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Nixon in China
Eugene Opera rose to the challenge of Nixon in China with its own new production (seen Mar. 18), by director Sam Helfrich — the strongest performance by the company that I've experienced. John Jantzi's chorus especially leaped to a new high with its fine singing and, like the principal cast, clearly enunciated Alice Goodman's elegant poetry. The orchestra under Andrew Bisantz, Eugene Opera's music director, did full justice to John Adams's magnificent, often beautiful score. Bisantz conducted with rocking rhythmic energy and a wide dynamic range, wonderfully soft in such lyrical passages as the banquet toasts and Chou En-lai's closing lines.
Helfrich's production offered choreography by Benjamin Goodman, scenery designed by Peter Beudert, costumes by Jonna Hayden and lighting by Michael Peterson. In a backlash against such reductive phrases as "ripped from the headlines" and "CNN opera," many have stressed that Nixon in China's characters, buoyed by music and poetry, are more mythological or archetypal than historical figures. In this vein, Helfrich and his team, while maintaining a realistic style, distanced their production from news-footage accuracy and from the literalism of the original Peter Sellars staging. Gone were The Spirit of '76, the presidential seal, Pat Nixon's red coat and red dress and the ubiquitous orange drink. Baritone Lee Gregory and soprano Kelly Kaduce did not impersonate the historical Nixons. Kaduce, Helfrich and Hayden liberated Pat from the traditional Republican wife mold, raising her hemline to the knee and presenting her as playful and fun-loving.
During the rising scales and opening chorus, Nixon put on his suit and tie above the dark stage in an aperture of light. The unit set, tall wooden panels ornamented with carvings near their tops, opened for the stairs to the invisible plane. Nixon descended alone, which denied Pat a grand entrance but helped us see her as an individual when she appeared for Scene 3. At "Washington's birthday!" Pat broke out dancing, and the other banquet guests followed, Henry Kissinger clutching his aching back. In the first scene of Act II, waves of bicyclists twice crossed the stage, and Pat played with two live pigs. "The Red Detachment of Women" followed the original scenario before palm trees and a backdrop of a tropical bay. For Act III, Helfrich took up a setting the opera's creators had discarded — the remains of a third banquet, with tables and chairs askew. Nixon lounged on the floor and, for privacy, crawled with Pat under a table and tablecloth.
Gregory excelled as a young, vibrant Nixon, mastering the tricky rhythms of the pop-inspired "News" aria and the extended legato of "Fathers and sons, let us join hands," singing with consistent tonal beauty. As always, it seems, Kaduce was the best visual and vocal actor onstage, projecting strength as a multi-faceted Pat, incisively phrasing "This is prophetic!" — although many of her high notes were strident, and a few were flat.
As Mao Tse-tung, Mark Beudert, Eugene Opera's general director, dominated Scene 2 with his dramatic high tenor, which rang out splendidly at "crucify us on a cross of usury," but his quieter Act III singing sounded labored. Conversely, Laura Decher-Wayte's accurate, gentle soprano lacked thrust and edge in "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung" but proved fine in Chiang Ch'ing's dreamy Act III musings. Christopher Burchett projected a distinctive baritone and saintlike humility as Chou En-lai; he suffered a memory lapse during his banquet toast. Veteran bass Michael Gallup drew lots of laughs as Kissinger, the one principal who is never allowed to be heroic. Amanda Crider, Bereniece Jones and Lina Delmastro held their own as Mao's secretaries and looked striking in bright aqua-blue dresses.