By Erica Miner
San Diego Opera has much to celebrate. This week came the announcement that after an exhaustive search, David Bennett had been appointed as the new General and Artistic Director of the company. Then this weekend, in a bold move, SDO premiered a production of John Adams’ most frequently performed opera, Nixon in China.
Those of us old enough to remember the actual event in question, Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking voyage to China in 1972, watched this “back to the future” version of this historical occurrence on the opera stage with mixed emotions. On one hand, there’s no denying the supreme importance of Nixon’s reopening of relations with the Asian power. Nonetheless, having lived through the Nixon years, the less savory memories are not easy to ignore. The opera, after all, premiered in 1987, forty-five years after Nixon went to China but only thirteen years after he resigned in disgrace from the presidency.
That said, the music of Adams brilliantly depicts this account of the beginnings of the transition from “Red communism” to the Communist-based capitalism that thrust China into economic greatness. Further, the production as a whole, heightened by the dazzlingly poetic writing of librettist Alice Goodman, compellingly portrayed that famous handshake felt ‘round the world, which ultimately gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “détente.”
Adams’ firmly tonal music proves that timing is everything. The luxury of writing tonal music was not allowed to Leonard Bernstein in the mid-twentieth century; he was composing at a time when, according to Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, to be considered a serious composer by those in academia, writing tonally was out of the question. To Adams’ great fortune, at the time he first began to compose, writing serial music was no longer de rigueur. Adams’ characteristically repetitive patterns, though an integral characteristic of the so-called minimalist movement of composition technique, are overlaid with melody, thus creating an auditory vision of China’s surreal atmosphere in the context of true events, which is replicated in music that is entirely tonal.
The production, designed by Allen Moyer and marking the directing debut of James Robinson, smartly portrayed the divergence between east and west and American vs. Asian, contrasting the diplomacy of heavy lifters Kissinger and Chou-En Lai with the niceties between Chairman Mao and President Nixon. From the moment the “Spirit of ‘76” (or perhaps more appropriately, the “Spirit of ‘72”) lands on the runway, the music reflects both the spectacle and the bizarre aspects of the events in question, and the stylized but effective direction keeps the contrast between pageantry and intimate moments believable and real.
The collaboration of Adams and Goodman is a winner for both soloists and ensembles. Dialogue between the main characters, both in earnest and with the two world leaders’ cryptic jests, is intensified by vigorous musical repetitions, with Mao’s personal Greek chorus repeating his pronouncements in a manner evoking a Chinese Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
It can’t have been easy to portray real historical figures so soon after the actual events occurred, by Adams’ music comes off as entirely appropriate for these personages. From the very beginning, Adams’ repetitions in sound enhance Goodman’s luminous language so brilliantly that they become not just words but an evocation of the historical happenings.
The strong cast of singers worked exceptionally well together. The tessituras, especially for Mao and Madame Mao, were extremely high and taxing, and the sheer power required of all of the soloists felt daunting. Alone and together they gave a formidable performance.
Baritone Franco Pomponi’s Nixon, his SDO debut, admirably carried the weight that the real character must have felt on his shoulders. Vocally robust and dramatically convincing - he portrayed the ex-president’s mannerisms and gestures down to every detail - Pomponi was a clear audience favorite. His characteristic “Victory” gesture during his curtain call received apt appreciation from them.
In her SDO debut as Pat Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova handled the demands of the role with expertise, beautifully negotiating the frequent high notes and providing the amounts of volume needed while maintaining vocal loveliness. Her character portrayal of the obedient yet determined president’s wife was engaging.
Chad Shelton gave an excellent debut as Mao Tse-Tung. He negotiated with impressive power a fiendish tessitura that might have caused vertigo in another tenor, while portraying Mao’s characteristic quirky humor with great appeal.
As Madame Mao, Kathleen Kim (http://www.laopus.com/2015/03/kathleen-kim-gets-real-with-madame-mao.html) dazzled the audience with her pyrotechnics and dramatic command of the Chairman’s strong-willed but devoted wife. From her very first entrance, Kim made her presence known with boldly executed high notes and unflinching gestures.
Chen-ye Yuan, debuting as Mao’s partner in crime Chou En-Lai, provided the perfect foil for Shelton. Chen-ye portrayed his character with subtlety and grace, always with consistently pleasing vocality. Patrick Carfizzi’s debut as Kissinger was well sung, but the role, regrettably, was limited. One would liked to have heard more from him. As Mao’s secretaries, Sarah Castle, Buffy Baggott and Jennifer DeDominici were appropriately officious and sang well, separately and together.
Charles Prestinari’s spectacular chorus was eminently deserving of their solo bow at the beginning of the curtain calls. The writing for chorus was just as difficult as that of the soloists, and these admirable choristers managed to sing the relentless battery of high notes without sounding strained or forced, as well as bring off the staging with both high drama and humor.
The expertise in 21st century operatic repertoire that conductor Joseph Mechavich demonstrated in 2012’s Moby-Dick has surely increased exponentially as portrayed in his rendering of John Adams’ complex score. Mechavich showed great command and sensitivity throughout, both controlling and supporting the orchestra in their task of performing parts that were most intricate and difficult.
Debut director Robinson’s staging was creative, unusual, and perfectly fitting for the out of the ordinary situation in which the characters find themselves. His keen insights into the idiosyncrasies and foibles of this cast of eccentrics came off as appropriately oddball yet true-to-life.
The choreography of Seán Curran, assisted by Nora Brickman, was one of the highlights of the evening. Though closely reflecting the original event’s Chinese extravaganza, the dance presentation in Act 2 was dramatic and audacious and performed with great virtuosity: a true example of high art, technically and interpretatively.
Paul Palazzo’s stunning lighting, almost a character in and of itself, played a huge part in the success of the production. Especially effective were the characters’ shadows juxtaposed against the audacious but appropriate red of Moyer’s dramatic backdrops. The clever use of TV monitors added to the overall bold effect, tying together the splendid set design, lighting and stage direction.
Nixon in China was a gutsy choice for this company. Whether the historical triumph it portrays was Nixon’s or Mao’s will always remain in question. Election year politics have only grown more obvious in the last forty years, and Mao’s unanswered query posed at the end of the opera may or may not be answered by history.
What was clear on this opening night was the triumph that was San Diego Opera. As it must have been a privilege for those journalists who were allowed to cover Nixon’s world changing voyage to China, so it was for those who covered this auspicious SDO premiere. Nixon’s sincere thanks to everyone for doing their part in this momentous occasion superbly symbolizes SDO’s inspirational teamwork and solidarity.
Performances continue through Mar. 22. (http://www.sdopera.com/Operas/Nixon)
Photos used by permission of Ken Howard/ San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org