How ironic that Sydney finally got to experience the four scenes from John Adams' 1987 opera, Nixon in China – which the composer himself selected and wittily named The Nixon Tapes – just as controversy was breaking out in Australia about China's dangerous “soft power” (and hard cash) and its capacity to both corrupt local politicians and to keep a leash on the large diasporic Chinese presence in Australia. How much has changed since 1972 when President Nixon amazed the world by flying to Peking to treat with the isolationist Chairman Mao and Premier Chou Enlai ruling over a broken communist economy.

Andrew Mogrelia © Matthew Washburn
Andrew Mogrelia
© Matthew Washburn

What has this to do with the opera? Well, the planning for Nixon in China started with director Peter Sellars inviting his college friend Alice Goodman to write a poetic libretto. And Sellars has always been nothing if not political. With Adams aboard, the trio would go on to create The Death of Klinghoffer whose politics would be denounced in the New York Times. "What upset (critic Richard) Taruskin was giving beautiful music to terrorists", Goodman would later justify in a comment that has even greater resonance today. "They have to sing ugly music... we can't have complexity. People will love evil if we give terrorists beautiful music to sing, and we can't have that, can we?”

Well, certainly not in an opera scripted by Goodman – who never wrote again after Klinghoffer, but renounced her Judaism and became a Church of England vicar.

Yet Andrew Mogrelia, imported by Opera Australia from England to conduct The Nixon Tapes (version 1) in a concert performance, attributes the success of Nixon in China as much to Alice Goodman as anyone in the creative team. “Alice Goodman writes a very interesting ‘preface’ to the full score,” Mogrelia told a local website. “She says ‘My Nixon is not quite the same character as John Adams’ Nixon, and they both differ slightly from [director] Peter Sellars’ Nixon, not to mention James Maddalena’s [who sung Richard Nixon in the original cast]… This collaboration is polyphonic’” .

Which Nixon did we get in our four brief scenes? A commanding presence from Luke Gabbedy was undeniable, though Goodman's words suggested a man more intent upon leaving his mark on history via prime time TV coverage back home than an actual man of destiny. The bold claim of himself as “An old cold warrior piloting towards/an unknown shore through shoals” leads only to “We know we want... / What?” But Adams has set up the Americans' arrival with the almost monotone chanting of the People's Chorus in rhymed octosyllabic couplets spouting the Little Red Book, followed by a Wagnerian burst of trumpeting as Airforce One lands. The composer's capacity to characterise through orchestral colour – usually woodwind and lower strings over arpeggiated upper strings - is constantly illuminating.

Were the Nixons dancing in Act 1 Scene 3? The intimacy and inconsequence of their conversation seemed matched by strains of the ballroom. Similarly, Pat Nixon's big scene threw up hints of great American musicals (Oklahoma, perhaps?) to greet her warm-hearted reflections on the folks back home, with muted trumpets added to give a patriotic touch. Jane Ede's star-spangled outfit beside her black and white man was suitably jingoistic. No picnic for her at the Ming Tombs, though. The Chorus reminds her of the exploitation of labour that produced such fine sculptuary.

Compared to this characterful Chorus – currently denied a regular stage presence as the Joan Sutherland Theatre undergoes much-needed renovations – Chou Enlai and Henry Kissinger were barely more than cyphers in this cut-down version of the opera. Christopher Tonkin as Chou may have felt particularly frustrated with his aria of empty Maoist rhetoric as he had sung the complete work in Melbourne in 2013, one of two full versions denied to Sydney by the national opera company. The other was in 1992 in adventurous Adelaide.

The last scene belonged vituperatively to Eva Kong's Chiang Ching. In a striking scarlet dress, armed with her husband's Red Book, she triumphed in both personality and in her mastery of piercingly high notes over an orchestra that was fully wound up to offer the boldest of Adams' harmonic and rhythmic statements as she echoed William Blake to cry, “Let me be a grain of sand in heaven's eye and I shall taste eternal joy”.

But when are we going to get the whole work?

Accompanying The Nixon Tapes were two 21st Century orchestral works by pop guitarists. Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) gave us the 30-part Popcorn Superhet Receiver for strings – an exercise in microtonal mayhem mastered by super conductor control from Mogrella. And Bryce Dessner (The National), with St Carolyn by the Sea, prepared us for the Adams by giving his lower strings a hymn-like tune as the upper strings arpeggiated, moving on to mass pealing, and throwing in flickers of Wagner and Sibelius and some great cross-rhythms from the percussion.