qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

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The People are the Heroes now

Yesterday kharin and I went in to London to see ENO's revival of Nixon in China at the Coliseum (nods to example22 for the tip-off some months ago).

Opera is a medium of fantasy; it's strange to see a story based not only on real events, but within recent memory. From the distance (we were in the Balcony), the characters looked convincingly realistic. There are clever coincidences: "Brueghel" sings Pat Nixon, of the Chinese countryside; and the massed peasants and soldiers milling around on stage do rather resemble a Brueghel painting. I had expected Spirit of 76 (the Presidential aircraft) to enter the stage horizontally, it was a bit of a surprise to see it land vertically.

Throughout Act I and Act II scene 1, the focus is on realpolitik, quite closely following the recorded events of Nixon's visit in 1972. The notes state that both Alice Goodman (the librettist) and John Adams (the composer) wanted to write a heroic opera, rather than a satirical one. In some ways, it is not clear that they succeeded - on many occasions Nixon unwittingly satirises himself, and Kissinger is frequently comically clumsy, both seriously outclassed by Chou En-Lai and Mao himself.

From Act II scene 2 (the retelling of The Red Detachment of Women) onwards, the plot descends first into a grotesque farce (as the Nixons become embroiled in Madame Mao's ideological ballet, unable to tell actualité from entertainment) and finally into introspection. It wasn't clear to me initially what purpose this served; but on reflection, perhaps it is intended as a metaphor for the chaos and destructiveness of the Cultural Revolution, a character coming to life out of a painting. In Act III (from which The Chairman Dances is an orchestral offcut, clearly sharing thematic material), the characters are on stage together physically, but apart mentally, as they reflect on the paths that led them here. Only Chou En-Lai retains his true yet troubled heroism.

Musically, there were a few occasions when the orchestra seemed to drown out the performance, but on the whole it was a very creditable event. Certainly it will now make much more sense listening to my CD set.
Tags: music
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