Tan, rested and ready, John Adams' Nixon in China returned to southern California for the first time in twenty years on Saturday night, in a new production from the redoubtable Long Beach Opera. The performance confirmed Nixon's place as a major if imperfect work, and demonstrated yet again the LBO is your go-to institution for opera as compelling contemporary theater.
This was the largest scale production LBO has attempted since its 2006 mini-Ring cycle. In terms of cast and orchestral resources -- 111 performers on stage and in the pit -- Nixon is a much larger endeavor than was the Ring. It also marked LBO's return to the plus-sized spaces of the Terrace Theater, after an absence of fifteen years or more.
The effort and investment pays off handily: such troubles as manifested Saturday night are almost entirely in the work itself, and not in LBO's production or performance.
As the title indicates, Nixon in China takes as its subject Richard Nixon's historic visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972. The opera, composed by Adams with a libretto by Alice Goodman and liberal(in every sense) contributions from director Peter Sellars, premiered in Houston in 1987 and that original production was staged by Los Angeles Opera in 1990. The iconic image from that original production is of the nose and fuselage of Air Force One rolling in from stage left and President Nixon emerging down the air stairs. That's a pricey piece of staging, and I can't have been the only one in the house wondering what approach the fiscally straitened prudent LBO would take: Projection? Small-scale model? Shadow puppetry?
In the event, we were treated to the front left quadrant, wing and all, of a full-sized plane. (An engine and wing are in the background of the top photo.) It did not taxi in, à la Sellars, but appeared via lighting and some clever scrim work as if out of the morning fog, Nixon already waving atop the stairs. Nicely done, and a good omen for the production as a whole under the direction of Peter Pawlik, with set designs by Wilhelm Holzbauer. The Long Beach performances are a restaging of the Austrian and Italian premieres of Nixon, also overseen by Pawlik, Holzbauer, and Long Beach's own principal conductor, artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek.
The opera proceeds as a series of set pieces in six scenes: Nixon and company arrive and are greeted by Chinese Premier Chou En Lai; Nixon meets with Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung; praise and toasts are exchanged at length at a great banquet in the Great Hall of the People; Pat Nixon is taken on a tour of Chinese industrial and agricultural accomplishments; the principals attend a performance of the Revolutionary ballet, "The Red Detachment of Women;" finally, all concerned ponder how they got here and what it all means as the American delegation prepares to depart. Over its course, realism and external politics are progressively overshadowed by a sort of Magic Realism (Henry Kissinger suddenly appears as the whip-cracking villain in "Red Detachment") and introspection. That structural arc is problematic, as the long final scene -- written to stand alone as Act 3, but here joined to Act 2 so as to make it a one-intermission evening -- is anticlimactic and frankly a bit of a bore, despite some of John Adams' most varied and appealing music.
Some structural issues aside, Alice Goodman's libretto deserves its relatively high reputation as a work of modern dramatic poetry. The dying fall of that last scene comes only after a series of highlights: the pageantry of the arrival and banquet, Pat Nixon's American humanist epiphany at the pig farm, Madam Mao's explosive paean to brute force, obedience and the Little Red Book.
John Adams took a fair amount of grief at the time of Nixon's premiere for his reliance on Philip Glass-style arpeggios. (Quoth the New York Times after the premiere: "Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger, grinding out one simple idea unto eternity.") Personally, I find that lush-Minimalist approach appealing and highly effective in the hands of Glass and Adams both. My only quarrel with the Nixon score -- which to be fair veers away from arpeggiated tweedling more often than the NYT review would have one believe, especially in the big soliloquies and in that problematic, but musically vibrant, closing scene -- is that Adams imitates Glass so well that this work doesn't have near enough in it of Adams being purely Adams in his own voice.
The orchestra in Long Beach, under Mitisek's direction, played Adams' score for all it is worth, with vigor, propulsion, urgency and variety, with no signs of insecurity. From the front of the loge, it was a highly satisfying noise, full of point and precision, and easily the best orchestral sound we've heard at LBO in a number of seasons.
Onstage, the performances were comparably strong. The hard-working chorus, representing the vast Chinese people, took well to choreography and served as the musical mortar holding the structural bricks together.
Each of the principal singers also impressed. To their credit, the opera's creators took Richard Nixon seriously, presenting him as a savvy politician with one eye always cocked to see what impression he's making "back home" on the evening news, but not as a caricature and not as some one-dimensional swindler. (The one genuine misstep in Pawlik's direction, I think, was succumbing to the cliché of having Nixon launch in to his stereotypical "V for Victory" gesture three or four too many times.) Michael Chioldi, who physically bears more of a resemblance to Glenn Beck than to Nixon, invested the character with complexity and something resembling sympathy.
John Duykers is Chairman Mao, having created the role in the original Sellars productions. Mao is written as an off-kilter tenor and his challenging music often moves rapidly in contradictory directions. Duykers is an old hand at the part by now, and used to its difficulties, but still able to approach it with freshness and surprise. Chou En Lai is written as the sober philosopher of the piece, an anchor of clear-eyed dignity, and Roberto Gomez embodied all those qualities.
Long Beach stalwart Suzan Hanson inhabited the role of Pat Nixon with all the grace in the world. In the midst of her tour of the countryside, Pat is given a gorgeous monologue yearning after peace, reconciliation and human understanding of the most American homespun variety. The sincerity and grounded good will of Pat Nixon, embodied wonderfully in Hanson's performance, is in marked contrast to the smugness and superficiality that today passes in certain circles as "being a real American."
Resembling nothing so much as a bloodthirsty Edna Mode, Madam Mao (Chiang Ching) is Pat Nixon's opposite: utterly unsentimental, viciously unstoppable, willing to charge any price and impose any penalty on those who will not get in line with the Party. Ani Maldjian, last seen happily slaughtering chickens as The Cunning Little Vixen, gives a wickedly galvanizing performance of Madam Mao's aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung." She is an exceptional young singing actress and a true rarity, a "character soprano" with seemingly boundless high-register power. I for one hope that Long Beach keeps finding roles for her for years to come.
There is no telling when Los Angeles area audiences will get another chance to kick Nixon around, and that in itself is reason for anyone with an interest in contemporary music drama to try to catch the remaining performance. The more compelling reason is that the quality of the production and performances more than offset such artistic hiccups as are built in to the opera itself. Long Beach Opera has been at the top of its game these past few seasons, and all concerned can take pride in Nixon as an example of LBO doing its best at what it does best.
All production photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.