Nixon in Long Beach. John Adams’ masterpiece gives the LBO another triumph.


Sunday, March 21: Review by David Gregson

Long Beach Opera is perennially full of surprises. The biggest surprise of all during Saturday evening’s production of John Adams’ late 20th-century masterpiece, “Nixon in China,” in the Long Beach Convention Center’s Terrace Theater was that absolutely everything was electronically amplified – just the way so many Broadway shows are these days.

Amplification of individual voices in opera is for most fans and critics, utterly scandalous (even though it often occurs surreptitiously and so subtly that most people do not notice), so it was useful to know in advance that the composer himself had endorsed such sonic enhancement – and that, indeed, it was even attempted during the original Houston Grand Opera production in October of 1987.

Since that Houston premiere the work has become a classic, although most people know it from one of the two complete CD recordings available, or from homemade VHS tapes copied from a PBS TV broadcast of the original production by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris. Why this video has never become available on DVD is a mystery to me. I still own my blurry VHS tape of this – as well as the Nonesuch recording made with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Edo de Waart conducting.

Now LBO is offering the first West Coast production of this opera in 20 years. Only one more performance remains (March 28 at 4 p.m.) and it should not be missed.

The opera was last presented at the Los Angeles Opera in 1990 – and, or so I have been informed, it was not sonically amplified on that occasion. In any event, Terrace Theater is a rather big barn, and the amplification seemed to enhance the excitement of the music and the clarity of the diction, even if it was sometimes almost ear-splittingly loud — at least to this listener. It also created some directional confusion: it was sometimes difficult to discern exactly who was singing – especially given the additional distraction of a projected text that had been rendered virtually unnecessary.

Authoritatively conducted by company mastermind Andreas Mitisek, artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera since 2003, the production features a brilliant cast as well as newly conceived stage direction by Peter Pawlik. By “newly conceived” I mean that Pawlik does not replicate the work of Peter Sellars whose tight artistic collaborations with Adams are a fact of life. The Long Beach Ballet and choreographer Jenny Weston go their own way as well, no slaves to the original conceptions of Mark Morris.

This, perhaps the most famous of all “docu-operas,” is, as Adams describes it, “part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues.” It presents with ever-increasing surrealism three days of Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China, an event famous for helping normalize relations between two superpowers. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Nixon and his wife Pat arrive in and disembark from the presidential jet, Spirit of ’76 (impressively created for the LBO by set designer Wilhelm Holzbauer), shake hands with CCP Premiere Cho En-lai, and, unexpectedly meet with Chairman Mao almost immediately. These two spar while, in this production, being pushed around in gigantic red chairs between Chinese back-up singers symbolically dressed as lamps with lampshades — not unlike coolie hats, methinks!

From here we progress to the formal toasts and Pat Nixon’s tour of assorted sights — a glass factory that manufactures little elephants, a commune, a pig-rearing facility, an acupuncture clinic, a recreational building and a school, not to forget a huge elephant near the Ming Tombs. Holzbauer suggests these locations with swift efficiency.

The most elaborate and arguably the most memorable scene is the visit to a production of Madame Mao’s agitprop ballet, “The Red Detachment of Women,” in which Pat becomes so involved that she leaps into the action to rescue a young girl from being tormented by a landlord and his henchmen. Here the Long Beach Opera (and Kissinger – bizarrely transformed into the lascivious landlord) get to shine.

Some of my colleagues in print are disputing the “masterpiece” status of this opera, mostly on the basis of what is seen as the difficulty of Alice Goodman’s text, especially in the last act. It is here that melodrama lapses almost entirely into poetic metaphors, some of them mundane or trivial and others quite profound. It is all frankly modernist (rather than postmodernist) in concept and finds it roots in James Joyce and T.S. Eliot with its tissue of allusions and complex ambiguities. The text is not meant to be easy. Both the music and text gain in complexity, combining almost subliminally to achieve a deeply moving effect. Apparently this eludes some people, especially coming at the end of a long opera which has up until now seemed easy to grasp.

Pawlik stages this act in a surreal post-ceremonial ballroom with overturned chairs, messy tables (arranged in ascending tiers), and our characters chatting and reflecting in various modes of after-party exhilaration and exhaustion. Baritone Michael Chioldi, who has been brilliant as Nixon all evening – from his thrilling “News, news, news” aria in Act One up until this scene – continues to give us a sympathetic portrayal of a human being and has only lapsed into caricature during the few moments he has flashed Nixon’s famous “V” hand signals.

There is something almost post-apocalyptic about this scene – a sense of everyone having survived an event of monumental proportions. As Pat, fabulous soprano Suzan Hanson, worries about her lipstick, longs for home, reflects upon her domestic life with Dick, humors her husband as he reminisces about the Pacific Theater in WW II, and pours champagne from almost emptied bottles.

Meanwhile Chairman Mao, played here by tenor John Duykers (the wonderful artist who created the role so long ago) plays wearily about with Madame Mao / Chiang Ching (now both revolutionary woman and the former movie star), sung by soprano Ani Maldjian who has about this time in the evening stunned the entire LBO audience with her supernaturally powerful coloratura leaps in Act Two’s “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”). The utterances of both Mao and Chiang Ch’ing cover so many philosophical and psychological insights that they are bound to confuse. They also represent the mental perplexities we Westerners so often encounter in what we think of classical Chinese wisdom, religious and political.

Baritone Roberto Gomez, of whom I am now officially a major fan following one top-notch performance after another with the LBO, plays Cho En-lai in this scene (as well as all the others of course) and gets the whole opera’s last words a deeply poetic/philosophical reflection: “How much of what we did is good? Everything seems to move beyond / Our remedy. Come, heal this wound./ At this hour nothing can be done. / …To work! / Outside this room the chill of grace / Lies heavy on the morning grass.”

I felt baritone Kyle Albertson’s portrayal of Henry Kissinger was superb and I was surprised at the tepid applause he received at curtain call. True, Kissinger is the most two-dimensionally conceived character in the opera, and the only overtly comic one. He is literally the doppelganger of the slave-whipping capitalist in Madame Mao’s propaganda ballet. The beauty of Albertson’s voice may have been wasted on this part, but he was nothing less than first rate in this “thankless” role.

To say I enjoyed this much, much more than my umpteenth “La Traviata” would be an understatement. Numerous dancers, chorus members and supers are deserving of praise in the wonderful production – more than I have the time and skill to type out. Perhaps the Long Beach Opera will list their names on its site. Cast and production credits appear below.

CAST
Richard Nixon: Michael Chioldi
Pat Nixon: Suzan Hanson
Mao Tse-Tung: John Duykers
Chao En-Lai: Roberto Gomez
Henry Kissinger: Kyle Albertson
Chiang Ch’ing: Ani Maldjian
Mao’s Secretary #1: Ariel Pisturino
Mao’s Secretary #2: Leslie Anne Cook
Mao’s Secretary #3: Peabody Southwell

PRODUCTION
Conductor: Andreas Mitisek
Stage Director: Peter Pawlik
Set Designer: Wilhelm Holzbauer
Choreographer: Jenny Weston
Lighting Design: Dan Weingarten

VENUE AND TIMES
Sat. Mar., 20, 2010 – 8pm
Sun. Mar., 28, 2010 – 4pm
Terrace Theater, Long Beach

WEBSITE
http://www.longbeachopera.org/2010-season/nixon-in-china

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