NIXON IN CHINA
John Adams/Alice Goodman
July 14, 2007
The large audience in Cincinnati's Music Hall applauded loud and long at the final curtain of Nixon in China at the second of two performances given of this twenty year old opera.
Escorting a bus load of retired professionals, all of whom were better informed of the events leading up to Nixon's 1972 visit to Peking (I was a high school kid and had other things on my mind) this writer was cncerned that mid 1980s minimalism would be hard to take for people more used to La boheme or La traviata. It was a stupid and patronizing assumption. A bus ride pre show talk, my listeners fortified with chardonnay (Big Steve drove the bus and said later, "Jesus, I wold have liked to have seen the show after all the talk about it") was well received, and there was plenty of excited post performance de briefing on the ride home.
There was enormous buzz for this work in the weeks leading up to its world prmeire in Houston, in 1987. The first night audience applauded I believe more out of a sense of being "where it's happening" than fo affection for the work. In 1987, Sellars-Adams-Goodman
WERE "where it's happening" in American opera. Twenty years later it was time to cheer Adams's beautiful music and his witty and moving settings of Goodman's text.
The words seemed an engima to my friends on the bus. I said "That's why the oepra is worth doing and seeing more often." There were direct quotations from the events: Nixon deplanes in Peking and banters gently with Chou en Lai; Mao sings in riddles.
Pat Nixon's role is greatly drawn. This opera tells you more about her than we learned in her many years of public life. Madam Mao has a fiendish dramatic aria in the second act, and returns to seduce her husband in the third. The Nixons are seen as vulnerable and gentle, if shrewd; he a bit goofy, she weary and all knowing with enough fire to protest the action in
The Red Detachment of Women.
All of the performances were splendid. Robert Orth is an extrordinary singing actor with a dark, masculine voice and superb diction. He was totally at ease with his body and moved, sometimes balletically and sometimes clumsily as the situations warranted. Maureen O'Flynn was ravishing in the gentle lyricism of Pat Nixon's aria "This is prophetic!" Mark T. Panuccio will be an important heldentenor in ten years if all goes well. Maos' high and and loud tessitura-Tannhauser, anyone?- was no problem for him. He convincingly played an elderly and frail man without a trace of caricature. It was reproted that young Mr. Panusscio recently dropped over a 100 pounds through diet and excersize, and for this role needed to ear a fat suit!
Thomas Hammons from the orignal cast gave Henry Kssinger the perfect balance of humor and menace. Madame Mao's aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung!" is a built in show stopper, like "Sempre Libera" or the Queen of the Night. Goergia Jarman certainly stopped the show!
All of the principals excelled in the intropsective third act, the most moving part of the score. Mao and his wife fox trot, and the Nixons do a slow dance. The curtain belongs to Chou-en-lai, sung by baritone Chen-Ye Yuan. What a beautiful voice!
The physical production stumbled only in the use of telelvison sets showing footage of the actual events. They were meaningless to anyone not sitting in the first three rows of Music Hall
(I moved around) Flickers of light distracted the eye from the singing actors. Next time build sets. Speical praise to Henri Vezani's chorus, to the energetic and sexy dancers, and to conductor Kristjan Jarvi and the superb Cincinnati Symphony. It's a daunting challenge to balance Adams's energetc music so that Goodman's text can be clearly heard. Sitting in the first row the ochestra was loud, loud,loud. I moved farther back and the balance was fine. The ensemble wanted little in clarity and precision.
The folks on the bus loved it. Music Hall's large auidence was a good mix of the young and not so young.