“Nixon in China” Gets Its Due from San Francisco Opera

United StatesUnited States  John Adams, Nixon in China: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 13.6.2012 (HS)

Conductor: Lawrence Renes
Director: Michael Cavanagh
Set Designer: Erhard Rom
Costume Designer: Parvin Mirhady
Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich
Projection Designer: Sean Nieuwenhuis
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Choreographer: Wen Wei Wang
Sound Designer: Mark Grey

Richard Nixon: Brian Mulligan
Pat Nixon: Maria Kanyova
Mao Tse-Tung: Simon O’Neill
Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-Tung): Hye Jung Lee
Chou En-Lai: Chen-Ye Yuan
Henry Kissinger: Patrick Carfizzi
Nancy T’ang (First Secretary): Ginger Costa-Jackson
Second Secretary: Buffy Baggott
Third Secretary: Nicole Birkland
Wu Ching-Hua: Chiharu Shibata
Hung Ch’ang-Ch’ing: Bryan Ketron

Nixon in China. Air Force One touches down outside Beijing. Photo by Cory Weaver

At the time, it was billed as the moment when China opened itself to the West for the first time in decades. From a distance of fifteen years, when John Adams’s Nixon in China made its debut at Houston Grand Opera, the events in Beijing were the stuff of myth. Icons of the second half of the 20th century who, only a few months before, seemed like the steeliest of enemies, met for three days. The moment when U.S. president Richard Nixon and China’s premier Chou En-Lai shook hands next to Air Force One on a Beijing airstrip was captured on television. Nixon and his entourage, including his wife Pat and national security advisor Henry Kissinger (who had engineered the rapprochement with China), met with Mao-Tse Tung, the hero of China’s revolution and now the iron-fisted leader of the country. His wife, Chiang Ch’ing, better known as Madame Mao, ruled the cultural world with an even harder line.

Today China’s rise in world affairs has relegated these three days in Beijing to something like a symbolic moment. In this it’s probably just fine that Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, paid scant attention to the geopolitical angles of this meeting. Instead, they chose to portray the private thoughts of these six principals, some it based on what we know but much of it frankly imagined.

As it plays out in a fresh and hugely entertaining production, borrowed from Vancouver Opera and staged by Michael Cavanaugh, it’s quite a show. It has more heart than the original, designed by Peter Sellars. It flows more smoothly, looks less literal, and the characters seem more natural, more vibrant. The staging embraces the sense of un-reality which must have suffused every character’s thoughts as the visit played out.

Opera is about the music, of course, and Adams’s score must stand as one of the monuments of 20th-century opera. The resolutely tonal musical language finds complexity in rhythms and overlaid harmonies. The grip of the music lies in its magnificent sweep. Under Netherlands-born conductor Lawrence Renes, the orchestra builds irresistible momentum. In this performance, the second of seven, the tricky rhythms fell into place easily. There was a sense of ease and confidence in the orchestra and amongst the singers that let it all come alive.

In the great tradition of opera, each character has a unique musical color palette. Nixon’s baritone, sung by Brian Mulligan, bristles with nervous energy while Pat’s lyric soprano (Maria Kanyova) remains simple and wistful amidst the swirl around her. Chou’s music borders on slickness as it flows with smooth eloquence for his lyric baritone (Chen-Ye Yuan), while Mao’s heroic tenor (Simon O’Neill) alternates between flights of poetry and geriatric grumpiness. Kissinger, in real life a complex character with an air of unrelenting gravitas, is a bass-baritone (Patrick Carfizzi) who comes off in this production as a lecherous clown, the one serious miscalculation.

Adams score begins with wispy chords that seem to emerge from the clouds, and a pat evocation of Air Force One flying into Beijing. Projections on an outer scrim show the plane flying—for one moment with a pensive Nixon highlighted in one of the windows, a lovely stage moment—and landing in Beijing. The curtain rises on the entourage on the tarmac; framed by the plane Nixon and Chou shake hands, then Nixon turns to the audience for the aria “News! News! News!” which, in its awkward rhythms portrays Nixon’s wooden presence and explores the difference between the public spectacle and private thoughts that will pervade the rest of the opera.

Act I portrays the public welcome, including a meeting of the four leaders in which Mao’s flamboyance contrasts with Chou’s practicality, while Nixon gamely tries to deflect them with American simplicity. Mulligan is great here, portraying a man accustomed to outmaneuvering his opponent, but who realizes the combination of wily opponents and the language barrier stymie him. O’Neill lets loose with heldentenor fervor, reflecting a hero in his dotage, while Chen-Ye Yuan remains the calm center, suggesting he is really running the political show.

The big set piece is the formal dinner, which follows. As the toasts multiply, it turns into a something like a drunken riot, much more blatantly than in the original staging.

Act II features the women. First we follow Pat as she is ushered on a tour of sights and factories, culminating in her aria, “This is prophetic!” Kanyova reveals her confusion and misgivings, drawing in the listener with heartfelt simplicity in lovely lyric sound. At a performance of the political ballet The Red Detachment of Women (a truncated version here choreographed by Wen Wei Wang, who danced in the original), to Adams’ intentionally foursquare music, several fantasy sequences reveal character. We see Pat, Nixon and Kissinger act out their thoughts. Pat rushes to help the beleaguered heroine when she is shot, and Kissinger gives vent to his lust.

Nixon in China. Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung). Photo by Cory Weaver

The climax of the act, and arguably the entire opera, is the volcanic soprano aria “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung,” in which Madame Mao revels in her power as the architect of the misbegotten Cultural Revolution. (“When I speak the people hang, the people hang…on my every word.”) Diminutive Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee delivered it like a demented Queen of the Night, nailing every stratospheric note while portraying the ramrod backbone and intolerance of the character. It was a stunning performance, and the big finish, accompanied by the entire chorus, reached the heights.

Act III finds all the major characters in a reflective mood. As originally staged, they were in their own bedrooms. Here, they occupy an abstract nether world, wandering among stage elements from earlier scenes that provide a perfect setting as, one by one, each character reminisces about a simpler youth. Adams’s music, which includes the fox trot “The Chairman Dances,” weaves its way sinuously through the proceedings, revealing inner personal doubts. Madame Mao gets sexy for a moment, calling up her past as a movie actress, and dances with her husband. Pat comforts a Nixon wracked with guilt over surviving a bombardment in World War II.

By the very end, each character stands alone, dwarfed by towering photos, a striking image that perfectly reflects the chasm between public personae and personal reality. Chou utters the pensive final line, “How much of what we did was good?” as the music fades quietly into the fog.

All of this makes for superb entertainment, always thoughtful, often colorful, sewn together seamlessly by a great score magnificently articulated. If this extravagantly staged meeting of East and West ushered in a new world era, it could be argued that this opera touched off a renaissance in American opera that continues to this day. Superbly scored and endlessly absorbing, it proved that new opera could be listenable and modern at the same time. It could speak to audiences more directly, and, as in this production, could bring an audience to its feet with joy, having seen and heard something memorable.

Harvey Steiman