[APO Saves the Day]
How wonderful to hear the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) again in flawless form and to see them front stage in this production of Nixon in China.
Never before produced in New Zealand, it is always great to experience new-to-Aotearoa works that are presented with such panache and passion.
Despite the sometimes unfortunate sightlines of the Auckland Town Hall Circle, it was a fitting venue to give gravitas to the meeting of two world leaders – a somewhat unexpected move on the part of former President Richard Nixon under the cloud of the Vietnam War being fought by proxy between the same two nations.
Effective use was made of the huge and talented chorus and extras as media, Red Army Guards and Citizens of Peking (aka Beijing) to recreate the intimidating feel of a Western leader visiting, what was at the time, an insular, suspicious and isolated superpower of Asia.
The APO deserve their prominence on stage, though they left little physical space for set designer John Verryt to work with. I wouldn’t have minded this apart from one small thing, which is actual fact was a rather big thing – as a person that didn’t have any prior knowledge of the story unfolding on stage, I felt thoroughly lost, baffled and disorientated. I simply could not follow what was happening for the entire First Act. Clearly I’ve become lazy, expecting surtitles for an opera that is in English. But I can’t help but wonder whether a punter who bought his/her ticket on a whim would have got as much from the show as the die-hard fans with well-thumbed programmes.
There’s no denying that I absolutely adored the music and I equally loved the use of the chorus to create the overall atmosphere, but with such a large cast I was foolishly expecting there to be a choral moment that would knock me sideways, which unfortunately never arrived. But more importantly, the sound quality and audibility of the singers in the first two acts was too muted to be able to gauge much of the tone and emotion of the characters they were portraying on stage. Being in a large venue like the Great Hall of Auckland Town Hall, the surtitles were sorely lacking for us ignoramuses to be able to untangle Alice Goodman’s Liberetto. This was a shame given the calibre of the singers being showcased. This could have easily been incorporated, given the fact that there was already an AV element which was an integral part of the production.
The key cast gave outstanding performances but highlights for me were undoubtedly sopranos Hye Jung Lee (Madam Mao) and Madeline Pierard (Mrs President aka Patricia Nixon). It was equally gratifying to see two strong female leads in what would be assumed to be a male-led story about diplomacy and power. The plight of the beautiful and enchanting dancer Amelia Chong (Wu Ching Hua) was also an apt metaphor for the politics and mores of the time.
The second act added a great deal of spice to the mix with the right amount of humour injected to reinvigorate the audience – which I really liked. It was also extremely dramatic making it much easier to follow the storyline. And I know I was not the only one that started to take notice because a number of the punters, who had previously looked like they were being sung a lullaby, actually seemed to sit up and take notice. All the negative connotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, such as tyranny and torture were extremely theatrical to director Sara Brodie’s credit.
Unfortunately for me, once again with my limited understanding of the piece, I felt that making the Eastern superpower appear as ‘the baddie’ compared to the Western superpower’s portrayal as ‘the goodie’ created a rather unbalanced view. And the irony was that the resulting conclusion showed the not yet-impeached president Nixon in such a positive light which is hardly the way we remember his overall legacy.
Louise Potiki Bryant’s audio visual design seemed rather static to begin with but came into its own in the second and third acts. A particular favourite was the final abstract imagery that we were almost hypnotised by, which worked fabulously in tandem with the music.
It’s no secret that I had moments of despair, confusion and utter frustration trying to understand this show. Maybe I’ve become accustomed to demanding accessibility, and effortless gratification. But I’m sure I’m not alone in expecting a little more clarity, which would have made the audience’s 200-minute time investment infinitely more worthwhile.
Presented by Auckland Arts Festival in association with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand Opera Nixon in China plays at Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall until 19 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival