Only the Vancouver Opera could go to (Nixon in) China

By Colton Carothers

Nixon in China is the operatic interpretation of Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.  Equally historic was Vancouver Opera’s staging of John Adam’s Nixon in China in its Canadian premier for Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad near the end of March.  With an Olympic sized cast and an Olympic sized budget, you would expect a gold medal.  In selecting this piece itself, Vancouver Opera went for the gold: Nixon is a behemoth of an opera, requiring large orchestrations, costly sets and a large ensemble.  Did it live up to these Olympic sized aspirations?

Nixon opened with a cohesive and awe-inspiring chorus and orchestra; t hroughout the performance, the chorus and orchestra shined as the (not so) silent force behind China’s leaders.  The leaders themselves, both on and off stage, were hit-or-miss, pulling the plow behind John DeMain’s reading of Adam’s score and Vancouver Opera’s impressive chorus.

Michael Cavanagh’s production teetered between technological magnificence and minimalist trash.  Once the curtain came up, a stunning video of Air Force One flying and landing was projected onto the scrim.  The production relied heavily on video projections, including incorporating footage that was filmed onstage throughout the performance by the American media documenting this historic event. One complaint would be the frequent use of what appeared to be a children’s computer project – a projected backdrop of scattered waiving US and Chinese flags. Where technology generally excelled, the old hammer-and-nail approach to building a set mostly failed. There was an interesting depiction of the nose of Air Force One, and beautiful large-scale panel-portraits of the l eaders at the end of the opera; the rest of the set resembled a high-school musical production.  In particular, the podium from which Nixon and Chou En-lai addressed the dinner guests, as well as the furniture in Mao Tse-tung’s study, appeared to be cheap plywood painted red with little attention to form or beauty.  The blocking of the characters was generally ineffective. In stark contrast, the Act II, Scene 2 ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, was exceptional.  The audience was dazzled by Wen Wei Wang’s choreography, the precision of dancing, and, as described below, Adam’s stunning music.

The leaders themselves were, on average, good.  Unfortunately Dick, throughout the performance, seemed to have only one trick up his sleeve:  a solid forte for the entire evening. As Richard Nixon, Robert Orth’s single attempt at dynamics in Act II failed, faltering and losing voice as he essayed a pianissimo.  As for achieving a mezzo forte or fortissimo, well, the microphone took care of that.[1] Orth did, however, begin the performance with an accurate portrayal of the United States’ 37th president.  Ultimately, his acting lost steam by the end of the evening and I am left with a so-so resonance of Orth’s performance.

The First Lady made up for the President’s oafishness (how typical?).  Sally Dibblee

as Pat Nixon, exuded charm and elegance in voice and spirit.  There were many moments where I wished that Dibblee sang her role from The Spirit of ’76 (Nixon’s Air Force One) given that her most poignant singing was in the stratosphere.  Her middle-voice lacked the weight requisite for many of the character’s poetic thoughts, but Dibblee’s strength at the top otherwise overshadowed any flaws.  Most memorable was an achingly fragile yet durable pp high B flat in Act II, Scene 1.  This moment was enhanced with Cavanagh’s staging, incorporating the character’s voice, moving emotions and modern technology in a projection of Dibblee against the scrim as she sang what was undoubtedly the aria of the evening.

Alan Woodrow and Tracy Dahl, as Mr. & Mrs. Mao Tse-tung, both commanded attention in their sky-scraping tenor and coloratura roles.  Two complaints; one minor and one major.  Minor:  Woodrow’s scooping into some of his notes before revealing a very bright but weary tenor sound, (which was otherwise perfect for the Chinese leader).  Major:  Neither, but particularly Dahl, received enough stage time.  Dahl had the talent and vocal ability to enthrall the audience.  Her voice reminded me of my obsession with dramatic coloraturas – – not necessarily something you could listen to everyday.  But when you have the chance, you are held in rapture.

As Premier Chou En-lai, ChenYe Yuan’ s singing was very good.  His acting left me wanting, although I would blame Goodman’s philosophical (read:  incomprehensible) libretto rather than Yuan’s acting ability.  Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger peppered the performance with alternating bits of dry or over-the-top comedy with a good sturdy voice to support.

Despite the foregoing, the true stars of the evening were Adam’s composing and John DeMain’s brilliant conducting.  DeMain’s baton held true force, creating a fluid following of what could easily turn into a staccato and overly dissonant listening experience.  Frankly, I expected a lackluster score as I have heard on CD under Edo de Waart’s reading.  I was pleasantly surprised, entranced by the dynamic musical performance.  The most exciting portion of Adam’s score was the ballet in Act II, Scene 2, The Red Detachment of Women, which could match the great composers in its greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts beauty.

Unfortunately, while Adam’s music pierced me, Goodman’s libretto bluntly punched my intellect without ever breaking through.  Like a college philosophy text, Goodman’s poetry was overly complex, paradoxical and confused, leaving the spectator baffled as to much of what transpired.  This is mostly true for the last scene, where Nixon’s musings on hamburgers held as much prominence as Chou En-lai’s (and the entire opera’s) most important question:  “how much of what we did was good?”

Nixon is a good work that deserves to be heard.  Vancouver Opera did a fine job and was instrumental in providing this work with its Canadian premier.  I suspect that in the upcoming opera season we will see great productions, with both the Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera introducing Nixon into their repertories next year.


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