature, joined by questionable acting from Hubert Francis‘s squinting Mao, but both vocal performances are as solid as one could hope for.
Pat Nixon’s trip to the pig farm is a delight, Claudia Boyle bringing life to the role, as the chorus once again showing their strength and agility. We are finally introduced to Audrey Luna as Chiang Ch’ing, who immediately commands the stage. Choreography in the ballet makes up for the lack of movement in the plot, while roles become as intertwined as the musical styles have been thus far. The orchestra goes from strength to strength, handling everything Adams throws at them from minimalism to big band music. The full power of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra should be enough to challenge any singer, but Luna doesn’t give an inch as she dominates proceedings.
By the close of the performance little has been settled, relations between America and China as dubious as ever, we are left wondering what fuelled Adams’s choice of this subject matter. Whatever his reasoning, the experimentally ponderous style gives rise to some interesting musical variety which this production takes and makes its own. The basis of the plot is the only weak point of the night, with soloists, chorus, orchestra and production giving us everything. Fergus Sheil’s ambition clearly knows no bounds, moving from Tristan und Isolde in 2012 to Nixon in China. At the close as Cleverton, finally in his element, ponders the future, we join him and can only wonder; what will it be next for Wide Open Opera?