Nixon in China, SF Opera

‘Nixon in China’

Opera in three acts
By John Adams
Libretto by Alice Goodman
Conducted by Lawrence Renes
Directed by Michael Cavanagh
Chorus directed by Ian Robertson
San Francisco Opera (company premiere)
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 8 – July 3, 2012

“Nixon in China,” a remarkable work whose title reflects not only a glimpse of a would-be heroic president but also a historic turnabout in the 20th century, begins with the momentous and ends with the intimate. In between, the opera zigzags over terrain both overtly political and sublimely personal, its brilliant score never missing an opportunity to blare an ideology or nuance an emotion. It is a masterpiece, and the masterful production on view by the San Francisco Opera (in a belated premiere by the company, rented from Vancouver Opera) underscores its importance to the evolution of the art form in the last three decades.

David Gockley, the general director of San Francisco Opera, headed up the Houston Grand Opera when it audaciously signed on as one of three companies that commissioned the production back in 1987 (the other two being Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts). It has taken Gockley’s enthusiasm for the work to bring it to San Francisco. The flamboyant Peter Sellars and a then-promising composer from the Bay Area, John Adams, had collaborated on a counterintuitive opera examining President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, a diplomatic tour de force nine months before his landslide election to a second term and two years before the Watergate scandal would seal his fate as the only president to resign. The Sellars vision was recently on view at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where audiences embraced it in all of its grandiose excess. The San Francisco version is directed by Michael Cavanagh, and his much less shock-and-awe–driven production superbly highlights Adams’ eclectic score while also adding emphasis to the libretto by Alice Goodman, which has an epic-poetry beauty of its own.

Much of this production’s initial, pleasing jolt comes from its use of projections, designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis, that impart a cinematic feel (especially the “footage” of Nixon’s jet as it lands in Beijing), much as Erhard Rom’s sets — some outsized, others merely suggested — have updated the look of this 25-year-old opera. And Parvin Mirhady’s spot-on historic costumes play up the fashion clashes between the rigid Chinese leaders and their American counterparts without overdoing the East/West dichotomy.

The cast members assembled for San Francisco dispatch their duties with varying degrees of success. Baritone Brian Mulligan creates a multifaceted Nixon, though he overdoes the hammy clowning in the first act’s pomp and ceremony and fiddles with the prosthetic nose he wears a bit too often. But by the reflective moments that comprise Act III, Mulligan drops the mugging and makes the president a complex, almost endearing figure as he sings poignantly of his fears as a Navy commander during World War II (praise here for Goodman’s lyrics, among the opera’s most moving). Likewise, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi plays Henry Kissinger with a surfeit of bravado, his reading heavy on the Grand Guignol (owing, no doubt, to the fact that Adams wrote the least sympathetic music for him). The New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill portrays Mao Tse-Tung with a judicious vocal mix conveying a dictator whose fading power is punctuated by comic outbursts, his shrill high notes scary in a manic way. Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan is brilliant as Chou En-Lai, rendering him at once inscrutable and oddly sympathetic.

But the real star of this production is Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon. This American soprano imbues the oft-caricatured First Lady with a humble humanity that shatters the image of a trivial spouse, especially in Act II, which she has practically all to herself. One of the opera’s most emotionally charged moments comes when Mrs. Nixon charges the stage during a performance of “The Red Detachment of Women,” a kitschy ballet concocted by Madame Mao (sung with believable pathos by Hye Jung Lee). After a series of physical indignities and torture, the lead female dancer collapses and Mrs. Nixon, bearing her husband’s jacket, rushes to drape her with it. The allegory for her own life — a naïve and yet always believing martyr to her husband’s delusions and failures — is heart-wrenching, particularly coming after her fetching aria (“This Is Prophetic”), in which she seems to recall her own travails in an almost brittle ode to the losses a political wife must suffer.

As for the music, it is entirely gripping, if not always melodic (thanks to conductor Lawrence Renes for keeping it all within a comfortable decibel range, despite the amplification of the orchestra — a requirement of the composer). When people call Adams a “minimimalist,” they forget to add that he is only linked to other real minimalists of that period (Philip Glass on one level, the Talking Heads on another). He borrowed from them, for sure, but he also borrowed from Wagner, from Strauss, from American songbook composers. This is all on display in “Nixon.” We hear such a panoply of melody and vocal line that it’s impossible to characterize it in a sentence or two. That is a major frustration in this opera, and also its greatest pleasure. Listening to this production is to feel the thrill of Adams’ audacious use of saxophone, his mastery of quiet piano interludes, the mesmerizing repetition of musical phrases into ecstatic crescendos. Even the miking of principals and orchestra through a mixer—referred to as “sound enhancement”—becomes something audiences (even purist ones) can overlook in the dramatic and musical tide that sweeps over the auditorium. This is a work of profound significance, and it is long overdue to the opera company that premiered Adams’ later (and less heralded) work, “Doctor Atomic.”

John Sullivan