Opera: Nixon in China

Barbican Hall, London / Radio 3

Since it established the composer's international reputation in Peter Sellars' original 1987 staging, John Adams's first opera Nixon in China has been seen world-wide in five new productions. Yet, apart from a brief visit to the 1988 Edinburgh Festival, it has never been staged in this country. As Sunday's often splendid Barbican concert reading reinforced, this omission is deeply regrettable.

Much of the score, it's true, makes a strong impression by itself: the moving arias for Chou En-lai and Pat Nixon; the chilling Act 2 solos for Mme Mao and Lao Szu (sung by the same bass who sings Kissinger); the plentiful and varied choruses; and a constant stream of gloriously inventive orchestral writing, notably in the at times Wagnerian Act 2, with its ballet "The Red Detachment of Women". The evocative surrealism of Act 3 loses less in a concert performance than does the vivid theatricality of Acts 1 and 2.

And yet the interaction of Nixon's stranger-than-fictional, if in many respects also alarmingly ordinary, characters needs the cut and thrust of the live theatre. So does the opera's sheer spectacle. I'll never forget Sellars' staging of the arrival of Nixon's jet in Beijing. A strong vein of satirical, sometimes also touching, humour runs through the opera as well. The Barbican audience didn't really laugh until page 173 of the vocal score; that would never happen in the opera house.

A strong team of singers, score-bound at their music stands, took a while before they seemed sufficiently easy with Adams's sometimes tricky rhythms to suggest their real characters; lookalikes they weren't. Dietrich Henschel's Nixon gained in strength vocally, but he never really suggested the American president's magnetism, and his English pronunciation was variable. Stephen Richardson's Kissinger made a poor dramatic impression at first (this complex character is among the opera's richest, and funniest, creations); his impersonation of Lao Szu was much more vivid. As Chou En-lai, the admirable and charismatic David Wilson-Johnson was the only one of the initial trio to establish his character quickly, though even he rarely looked up from his score. Vocally impressive, Carl Tanner didn't bring much dramatically to Mao himself, another of the opera's complex characters; neither did Teresa Shaw, Deborah Miles-Johnson and Jennifer Higgins to Mao's three fearsome secretaries.

Wendy Hill - a late substitute as the warm, vulnerable Pat Nixon - has just sung the role on stage in Vienna and provided a vivid, responsive presence. As Mme Mao, Judith Howarth matched her for powerful characterisation enhanced by an even stronger vocal command; she even managed to turn her pages imperiously. If at first lacking in strength, London Voices made some telling contributions, and it was wonderful to hear Adams's rich, multifaceted orchestral score played so magnificently by the LSO under Kent Nagano.

The parlous state of London opera scarcely suggests that this is the right time for a plea to stage Nixon. But, when things settle down, will somebody please give us the chance actually to see one of the greatest operas of the late 20th century?