Into the gaping void opened by the implosion of Opera Ireland three years ago stepped, eventually, Wide Open Opera, a new company whose bold intentions were immediately advertised in its opening production, an import of Welsh National Opera's Tristan und Isolde, with six of the nine principal parts taken by Irish singers. WOO continues to push the envelope with its latest venture, the Irish première of John Adams' Nixon in China. This time the production comes from Vancouver Opera, though again has a strong local flavour. Over 90% of the 200 people involved in realising it are Irish, a remarkable statistic, given the evisceration of opera that happened when state funding dried up at the height of Ireland's recent financial crisis.
Enough of statistics. What matters is that this was an inspiring and triumphant evening, anchored by the steady, empathetic hand of conductor and WOO artistic director Fergus Sheil on the tiller, and the vibrant playing of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. The NSO is not an opera orchestra, and had minimal prior exposure to Nixon. You would not have guessed it: Sheil elicited from them sharply confident playing throughout the evening, the frequent shifts of rhythmic pulse and timbre realised with astuteness and lucidity. The brass was specially well managed. There's lots of it in Nixon, and it can seem hectoring if not properly reined in and balanced. Here it was, with scrupulously delineated dynamics and staccato attacks which punched through the textures without becoming over-insistent.
Onstage there was plenty more clarity, in director Michael Cavanagh's re-visiting of his original Vancouver Opera conception. Set-pieces such as the initial meeting of Mao and Nixon are kept clean, symmetrical and uncluttered, and in conjunction with choreographer Jessica Kennedy Cavanagh puts shape and meaningful structure into Act II's tricky ballet "entertainment", which can easily go pear-shaped.
In terms of visceral impact, Audrey Luna's Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao) is the vocal performance of the evening. She negotiates Adams' at times cruelly vaulting intervals with insouciance, pings her high notes fearlessly, and generally creates an appropriately unsettling impression of barely trammelled sadism and psychosis. Beside her, Hubert Francis' Mao is poised and articulate, although the higher-lying writing stretches his voice a little.
John Molloy, by contrast, doesn't quite have the resonant bass extension needed in Adams' writing for Henry Kissinger, though he enjoys himself as the leering Kissinger lookalike in the “Red Detachment of Women” ballet. His counterbalance on the Chinese side, Premier Chou En-lai, is the impressively eloquent British baritone James Cleverton, whose “We have begun to celebrate”, at the Act I banquet, is one of the most incisive pieces of singing in the evening. The chorus too makes a major contribution, neat and precise in their commentaries without over-drilling, and acting believably.
This Nixon is also visually alluring. The swirl of clouds and grand sweep of fuselage as “The Spirit of '76” glides in to land at Peking Airport is evocatively captured in Sean Nieuwenhuis' video projections, to Adams' vertiginous, billowing music. Nieuwenhuis' tasteful work is evident again in Pat Nixon's sight-seeing sortie in Act II, where the various locations are suggested in diced-up colour footage, and the Summer Palace materialises as a mellow pastoral backdrop to the ruminative meditations of Mrs Nixon's “This is prophetic”.
Irish soprano Claudia Boyle is richly expressive throughout the sequence, creating a sympathetically rounded portrait of a First Lady both exhilarated and unnerved by the unknown territory - cultural, political and geographical - that she and her husband are going into.
Barry Ryan's eloquently sung Nixon cuts a similarly sympathetic figure, director Cavanagh eschewing the temptation to back-project a cynical, post-Watergate recension of the character on to the pioneering Chinese visit. Ryan's President is dignified, courteous and, like his wife, occasionally overwhelmed by the immensity of new impressions flooding their consciousness, and the formidable collective impetus of China's socio-economic mission. Nearly three decades after Nixon was written, with China seemingly poised to out-America America in the global economic biting order, the opera's prescience in this respect is very striking, even moving.
All told, this Vancouver-Dublin collaboration achieves a Verdian gravity of utterance, framing a momentous historical event and powerfully communicating how it feels to those involved in it, ostensibly the makers of the moment, but equally those who often feel most haplessly swept up in it. It's a major vindication of Wide Open Opera's 'think-big' policy, and will, if there is any justice, embolden the Irish Arts Council to continue their current financial support of the company.
When you add the excellent touring work ongoing at Dublin-based Opera Theatre Company, the burgeoning success story that is NI Opera in Belfast and, of course, the Wexford Festival, you have a picture emerging of operatic provision in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland that is potentially more exciting, various and forward-looking than at any previous point in the island's musical history.
Find Opera now