Nixon in China
A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, March 13. Continues March 16, 18, and 20
The Vancouver Opera’s ambitious Canadian premiere of Nixon in China is a surprisingly artful, nothing-less-than-stunning reimagination of an event that, on paper, sounds about as exciting as an episode of PBS’s American Experience.
The creative team’s stylishly abstracted vision puts a bold new stamp on the opera, and yet perfectly expresses John Adams’s and Alice Goodman’s elliptical score and libretto. From the moment the orchestra launches into Adams’s endless, intricate repetitions, there’s never a slip-up, and the mesmerizing music chugs along right through the swoony, Stravinskian final act.
Richard and Pat Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to then-closed Red China is unlikely material for an opera, but the event is just a springboard for an unexpectedly introspective look at the psyches of the summit’s main players. Dry history becomes something artistic and dreamlike. You have to be open to the opera’s postmodern shifts from real-time action into memories and imagined worlds—say, a silk-robe-clad Henry Kissinger suddenly appearing in an agitprop ballet. Or the Nixons doing the mashed potato while Chairman and Madame Mao look like they’re re-creating the Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.
Director Michael Cavanagh’s production works so captivatingly well because it hits the right tone while avoiding caricature. Baritone Robert Orth, a veteran of the Richard Nixon role, never descends into jowl-shaking clichés. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan, the only Asian among the leads, brings appropriate gravitas to Zhou En-lai (Mao’s philosophical premier), and bass-baritone Thomas Hammons provides comic relief as the sourpussed—and disturbingly randy—Kissinger.
But the women are just as important, with the opera playing up their contrasting roles. Soprano Sally Dibblee is a perfect Pat, all stand-by-her-man propriety while being exposed to an unimaginable world of revolutionary women. And soprano Tracy Dahl’s Madame Mao, who pulls off a showstopping ode to her husband’s Red Book at the end of Act 2, is as shrill and powerful as Adams intended.
Each performer has to manoeuvre brutal, ever-shifting time signatures and repetitive phrasing. Just listen to Orth stab away at the line “Who, who, who, who, who are our enemies?”
Meanwhile, scenic designer Erhard Rom and projections designer Sean Nieuwenhuis conjure endlessly inventive tableaux. Red podiums and chairs are exaggerated to towering heights. Newsreels play out, fragmented across placards or mismatched scrolls that hang from the ceiling. By the end, everything is an abstract mess of memories and afterthought, with a banquet table piled high, red ribbons stretching at odd angles, and a slanted banner morphing Nixon spookily into Mao.
About the only misstep is the Spirit of ’76, a strangely two-dimensional plane that gets rolled out in the opening moments, although you could argue that it heightens the abstract feel.
Still, the opera’s success is rooted in that ever-driving, cinematic music, performed crisply under the assured baton of visiting maestro John DeMain (who conducted Houston Grand Opera’s 1987 world premiere). You could close your eyes and revel in a score that ranges from the quiet incantations of Philip Glass to the blasting drama of Angelo Badalamenti. But then you’d miss out on eye candy that’s more opium dream than history lesson.
Sally Dibblee as Pat Nixon.
Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger.