Nixon in China by John Adams Libretto by Alice Goodman

Conductor John De Main Director Michael Cavanagh Associate Conductor & Chorus Director Leslie Dala

Dates and Venue 13 16 18 20 Mar @ 7.30pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

A gold medal for Vancouver Opera. A national premiere, an original production, a modern opera about a pivotal week in world history, these make an Olympian undertaking and a most apt birthday present for Vancouver Opera's 50th anniversary.

John Adams's opera surveys the chief public events of the US president's 1972 visit to China where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong. We see the arrival of Richard Nixon with his wife Pat and Henry Kissinger at Peking airport and the official greeting by Premier Chou En-lai, a meeting between Nixon, Kissinger and Chairman Mao, a state banquet in the Great Hall of the People, Pat Nixon's official tour of approved sights and a ballet performance at the Peking Opera House. We see also the inner reactions of the principal characters to the events and to each other, their thoughts, hopes, fears and memories. Thanks to the freedoms of post-modernism, these can be expressed at any moment. The final act dispenses completely with linear story-telling and dissolves into a surreal world where past and present, history and future, are one. Mao and Chiang Ch'ing remember their early days together and the hard fight for the revolution. The Nixons recall the war years. Only Chou reflects on the consequences of the past.

There is no doubt that this is a challenging work for the performers. The music has grandeur, is richly scored and full of driving, constantly shifting rhythms. The orchestra played with enormous precision and energy, never flagging from the restless, unsettling opening to the floating, fragile, delicate ending.

Both baritone Robert Orth as Nixon and tenor Alan Woodrow (Mao) fill the heroic stature of their characters. Orth is by turns febrile, paranoid, inane, shrewd, even affecting. His opening aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery," was immediately gripping and set the tone for the rest of an outstanding performance. Woodrow's powerful heldentenor conveyed hidden menace and a force which grew stronger and more brutal over the course of the evening. Equally terrifying, Tracy Dahl embodied the wife of Chairman Mao with awesome coloratura, non-stop energy and revolutionary passion. The brief touch of nostalgia when she recalls their early hardships and small pleasures was in contrast affectingly tender. As Pat Nixon, Sally Dibblee uncovered the thoughtful and generous woman behind the naïve, passive façade. Her crystal-clear aria "This is prophetic" was memorable.

Thomas Hammons played Kissinger in true basso buffo style, declining from intellectual professor and skilled negotiator to a clownish womanising bully. His opposite number is Premier Chou En-Lai. A thoughtful, charming and enigmatic idealist, Chou is the heart of this opera. ChenYe Yuan's played him with restrained dignity and a haunting baritone. His is the last voice of the opera and the regret in it is palpable.

Equally good in the supporting roles were dancers Fei Guo and Edmond Kilpatrick and Mao's three secretaries, Melissa Malde, Grace Chan and Rebecca Hass. The Vancouver Opera Chorus, admirably coached by Leslie Dala, were dauntless as comrades, officials, officers and politicos.

Following the composer's instructions, the orchestra and the singers were amplified. Credit is due to sound designer Andrew Tugwell whose skilful mixing never let singer and voice be detached from one other. Credit must also be given to the Stage Manager, Sheila Munn for never missing a beat or a cue.

This production is remarkable for burying beneath an easy naturalness the concentration and skill required just to perform the notes and not get lost. The physical characterizations of real people were superb, deepened by the engagement of the singing actors with each other and the text. Stage director Michael Cavanagh and conductor John DeMain should be lauded.

Set and projections, while excellently realized and competently supporting the action of the opera, did not live up to the advance publicity. I had expected something more imaginitive, finding perhaps the visual equivalent of the subtleties of the libretto and score.

Evocative, exciting, frightening and ambiguous, this is an opera which will keep your mind and your ears constantly engaged in a production to remember.


© 2010 Elizabeth Paterson