People's republic of opera
Adams' & Goodman's 'Nixon in China' plays San Francisco Opera
by Philip Campbell
There is almost as much history in the creation of composer John Adams' and poet-librettist Alice Goodman's landmark opera Nixon in China as in the real events that inspired it. The once-controversial piece has finally returned to the San Francisco Opera after 25 successful years on the road, and the belated premiere coincides with the 40th anniversary of Tricky Dick's bold diplomatic visit in February 1972.
There are many more factoids to savor, but it is most important to remember that current SFO General Director David Gockley first jointly commissioned the work during his tenure at Houston Grand Opera, with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Netherlands Opera and Washington Opera assuring production. The intriguing project originally sprang from the brilliant and revolutionary mind of director Peter Sellars. It started a long and fruitful partnership.
We first saw a workshop production of Nixon at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in 1987, performed at music stands in street dress with synthesizer and piano accompaniment. That run-through held enough thrilling promise to ensure the future success of the opera, despite an unpleasant surrounding atmosphere of intellectual superiority and youthful arrogance.
There were some savaging reviews and a whole lot of hype at the time, but the Houston premiere was reportedly well-enough received to guarantee Nixon a much better future than most new works. After a PBS taping (with Walter Cronkite announcing!) brought the original production to national attention, it was inevitable that sooner or later the Met would step in. In 2011, Peter Sellars directed and John Adams conducted the Metropolitan Opera premiere to great acclaim. Can there be any wonder why David Gockley and the SFO had to get Nixon in China back to the Bay Area on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before any more anniversaries or milestones?
The new staging comes to us by way of Vancouver Opera in a blast of dazzling stagecraft and dramatically amplified energy. Director Michael Cavanagh moves his almost mythological characters about the big stage of the SFO amid constantly shifting lighting designs by Christopher Maravich and the truly breathtaking projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis.
It is interesting to note that director Sellars, never known for an unwillingness to test boundaries or even gleefully go overboard, originally treated the piece in a sober and visually understated way. His Met production later pepped things up a bit, but Cavanaugh has surpassed all expectation with seemingly nonstop movement and color. It works well in the first two acts, and he allows the Nixons center stage for their two big arias, but the more meditative Act III gets confused by the debris of busy scenery and suddenly murky lighting.
The cast is uniformly excellent though none possess particularly alluring voices. This is one opera where characterization matters more than pretty warbling, and the remarkable power and frequent poignancy of Goodman's words are further helped by the use of supertitles. The jokes are disconcertingly telegraphed, but the singers ensure their impact.
The Nixons are well-cast, with Brian Mulligan especially effective as the startlingly complex president. Soprano Maria Kanyova makes a star turn of Pat's lengthy aria, "This is Prophetic." Having her face projected in real time while she sings above her place on the prompter's box makes the conviction of her acting very affecting. Here is Mother Courage in sensible shoes and a red cloth coat, and we can't help but like her.
Simon O'Neill makes his SFO debut as Mao Tse-tung, managing to make us ignore the wig that makes him look more like Curly of The Three Stooges than the legendary Chairman. His early scenes with Mulligan are perfectly characterized, and he also puts some teeth into the pithy libretto.
Chen-Ye Yuan, also making his debut here, has the plum role of Chou En-lai, and he gives an admirable performance. Unfortunately, he is repeatedly sunk by the director's incessant stagecraft, and tends to pale by comparison to the other, more extroverted players. This is especially frustrating at the conclusion of the opera, when Chou En-lai gets the final word with a lovely and reflective concluding aria.
The characters of Madame Mao and Henry Kissinger are usually portrayed with burlesque vulgarity, but Chou En-lai stands as symbol and enigma throughout the work. Robbing him of his most memorable statement seriously confuses Cavanagh's vision.
As the raucous and notorious Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung), SFO debutante Hye Jung Lee screeches her way through the crazy coloratura of the role, and is often quite funny, not to mention more than a little scary.
Patrick Carfizzi takes the already overly lampooned role of Henry Kissinger and literally runs with it. It isn't his fault that the authors never made the part more than an extended and sophomoric joke. This is indicative of Cavanagh's slightly overheated vision. The original charge of Nixon in China was marked by the surprising and sympathetic treatment of the central characters, with Kissinger and the Madame providing some comic relief. In the current staging, they are allowed to minimize the essential seriousness and introspective qualities of the score.
But what a score it remains. Despite unobtrusive body microphones for the principals and some curious imbalances in the pit, with conductor Lawrence Renes giving way too much emphasis in the chug-a-chug Philip Glass-style minimalist moments, Adams' first opera still sounds fabulous. His score remains entertaining, bold and lovely. Niceties of orchestration and witty and effective musical allusions abound. When Mrs. Nixon mentions the Unknown Soldier, a muted trumpet steals into the orchestral blend; the Redemption motif from Wagner's Ring is even transformed for a brief appearance. Adams has made a career of writing sympathetically for the human voice, and it is wonderful to hear once more where it all began.
Nixon in China is an undeniably seminal American opera. Michael Cavanagh's vision is a little more glitzy than we may have anticipated, but it still underscores the basic humanity of the work and emphasizes clearly the indestructible strength of a masterpiece.
Nixon in China plays at the War Memorial Opera House through July 3. Go to www.sfopera.com.