"Nixon in China" breaks all the rules

John Adams's impressive Proms performance

Proms Review: Nixon In China, Adams / Vienna Philharmonic, Haitink

John Adams’ dense, discursive Nixon in China breaks all the rules – not least in being a 20th-century opera that has found its way into the regular repertoire. The composer’s expansive minimalism expands and contracts its patternings to accommodate the personal and political currents of Richard Nixon’s iconic encounter with Chairman Mao. Performed in concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under John Adams itself, this was always going to be a thrilling end to the Proms’ opera season.

There’s always the danger of indulgence when it comes to composers conducting their own music, but if Adams was enjoying himself here he didn’t let it show. The pulsing motor-rhythms of Adams’ score usually generate a muscular momentum, stressing vertical moment-to-moment harmonic sensations, but under the composer’s direction a horizontal line of continuity emerged, taking the mechanistic edge off the textures and distancing Adams’ expressive, flexible style even further from fellow minimalists Reich and even Glass.

Director Paul Curran did what he could with this awkward space (the bathetic transformation of Sellars’ original landing sequence into a toy plane, passed from hand to hand, was a witty touch), but ultimately much responsibility fell the orchestra to help carry the audience from the naturalism of the early scenes to the decayed and increasingly fantastical reality of the latter.

The BBC Singers – a vocal toy plane compared to a full-size opera chorus – performed their own transformation, bringing clarity and character to Adams’ essential chorus sections. They held their own among a cast that no wish-list could better. Robert Orth’s Nixon sat just the right side of caricature, balancing his folksy artifice with beauty of vocal tone, and supported by the warmth of Jessica Rivera’s Pat. Kathleen Kim (already an astonishing Madame Mao on stage) stole hearts and scenes with the ferocious excellence of her coloratura. It was left however to Gerald Finley’s contemplative Chou En-lai to have the last word, sending us out into the night in the undulating embrace of his final aria, a passionate and poetic raging against the dying of the light.

Murray Perahia or Bernard Haitink alone could ensure a packed Royal Albert Hall. Performing together, and with the support of the mighty Vienna Philharmonic, the queues of people waiting in the small hope of returns stretched back to the doors. While Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic this season strayed out of their core territory with excursions into Ligeti and Debussy, the Vienna Philharmonic stayed squarely in their musical heartland.

Skipping straight to the meat of the evening, Haitink opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto – an inspired act of defiance to programming convention that heightened Beethoven’s own. Dispensing with the usual orchestral introduction the composer allows the soloist to speak first, and in a full-to-bursting Royal Albert Hall it was left to Perahia to cut into the heavy silence with the gentle insistence of Beethoven’s chords. Neither he nor Haitink are musicians given to excess, and here we witnessed them taming into submission not only of the traditional orchestral Furies, but also an even more defiant acoustic space.

While occasional ensemble issues (and a curious moment of wind intonation) kept Haitink vigilant, Perahia was supreme in his control. His is a matter-of-fact reading of this concerto – from the start there’s no doubt that his solo piano will prove victorious – but amid this understated precision a joyous syncopated emphasis emerged. Mined often by soloists for its lyricism, the concerto is lively with offbeat accents, passages that strive against the prevailing current, which achieved characterful dominance here.

Bruckner’s unfinished 9th Symphony completed the evening, performed in its three-movement version rather than with any of the various scholarly completions. It’s a choice that leaves listeners in desperate uncertainty of the Adagio – a powerful cry of fear by a composer staring into the abyss of modernism.

Haitink’s authority in this repertoire in unequalled, and the measured tread of his pacing generated a Scherzo whose humour was black indeed and an Adagio that, if it lacked quite the fragmentary desperation of some performances, confronted terrors with steady gaze. The Vienna strings cast aside Beethovenian brilliance for a weightier sound, aided by a brass section who brought portent and authority rather than all-out force.

What a week to bring the 2012 BBC Proms to a their close, leading us down into the darkest musical place in the fears of old men before taking us back into the light in an exuberant programme for the Last Night. For my part though the festival can keep their sea-shanties and Rule Britannias – I’ll be wallowing just a little longer in the gorgeous darkness, savouring the torment with Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Mao shakes hands with Nixon in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder