From Development server
In Review > North America

Nixon in China

SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco Opera
6/8/12

Twenty-five years after its Houston premiere, and forty years after the events it portrays, Nixon in China made its long-awaited San Francisco Opera debut on June 8. Apart from an early, unstaged reading in 1987 (five months before it opened in Houston), John Adams's fantasia on the 37th U.S. president's historic visit to Communist China had never been performed in the Bay Area. In the intervening years, Nixon has taken its place as one of the most potent and enduring creations in the twentieth-century repertoire. Its arrival in the Bay Area represented a sublime instance of delayed gratification.

The production, first staged at Vancouver Opera and directed in San Francisco by Michael Cavanagh, recreated in vivid detail the surreal-poetic vision of Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and original director Peter Sellars. Sets by Erhard Rom, lighting by Christopher Maravich and video projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis merged effectively to depict the landing of Air Force One, Nixon's initial encounter with Mao Tse-tung, the podium speeches of the first evening banquet, and Pat Nixon's bemused Act II visits to clinics and communes. Wen Wei Wang's choreography in the "Red Detachment of Women" ballet was deft, if somewhat lacking in the humor of Mark Morris's original. Act III's Straussian reflections were framed by towering portraits of the six principals.

The cast was headed by American baritone Brian Mulligan, making his role debut as Richard Nixon. Summoning a kind of jowly verisimilitude throughout, Mulligan emerged from Air Force One sounding covered; thereafter, his flexible voice bloomed, rising to an outpouring of sensuous beauty in the long lines of the Act III reverie. Soprano Maria Kanyova evoked Pat's fragility in crystalline tones. Tenor Simon O'Neill's vocally strained, lurching Mao was a distraction, and bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi was a decidedly small-scale Kissinger. But baritone Chen-Yi Yuan exuded pathos as Chou En-lai, and Hye Jung Lee's Madame Mao raged through her Act II aria with electrifying precision. The San Francisco Opera Chorus produced penetrating massed sound.

Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes, in his company debut, demonstrated a keen affinity for the score. Despite moments of imbalance between the pit and stage — both amplified, per the composer's directions — the conductor led a performance of great rhythmic vitality, illuminating the opera's unusual instrumental groupings and integrating its discrete threads of jazzy exuberance, Wagnerian grandeur and the brilliance of Adams's emerging musical language. spacer

GEORGIA ROWE

Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.



Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button