Vancouver Opera's Nixon in China an artful triumph

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      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.




      Scott Pearce

      Mar 14, 2010 at 9:45pm

      We were there last night - your review is right on target.
      Not for fans of strictly conventional Opera. But superbly staged.

      Nik Black

      Mar 15, 2010 at 1:08pm

      Yes, a superb production and a wonderful opera. All I can say is that it's about time! With their four operas a year scenario, Vancouver Opera has been "getting away" with three warhorses and one not-so-well-known-opera for as long as I can remember. With "Nixon in China", the QE was packed and everyone was excited to finally see something new - and relevant! This opera didn't disappoint. The principal characters were all perfectly drawn and exceptionally sung - particularly the tone and superb diction of Robert Orth as Nixon - a role he was born to play. Tracy Dahl and Sally Dibblee were like opposite sides of the same coin; Dahl was terrifying and shrill as Madame Mao and Dibblee was sweet and lovably corny in her vocal embodiment of Pat Nixon. The orchestra was hot and on the money, and the bevy of saxophones (!) grumbled and sweated under the heat of Adams' extraordinary instrumental writing, taking us deep down into the rumbling chaos of Mao's madness and Nixon's fear of discovery - knowing that in this company, he was way out of his league.

      It's time for Vancouver Opera to do away with their 3 and 1 formula of warhorses and "lesser known" works. At least, move it to 2 and 2. This city is dying to hear new operas and the continuing cycle of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme is beyond being tired and worn. Next year we get "Lillian Alling", VO's second commission since the fabulous and successful "The Architect", their first commission way back in 1994.

      It's clear that Vancouver audiences want to hear new operas and they'll pay ridiculously high prices to do so. There should be a newly commissioned opera premiering every other year and wonderful new operas like "Nixon in China", "Dead Man Walking", "The Ballad of Baby Doe" and "The Architect" on the alternate years. C'mon Vancouver Opera - bring 'em on!

      Gregory G

      Mar 15, 2010 at 2:19pm

      Agreed that it was a superb production and a wonderful opera, and that it's about time the Vancouver Opera gets off the entirely too-worn path of Butterfly, Carmen & Boheme. However, while the previous comment mentions contemporary operas, there's the previous century of operas for the Vancouver Opera to offer. I'd love to be able to see / hear Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth and Berg's Wozzeck or Lulu, or Strauss's Elektra, for examples. Clearly the crowded opening night for Nixon shows that there's enough of us around to support 20th century opera.

      Uncle Fred

      Mar 16, 2010 at 12:14am

      In fairness, I think VO General Director Jim Wright IS planning to produce at least one "contemporary" opera per season. In addition to next season's world premiere of 'Lillian Alling', Tan Dun's 'Tea' and John Corigliano's 'The Ghosts of Versailles' are on the drawing board for future seasons.

      In fact, 'Tea' was originally planned for next season, but was replaced by 'Lucia' because Wright felt that a season with three box office challenges ('Tea', 'Lillian Alling' and 'La Clemenza di Tito') and only one sure-fire box office smash ('Traviata') was a little too risky in the current economic climate. He was also looking for an opportunity to bring back soprano Elise Gutierrez after her stunning Gilda in last season's 'Rigoletto' and a production of 'Lucia' was made to order.

      And, by the way, the company DID produce 'Elektra' as recently as the 02-03 season.

      Nik Black

      Mar 16, 2010 at 11:25am

      Uncle Fred, you seem to know so much about the inner workings of Vancouver Opera - even details regarding casting! It's wonderful that you are passing insider information to us this way.

      Next time you're talking to "Jim", please pass on that there are some excellent Canadian operas that need his attention such as Harry Somers' "Louis Riel" and "Mario the Magician" along with the aforementioned "The Architect" by David MacIntyre and Tom Cone that was commissioned by Vancouver Opera late last century. There's also the exquisite "The Star Catalogues" by Owen Underhill and Marc Diamond, and the powerful "Beatrice Chancey" by James Rolfe that made Measha Bruggergosman a star ten years ago.

      I appreciate that Vancouver Opera is making an effort to bring underperformed operas to the mainstage, but they're usually classics like Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West" and the Richard Strauss operas - "Elektra", "Salome", "Der Rosenkavelier". What about "Lulu", "Wozzeck" and any of Benjamin Britten's many operas? Mr. Wright doesn't seem to want to produce anything that is controversial in the least, so even his contemporary opera choices are relatively safe bets. I understand; there are 2800 seats to fill in the QE.

      How about a second stage at the Playhouse for smaller, more challenging operas? Fill us in Uncle Fred, you seem to know the score.

      R. Keillor

      Mar 16, 2010 at 7:48pm

      note to Nik Black: Harry Somers' Louis Riel was performed at UBC last month (Feb.4-7), which the daily publications and the Straight seem to have ignored, so I would suggest a soon return would meet the same fate from the general public.

      Samtani's Two Headed Love Child

      Mar 16, 2010 at 10:39pm

      “Who, who, who, who, who are our enemies?”

      John Adams, that's who. That opera is one long exclamation mark - the musical equivalent of being punched in the face repeatedly for several hours. Gaaaah! Aaaaaa!

      Still, good on the VSO for having the jam to put something on rather than the same old same old. I just wish that Nixon had been less...freaking excruciating.

      Nik Black

      Mar 17, 2010 at 11:07am

      To R. Keillor: Yes, I know UBC did a production of Somers' Louis Riel, but there's a significant difference between a university opera program and Vancouver Opera in terms standards and international weight. The best singers in the world grace VO's stage, the orchestra is fabulous and, usually, the productions values are excellent. Let's not get confused and think that because UBC did Riel, everyone who's interested saw it. Not so. As you say, most media organizations ignored it for the simple reason that it's a teaching production not a professional one.

      Uncle Fred

      Mar 17, 2010 at 2:32pm

      --"Fill us in Uncle Fred, you seem to know the score." --

      Sorry to disappoint you, Nik, but I'm not an insider and my earlier post didn't contain any classified scoops. It was all on-the-record stuff from newspaper & magazine articles, blogs, etc.



      Mar 19, 2010 at 8:19am

      great show keep up the great acting please i hope you are recording one of these shows so the can be bought.