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Canapés and circuses

02/21/2004 -  
John Adams: Nixon in China, Act 1 scene 3

James Maddalena (Richard Nixon), Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon), Gerald Finley (Chou En-lai), Jonathan Best (Henry Kissinger), Victoria Simmonds, Anne-Marie Gibbons, Alexandra Sherman (Secretaries to Mao)
Thomas Adès (conductor), Tom Cairns (director)

ENO Chorus and Orchestra

Paul Daniel (conductor)

The Coliseum re-opened after its refurbishment not, as originally planned, with a gala performance of the first Nixon in China of the season, but with a one-off semi-staging of the celebratory but bizarre closing scene of act 1 of the opera. The rest of the evening consisted of a few words from the ENO's Artistic Director Seán Doran and the Chairman of the Board Martin Smith, an interview with the architect of the restoration Nick Thompson, an introduction to the scene from Nixon by Paul Daniel and the original director Peter Sellars, and a lot of milling around with drinks and canapés.

The drinks reception fore and aft seemed designed to show off the building as a venue for corporate entertainment. It was probably part of the original plan, since only the balcony was open to the public for the initially scheduled first performance, and the change of balance between schmoozing and opera was undoubtedly the result of the hastily assembled event after the handover of the building was delayed. Nevertheless, the legions of (cute but low-salary) catering staff seemed to outnumber considerably the singers and chorus on stage and raised questions about how the new Coliseum really wants to present itself. The restructuring includes a glass-roofed bar at the balcony level which allows drinkers not only to look out across the roofs or down to the street but also to be seen from the street, and there are a number of internal balconies and staircases that offer opportunities for posing or people watching. A cynic could imagine the architect's drawings and models, designed to encourage corporate types to visualize themselves looking cool like the groups of little people in the spaces. The reality is a touch different: many of the passages and balconies are narrow, and there are an unholy number of bottlenecks when the building is full, for example into the minute Trafalgar room, the extension of the bar that provides a stunning view of Trafalgar Square. Of course, on a normal evening, the drinks won't be free and the bars won't be so crowded. But, conversely, without the huge crowds and the sense of occasion, those at catered events might well notice the pokiness of the spaces. Another niggle is the almost unimproved basement cloakroom, which now has two bottlenecks instead of one and requires a pound coin for the obstreperous locks on the coat hangers.

The headline change to the building is not, however, a hoped-for increase in outside events, but the removal of the separate entrance for the balcony. This is great in principle, but (as with the similar restructuring at Covent Garden) is less than wonderful in practice. The former access stair, used by balcony regulars for picnics and the odd sneaky smoke in wet weather as well as being the quickest exit to the street, is now the main route to and from the balcony. It is accessible at all levels, though inelegantly, making a 180 degree turn between each, and is substantially narrower than the old L-shaped stair to the balcony. In addition, balcony customers still have to make a sharp left immediately after they enter the front doors, which somewhat undermines the claim that the audience is now undivided. The facilities on the balcony level, though, are incomparably better than they were, as are the ladies' toilets throughout the house.

But, as all the speakers acknowledged, in speeches that otherwise generally seemed to lack warmth, the original parts of the house, restored to the architect Frank Matcham's original designs, and in one important case (the semi-circular stair from the stalls foyer to the Dutch Bar) to his thwarted preference, are quite stunning. Almost everyone who has attended a performance there must have noticed that the auditorium has superb sightlines and pretty good acoustics considering it wasn't remotely designed for opera. Balcony regulars have long enjoyed picking out the Roman themed details still visible in relief in the stonework, painted over in the 1960s, according to Nick Thompson, not hidden by accumulated cigarette smoke as widely believed. Restored to their original cream and bronze colours, the detail is absolutely gorgeous, if slightly overwhelming. The frieze just below the roof is clearly a Roman translation of the Parthenon frieze, the SPQRs in the mouldings are picket out clearly, and the dramatic masks around the dome (now stained glass) are gloriously restored. The foyer is similarly glorious: the mosaic, in the square space under the tower where the box office has been moved is now cleaned and well lit, the relief friezes are picket out in semi-Pompeian russet and there are very Edwardian leaf pattern stencils in every other available space.

Mercifully, the brief sample of opera showed that the company is still in good shape as well, although their restoration to full bloom might be a more extended process, given a lurking sense of reticence about some issues during the evening. Janis Kelly's zonked but sympathetic Pat was a reminder of a truly masterly performance, as was James Maddalena's manic Nixon, drunk with the visibility of his personal success and looking a tad like Tony Blair. Gerald Finley's visionary Chou suggested a performance to look forward to when the opera is rescheduled, and indeed hinted that this one of the great baritone roles. The chorus and orchestra sounded as good as ever. Sellars in his introductory words emphasised the celebratory nature of the scene, set in the Great Hall of the Republic, but also contrasted Nixon's slight dodginess with Chou's quest for authenticity. Nixon is obsessed throughout the opera with the mass media, while Chou struggles for truth, a contrast which is relevant to the ongoing debate about the future of the ENO and of the arts in general in the west. Doran's speech included a commitment to English-language performances, which suggests that the integrity of the ENO's mission has survived in at least one respect. Martin Smith chose to see the scene from Nixon as the rapprochement of two previous adversaries, though, and for one evening at least, that was quite cheering enough.

HE Elsom



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