Review: Nixon in China, Auckland Arts Festival

By William Dart

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Auckland Arts Festival's Nixon in China, co-produced with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand Opera, cements why John Adams has created an operatic survivor.

Setting Alice Goodman's superlative libretto, the composer has achieved an extraordinary feat of theatrical reconciliation. There's much muscle-flexing grandeur here, worthy of a minimalist Meyerbeer.

Wagnerian climaxes suit on-stage political ceremony; thrills are visceral when the music is taken on rushing streams of hypnotically cross-hatched rhythms. Yet the Nixons, Mao Zedong and his wife Chou En Lai and Henry Kissinger emerge from history as human beings.

All have stellar turns. Hye Jung Lee's Madame Mao deals out whiplash coloratura, with fiery arpeggios and top Ds while Madeleine Pierard's brunette Pat Nixon touchingly ponders eternal peace for all time. Chen-Ye Yuan's moving final aria leaves us with Chou En Lai's unforgettable image of the chill of grace heavy on the morning grass.

Ultimately, despite spectacular chorus work and a virtuoso APO coaxed by maestro Joseph Mechavich to run from shimmer to shout within a few bars, the opera's final resolution is reflective.

In Act 3, some of the evening's finest singing has the two first couples weave their thoughts in an ensemble that might have been penned by Puccini were he working in San Francisco 30 years ago.

Simon O'Neill wields vocal authority as Mao Zedong although his first appearance, verbally jousting with the Americans, like much of the production, sorely needs surtitles. Barry Ryan's Nixon is the glowing exception.

The Australian owns the role, both physically and vocally, nailing our attention and sympathy from the opening flourish of his News aria.

A fully staged Nixon in China is unviable in cash-strapped times but director Sara Brodie delivers ingenuity within restrictions. A screen above stage offers images and film; some to the point, some more elusive.

Certainly Matt Gillanders' elegant dance video for Act 2's "opera-within-an-opera" might seem mysterious to those unfamiliar with the opera, especially with no straightforward synopsis provided in the programme.

However, with a second and final Saturday performance, this slice of our own operatic history should not be missed.

Auckland Arts Festival review

Reviewer: William Dart

What: Nixon in China

Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, until Saturday, 20th March

Buy tickets now!

- NZ Herald

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