President Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 was indeed an internationally pivotal meeting. The menace of the Cold War seemed unbreakable and the Russians were not talking. Conscious of the power of television which had taken live coverage of the horrors of the Vietnam War and the triumph of the first moon landing into people’s living rooms, Nixon was well aware that the prime-time TV slots back home could portray him favourably as a key global negotiator.   was written in 1987 with the Cold War cooling and the fall of the Berlin Wall only two years away, so it was a masterstroke of director John Fulljames to set this powerful production in a large present-day archive, using real footage of the visit but placing it reflectively in a modern context.

Eric Greene (Richard Nixon), Licholas Lester (Chou En-lai) and Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) © James Glossop
Eric Greene (Richard Nixon), Licholas Lester (Chou En-lai) and Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon)
© James Glossop

Sliding racks holding cardboard boxes filled the stage, Dick Bird’s stylish floor-to-ceiling archive dwarfing the smart dark suited staff brandishing white conservators’ gloves to handle the historic documents, blown up in real time from table-top to striking huge back-projections. The embalmed Chairman Mao was wheeled across the stage and in an astonishing feat of technical whizz from projection designer Will Duke, the arrival and touchdown of Airforce One was projected on six screens moving round on the central revolve. John Adams’ rising scales and emerging urgent beat of his loops and twists created a cinematic sense of anticipation, the chorus lustily breaking into Mao Tse-tung’s “The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight points of Attention” as they awaited the visitors.

Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro built a powerful momentum in the pit, her large forces confidently tackling Adams’ demanding score with relish. Excitement came from the engine room of four saxophones and three clarinets (two bass instruments) who kept up their percussive bite throughout, decorated by urgent flutes and piccolos, tempered by two pianos and a sampler, the strings winding in repetitive sequences. Carneiro sought the lyrical moments too, with beautiful playing in the final introspective act in particular.

Nicholas Lester (Chou En-lai), Mark Le Brocq (Mao Tse-tung) and Hye-Youn Lee (Chiang Ch'ing) © James Glossop
Nicholas Lester (Chou En-lai), Mark Le Brocq (Mao Tse-tung) and Hye-Youn Lee (Chiang Ch'ing)
© James Glossop

John Fulljames directed a busy stage with intelligence, allowing key moments to be highlighted and space for true characters to emerge. The singing and acting was superb right across the board, Eric Greene’s authoritative baritone carrying weight as the President in his set piece meeting with the sick Mao Tse-tung, Mark Le Brock in splendid voice, shadowed by his obedient trio of trouser-suited secretaries Louise Callinan, Sioned Gwen Davies and Emma Carrington. The President hinted at straight business talk, but Mao only spouted philosophy and riddles. Nicholas Lester was a thoughtful Chou En-lai, the Chinese premier and David Stout a slippery Henry Kissinger. The ensuing banquet was a highlight with its guests at a large circular table as toasts followed speeches while the energetic music dived and swirled, Kissinger frantic when the President went off-message.

With all the official business covered, the opera moved on to Pat Nixon, her visits to schools, farms, factories and clinics and meeting the Chinese people. Julia Sporsén gave a towering performance as the ever-elegant First Lady, enchanted by her experiences, but deeply shocked at the brutality of the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women. Devised by Mao’s wife Chiang Ch’ing and danced with edgy verve by a colourfully costumed team of seven, the choreography by John Ross and Nathan Johnston blended into the action seamlessly. Hye-Youn Lee was terrifying as Chaing Ch’ing, her stratospheric singing giving her character a cruel edge, a spectacular tour de force

Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon) © James Glossop
Julia Sporsén (Pat Nixon)
© James Glossop

The projected documents and film clips were almost a character in themselves, linking the played-out action with real events almost fifty years ago. References went beyond China to the Vietnam War, but there was fun playing “leadership snap” with pictures of Regan and Gorbachev, Putin and Assad, Trump and Kim Jong-un and – to gales of laughter – Boris Johnston and Nicola Sturgeon as the final reflective act began. After all the high energy, the final act sags somewhat as both leaders and their wives reminisce of happier and simpler times. Set against a slow revolve of black and white historical images, sympathy builds for the main characters and the Maos dance youthfully, Carneiro coaxing lyrical textures from the pit. Richard Nixon gets the opera’s headline, but it is Pat Nixon’s experience that lingers powerfully.

Nixon’s visit to China was the catalyst for a Russian request to meet, and the May 1972 Moscow summit followed resulting in a much hoped for arms reduction agreement. A month later, the break-in at the Watergate Office building would lead to the President’s resignation in 1974. As a lonely Chou En-lai asks “How much of what we did was good?”  history moves on, but this stylish and engaging production of Nixon In China, a joint venture with the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, cements the work as a modern classic: “The People are the Heroes now.”

****1